Accepting Freud

Stuart Hampshire

  • Freud by Ronald Clark
    Weidenfeld, 652 pp, £9.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 297 77661 4

There has for some time been the hovering suspicion that there are deliberately concealed sources for the biography of Freud, and that they will gradually emerge from hiding as the years pass. Mr Clark refers to the suspicion, and he has, in fact, made use of some useful sources which were not available to Ernest Jones. The most important are the original series of letters to Wilhelm Fliess without the excisions which had apparently been intended to protect Freud’s posthumous reputation. So far, the suspicions have proved not to be unfounded. Other letters have come to light which Mr Clark has used and which were simply not known to Jones, particularly a correspondence with a university friend, Eduard Silberstein. A great quantity of other material will not be available to biographers before the year 2000, being embargoed until then.

The gaps in knowledge cannot be dismissed as matters of biographical detail and of only trivial and gossipy interest: the more that becomes known about Freud’s early professional life, up to The Interpretation of Dreams, the more we shall know about the sources, and hence about the status, of his early theories. There is a mystery here, or at least a great uncertainty. How decisive were his early cases in forcing him to the hypothesis of infantile sexuality, to the Oedipus complex and to the whole later story of psychosexual development? How decisive in this connection was his self-analysis, following the death of his father? Neither Ernest Jones nor Mr Clark had the means of answering this question: the available evidence is not sufficient.

Mr Clark puts great emphasis on Freud’s determination, from the beginning of his professional life, to establish and to defend a theory and a method which would be entirely original and indisputably his own. Mr Clark stresses the magisterially inventive, the ‘conquistador’, aspect of his scientific personality. He quotes Freud to Fliess: ‘I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker: I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador, an adventurer, if you want to translate this term – with all the inquisitiveness, daring and tenacity characteristic of such a man.’ It is evident that Freud did not wish his discoveries and inventions to be treated as a contributing stream, which would flow into the main river of advance in psychology. Psychoanalysis was to be his own pool, with no intruders allowed and no dilution by alien doctrine. The International Congresses of Psychoanalysts seem to have resembled party meetings much more than they resembled a congress of scientists. Having been educated in Vienna and Paris in the more orthodox scientific traditions of medicine and psychiatry, Freud clearly knew how speculative his theories were and how un-proven his methods of treatment. He did not want to be tested by criteria external to his own theories, nor did he want his inquiries to be one of a set of parallel explorations of common territory. He had discovered and cultivated his own domain, and he would keep it to himself.

Perhaps we should now be more ready to accept his extraordinary achievement without much further controversy, together with this tentative evaluation of it: that psychoanalysis as a body of doctrine is no part of medical science and is no part of philosophy either, but rather is a speculative and irresistibly vivid picture of some activities of the mind, and of some mental dispositions – dispositions which are exciting, and sometimes also amusing, and which are not normally noticed. The concealed survival of the child’s mind within the adult’s would have been noticed through the use of normal methods: but the wilder versions of the family romance which Freud claimed to have found – buried and calcified in adult minds – are a wonderful discovery or invention. No ordinary and direct methods of inquiry would ever reveal them. But which are they, one may ask – discovery or invention? I think that in the nature of the case we have no means of telling, and we may justifiably doubt whether this dichotomy is applicable here.

The material from free association and dream memories is too amorphous and unstable to serve as any control upon explanatory theories. The patient is encouraged to rummage around in the imagery and repressed associations of his unconscious and preconscious mind, and what he finds is naturally a chaos of ideas, some of them mysteriously arousing strong emotion, and with a few familiar patterns and idiosyncratic recurrences in the chaos. A thousand stories could be constructed upon the basis of this retrieval, and naturally the most exciting story, with the greatest resonance in our memories, is liable to be preferred. The recapture of the emotions of childhood, by any untrodden and forbidden route, must by itself arouse a feeling that can be taken as a sense of discovery.

The story told after the experience of a sense of discovery – for example, a version of the Oedipus story or of a fantasy of seduction by one or other parent – is no kind of explanation of the emotion originally aroused, and the story could be varied in many ways without coming into conflict with any resisting facts. But Freud’s stories of the family romance, and the orthodox psychoanalytic interpretations based upon them, act at least as mnemonics: they call to mind again the connections of ideas, normally repressed by any same adult, which could not be recovered, and could not be held in place against repression, unless they were in some way labelled. Many improbable labels, or crazy stories, will serve this purpose, including Freud’s.

Freud’s theory of psychological development, and his account of the machinery of the mind, probably have fewer literal believers today even among those who would most enthusiastically defend his discovery of infantile sexuality and of the therapeutic value of free association. Mr Clark does not flinch from the evidences of Freud’s defiance both of rationality and of the restraints of scientific method. To Abraham, Freud wrote: ‘The idea is to put Lamarek entirely on our ground and to show that the “necessity” that, according to him, creates and transforms organs is nothing but the power of unconscious ideas over one’s own body, of which we see remnants in hysteria, in short the “omnipotence of thought”. This would actually supply a psychoanalytic explanation of adaptation; it would put the coping-stone on psychoanalysis.’ Freud was consistently a Lamarckian, in defiance of the orthodoxy among biologists. Psychoanalysis, in his view of it had to go its own way and conclude its own intellectual alliances.

Mr Clark writes as a biographer and not as a systematic critic of Freud’s ideas. Over five hundred pages he gradually builds the consistent picture of a passionate, imperious, vastly ambitious, sardonic, harshly independent man of genius, who knew his own power and was determined to leave behind him a monument that would proudly stand on its own. The hours of work throughout his life, and in defiance of the pains and discomforts of cancer of the jaw in his later years, seem even more prodigious in this account than in Ernest Jones’s. His dominant will never rested or weakened until his death, still working and writing. Even the horrors of German anti-semitism, and of Jung’s participation in it, did not overwhelm him, although four of his five sisters were to die in concentration-camps. Mr Clark quotes Jung’s stupid words, published in 1934: ‘The Aryan unconsciousness has a higher potential than the Jewish ... Freud did not know the Germanic soul any more than did all his Germanic imitators – thus the mighty apparition of National Socialism, which the whole world watches with astonished eyes, taught them something better.’

One has to remember the fringe of dangerous charlatanism that surrounded psychoanalysis from its beginnings. It was born in the 1890s amidst the miasma of New Thought of all kinds, of Theosophy and of Spiritualism, and of many other new-life philosophies and all-embracing remedies now forgotten. Seeing himself always as Moses with the tablets and the Law, a leader of his people, Freud also indulged himself with fantasies and fictions in Moses and Monotheism and Totem and Taboo. Mr Clark quotes his remark to a student who had asked about his theory of primal parricide: ‘Don’t take that seriously – I made that up on a rainy Sunday afternoon.’

This is an admirably balanced biography, strong in the accumulation of documented fact, less interesting on theory. Mr Clark is detached from the controversies and from the bitter strife and anger that swirl around Freud’s personality and doctrine. Even from the grave Freud seems still to provoke and to irritate, and to call either for total submission or for some answering aggression or resistance. That imperious will and ambition still have the power to make his enemies unreasonably excitable and abusive, and to cause his followers to be unreasonably meek and compliant. Mr Clark keeps entirely calm. But I do not doubt that there will be many more stories for and against, and new sources generating new disputes.