On the Englishing of Freud

Arnold Davidson

  • Freud and Man’s Soul by Bruno Bettelheim
    Chatto, 112 pp, £6.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7011 2704 X

It is difficult to know how Bruno Bettelheim would wish this book to be read. Part memoir, part popular introduction to psychoanalysis, and part scholarly interpretation and vindication of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, it raises many questions that are crucial to our understanding of Freud’s work. Bettelheim wants to undermine the scientific reading of Freud in favour of a humanistic reading. He proceeds largely by criticising the English translations of Freud’s work, especially as embodied in the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. He believes that these translations are ‘seriously defective in important respects and have led to erroneous conclusions, not only about Freud the man but also about psychoanalysis’. Their overarching defect is to encourage us to read Freud’s work as if it aspired to scientific status, thus blunting, and sometimes completely covering up, its true humanistic importance. The book concentrates on correcting ‘the mistranslations of some of the most important psychoanalytic concepts’ and showing ‘how deeply humane a person Freud was, that he was a humanist in the best sense of the word.’ Even though (or precisely because) there is little agreement as to what a humanistic reading of Freud would look like, and not much more agreement about what it is to read Freud scientifically, the problem of the status of psychoanalysis remains a central one to our appropriation of Freud’s texts. Resolving this problem does not seem to me best approached through a criticism of the English translations, but even if this approach proved to be the most useful one, Freud and Man’s Soul would leave us with resolutions that are far from satisfying.

Some of Bettelheim’s specific points are well-taken. His discussion of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and of its central concept of Fehlleistung, rendered in English as ‘parapraxis’, is a helpful contribution to our understanding of the meaning of this concept. And his suggestion that Fehlleistung should be translated as ‘faulty achievement’ accords reasonably well with the French, Italian and Spanish translations of this word (acte manqué, atto mancato and acto fallido). Sometimes his arguments for retranslation are hardly compelling, as when he claims that The Interpretation of Dreams is ‘by no means a felicitous rendering’ of Die Traumdeutung. He says that what Freud wished to convey by his title was that ‘what he was presenting was an attempt at grasping for a deeper sense’. One very common understanding of what it is to interpret something is precisely to grasp at its deeper sense. Only a very selective use of the OED could lead Bettelheim to object to ‘interpretation’ because it implied the promise of a ‘clearcut and definite explanation of dreams’. His alternative titles are ‘A Search for the Meaning of Dreams’ or ‘An Inquiry into the Meaning of Dreams’, but the OED gives as one definition of ‘interpret’: ‘To make out the meaning of’. As far as I can see, even if one wishes to be pedantic, Bettelheim’s suggestions here offer no real clarifications. What Freud did in Die Traumdeutung was to give interpretations, nothing more and nothing less. At other times, his translation suggestions are literally correct, but offered for rather odd reasons. He says that Das Unbehagen in der Kulture should have been translated as ‘The Uneasiness Inherent in Culture’ rather than as Civilisation and Its Discontents. His major dissatisfaction with the standard translation of the title is that it makes it easy to believe that civilisation and discontent are two separate phenomena, instead of, as Freud in fact believed, that Unbehagen (‘uneasiness’) is the price we must pay for the advantages of culture. I find it virtually inconceivable that anyone who actually read this book could come away with the misinterpretation that Bettelheim is so worried about. He says that ‘readers of the English translation, particularly those casual readers who judge the book by its title, might think that Freud was critical of a civilisation that brought about discontent with life.’ In one of his more polemical moods, John Stuart Mill remarked that ‘there is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it.’ I see no reason why the editors of the Standard Edition should be held responsible for that particular form of idiocy which consists in expounding Freud’s doctrines after reading no more than the titles of his books.

Nowhere are Bettelheim’s suggestions more perplexing than when they lead to actual distortions of Freud’s views. He devotes an entire section of his book to the concepts of das Ich (ego), das Es (id) and das Uber-Ich (superego), which he argues, not without some merit, should be translated as ‘the I’, ‘the it’ and the ‘above-I’. Bettelheim says that ‘when Freud named one of his major concepts the I, he brought his theories about the workings of human psychology as close to us, his readers, as is possible through a choice of words.’ His idea seems to be that our use of the first-person pronoun provides a guide to Freud’s use of the concept of das Ich, and thus ‘Freud names the reasonable conscious aspects of our mind the I.’ But this claim sidesteps one of the most interesting theoretical issues in the development of Freud’s topographical models of the mind. Freud has two different ways of mapping out the systems of our psychical apparatus. In his early views, the mind is divided into unconscious, preconscious, conscious; in his later views, he differentiates between the agencies of the ego, id and superego. Important issues arise about how these two forms of topographical representation are related, and useful historical and philosophical questions can be asked about why Freud’s views developed as they did. To say that Freud chose das Ich ‘for the conscious aspects of our mind’ is to misrepresent his view and to bury, unasked, difficulties he himself recognised. In The Ego and the Id, the book Bettelheim discusses in this section, Freud writes at the end of the first chapter: ‘We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed – that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious. From the point of view of analytic practice, the consequence of this discovery is that we land in endless obscurities and difficulties if we keep to our habitual forms of expression and try, for instance, to derive neuroses from a conflict between the conscious and unconscious. We shall have to substitute for this antithesis another, taken from our insight into the structural conditions of the mind – the antithesis between the coherent ego and the repressed which is split off from it’ (Standard Edition, XIX, 17). Bettelheim must surely know this passage, so it is unfortunate that in his quickness and earnestness for correct translation he is led into substantive distortion. No important conceptual or theoretical issue in psychoanalysis is going to be resolved by our attention to the translation of single words. When Bettelheim writes that ‘the distinction between the I and the it is immediately clear to us, and hardly needs psychoanalytic explanation, since we are aware of it from our way of talking about ourselves,’ he is exactly wrong. Only psychoanalytic explanation, and lots of it, will make Freud’s distinction clear to us. Anything less trivialises his innovations and contributions, making him seem like someone who produced nothing more than a systematisation of untutored common sense.

Bettelheim’s greatest scorn seems reserved for the translation of die Seele as ‘mind’ rather than ‘soul’. And he is again correct in noting that the distinction between Seele and Geist is perhaps best rendered in English by the distinction between soul and mind. But the reason that motivates his vehement denunciation of this translation again presumes that English-speaking readers will not bother to read Freud’s books. ‘Freud uses Seele and seelisch rather than geistig because geistig refers mainly to the rational aspects of the mind, to that of which we are conscious ... Freud wanted to make clear that psychoanalysis was concerned not just with man’s body and his intellect, as his medical colleagues were, but – and most of all – with the dark world of the unconscious which forms such a large part of the soul of living man ... ’ This claim not only belies a use of Geist common to German idealism and romanticism but misrepresents one use of ‘mind’ clearly articulated by Bettelheim’s frequently cited OED, and grossly caricatures 19th-century medical psychiatry before Freud. Moreover nobody could believe that in (the translation of) Freud’s work ‘mind’ refers exclusively to the thinking and reasoning part of man. And this is also to ignore the connotations that surround ‘soul’, connotations no less problematic than any attaching to ‘mind’. A continuing problem in interpreting Freud is understanding exactly what role neurophysiological conceptions of the mind played in his thought. It is no accident that Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology, and any related works, are completely absent from Bettelheim’s account. He no doubt thinks that the early ‘scientific’ Freud was immature in thought, decisively displaced by a more sophisticated and humane later Freud. But although Freud certainly gave up his early neuroanatomical picture of the mind, neurophysiological metaphors and models never entirely lost their hold on him. The enduring importance of these latter conceptions for Freud’s theories has been affirmed not only by scientists like Karl Pribram but by humanists such as Steven Marcus as well. This is a point at which the history of science has much to teach us about Freud. But Bettelheim’s almost overwhelming fear of anything scientific in Freud compels him to sweep away the decisive issue under cover of the problem of translating die Seele. This fear causes other historical inaccuracies: for example, in his discussion of Freud’s relation to Fliess, and in his implication that Freud derived the concept of erotogenic zone from reflecting on the myth of Eros and Psyche, when in fact this concept more likely derives from the related concept of hysterogenic zone, a notion used by Charcot among others. It is as if Bettelheim believed that placing Freud in a scientific tradition would mean that his interest and importance are exhausted by the scientific content of his theories. But a humanistic reading of Freud need not, indeed should not, deny the unequivocal place of scientific conceptions in the formation and development of his thought. One does not combat the cultism of science by the equally distasteful cultism of anti-science.

Throughout this book American psychoanalysis, American culture and everything else American is pictured as an unadulterated blend of the crude and dirty – behaviourism, positivism, materialism. Quite a number of Americans do nothing more than look out for ‘Number One’; present American culture is ‘essentially narcissistic’; Freud’s lack of interest in how he was mistranslated into English is explained by ‘his general animus toward things American’; ‘if Freud had put into words what he held most against the United States, he might have said that America was lacking in soul.’ Bettelheim’s tone of cultural superiority and unhesitant self-assurance is nowhere more annoying than in his discussion of the Oedipus complex. After being told that most of his American graduate students have had ‘only the scantest familiarity’ with either the Oedipus myth or Sophocles’s play, Bettelheim treats us to a lengthy discussion in which he attempts to show the very precise parallels and foreshadowings between Freud’s Oedipus complex and the Greek myth and play from which it derives: ‘Accepting the idea of the Oedipus complex without understanding the myth and the play from which it got its name is one way of accepting psychoanalysis without trying to get at its deeper meaning – just what Freud predicted would happen in the United States.’ Bettelheim may well have earned an attitude of self-assurance, but it is astonishing how he turns a subtle and difficult issue into one that is unambiguously straightforward. No less a historian of ancient culture than Jean-Pierre Vernant has written that ‘there is no myth of Oedipus in Greek tragedy. The Oedipus in the tragedy may have complexes, but he doesn’t have an Oedipus complex – that is obvious.’ Vernant’s essay ‘Oedipe sans Complexe’ remains a challenge to anyone wishing to demonstrate parallels between Freud and Sophocles. I don’t mean to defend Vernant’s interpretation here, but this is one more example of how Bettelheim runs roughshod over a problem requiring hesitation and restraint.

Bruno Bettelheim, however, is an eminent psychoanalyst, no novice requiring a lecture on the subtleties and complexities of psychoanalysis. So one must wonder why he so often writes like one. Bettelheim clearly feels horrified by what he takes to be an inaccurately brutish (English-speaking) appropriation of Freud’s works. If one believes oneself to be something like an heir to Freud, then believing that the master’s work has been so misrepresented may inspire legitimate feelings of horror. And perhaps this book should be read as one psychoanalyst’s unveiling of how he read Freud, of how his appropriation of Freud’s work allowed him to accomplish his own work with emotionally disturbed children. Whatever genuine merit there may be in such a reading, Freud and Man’s Soul demonstrates, what we have learned before, that not even a distinguished psychoanalyst is in a privileged position to interpret Freud’s lasting achievement. We stand in need of a reading of Freud and of psychoanalysis that accounts for what Bettelheim thinks of as its humanistic importance. A first attempt at arriving at such a reading would consist in more fully understanding the power of psychoanalytic concepts and themes in illuminating our cultural achievements. We need not look too far to discover examples of psychoanalytically-inspired criticism that contribute, in an irreducible way, to the comprehension of our cultural life. The pressing philosophical question we must ask ourselves is: precisely what form of understanding is provided by such criticism, how does it do its work of (undoubtedly non-scientific) illumination? Answers to these questions are not going to be found by learning the German language.