Keeping the show on the road

John Kerrigan

  • Tribute to Freud by H. D
    Carcanet, 194 pp, £5.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 85635 599 2
  • In Dora’s Case: Freud, Hysteria, Feminism edited by Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane
    Virago, 291 pp, £11.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 86068 712 0
  • The Essentials of Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, edited by Anna Freud
    Hogarth/Institute of Psychoanalysis, 595 pp, £20.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 7012 0720 5
  • Freud and the Humanities edited by Peregrine Horden
    Duckworth, 186 pp, £18.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1983 7
  • Freud for Historians by Peter Gay
    Oxford, 252 pp, £16.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 503586 0
  • The Psychoanalytic Movement by Ernest Gellner
    Paladin, 241 pp, £3.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 586 08436 3
  • The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art by Leo Bersani
    Columbia, 126 pp, $17.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 231 06218 4

‘The Professor was not always right,’ declared H.D. after analysis in Vienna. Her judgment seems rather generous. Reading her Tribute to Freud, one can’t ignore the emotional and interpretative coercion that went on at 19 Berggasse under the name of science. To an alarming degree, theory preempted argument. H.D. had been abandoned by her husband, Richard Aldington, for another woman, during a difficult pregnancy in which mother and child seemed doomed; her love affair with the feminist Bryher was fraught; writing set up its own strains: but Freud already knew, amid this welter of anxieties, what really worried the patient. Had he not just shown, in the lecture on ‘Femininity’ (1933), that women are driven by a penis-envy which may be sublimated into some vague desire for intellectual achievement but which can only be allayed by bearing a child, preferably male, as phallus? If H.D. dreamt of a princess stepping down towards water, to find and protect a baby, while she stood by as witness, did this not demonstrate the patient’s longing to possess the penis? Never mind the trauma of childbirth. Did it not recall the finding among bullrushes of that founder who had fascinated Freud since his 1914 essay on Michelangelo’s Moses? Well of course this hadn’t occurred to H.D. Freud, after all, had thought harder than she had about totemic leaders with rebellious followers – like Adler and Jung – and he, not the patient, was gestating Moses and Monotheism. In short, it’s hard to know where to look when H.D. regrets the death of Freud’s disciple, Van der Leeuw, and the master replies: ‘You have come to take his place.’ Someone had to; the succession needed securing; naturally, ‘the Professor insisted I myself wanted to be Moses ... a boy ... a hero.’

Loyalists will protest that H.D. wrote with hindsight, from memory, controlling the fiction she constructed. But then, as several contributors to Dora’s Case, an uneven anthology, remark, Freud did the same with Ida Bauer, waiting five years before completing an account in which his anxieties and theoretical ambitions are only too clearly registered. Moreover, the essentials of H.D.’s story, including the insistence that she ‘wanted to be Moses’, are recorded in her Vienna notes: those elated, sometimes hurt responses to treatment which would be fuller had the master not ordered writing to stop. There we find the strongest evidence of Freud’s normative dogmatism. ‘When I told the Professor that I had been infatuated with Frances Josepha and might have been happy with her, he said: “No – biologically, no.” For some reason, though I had been so happy with the Professor (Freud – Freude), my head hurt and I felt unnerved.’ Such was the subtlety of the master’s technique. Such his need for narrative command, his itch to censor. While the inventiveness and fertility of late Freud can’t be doubted, his detachment must be. As Derrida has demonstrated through a powerful reading of the fort/da game in La Carte Postale, the mature Freudian text is autobiographically inscribed as surely as Dora’s was in the 1900s. What Tribute to Freud shows is solipsism at work in therapy itself, with the founder’s dynastic concerns projected onto the patient’s situation. No wonder H.D. resisted treatment, leaving her case, like Dora’s, unresolved.

‘Freud – Freude’. Helped by a compositor’s reckless id, Ernest Gellner goes further and writes of ‘Anna Fraud (once described by her father as his only son)’. If the parapraxis is unjust, the parenthesis, like much in The Psychoanalytic Movement, is crudely apt. Betrayed by schismatic disciples, Freud settled the problem of succession by placing Anna in the myth outlined to H.D. The Tables of Law passed from father to son, and Anna kept faith by never actively criticising Freud’s views. Though the importance of her own contribution to psychology needn’t be questioned, history will remember her as the guardian of those ‘tables of testimony’ which Freud to his alarm saw slipping, in the essay of 1914, from the grasp of Michelangelo’s Moses.

In ten sections, if not commandments, that testimony is summarised in The Essentials of Psychoanalysis: a handsome, well-indexed volume with inter-chapters by Anna Freud (who died before it went to press). Astonishingly, this is the first primer of its kind. Up to now, beginners have relied on Freud’s sets of Introductory Lectures, or on synthetic digests. Not the least of the new book’s virtues is its managing to expose readers to a non-expository Freud, in heated argument with himself, while arranging the material for easy and progressive consumption. This is, nevertheless, Anna’s Freud. Most of the selected work is late, scientistic and, to that extent, unrepresentative of the master’s output. Much of it post-dates Anna’s admission to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1922. Indeed, it begins with ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’, that stylish mid-Twenties pamphlet in which Freud defends those who, like his daughter, wish to practise without a medical degree. While it’s true that no other text explains the late system so lucidly, the significance of its inclusion won’t be overlooked. That paper was Anna’s charter: the book is her inheritance.

Those who like their Freud humane will be displeased. It’s not just a matter of the material chosen. As Philip Rieff, Bruno Bettelheim and others have complained, the Standard Edition’s prickly jargon – its ego and id for das Ich and das Es, its ‘cathexis’ and ‘scopophilia’ – removes psychoanalysis from the Geisteswissenschaften. Yet Strachey’s translation is used throughout. No attempt is made to explain the resonance key words had for Freud; nor are their roots in German literature exposed. The terse argot thus reads thinly, as though spun out of itself, and an impression of pseudo-science is the stronger. Certainly, the book’s driest pages show Freud returning to his ‘Project for a Scientific Psychology’ (1895) with a new idiom, but no more neurology, on offer.

Anna Freud makes no objection to the late system, though she skirts warily round parts of it – describing the death instinct, for instance, without relish. Where some strain shows is with Femininity’: yet the editor’s faith is such that, despite the demolition of this lecture from within psychoanalysis – e.g. by Luce Irigaray, whose fascinating work should be welcomed into English[*] – she cannot bring herself to challenge the Professor. ‘The prestages of female sexuality which Freud reconstructed, piece by piece, on the basis of data gained in the analysis of female patients,’ she complains, ‘are simply brushed aside by liberated women as the result of male chauvinistic prejudice.’ This presumably refers to such comic episodes as Freud’s showing H.D. a statuette of Athene with the unprejudicial hint: ‘She is perfect ... only she has lost her spear.’ (The poet spends two unself-conscious pages explaining why, yes, the Athene was perfect.) For Anna Freud, bad faith lies entirely with the ‘women’s movement’, which makes ‘not a single appreciative reference to the facts that the equality of the sexes for which they strive existed in the analytic movement from the beginning [and] that at all times women played an important role as authors contributing to the psychoanalytic literature and as respected collaborators of Freud.’ What’s interesting here is not so much the rosy view of early analysis as the showing-through of those dynastic concerns displayed, more sympathetically, on the jacket of this volume: Anna, in a photo of 1928, seated at her father’s right hand.

Oddly enough, the same concerns mark Freud and the Humanities, a collection of lectures given at All Souls during 1984. Michelangelo’s Moses glowers on the cover, supporting the assertion with which the preface starts, that dead founders live: ‘The extra lifetime’s work denied to Freud has been granted to his adherents.’ Since the late thought ranges widely, from aesthetics to anthropology, we hear much in this book of the Freud known to H.D. And the feminist challenge is again not faced – not even by Peregrine Horden, whose learned introduction is otherwise impressive in its ability to suppress while raising criticisms of Freud. His essay is, frankly, too protective. Damaging authorities, such as Timpanaro on the lapsus, are passed over in footnotes. Discredited elements in the system – most obviously, Freud’s Lamarckianism – are offered as, somehow, making the master’s thought more interesting. And the pages on Lacan are evasive. ‘Yet psychoanalysis is never beyond resuscitation,’ Horden nervously concludes. Like a number of his contributors, he seems uncertain whether the show can be kept on the road.

Why else would Richard Ellmann begin ‘Freud and Literary Biography’ with an unguarded metaphor: ‘the series could hardly have come into being if the horse we were to flog was already quite dead.’ Seven scholars thrashing a half-dead horse: it’s enough to make readers of ‘Little Hans’ fear for their widdlers. Yet Ellmann’s lecture, once it breaks loose, is elegant and perceptive. L’ Idiot de la Famille is his foil. Tactfully, but firmly, he uses Sartre’s Flaubert to suggest that while every biography operates within psychological limits, it’s disastrous to fit your subject to a system. The essay brings down more than Sartre. Reading from it into Gombrich’s piece on Schiller, ‘The Symbol of the Veil’, one can only concur with Anthony Storr’s observation, elsewhere in the volume, that psychoanalysis illuminates the traffic between life and art more suggestively than it can the structures of creativity.

When H.D. first visited Freud she shocked him by gazing, not at the Professor, but at his objets d’art. The strength of Dr Storr’s essay is that it does the same. Invoking Engelman’s photographs of 19 Berggasse, Storr argues that the ‘unbelievable number of antique statuettes, crowded together so closely that the outline of any individual piece is hardly discernible’, show Freud’s instincts to be, not ‘those of an aesthete, but those of a compulsive collector’. Even if we recall the cluttered galleries in which Freud’s tastes were formed, the point seems shrewd, and it squares with a famous admission in ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’: ‘I am no connoisseur in art ... I have often observed that the subject-matter of works of art has a stronger attraction for me than their formal and technical qualities.’ As S. Dresden demonstrates in his excellent ‘Psychoanalysis and Surrealism’, Freud was baffled by expressive form, even in work influenced by his theories. His cache of treasures was an archive: Athene meant castration.

Those statuettes brood, as tutelary deities, over the two most substantial essays: Francis Huxley’s ‘Psychoanalysis and Anthropology’, Hugh Lloyd-Jones on ‘The Study of the Ancient World’. Doubtless Huxley will hate being called ‘substantial’: his style is busily flash. But he packs in more information, line by line, than any other contributor, and you finish his lecture with an enlarged sense of what those desk-top figures meant to Freud: Osiris, Vishnu, the Sphinx. Lloyd-Jones casts a colder eye upon the scene. Not for him a clutter or blurred outline. Yet his essay refuses to triumph over Freud’s contradictions and changes of mind. Far from abusing the gift of hindsight, he attacks those who, enjoying its advantages, still cling to bits of outworn intellectual luggage. His pages on Oedipus are erudite and caustic: a sting in the tail of this sometimes bland collection.

Certainly, Peter Gay should read Lloyd-Jones whenever he feels a fit of hyperbole stealing over him. ‘The astonishing range of Freud’s discoveries, his unparalleled gift for reading evidence’, ‘advocate of genius’, ‘this courageous exploration’: by the middle of Chapter Two, we’re in the realm of hagiography, and sentences like ‘Freud was a giant standing on the shoulders of tall men’ slip out uncensored. This is sad, because Gay’s Freud, Jews and Other Germans (1978) remains, despite some intemperate footnotes, one of the best things in the literature: urgent, atmospheric, alert. Since then, as he explains in a revealing preface, Gay has joined the succession. Analysed and trained at the Western New England Institute for Psychoanalysis, he now stands in the priestly line that stems from Freud.

To be fair, he rarely claims an insider’s authority to fob off argument. Despite its impassioned prose, Freud for Historians respects the conventions of academic debate. After a polemical first chapter, mauling those who, like Lawrence Stone, reject Freud while larding their text with inaccurate analytic terms, Gay retraces the founder’s career, inviting historians to follow him all the way from dream-theory to group psychology. Most apologists, alarmed by Freud’s dismissal of Totem and Taboo (‘don’t take that seriously – I made that up on a rainy Sunday afternoon’), scotomise the late social theory. For Gay, however, this part of Freud’s output is especially informative. LeBon, Tolstoy and others may have described mass phenomena acutely, he declares, but Freud ‘explained them’. If that strains credulity, it is also hard to counter. When Gay writes, ‘dreams are the disguised and distorted condensations of wishes and recent experiences,’ one can object that – as Rycroft and others have shown (and as Freud began to concede) – Die Traumdeutung is empirically inadequate. At the back end of this book, by contrast, so much is speculative, so much bravely prophetic, that criticism stands dumbstruck.

Wary of defending ‘the fiascos of psychohistory’, Gay seeks allies among orthodox social historians. Thus Keith Thomas is praised – for ‘speaking Freud without knowing it’. What a pity that, in a letter excerpted in the notes, Thomas distances himself from ‘the Master’. What a shame that Edmund Morgan, having learned so much from Freud, forgot to mention him in his work on the Puritan family. As for E.R. Dodds, it’s unscrupulous of Gay to offer his Greeks and the Irrational as exemplary Freudian scholarship when its debts to Nietzsche and Malinowski are so clear, and when Classicists are, on the whole, so careful to distinguish between its doubtful paradigms and vivid detail. Here again, Gay might curb his excitability by reading Lloyd-Jones’s lecture, which surveys Dodd’s work with grace.

This isn’t to imply a lack of grace in the author of The Bourgeois Experience. His polemic is knowledgeable and stylish. Yet Freud for Historians is crippled by its restriction to what Gellner calls ‘the self-maintaining circle’ of psychoanalysis. As a convert, a successor, Gay simply puts aside the evidence of Eysenck and others that analysis is therapeutically unremarkable. Nor is he troubled by historical and cultural variety: all human life came to 19 Berggasse (except working people, Asians, Africans, South Americans and Trobriand Islanders), and ‘even if Freud’s evidence had been drawn from as narrow a sample as his detractors like to assert, the truth of his claims would remain unaffected, though it would certainly be less plausible.’

Since logic like that can’t be dislodged by shoving, Professor Gellner tries hollering, jumping up and down with rage, and lobbing philosophical half-bricks. It is not an edifying sight. Long on abuse and short on detail, The Psychoanalytic Movement scolds Freudians, ‘Plato and other credulous humans’ so roundly that you start to stick up for the underdog. One weakness in Gellner’s argument is descriptive: deferring to the Unconscious – ‘A Cunning Bastard’, ‘A daemon ... strong and devious’ – he refigures, haplessly, the homunculoid and quasi-religious tropes he dislikes in Freud. Another is temperamental: resisting the ‘stoic’ strain in psychoanalysis, its emphasis on inward self-adjustment, he voices a pessimism (‘suffering’ is the human condition’) surprisingly close to that of H.D.’s aged Freud. Yet despite these difficulties Gellner whacks important nails on the head. His racy, anecdotal idiom can be entertaining. Indeed, his action-packed history of Western thought from Enlightenment ‘Bundleman’ to the Existential ‘Wager’ – all in forty pages – should appeal to a wide audience. Most publishers’ contracts have a clause about cartoon rights: let’s hope Gellner hasn’t signed his away.

We literary critics are wiser. For us, seamless textuality makes the world, from Mallarmé to the News at Ten, indeterminate. Having read Rorty, we know that Freud’s a ‘strong poet’ and that, swerve and dribble as we may with Harold Bloom, we can’t escape his influence. Anyway, the goal posts are contingent, and an irritable reaching after fact and reason, like Gellner’s, is doomed from the start. Thus Leo Bersani shuns ‘verification’ and finds in late Freud a discourse which conveys ‘psychoanalytic truth’ in ‘moments of theoretical collapse’ which, by a kind of self-undoing, become ‘literary’. It is ‘by virtue of this very collapse’ that Freud is ‘psychoanalytically effective’ – but not ‘effective’ in any crude sense, such as curing neurosis or easing misery. ‘The question of Freud’s “scientific value”,’ Bersani promises his readers, ‘will be eluded as a matter of epistemological necessity.’ After all, ‘the concern for the scientific validity of Freudian theory is perhaps not – contrary to claims originating with Freud himself – inherent in the theoretical activity itself; rather, that concern is an aspect of the political history of the psychoanalytic movement. It is’ – the Foucaultian sleight-of-hand completes itself – ‘a function of considerable investments of power ... most visible in medicine and in law.’

What makes The Freudian Body, nevertheless, absorbing is its readiness to move beyond or ‘back from’ theory. Prompted by a hint in the Leonardo essay (1910) that ‘a component instinct of sexual desire’ may escape from post-infantile ‘sexual repression’ to become, through sublimation, intellectual curiosity, Bersani argues that Freud posited a ‘non-referential version of sexualised thought’. That this cuts against the Oedipal and castrative drift of the essay is precisely Bersani’s point. Here is ‘psychoanalytic truth’ thrown up by theoretical turbulence. Indeed, he suggests, in an argument indebted to Laplanche, we may link Freud’s 1910 parenthesis with those ‘extraordinary pages’ in The Ego and the Id where ‘the simple Oedipus complex’ is judged ‘by no means its commonest form’. Though some over-reading is needed to make those ‘pages’ yield what Bersani wants, they help him get behind phallocentricism to a theoretical realm in which language and desire compose the white noise of libidinised thought.

In consequence, his criticism has more purchase than that familiar Freudian writing which, revisionary in a naive sense, reinscribes the theory. When Terry Eagleton, for instance, in his erratic and self-regarding William Shakespeare,[†] declares that ‘from a phallocentric viewpoint a woman appears to have nothing between her legs,’ and sets up his account of the great tragedies by stressing man’s ‘unconscious thoughts of his own possible castration’ – so that ‘the sight of an external lack may stimulate a sense of vacancy within himself, which he can plug, paradoxically, with the woman idealised as fetish’ – his extravagant, yet pathetically conventional Lacanian fantasy deserves the edge of Bersani’s rebuke: ‘some recent “returns to Freud” [have] served to make those views more intellectually respectable, and therefore left intact, for example, the phallocentrism of the sexual norm.’ Professor Bersani breaks this cycle, and deserves our gratitude for doing so.

Yet his attempt to analyse, within a four-lecture compass, Beckett, L’Après-Midi d’un Faune, Pasolini’s Sade, Henry James and Assyrian art, plus late Freud, while developing a new account of sexuality, fails. Too much is in shorthand; juxtaposition masquerades as argument; the promised ‘aesthetics of masochism’ never quite emerge. Admirers of Bersani’s early work may decode the elliptical, chic comments on Pasolini’s Salo, but they’ll feel cheated to learn, after his attentive A Future for Astyanax (1976), that ‘in the second half of The Golden Bowl, Maggie becomes an unreadable text.’ Least persuasive are the pages on ‘The Lion Hunt’. That archaic bas-relief can’t be textualised and deconstructed as easily as da Vinci, or Sade on film, and in his account of Assyrian sculpture Bersani comes nearest Freud on the statuettes: reading art as psychic allegory.

In the end, the book is at its best when subverting the texts of H.D.’s Freud. Here it can be bold. As Lloyd-Jones wryly observes, Freud’s contention ‘that “to gain control over fire man has to renounce the homosexually-tinged desire to put it out with a stream of urine” is not often mentioned even by his loyal adherents’: but it’s with the stirrings of this idea in a note to Civilisation and its Discontents that Bersani starts. For him, such disjected material challenges Freud’s ‘narrative’ in the cause of ‘psychoanalytic truth’. When the master describes that Lilliputan fire, or, in another note, laments the erect posture which removes us by evolution from the Yahoo stench of excrement, his textual labour is, in the fullest sense, analytic. If Bersani sometimes distorts Freud’s ‘narrative’ to make it fit his dialectic (e.g. in the account of that ‘oceanic’ narcissism which begins the 1930 essay), his approach is attractive and it yields some insights.

But how much Freud can be read like Swift? How much is contrapuntal? Encouraged by Derrida, Bersani pushes beyond footnotes to the ‘excited, displaced repetition’ of the fort/da text and the cathected complexities of The Ego and the Id. Continually reading back, to find traces even in early Freud of ‘sexuality as productive masochism’, he in effect glosses H.D.’s comment: ‘Eros and Death, those two were the chief subjects – in fact, the only subjects – of the Professor’s external preoccupation.’ Like the death instinct itself, Bersani’s claims will prove contentious. But his steady emphasis on the psychic violence which conjoins death and desire may shed light on Freud’s ‘beating with his hand, with his fist’ on H.D.’s analytic sofa, while saying: ‘I am an old man – you do not think it worth your while to love me.’ Certainly, his book reminds us with what commanding rhetorical intricacy ‘the Professor was not always right.’

[*] Speculum of the Other Woman, translated by Gillian Gill (Cornell University Press, 365 pp., £12.60, 1985, 0 8014 9330 7), and This sex which is not one, translated by Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Cornell University Press, 222 pp., £9.65, 1985, 0 8014 9331 5). Some essays appeared in New French Feminisms, edited by Marks and Courtivron (Harvester, 1980) and in Signs 6 and 7.

[†] Blackwell, 114 pp., £3.95, 20 February, 0 631 14553 2.