What if Freud didn’t care?

Adam Phillips

  • The Secret Ring: Freud’s Inner Circle and the Politics of Psychoanalysis by Phyllis Grosskurth
    Cape, 245 pp, £18.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 224 03227 5

Auden once suggested that a literary critic should declare his ‘dream of Eden’ because ‘honesty demands that he describes it to his readers, so that they may be in a position to judge his judgments.’ Even though psychoanalysis ironises dreams of Eden – in psychoanalytic theory paradise is only for the losers – it would be useful for psychoanalysts to say something about these things, about the kind of world they would prefer to live in, and why they think psychoanalysis is a good way of both spending one’s time and contributing to this Eden. It will, after all, matter a great deal to their patients what stories they tend to tell themselves and their colleagues about, say, promiscuity, or socialism, or ambition. And, of course, about psychoanalysis and the significance of its history.

Given that ambivalence, and therefore self-doubt, are integral to the theory, it is remarkable how unwilling psychoanalysts have been to write anything about their hatred, or their love, of psychoanalysis. It would be particularly interesting for those who love psychoanalysis to tell us their misgivings about it all, partly because there is no shortage of people who do not like it and are keen to tell us more than their misgivings. And they are the only people who do it with any gusto; though not all of them, fortunately, are as crassly enthusiastic as Phyllis Grosskurth is in this book. In this history of Freud’s first group of colleagues – the Committee who, under Freud’s aegis, invented what we now think of as psychoanalysis – Grosskurth ‘ponders the question: why, at a crucial point in the history of psychoanalysis, did the Committee mean so much’ to Freud? ‘Ponders’ is about right, though it marginally exaggerates the intellectual acuity of her story.

The days must now be over when people who are critical of psychoanalysis can merely be described as resisting it (of course in the old days one was always free to ask someone what they were resisting by defending it). And people who disparage psychoanalysis – and psychoanalysts as a tribe – are responding to something in which Freud and his early followers are more than implicated. The contempt or suspicion – the environment that a person or a group creates around itself – is always a kind of alter ego, an essential and revealing part of the production. Psychoanalysis as a profession has become a victim of its most useful and distinctive technique: by not saying much, by not answering the questions, it encourages people outside the profession to invest analysts with power and then punish them for being smug and bossy. That is to say, it turns outsiders too easily into patients, just as the infamous psychoanalytic ‘technique’, when it is not answerable or intelligible to the patient, is anti-democratic. It disempowers in the name of knowing what’s best.

Powerful theories are only powerful because they seem to prescribe the terms in which they can be judged. If a lot of the most interesting psychoanalytic theory and history is now being written by people outside the profession it is partly because the people inside the profession are more prone to the kinds of fundamentalism that stifle imagination in the name of something often called professional integrity (by ‘fundamentalism’ I mean here the assumption that something can only be legitimately criticised from within). But in its documented account – from outside, as it were – of the sometimes very real fundamentalism of the first psychoanalytic group, The Secret Ring disparages Freud’s character as a way of casting aspersions on the whole psychoanalytic enterprise. Freud-bashing, like any kind of bashing, frees one to have contact with something by creating the illusion that one is destroying it. And Grosskurth is certainly devoted and diligent in her dismay about the first psychoanalysts, and particularly the very first one. Indeed what is most striking about The Secret Ring – and links it to her last foray into psychoanalytic history, the biography of Melanie Klein – is how little she seems to like or admire the people she has chosen to write about. So the book invites the kind of collusion that it insistently deplores in the group that provides her with her subject. It is written, in other words, with the kind of snide zeal with which one preaches to the converted.

Why, for example, so early in the book (page 20) does Grosskurth footnote the fact that in 1934 Hitler visited Hildesheim, the town where in 1921 Freud’s Secret Committee held their meeting? Perhaps we are to infer – along crude psychoanalytic lines of interpretation – that one kind of similarity is being used to reveal another? Certainly, at first sight, the differences between Freud and Hitler seem more compelling than the similarities. But in this Prologue, as she calls it – the book is organised theatrically, beginning with Dramatis Personae and Supporting Cast and finishing with a Last Act and an Epilogue – Grosskurth gives us lots of hints that Freud may not have been a very nice person, and that a professional master-race was in the offing. ‘Their main task,’ she writes, ‘was to preserve the purity of psychoanalytic theory.’ We glimpse the Committee members ‘despite the fact’ that they were all suffering from colds, maintaining ‘a strenuous schedule of hiking and sightseeing’. And then we are told, by way of a conclusion, that ‘the circumstances in which Freud felt it necessary to gather about him a small group of henchmen in order to maintain the faith and search out deviance is the subject of this book.’ Henchmen?

In the Epilogue Grosskurth confesses that she is ‘still not altogether sure of my opinion of Freud’. This seems uncharacteristically tentative in a book studded with the brashest assertions about Freud and the other emotionally inadequate people who were unfortunate enough to come in contact with him. ‘Anyone whose ideas differed from his own,’ she writes, ‘Freud described as an “enemy”.’ ‘For Jones, as for Ferenczi,’ we are told, ‘Freud was the all-wise father to whom his troubled son came for help and advice.’ ‘There they were’, she writes of the Committee in 1913 – Jones, Ferenczi, Abraham, Rank and Sachs – as though the joke is on all of them, ‘bound together by their secrecy against the world, faith in Freud’s theory, and their personal devotion to their leader.’ It’s as if Enid Blyton were writing about the early days of a fascist youth movement. So when the Freud Youth become vulnerable Grosskurth gets impatient with their Leader. When Jones’s seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter dies in 1928, Freud, she says, could ‘only reply: “As an unbelieving fatalist I can only let my arms sink before the terrors of death.” Once again, Freud seemed to find it impossible to empathise with the sufferings of another person.’ It seems to me that with his usual astringent eloquence he didn’t do too badly, but then Freud’s Insensitivity to Other People is an important theme in Grosskurth’s book. Jones, she also lets us know, was ‘pathetically grateful’ to receive a telegram of condolence from Freud. She constructs psychoanalytic history as though it were a series of encounters between the emotionally retarded, who come out of every exchange – a meeting, a correspondence, an analysis – looking as though no morally intelligent person could possibly take them seriously.

Writing about the history of psychoanalysis seems to encourage people to assume a morally super-ordinate position, one in which it is assumed that because WE already know what a Good Person is we can easily recognise a Bad one. Psychoanalysis starts from the position that we don’t already know and it is precisely the conviction that they do that people suffer from. In the inevitably troubled and troubling story that Grosskurth tells it is worth considering what sort of group pastoral we are being offered by way of implicit comparison, and what this labyrinth of betrayal and rivalry, of dependence and idealisation, is supposed to be telling us about psychoanalysis as a story and a form of therapy. With her insinuating perhapses – ‘Perhaps Ferenczi provided [Freud] with a frisson and a turbulence from which he shrank in his own rather arid emotional life’; ‘It is perhaps an indication of Freud’s loneliness that he urged Ferenczi to resume the analysis’ – Grosskurth implies that we may be slightly ridiculous to be impressed by these people. Psychoanalytic history often gets trapped in the morally stupefying world of blaming. Instead of trying to discover facts about Freud’s life that will finally validate or invalidate psychoanalysis, we should figure out what he was trying to do, how he came to do it – and what he didn’t realise he was doing – in order to work out whether we think psychoanalysis is worth having: whether it produces the kind of life stories we go for. Proving that Freud did not always behave well is not the best way of doing this.

Freud ‘believed’, Grosskurth writes, ‘that he had discovered the ultimate truth’, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is true, or the ultimate truth about Freud. Grosskurth, ‘fascinated by the fact that thousands of people continue to idealise and defend him without really knowing anything about him as a person’, seems to believe that some truth may be gained by unmasking him. But most people aren’t well-behaved, they just look as though they are. Righteous indignation is always a sign that we are in need of a new description.