From Shtetl to Boulevard

Paul Keegan

  • Freud: In His Time and Ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Catherine Porter
    Harvard, 580 pp, £27.95, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 65956 8
  • Freud: An Intellectual Biography by Joel Whitebook
    Cambridge, 484 pp, £30.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 521 86418 3

In ‘Some Remarks on a Case of Obsessive-Compulsive Neurosis’, Freud’s case history of the Rat Man (real name: Ernst Lanzer), there is an account of Lanzer’s attempts to repay a debt, or rather his attempt to describe his attempts to do so. While a reserve officer on military exercises, he loses his pince-nez and sends a telegram to his optician in Vienna. The replacement arrives and is handed to him by a lieutenant with an order to repay the postage to another lieutenant, who has picked up the package at the wayside post office and paid the (negligible) charges. That this information happens to be wrong is almost irrelevant. Obsessive-compulsive activity is a limit case of ordinary consciousness going about its daily business. What Freud calls ‘the little comedy of repaying the money’ is like Kafka’s tiny story ‘A Common Confusion’, where A and B from different villages set out to meet but incredibly – or all too credibly – keep missing each other. Lanzer’s story involves scribbled messages, missed trains, timetables, a postmistress, a porter, a waiter, a long-suffering friend in Vienna, a series of redundant captains. Everyone along the way is recruited to play a part in the charade of his obsessive endeavour knowingly to repay the wrong person. His sense of guilt is real enough, but it belongs to ‘another content’, instigated elsewhere, on another stage. The patient’s story is all we have, and Freud’s attention may float but it never wavers. His transcript is exhaustive – it includes a map (itself confused) of the patient’s wanderings – but also constrained: the analyst must ‘suppress his curiosity’ so as to allow tale and teller to create their telltale muddle, to take control of the narrative reins.

The phrasing of the obligation (‘You must pay back Lieutenant A’) is as important for Freud as for his patient. In his ‘Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy’ (Little Hans) Freud had spoken of waiting for ‘the true wording of a compulsion’ to surface. Before anything can be interpreted, it has to be translated into words. What is being insisted on is something difficult to take seriously: that utterance has primacy, that the sequence in which things get said is the only one there is, just as the dream is the dreamer’s account of the dream. There is no other scene of telling, and although there may be gaps and hesitations there is no such thing as a digression. Freud told the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister that ‘an analysis only really gets going when the patient descends into minute particulars from the abstractions which are their surrogates.’ The important things in Freud lie close to the ground, which makes his world of particulars vulnerable in paraphrase. And this is a problem for biography.

Psychoanalysis set out to show rather than tell, and to redress the immemorial injury of speaking for the subject. Telling us what is wrong with us is merely hearsay, with as much impact on neurotic symptoms ‘as distributing menus would have on hunger in a famine’. Freud was sceptical about biography on these grounds (as well as others: its idealisation of its subject, its wish-fulfilments), infamously remarking in 1936 that biographical truth ‘is not to be had’ and – odder still – that even were it to be had it could not be used. Nor could the truth about psychoanalysis be ‘told’. When Lou Andreas-Salomé arrived in Vienna in 1912, eager to learn, Freud promised to impart ‘the little there is that can be demonstrated and shared’. The promise and the caveat were one and the same. If psychoanalysis is ‘a testimonial science’, in Frank Cioffi’s words, a world without witness, whose crucial scenes are played out in camera, then Freud’s word must be his bond. By the same token, he cannot easily be spoken for. And yet the biographers have never stopped speaking – for him, or against him. The life matters because it is the arena in which the fate of psychoanalysis is played out. The Freud wars ended in exhaustion, but both sides were agreed that a less than faultless Freud is problematic, and this shared no man’s land seems oddly larger than the territory disputed.

The opening move was Ernest Jones’s three-decker monument (1953-57), and his successors make us choose a Freud, as if to write this life without a case to prove were impossible. If we need more lives of Freud it is because there is safety in numbers, but the evidential burden tends to drain them of ordinary kinds of biographical interest, as if we are not allowed to read the novel of Freud’s life for the story alone. One consequence is that his biographers can still routinely leave a reader wondering what Freud was like (not to mention what it felt like to be Freud). Two new biographies, one French and one American, ask if we should do more than try to prove the life right or wrong. Freud’s accusers need him to keep still as an authority figure, so as to deplore his tyrannies, and their plaintiveness has an air of resentment against his refusals to do so. Joel Whitebook’s early and partly rueful admission that by now ‘we are all orphans’ refers to the distance in time but also the legacy of disenchantment left by all Freud’s abdications of authority, especially in the later writings. It is as if, with each book and paper from the First World War onwards, his withdrawals – dismantling his edifice of words even as he constructed it, introducing more and more impossibilia, less and less consolation – left his followers orphaned from his meanings. Karl Kraus was alert to this, and to Freud as unmistakably a Viennese phenomenon. Freud’s cultural outlook may or may not have been as insular as we are told, with his indifference to contemporary developments, but the air of valediction places him squarely in the picture that frames the last Habsburg generation, their endpoint Anschluss.

‘In any other scientific discipline, a preoccupation with the vulgar details of the founder’s biography would seem trivial and inappropriate,’ Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani wrote in The Freud Files (2006). Elisabeth Roudinesco, on the front line of the Freud wars, is more preoccupied with vulgar details than Whitebook is in his ‘intellectual biography’. She has an eye for the stubborn fact, she rates gossip as a form of knowledge, and her book is promise-crammed with curiosities (one of its chapters is entitled ‘Families, Dogs, Objects’). France is a heated place for psychoanalysis, whose institutional entrenchment is also a state of siege, so the question of Freud’s integrity is especially vexed. Roudinesco is at war with undeclared others who occasionally surface in her intemperate endnotes but curiously not in her index. (The translation could have done with an introduction by a third party to situate the book’s parti-pris.) It is, she says, the first French biography of Freud – Gallic indifference to life-writing being what it is – but what makes it French is screened from view, ostensibly on the grounds that she has dealt with this elsewhere, in her earlier history of psychoanalysis in France. The fact is that she is holding the mic, and the hecklers in the room (a Freudian image) are both acknowledged and ejected.

By way of acknowledgment, Roudinesco introduces a series of false Freuds, to turn up the volume of her narrative and as an earnest of its credentials (‘I have undertaken to set forth in a critical manner Freud’s life’). The revised list of charges includes Freud the rapist of his niece and seducer of his sister-in-law as well as ‘Freud the organiser of a clinical gulag, the demoniacal, incestuous, lying, counterfeiting, fascist Freud’ – caricatures intended to self-destruct on being read. She lays out a stall of biographical red herrings and holds each one up for our inspection. She finds a form of life-writing a bit like wild analysis: the theories are summarily paraphrased, case histories are scrambled in the retelling, open access is provided to what Freud thought at any point. She is concerned to restore him to his contexts – ‘constructing his own era while he was being constructed by it’ – but when she summons those contexts she picks him out with a loudhailer: ‘He then founded a circle of followers modelled on Plato’s republic’ (describing the early Wednesday night gatherings, which Whitebook calls ‘a marginal and relatively depressive group’); he invented and imposed ‘a staggering mythology of origins’; the unconscious was a map ‘of which he had been dreaming since his childhood’; the relation of Freud to his patients was that of Virgil to Dante; perhaps most arresting of all, the Interpretation of Dreams is ‘a vast poem in free verse’. But without being in two minds, for she is a fervent believer, the idiom can also be troubled. ‘But this episode too ended in fiasco’ (of Freud’s self-analysis); Freud was ‘a mediocre clinician of mental illness’; ‘Freud thought of himself as the creator of a doctrine, without imagining that the doctrine could also be the product of a history that he did not control.’ She raises but cannot lay to rest illicit considerations – the suspicion that Freud was a purveyor of cures, rather than cure – because they open onto truths vital to psychoanalysis, rather than the truth about psychoanalysis.

Hence the space given over to the assorted and floridly disturbed oddities who crowd the margins of the early story, whether as colleagues or patients, for she treats them without distinction. This has its cogency, for they shaded into one another: acolytes were potential patients and patients became acolytes. Freud advised on their object-choices – Ferenczi’s love life, with its mother-daughter triangle, is the plot of a Hardy novel – and he listened carefully to the raised temperatures around him, the fever for interpretation, licensing the new candour while keeping his counsel. His own practices flowed around his precepts: he made up rules, ignored the rules established in his name, remained unanalysed, analysed close friends, their spouses, family members including his daughter Anna. Psychoanalysis had to give birth to itself, and the only means to hand were those within reach.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in