[Marxism] Sigmund Fraud?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 15 06:17:20 MDT 2017

Sigmund Fraud?
Frederick Crews’s capstone biography offers a most unflattering case history
By Alexander C. Kafka AUGUST 14, 2017

Does scholarly regard for psychoanalytic theory rise and fall alongside 
Sigmund Freud’s own problematic reputation and personal history? That, 
says one critic of a new biography on the founder of psychoanalysis, is 
“a very reductionist way of thinking.”
Promethean revealer of the unconscious; dedicated healer of the 
neurotic; self-effacing scholar; beloved husband; brilliant protégé; 
devoted mentor; endearing literary stylist; bold cultural explorer.

Sigmund Freud may be out of fashion, but who could dispute his profound 
contributions to science and culture?

Frederick Crews could — and has, for close to four decades. He has urged 
a clear-eyed view not just of psychoanalytic theory but of the 
integrity, process, and motivations of Freud the man. Now, 11 years in 
the works, comes his capstone biography of the Master, Sigmund Freud: 
The Making of an Illusion (Metropolitan Books). It offers, not including 
notes, 666 pages — what would Freud the occultist make of that? — of 
diligently documented ugliness. The prose is brisk — neither 
sensationalized nor ranting. The result feels like a scorching summation 
for the prosecution.

Steadfast Freudians, however, are bored, puzzled, and sometimes amused 
by Crews’s anti-Freud repetition compulsion.

Crews wants the public to think that psychoanalysis rises and falls on 
Freud’s reputation and personal history, and that’s "a very reductionist 
way of thinking," says Adrienne Harris, who teaches psychoanalysis in 
New York and Northern California and has a clinical practice. Freud is 
part of an elaborate history and network of thinkers and clinicians — 
Jacques Lacan, Donald Winnicott, Heinz Kohut, Melanie Klein, and many 
others — who have contributed to psychoanalysis as an evolving practice. 
Crews’s fixation on Freud "starts to sound more and more like a child’s 
nightmare and not very relevant." And if psychoanalysis is so rickety, 
Harris asks, why do humanists who discover it in academe so often want 
to pursue training as therapists? And why are psychoanalytic institutes 
in Eastern Europe, China, and elsewhere so hungry for it?

"I find it very hard to take Frederick Crews seriously," says Harold 
Blum, a New York psychoanalyst and former executive director of the 
Freud Archives. Oedipal urges, the incest taboo, the erotic fantasies 
underlying locker-room talk and dirty jokes, loaded linguistic 
metaphors, Freudian slips, the vividness of infantile sexuality, the 
stages of child development, the importance of nurturing the young, the 
symbolic weight of dream images. On and on. These bountiful 
psychoanalytic insights are in the very air we breathe. To deny that, 
Blum says, is "irrational."

But if Blum doesn’t take Crews seriously, Kirkus does, calling the 
biography, in an early review, "a thorough debunking of the Freud legend 
… impressively well-researched, powerfully written, and definitively 

Crews says the Freud myth, as put forth by his daughter Anna Freud, by 
his disciple and biographer Ernest Jones, and others, is enchanting. And 
because Crews, early on, attained fame as a Freudian-oriented literary 
critic, his anti-Freud writings in The New York Review of Books and 
elsewhere have perhaps predictably been dismissed by Freudians as 
oedipal. Indeed, his turn against Freud around 1980 caused a schism of 
several years even with his friend and champion, the late NYRB editor 
Robert Silvers, who at the time was a Freudian himself. (Silvers 
reversed course a few years later and apologized for the rift, Crews says.)

Malcolm Macmillan, a professorial fellow at the School of Psychological 
Sciences of the University of Melbourne and author of the 1991 book 
Freud Evaluated: The Completed Arc (Elsevier Science), considers Crews, 
because of his focused, matter-of-fact style, probably the most 
effective of Freud’s critics. Serious qualms about psychoanalytic 
thought have percolated into the public arena since the early 1900s, 
Macmillan says. But Crews — along with Frank Cioffi, Henri Ellenberger, 
Adolf Grünbaum, Frank Sulloway, and others — has brought them to broader 

Crews’s Freud will be scarcely recognizable to those envisioning the 
beneficent, tender Viennese doctor.

Early in his career, as an anatomist, he wields his microscope expertly 
but cannot take the next step of devising experiments that might test 
one hypothesis against another. He suggests, later, in his quest for 
fame and wealth, that he was more involved than he really was in 
discoveries made by others — for example, Carl Koller’s breakthrough use 
of cocaine as a local anesthetic in eye surgeries. The young Freud did 
make a name for himself, it’s true — but as a foolhardy shill for 
cocaine’s much wider and more indiscriminate medical application. That 
stance came to embarrass him and drive him even harder to seek some 
magnificent accomplishment that would eclipse it.

Having decided subsequently that psychoanalysis could be that 
breakthrough, Freud elaborates and reshuffles case details when not 
making them up whole cloth.

He is a reckless, greedy, bullying, inept, and monomaniacal clinician. 
He fosters some patients’ addictions to morphine, cocaine, or both. He 
treats symptoms with possible physiological causes — arthritis, say, or 
ovarian cysts — as obvious consequences of hysteria. He bilks rich but 
hopeless clients for whom he has no sympathy or coherent treatment plan. 
He sleeps through his afternoon sessions, confident nonetheless that 
he’s absorbing some psychic gist of his analysands’ complaints. He 
browbeats nominal hysterics into relating questionable traumas, and some 
of his early patients scoff at his interpretations on their way out of 
his empty waiting room.

None of this stops Freud from writing up cases with a cocky flair, in 
conscious imitation of Sherlock Holmes tales, depicting treatments as 
indisputable triumphs of psychological detection and portraying 
questionable casual encounters as triggering virtuoso insights. He 
reinterprets cases with ever-shifting ideas of whether symptoms were set 
off by actual or imagined sexual traumas.

"That is where his ‘genius’ will be found," Crews writes, "not in having 
understood anyone’s mind but in having created an impression of success 
from stories that, regarded objectively, constitute evidence of his own 
obsession, coercion, and want of empathy."

Crews’s Freud is also a backstabbing protégé and colleague — groveling 
for the attention of the physician Wilhelm Fliess, for instance, then 
blurring the record to suggest that Fliess’s notion of a universal 
bisexuality was Freud’s own.

He is a tyrannical husband, belittling and possibly cheating on his 
wife, Martha. He is a snob, notably toward Jews of a lower social order 
than his own. He is a depressive who self-medicates with cocaine on and 
off for 15 years, lofting himself into many of the grandiose flights of 
sloppy theorizing that become psychoanalysis.

What’s more, Crews offers circumstantial evidence that Freud’s gloomy 
fixations on sex, guilt, and neurosis stemmed from his apparent 
molestation of a younger sister in childhood. Crews also considers 
little-known evidence favoring the view that Freud and his sister-in-law 
Minna became lovers — resulting in a pregnancy and an abortion that 
haunted him.

Will the real Sigmund Freud please stand up?

Crews, 84, an emeritus professor of English at the University of 
California at Berkeley, draws from the work of scholars before him, 
particularly Macmillan and the Welsh historian Peter J. Swales. The 
biography’s newest material comes from a trove of some 1,500 letters, 
"derestricted" by the Freud Archives in 2000, between Freud and his 
then-fiancee Martha Bernays from 1882 to 1886.

"One thing that struck me," Crews says of the letters, "was a kind of 
oscillation in Freud between extreme ambition, often fueled by cocaine, 
and, on the other hand, real depression and despair."

The letters also accentuate, Crews says, Freud’s tendency as a young man 
to subordinate himself to dominant male figures — Fliess and the 
neurologist and pathologist Jean-Martin Charcot among them — who control 
and validate him. Freud turns on those onetime idols and, in later 
years, dominates and intimidates younger colleagues who idolize him in 
their turn.

The young Freud’s subservience drew him into decidedly unscientific 
pursuits. For example, he embraced Fliess’s treatment of "nasal reflex 
neurosis" by removing a portion of turbinate bone from patients’ noses. 
Fliess performed the procedure, with Freud’s collaboration, on their 
mutual patient, Emma Eckstein, whom it almost killed when she bled out 
postsurgery, a half-meter of gauze left in her skull triggering an 
infection. Freud would nonetheless affirm his faith in Fliess and 
dismiss the postoperative bleeding as Eckstein’s hysterical ploy for 

"I find really nothing new in Crews’s criticism," says Blum, the former 
Freud Archives executive director. Early in the history of the 
profession, he says, "there were tendencies to overidealize Freud … 
almost to a level of deification." Now the pendulum has swung the other 
way. "The person and the theory have to be dissociated. The theory has 
to stand on its own merits."

Crews’s speculation about Freud in some way "molesting" a younger 
relative? Entirely possible, says Blum. When Freud was a boy, his family 
was poor. They lived in close quarters. They probably saw each other 
naked and the kids may well have investigated each other’s parts.

An affair with Minna? Blum is skeptical. It would run counter to Freud’s 
puritanical streak. And, with Minna living with the Freuds, Blum has 
trouble imagining the close sisters successfully navigating around that 
elephant in the room. But Blum doesn’t rule it out, either. We’ll never 
know because Crews wasn’t there, he says. Regardless, what bearing does 
it have on Freud’s work? Was Einstein a bad father and husband? Whatever 
the conclusion, the answer wouldn’t affect the theory of relativity.

Yes, Freud overused cocaine, in his practice and in his personal life. 
And so did the rest of the world, says Blum. We were slurping it up in 
our soft drinks.

And of course Freud’s views of trauma and false trauma evolved, he says. 
"It’s kind of silly to hold Freud to account for what he couldn’t 
understand," says Blum. Citing famous case histories, he says: "Dora, 
Little Hans, Rat Man, Wolf Man — no one would analyze them now the way 
he did a century ago. Analytic theory has advanced." Citing Freud’s 
blind spots in hindsight is like asking, why didn’t we know about DNA? 
Why didn’t we know that lung cancer is not a genetic disease of the 
male? Freud "was a great pioneer, but pioneers blazing a new path 
sometimes, perhaps inevitably, also run into blind alleys."

For Crews, however, most of Freud’s career was a blind alley, but filled 
with dazzling and disorienting smoke and mirrors to disguise the 
futility of his method.

This isn’t what Crews pictured when he started at Berkeley, in 1958, as 
a $5,000-a-year instructor in the English department, beginning a 
36-year rise through the ranks and retiring as chair.

He doesn’t blame himself for his youthful infatuation with Freud. He was 
influenced by Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, and other Partisan Review 
lights who had "suavely segued from Marx to Freud in the ’40s and ’50s. 
… Once the U.S.S.R. had let them down, it suited their dignity to 
maintain that all issues were personal and fraught with anguish, 
complication, and ‘depth.’ That sounded good to me, a product of Yale’s 
New Critical emphasis on irony, ambiguity, and self-sufficient literary 

Crews joined Norman Holland in employing "applied analysis" in literary 
study, exemplified in Crews’s highly influential and systematically 
Freudian 1966 book The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological 
Themes. He took the congruences between Hawthorne’s and Freud’s views as 
evidence of their psychological truth, failing to understand, as he did 
later, that "both writers belonged to ‘dark Romanticism,’ with its 
emphasis on guilty secrets, ancestral misdeeds, the self-divided mind, 
the sickly allure of incest, etc."

His Freudian graduate seminar became, as he puts it, an "all-too-popular 
… minischool within my department." But when he started reading 
critiques of Freud by Karl Popper, Ernest Nagel, and Sidney Hook, doubts 
began to shadow and then to overcome him. In the mid-1970s he felt that 
Freud’s insights might still apply to literary theory if not to science, 
but by 1980 he’d eliminated even that possibility.

At the 1979 Modern Language Association meeting, he and Stanley Fish 
were on a panel about deconstruction, which Crews warned was an 
"epistemic virus" that he hoped we’d all recover from soon. The audience 
was not pleased.

"I date my metamorphosis from Young Turk to Old Fart from that very 
juncture," Crews says. "And a few months later, I sealed my academic 
fate by publishing an essay called ‘Analysis Terminable’ — in effect, a 
declaration of war against Freudian knowledge claims. That settled it. 
 From that day to this, I have been an internal exile within the 

But hey — you know, this is Sigmund Flippin’ Freud we’re talking about 
here, people. Surely even Crews sees some jewels in the dust where the 
edifice once stood.


The unconscious? "A commonplace of romantic philosophy and medicine." 
What Freud did was to weaponize it. "When patients disagreed with his 
hunches about what had made them sick, he simply claimed that they had 
repressed the crucial awareness. In this manner, ‘the unconscious’ 
became a specious collection box for disputed 'knowledge.'"

Psychoanalytic dream interpretation? "Without any value whatsoever," 
says Crews. Freud’s approach boiled down to a given item in a dream 
either meaning what it appears to, the opposite, or some displaced third 
thing — in other words, whatever the analyst says it means. It also 
emphasizes weighing dream elements separately, distorting the dreamer’s 
narrative flows and arcs.

Insightful application of Freud’s ideas to other areas, like art history 
and anthropology? Nah, says Crews. Freud "bastardized each of the fields 
he approached. Instead of learning what there is to learn within each of 
those disciplines, he tried to wrench each of them into psychoanalytic 

You get the idea. Crews has played this match for a long time. He knows 
the move you’re considering, and he has a counter move at the ready.

But isn’t the contest arguably already won? Freudian influence and 
reputation has, after all, precipitously declined, especially since the 

"It’s obvious," says Stewart Justman, an emeritus humanities professor 
at the University of Montana who has written about medicine and society, 
"that there’s a diminished hard core of Freudian defenders, and that 
when they pass from the scene, that’s it. Game over."

Richard J. McNally, a cognitive-behavior-oriented psychologist who runs 
a lab at Harvard and oversees clinical training, remembers that on grand 
rounds at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1990s, there were still 
a lot of psychoanalysts. "A half-dozen years later," he says, "they 
seemed to have disappeared."

Says Crews: "Apart from any intellectual fuss that somebody like me 
could make, the system has been dying on the vine for decades. So that 
now, really, psychoanalysis survives in humanities departments not for 
any reason that one would call scientific or empirical but because the 
psychoanalytic way of thinking is conducive to discourse production, 
devoid of constraint."

And what of the millions who have claimed some benefit from psychotherapy?

"Of course psychotherapy can be useful," he replies. "It’s useful 
precisely to the degree that the patient’s contemporary situation is 
acknowledged and thoughtfully addressed. What’s questionable is therapy 
that’s designed to wrench the case into conformity with ‘deep’ 
prearranged ideas about the nature of the mind. Insofar as 
psychoanalysts have moved away from that paradigm, they may be doing 
just fine. But then, shouldn’t they stop citing Freud as their ultimate 

Alexander C. Kafka is a deputy managing editor of The Chronicle Review.

More information about the Marxism mailing list