The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Freud Files: How Freud Engineered His Own Myth

In 1916, Freud took the stage in Vienna in front of an audience that had gathered to hear the eighteenth of his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, and proceeded to canonize himself by staking his place in the history of humanity alongside Copernicus and Darwin, the former having solved geocentrism, the latter anthropocentrism, and Freud himself, allegedly, egocentrism. He likened the criticism psychoanalysis, “his” “science,” was receiving to that Copernicus and Darwin faced when their theories first confronted the status quo. Over the century that followed, Freud’s legacy penetrated society and went on to underpin the making of consumer culture. But understanding the story, the complete story, of how Freud became Freud hinges on understanding the story’s very storiness. That’s the premise of The Freud Files: An Inquiry into the History of Psychoanalysis (public library | IndieBound) from Cambridge University Press, in which prominent contemporary Freud critics Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani set out to reopen the files of Freud’s early critics, reexamining old controversies and restaging defining debates to argue that without the legend Freud himself engineered, the scientific status of psychoanalysis would never have achieved the credibility it actually did.

From how Freud manipulated his patient case histories to conform to his theories to how, even after his death, his daughter Anna worked arduously to maintain the myth, the authors open up previously unpublished documents and letters guarded by the Freud estate for decades, exploring how Freud rewrote his own history as a kind of propagandist storyteller.

‘Scientific’ psychology didn’t emerge as the fruit of a lucky discovery, a fortuitous invention, or by some ill-defined process of natural development. It was desired by its various promoters, and imagined on the model of the natural sciences.

For Freud, however, securing his place in history alongside history’s most seminal scientists was not without resistance. At the dawn of this “new psychology,” pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote to English psychologist James Sully in 1890:

This is no science, it is only the hope of science… But at present psychology is in the condition of physics before Galileo and the laws of motion, of chemistry before Lavoisier and the notion that mass is preserved in all reactions. The Galileo and Lavoisier of psychology will be famous men indeed when they come, as come they some day surely will.

So how, exactly, did Freud rewrite his own history? Borch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani distill it to five elements of alchemy:

…the peremptory declaration of the revolutionary and epochal character of psychoanalysis, the description of the ferocious hostility and irrational ‘resistances’ which it gave rise to, the insistence on the ‘moral courage’ which was required to overcome them, the obliteration of rival theories, relegated to a prehistory of psychoanalytic science, and a lack of acknowledgement of debts and borrowings.

The latter part strikes a particular nerve around here. In fact, there was nothing original about the method of introspective self-observation, which Freud allegedly invented and which shaped the course of psychoanalysis. From Thomas Hobbes:

Whosoever looketh into himself, and considereth what he doth, and when he does think, opine, reason, hope, feare, &c, and upon what grounds; he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts, and Passions of all men, upon like occasions.

And from Immanuel Kant:

The wish to play the spy upon one’s self… is to reverse the natural order of cognitive powers… The desire for self-investigation is either already a disease of the mind (hypochondria) or will lead to such a disease and ultimately to the madhouse.

But it wasn’t until the preface to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams that Freud publicly articulated his psychoanalysis of himself:

For this book has a further subjective significance for me personally — a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death — that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life.

This erected a kind of “secret ‘science’ of Freud” behind the published public science, which made psychoanalysis into “a riddle, with only Freud possessing the key.” The loop of the riddle solidified when, in 1912, Carl Jung proposed that every prospective analyst be trained by being analyzed by another analyst, raising an obvious question: Who would train Freud, the analyst at the top of the food chain?

When Freud subjected himself to analysis by Jung, the dynamic quickly unraveled into a kind of feud, beginning with Freud’s admission to Jung that he “could not submit to analysis without losing [his] authority.” This triggered what’s easily the juiciest piece of correspondence in the volume, and possibly among the most acrimonious intellectual assaults in history, a scathing letter Jung sent Freud on December 18, 1912:

You go around sniffing out all the symptomatic actions in your vicinity, thus reducing everyone to the level of sons and daughters who blushingly admit the existence of their faults. Meanwhile you remain on top as the father, sitting pretty. For sheer obsequiousness nobody dares to pluck the prophet by the beard and inquire for once what you would say to a patient with a tendency to analyze the analyst instead of himself. You would certainly ask him: ‘Who’s got the neurosis?’… I am namely not in the least neurotic — touch wood! I have namely lege artis et tout humblement let myself be analyzed, which has been very good for me. You know, of course, how far a patient gets with self-analysis: not out of his neurosis — just like you.

The weaving of the Freud legend, the authors argue, was a deliberate architecting of a monoculture, a powerful story that can integrate new elements and theories, but its underlying structure remains unchanged. Freud engineered a kind of filter bubble of and for his followers. In 1908, for instance, he orchestrated the “First Congress of Freudian Psychology” in Salzburg, which was designed as a secret invitation-only event with no criticism allowed. When a critic of Freud’s requested admission to a similar event in 1910, he was denied permission to attend. In a letter to Freud whilst planning the conference, Jung admonished that this “splendid isolation must come to an end one day,” but Freud retorted that “that day is still far off.”

Freud was indeed so adamant about pushing that day as far into the future as possible that when rival Wilhelm Fleiss sold his correspondence with Freud to Marie Bonaparte in 1937 on the express condition that Freud never regain possession of them, Freud pleaded with Bonaparte to destroy them, saying he didn’t want “any of them to become known to the so-called posterity.” She wrote in her diary on November 24, 1937:

But when later, at the end of February or the beginning of March 1937, I saw [Freud] in Vienna and he told me he wanted the letters to be burned, I refused… One day he told me: ‘I hope to convince you to destroy them.’

The formidable filter bubble thickened when Freud formed the International Psychiatric Association, which gave him the perfect vehicle for propagating his ideas. Broch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani write:

Protected from the world by his disciples, Freud could recreate his own reality and his own history, without fear of being contradicted. From this perspective, the legend of the isolated and persecuted scientist is less the expression of Freud’s megalomania or mythomania, than the reflection of the institutional isolation of psychoanalysis. Conversely, the legend maintained the identity of the movement, portraying its mythic independence from and superiority over all other psychological and psychiatric theories. To view the legend simply as a means to satisfy Freud’s ambition and narcissism or simply as a means to promote psychoanalysis in the competing psychological marketplace misses the intimate connections between the legend and psychoanalysis itself.

Ultimately, though The Freud Files may itself bear the ideological biases of its authors, it offers a fascinating look at deliberate construction of one of contemporary culture’s most enduring lenses on the human condition, challenging its most fundamental assumptions and frameworks. Broch-Jacobsen and Shamdasani put it even more forcefully:

Without this excessive dehistoricization, psychoanalysis would never have succeeded in establishing itself as the Holy Scripture of psychotherapy, nor Freud as the Solitary Hero of the unconscious… Psychoanalysis is vulnerable to its history.

Published April 23, 2012




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