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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Heil Freud

I am a great fan of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. Weird for a clinician with interest in neuroscience? No, Freud was probably the first biological psychiatrist. Freud started out as an anatomist in 1887. He started studying single nerve cells. It was only later, after he began treating mentally ill patients that Freud got interested in the unconscious mental processes. As the Nazi influence increased in Austria he fled to London. He arrived in England in June 1938 and was shown the beautiful house on the outskirts of London that he was to live in. On seeing the tranquility and civility that his forced emigration had brought him to, he was moved to whisper with typical Viennese irony: "Heil Hitler".

The New England Journal has a review on the book: The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days by Mark Edmundson. 276 pp. New York, Bloomsbury, 2007. $25.95. ISBN 978-1-58234-537-6.

You are warned, may be not on my list

Edmundson, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia, interacts with Freud on a literary level in a sort of prolonged literary reflection on Freud's later work. His presentation of Freud's thought is laced with comparisons to the thought of a host of literary lights: William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, John Milton, Salman Rushdie, Saul Bellow, and others. Despite the historical appearance of the book, though, Edmundson decontextualizes and idealizes Freud. He takes Freud out of his medical context almost entirely, minimizing the reality that although psychoanalysis has become something of a fixture in Western culture, its status as a scientific theory is in decline. The book contains a fairly lengthy bibliography and 234 brief endnotes, but it skims across the surface of relevant scholarship on Freud, plucking out what strikes the author's fancy and ignoring the rest. Edmundson writes about Freud's views of America without referring to the two volumes on Freud and Freudianism in the United States by Nathan G. Hale, Jr., and he ignores Frank Sulloway's influential biography, Freud, Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (first published in 1979).

Edmundson's Freud is a postreligion thinker who can serve as a guide for life in the current world situation and whose concepts have a practical use and a political application. Although Freud's ideas about religion are central to this book, Edmundson accepts these ideas uncritically and does not engage the thoughts of many other writers on Freud's religion who have taken different and more historically nuanced approaches. Edmundson writes as though major works on Freud's view of God by Hans K√ľng, William W. Meissner, Gregory Zilboorg, and others did not exist.

At about page 150, this book becomes a lengthy critique of fundamentalism and "patriarchal religion," both of which Edmundson associates with fascism. He apparently believes that psychoanalysis offers a way forward for humanity, explaining that, "To Freud, the self-aware person is continually in the process of deconstructing various god replacements. . . . He feels, on balance, more than fortunate to be alive. Such people can be quite formidable when they're pushed to the wall. (Fundamentalists and fascists should be warned.)" In truth, to offer up a postmodern literary interpretation of Freud's sociological and anthropologic works as a solution to the political ills of the world is naive.

Psychoanalytic "enlightenment" comes with extensive psychotherapy and reflection, and it is a luxury that few can afford even in the West. Although this book is postmodern in outlook, it takes a rather old-fashioned Whig approach to history that portrays Freud as a man ahead of his time whose thought can be isolated from historical context and universalized. For those who have more than a passing acquaintance with Freud, there is little new in this book and much to take issue with.

Related post on this blog:
15 Common Defense Mechanisms


Anonymous said...

I am a great fan of Dr Shock.

The Shrink said...

Freud uncontestably paved the way for great things.

I must confess though, that although he started things moving in interesting directions, it's the work of folk like Donald Winicott who start to get me excited.

Dr. Shock said...

Fully agree there, the happy analyst, compared to e.g. Melanie Klein.
Regards Dr Shock