It's interesting to see how Freud keeps getting repackaged. For 50 years or so after his death he was right up there with Marx as one of the seminal (as we used to say) intellectual figures of our times. By his own reckoning, of course, his true equals in terms of revolutionising human understanding were Copernicus and Darwin.
Alas, the last quarter century hasn't been kind. Psychoanalysis may still be twitching, but effectively it's dead. It doesn't work. It never worked. Freud, as we now know, was thoroughly unscrupulous: a man whose cocaine habit helped inspire a messianic belief in his own destiny, who ruthlessly manipulated the facts to fit his theories, who maintained a core of dedicated disciples and happily promoted the most unpleasant ad-hominem attacks on those who dared to question his authority. And whose only remaining followers now are literary academics.
But still we're stuck with that image: the far-sighted visionary; the man who was unafraid to stare, unflinching, at the truth about ourselves. If he wasn't a scientist though - if the whole edifice of his theory of human nature is so much nonsense - then what about all those libraries full of books about him, all those intellectuals who built their careers on him? Surely we can't just dismiss it all as a huge disastrous aberration? There are reputations to consider.
Indeed. Here, reviewing Mark Edmundson's "The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism", is Bryan Appleyard to the rescue:
[F]ew are left to defend Freud’s work as science in any meaningful sense. In part, this is because psychoanalysis has been found to be considerably less effective than rival therapies – notably drugs and cognitive therapy. But it is also because Freud’s psychodrama, the war between the id, the ego and the super-ego, is seen more as a resonant metaphor than as an actual description of the human mind. Vladimir Nabokov dismissed it all as the application of Greek myths to the genitals, which is harsh but true. Freud painted a portrait of the unseen, but many other portraits are possible.
Calling psychoanalysis a resonant metaphor rather than an actual description of the human mind is getting a little tired by now as a defence: at what point can we admit that a resonant metaphor - phlogiston, say - is simply wrong? And considerably less effective is putting it mildly: of no effect whatsoever, except on the bank balance would be more accurate. Still...
In spite of this, we are stuck with his irrefutable greatness. But of what, if not scientific achievement, does it consist? Mark Edmundson’s answer is, essentially, moral and political. The encounter with the Gestapo is important because Freud saw tyranny not as some passing aberration, but as an entirely predictable product of the human psyche, of the need, in essence, to seek consolation and escape from one’s own predicament by placing one’s destiny in the hands of the dictator/ father. The crowds that cheered the German armour as it rolled into Austria were experiencing a mighty sublimation.
Resisting this requires self-awareness, which thus becomes the supreme virtue. Edmundson’s conclusion is a celebration of the possibility, anticipated but also defined by Freud, of the truly self-aware person “continually in the process of deconstructing various god replacements and returning once again to a more sceptical and ironic middle ground”. Such people cannot fall for tyranny or, in our time, fundamentalism.
It is of course to Freud's credit that he was no friend of the Nazis, but then again as a Jew he had little choice. Others, former non-Jewish colleagues such as Jung, have a less happy record in that regard. But really, this is a breath-taking piece of Freud glorification: taking the man at his own estimate (and with Freud it doesn't get any higher than that) - a man of irrefutable greatness, with the Freudian enterprise, psychoanalysis, as the permanent tearing-down of shibboleths, the process of becoming self-aware. Apart from the irony of all this - an obfuscatory pseudo-science, revolving around the cult of Freud as some kind of Moses figure, claiming to represent the forces of reason - it should be obvious that the enemy of Nazism wasn't psychoanalysis, it was the whole enlightenment project - liberal democracy and all that. It's a piece of chutzpah worthy of the man himself to now proclaim him as our only bulwark against the rising tide of fundamentalism and totalitarianism.