I've finally ploughed my way through all 666 pages of Frederick Crews' demolition of the father of psychoanalysis, Freud: The Making of an Illusion. As far as the reputation of the great man goes, well, this should be the final nail in the coffin. Having absorbed Crews's lessons, we should now be able to look back over the past hundred and twenty years or so, wonder to ourselves how on earth psychoanalysis had such a following, and then move on, as we moved on from mesmerism, and theosophy, and phrenology, and all the other strange beliefs that appeared as the rising tide of quasi-scientific movements led by charismatic cranks have tried and failed to uncover the secrets of the mind.
But, with Freud, we can't. The reviews of Crews' book show why.
Take, as a typical example, Bryan Appleyard's review in the Sunday Times (£). He's cited at Amazon with this quote:
Intensively researched and readable book ... with fastidious and forensic care, Crews assembles his material into a 762-page charge sheet of lies, hypocrisy, falsified evidence, sexual creepery, 'intellectual parasitism', corruption, cruelty, botched physical and mental treatments, money-grabbing, 'thick-headedness', bad science, wild, evidence-free speculation and autobiography shiftily disguised as clinical evidence.
But the conclusion of his review has an altogether different emphasis:
What did Freud say? That childhood experiences, including sexual ones, are important. That our instincts are in permanent conflict with social (and specifically modern) life. That this conflict must be contained but should not be suppressed. That our predicament is hard and cannot be fully cured. That life is, at every point, replete with meaning. That “we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love”. That work, love and taking responsibility are the most important things in life.
These are great truths, they explain Freud’s eminence and, against Crews’s charge sheet, they are mighty mitigations.
Similarly, in the Times, David Aaronovitch couldn't let what he took as Crews' relentlessly negative approach go without providing his own more positive take:
For the rest, the legacy of Freud in the modern world is the discussion of the unconscious, of the struggles in which we engage that we hardly know about and the complexities of being human, the bats in our belfries.
It is in the value of looking not just at what we do, but of stopping for a moment and asking why. Is that so terrible?
Or, again, see the exchange between Crews and Susie Orbach in the Guardian last month. Orbach has no replies to Crews except to say, well, yes, Freud may have been wrong on some of his details, but...
Freud’s conceptions of the human mind and its complexity, whether exactly accurate, are not at issue here. What is worth talking about is the way in which late-20th-century and early-21st-century culture have taken up what they have understood of his ideas.
It is very easy to dismantle the specific interpretations of Freud. Every generation does and I have done so myself. That is not to do away with Freud. Rather, it shows the strength of the edifice he created.
Well yes. That's rather the point. The edifice. Whereas mesmerism or theosophy or phrenology were all relatively minor blips which came and went, psychoanalysis has been extraordinarily successful and influential. Freud's comparison of himself with Copernicus and Darwin was echoed by scholars and intellectuals throughout the 20th century, from Auden - "to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion" - to philosopher Richard Wollheim, who suggested that Freud did as much for humanity "as any other human being who has lived". There was simply no challenge to the man's accepted genius until, say, the 1970s. He was, undisputedly, one of the most profound thinkers the world has ever known. Whole bookcases in libraries and bookshops were devoted to the work of Freud and his disciples.
Why such extraordinary success, when he was so wrong? No, we do not all wish to kill our fathers and sleep with our mothers. No, dreams are not the "royal road to the unconscious". Freud, despite all his sound and fury, cured no one. And no, repressed sexual memories do not give rise to hysterical symptoms. We've had enough of that particular nonsense - which of course goes straight back to Freud - with all the abuse panics of recent times.
The defence that Freud may well have been wrong in the details, but opened up a whole area of study with his conception of the unconscious, doesn't bear much scrutiny. The idea of the unconscious, as both Henri Ellenberger and Lancelot Law Whyte have shown, was by no means original with Freud. Crews draws attention to Pierre Janet, a psychologist who was eclipsed by Freud, and whose work Freud happily plundered, with his theories of the subconscious. Indeed the difference with Janet was that the Frenchman was a genuine scientist, and was therefore forced by the evidence to change his ideas. Such scruples never bothered Freud, who could concentrate on the building up the beauty of his theory.
And the notion that, prior to Freud, no one had ever considered the complexities of being human, is simply absurd. From the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to Nietzsche, what on earth were all the great writers and thinkers in the past wrestling with, if not the bottomless labyrinths of human motivation?
There are obvious reasons for Freud's remarkable survival. Psychoanalysts earn a very good living. And it's all extremely embarrassing for Western intellectual history that such a fraudulent figure - yes, he was fraudulent, just read the book - has been so hugely influential. Whole libraries are filled with works depending one way or another on Freud. Countless careers and reputations have been built on the back of psychoanalysis.
It must be acknowledged though, I think, that Freud was a genius at something. He was a genius at myth-making. Psychoanalysis isn't science: it's an extraordinarily successful mythopoeic construction by a man steeped in the literature and philosophy of his times, dressed up as a science.
What Crews makes clear is that Freud was no doctor. He made no secret of his contempt for his patients, and was concerned about their welfare only to the extent that he could claim some credit thereby for his theories. His ideal patients were wealthy, and showed no signs of improvement. That way he could treat them for years.
Nor was he a scientist. Despite the constant use of phrases like "there could now be no doubt that..." and "I had now showed definitely that...", his scientific method was laughable. He knew what he wanted to find, and then set about finding it, browbeating his patients till they accepted it - or, as often happened, walked out.
No, Freud - neither doctor nor scientist - was an ambitious man of culture, determined to make his mark. His theory was what you would expect from a man of letters trying to sound plausibly scientific - a kind of hydraulics of the emotions - but really with no interest in the tedious business of experiment and testing hypotheses. And that is surely part of the reason for Freud's eminence: he supplies intellectuals - men and women of culture, like Freud himself - with the kind of theory of the human mind that they can understand and use. All the great cultural works of the Western canon could now be opened up and interpreted with this wonderful new tool. Just like the scientists, with its very own jargon, but with added cultural depth.
Whether you believe that the unconscious is an internal combustion engine (American Freudians), or a structure of phonemes (French Freudians), or as an ancient metaphor (as I do), you will not interpret Shakespeare any more usefully by applying Freud's map of the mind or his analytical system to the plays....
For many years I have taught that Freud is essentially prosified Shakespeare: Freud's vision of human psychology is derived, not altogether unconsciously, from his reading of the plays.
If you extend Shakespeare to include the whole "Western Canon", then Bloom may well be right. Psychoanalysis is a theory of the mind as developed by someone at home with all of Western literature from the classical to the modern. As we now know, its supposed grounding in the therapeutic situation, in the rigours of scientific endeavour, is entirely spurious. Freud didn't cure anyone, or come to his conclusions through the hard work of trial and error. The analytic situation was merely the backdrop for what was really going on: myth-making on a grand scale.
Which explains why among all Freud's followers, the literary establishment are the most entrenched. It's just the sort of theory they appreciate, because it's true home is not science, but, precisely, Western literature. It represents Western intellectual and literary thought, as at the end of the 19th century, condensed into one all-encompassing theory. To use it to explain Western literature, as generations of academics have done, following Freud's example, is to hold up a mirror and believe you're seeing through a window. It's an echo chamber for the best that's been thought and written in Western culture, from sex to death and all points in between.
Thus, entrenched in acedeme, and in the expensive world of therapy, it seems that we'll have to live with Freud's eminence for a while yet, despite the best endeavours of writers like Frederick Crews.