Freud Biographer: Elisabeth Roudinesco

The final recent biography of Freud that I will recommend is Elisabeth Roudinesco’s ” Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016). Roudinesco is the Head of Research in History at the University of Paris Diderot. She is also a psychoanalyst and a biographer of Jaques Lacan. I have previously recommended Peter Gay’s biography for a comprehensive treatment of Freud’s life and thought. I now recommend Roudinesco’s biography as a recent update and intellectually engaging and relatively balanced treatment of Freud’s life in the context of history. Roudinesco makes a convincing case for the ongoing influence of many of Freud’s ideas, while fairly judging other ideas as no longer relevant. She includes a commentary on the “many Freud’s” , the point with which I began my series of posts.

Roudinesco lists some of the many ways that Freud’s life has been interpreted: “Freud and Judaism, Freud and religion, Freud and women, Freud the clinician, Freud the family man, Freud with his cigars, Freud and his dogs, Freud and Freemasons, Freud and neurons, and so on. Turning to Freud bashing, still more Freud’s can be found: Freud the rapacious, Freud the organizer of a clinical gulag, the demonically, incestuous, lying, counterfeiting, fascist Freud.” (p.2) This underscores my post title, “Whose Freud? Who’s Freud”.

Roudinesco capsulizes Freud in his historical context with this comment:

“being, simultaneously, an enlightened conservative seeking to liberate sex the better to control it, a decipherer of enigmas, and attentive observer of the animal species, a friend of women, a stoic well versed in the classics, a ‘dissolutionist’ of the imaginary, an heir to German Romanticism, a debunker of myths regarding consciousness, but also and perhaps especially a Viennese Jew, a deconstruction of Judiasm and communitarian identities, just as attached to the tradition of the Greek tragedies (Oedipus) as to the heritage of Shakespeare’s theater (Hamlet).”(p.3)

Freud was definitely more than a clinician and Roudinesco convincingly argues for the ambitious and influential conceptual Freud:

“At a time when feminism, socialism, and Zionism were all developing, Freud too dreamed of conquering a new promised land and becoming a modern-day Socrates.” (p.114)

And, “Psychoanalysis, a strange discipline at the intersection of archeology, medicine, literary analysis, anthropology and psychology that plumbs the depths of intimacy, was never reduced by its inventor to a clinical approach to the psyche. From the outset, Freud sought to make it a full-fledged system of thought; one that could be conveyed by a movement of which he would be not the leader but the master.” (p.114)

Roudinesco wraps her biography by reminding us of the Freud who continues to influence and impact our contemporary societies, even with those who have so fiercely railed against him and his ideas.

“Seventy-five years after his death (the French edition was in 2014), Freud was still disturbing Western consciousness, with his myths, his princely dynasties, his traversal of dreams, his stories of savage hordes, of Gradiva on the march, of the vulture found in Leonardo, of the murderer of the father, and of Moses losing the tablets of the law.”

She closes with: “I imagined him brandishing his cane against the anti-semites; putting on his finest shirt to visit the Acropolis; discovering Rome like a lover overcome with joy; lashing out at imbeciles; speaking without notes before Americans; reigning in his timeless dwelling amid his objects, his red chow chows, his decibels, his women, and his mad patients; waiting attentively for Hitler without managing to speak his mane; and I tell myself that, for a long time yet, he will remain the great thinker of his time and ours.” (p.427)

Freud Basher: Frederick Crews

Frederick Crews published “Sigmund Freud: The Making of an Illusion” in 2017. I have already stated in earlier posts that I will not be reviewing this biography, in part because I am quite familiar with Crews’s previous writing criticizing everything imaginable about Freud’s person and ideas.. I will share, however, comments from a review by Alexaner C. Kafka in the November 10, 2017 edition of “The Chronicle Review”. Kafka’s best one line comment captures my sentiment: “Steadfast Freudians are bored, puzzled, and sometimes amused by Crews’s anti-Freudian repetition compulsion.” (p.B16)

Kafka quotes Harold Blum, a New York psychoanalyst and former director of the Freud Archives: “I find it very hard to take Crews seriously. Oedipal urges, the insect taboo, the erotic fantansies 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 beautiful psychoanalytic insights are in the very air we breathe. To deny that, Blum says, is ‘irrational'”. (p.B16)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one wonders why Crews spent so much time nitpicking every aspect of Freud and his ideas and practices and why the New York Review of Books continued to publish his rants, when Crews was clearly living off of being a Freud Basher and readers were already more than familiar with his criticisms.

Freud Biographer: Joel Whitebook

Joel Whitebook’s new book is: “Freud: An Intellectual Biography” (2017). This is the most recent biography that I have reviewed. I will not be reviewing the other 2017 biography by Frederick Crews, though I will refer (in another post) to a November 10, 2017 review of his book in “The Chronicle Review” by Alexander C. Kafka.

Whitebook is a philosopher and psychoanalyst. He maintains a psychoanalytic practice in New York.. His familiarity with psychoanalysis is on full display in this probing biography.  Whitebook opens his book with a question that many might ask, ” Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?” He follows this, with, “the answer is an emphatic yes. Utilizing what we have learned from Freud Studies, advances in psychoanalytic theory, the feminist critique of the field, infant research, attachment theory,  and extensive clinical experience working with the ‘unclassical patient’ in the last half century, a new biography will allow us to sort out important unanswered questions concerning Freud’s life and address critical issues in contemporary psychoanalysis and philosophy.” (p.1)

Whitebook focuses on two central themes, which he claims have not yet been adequately explored in earlier biographies of Freud: “the missing mother and “the break with tradition”.

He further explains these themes: “What one might wonder, is the connection between my two  seemingly disparate  themes – the missing mother, and the break with tradition? In response to his experience of the break with tradition, Freud became a dark enlightener and his theoretical task consisted in confronting the irrational in order to integrate it into a fuller conception of reason. Psychoanalytically, in addition to the unconscious, the irrational is also instantiated in the realm of archaic Oedipal and pre-verbal experience, centering on the infant-mother relationship. Therefore, to the extent that the ‘official’ Freud, owing to his early history, was unable to engage the maternal dimension in psychic life, he was also unable to explore the irrational and fulfill his theoretical program.” (p.12)

My assessment of Whitebook’s biography is that he succeeds in exploring his two themes while integrating material on Freud’s intellectual and interpersonal life. This is not the biography one might consult for a comprehensive biography and Whitebook acknowledges this. A reader might require some familiarity with psychoanalytic terminology and theory in order to follow some of Whitbook’s analysis and explanations.

I found that Martin Jay’s statement on the Whitebook book jacket captures my thoughts about the book and the current status of psychoanalytic studies:

“Despite all attempts to bury him, Freud remains the ultimate revenant, haunting the 21st century at a time when all  the best efforts to outgrow our self-incurred immaturity have come to naught. Drawing on his sustained experience as a practicing psychoanalyst and deep immersion in contemporary theory, Joel Whitebook shows how relevant many of Freud’s ideas remain. By linking critical elements of Freud’s thought with crucial aspects of his life- his vexed relationship with his mother, troubled relationships with Fleiss and Jung, ambivalent response to war, and rumination on mortality – he offers a fresh and insightful reading, neither excessively pious nor reductively dismissive, of a thinker we are only beginning to understand and from whom much is still to be learned.”

Freud Biographer : Louis Breger

Louis Breger’s “Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision” (2000) is definitely one of the best biographies I have read. For more updated material than what Peter Gay had available to him and a more psychoanalytic view of Freud and his ideas, Breger’s biography may be the best blend of psychoanalytic insights and critical appraisals of Freud.

Mark Edmundson, in his review of Breger’s biography in the New York Times, December 2000, says this: “Breger strives to put himself in a middle position between what he takes to be the hagiographic approaches of Freud’s best known biographers, Ernest Jones and Peter Gay, and the bitter, albeit often eloquent, denunciations of Frederick Crews.” I would not agree with Breger that Jones and Gay were, strictly speaking, hagiographic, though they are largely supportive and considerably less critical than the Freud “bashers”, such as Crews.

An example of Breger’s psychoanalytic interpretations of Freud, is his argument that Freud’s attitudes and ideas about women stem from  early traumas in Freud’s life. Mark Edmundson says, ” Breger claims that Freud’s mother neglected him as one new sibling after another came into the picture.To Breger, Freud’s derogatory theories about women were a form of long postponed revenge, and example of neurotic darkness in the midst of a valuable vision”.

Breger includes a chapter on “Background and Sources”  which provides an excellent survey of current (as of 2000) and likely future directions of psychoanalysis. He supports my own view about the variety of Freud chroniclers: “Within present-day Psychoanalysis there is a wide range of views and positions, from the most devoted to the sharply critical. All these analysts have at least one thing in common: work with patients in analysis and psychotherapy. there is also a large group – philosophers, literary critics, historians, experimental psychologists – who have written about Freud with little or no clinical experience. Each of these commendations brings their strengths and limitations: no position guarantees that the author will arrive at a coherent interpretation of Freud and his work.”(p.375).

Edmundson (2000), in his review of Breger’s biography, says “psychoanalysis has, and probably always will have, its manifest weaknesses, but it still stands as a distinguished secular blend of literature, philosophy and pedagogy that has the power to help people change their lives for the better.” This statement and Breger’s and Edmundson’s view of contemporary psychoanalysis has been challenged by a number of Freud’s critics, the majority of whom are not psychoanalysts. This is a topic which I will return to in future posts, since much has ensued with the psychoanalytic movement since the Breger biography and Mark Edmundson’s review of it.


Freud Biographers: Peter Gay and Richard Wollheim

One of the best and most thorough biographies of Freud is Peter Gay’s “A Life for Our Time” (1988). Gay may have been the most qualified of Freud’s biographers as he was trained in psychoanalysis, and was a professional historian and biographer. While some of the most extreme of Freud’s critics argued that Gay was insufficiently critical of psychoanalysis and of Freud’s ideas and his personal behavior, I believe Gay provides a relatively balanced analysis and critique of all of these. At more than 800 pages, Gay’s biography offers considerably more than an introduction to Freud’s life and ideas as well as the development of psychoanalysis. Gay also includes a 38 page biographical essay, which is indispensable for Freudian scholars.

Gregory McNamee, in the March/April, 1989 “Bloomsbury Review”, had this to say about Gay’s biography:

“A library devoted to the work and influence of Freud would be vast, a Borgesian universe; even a modest, basic collection would number many dozens of volumes, the most important of them written by the prolific Freud himself. That basic library should now include Peter Gay’s new biography “Freud: A Life For Our Time”.”

Richard Wollheim, in his Preface to the second edition  of “Freud” (1991), says, “Gay’s biography is a magisterial work. It invites comparison to, though it is ultimately incommensurable with, Ernest Jones’s great three-volume biography. Jones had the inestimable advantage of having lived within Freud’s intimate circle for several decades. Another difference between Jones and Gay lies in their general biographical strategies. Jones was evenhanded between life and thought, and the result is a huge sandwich in which the two alternate. By contrast Gay adopted the plan of alternating life and thought. In tracing Freud’s formation, Gay is able to balance internal, or psychological, factors, or the events of the time, into which, as an accomplished historian, he has excellent insight.”

Wollheim’s biography, originally written in 1971, with a 1991 second edition is , perhaps, the best brief introduction to Freud’s life and thought, and the development of psychoanalysis. I would recommend Wollheim’s “Freud” for it’s analytic strength and fair treatment of the many strengths and weaknesses of Freud himself, as well as the project and prospects of psychoanalysis.

A number of more recent biographies of Freud have used the Jones and Gay biographies as well as that of Wollheim in building their own projects.


Freud’s Biographers and Biographies

Among the more than two dozen biographies of Freud, I have selected for commentary those which I believe represent various interpretations and even biases  about Freud, the person, and Freud’s ideas and practices.

The first unauthorized biography of Freud was “Freud: His Life and His Mind” (1847) by Helen Walker Puner, who was neither a psychoanalyst, nor an historian or philosopher. She was a reporter. Her biography is readable but with very little knowledge of the inner workings of psychoanalysis or the cultural contexts within which Freud developed his ideas. She also did not have access to the volume of correspondence between Freud and significant others, which later biographers had.

The first authorized biography of Freud was Ernest Jones’s three volume “The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud” (1953,1955,1957). While some critics claim that Jones’s biography is close to a hagiography, others believe that this biography is comprehensive and fair, with some balance, yet, since Jones was a member of Freud’s inner circle and definitely a defender of Freud and psychoanalysis, some obvious bias is expected. Nevertheless his biography sets a baseline for all successive ones to build from. Since Anna Freud  selected Jones to write the first official biography of her father, she made available certain (not all) correspondences that Freud had and which were unavailable to any previous researchers.

For this post I am listing , according to publication dates, my selection of Freud biographies which I believe are worth investigating. There are a few biographies I recommend as essential and will comment further on these in a future post. In addition to Jones’s three volume work, they are: Peter Gay’s  “Freud: A Life for Our Time” (1988); Louis Breger’s”Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision” (2000); Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” (1991); and Elisabeth Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016).

After Jones’s three volume biography, Philip Rieff wrote “Freud: The Mind of a Moralist” (1961).  Rieff was a sociologist and his critique of Freud is generally favorable. Following Rieff’s biography there were three biographies, Paul Roazen’s “Freud and His Followers” (1976), Frank Sulloway’s “Freud: Biologist of the Mind” (1979), and Adolf Grunbaum’s “The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique” (1984), which are generally considered among the most critical of Freud and his ideas. Roazen was a political and social scientist, Sulloway’s background was the history of science, and Grunbaum, a philosopher. One of the obvious weaknesses in their critiques of psychoanalysis is that they were not analysts themselves and their lack of clinical experience weakens their arguments about Freud’s and other analysts’ practice.

Steven Marcus published “Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis” in 1987. He was a professor of english and comparative literature. He focuses on an analysis of Freud’s famous cases of Dora and the Rat Man. His biography is generally favorable about Freud and his ideas. He also devotes a chapter to “Freud and Biography” wherein he assess various Freud biographies prior to his own. Peter Gay’s masterful biography was published in 1988. His background was in psychoanalysis, history and biography. I will comment on his book later. Richard Wollheim’s “Freud” in the Fontana Modern Masters series, published in 1991, is one of the best brief introductions to Freud’s ideas available and I will comment further in a later post. Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black wrote “Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought” in 1995 and I believe it is the best link between Freud’s ideas and the evolution of psychoanalytic theory and practice after Freud. Psychoanalysis has definitely evolved even beyond what they identified in 1995, but their book is essential for an understanding of the context of Freud’s influence within psychoanalysis.

Leate Lohser and Peter M.Newton ( both psychologists) published “Unorthodox Freud: The View From the Couch” in 1996. They identify significant differences between what is usually known of Freud’s analytic techniques and how he actually practiced. They investigated five cases as reported by the analysands to determine Freud’s actual practice. Paul Ferris, a biographer, wrote “Dr. Freud” in 1997. This is a generally fair and favorable, readable biography. Louis Breger’s “Freud: Darkness in the Middle of Vision” (2000) is a significant critical biography which I will comment on later. Mathew vonUnwerth’s “Freud’s Requium: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk” (2006) is not a general biography but focuses on Freud’s ideas about mortality and transcendence. “The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days” by Mark Edmunson was published in 2007. Edmunson has been a literature and culture critic. This biographic work concentrates on Freud’s thinking and writing during the erupting years of Hitler and Freud’s eventual escape to England just before he died in 1939.

The most recent two biographies, which I will comment on later, are Elisabeth  Roudinesco’s “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) and Joel Whitebook’s “Freud: An Intellectual Biography” (2017).



Freud and His Critics Continued

As a follow-up to my previous post, Paul Ferris in “Dr. Freud: A Life” (1997) says, “Working on this book has taught me the inexhaustible nature of the subject. Freud is what you want him to be.” (p. xxxiii). I had indicated that my investigations of a number of biographies of Freud found that they seemed to vary according to the backgrounds and persuasions of each biographer. I will post on various biographies and biographers. For now keep in mind that my title “Whose Freud?” can also be “Who’s Freud?”.

Another follow-up to my previous post about the harshest Freud critics is a quote from Richard Wollheim in his biography, “Freud” (1991) wherein he comments on what he terms “the denigratory school” of Freud biographers/critics.

” What is distinctive of the denigratory or debunking school is a peculiar amalgam of fulsome praise of Freud and a battery of miscellaneous and uncoordinated criticism, some of it unsupported, some anachronistic, some undoubted well grounded, but much of it aimed at a target that conflates the thought of the man. A prime example is Paul Roazen’s “Freud and His Followers” (1976). (p.xxxiii).


Freud and His Critics: Whose Freud?

My challenge in writing anything about Freud is that there is not one Freud and the writings by Freud and others about Freud and his ideas are voluminous with wildly various interpretations. I think of this as a vast Rorschach test, where biographers and interpreters of Freud, his life and ideas, somehow see what they want to see and report what they interpret through their own particular biases.

Some of what I will review and reflect on will be several biographies, which range from Freud “critics” or “bashers” at one end of a continuum, and Freud “defenders” or “apologists” at the other. There are a number of fairly well balanced biographies between these extremes. The most recent one in this “middle” category is “Freud in His Time and Ours” (2016) by Elisabeth Roudinesco, which I will review later.

One of the best sources for an exchange between the critics and defenders is Paul Robinson’s “Freud and His Critics” (1993).Robinson goes after Jeffrey Masson, Frank Sulloway, and Adlof Grumbaum, three key critics of Freud. Robinson says Fredrick Crews, who has recently (2018) published his latest Freud bashing biography, is not worthy of his treatment. Robinson says, “there is also much to be said for the proposition that, whatever its shortcomings, psychoanalysis remains the best therapeutic game in town” (p. 11) This statement will be contested by all critics of Freud and psychoanalysis, but I will have something to say about it when I review the criticisms.

Robinson’s point about Masson, Sulloway, and Grunbaum is that, “all of them are unreconstructed, indeed unapologetic, positivists” (p.15). This raises my questions about categories of criticism and critics. How many of the critics are neo-positivists and how many of the supporters are linguistic, philosophic, post-modern interpretive thinkers ( e.g. Ricoeur, Habermas, Lit-Crit folks, Mythologists)? About this Robinson writes, “The anti-Freudian impulse of recent vintage stands at odds with the most visible intellectual current of the age. Stylistically, the opposition to Freud has a decidedly conservative feel to it, lending it a curious resonance with the politics of the 1980s.” (p.16) And: “like it or not, Freud virtually invented a new way of thinking about the self” (p 16).

Robinson’s suggestion that many of Freud’s critics “fail to take the measure of their man”, reinforces my point that many of Freud’s critics are capitalizing on Freud’s popularity and the recent (the last few decades) “anti-Freud” mood in the west. This is particularly true of Crews and Masson (more about them later), who have written endlessly about the same topic. Crews , in particular, has made a rather good living from his endless flogging a “dead horse” (at least the ideas he keeps attacking). Since Masson and Crews were once “believers”, their passionate and continuous attacks seem less than innocent and quite suspect in motive. Quite apart from whether one sees merit in their various arguments/interpretations, they have each lashed out against their former (Church, Father, Religion, God?) and become “converts” of a new “religion”. This new religion has brought them degrees of fame and fortune.

Reviews: Lauren Slater – Welcome to My Country & Prozac Diary

I have written elsewhere about psychotherapy “insiders”, which refers to therapists and patients/clients who have written memoirs, or case studies/ case stories about their experiences with the therapy process and mental illness. One of the best insiders for providing an appreciation and understanding of the experiences of both a person suffering from mental illness and a therapist working with those who suffer from mental illness, is Lauren Slater, I reviewed her most recent book, “Blue Dreams” earlier. For this post I will refer to her books, “Welcome to My Country” (1997) and “Prozac Diary” (1999).

“Welcome to My Country” is both about Lauren’s own breakdowns and ongoing depression and the various issues and insights about her clients in her psychotherapy practice, while “Prozac Diary” is all about her own history with depression and her “relationship” with Prozac. This is the best account, among many, of an inside view of depression and reactions to psychiatric medicines. I have used Slater’s book, along with Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon” for my “insiders” material on depression, which also interrogates the relationship between bio-chemical treatments and psychotherapy. “Prozac Diary” and “The Noonday Demon” are best for discussing the “illness-treatment”relationship and identity issues. Also, the issues of creativity, productivity, and self-worth, which may include the illness (depressions) or at least the dynamic of dealing with the “edge” – pain is worth investigating. Once Prozac or other psychotropic drugs may have removed the pain, what happens to the self or an identity which was previously known and which may have required some “pain” for the creative “whole” person? Both Solomon and Slater discuss this. Does Prozac create a different person? When influenced on a regular basis by a psychotropic drug, will it affect the person as a self – the psychology of one who is in the world and relationships with other people?

Slater comments on people who said something like, “Prozac helped me become the person I was meant to be”. But Slater says, “And yet for me it was not that simple. My personality, yes, had always consisted of suppressed energies and curiosities, but also of depressions, echoing intensities, drivenness that tipped into pain, With the exception of the counting and touching obsessions, which I was only too happy to be rid of, I missed these things, or parts of them anyway, for they were familiar to me as dense fog and drizzle, which had its own sort of lonely beauty, as does a desert or the most mournful of music.”(p. 44).

I will post other material on depression later. There are quite a number of excellent accounts from other insiders, to include William Styron’s “Darkness Visible”, Anthony Storr’s “Churchill’s Black Dog”, Kathy Cronkite’s “On the Edge of Darkness”and several books by Kay Redfield Jamison.

In reflecting on both her being with depression and her role as a therapist, Slater, in “Welcome to My Country”, makes an observation which goes to the heart of the psychotherapy “enterprise”:

“What after all, is therapy, if not a story of progress? Such a story could be harmful to people who are bound to feel like failures in a  milieu where the expectation of improvement is so clearly etched. Perhaps the therapist’s job is not to help grow but to help shed, chipping away at the marbled mind until the original nubs and spurs emerge. Instead of thinking in terms of development, maybe we should be thinking in terms of sloughing, making the padded self thinner and thinner, until a true skeleton juts out.”(pgs 140-141)

Tribal Gatherings

Some of my fieldwork as an ethnographer studying the culture of psychotherapy included attending various psychotherapy conferences, conventions, meetings to get a sense of the participants and their behavior patterns. Two of the largest conventions/conferences I attended were the American Psychological Association (twice) and the Evolution of Psychotherapy (once in Hamburg, once in Anaheim). The attached file is based on an article I wrote describing my experiences with each gathering and making some observations about how they were distinct.