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.”