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.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *