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)