Freud: A Life for our Time by Peter Gay - review by Jed Brendon-Tullett

Jed Brendon-Tullett

The Fraud of Freud

Freud: A Life for our Time


J M Dent 650pp £16.95 order from our bookshop

Perhaps there once was a time when you could happily wet the bed, play with your faeces or your sister, barge into your parents bedroom without knocking and still grow up to be a relatively pulled-together human being unburdened by the weight of repressed guilt. Perhaps. But such a golden age was certainly dead by the turn of this century: killed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who sat, Svengali-like, with notebook in hand behind the famous couch in Vienna.

As a child he too wet his bed and disturbed his parents during a post-luncheon session (he was so upset by his father’s yells that he came back later and defiantly urinated on the floor whilst his incredulous parents looked on, speechless) and then spent the greater part of his remaining eighty years of life trying to convince everyone that infantile sexuality was at the root of all subsequent adult neuroses. His ghost has hovered over the potty ever since.

Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale and used to be well-known and respected in university circles for his elegant and erudite books on the Enlightenment. After five books had been published to wide critical acclaim he decided to submit to Freudian analysis preparatory to undergoing full training as a psychoanalyst. One can only speculate on what personal dramas prompted Professor Gay to make this extraordinary move but since the mid-1970s he has been a zealous crusader for Freud and psychoanalysis.

This is now his sixth book on Freud in ten years, a decade during which Professor Gay also became one of the leading psychohistorians in America. Psychohistory, which emerged out of America in 1958, is patterned on Freud’s own psychologically overstated or factually flawed studies of Moses, Leonardo da Vinci and Woodrow Wilson. Like sociology it was once a very chic and fashionable subject to study and teach but the publication of its papers stirred up such an angry wasps’ nest of criticism from more orthodox historians that by the early 1980s anti-psychohistory had sprung up as a profession in itself. Both are now being abandoned as a new approach to psychiatry, a biological one, centred on the brain, on neurochemistry, on pharmacology and on medication takes over.

Professor Gay is an extremely learned man and as an ardent disciple knows his Freud inside out. Therein lies the major flaw in this biography. The fact is that this would still be a difficult book to read (and review) even if one did not fundamentally disagree with almost all the premises which have underpinned Freud’s theories and therapeutic techniques since the 1900s. His psychoanalytical study of Freud is not, then, an easy read. It is a more balanced account than Ernest Jones’s three volume hagiography of his Master published in the 1950s but it is not as well-written or as interesting as Ronald W Clark’s biography published in 1980. It is a book for the university library, not the trans-Atlantic flight.

Professor Gay says, rather innocently and disarmingly, that: ‘I have written this book neither to flatter nor to denounce… in the text I shall not argue with anyone’. And he doesn’t. He saves his wasp swatting for an extensive bibliographical essay at the end of his book. Why another book about Freud? Because:

It has become a common tactic to strike at psychoanalysis by striking at its founder, as though the successful blackening of his character would encompass the ruin of his work. Granted, a disciple as candidly autobiographical as Freud’s depth psychology, and as subjective in its materials, is bound to display traces of the founder’s mind. Yet surely the validity of psychoanalytic propositions does not depend on what we uncover about their originator.

Well, I am afraid it does. Such things sell books. In the Preface he says of Freud that:

Few humans have disclosed their feelings, their ambitions and wicked wishes, with such sublime disregard for their reputation. He reported and closely analysed some of his most revealing dreams; he recorded some embarrassing memories of his early years.

He surely doesn’t believe this? He knows perfectly well that periodically, throughout his lifetime, Freud burnt letters, notes and manuscripts etc in order to prevent anyone from prying into his private life. If Freud was so honest and open as he always claimed to be, why the horrified and angry reaction to the news that some of his letters to his intimate friend Wilhelm Fleiss written in the 1890s had turned up for sale in a bookshop in Nazi Berlin in 1936? And why do Freud’s descendents and soi-disant custodians of these and other letters and papers deny researchers full access to the archive in the Library of Congress until the year 2000? What are they hiding? Are there any skeletons dangling in cupboards?

A number of questions are raised in the Preface about Freud’s personal life which, on the face of it, seems to be highly controversial but which had, in fact, been asked and answered to everyone’s satisfaction years ago. No, he wasn’t a cocaine addict; yes, his father did marry three times and not twice; no, he certainly wasn’t ‘indebted to the cloudy speculations of the romantics or the mysticism of the Kabbalists’; yes, he was overlooked as a candidate for a professorial chair because he was a Jew and yes, he did stand on a box to be photographed because he was only 5’7” tall and didn’t wish to be dwarfed by taller colleagues. All this is now common knowledge and seems hardly worth alluding to. But, employing all the techniques of psychohistory and psychoanalysis which are supposed to winkle out such secrets, Professor Gay fails to provide convincing answers to the question whether Freud expressed homosexual feelings for the handsome Wilhelm Fleiss or has a long term affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays. He quite rightly admits that such questions are of more than biographical interest and ‘impinge upon the largest questions that his work raises’. Then in the next breath he peremptorily dismisses Jung’s opinion that Freud did have the affair as: ‘the sheer fantasy of a hostile contemporary’.

For all its professed objectivity it is clear from the book that Professor Gay is not a great fan of Carl Jung (1875-1961). He speaks of Jung’s ‘florid fantasy life’ and of his ‘jealousy and envy’ which were ‘emotional habits so close to the surface of Jung’s mind that he did not bother to disguise, let alone repress them’. He quotes Freud’s criticism of Jung’s ‘anti-semitic condescension towards me’. As most people know, the break between the two men came when Freud refused to provide details from his private life as associations to one of his own dreams because, he said; ‘I cannot risk my authority’. This great divide between Freud and Jung is unbreachable but Freud showed great prescience when, in 1909, he compared Jung to a Joshua who would take possession of the promised land of psychiatry while he, Freud, the Moses, was only destined to glimpse it from afar.

The title of the book Freud: A Life for our Time suggests that Freud’s theories are still relevant today and that we would all profit by a re-examination of them. In so far as this is true then it is a mischievious title. Writing to Jung in October 1909 Freud said that psychoanalysis could ‘become indispensible to all the sciences which are concerned with the evolution of human civilisation and its major institutions such as art, religion and the social order’.

During the first half of this century this appeared to be the case, for once it could be established that a person’s actions – whether as writer, painter, scientist, politician etc – were governed by factors about which he knew nothing then no-one could hide anywhere, there would be no secrets and as a consequence the body politic of society would become healthier. So, fervent and earnest, like Jehovah’s Witnesses selling WatchTower door-to-door, Freudians marched into the world of art, literature, science and politics seeking converts. On the whole they failed.

They failed because with the advances made in scientific technology and clinical psychiatry it was shown that genetic, neurochemical, biological and environmental factors were of far greater importance in understanding a patient’s problems than any warped malfunctioning of the sexual instincts revealed by depth psychology. Further, controlled experiment rather than the assertion of generally unprovabIe theories revealed that many neuroses, psychoses and character and medical disorders were not susceptible to psychoanalytic intervention at all. In short, Freud’s fear that psychoanalysis might end up in the museum, dusty and moribund, has been proven correct.

In a review of this length it is impossible to point to all the holes in Freud’s theories and to detail where he was simply just plain wrong but perhaps the question most reasonably asked is how many people did Freud cure?

It is remarkable how little extant evidence there is that Freud actually cured anyone. So much of his work was theoretical and non-clinical (‘As long as I live I shall balk at having psychoanalysis swallowed by medicine’). He never presented any data in statistical or case study form (apart from the celebrated Wolf Man, Rat Man and Dora studies which themselves are now seen as being too narrow in diagnosis: Freud did not realise how nutty those three people were). Freud only had three weeks of clinical experience in a mental hospital in direct contact with patients. He spent much the greater part of his fifty years of analysis listening to carefully elected, wealthy middle class women (mainly American) and only rarely did he attend to the poor and the raving outside his consulting room at 19 Berggasse in Vienna. ‘How in the world’, he once said to Jung, ‘were you able to bear spending hours and days with this phenomenally ugly female?’

Many biographies of Freud later, it is still difficult to see him as other than an irascible, reclusive, indiscreet, impatient old man who suffered fools not at all and who was absolutely convinced of his own genius. He was a man who fainted when criticised. As the Delphic Oracle of the movement he brooked no opposition from such dissidents as Fleiss, Adler and Jung whom he schemed to have removed from his Institute and Congress. Freud said in a letter to Jung in 1907 before the latter’s fall from grace: ‘I beg of you, don’t deviate too far from me. My inclination is to treat those colleagues who offer resistence exactly as we treat patients.’

He was a stubborn man who refused to give up smoking the 20 cigars a day which caused the cancer of the palate that eventually killed him after 30 operations in 16 years. He refused to accept that he could be wrong about Leonardo da Vinci despite the fact that he had used a German mistranslation of one word from Leonardo’s notebooks around which he based an entire and totally erroneous hypothesis. And to the end of his life he was convinced that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

As an atheist he excluded the spiritual and the mystical from his life and although he said to Albert Einstein in 1930: ‘I always tell the truth as much as possible; it has become my métier’, he and his biographers ultimately fail to convince us of his greatness because at critical moments he does not have the courage to stare down into the dark depths of his own soul and report back all that he saw.

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