The Trouble with Sigmund

By Leland, John | Newsweek, December 18, 1995 | Go to article overview

The Trouble with Sigmund


Leland, John, Newsweek


The library of congress announced last Monday that it would postpone its planned exhibit "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," citing financial reasons. The decision punctuates a year of scholarly bickering over what sort of tribute the doctor deserved. It also makes a neat metaphor for Freud's cultural status as the century he helped shape comes to a close: evanescing even as it remains firmly in view.

The exhibit, slated for next fall, was to look at Freud's influence as "a complex cultural phenomenon," says curator Michael S. Roth. "It isn't about whether his ideas were true or not." But critics - including Gloria Steinem, Oliver Sacks, even Freud's granddaughter Sophie - protested the number of pro-Freudians on the advisory committee. Recent research has challenged not only Freud's conclusions but his ethics as well. Science historian Peter Swales, who led the protest, complains that the organizers "were using a federally funded institution to stage a public-relations campaign." Ultimately, he says, "the library realized they couldn't get away with this." Swales, a self-taught but respected scholar, gave the feud its operatic drama. But then, he used to be a promoter for the Rolling Stones.

The squabbling only calls attention to the larger issue of Freud's ebbing stature. Harold Blum, executive director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, rightly notes that Freud's influence still extends "throughout our culture, whether in drama criticism or archeology or the way history is interpreted, even child rearing." But as science has learned more about the workings of the brain, many of Freud's tenets have become obsolete.

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