Bookmarks, Freud Revisited-Again: How Could a Man Who Was So Wrong Be Such a Shaper of Modern Thought?

By Handler, Richard | Psychotherapy Networker, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview

Bookmarks, Freud Revisited-Again: How Could a Man Who Was So Wrong Be Such a Shaper of Modern Thought?


Handler, Richard, Psychotherapy Networker


face=+Bold; Bookmarksface=-Bold;

face=+Bold; Freud Revisited--Againface=+Italic; face=-Italic; face=-Bold; face=+Italic; How could a man who was so wrong be such a shaper of modern thought? face=-Italic; By Richard Handler

 

face=+Bold; Sigmund Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind face=-Bold; By Peter D. Kramerface=+Italic; HarperCollins/Atlas Books. ISBN: 0-060-59895-6face=-Italic;

face=+Bold; How to Read Freud face=-Bold; By Josh Cohenface=+Italic; Granta. 135 pp. ISBN: 1-862-07763-0face=-Italic;

face=+Bold; How to Read Jung face=-Bold; By David Taceyface=+Italic; Granta. 128 pp. 1-862-07726-6face=-Italic;

All the major publishing houses are now producing not just biographies, but biographical essays: short books, with only the crucial stuff in them, often written by well-known writers. These include the series Brief Lives and Penguin Lives, among others, as well as the graphic novel-like series, "Introducing," in which illustrations of Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung or Ludwig Wittgenstein utter their thoughts in comic-book bubbles, as if they were just coming up with them.

What's good about these "potted biographies" is that they turn lives into a good story and tell you why these people are important--like good feature-magazine articles between book covers, with narrative and analysis interwoven. There's an honorable tradition of such essaying, as the editors of the latest series addition, Eminent Lives (published by HarperCollins) remind us. The notion of brief biographies goes back to Plutarch, Ben Johnson, and Lytton Strachey's face=+Italic; Eminent Victorians.face=-Italic; On the back page, the HarperCollins editors promote their new works as "perfect for an age short on time."

One of the latest from the Eminent Lives series is Peter Kramer's face=+Italic; Sigmund Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind.face=-Italic; Kramer, if you recall, is a psychiatrist and the author of face=+Italic; Listening to Prozacface=-Italic; and face=+Italic; Beyond Depressionface=-Italic; (also reviewed in the face=+Italic; Networkerface=-Italic; ). He presents Freud as an imposing, impossible character. He analyzes Freud's core ideas and asks one crucial, fascinating question: how could Sigmund Freud, a man who was so wrong about so many things, be so massively important and become, as the subtitle says, the "Inventor of the Modern Mind"?

Freud is often cited as a seminal figure because he "discovered" the unconscious, a vast, mysterious, subterranean territory filled with startling psychic energies and impulses. He didn't. Even Freud, imperious and arrogant as he was, never claimed that. He gave that honor to philosophers, artists, and the creators of classical mythology and drama. Kramer notes that in Freud's day, the unconscious was even a subject of idle speculation within the salons of Vienna.

Freud is also credited with originating the "talking cure" that many readers of this magazine practice. He didn't. Even in the middle of the 19th century, other doctors were treating their patients with talk, though not many. Freud's early work with mentors like Joseph Breuer focused on hysterical patients--people with symptoms with no seeming neurological, medical basis. Hypnosis was tried; so were cocaine and other narcotics and medications. But often all Freud and others could do was talk and listen.

For a man who became famous for the talking cure, Freud wasn't a great listener. Here's how Kramer succinctly judges his personality: "He was a poor judge of character, socially awkward, anxious, obsessive, self-justifying, overly reliant on reasoning and face=+Italic; shockingly unempatheticface=-Italic; [emphasis added]. . . . He applied his theories stubbornly and then declared victory, in the office and in print. Throughout, he was a mythmaker on his own behalf."

Freud was a lousy therapist. He cured none of his patients (even if he said he did). Unlike the image of the analyst as a mute, nondirective figure, he repeatedly gave his patients advice. …

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