The Incurable Romantic of Science and His Mental Block

By Kelly, Stuart | Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), December 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Incurable Romantic of Science and His Mental Block


Kelly, Stuart, Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland)


The incurable Romantic of science and his mental block Freud: In His Time And Ours By Élisabeth Roudinesco Harvard University Press, £25

Freud must be judged by his powerful insights into myth and culture as much as by his myopia when it came to the Nazis' rise, writes Stuart Kelly

Biographers of Freud face a very specific set of challenges. It is not just that he has been both valorised and demonised - one could easily say the same about Picasso, Schönberg or DH Lawrence. The stumbling-block lies in Freud's own achievements. Setting aside the veracity and verifiability of his theories of libido, transference, the subconscious and suchlike, to what extent should they apply to their creator? Even if one were to discount the mental architecture he described, what do the theories tell us about the theorist? Élisabeth Roudinesco negotiates this minefield with considerable grace and formidable intelligence. This is a book which eschews simple answers and is thus a significant milestone in our understanding of Freud.

In terms of resolving the biographer's dilemma, Roudinesco adopts various strategies. She is alert to how Freud's thought changes over his long lifetime. The most moving example of this is grounded in biography: when Freud was thinking about the "seduction theory" whereby all trauma is the result of childhood sexual abuse, he toyed with the idea that his father had assaulted his sisters; and then recanted it, with a degree of due shame.

She writes well on the (Freudian) psychodrama between "the Professor" and his acolytes. It is ironic, for example, that his breach with Carl Jung follows the classic Oedipus Complex. Jung maintained that the libido was not the driving force; a kind of cerebral castration of the father-figure. Many of the most salacious rumours about Freud - such as the imputation of an affair with his sister-in-law - came from detractors and mischievously reapplied Freudian thinking to Freud himself. Someone so interested in perversion, they claim, can't not be a pervert.

Roudinesco highlights the paradoxes time and again. Freud, while making Eros central to his conception of the human psyche, is to all intents and purposes celibate after the birth of his youngest daughter Anna. The man who invented the "talking cure" speaks in a stifled manner on the only recording we have of him, because of the prosthesis on his jaw necessitated by his cancer; his so-called "muzzle". We learn as much about Freud, and Freudian thought, from the patients whom he singularly failed to help as much as those who benefited from his treatment. There's even the pleasing irony that Freud's first work was on the male genitals of eels, which he failed to find - then created a whole thesis around the absent phallus. …

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