Book review - Freud: In His Time And Ours

The father of psychoanalysis had a profound influence on literature and art as well probing the darkest recesses of the mind, writes JP O’Malley.
Book review - Freud: In His Time And Ours

A BIOGRAPHY concerning the life and times of Sigmund Freud comes with just a small dose of irony. For Freud believed that biography itself was a form of repression and a mechanism of defence.

Without Freud, the cultural artistic and literary landscape we take for granted today — such as the modernist movement in literature, or the surrealist movement in painting — would have looked very different.

So too would therapeutic practices for treating ailments in mental health, like depression, anxiety, and neurosis.

Freud’s theories danced between the polarising dichotomies of sex and death; love and desire; the irrational and dreams; mythologies and facts, darkness and light; and barbarism and civilisation.

To appreciate the full extent of Freud’s ideas, however, a certain amount of nuance, metaphor, symbolism, and scepticism is needed.

What makes Freud In His Time And Ours — first published in 2014 in French, by the psychoanalyst and Freudian academic, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and just recently translated in English by Catherine Porter — such a captivating read, is the author’s ability to explain what are often complex, deeply-layered, and dark taboo subjects, into a language that is easily understood.

Freud’s vision of the human mind was informed by both a wide ranging of reading, as well as individual case studies.

And his work was just as likely to encompass the mythologies of say, a Shakespeare play, or a Greek tragedy, as it was to document his patients’ confessions about compulsive masturbation sessions, or a family incest case from childhood.

These subjective experiences that Freud documented with notes — as his patients sat on a couch — came from a theory of the human mind and a therapeutic practice he founded in Vienna, between 1885 and 1939.

It was called psychoanalysis.

This subject takes centre stage in Roudinesco’s narrative.

The central premise of the theory is that there are large parts of psychological functioning hidden in the unconscious mind.

Here, a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories — which are outside of our conscious awareness — secretly reside.

Most of the contents of the unconscious, Freud postulated, are unpleasant feelings, such as pain, anxiety, or conflict.

Freud had a simple procedure for conducting the process of psychoanalysis. He worked closely alongside patients, many of whom were suffering from hysteria.

He would ask them to vocalise the very first thing that came into their heads: believing this would tap into the wellspring of the unconscious.

Freud believed that negative childhood experiences, and wishes and fantasies — which had resulted in unconscious conflicts — if brought into consciousness, could be subsequently analysed, and the symptoms then dissolved.

He saw psychoanalysis, Roudinesco writes: “as a symbolic revolution [to show]that the ego is not master in its own house.”

These subjective experiences led Freud to come up with other groundbreaking new concepts, such as the Oedipus complex; repression; transference; free association; the ego, the id, and the super-ego.

As this brilliant biography is keen to point out, Freud believed that if human behaviour is to be understood in all of its complexity, we need to admit that within our own minds there is a fundamental irrationality going on; that everybody is hiding something; that we are never truly the personalities we claim to be in our outward appearances; that we spend a great portion of our lives denying facts from our own own childhood; and, most importantly, that our central drives arise out of our sexual impulses: where the primary goal is always the procurement of pleasure.

By labelling his sexual doctrine around terms, such as, drive, libido, stage, desire, and quest, Freud normalised sexual aberrations, and became convinced that sexual satisfaction was the key to human happiness.

However, like all ideas within Freud’s framework, paradoxes raise their confusing heads at any given moment.

This insatiable sexual hunger —where we always want more than is available to us at any given time, and where desire is always in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy it — Freud referred to as “the silence of death working within us”.

The death instinct, in Freud’s view, was the idea that inside every human there is a part of us that wants to die.

Thus, he concluded: the goal of all life is death.

Roudinesco also places Freud’s ideas not just into the world of psychology, but into culture, history, and human civilisation itself.

She links, for example, the rise of mass violence during the First World War, to Freud’s idea of the death instinct.

Freud believed all human existence is driven less by an aspiration to be good and virtuous, than it is for the ongoing quest of pleasure in evil: in the death drive; in the desire for cruelty; in the love of hatred, and in the constant aspiration to unhappiness and suffering.

It was only in the area of the arts and culture, Freud believed, that humans were capable of pulling away from their desire for self- annihilation. However, as Roudinesco writes, like many diaspora Jews of his generation, Freud over-estimated the power of knowledge and culture in liberating humanity from a bloodthirsty form of barbarism.

Right up until his death in 1939, when Freud and his immediate family exiled to London, he failed to see the true horrors of Nazism on the horizon. His four sisters would all later perish in the Holocaust.

In recent decades, numerous scholars have spent considerable time and effort, tearing Freud’s ideas to shreds.

In The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory, published in 1984, Jeffrey Maason called Freud a forger, and firmly put the boot into the development of modern Freudian psychoanalysis: claiming it was based on oppression.

Roudinesco claims that Maason’s book, and others that followed, propagated a nasty portrait of Freud’s personality in the public domain: ensuring he was called everything from an abusive rapist to a protector of child abusers. Roudinesco’s book hopes to reverse that trend.

However, even she admits Freud didn’t get everything spot on.

For example, Freud’s insistence — in his book Studies on Hysteria — that within the bosom of every family there was a child abuser, seems rather hard to believe.

Indeed, Freud’s obsession with incest often seemed to be more concerned about linking it to a mythological modern day tragic drama — the bourgeois family — than being grounded in any kind of fact-based empirical reality.

However, within the Freudian framework, nothing should ever be taken as literal fact, and mythologies and real life have a curious habit of constantly swapping places much of the time.

Still, these small inconsistencies aside, it’s pretty hard to disagree with Roudinesco’s contention that Sigmund Freud still remains one of “the [greatest thinkers] of his time and ours”.

Freud’s vision of the mind is one that predominately sojourns to the dark side of human nature.

Unlike, say, communism, or other such utopian ideals, Freud never offered an inner salvation, or an ultimate cure, to the never- ending sickness that is the human condition.

In the Freudian universe, conflict does not simply vanish into thin air.

What Freud’s work does give us, however, is the ability to come to some kind of self awareness: to understand that existential pain and suffering is simply par for the course in human beings.

However, Freud believed if we can channel those negative thoughts and obsessions — or at the very least just become conscious of them — then we can lead relatively calm, stable, and fulfilling lives.

As Freud himself once commented:” where id was, there ego shall be.”

Human existence may often appear to be a pointless road to death, but until we reach the end of the line — Freud certainly believed — we are perpetually at war: mainly with our own minds.

Freud: In His Time And Ours

Elisabeth Roudinesco

Translated by Catherine Porter

Harvard University Press, €29

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