Complex for analysis

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. By Richard Webster. Harper Collins #163;25. - 0 00 255568 9.

According to the eminent psychiatrist, Dr David Stafford-Clark, writing in 1967 about "What Freud Really Said", psychoanalysis has "certain solid claims which are beyond dispute". Among these he listed "the clinical studies in hysteria", the "remarkable interpretation of dreams, the whole concept of depth psychology, the sexual theories and the general theory of the neuroses".

To him, Professor Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was a genius, and any brief overview of 20th-century theories of human nature would list the Freudian canon as the heart of the matter. Most people assume, for example, even in the post-modernist nineties, that childhood experience is the key to mental illness, that dreams are somehow important, that sexual function is not unrelated to how mum and dad dealt with us. Despite constant, and often rather rude, opposition within the psychiatric profession, the image of the cartoon psychiatrist remains that of the bearded, bespectacled figure, addressing the patient on the couch.

In fact Freud's near exact contemporary, (also Viennese) Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940) probably did more for mental illness. He invented a cure for syphilis of the brain and was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine, the only "shrink" ever to be so honoured. And over the last decade or more there has been an increasing flow of revisionist literature suggesting that psychoanalysis is un-scientific (a criticism widespread in specialist circles since the 1900s when Freud began publishing his theories), that Freud was, to say the least, inaccurate in his reporting of cases, and that psychoanalysis theory is more or less a form of religious orthodoxy.

Much of which is acknowledged and elaborated upon by Richard Webster, in his rather lengthy account of Freudian fallacies. As a summary of the critical literature, in particular the work of Paul Roazen, Frank Sulloway,and E M Thornton, it is honest and comprehensive, and also makes excellent use of Freud's astonishing correspondence with Fliess. But the constant referral to such secondary sources also deprives the writing of a certain freshness. Of course, there is an understandable dilemma as to how the modern critic should proceed in such an over-explored field, which brings on the question of why so many people love to pore over the tests, lies, squabbles and theoretical imbroglios of the psychoanalysis apostles.

In this area Webster is very acute. The key adjective he uses in relation to Freud's personality is "messianic". By carefully linking the development of psychoanalytic theory to a number of intellectual currents of the late 19th century, such as brain mythology and Haeckel's biogenetic law (ie embryonic development mimics evolutionary development), Webster demonstrates the essentially Judaeo-Christian basis of the project. That psychoanalysis is a form of confessional, that the Id is an equivalent of Original Sin, and that Freud actively excluded heretics from the inner sanctum of the faith, such are his propositions and they can hardly be refuted. The survival of the whole superstructure can thus be seen as dependent on its role as a modern faith, dressed in the language of science, or rather psuedo-science. By simultaneously expanding the notion of illness, providing succour thereby to the "walking worried" (who had some spare cash and wanted to lie down and talk of their individual woes), and by bringing sex into the discussion, psychoanalysis addressed peculiarly modern needs. By also warding off the cold equations of post-Darwinian rationalism, however, Webster suggests it may even have done some useful service.

But this is rather a repetitive and sometimes contradictory book. The author's own outline of child development or the psychology of the "Messiah", have in themselves a distinctly Freudian feel. He is not averse to using psycho-analytic jargon in his own comments. The discussions of certain famous cases (for example Anna O, Dora) are too extended, and one longs for a plainer narrative. Because the story in itself is quite extraordinary. Freud lied about his treatments. He was overbearingly egotistical. He regarded patients as "only riff-raff", and readily broke with anyone who disagreed with him. Yet there is in this work a hard core of facts, references, excellent notes, a good bibliography, useful summaries of the ideas of the time, which with more ruthless editing could have generated a core text for the 1990s. Freud's "abstruse theological complexity" was the phrenology of the 20th century, bumps and all, and the need for a fresh theory of human nature remains overwhelming. That is the strongest point that emerges, and in particular, that we should teach children how to think rather than what to believe.

Dr Trevor Turner is Consultant Psychiatrist at St Bartholomew's Hospital,London.

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