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John Banville review of A Dream of Undying Fame by Louis Breger

The Irish Times - Saturday, November 14, 2009

Uncovering the great Freudian slip


BIOGRAPHY : A devastating critique of the father of psychoanalysis reveals that the discoverer of the unconscious was often unaware of his own motives

A Dream of Undying Fame: How Freud Betrayed His Mentor and Invented Psychoanalysis By Louis Breger, Basic Books, 146pp, $22.95

IN STUDIES ON HYSTERIA , the revolutionary book by Josef Breuer and his younger colleague Sigmund Freud, which they published together in 1895, Freud remarked in some bemusement: “It still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science.” It was one of those classic subsconscious insights so many examples of which Freud would adduce in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life , published six years later, after “the father of psychoanalysis” had turned his back on his old friend Breuer and set out in hot and single-minded pursuit of what he identified as “eternal fame”.

Freud wished to be considered a scientist, and failed to see that he was, more than anything, a literary artist, made from the same mould as his fellow Viennese fiction writers Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig. Indeed, an argument might be put that his work, especially in the case studies, far from being the rigorous technical engagement he presented it as, resembled nothing so much as the fantasies of investigation and unmasking spun by Arthur Conan Doyle. Freud was the self-appointed Sherlock Holmes of psychotherapy, and many of his solutions of the mind’s mysteries were as fanciful as Holmes’s triumphs of detection.

Louis Breger’s Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision (2000) was a perceptive and penetrating biography of one of the key figures of the 20th century, and in the notes to A Dream of Undying Fame the author points out that the new book is a distillation of themes to be found in its far more extensive predecessor. Yet A Dream is entirely autonomous. It is a radically revisionist study of Freud and Freudianism, similar to Erich Fromm’s seminal – it is the only word – Greatness and Limitation of Freud’s Thought . While Fromm wrote more in sorrow than in anger, Breger adopts a more detached standpoint, which makes his critique all the more devastating.

In Breger’s version, Freud is “the discoverer of the unconscious who was, at the same time, unaware of many of his own motives; the greatest psychological theorist of the 20th century, whose doctrines were often wrong; the man who developed a strikingly new method of treatment while at the same time encumbering it with rules that made it less than therapeutic”.

Born into a deeply anti-Semitic society, Freud was the son of a financially incompetent Jewish father – Jacob Freud went bankrupt when his son was three years old – at whom a Gentile had once shouted “Jew! Get off the pavement!”, a command he meekly obeyed. For his doting mother Freud was “my golden Sigi”, though in later life she was described by one of her nieces as a selfish tyrant. Little Sigi “came to know the helplessness of poverty”, as he wrote, yet cast himself in the role of heroic figures of the past: Alexander the Great, Cromwell, Napoleon. No doubt it was at this time that he developed “the expectation of eternal fame” as the great escape from the terrors of childhood, which continued to plague him as an adult.

Throughout the 1890s Freud suffered extended periods of anxiety, phobia and depression, which he sought to treat by undertaking a thoroughgoing self-analysis, resulting in his formulation of the Oedipus complex, the “nuclear complex of the neuroses”, as he called it, which “every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering”. The Oedipus complex was the supposedly universal law the discovery of which, after a number of what he considered false starts, would win him recognition as a great scientist, the Isaac Newton of psychology, and ensure him everlasting renown as the “conquistador” that he later saw himself as being.

Which it did – but at what cost? “It is one of the tragedies of psychoanalysis,” Breger writes, “that Freud insisted on the centrality of the Oedipus complex despite the lack of supporting evidence, thus marring work filled with many insights and provocative new ideas.” In fact, Breger suggests, the idea of the Oedipus complex, which “first came to him at the point in his self-analysis when he was confronted with his childhood traumas”, originated as a subsconscious defensive strategy against the enduring power of those very traumas. In this, as in so much else, Breger is eminently sensible, and does not mince his words: far from being the “nuclear complex” of all neuroses, he writes, the Oedipus complex “isn’t much of a factor in anyone’s neurosis”, and when there are Oedipal problems in childhood “it is because real things have been done to the child”.

It was natural, according to Breger, that the classically educated Freud should fix upon a hero from Greek drama as his universal, emblematic figure:

Sophocles’s play was perfect . . . because it contained many themes that resonated with Freud’s life. Oedipus’s father is a king who, unlike the failed Jacob, when ordered to get off the road (“Jew! Get off the pavement!”) strikes back with violence. He is also (as Freud the psychoanalyst would become) a great solver of riddles. Like Sophocles’s protagonist, Freud “will start afresh; and bring everything to light”.

In his professional life Freud sought out father figures, and found them in his early teachers Ernst Brücke and Jean-Martin Charcot and, later, in Josef Breuer, the Viennese physician and scientist who was 14 years his senior, and who became his friend and mentor, to the extent of paying him a monthly stipend without expectation of repayment. Breuer “encouraged Freud’s independence”, Breger writes, “pushing him to realize his potential in his own way. He also enriched Freud’s understanding of philosophy, literature and art”. This was the “man of great personal and scientific integrity”, in Breger’s description, whom Freud would first collaborate with and then reject – or betray as Breger has it – in pursuit of “eternal fame”.

Breuer, Breger tells us, coined the terms “hypnoid state”, “splitting of the mind”, “double conscience” and “dissociation” to identify “a condition in which severely traumatic events do not register consciously because they are too frightening or emotionally overwhelming” but which “persist as physical and emotional states in a split-off part of the mind”. To combat the psychological illnesses resulting from these unconscious suppressions, Breuer and Freud developed the “cathartic method” – once again showing the influence of their classical education – in which patients would be encouraged to go back and experience again the original traumas and thus rid themselves of them.

Breuer’s most famous patient was Bertha Pappenheim, known as Anna O, and his treatment of her was, as Breger writes, “the true beginning of psychoanalysis”. She suffered from “hysteria”, as Breuer called it – Breger: “the answer to the question ‘What was hysteria?’ is that it never existed” – which resulted in a variety of symptoms Breuer considered ripe for “cathartic” treatment. She was a highly intelligent, cultivated young woman, from a wealthy Jewish family, and in later life would become, among other things, a social worker concentrating on rescuing young women from cruel treatment by men. It was she who invented the term “talking cure”, also referring to her sessions with Breuer as “chimney sweeping”. Although she laid no claim to scientific expertise, she can surely be considered one of the founders of the psychoanalytic method.

Freud learned much from Breuer and his treatment of Bertha Pappenheim, yet his later version of the case of Anna O is, according to Breger, “the ugly aftermath to Breuer’s work and is the key to understanding the way [Freud] dealt with many of his later psychoanalytic colleagues when they did not completely agree with him”. In 1909 he was still giving Breuer credit as the inventor of psychoanalysis, but by 1914, in his paper On the History of the Psycho-analytic Movement , he states that “I have come to the conclusion that I must be the true originator of all that is particularly characteristic” in psychoanalysis. That sentence is the blade Freud wielded to strike the father dead. Breuer’s daughter-in-law recalled an incident years later in Vienna when Breuer, by now an old man, spotted Freud approaching in the street and threw out his arms in greeting. “Freud passed by as if he did not see him.”

A Dream of Undying Fame is a scrupulously even-handed, elegantly written and, in the end, sad and frightening account of the overweening ambition that was the fatal flaw in the character of a great man. Unreconstructed Freudians, if there are still any about, may deplore Breger’s book, but the rest of us owe him a debt.

John Banville’s latest novel, The Infinities , was published earlier this year by Picador