The Making of An Illusion

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Frederick Crews
  • New York, NY: 
    Metropolitan Books
    , August
     768 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Biographies and assessments of Freud continue unabated. The original biography of Freud, disciple Ernest Jones’s three-volume Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Basic Books, 1953-57), is hagiographical. Freud is depicted as a solitary genius, committed to the truth and castigated by those too spineless to accept it. Almost as hagiographical is the German-born intellectual historian Peter Gay’s 810-page Freud: A Life for Our Times (Norton, 1988).

But in the last several decades there has emerged a revisionist approach. Freud had long been berated for the supposedly tenuous status of psychoanalytic theory. The Austrian-born philosopher of science Karl Popper (Conjectures and Refutations [Routledge, 1962]) dismissed the theories of Freud and Alfred Adler, less as wrong than as incapable of being proved right or wrong. There have since been many other philosophical castigations of Freud’s theory—most uncompromisingly by Frank Cioffi—but the most powerful was German-born philosopher of science Adolf Grunbuam’s Foundations of Psychoanalysis (University of California Press, 1984). Grunbaum’s real nemesis is Popper, but against Freud Grunbaum argues relentlessly that psychoanalysis is confirmable in principle but so far never in acceptable practice.

What is new in the revisionist approach is less the assessment of Freudian theory than the assessment of Freud himself. Here philosophers give way to literary and cultural critics. Of the dozens of key critics, the most unrelenting is Frederick Crews, emeritus professor of English at Berkeley. Crews evinces the sense of betrayal found in the six ex-Communists in The God That Failed (Bantam Books, 1964). He began as a committed Freudian with his book on Hawthorne: The Sins of the Fathers (University of California Press, 1966). But eventually the scepticism that Crews relished in psychoanalysis he started to apply to psychoanalysis itself. In work upon work he attacked both the theory and the man—among them Out of My System (Oxford University Press, 1975), Skeptical Engagements (Oxford University Press, 1986), The Memory Wars (edited, New York Review of Books, 1995), Unauthorized Freud (edited, Viking Penguin, 1998), and Follies of the Wise (Shoemaker Hoard, 2006). In some of these works Crews equally attacked other popular movements he deemed irrational--notably, recovered memory syndrome, which he blamed on Freud; intelligent design; Theosophy; Lacan; UFO spottings; and poststructuralism. His main source for attacking psychoanalytic theory was Grunbaum, whose Foundations of Psychoanlaysis: A Philosophical Critique he helped get published by the University of California Press in 1985.

Now we have Crews’s biography of Freud. Crews discusses only the man, not the theory. He limits himself to Freud’s own cases and never bothers with anyone else’s ever since. He maintains that Freud never cured anyone, that he bullied his patients, that in poor Dora’s case he even bled her nose, that he would nap or write letters while his patients free associated, and that he had no interest in them as human beings. At the hands of Freud and his colleague Fliess, the patient Emma almost died. Freud disliked practicing medicine, especially the sight of blood.

According to Crews, Freud kept seeking ways to make a name for himself but was just not that good, least of all as a neurologist. Freud, we are told, denied any predecessors and spurned the members of his original circle. He was contemptuous of his long suffering wife, who was expected to serve him and who was never included her in his work. He took his sister-in-law as his mistress.

As Crews further tells us, Freud exaggerated the amount of antisemitism that he experienced growing up and was never hindered by it professionally, though he blamed his slow advancement at the University of Vienna on antisemitism. Freud shared the gentile disdain for lower-class Jews from Eastern Europe, though Crews grants that Freud never tried to hide his Jewishness or to convert.

Crews devotes much of his biography to Freud’s career as a neurologist before he turned to hysteria and then to psychoanalysis. (Jung used to boast that Freud was trained as a mere neurologist and not, like him, as a psychiatrist.) Crews continually argues that Freud forever sought ways to make his mark but never did—until he turned to cocaine. Freud himself imbibed, as the evidence from the sloppiness of his publications during the period supposedly makes clear. But for Crews the evidence is clearest from Freud’s promotion of cocaine, not as a recreational drug but as the cure for addiction to morphine. Freud hoped to become wealthy from its manufacture. But it turned out that cocaine did not alleviate addiction to morphine and in fact became far more addictive in its own right. What Freud advocated harmed patients.

According to Crews, Freud then turned to hysteria and became a disciple of Charcot, the greatest neurologist of the day. Freud hoped to hitch his star to Charcot’s. He ignored the sceptical evidence against Charcot but then later turned against Charcot, whose popularity had peaked, as if he, Freud, had been wary of him all along.

Freud, according to Crews, cultivated wealthy patients, who were overwhelmingly female, wealthy, and Jewish. Some treated him as their servant and were prepared to argue with him over his diagnosis. He always feared being abandoned by them, as often happened. He was an inept doctor, treated patients that he was unqualified to treat, and exaggerated his success, if any success there even was. Even after becoming famous, he continued seeing patients—for the money.

Next to Charcot, Freud’s biggest rivalry, maintains Crews, was with Pierre Janet, who seemed the obvious successor to Charcot. Janet accused Freud of stealing his ideas. Freud dismissed Breuer, his benefactor and co-author, by asserting, not altogether falsely, that Breuer feared sex as the cause of neurosis and refused to find it in any case in their joint Studies on Hysteria. By contrast, Freud supposedly twisted the lives of their patients, that of Dora above all, to make sexual repression the source of everything. Every patient wound up suffering from hysteria.

Freud dismissed Fliess, his lifelong friend, as “pre-sexual” in his analysis of human motivations—this despite Freud’s reliance on Fliess for the notion of human bisexuality. For Crews, Breuer and Fliess in fact contributed far more to psychoanalytic theory than was ever granted. Crews maintains that Freud’s relationship with both was affected by his own latent bisexuality.

According to Crews, Freud might have abandoned his 1895 Project for a Scientific Psychology but actually never abandoned the hope of a materialist base for psychoanalysis. Despite his supposed switch from neurology to psychoanalysis, he never deemed the mind irreducible to matter.

For Crews, Freud was a fraud, a liar, a trickster. He never cured anyone, and psychoanalysis, with perhaps some benefits, cures no one either. Freud has long been protected by his disciples, starting with Jones.

There is almost no point in Crews’s considering Freud’s theory since Crews attributes it all to its author’s concoctions and not at all to science. By the “illusion” of the subtitle Crews means not, as in Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, wish fulfillment but sheer delusion. Whether or not one accepts Crews’s view, his is an amazingly detailed and rich book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert A. Segal is Sixth Century Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederick Crews is the author of many books, including the bestselling satire The Pooh Perplexand Follies of the Wise, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award. He is also a professor emeritus of English at the University of California, Berkeley, a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.



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