An Intellectual Biography

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Joel Whitebook
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , January
     494 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joel Whitebook’s biography of Freud appeared the same year as Frederick Crews’s Freud: The Making of an Illusion (Metropolitan Books, 2017) which I recently reviewed for Reading Religion. Their views could hardly be more opposed. According to Crews, Freud was a fraud, a liar, and a trickster. He cured no one, and for the most part psychoanalysis cures no one either. For Crews, Freud has long been protected by his disciples, starting with Ernest Jones, author of the hagiographical three-volume Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Basic Books, 1953-58), which paints Freud as a solitary and embattled genius. Nearly as hagiographical is Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Times (J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1988). Whitebook’s portrayal, in contrast, is admiring but not uncritical.

Like Jones, and unlike Crews and Gay, Whitebook is a professional psychoanalyst. But he is also a trained philosopher, and happily, this shows. There are plenty of professional philosophers interested in Freud. Some view his work positively and some negatively. But there are not many professional analysts who are also philosophers. Philosophically, Whitebook has previously written on the Frankfurt School, which sought to meld Freud with Marx. But in the present book he barely mentions the school. Instead, he carefully works out Freud’s theory, matching it up with Freud’s life. He thereby combines philosophy with psychology, not in order to reduce the theory to the life but to present notable similarities between Freud’s views—even his most speculative later ones—and his life. Whitebook writes to explain Freud, not to explain him away. 

But what does Whitebook offer that is new? New to me is his discussion of the odd age gaps and overlaps among Freud’s immediate family and close relatives. For example, Freud’s two half brothers from his father’s first marriage were of almost the same age as Freud’s mother, whose husband, Jacob, was twenty years older than she. The quarters in which the Freud family lived in Vienna were tiny and decrepit. There was scant privacy.

I myself hate the dismissive use of the term, but one of the “myths” about Freud which Whitebook claims to be exposing is that Freud’s mother was boundlessly loving. She was in fact almost the opposite: cold, narcissistic, possessive, and interested in her supposedly favorite son only as an extension of herself. Far from loved, Sigmund felt unloved and sought to compensate for his mother’s indifference by professional achievement of which she would be proud.

Whitebook begins with Freud’s pre-Oedipal childhood. Freudians since the master have focused on this, the earliest stage of life.) Where in the Oedipal stage, on which Freud himself concentrates, the father is the dominant parent, in the pre-Oedipal stage the mother is. A child who fails to secure sufficient love in the pre-Oedipal stage consciously turns against this stage but unconsciously seeks to return to it and to the mother. Those Freudians who have identified a mystical Freud, even in the face of Freud’s seeming scorn for the oceanic feeling, have tied it to birth or early infancy (see Dan Merkur, Explorations of the Psychoanalytic Mystics, Rodopi, 2010).

As Whitebook notes, in psychoanalysis the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, and the opposite of hate is also indifference. Freud was seemingly revolted by femininity, which he associated with passivity and with the pre-Oedipal stage. But his overt hostility masked a lifelong yearning for this stage. Whitebook, though scarcely the first to do so, argues not only that Freud had barely unconscious—but never consummated—love for both his collaborator Wilhelm Fliess and then Carl Jung but also that he used that love as a way of experiencing the maternal love never bestowed upon him by his mother. 

Freud’s attachment to Fliess, one of his closest friends, was stronger than his attachment to Jung, who replaced Fliess as the emotional center of his world once Freud recognized his idealization of Fliess and broke off the relationship. The theoretical differences between Freud and Jung, like those between Freud and Fliess, were rooted as much in sexuality as in theory. But they were also ideological. Eventually, Freud recognized that Jung’s commitment to what Whitebook calls his “Counter-Enlightenment” view of modernity simply could not be harmonized with Freud’s commitment to reason and science. For all Jung’s official commitment to science as well, his Red Book (ed. Sonu Shamdasani, Philemon, 2009) evinces a shocking disdain for science. That disdain remains popular among most Jungians, who imagine themselves to be much deeper than Freudians.

Whitebook also exposes the myth, perpetuated by Freud himself, that he knew little of Judaism and had no attachment to it. Quite the opposite, shows Whitebook. Freud’s father, while embracing the nineteenth-century Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, made sure that his son received a not insignificant Jewish education. And the son’s love of Judaism is to be found in more than Moses and Monotheism. Whitebook also discusses the influence on Freud of his Catholic nurse, who was abruptly dismissed by Freud’s mother for supposed theft but who served as a substitute mother to Sigmund while she was employed. And while Whitebook is prepared to grant her some influence on Freud, he stops far short of Paul Vitz’s assessment in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious (Guilford Press, 1988).

Whitebook also takes up the myth of Freud’s aversion to philosophy, showing that Freud was much more influenced by philosophy than he generally allowed. The ironic difference between Freud and Jung is that where Freud scorns philosophy yet is taken seriously by philosophers, Jung fancies himself a philosopher but is spurned by almost all of them.

Overall, Whitebook’s work treats scores of Freudian topics with erudition and fairness, In a crowded field, a superb biography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

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

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Whitebook is a philosopher and psychoanalyst who maintained a private practice in New York City for twenty-five years. He is currently on the faculty of the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and he is the Director of the University's Psychoanalytic Studies Program. He is also the author of Perversion and Utopia (1995) and numerous articles.


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