THE FREUD WE WISH FOR by Joshua Rothman
This appeared in the New Yorker on June 19, 2014. Link to the original is here
“Becoming Freud,” by the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, is short for a biography—less than two hundred pages—and it contains no startling revelations. But, in its own way, it’s an audacious book. It’s a revisionist history of Freud and his enterprise; its implicit goal, never stated but always clear, is to help us salvage the best parts of Freud’s work while leaving behind the rest—the outmoded theories and unwieldy jargon that make Freud a caricature rather than an intriguing thinker. (Whether that’s a worthy goal is an open question.)
Phillips is probably today’s most famous psychoanalyst, and a quietly controversial figure. For seven years, he was the principal child psychologist at Charing Cross Hospital, in London. (He’s now in private practice.) Famously, he spends most of the week with his analysands and writes only on Wednesdays; somehow, on that schedule, he’s produced eighteen books. Phillips is obviously brilliant—John Banville has called him “an Emerson of our time”—and yet it’s never quite clear how seriously you should take his writing. Like Emerson, he seems to regard much of it as exploratory or performative. (“When I write something and it sounds good, I leave it in, even if there’s doubt about it,” he has said, because he’s curious to see what readers will think.) He’s the editor of Penguin’s new series of Freud translations, even though he doesn’t speak German; last year, reviewing one of his books for this magazine, Joan Acocella wrote that “Phillips loves Freud. He cites him again and again. But his Freud sometimes doesn’t look much like the Freud we thought we knew. He looks more like Adam Phillips.” How much that bothers you depends on how seriously you take Freud. There are some people who would rather have Phillips.
It’s especially easy for the Freud of “Becoming Freud” to look like Phillips, because, in the book, the facts of Freud’s life are largely absent. “One of the first casualties of psychoanalysis, once the facts of our lives are seen as complicated in the Freudian way, is the traditional biography,” Phillips writes. Phillips doesn’t trust in the ability of a conventional “life story,” with its procession of names, dates, and places, to tell us what anyone, least of all Freud, was really about. Anyway, he thinks, the most important story about Freud’s life is psychoanalysis—that’s the story Freud himself chose to tell the rest of us about our lives and his. And because, as Freud knew, “whatever story we are telling, we are always also telling the story of our own wanting … at any moment in Freud’s life we can ask, encouraged and legitimated by his own work, what is Freud wanting from psychoanalysis? What is the pleasure he seeks? What is he doing it for and what is it doing to him? What about himself is he seeking to sustain and enjoy, and what would he prefer to ignore?” By starting with the flower, in short, you might get an idea of the root.
Phillips sees psychoanalysis as the invention of a deeply ambivalent person. As a Viennese Jew, Freud coveted respectability but enjoyed being an outsider. As a father, he identified with the unfiltered lawlessness of his children—if only he could want, and demand, so freely! As a striver, he valued ambition above all (“If you put wishing at the heart of human development, you make extravagant ambition your theme,” Phillips writes); at the same time, he empathized with people who lose everything. (He was drawn to the question of “what has to be lost for the individual to survive … whether the individual can survive his losses, and at what cost?”)
Freud was a scientist with an artistic temperament; he became a doctor who envied his patients, a “double agent” who suffered from “what psychoanalysts would eventually call a split identification.” Phillips writes that, as a young man, in the eighteen-eighties, watching Jean-Martin Charcot work with his hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière, Freud “identified with the hysterics as the discarded, the thwarted, and the misunderstood, people with baffled desires and stalled ambition; people who, not unlike Jews, made others inordinately suspicious,” while, at the same time, “he identified with Charcot as a man he would like to become … the educated, cultured doctor who took hysterics seriously and engaged with their confounding and confounded predicament.” Freud’s genius, Phillips thinks, lay in the way he valued his own ambivalent feelings. He didn’t see them as a contradiction to resolve; instead, he proposed a new kind of person, the psychoanalyst, “who has to be both on the side of the patient’s safety and security, and on the side of her disruptive desires.”
If there’s a big idea in “Becoming Freud,” it’s that psychoanalysis is about communication—about what Phillips calls “sociability”—more than it’s about a cure. It’s a way of helping people speak for themselves (or of helping them figure out how they are already speaking). There’s a sense in which, for Phillips, Freud’s work was a kind of rebellion—against medicine, against society, against one’s own false sense of orderliness. (Freud sought “to account for—something starkly pertinent for the Jews of Freud’s generation—what one makes of what one is forced by.”) But Freud’s rebellion differed from that of the modernist artists he was surrounded by. It was more like the subtle, ambivalent rebellion of the translator or the critic. Freud’s discovery, Phillips writes, was
just how ingenious and disturbing modern people had become as the unconscious artists of their own lives. It was their capacities for representation—for finding ways and means for making their desires known in however disguised or self-defeating forms; as dreams, or slips, or perverse and neurotic symptoms—that had impressed Freud … His patients, Freud realized, were working on and at their psychic survival, but like artists not like scientists; and their material was their personal history encoded in their sexuality. They were not empiricists, or only fleetingly; they were fantasists. Their adaptations were ingeniously imaginative, however painful; but they were stuck. Their symptoms were the equivalent of writer’s block, or rather, speaker’s block. Indeed, Freud was becoming their new kind of good listener, and their champion; someone who could get, who could make something of, their strange ways of speaking. Someone who, like a good parent, or a good art critic, could appreciate what they were up to, what they could make, and make a case for it.
Phillips writes with such aphoristic assurance that this conclusion seems obvious. Actually, it’s a very particular interpretation of Freud. Phillips leaves out Freud the scientist, who aimed to discover laws about the self; Freud the clinician, who aimed to cure; and (for the most part) Freud the provocateur and kook. Perhaps because “Becoming Freud” began as a series of lectures at Cambridge, he rarely quotes from Freud’s books, which makes it easy to forget their bizarre, slightly unhinged specificity.
And yet my own sense is that Phillips is right. He’s put his finger on the best part of Freud’s thinking. In fact, in Phillips’s view, the story of psychoanalysis has a tragic end. He thinks Freud was a victim of his own success. In the beginning, like a good critic, Freud let his patients own their mysteries. But, as psychoanalysis became an institution unto itself and developed its own rules and dogmas, analysts began to talk over their patients. “Once Freud had discovered what he called the unconscious it was never clear how unconscious the unconscious would be allowed to be (at least by the owners of psychoanalysis). What would it be to be an expert or a specialist of the unconscious?” Phillips writes. “Do psychoanalysts know what people are talking about or just know how to let people speak for themselves?” An enterprise that was characterized, at first, by uncertainty became too certain. Although Phillips discusses Freud’s later books throughout “Becoming Freud”—books like “Civilization and Its Discontents” and “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”—the narration itself stops, rather abruptly, when Freud is fifty. That, he seems to say, is when the psychoanalytic enterprise began to grow claustrophobic and controlling. It’s as though Phillips has to look away.
I suppose it says something about our era that the Freud we want is Freud the translator, rather than Freud the doctor—the conversational, empathetic, curious Freud, rather than the incisive, perverse, and confident one. (Perhaps, in a period when we are communicating more than ever, the difficulties of communication are growing more obvious.) And I can’t help feeling that there’s something a little irresponsible about writing a “biography” of Freud that is, in its way, so partial and polemical. Still, as Phillips writes: “Our vision, Freud showed us, what we are able to see, is sponsored by our blind spots; what we are determined not to know frees us and forces us to know something else.” Phillips doesn’t give us the whole Freud, but, if Freud is to be believed, you can never see the whole person anyway. We see what we need to see.
Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer/Agency Anzenberger/Austrian National Library.