Book review: Freud’s Discontents

Élisabeth Roudinesco - Freud: In His Time and Ours
Reviewed by Samuel Moyn

...Psychoanalysis communed with an age of crisis. Instead of believing that pathologies could be described or drugged away, Freudians wanted us to work through them. There was no going back to earlier beliefs that humans could regard themselves as rational animals. Psychoanalysis was about facing the sheer disorder unreason threatened, rather than looking away.

What has been lost by the decline in psychoanalysis’s public relevance has not only been Freud’s system of thought but the delicate balance he embraced between science and culture, reason and passion, the Enlightenment and its Romantic critics. Freud, as Thomas Mann observed in 1929, “unquestionably belongs with those writers of the nineteenth century” who “stand opposed to rationalism.” Spurning the “shallow and outworn idealistic optimism of the daylight cult of Apollo,” 

Freud believed that psychology had to embrace rather than ignore the fragility of reason. But Freud not only sought to emphasize reason’s embattlement; he also sought to lend a hand in its struggle against the stronger passions. By revealing the weaknesses in the elaborate structure of human rationality, psychoanalysis ultimately helped serve “enlightenment.” Freud’s psychoanalysis was, as Mann put it, “Romanticism turned scientific.” He wanted reason to win out, but not by understating its vulnerability.

Élisabeth Roudinesco’s new biography, Freud: In His Time and Ours, is a welcome reminder of Freud’s considerable influence on 20th-century intellectual life. More important, she puts center stage Freud’s complex brand of rationalism and the full scope of his achievements, which went far beyond offering a cure for individuals. In particular, Roudinesco captures Freud’s recognition of the insurmountable ways in which our irrational desires and longings shape who we are and how we act.

This correction is needed not only to give us a more accurate sense of Freud’s innovations, but also to contrast it against today’s more complacent assumptions about human rationality. Despite what economists and psychologists and political scientists insist, the rational self is not always master in its own house—whether in individual life or in collective experience.

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Roudinesco’s biography is the third major one since Freud’s death. The British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones penned a massive study of the master’s life over the course of the 1950s. Thirty years later, the accomplished historian Peter Gay—who also trained as a psychoanalyst as he turned to write Freud’s life—published what has now become the standard work.

Jones’s study was remarkable for its breadth. But it was Gay who benefited from a flood of new information that has long since slowed to a trickle, including many revelations about Freud’s life offered by the release of some of his well-protected correspondence, as well as access Gay had to those who personally knew Freud.

Compared to Jones’s three volumes and Gay’s exhaustive 800 pages, Roudinesco’s biography is the slighter narrative. She also cannot displace Gay’s synthesis. Yet her version has other points of distinction. In particular, she offers insights into some of the ambiguities in psychoanalysis that Gay and Jones glossed over.

The high points of Freud’s biography used to be well-known. Born to a Jewish family in the town of Freiberg in Mähren—then in the Austro-Hungarian empire, now in the Czech Republic—Freud had a childhood that paralleled an age of liberal ascendancy in Central Europe. Trained as a doctor in Vienna and Paris, Freud built a career for himself as a man of science, hoping to decipher the reigning middle-class maladies of his day, notably hysteria. After several false starts, he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900, which marked a breakthrough in his thinking by regarding our nightly visions as “the royal road” to the unconscious life.

During World War I, Freud’s thought was greatly influenced by his anxiety over his sons who were fighting at the front. He was affected even more by his exposure to cases of wartime trauma, especially shell shock. And while his sometimes rebellious coterie of disciples spread his ideas far and wide, Freud’s own work took on a new and more tragic inflection. With the liberal ascendancy now a pleasant memory, Vienna had become a cauldron of political radicalism and cultural experiment, and Freud found himself at its center. He published in psychology and medicine but also in anthropology, art history, and cultural criticism. The books he wrote during this period ranged in genre from autobiography to literary criticism to social theory, and his subjects included Moses, Leonardo da Vinci, and Woodrow Wilson.

Freud’s productive years in Vienna came to a swift end in 1934 when Christian populists brought down the Austrian Republic. Four years later, Germany absorbed the country in the Anschluss, an event that Freud noted laconically in his diary with the entry “Finis Austriae.” He spent his final year in London, ministered to by his daughter Anna, a psychoanalyst in her own right. Suffering from a painful mouth cancer for close to two decades, he passed away secure in the knowledge that while unreason had triumphed in Europe, he had created a far-flung movement that was attempting to understand it.

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Like Jones and Gay, Roudinesco recounts Freud’s life and the development of his thought with great flair. But there are some special novelties in her narrative, particularly in contrast to Gay’s study... read more:

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