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 Frederick Crews criticizes Jonathan Lear's views on Freud

At one point in his new book, The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute (New York Review), to which Jonathan Lear alludes in his woolly defense of psychoanalysis (The Shrink Is In, Dec. 25, 1995), Frederick Crews pauses to wonder at the curious eagerness of some people to glorify Freud as the discoverer of vague general truths about human deviousness. "It is hard to dispute any of these statements about 'humans,'" he wrote, "but it is also hard to see why they couldn't be credited as easily to Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, or Nietzsche--if not indeed to Jesus or Saint Paul--as to Freud.

Was it really Freud who first disclosed such commonplaces? And Crews continues: Or, rather, has the vast cultural sway of Freud's system caused us to lose focus on his more specific, highly idiosyncratic, assertions, to presume that a number of them must have been scientifically corroborated by now, and to transform him retrospectively into the very personification of 'human' complexity and depth?"

I couldn't have known that I was pinpointing the strategy of Lear's essay-to-be. His Freud is a godlike figure who, despite some lapses into fallibility, somehow presides over all modern awareness of what Lear calls "human irrationality" and "the complexity, depth and darkness of human life." For Lear, then, debate about Freud can only be understood as struggle over "our culture's image of the human soul." And thus the choice for or against psychoanalysis becomes a no-brainer, a mere matter of reaffirming a suitably tragic worldview: "Are we to see humans as having depth--as complex psychological organisms who generate layers of meaning which lie beneath the surface of their own understanding? Or are we to take ourselves as transparent to ourselves?"

Lear himself cites Plato, Saint Augustine, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, and Proust as sharing Freud's insistence "that there are significant meanings for human well-being which are obscured from immediate awareness," but he fails to pose the obvious question implied by such a list. What did Freud add to the previously garnered pearls of wisdom, and do his innovations constitute actual knowledge or merely a set of overweening speculations? If, for example, Nietzsche anticipated Freud's ideas of unconscious self-interest and unconscious guilt, of repression, of sublimation, and of dream symbolism--and he did all that--have we gained anything by Freud's incorporation of such notions into a pseudo-quantitative, hydraulically operated, dogmatically deterministic "mental apparatus" that teems with undetectable drives, mythic elves, phylogenetic memory traces, and mysteriously sexualized and desexualized energies? To maintain as much would be like declaring Rube Goldberg the prince of engineers.

Self-evidently, the public is entitled to know which distinctive claims of Freud's, if any, have received significant confirmation outside the Freudian belief system. The answer is: not a single one. Readers who find that result hard to believe could consult Edward Erwin's just-published book, A Final Accounting: Philosophical and Empirical Issues in Freudian Psychology (MIT Press). Erwin soberly reviews all relevant studies and concludes, with impeccable logic, that the entirety of psychoanalytic theory, along with the Freudian claim to special therapeutic efficacy, remains devoid of any appreciable corroboration. It is easy to foresee, however, that Lear will have none of this.

For him, the subjective and intuitive nature of psychoanalytic interpretations exempts them from evidential accountability. Indeed, "it is a sign of psychoanalysis's success as an interpretive science that its causal claims cannot be validated in the same way as those of the physical sciences" (italics as found). This paradox--one of several in Lear's tremulously irrationalist article--rests on a fundamental confusion of categories. Although interpretation may preoccupy the analytic hour, the claims of psychoanalytic theory are not interpretations but determinate propositions about how the mind regularly works.

Those propositions have to do, for example, with the function and meaning of dreams, the nature of drives, the defense mechanisms, the fantasies of the nursing infant, and the ubiquity of the Oedipus complex--all of which folklore is treated as established fact in Lear's vitalistic summa Freudiana of 1990, Love and Its Place in Nature (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Such ideas demand considerably more validation than Lear's banal reminder that people do not "always and everywhere act in rational and transparently explicable ways." But Lear has still another escape route handy, the contention (borrowed from Richard Wollheim) that Freudian propositions need no proof because they are merely "an extension of our ordinary psychological ways of interpreting people in terms of their beliefs, desires, hopes and fears."

If we can guess why someone heads for the refrigerator, Lear believes, then we ought to be able to guess why, let us say, Freud's Little Hans developed a horse phobia. But think about it. Little Hans became afraid of horses after a huge horse tripped and crashed to the street before his eyes. Not a very puzzling connection, after all. According to both Freud in his case history and Lear in his book, however, Hans's phobia came about because he was repressing a fear of his own oedipal aggression, which had unconsciously "caused" the felling of this big-penised father surrogate. Which of the two explanations comports with common sense? The fanciful Freud/Lear version would be comparable to saying that a trip to the refigerator must be motivated by an obsession with Mommy's closed and frigid "box." Lear is such a thoroughly indocrinated Freudian that he can't even perceive adherence to psychoanalysis as a commitment to one theory among others.

In his reverent view, psychoanalysis sets out not from an array of contested premises but from sheer "wonder that the unintelligibility of the events that surround one do not cause more wonder." Freudianism, in other words, is just curiosity in its most receptive and unbiased form. That is why Lear fails to register the difference between particular interpretations and general Freudian tenets: the latter are simply his window on reality. This same blindness prompts Lear to assert that it was only "on occasion" that Freud suggested conclusions to his patients. That claim would be mistaken even if it pertained only to Freud's explicit and habitual "reconstructions" of his analysands' infantile traumas. But more drastically, it overlooks the well-established fact--established chiefly by Adolf Grunbaum, whom Lear dismisses with a haughty harumph--that suggestion pervades every feature of the Freudian clinical exchange, from the production and glossing of "free" associations through the causal inferences that the patient is then coaxed into accepting. Whereas Lear asserts, bathetically, that "the proper attitude for an analyst is one of profound humility in the face of the infinite complexity of another human being," the only sure result of a "successful" Freudian treatment is that it will turn out another Freudian.

"It was Freud," claims Lear, "who first set the avoidance of suggestion as a therapeutic ideal--and it is Freud who devised the first therapeutic technique aimed at achieving it." Freud never doubted, however, that any suggestive hints by an analyst would always be opposed and overridden by the pure emanations of the repressed unconscious. Indeed, in a late paper he brazenly declared that no patient of his had ever been induced by suggestion to reach a false belief (Standard Edition, 23:262).

Yet the features of the analytic transaction that Lear doubtless considers to be safeguards against suggestion--the therapist's icy "neutrality" and the tortuously expensive ritual of "analyzing the transference" and "analyzing the countertransference"--serve in actuality as perfect tools for foisting off doctrine as insight. By casting each party in the therapeutic dyad as reenacting fixed childhood roles and by promoting the illusion of impartial data collection, psychoanalysis discounts the relatively malleable patient's vulnerability to the therapist's general beliefs and specific hunches. Lear's obtuseness about suggestion, combined with his evident ignorance of recent Freud scholarship, also prevents him from seeing what is wrong with the classic Freud/Jones/Gay account of the birth of psychoanalysis.

The received legend is good enough for him: Freud realized he had been "credulous" in taking his patients' stories of very early sexual abuse at face value, and thus he stumbled upon what Lear calls "the discovery of unconscious fantasy." By now, however, any number of Freud historians--including among others Frank Cioffi, Malcolm Macmillan, Jean Schimek, Morton Schatzman, Han Israels, Max Scharnberg, Allen Esterson, Russell Powell, and Robert Wilcocks--have established from Freud's papers of 1896 that the "stories" were told to Freud's patients by Freud himself, who had fallen victim to a typically monomaniacal idea that all "hysteria" results from repressed memories of abuse that the therapist must coax forth with severe and unwavering insistence.

Thus Freud's subsequent "discovery of fantasy" was nothing more than a craven rescue maneuver for his imperiled concept of repression.

Psychoanalysis as we know it blossomed when Freud, instead of admitting that he had tried to browbeat his patients into believing they had been molested, turned his own misdiagnosis into "false memories" supposedly generated by them in childhood to cover up their shameful and noxious practice of masturbation. Only later did he add his still more grotesque signature touch: the "memory" of having been abused could in most cases be regarded as an unconscious screen for the child's desire to fornicate with one or both parents.

Instead of discovering such dubious unconscious fantasies, Freud posited them to disguise the fact that his blatantly suggestive and question-begging investigative method, which he would continue to employ in much the same coercive manner, was getting him nowhere. This scholarly correction of Freud's retrospective propaganda about the "seduction theory" supplies part of the answer to Lear's question, "why doesn't Crews lionize Freud as the first person to call the veracity of [abuse] memories into question?" To judge from Lear's article, one would think that the post-1896 Freud devoted himself to smoking out false memories in a spirit of rational skepticism. On the contrary: not only did Freud himself concoct the "memories" that he is praised for having debunked, he also invented further ones to put in their place.

It is now widely recognized that the pre-1897 Freud was a recovered memory therapist in the worst modern sense of that term, but Lear and other Freudians cannot grasp that he remained one thereafter, only substituting relatively trivial primal scenes and oedipal wishes for the molestations that formerly made up the content of the repressed. Was it a watchdog against false memories who told the Wolf Man that a dream from age four about wolves in a tree, recounted in adulthood, proved that at age one he had watched his parents copulating from the rear three times in a row? Lear professes to be scandalized that I could assert any link whatsoever between classic Freudian theory and the recovered memory movement of the past decade. He fails to take note of my detailed arguments at several junctures in The Memory Wars or even of a one-sentence summation on (p. 274) that puts the case very plainly. The scientific pretensions of recovered memory, I wrote, derive from a number of unwarranted beliefs that were directly propagated by Freud: that repression is the normal human response to trauma; that experiences in infancy produce long-term memories that can be accurately retrieved decades later; that adult psychological difficulties can be reliably ascribed to certain forgotten events in early childhood and not to others; that sexual traumas are incomparably more susceptible to repression and to the formation of neurosis than any other kind; that symptoms are themselves "memories" that can yield up the story of their origin; that dream interpretation, too, can disclose the repressed past; that memory retrieval is necessary for symptom removal; and that psychotherapists can confidently trace their clinical findings to the patient's unconscious without allowing for the contaminating influence of their own diagnostic system, imparted directly or through suggestion. Could Lear be unware of this passage? Hardly; I read it aloud to him in a live debate about The Memory Wars in New York City on November 13, 1995.

As my introduction to that book makes clear, the psychoanalytic genealogy of recent witchhunts is only the theoretical side of an alarming story that truly deserves to be regarded as a scandal. If Lear had been reading his own psychoanalytic journals between 1990 and now, he would have learned that a number of psychoanalysts have become full converts to recovered memory, tossing out infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex and replacing them with the 1896 vintage of Freudian fanaticism: repressed molestation is back in style. Interested readers should watch for the second 1996 issue of Psychoanalytic Dialogues, where analysts, joined by me, variously welcome and express misgivings about this turn of events. The mostly young, mostly feminist advocates of psychoanalytic recovered memory are waging what I have called a war of succession for control of the otherwise moribund Freudian tradition. Like so much else, however, it has escaped the notice of Jonathan Lear.

Copyright Frederick Crews, 1995,1997, all rigths reserved.