Freud, family-life and politics
Stephen Frosh considers two attempts at defining Freud. Stoddard Martin is intrigued by a Jew admired by Nazis
JUST A short while after the publication of a major new biography of Freud, by Elisabeth Roudinesco (reviewed in the JC of November 25, 2016), another has come along in the form of an “intellectual biography” by the well-known American psychoanalyst, Joel Whitebook. Like Roudinesco’s book, Whitebook’s is strongly argued, well-informed, sympathetic to Freud, and energetically opinionated.
Unlike Roudinesco, however, Whitebook presents little new material and does not seem to have used the most recently released archives. Instead, he relies on a relatively limited range of secondary sources as well as Freud’s own major writings. Despite this, he presents a sensitive account of Freud that, among other things, gives a realistic portrait of the Jewishness that ran as a partially submerged but crucial theme throughout his life.
But this Freud is not a comprehensive “life”, and it skates quite quickly over many aspects of Freud’s biography as well as omitting most of the context for the emergence of psychoanalysis as a powerful practice and organised profession. What it does offer is a lively and chronologically well-grounded account of Freud’s major theoretical developments and, in particular, of two of Freud’s formative intellectual relationships, those with Wilhelm Fleiss in the 1890s and Carl Jung in the early 1900s.
Whitebook addresses all this from the perspective of a contemporary psychoanalyst who is alert to what he sees as Freud’s inability to deal with his very difficult mother — an issue that he legitimately claims has been undervalued in the literature. This is why, he thinks, Freud consistently neglected the role of the mother in psychic life, and instead overvalued those aspects of the European “enlightenment” that privileged “masculine” reason.
Dagmar Herzog’s fine new book, Cold War Freud, takes up a different aspect of the story of psychoanalysis, dealing with the history of its political involvements in the period from the Second World War until the 1990s.
In six interlocking essays exploring the sensitivities of post-war psychoanalysis, Herzog portrays the discipline as locked in a long-running conflict between those who would make it a “normalising” profession, and those who see its critical edge as unabated and sharp. The book has two main geographical locations, America and Germany, though it also travels away from them, especially in the final chapter on “ethno-psychoanalysis”. The material on America reveals an unexpected and relatively unexamined link between the “desexualisation” of psychoanalysis, the rise of cold-war politics, and the consolidation of conservative Christianity.
For Jewish readers, the most alarming and startling chapters of Cold War Freud are those dedicated to “The Ascent of PSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder]” and “The Struggle between Eros and Death.”
Both these chapters reveal the long and painful struggle with the residue of Nazism, especially in post-war Germany.
In the former, the main issue is the lengths that German psychiatrists and psychoanalysts went to in order to prevent victims of Nazism gaining any financial reparation. The victims were portrayed as neurotic and money-grabbing, and it was the role of the German doctors to deny them.
The latter chapter looks at the impact of Konrad Lorenz’s work in suggesting that violence was inborn and so not the prerogative of the Nazis. Herzog reveals a nasty strain of continued denial and antisemitism that is only partly worked through to this day, and certainly lingered in Germany after the war to a far greater extent than is often admitted.
Whitebook is alert to Freud’s problems with his mother
Freud boarding for his first flight, Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, November 1928