readings> Freud and other frauds
This is a
chapter from my 1993 book, The Myth of Irrationality, that looks at the
way Sigmund Freud managed to cement in place the Romantic myth that the
deepest part of the human mind lies in the unconscious - a well of
irrational, almost super-human powers.
If the myth of irrationality is so wrong, it is fair to ask why science has not done more to shake people's belief in it. Surely under the unblinking eye of science, even the most seductive of fictions should have crumbled to dust by now?
One problem with the myth of irrationality is that attacking it is like battering your fists against jelly. The myth is not an explanation of how the mind works but rather an anti- explanation. If the good Captain Kirk ever had been pressed to explain his reckless bravery, his sudden bursts of inspiration, or his deep sense of compassion, all he would have been able to say was: "Hey, the thing that makes us human beings so special is that we are these crazy irrational creatures who do crazy inspired things. There are no reasons, that's just the way we are." It is not as if the myth is a clear-cut theory waiting to be demolished with a few well-aimed blows. Instead, the myth tells us not to worry if things do not make sense because, well, they are not supposed to make sense - otherwise, by definition, they would not be irrational!
A second reason why science has made so little headway against popular acceptance of the myth is that scientists are themselves only human and have been as caught up in the myth of human irrationality as everyone else. Psychology is still a young science, barely a hundred years old, and the Romantic movement was in full swing for a century before psychology got going. Christianity and Platonic philosophy had been around considerably longer. To many of psychology's pioneers, the ancient tripartite division of the mind seemed no more than common-sense. Indeed, they were so at home with this model that they took it as the starting point of their theorising and made the mistake of trying to turn it into science.
Freud's ropey start
The most famous of the many scientists to champion the myth of irrationality was Sigmund Freud. The story of Freud is worth lingering over because of the immense influence he has had on 20th Century thought. No matter how discredited Freud's work has become, his theories continue to seduce Western intellectuals and the vocabulary he created has come to be the standard one with which we talk about the mind.
Born in 1856, Freud was the bright first-born son of a Jewish cloth merchant. A star pupil at school, Freud sailed into Vienna University's world-leading medical academy. Until his 30s, Freud followed a quite conventional career in neurology. He studied animal nervous systems and human brain diseases under such renowned professors as Ernst Brucke and Theodor Meynert. It seemed Freud was set to make a modest name for himself in research and eventually achieve a dull but worthy position as a professor. Privately, however, Freud had little appetite for such an orthodox career. He had a yearning to make his name with a really dramatic scientific breakthrough. As he wrote to his fiancée in 1884, he was on the look-out for "a lucky hit" that would set them both up for life.
Freud's first go at striking lucky turned into a tremendous embarrassment. In the 1880s, samples of the newly discovered stimulant, cocaine, had just been refined by German chemists from a batch of coca leaves gathered on a recent expedition to South America. Freud heard tales about how Andean Indians chewed the leaves to help them till their fields and thinking that the drug could have a huge potential, decided to test some on himself. Freud's experiences with cocaine made a terrific impression on him and he became an ardent champion of the drug. In an extravagantly worded paper, "Uber Coca", published in 1884, Freud claimed cocaine to be a drug of near-magical powers.
Freud soon was promoting the drug as a cure for ailments ranging from seasickness to diabetes. Freud began to take cocaine regularly himself: "...against depression and against indigestion." He also prescribed it to his future wife and friends. Freud's championing of cocaine brought him the attention he had been seeking. However the affair ended badly once the drug's addictive and poisonous side-effects became apparent. Freud was forced to back away from his association with cocaine in rather a hurry.
Freud's second attempt to strike lucky came when he was offered a six month research grant giving him the freedom to go and study whatever he wanted. Demonstrating his nose for the spectacular, Freud abandoned the pickled brains and specimen slides of his neurology laboratory in Vienna to travel to Paris to study hysteria under Jean-Martin Charcot.
Charcot was the famed professor of brain disease at the Salpetriere, Paris's asylum, who had in his care a collection of "hysterics": patients given to all manner of alarming convulsions, contortions, trances and paralyses. With the benefit of medical hindsight, Charcot's hysterics now are believed to have been sufferers of epilepsy - the electrical "brainstorms" which in severe form can result in a loss of consciousness, but in milder forms, can lead to symptoms such as those exhibited by Charcot's patients. Charcot believed, however, that the fits were too extraordinary to be caused by anything else but some mad disturbance taking place in the deeper levels of the psyche - possibly as a result of sexual frustration or "menstrual congestion".
Freud was dazzled by the convulsive displays of Charcot's hysterics. To Freud, the fits were his first glimpse of the hidden power of the unconscious mind. He returned to Vienna in 1886 full of excitement and gave a lively account of Charcot's work to the city's Society of Physicians. However his talk was poorly received. The Viennese doctors already were familiar with Charcot's patients and had realised that their hysteria was likely to have an organic rather than a psychological cause. Freud came away from the meeting feeling that he had been snubbed by "the high authorities" of the city because his ideas were too revolutionary. Later he was to see this talk as marking the beginning of a lifelong feud with the narrow minded members of Vienna's medical establishment.
Despite this second set-back, Freud was undaunted. Almost immediately he plunged into yet a third enthusiasm. Josef Breuer, a respected doctor and friend of Freud's, had been attempting to cure an oddly behaving patient through the use of hypnosis. Breuer believed that the 21-year-old girl, Bertha Pappenheim (known to psychoanalytic literature as Anna O.), was suffering a hysteric collapse brought about by having to nurse her dying father. Pappenheim had been looking after her father for some months when she took to her bed with a strange assortment of symptoms that included paralysis, hallucinations, fits and loss of speech. Breuer was convinced that Pappenheim was feigning illness to conceal her traumatic feelings. But again with the benefit of hindsight, modern medical writers like Henri Ellenberger tell quite a different story.
Bertha Pappenheim's father had been dying of tuberculosis and it appears that she too had caught the disease. But instead of contracting tuberculosis of the lung, she had developed a much rarer form of the infection - one that affected the brain. This would have caused all the symptoms Breuer described, but for physical, not psychic, reasons. As revealed in his notes on the case, Breuer in fact did consider himself the possibility that his patient might be suffering from tuberculous meningitis. But he dismissed this diagnosis, saying that her symptoms were just too bizarre (the strangest of these being that Pappenheim lost the ability to speak German when she lay down in the evening and could talk only in English). Pressing on in the belief that he was dealing with a hysteric, Breuer hypnotised Pappenheim and tried to get her to "talk out" the repressed memories that he thought must be troubling her.
Freud was fascinated by Breuer's treatment and followed the
case closely. He adopted the idea of the talking cure for himself and
eventually persuaded a somewhat reluctant Breuer to jointly publish a
book on the great discovery. In Freud and Breuer's Studies in
Hysteria‚ the case of Bertha Pappenheim was
celebrated as the first psychoanalytic cure. It was claimed that the
patient had been cured the instant certain painful childhood memories
were brought back to the light of consciousness. However, in reality,
the truth was very different.
As Ellenberger and others have discovered by tracking down the original medical records, Pappenheim's condition actually worsened during Breuer's treatment. His therapy had to be cut short when Pappenheim became so ill that she was taken away to a Swiss sanatorium. It took four further months for her illness to abate and the worst of her symptoms to disappear. Even years after Breuer's supposed cure, Pappenheim still suffered from excruciating neuralgia pains.
Freud knew the full details of Pappenheim's case yet still chose to represent it as an instant cure and use it as a springboard to launch himself into his psychoanalytic career. As quickly as he could afford to, Freud divorced himself from his conventional work at a children's out-patient clinic and set up a private practice in which he could treat other hysterics and neurotics using the talking cure.
Perhaps feeling guilty about the way the Pappenheim case had turned out, Breuer lost interest in the treatment he had invented and eventually broke with Freud. Breuer later commented grimly: "Freud is a man given to absolute and exclusive formulations: this is a psychical need which, in my opinion, leads to excessive generalisation." Freud pressed on regardless. He abandoned hypnotism as a means of regressing patients, saying he found it too unreliable, and instead developed his own technique of analysis based on free association and the interpretation of dreams. For the next decade, Freud sat at the head of the psychoanalytic couch, gradually developing a model of the mind from the revelations he was gaining from his patients.
a man of his times
In considering Freud's model of the mind, it is important to realise that Freud was not quite the revolutionary that many of his biographers make him out to be. In fact the vision of the mind underlying his theories was thoroughly rooted in the Romantic movement that had got under way a hundred years earlier. At a time when his Vienna colleagues were making great strides in understanding the neural structure of the brain and the organic nature of many mental diseases, it was Freud whose thinking harked back to medicine's unscientific past.
It was rare for Freud to acknowledge the debt his work owed to the romantic tradition - even if he admitted it was Goethe's essay, An Ode to Nature, which inspired him to take up medicine in the first place. However others, such as Lancelot Whyte and Ernest Gellner, have shown how heavily Freud was influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. The two philosophers' conception of a seething, irrational will had many similarities with Freud's vision of a sex-obsessed unconscious. The general hydraulic flavour of Freud's view of human nature - where the urgings of a dark unconscious well up in the mind and if dammed in their expression, cause the psyche to spring leaks elsewhere - also came directly from the romantic tradition. The idea of the mind as a fluid energy dated back to the Naturphilosophie movement, a romantic science founded by Friedrich Schelling in the 1800s, and before that, all the way back to Aristotle.
As has been seen, Aristotle developed a physiology of the mind based on the four humours - blood, mucous, and yellow and black bile. Different balances of these humours gave rise to different states of mind. Aristotle also saw the soul as an organic life-force which in "dilute" form gave the simple awareness of lower animals, and in concentrated or elevated form, gave the self-conscious and rational awareness of humans.
Aristotle's theories about vital fluids became part of Western thought through the medical writings of Galen, the Second Century Greek physician. While Plato's model of the mind became entwined with Christian belief to become the West's dominant theory of the mind, Aristotle's ideas became a vaguely related sub-theme of the myth that expressed itself mostly in the thinking of Medieval and Renaissance doctors. Aristotle's idea of a surging life-force and four bodily humours gave a physical explanation of the mind that complemented Plato's metaphysical idea of mankind poised halfway between the animal and the divine.
Influenced by Aristotle's hydraulic view of the mind, Renaissance anatomists came to believe that the networks of nerves that laced the body were, in fact, pipes down which vital animal spirits flowed. The ventricles of the brain - a system of fluid-filled chambers at the centre of the cerebral hemispheres - were seen as the seat of consciousness. Such plumbing analogies took on a renewed popularity with the rise of the Naturphilosophie movement, a school of medicine linked to Romanticism that flourished in Germany during the first half of the 1800s. The movement attempted to found a new science based on the belief that there was a common world soul (weltseele) connecting all forms of life. In its purest form, this world soul welled up within the human body to give rise to rational consciousness.
Naturphilosophie caught the public's imagination with its religious overtones and promotion of intriguing phenomena such as animal magnetism. But as a science, the movement soon became discredited. Certainly, by the time Freud started his medical studies in the 1870s, enough was known about the nervous system to make the hydraulic metaphors of Naturphilosophie outdated. Indeed, Freud was studying under the very physiologists who finally had laid romantic medicine to rest. Yet the image of a psychic pressure cooker still was to become the foundation of Freud's theories.
The picture of the man who sat down in the 1890s to formulate the psychoanalytic model of the mind is not a particularly flattering one. Freud had shown himself to be an able student and had had the good fortune to be working in Vienna at a time when it was the centre of modern medicine. But Freud also had shown a gullibility, a reckless ambition, and a dishonesty in the reporting of cures that put a question-mark over his suitability for his lone venture.
There is good evidence that one further problem for Freud was that he had become addicted to the cocaine he earlier had experimented with. Freud's personality during this period showed the classic symptoms of cocaine abuse. He worked in great bursts of activity which were followed by bouts of black depression. He had the intense preoccupation with sex which cocaine excites, but judging from comments in his letters, he also had the impotence that is a side-effect of heavy use of the drug. In addition, Freud appeared to suffer from the paranoia that is another common symptom of cocaine abuse - Freud was famous for the way he suddenly broke with many close friends and his conviction that the world was against him and his theories. Finally, Freud suffered from a variety of cocaine-related physical ailments such as heart irregularities, fainting fits and ulcers of the nose.
It is not disputed that Freud took cocaine while working on his psychoanalytic theory - even his official biographer, Ernest Jones, made reference to the fact. The question is how much influence the habit might have had on Freud's character and on the ideas he was developing. Some have suggested that a cocaine habit would explain why the idea of sexual energy played such a prominent part in his theories and also the messianic conviction with which he tended to argue his case.
the id, ego and superego
Freud's model of the mind was complex and was to undergo several revisions. But boiled down to its basics, his argument was this: the mind can be divided into three parts, the id, the ego and the superego. The most basic part, the id, is the primal unconscious; the energy source that drives the whole personality. In terms of the myth of irrationality, the id is the pit of bestial desires; the deeply buried part of the mind that is illogical and amoral.
While the id bubbles away in its unseen depths, the ego is the self-aware and rational part of the mind. The ego is equipped with defence mechanisms to keep the dark forces of the id in check. However such is the seething energy of the id that occasionally it will breach these defences and break through into awareness, expressing itself in irrational and neurotic behaviour. The way Freud portrayed the ego was almost as if it were a polite but nervous parent trying hard not to notice the noisy tantrums being thrown by an unruly child at its feet. The third component of the mind was the superego - Freud's name for a person's moral conscience. Freud believed the superego was formed by a child absorbing the customs and standards of its parents and peers. This moral code then sank down into the unconscious where it lay in wait, ready to nip the heels of the ego when it got out of line.
In some respects, this division of the mind into primal
instincts, the self-aware ego and a social conscience could have been a
reasonable starting point for a modern view of the mind. Unlike
traditional versions of the myth of irrationality, Freud was not
claiming that any aspect of the mind was divine or supernatural. In the
superego, Freud also had reserved a small place for the moulding
influence that society has on the human mind.
However Freud fleshed out this simple model with a complicated demonology of sexual urges, complexes and repressions and gave the whole system a false hydraulic energy. For Freud, sex - or what he called the libido - was the primary source of all mental energy; a driving obsession that lay behind every action. Even more controversially, Freud claimed that the full force of sexual desire was experienced not just in adulthood but from the moment a person is born.
This belief that sexual energy exerts a constant pressure on consciousness from the moment of birth led Freud to his particular view of childhood development. Freud claimed that every child has to pass through a series of erotic stages. To begin with, the focus of sexuality is the mouth and the act of breast-feeding. It then shifts to the anus and bowel control, before finally settling on the correct adult zone of the genitals. Mental problems were thought to be caused by a child's progress becoming stuck at one of these early stages.
In addition, Freud claimed that, at the age of four or five, every child experiences what he called the Oedipal crisis. Boys were said to feel a universal urge to make love to their mothers and girls to possess their fathers. Worried that their parental rival knew about these incestuous feelings, children were supposed to fear castration (or in the case of girls, assume that castration had already taken place, thus leading to their special complex of penis envy in which they wanted to reclaim their lost member). It was not until children had managed to resolve this crisis by erecting a brick wall of repression around their fears and desires that they could go on to develop a proper superego and become normal adults.
Freud felt his discovery of the Oedipus complex, and its female counterpart, the Electra complex, was his crowning achievement - "a discovery fit to rank besides that of electricity and the wheel," as one critic put it. However the evidence that Freud gathered to back up his ideas about childhood sexual complexes was weak in the extreme. Too much depended on Freud being able correctly to divine the secret meaning behind the dreams, word associations and slips of the tongue of his patients.
Freud, himself, never seemed to doubt his ability to uncover the sexual fantasies that lay beneath the surface of ordinary thought. He could see a penis in every protruding object and a vagina in every receptacle. As he wrote, there was no doubt that in dreams: "...all weapons or tools are used as symbols for the male organ: Eg, ploughs, hammers, rifles, revolvers, daggers, sabres, etc. In the same way, many landscapes in dreams, especially any containing bridges or wooded hills, may clearly be recognised as descriptions of the [female] genitals."
Freud was prepared to make the most tenuous connections in interpreting his patients' thoughts. One woman's tale about being afraid of stepping near a window for fear of falling was analysed by Freud as the repression of an unconscious desire to lean out an open window and beckon men like a prostitute. There was no point the poor woman protesting against Freud's interpretation because Freud would see this merely as added proof of her need to repress such a shameful urges.
Two further patients show the quality of the evidence that Freud gathered to support his theories and the ease with which he seemed able to satisfy himself of the correctness of his analyses.
One of Freud's most famous cases was that of the Wolf Man, a patient who had a dream about seeing six or seven white wolves sitting in a walnut tree outside his bedroom window. After several years of analysis, Freud decided that the patient's dream was a transformed childhood memory of witnessing his parents making love three times one afternoon while he was aged only one-and-a-half years old.
Breaking down the symbolism of the dream, Freud said the whiteness of the wolves obviously stood for the parent's underclothes. Their extra-bushy tails were an oblique reference to an old children's story about a tailless wolf - which, in turn, was a disguised reference to the patient's fear of castration by his "wolf" father. The fact that there were six or seven wolves rather than only two was another attempt by his ego defence mechanisms to disguise the knowledge that the dream was about his parents having intercourse. By several more such twists of logic, Freud eventually arrived at the idea that the secret which was so distressing the Wolf Man in his adult life was a repressed wish to be sodomised by his father!
It was typical of Freud's methods that sometimes he read symbols directly - the whiteness of the wolves signifying white underclothes - but at other times he read them indirectly - the bushy tails of the wolves concealing the idea of a tailless wolf and their number concealing the fact that just two people were involved. If Freud had chosen, he could have decided that the whiteness stood for something black - a funeral shroud perhaps - and that the half-dozen bushy tails represented the genitals of twice as many naked men. The eternal problem with Freud's method of interpretation was that the evidence always could be twisted to fit just about any theory and no one interpretation appeared to have any more justification than any other.
The rejoinder of the supporters of psychoanalysis is that the proof a particular interpretation has hit the target comes when it produces a cure. Like lancing a boil, bringing a repressed desire to the light of consciousness should bring about a cathartic release from the neurotic symptoms that were troubling the patient. However - as with Bertha Pappenheim - the case of the Wolf Man was not the triumphant cure that psychoanalytic literature made it out to be. In the 1970s, scholars checking up on Freud's claims discovered the Wolf Man's real identity and approached him. Over 80 years old, the Wolf Man was still seeking out psychoanalytic help - saying that while the treatment did not seem to have done him much good, at least he enjoyed his sessions on the couch.
The Wolf Man confessed that Freud's elaborate interpretation of his dream never made much sense to him, saying it all seemed "terribly far fetched". For a start, coming from an aristocratic Russian family where he was cared for by a nanny, there was little chance he could have witnessed his parents in bed together. However, while he did not accept Freud's interpretations and he agreed that psychoanalysis did not appear to make much long-term difference to the depression he suffered from, the Wolf Man clearly was struck by Freud's magnetic personality. If nothing else, he said, the years in analysis had been a fascinating experience.
A second patient (who appeared as no more than a footnote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life was even more revealing of Freud's apparently unshakable faith in the correctness of his interpretations. Freud's words speak for themselves:
"M l was a 14-year-old girl, the most remarkable case I had had in recent years, one which taught me a lesson I am not likely ever to forget and whose outcome cost me moments of the greatest distress. The child fell ill of an unmistakeable hysteria, which did in fact clear up quickly and radically under my care. After this improvement, the child was taken away from me by her parents. She still complained of abdominal pains which had played the chief part in the clinical picture of her hysteria. Two months later she died of [cancer] of the abdominal glands. The hysteria, to which she was at the same time predisposed, used the tumour as a provoking cause, and I, with my attention held by the noisy but harmless manifestations of the hysteria, had perhaps overlooked the first signs of the insidious and incurable disease."
Clearly, Freud was troubled by this incident, yet he did not seem to see that he might have been just plain wrong in his diagnosis.
There is not room here to give more than a taste of the casework that Freud drew on to support his psychoanalytic model of the mind. However, others have examined the evidence exhaustively and despite the high public standing of Freud's theories, nearly a century of careful investigation has failed to provide any convincing proof in favour of them. Every interpretation could have had been made half-a-dozen different ways and reviews of the success rates of psychoanalytic treatments have shown that psychoanalysis is not a reliable method for dealing even with minor mental complaints such as phobias and depressions.
In cases where psychoanalysis does appear to help patients, it seems to be the talking through of problems that brings the benefit rather than any Freudian process of catharsis - a fact that has led many modern versions of analysis, such as cognitive therapy, to drop the dead weight of Freudian theory and to concentrate on allowing patients to "reprogram" themselves by talking through their thoughts aloud. Certainly, the Freudian approach of dream analysis and the uncovering of childhood sexual traumas has proved a complete failure in curing true mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.
If Freud's method of therapy has fared badly, his model of the mind has gathered even less scientific support. His claim that humans are driven by the constant pressure of sexual feelings, and that all children share the same ripe fantasies about their parents, goes against the evidence of modern psychology. When we come to look at emotions, dreams, creativity, humour and thought, we will see how Freud's whole concept of a mind with a separate, walled-off unconscious, filled with hydraulic energies - sexual or otherwise - is false. It also will become obvious that children lack the language to think the complex thoughts that Freud ascribed to them, let alone arrive at identical possession and castration complexes.
Summing up the experimental evidence that Freud's followers have put forward in support of psychoanalytic theory, the English psychologist, Hans Eysenck, concluded: "...over 80 years after the original publication of Freudian theories, there still is no sign that they can be supported by adequate experimental evidence, or by clinical studies, statistical investigations or observational methods...As another great scientist, Michael Faraday, once said: 'They reason theoretically, without demonstration experimentally, and errors are the result.' These words might well be carved on the grave of psychoanalysis as a scientific doctrine."
the cult of psychoanalysis
Given that Freud's teachings have never had the support of objective evidence, the puzzle is how psychoanalysis could have become so central to modern culture and how Freud has come to be feted as one of the greatest of all scientists. Even a harsh critic of Freud, such as E M Thornton (who detailed Freud's abuse of cocaine), had to admit: "Probably no single individual has had a more profound effect on 2Oth Century thought than Sigmund Freud. His works have influenced psychiatry, anthropology, social work, penology, and education and provided a seemingly limitless source of material for novelists and dramatists. Freud has created `a whole new climate of opinion'; for better or worse he has changed the face of society. The vocabulary of psychoanalysis has passed into the language of everyday life. Freud himself has been described as a genius of the stature of Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Copernicus."
In an attempt to explain the enormous appeal of psychoanalysis, the Cambridge professor of social anthropology, Ernest Gellner, says Freud's theories have a compelling drama about them. As an explanation of human nature, psychoanalysis simply is more exciting than the woolly answers offered by academic psychology or even the ascetic, self-denying teachings of Plato and the Christian church. Gellner says what gives psychoanalysis this high drama is its mixing of the familiar and the shocking.
As has been argued, much of Freud's theories are nothing more than a restatement of accepted romantic psychology - what Gellner calls the pays reel of popular psychology: the traditional conception of: "...man as half-angel, half- beast." Gellner says a "scientific" theory that openly embraced the romantic view was bound to be warmly received. But what gave psychoanalysis its dramatic tension was that it spiced this traditional view with shocking new claims about the treacherous unconscious and repressed incestuous desires.
Gellner comments: "A compelling, charismatic belief system...must engender a tension in the neophyte or potential convert. It must tease and worry him, and not leave him alone. It must be able to worry and tease him with both its promise and its threat, and be able to invoke his inner anxiety as evidence of its own authenticity. Thou wouldst not seek Me, if thou hadst not already found Me in thy heart!...Demonstrable or obvious truths do not distinguish the believer from the infidel, and they do not excite the faithful. Only difficult belief can do that."
Ambiguity about the scientific standing of psychoanalysis only adds to this dramatic tension. On the one hand, psychoanalysis is respectable. Its founder was a doctor who frequently asserted the scientific nature of his work. Its practitioners also are doctors and are members of analytic societies that hold conferences and publish learned journals. Psychoanalysis has all the oak-panelled prestige of an established branch of medicine. Yet on the other hand, psychoanalysis deals in the poetic, the mysterious and the sexual. It has set up its camp in areas that seem to be off- limits to normal science and medicine.
The spicy tale told by psychoanalysis goes some way to explaining why it has caught the popular imagination. But psychoanalysis is more than just a story with good box office appeal. Gellner argues that Freud's theories would not have had the same hold on Western culture unless the process of psychoanalysis itself had produced a core of emotionally- committed followers. Gellner says that to understand psychoanalysis's grip, it has to be seen as a religious cult that comes complete with a charismatic leader, a seductive liturgy and a well-oiled machinery of indoctrination. It is a hardcore of passionate believers that drives psychoanalysis. To justify this claim, Gellner points to the ways in which the process of analysis is like a rite of initiation.
Undoubtedly, psychoanalytic treatment is emotionally demanding. A classical course of analysis assumes that the patient will spend at least three or four hours a week on the couch and that treatment will last months, or even years. Gellner notes that when patients enter analysis, the first thing that happens is that they are placed in a state of disorientation. They learn that according to psychoanalytic theory, their most innocuous thoughts are likely to conceal the vilest unconscious urges. Patients enter a no-man's land where suddenly their own thoughts have become untrustworthy and if they want to know what they really feel and desire, then they will have to await the truths that will emerge out of analysis.
Gellner argues that the requirement that patients free associate - say whatever comes into their heads - while the analyst listens in silence, is also an important ingredient in fostering this state of initial disorientation: "The analyst's silence does indeed constitute or engender, not so much sensory, as conceptual deprivation. The patient is not allowed to erect and maintain patterns of his own (that would not be free association), and he is initially denied any patterns by the prestigious therapist." Softened-up by a month or two of such treatment, Gellner says the patient becomes so hungry for explanations that when finally one is offered by the analyst, it is grabbed at uncritically.
Perhaps Gellner makes too much of the psychological pressure that psychoanalysis brings to bear with its techniques. After all, many patients, like the Wolf Man, take the interpretations of their analysts with a pinch of salt. To liken psychoanalysis to a form of brain-washing seems too strong. However Gellner says it is important to note that the explicitly-stated aim of a course of analytic therapy is to achieve a phenomenon known as transference.
Transference is the name psychoanalysts give to the strong emotional attachment that patients form for their doctor. Analysts believe this attachment to be an essential part of effecting a cure. According to Freud, the neurotic symptoms that bring a patient to analysis are caused by a repressed libido becoming entangled in a narrowing circle of unhealthy fantasies. By getting patients temporarily to transfer the focus of their libido to the figure of the analyst, their symptoms will be drained of their sustaining energy and so will vanish. The price paid for this redirection of the libido is the "transference illness" - an intense love/hate relationship that the patient develops with the analyst. However, wrote Freud, once the transference illness has works itself through, the libido will be released once more and the patient restored to full mental health. Gellner dismisses Freud's explanation, saying it is obvious that transference is nothing more than the emotional bond that a vulnerable patient forms for the prestigious authority figure of the analyst - the same kind of tie of respect that is necessary in any ceremony of initiation.
Gellner argues: "Transference is the covenant, the bond, the social cement, the social contract of the whole movement...Binding, loyalty- requiring organisations normally possess...solemn rites de passage‚ oaths, initiation ordeals, which ensure that the entrant henceforth has a psychic investment in membership and does not easily or carelessly relinquish it. Transference does this for the psychoanalytic system, and does it supremely well." Gellner adds that it is not just patients who undergo the emotionally-committing experience of transference. All psychoanalysts must themselves have undergone a three year training analysis before being allowed to practice.
Seeing psychoanalysis as a pseudo-religious cult which binds believers to it through the process of analysis helps explain the hold Freud has taken on the 20th Century imagination. Of course, the number of people who have come into direct contact with psychoanalytic therapy is limited (although, it numbers in the millions) and most people are aware of Freud's ideas only through second-hand sources. However the existence of an emotionally-committed core gives psychoanalysis a hot centre that an ordinary body of scientific ideas lacks. Psychoanalysis radiates such an intensity of belief in itself that even the casual observer cannot help but feel there must be something in Freud's theories for people to be making such a fuss.
Jung and others
Freud is important to our story because he took the myth of irrationality and sanctified it. The romantics had given the myth its poetic voice. Freud then threw the mantle of science over it, making it respectable. Having said that, Freud's version of the myth did have its idiosyncrasies that made it somewhat different from what had gone before.
As has been said, in its most traditional form, the myth of irrationality portrays the rational ego as being suspended halfway between heaven and hell. At least Freud did not argue for supernatural explanations of the mind and saw both aspects of human nature as being firmly rooted in the physical reality of the brain.
With his concept of the superego, Freud also went a long way towards acknowledging the importance of social upbringing. He understood that humans have to learn such culturally-valued attitudes as mercy, charity and loyalty, rather than them being discovered within like some divine gift. Yet despite these minor revisions, Freud's model was still the romantic one. He believed that a brutish, unreasoning animal beat within every breast. He also was convinced that imagination, dreams and fantasies were irrational processes with their roots buried in the unconscious.
When Freud's ideas started to emerge into public view in the 1920s and 1930s, they struck a chord with intellectuals. For writers, artists, philosophers, political theorists, sociologists and other opinion-formers of the day, it seemed as if finally a scientist had confirmed their age-old poetic vision of humanity. Intellectuals seized upon psychoanalysis as a fashionable prism through which they could take a fresh look at any subject from history to architecture. They began to speculate about the Oedipal tendencies that drove Napoleon on his trail of conquest or the hidden phallic symbolism of the modern skyscraper. Freud's theories lent an aura of profundity to the plots of dozens of novels and provided a rationale for new art movements like Surrealism. More than anything else, Freud brought a confidence-boosting sense of legitimacy to a generation of romantics at just the moment when science was mounting its strongest challenge to the romantic outlook.
The outbreak of the Second World War caused the break up of the close circle of analysts that Freud had gathered around him in Vienna. Many were forced to flee before the Nazis and seek refuge overseas. But this flight only served to spark a second and even greater explosion of psychoanalytic thinking once Freud's followers gained new footholds in academic establishments in England and America. During the 1950s, Freud's ideas became highly influential in areas such as psychiatry, education and social work. Eventually, the very language of Freud started to become part of everyday life. People began to speak about the mind in terms of egos, defence mechanisms, Freudian slips, repressions, neuroses and complexes. Rather than calling someone prissy, they would call them anal-retentive, or instead of selfish, it would be egocentric. Psychoanalysis had worked its way into Western culture at every level.
So far psychoanalysis has been talked about as if it were a single faith with a single leader. While Freud and his theories still form the hub of psychoanalysis, its very success has led to a broadening and splintering of the movement. Most of the schisms have been led by members of Freud's circle in Vienna who have fallen out with Freud over some article of faith, then departed to set up their own analytic school.
The most famous of these wayward disciples was Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist who was being groomed as Freud's heir apparent until he broke with the master in 1912. The son of a Protestant minister, Jung was enthusiastic about Freud's analytic treatments but never had much sympathy for Freud's insistence that sexuality was the sole driving force of the human mind. After cutting himself free of Freud, Jung developed his own psychoanalytic model which took analysis towards the realm of the mystical and the occult.
In many ways, Jung brought back Platonism in all its pomp. Jung added a new level to Freud's model of the mind, saying that beneath the irrational pit of desires that made up the Freudian unconscious lay a still deeper level of mind, the collective unconscious. Jung had been puzzled that the same mythical stories and figures seemed to crop up repeatedly in the culture of many different countries. To explain this, Jung suggested that every person must share a "race memory" filled with the same collection of archetypal images and symbols. These archetypes include the creation myth, the virgin birth, the form of the snake, the Great Mother, the mandala, the eternal feminine, Paradise, four-foldedness, and the number three.
The parallel between Jung's unconscious archetypes and Plato's pure forms is obvious. The difference is that where Plato had seen this ultimate level of the mind as a celestial realm filled with mathematical and moral essences, Jung saw it as a genetic reservoir filled with arcane symbols. Somewhat of a recluse, the impact of Jung's ideas were not felt immediately. But in the 1960s and 1970s, Jung became immensely popular - the overtones of Platonic spirituality and occult folklore that he brought to Freud's psychoanalytic model striking a resonant note with the times.
Jung was only the most prominent of Freud's followers to split off and form his own psychoanalytic cult. Others to do so included Alfred Adler, Otto Rank and Wilhelm Reich. Like Jung, Adler rejected Freud's sexual complexes, arguing instead that a desire to dominate was the prime motivation of the unconscious - a theory which was, in effect, a return to Nietzsche's idea of the striving will. Otto Rank's twist on psychoanalysis was to go back beyond childhood and the Oedipus complex to seek the primary trauma of life in the moment of birth - a project that was to inspire therapeutic techniques such as rebirthing and primal screaming therapy. The third of this trio, Reich, was the most extreme. Reich believed that a magical force, orgone, was released at the moment of orgasm and he became famous for the special boxes (built of alternate layers of wood and metal) which people could sit inside to trap this energy.
The splintering of psychoanalysis continued into the second and third generation of analysts. People like Melanie Klein, Harry Stack Sullivan, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Jacques Lacan all developed their own distinct brands of psychoanalytic theory. From this profusion of ideas sprang an even greater variety of therapeutic practices. As a writer on psychoanalysis, Steven Marcus, has remarked, therapies now span a spectrum that: "...ranges from a variety of drug therapies, encounter groups, marathon and weekend catharses to sensitivity training, touching courses and feeling games, primal screaming, aggressiveness-raising, consciousness- lifting, meditations, massages, and who knows what else. Most of these practices are overtly hostile to psychoanalysis, though many of them consist of taking one or two pieces of psychoanalytic discovery, procedure, or insight and transforming it or them into an entire therapeutic regime."
Insiders to the psychoanalytic profession remain sharply aware of the distinctions between their differing brands of theory. But to the wider world, the Freudian legacy has become a blurred hotch-potch of ideas. However, this has done little to harm Freud's high status within intellectual circles. If anything, the way that fragments of the movement have reconnected with past strands of irrational mythology - for example, Jung forging a link with Plato and the occult, and Adler with Nietzsche - has served only to weld psychoanalysis more firmly into place at the heart of Western culture.
humanism and new agers
In the 1960s, this ever-broadening Freudian legacy played a large part in inspiring the rise of a new psychological school, Humanism. At the time, Humanism was thought to be a reaction against Freud and his black European vision of the helpless ego, tossing upon the sea of a sex-obsessed unconscious. The movement was started by American psychotherapists and university academics who wanted to put forward a more positive view of the human condition. Humanism also saw itself as a reaction against the behaviourist school that dominated the academic psychology of the day - people like John Watson and Burrhus Skinner whom the humanists felt paid too much attention to rats in boxes and not enough to what being human and conscious actually felt like. In 1962, a collection of like-minded researchers set up the American Association for Humanistic Psychology to encourage the study of neglected aspects of the mind such as love, humour, peak experiences, personal growth and creativity.
The leading lights of the Humanist movement were Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow. In Rogers' theories, a consciously experienced urge for personal growth replaced Freud's unconscious sex drive as the prime mover of the mind. Like a seed planted in good soil, Rogers believed people born in a loving environment would do their best to grow and express their generous inner natures. He warned that rigid social stereotypes could cause mental problems by cramping a person's development and so he urged people to get in touch with their true feelings. Maslow, likewise, believed that humans have an organic drive to grow. Maslow created an ascending ladder of needs, ranging from basic physical needs like food and shelter to spiritual ones like self-respect and self-expression. The driving goal felt by every human was to climb as high up this ladder as they could and, according to Maslow, those lucky enough to reach the top would emerge vibrant and whole.
While the humanists' rejection of Freud's subversive unconscious in favour of a purposeful ego seems at first sight to be a step away from the myth of irrationality, in fact the humanists had fallen into the same trap as Freud. Instead of challenging the myth, once again, they merely were dressing it up in respectable scientific clothes. The difference was that while Freud had emphasised the animal half of the irrational equation, the humanists, in their fresh-faced optimism, preferred the myth's divine aspects, focusing on positive qualities such as creativity, love and tranquillity. Indeed, humanist psychology can be seen as a belated reaction to the 20th Century cult of individualism in just the same way that Freud's theories were a century-late reaction to the original Romantic movement. By claiming self-expression was not just a literary ideal invented by 19th Century writers and philosophers but a fundamental drive wired into the psyche, the humanists provided the ultimate justification for the cult of individuality. What had started out as a poetic fancy now became a biological compulsion.
Maslow and Rogers had hoped the humanist approach would revolutionise psychology. However, in basing their work on the romantic model, the humanists soon proved to be building on sand. Humanism can be credited with at least bringing some measure of scientific attention to important aspects of the mind such as creativity and conscious experience, but it did not produced the breakthroughs that its supporters had hoped for.
While failing to lead to strong science, the humanist movement has, of course, still been a huge public success. Tapping into the myth of irrationality as it does, Humanism could hardly fail to capture the popular imagination and has washed down into everyday culture under the broad label of New Age thinking.
The New Age movement is a patchwork quilt of fashionable ideas, embracing everything from Eastern religion and meditation to paranormal powers and the occult. But the glue holding this eclectic mix together is the humanists' belief that the route to personal fulfillment lies in an exploration of the self. The answers to life are seen as lying within the vast untapped potential of the irrational human soul. The New Age movement caught the media's attention in 1987 when 20,000 people met at sacred sites around the world in a "harmonic convergence" aimed at saving the planet. A Time magazine cover story later the same year sealed the comic stereotype of the New Ager as an aging Californian hippie who had traded in hard rock and hard drugs for soft music, exercise and meditation.
Yet while it is easy to poke fun at the wacky image of New Agers, what is significant about the movement is that it shows how our theories about the human mind are always much more than just neutral explanations of an interesting phenomenon. The model of mind that we hold tends to become the blueprint for the way we think we should live. The Neoplatonic division of the mind into divine rationality and evil flesh led to the self-denying ethic that became the hallmark of the early Christian life-style. The Romantic movement's belief that the best in humans lies in irrational feeling now justifies the self-centred and emotive approach to life of the modern macho cult of individuality. The New Age movement is just the latest example of how today's psychology has a tendency to become tomorrow's life-style - something that gives us all the more reason to be concerned if the theories we hold today happen to be flawed.