October 2003

Mark Coffey

nonfiction

In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcom

Think of Freud...now what were your thoughts? Mine, prior to reading this slim tome by Janet Malcolm, would include: discredited, obsessed with parents and toilets, smart but ultimately a quack, and of course, many amusing memories of Woody Allen films gone by. Inside the Freud Archives, though, is a tale of the true believers, the psychoanalysts who reside mostly on the coasts and in academia, who still think of ol' Freud as the master, the man who pierced the secrets of our obsessions and mental defects, and is thus to be revered as a giant.

Now, true believers come in many forms and guises...without much effort, I can think of Deadheads, Kennedy Conspiracists, Freemasons...and on and on and on. One thing all the groups listed, and all the ones left out, share in common, other than a tendency to dwell on the most inconsequential detail as if it held the key to the universe (the love of the arcane and the esoteric), is an almost childlike inability to brook any criticism of the world as they see it. They have figured things out, life makes sense now, and there is no need for someone to come around stirring things up and bringing up doubts.

In this examination of Freud's hardliners, initially our sympathies are pulled in the direction of Jeffrey Masson, the golden boy of the world of Freudian researchers. It is Masson who, seemingly, dares to strike against orthodoxy in the cause of free ideas and reformist views. Masson was everything most analysts and academics decidedly were (and are) not -- charming, goodlooking, an intellectual, to be sure (his prior professional life was as a Sanskrit scholar), but thoroughly at home with the ladies and the good life.

In the other corner stands Dr. K.R. Eissler, the eminent, Establishment Freudian, a man of such standing that it is he who runs the Freud Archives, and he who, in a moment rich in Freudian overtones, decides that it is Masson who will be his intellectual heir. The only problem is this little interview that Masson has given, and the matter of his recent lectures -- words of Masson's that show him to be, well, not just someone who is going against the grain a little, but...(pause for dramatic effect)...a heritic.

Such is the battleground of Malcolm's book, and it does make for some fascinating reading. (There is a lengthy diversion into the obsessions of another 'scholar', Peter Swales, but this is a sidebar, really, and not worthy of our attention here). The author was given access to the all the prominent characters, and she brings their world faithfully to life in the mind of the reader. Reading this book is often like reading an unexpectedly diverting magazine article; no surprise, then, to find out that the contents originally appeared in The New Yorker.

The real journey undertaken through this book is a reevaluation of our sympathies. Eissler, that hidebound symbol of rigidity and conformity, comes to seem more and more like a man with a good heart who has been taken for a long, costly ride. Masson, who appears to have taken in the author (and this reader) as readily as all others in his life, through various machinations that you really should read for yourself, stands revealed as that old standby, the charming rogue, the handsome cad, in the final judgment, a dilettante.

This is a new edition of a work over twenty years old, but the prose and the ideas are not dated; you could just as easily be reading about events fresh from the headlines. What Malcolm has done here is preserve a story, a slice of life...the book is not about overarching grand themes, but instead, about how much of ourselves and our legacies is determined by the simple observation of how we treat those around us. Masson's seeming indifference to the chaos he created will, thanks to Malcolm, be remembered far, far longer than his 'radical discoveries'.

In the Freud Archives, by Janet Malcom
The New York Review of Books
ISBN 159017027X
162 pages