July 2007

Jason B. Jones


Freud's Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis by Brenda Maddox

Three of Brenda Maddox's splendid biographies center on famous modernist marriages: D. H. & Frieda Lawrence, W. B. & Georgie Yeats, and James and Nora Joyce. Like many modernists, Lawrence, Yeats, and Joyce each was keenly interested in making art more psychologically rich and complex. That Maddox's newest biography should focus on Ernest Jones thus makes a satisfyingly perverse sense: For what was Jones but Freud's work wife?

Until Anna Freud finally became the official heir-apparent, Freud's inner circle was a hotbed of masculine intrigue. Jones outmaneuvered and outlasted Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Sándor Ferenczi, Otto Rank, and others to become Freud's indispensable disciple, the most prominent communicator of psychoanalytic ideas to the English-speaking world, the longtime head of the British and International Psychoanalytic Associations, the founder and editor of the main English-language psychoanalytic journal, the man who saved Freud and his family from the Nazis, and, finally, the man chosen by Freud's children to write the first authorized biography. Brenda Maddox's Freud's Wizard assembles into a fascinating, accessible narrative much information that previously had only been known to psychoanalytic devotees. (For instance, Maddox makes shrewd use of Freud's correspondence to Jung, Ferenczi, and Jones: Most of us who read Freud closely already know this material well; I can't imagine that's true of most sane readers. The letters make for great reading, though: Freud is pretty frank about the poorly-sublimated homosexual and paternal dynamics striating his friendships.)

The payoff is considerable: A behind-the-scenes look at psychoanalytic controversies from the personal to the theoretical to the institutional; a startlingly unflinching portrait of a man whose sexual controversies make Freud's possible affair with his sister-in-law seem mundane; and, not least, a reconstruction of how the consummate outsider -- Welsh in England, early adopter of psychoanalysis in a repressed Edwardian medical establishment, Gentile in a psychoanalytic world dominated by Jews -- became the ultimate insider, able to manipulate the intricately interconnected levers of the British caste system to save numerous analysts and their families from certain death.

I should probably note that I'm no relation to Alfred Ernest Jones. In 1922, Jones complained directly to Freud about this miserable name we share: "It seems to me a little unfair to expose one's children to the irksome task of gradually distinguishing themselves from the other half a million people called Jones (there are now even three psycho-analysts called Dr Ernest Jones)." Brenda Maddox gave a dinner lecture on Yeats to the Emory British Studies Abroad program at University College, Oxford, in 1999, when I happened to be the graduate assistant to the program. Though she would have no memory it today, she charmingly razzed me for about ten minutes on my ignorance of the Welsh origins of my name, and later even signed my copy of George's Ghosts, "To Jones who don't know he's Welsh."

Born in Wales, Ernest Jones would obviously be far more cognizant of his cultural inheritance. Freud was not always so aware. Upon learning of Jones from Jung, Freud wrote that "Your Englishman appeals to me because of his nationality," yet a year later he could also complain that Jones "is a Celt and consequently not quite accessible to us, the Teuton and the Mediterranean man." Maddox's biography is particularly good about the racial and cultural assumptions that the analysts were operating under, and the ways these assumptions both opened doors for Jones (Freud desperately wanted to get a foothold in England) and led to trouble (Freud also believed the Welsh to be generally untrustworthy). Jones insisted on calling himself an "honorary Jew," and his son remembers Jones, late in life, sprinkling his conversation liberally both with Welsh and with Yiddish. Freud's own strange focus on ethnicity explains Maddox's decision to spend most of the opening chapter or two of her book unpacking the cultural history of Wales as it applies to Jones. Maddox calls him Freud's wizard in part because his mother wanted give Jones the name Myrddin, after Merlin. (Jones would subsequently name one of his own sons Mervyn, after a Welsh king.) An Anglicizing impulse on his father's side yielded "Alfred Ernest" instead, and one needn't be especially psychoanalytically inclined to see that this divide -- mother/Wales and father/England -- influenced Jones's self-conception in powerful ways.

A leitmotif of Maddox's biography is that Jones was apparently a bit of a wizard with the ladies. She repeatedly notes, with a bit of snark, that Jones never needed to ask, as he reports Freud did, "What does woman want?" The list of women who, implicitly or explicitly, declare themselves to be in love with Jones is impressive -- though, unlike certain other early analysts, he apparently never slept with his patients. There is another sexual sin, however, hidden in Jones's past. On at least two occasions, Jones stood accused of, at the least, improper conduct around children. In one instance, he stood trial for the charges (and was exonerated), but in the other he was fired. In the second instance, it seems relatively clear that the problem was less an actual sexual offense, and more simply the problem of asking about sex in Edwardian England, especially when one already has a bit of a reputation. The first instance is more troubling, as several children accused him of indecent behavior -- the vagueness is in the record, not in any desire for euphemism on my part -- on the same day and with some corroborating physical evidence. As Maddox accurately notes, "all the prejudices of the male Edwardian world were brought to bear in [Jones's] defence." The defense's basic argument was that mentally "defective children were often precocious and talked of sexual matters," and "the case was literally laughed out of court." Jones's own account of this incident, in Free Associations, his unfinished autobiography, is, if not outright deceptive, certainly of a self-exonerating character.

On the one hand, as Maddox points out, even just questioning young teens about their sexual knowledge could be provocative at that time; on the other hand, from our own vantage point -- a perspective that psychoanalysis helped make more sexually suspicious -- the circumstantial evidence (coupled with the preposterous defense) looks terrible. The peculiar fit of Jones's controversy with one of the great psychoanalytic controversies, that over the seduction theory of neurosis, is not lost on Maddox.

The seduction theory was Freud's original explanation for neurosis. He thought, in the 1890s, that neurosis was caused by childhood sexual abuse. He later revised this view, noting that, while childhood sexual abuse is certainly real, and is certainly traumatic, it was neither prevalent enough to cause all the neurosis in society nor was it capable of explaining certain symptomatic features of neurotic behavior. The famous shift in Freud's thinking can be summed up in two aphorisms. The first is from Studies on Hysteria (1895): "Hysterics suffer from reminiscences," that is, from memories. The second is from The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 [1899]): "hysterical symptoms are not attached to actual memories, but to phantasies erected on the basis of memories." The latter formulation emphasizes the hysteric's own unconscious desire, and the fantasy organizing that desire, as a causal agency. The claim that hysteria arises from memory is, simply, not a psychoanalytic formulation. Psychoanalysis addresses itself to fantasy and to desire, to the complex ways that we deceive ourselves about our own motivations and needs. Psychoanalysis does not dispute the reality, and certainly not the pain, of childhood trauma, though it is often accused of this.

For Maddox, Jones's sexual error -- whatever it was -- is thus a kind of narrative gift. In a chapter entitled "Freud to the Rescue," she ties Jones's second offense to a discussion of Freud's abandoning of the seduction theory, and quickly enmeshes him in the world of Jung and Freud, Adler and Karl Abraham. She enmeshes Jones's personal difficulties in a larger argument about the history of a concept, thus making the concept a little more unsavory by implication. Near the biography's end, she notes Ferenczi's break with Freud approvingly, in part over this exact issue. She characterizes his emphasis on childhood trauma as "perceptive criticisms of psychoanalysis" and endorses Eli Zaretsky's view that "Ferenczi had returned to the actual and the social as opposed to the psychical." But what Maddox's account can't quite capture is the way this return literally dooms patients to their past. While unconscious conflicts can cause suffering, they also open up perverse paths toward freedom.

This points to a larger question about Maddox's book: Though she herself has been in analysis before, she is neither a clinician nor especially expert in psychoanalytic theory. (She says as much in her prologue.) As a result, the book is not really about psychoanalysis at all. It is about Jones's life, and the way his life was absorbed by people, institutions, and historical events. Freud's Wizard can therefore be quite gripping reading. Jones lived in interesting times, and at the heart of a movement that, at least from the 1920s through the 1940s, could make fair claim to be at the epicenter of both psychological and artistic cultures. Maddox's book is at its best when it shows how passionately people cared about psychoanalysis between the wars. It is an excellent introduction to the personalities and institutions of psychoanalysis for general readers.

For those well-versed in psychoanalysis, Freud's Wizard will sometimes seem maddening, and for almost the exact reasons I just mentioned. Maddox just isn't interested in theoretical or conceptual points about psychoanalytic theory or practice. We're told that Jones wrote a lot, but his contributions aren't really detailed in any way, except for his biography of Freud. That's too bad, because Jones's contributions, while (obviously) less significant than, say, Freud or Melanie Klein, or even Anna Freud, are still interesting and provocative. It is possible to tell an interesting story while staying true to concepts -- my yardsticks here are Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's Anna Freud and Russell Jacoby's The Repression of Psychoanalysis, a brilliant and engaging account of the astonishing way American psychoanalysis voluntarily mutilated its own concepts during the postwar era. In Maddox's hands, rivalries are frequently hashed out in exclusively personal or institutional terms, a strategy which makes for good reading but does omit part of the picture. The conceptual points matter.

However, I'm also struck by how glad I was that Ernest Jones, in particular, should receive a biography from someone who is neither an analyst nor an academic practitioner of psychoanalytic criticism. Each party would have good reasons to update from modern perspectives the theoretical debates in which Jones participated, or at the very least to take sides in them. Maddox, by contrast, stays blissfully disengaged from such concerns, pursuing instead a straightforward claim: that Jones's was an extraordinary life, and one well worth remembering. Freud's Wizard does that claim full justice, and merits a wide readership.

Freud's Wizard: Ernest Jones and the Transformation of Psychoanalysis by Brenda Maddox
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 978-0-306-8155-3
354 pages