November 2007

Jason B. Jones


Freud on Freud

The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud runs to 24 volumes: twenty-three volumes of content, plus an index. Its sheer bulk -- not to mention the formidable list of concepts, controversies, case studies, and more found therein -- is apt to leave any potential reader of Freud slightly overwhelmed. Where to begin? What's more, since it sometimes seems as if every idea in Freud is vitally connected to every other idea, how can one begin to read Freud, without the project becoming wholly interminable? Conveniently, Freud has anticipated just this turn of events: In several prefaces across the Standard Edition, he directly speaks to readers looking for a starting point in psychoanalysis.

When Freud recommends his own writing, he combines bravado, defensiveness (see also this), and self-promotion so nakedly that it's almost irresistibly charming. In part the prefaces follow a convention: He thanks the readers who have kept his work in print. The convention demands an odd blend of pride and humility, which we can see in the 1931 "Preface to the Third (Revised) English Edition" of The Interpretation of Dreams: "It contains, even according to my present-day judgment, the most valuable of all the discoveries it has been my good fortune to make. Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime."

Freud manages here to imply simultaneously that the intervening years have offered countless valuable discoveries and that these discoveries are implicit in the original one. In particular, I admire the ambiguous phrasing of the first sentence: What, exactly, is the referent of "most valuable"? Is it a single one, or does the Interpretation contain several discoveries, all of which are "the most valuable" ones that he's made? Naturally he's too modest to say.

In the summer of 1908, Freud wrote prefaces to second editions of two of his most important early works: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 [1899]), which is his first-full length work that can be considered wholly psychoanalytic in method, and Studies on Hysteria (1895), his co-authored presentation of the treatment of hysteria through the "cathartic" method. While in 1895 Freud still uses hypnosis and other techniques outside psychoanalysis proper, Studies is an important precursor to the early theory. In between the two works, in about 1897, Freud had abandoned the so-called "seduction theory," which alleged that hysteria was caused by actual childhood sexual events. As a consequence, Studies contains a whole series of formulae that receive subtler framing in The Interpretation of Dreams. Most famously, for instance, Studies holds that "Hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences," while the later book qualifies this: "Hysterical symptoms are not attached to actual memories, but to phantasies erected on the basis of memories." (I discuss the implications of this shift for reading fiction in my book.) Plus, the presentation of such famous cases as Anna O. gives the work the narrative drive that would become a hallmark of Freud's writing.

Because Freud composed these two prefaces within a short period of time, and because the works represent the birth of psychoanalysis, he tends to merge them slightly. Here, for example, is a snippet from Freud's preface to Studies in Hysteria:

The attentive reader will be able to detect in the present book the germs of all that has since been added to the theory of catharsis: for instance, the part played by psychosexual factors and infantilism, the importance of dreams and of unconscious symbolism. And I can give no better advice to anyone interested in the development of catharsis into psycho-analysis than to begin with Studies on Hysteria and thus follow the path which I myself have trodden.

At face value, Freud seems fairly straightforward here: My later insight was contained in my earlier one, though I did not yet recognize it. But things unravel pretty quickly if one gives the preface the "attentive" reading he invites. As I'll show, we cannot simultaneously honor these two sentences -- and, more than this, in each sentence Freud misleads readers about the workings of his theory.

You can't follow both sentences' advice because they point in opposite directions in time. The first sentence invites the reader to consider Studies from the vantage point of subsequent developments -- it is worth reading only for the "germs" of the later theory. (Of course Freud means "germs" here to mean "the basics" or "the origins," but isn't it interesting that only a year later he would speak of psychoanalysis as a "plague" he was bringing to America?) The examples Freud adduces are dubious: Freud revised the Interpretation of Dreams's treatment of dream symbolism many times during his life. Sometimes Freud seems to think that symbolic meaning is straightforward. This is usually what people mean when they talk about "Freudian symbolism," and is the sort of symbolism that's the bane of mediocre literature discussions everywhere. ("If it's long and hard, it must be a penis!") Usually, however, Freud recognizes that this is a pre-psychoanalytic attitude, and that, while symbols are important, they must be interpreted, just like everything else in a dream. What Studies shows us, then, is not a precursor to a later, more fully-worked-out theory, but rather a first pass at posing a question: In a dream, who or what speaks? That is the core question of psychoanalysis.

If the first sentence looks backwards at Studies from the point of view of later developments, the second sentence urges us to look forward, following along Freud's path. We are not to think of Studies as "germinal," but rather as an opportunity to recreate psychoanalysis for ourselves. Freud implies that if we just follow along with him, we will necessarily end up at the same conclusions. (Thirty years later, in the "Preface" to An Outline of Psycho-Analysis [1938], Freud would repeat this argument: Only those who have followed his path exactly are qualified to judge him.) But as we saw last month, psychoanalysis's model of development is different. The past doesn't lead automatically to the present; instead, the commingling of past and present, where present conflicts revive and revise in fantasy memories and desires, suggests that we can't count on chronology (or other forms of context) to supply meaning. In effect, Freud seems to believe that reading in a non-psychoanalytic way could somehow produce psychoanalytic conviction.

I've dwelt on these sentences for 350-odd words because their slipperiness tells us something important about psychoanalytic thinking, and in particular about how to read Freud. He has such a gift for the telling aphorism, analogy, or story that we sometimes seem to believe that the meaning of these moments is self-evident. See, for instance, Rachel Aviv's recent Believer article on the Solms/Hobson debates over Freud, dreams, and modern neuroscience, where she allows herself to say: "Freud has a peculiar hold on people, in part, perhaps, because his theories make so much sense. With the help of a psychoanalyst, all the random, disparate events of one’s life come together in a coherent narrative. We can blame each of our quirks and failures on any number of plot points." Any account of psychoanalysis that implies that it squares easily with common sense is false.

We should read Freud in a diametrically opposite way. Freud does offer "coherent narratives," aphoristic sayings, and the like, but they are not to be taken as true! The genius of Freud's writing lies in two slightly different directions: first, he has a genuine gift for what we might call psychoanalytic entanglement: His metaphors and aphorisms force us to consider together topics we might otherwise regard as unrelated -- such as, for instance, sex, memory, and language. Regardless of whether we arrive at the exact same conclusion as Freud, our own psychological thought will be richer for meditating on these connections.

Meanwhile, the "coherent narrative" that emerges in an analysis can hardly be the actual truth of one's life. Instead, an analysis produces an "as if" narrative: "You seem to act as if some part of you believes..." Our "quirks and failures" do not derive from "any number of plot points"; however, we tend unconsciously to act as though that's true. What psychoanalysis can do is help us realize these unconscious assumptions and fantasies exist, which is an important step toward possible self-transformation. If you stop at the point where you're blaming your idiosyncrasies on others, then you're not in analysis, you're engaged in an expensive sort of self-love.

I began this essay by wondering where to begin reading in psycho-analysis. As we've seen, Freud suggests that we might start with the Studies -- but as for himself, Freud's choice is different. In a nod to Dickens's comments on David Copperfield, Freud confesses that one of his works gives him a unique solace:

During the long years in which I have often been working at the problems of the neuroses I have often been in doubt and sometimes been shaken in my convictions. At such times it has always been the Interpretation of Dreams that has given me back my certainty.

Next month: Volume III: Early Psycho-Analytic Publications