Freud: The Making of an Illusion

By Frederick Crews

I think a lot of us have a complicated relationship with Freud. On the one hand he’s a wonderful writer who created an entire mythology of the mind that has endured for over a century, helping to shape and inform a great deal of modern culture.

It’s terrific stuff, but of course (and we’re moving to the other hand now) it’s all nonsense. That much was obvious to me after just the first few pages of The Interpretation of Dreams (and things tended to go downhill from there). Where, I had to ask myself, was Freud getting all this?

Well, according to Frederick Crews in this thorough examination of Freud’s discovery/invention of psychoanalysis (basically covering the years from 1880 to 1900), the short answer is that he just made it up.

Freud’s theories weren’t grounded in any clinical case work or statistical analysis. He had no success with the former and seems to have been totally uninterested in the latter. He wasn’t much of a doctor or a scientist, and indeed in later life Crews describes a man who had “become an outright antiscientist.” In modern parlance, he was a quack.

His basic assumption, which he maintained in the absence of any evidence, was that what was true for him – and by that I mean what he felt or even dreamed to be true – must also be true for everyone else. His only real test subject was himself. He liked using cocaine and so prescribed it to others, claiming tremendous results despite tragic outcomes. Various foundations of psychoanalysis (the Oedipal complex, castration anxiety) were outgrowths of his own mental morbidity, discovered through sheer introspection, which he then generalized “under the misapprehension that all men were similarly warped.” He then created a library of case fictions that projected his fears onto others, giving them a spurious validity.

That Freud made things up is the easy part. Why he made things up is where the story gets not complicated but ugly. Again there is a short answer: Freud wanted to be rich and famous. He couldn’t become rich and famous as a doctor because he wasn’t a good doctor. So instead he became a writer of popular entertainments. As he explained to a friend:

I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador – an adventurer if you want it translated – with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.

Crews calls this a damning and “definitive self-assessment,” but doesn’t draw attention to the cruelty of the historical conquistadors, or their overweening lust for gold. One wonders if this was an unconscious slip on Freud’s part.

But then, one is left to wonder quite a bit about the extent of Freud’s belief in the new faith he had created. Crews chooses an odd second epigraph for his book in a line from Seinfeld’s George Costanza: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Is this meant to imply some basic level of bona fides on Freud’s part? Given the thoroughness of Crews’s indictment I don’t think I’d want to give him that large a benefit of doubt.

But we are left with an even larger question, one that Laura Miller flagged in her review of Freud:

These narratives have endured for so long because so many people prefer them to the truth. Why? That’s a question Crews touches on in Freud, but only lightly. If the book fails, it is not in pressing its cause so fiercely but in mistaking who deserves the lion’s share of his scorn. The best hatchet jobs don’t just assail an author or thinker for shoddy or disingenuous work. They also indict the rest of us for buying in.

Just keeping with Freud’s immediate posterity, why did so many others “buy in” or go along with the charade of psychoanalysis? The cult of personality must have played some role, and the institutional strength of the Freud circle, which was remarkably strict and disciplined and remained so even after his death (Freud was a bully, and like all bullies he passed it down). Also the very real benefits that accrue to any member of a court, the operations of which always appears disgusting to outsiders. And, finally, let’s grant that there was something in the Freudian mythology that has had a general resonance with much of modern life. That doesn’t excuse his enablers, but it does provide some defence for the rest of us.

Review first published online January 20, 2018.