Dr. Freud
A Life
Paul Ferris

In referring to Freud, Ferris says, "Charlatan" is too strong for my taste; "ruthless" and "devious" seem acceptable.

Thus the theme of this rather windy study. In fact, despite a generally upbeat Introduction, once we get past the usual family tree stuff, we find ourselves in a biography which seems intent on sticking it to the good doctor in a rather delicate place rather than tell the story. With this, some may think of the biographer a classic anal compulsive.

Freud admitted to be "neurasthenic." We know he used cocaine --- as did many of his contemporaries. He hung out with some dubious types, like Wilhelm Fliess, who was convinced that there was an intimate connection between the nose and a woman's sexuality. Fliess even operated on one Emma Eckstein to cure her "hysteria" --- and damn near killed her. It wasn't Freud's doing, but Ferris manages to implicate him in this travesty because he didn't dump his friendship with Fliess after it was all over.

Even though he wrote extensively about sex --- both proper and exceptionable --- Freud usually wrote about his own sexual activities in the third person. Ernest Jones, who published The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, once asked a member of the inner circle about Freud's sex life. "Never interested in his genitals," was the rather pointed response --- although the friend did claim to see him "with an erection" after a psychoanalytic hour "with a pretty woman." Ferris seems to find this very important, quite revealing, if not titillating.

Even more titillating: was Freud sleeping with his patients? Or his sister-in-law? Did he concoct some of his early case studies --- especially those detailing sexual abuse? How about Anna O --- was she really "cured?" (She spent several more years after the publication of the famous paper on her in and out of mental institutions. She later became a noted social worker, honored by a stamp issued by West Germany.)

In truth, Ferris is pretending to tell us an honorable tale of a fascinating person who changed, once and for all, our perception of the psyche. But the biographer seems to be more interested in shaking the plum tree, gleefully enumerating the skeletons that drop out of it. And instead of giving us an appreciation of one who saw dreams, the subconscious, our defenses, our deepest fears as they really are --- he wants us to see Freud as a hungry and ambitious creep who walked over everyone who stood in his path in order to earn the label "great."

Those of us who have studied Freud over the years admire his fine writing style. Some have called him the greatest turn-of-the-century novelist --- besting even Joyce, Proust, and James. A century after its composition, Civilization and its Discontents is as rich as the day it was written. The Interpretation of Dreams is a textbook on how the mind and dreams mesh, and is, even now, powerfully insightful. Freud's technique of looking at dreams for hidden insights (where, for example, tiny details become important, and the large ones are less so) was seminal to the psychological thinking of so many of us.

How does Ferris view these texts? With a sneer:

    The Interpretation of Dreams sprawls across its subject, changing speed and focus with an eye to the power of contrast, shifting from anecdote to philosophic brooding to confession to set-piece description. No one writes such books anymore; few read them, except as curiosities. It is like some magnificent object from a museum, behind burglar-proof glass, opened to a page that the educated visitor (the only kind Freud acknowledged) can recognize...

It's not unlike saying that the dialogue in Hamlet is obscurantist, that no one would write a play like that today. By calling Freud's Dreams "an object from a museum" and a "set-piece," Ferris shows us not the faults of the master, but his own purblind prejudices.

Freud: A Life is worth paging through for the occasional interesting facts ("free association" is a mistranslation of "a sudden idea;" Freud was, at one time, a boozer; Krafft-Ebbing, of Psychopathic Sexualis fame, didn't much care for many of Freud's ideas; at one time, Freud was doctor to the conductor Bruno Walter). Better --- at least for this reader --- were the Freudian slips sprinkled around the book: Freud badly wanted to acquire a professorship, a title awarded by the state of Austria. Through the intervention of Baroness Marie von Ferstel, we find out that the papers appointing Freud had been sent to the emperor for him to sigh.

Sigh. We wish the whole of Ferris' book could have been as merry. For those who want to pillory the good doctor, especially for insights after the fact, this has all the meat. For those of us who honor the master for what he did for our understanding of the human mind and soul --- you're better off with Ronald Clark's Freud: The Man and the Cause. Ferris' work is comprehensive, mean-spirited, sensationalistic, a 20th Century Grubb Report on one of the 19th century's most insightful thinkers.

--- Ignacio Schwartz


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