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The Uncivil Servant: Murdering Freud

Mitchell Abidor
October 18, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Freud: The Making of an Illusion, by Frederick Crews. Metropolitan Books, 2017, 744 pages.

FREDERICK CREWS, a retired professor at Berkeley, has spent decades taking a pickaxe to the work and legacy of Sigmund Freud. His near monomania on the topic (equaled only by his interest in Winnie-the-Pooh, about which (whom?) he has written two books), has rested on relatively solid ground as Freud’s reputation has sunk. No longer a dominant figure in the therapeutic world, his techniques widely replaced by various more efficacious forms of therapy and psychopharmacology, Freud and the errors, absurdities, and inconsistencies of his work have been Crews’ preferred subject, and until now he has produced solid and thought-provoking work.

When picking apart Freud’s actual analyses, either of patients or dreams, Freud: The Making of an Illusion is dogged, insistent, and often clearly in the right. Though recognizing the literary worth of The Interpretation of Dreams, which Crews likens to and puts on a par with James Joyce’s Ulysses, he correctly points out the scientific errors in Freud’s pronouncements that dreams occur in order to preserve sleep, that they occur only just before awakening, and that they lack narrative continuity. All of Freud’s ideas in this regard are pregnant with great possibility, but the scientific study of sleep has shown them to be wrong. However exciting Freud’s dream interpretations are, there is nothing controlling the interpretation, and so nothing to say this or that one is wrong. Crews reports that a contemporary of Freud’s, Eugen Bleuler, after welcoming Freud’s masterpiece, “soon discovered…that the book provided no method at all. So many possible avenues of analysis were available to every dream, without any guidelines for choosing some and rejecting others, that the whole apparatus was useless.”

Had Crews stuck with this kind of analysis of Freud, his volume would be worthwhile but not groundbreaking (Crews cites the too-little-known work by an underestimated thinker, the great Leopardian-Marxist philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro, whose The Freudian Slip remains an invaluable and brilliant refutation of Freudianism and is a book infinitely superior to any of Crews’ productions). Of course, there is an element of shooting fish in a barrel when critiquing a writer who can seriously say — as Freud did in his case history of Dora — “It is well known that gastric pains occur especially in those who masturbate,” or who could associate the same patient’s persistent cough with a wish to suck her father’s penis.

Crews, though, feels obliged, whenever possible and in whatever way possible, to demolish Freud not just as a thinker, scientist, and therapist, but as a man. That he was a sloppy scientist is thoroughly proved. (“Sloppy” is almost a kind word to use for a scientist who carried out an experiment on the effects of cocaine in which the observer is Freud and the participant in the study is… Freud. In later years, even Freud would write that this paper “should never have been published.”) But Crews, on the basis of nothing at all, on several occasions explains Freud’s erroneous, not to say false and unproven, claims about the positive effects of cocaine, on “the distortion of his own judgment by cocaine.” Is he saying that Freud wrote scholarly papers while coked up? That he made baseless claims because he was high when writing?

Freud did frequently use cocaine, but to go from this to saying that Freud’s one positive report on cocaine was issued because of “personal use of the drug, which notoriously weakens inhibitions that rest on social or professional conventions,” is a step too far. No case is made for Freud being incapacitated by his abuse of the drug, which he insisted was a formidable source of medical good. On what basis does Crews seriously put forward the idea that Freud’s judgment when writing papers was twisted by cocaine?

Crews makes a strong enough case for Freud being driven by powerful ambition and desire for success and wealth. As Crews describes young Sigmund, “He was an insecure and ambitious young man.” However debatable — and frankly unexceptionable — that might be, isn’t that enough without venturing onto such unstable ground as Freud the drug fiend? Typical of Crews’ method, after making Freud out to be drug-addled, he writes at the end of the section of the book that covers Freud and cocaine that, though Freud was psychologically addicted to cocaine, “[h]e was not physically addicted. He ingested cocaine for specific ends…and then apparently didn’t take it for days at a time.” This is typical of Crews’ take on almost everything Freud ever said or did: the weaknesses obvious to all in Freud are not enough. Crews must impugn Freud’s every act, show him to be a nearly superhumanly evil figure.

If there was such a thing as a biographer’s code of ethics, Crews violates it throughout the book. Taking pages 255-257 as a random example, we find him not only accusing but convicting Freud of knowingly harming a patient by prescribing drugs he knew weren’t helping her and that ultimately led to her death. Even more, Crews indicts him for “terminat[ing] the case altogether through medical manslaughter.” Not malpractice, mind you, “manslaughter.” This after saying the patient died of “an overdose of a relatively new drug whose properties were unknown to Freud or anyone else.”

Crews then moves from accusations of murder to accusing Freud of pushing another patient to suicide, when the commonly held version of the case says she killed herself before Freud had a chance to treat her. But Crews, who is quick to accuse Freud of developing treatments and reaching conclusions hastily, bases his case against Freud on the family lore of the victim, which is shaky and gets details wrong. He then indulges in an unprovable thought experiment, the hypothesis of which leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Freud was behind the young woman’s death and that Freud had homoerotic feelings for, if not relations with, the woman’s husband. (Crews’ delight in inferring that Freud had homosexual feelings is expressed with singular lack of dignity. In a chapter on his close friend and early collaborator Wilhelm Fliess, Crews snarkily refers to Fliess as Freud’s “beloved,” as his “idol.” Was there no editor on this book to advise Crews to tone down his venom?)

And on it goes, with Crews insisting Freud was a long-term molester of his younger sister, a plagiarist, a fraud, a money-grubbing, amoral monster. This is not a scholarly book, but rather a prosecutorial pamphlet with elephantiasis.

CREWS VENTURES into truly dangerous territory when he imputes anti-Christian motives to Freud’s thought. If one were to adopt Frederick Crews’ method, in fact, one would be justified in calling Crews an antiSemite, since a constant trope of Jew-haters is to specify that the Jew is anti-Christian, that his ideas are aimed at destroying the Christian world.

Freud was, indeed, interested in undermining the religious foundations of society, but he wanted to do so in order to liberate humanity from the superstitions and mad beliefs imposed and accepted by religion — by all religions, no less Judaism than Christianity. Crews’ dishonesty in dealing with this matter is exemplified by his failure ever to mention, much less discuss, Freud’s oddest book, his demolition of the Moses myth in Moses and Monotheism. The book aims to deprive the Jews of a central part of their foundational myth by turning Moses into an Egyptian and adding a dose of parricide to the mix. Publishing it in 1939, Freud has long been criticized for writing such a book when the existence of the Jews was under threat, but he never wavered: Freud was, above all, an atheist. As the great social historian and Freud biographer (and disciple) Peter Gay wrote in his book, An Atheist Jew, the entire Freudian enterprise required not a Jew but an atheist.

Crews not only fails to understand this basic fact (as he passes over Freud’s Future of an Illusion, an unambiguous statement of his atheism) -- he fails to firmly understand what he correctly calls Freud’s “spurning of Judaism.” Pointlessly citing other professionals, “who shared his atheism [but] were willing to pay token deference to the customs still observed by their elder relations,” Crews uses this as a black mark on Freud’s record, as though his greater consequence made him culpable. What allows Frederick Crews to suggest that Sigmund Freud, though he turned his back on what he considered a backward, outmoded way of life, should have engaged in hypocritical observance? Of course, had Freud done so, Crews would have convicted him of hypocrisy!

As I worked my way through the nearly seven hundred pages of this volume, which never contents itself with criticizing Freud’s ideas, but must on almost every page impugn his morals, his honesty, and his integrity (as well as the morals, honesty, and integrity of many of the people Freud admired or who supported him), it occurred to me that I’ve read biographies of Mussolini, of Stalin, even of Hitler that demonstrated more understanding and occasional empathy for their subjects than Crews demonstrates in Freud: The Making of an Illusion. This is a book motivated by hatred, and hatred is a poor master in the writing of a biography. Reading Crews’ book is a flesh-crawling experience.

Freud was guilty of propagating ideas that have not stood the test of time, and if they led many people to waste time and money in Freudian treatment, there are many others who felt it worked for them. Freud committed no crimes against the human spirit, much less humanity, and at his worst he led his readers to think about and refute his more outlandish notions.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Freud, in a passage that expresses all his contradictions without turning him into an evil, venal, lubricious monster. He wrote in a letter to his colleague and friend Wilhelm Fliess: “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.”

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.