Review: Freud in his Time and Ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 2016
There seems to be an enduring appetite for biographies and autobiographies, judging from lists of best-selling books. Perhaps this can be ascribed to our curiosity or, to phrase it even more in the vernacular, nosiness. The latter seems an appropriate term in the context of Freud, whose allegiance to Fleiss and his frankly psychotic theories about the nose and its potential as erotic appendage is extensively discussed by Elisabeth Roudinesco, French psychoanalyst and historian, in her new biography of Freud. Apart from these dubious gratifications, and perhaps, in Kleinian terms, our envious pre-occupation with the secret goings-on in the Master’s bedroom, can reading a biography of Freud enhance our work as analysts?
Acknowledging the so-called Freud Wars, with their heated debates between detractors and advocates for Freud, vehement on both sides, Roudinesco addresses in the introduction the need to justify another biography. A prominent point here, she argues, is that this is the first French biography of Freud in a field of research formerly dominated by English-speaking figures. And indeed her approach does seem distinctively French, with a touch of the longue durée in her situating of Freud’s life in the changing patterns of the Jewish diaspora of Middle Europe, with the geographical shift from Freiberg to Vienna matched by a psychosocial one. Where Peter Gay’s biography (Gay, 1988) brilliantly situates Freud in the cultural milieu of his time, Roudinesco sets out to widen the lens and takes in rather the enduring social structures encompassed by the Lacanian Symbolic. She writes: “Freud always thought that what he was discovering in the unconscious foreshadowed what was happening to people in reality. I have chosen to reverse this proposition and show that what Freud thought he was discovering was at bottom nothing but the product of a society, a familial environment, and a political situation whose signification he interpreted masterfully so as to ascribe it to the work of the unconscious” (Roudinesco, 2016: 4). Whereas this raises controversial questions about the nature of the unconscious, Roudinesco does not, in my view, include enough analysis of Freud’s texts in her book to prove her own proposition fully convincingly.
There is, however, much else of very great importance and value in her book. She has taken full advantage of the fact that over the last 20 years, much more of the Freud archive has become available, at the London and Vienna Freud Museums and at the Library of Congress. Roudinesco has always published works of meticulous and extensive research, and this book is no exception. Far more material is now accessible, covering case notes particularly. Apparently, these exist for 170 analysands of Freud (256). This relatively small number gave me pause for thought, but of course Freud was consulted on many more cases than that, to say nothing of the mania for the mutual and arguably entirely gratuitous running analysis of one another which went on amongst the early analysts.