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Number 13: Spring 2018

Review: Freud in his Time and Ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 2016

Val Parks

Paul Keegan in a review published in the London Review of Books compared Roudinesco’s book with one by Joel Whitebook. He points out that a biography cannot be an analysis, not even one like Freud’s own study of Schreber. The facts in a biography are different from the material in an analysis. The treatment of the life history contained in a biography differs from the same life story conveyed to us by someone on the couch with its frequent repetitions and revisions. Keegan notes that there are things relevant to a biography of Freud but irrelevant to him as the progenitor of psychoanalysis. In particular, matters of enjoyment which would be a lively, vital field for an analysis, are yet not relevant to thinking about Freud the instigator of psychoanalysis. Smoking especially is cited here. Roudinesco writes comprehensively about such matters, illustrative of Freud the man. “Easily accused of digression, Roudinesco nevertheless broaches these matters and her book is a shaken kaleidoscope of things inessential,” says Paul Keegan (10). We do not learn more about psychoanalysis from reading about Freud’s dogs or his failure to appreciate music, but these facts do somehow appease our curiosity. However, we cannot and should not try to psychoanalyse Freud. 

Much of Roudinesco’s Freud is very familiar, but some is not. For instance, she calculates that Freud was sexually active for only about nine years, a piece of reasoning I had not come across before (Roudinesco, 2016: 50). More strikingly, she passes the judgement that he was in truth only a mediocre clinician, without a natural feel for how to deal with the mentally ill. We see this particularly evident in his attitude to the psychoanalytic treatment of psychosis. She opines that, though so much of the early theorising is based on Freud’s published case studies, these are of course his reconstructions of the analyses often well after the event, and further, the results were not uniformly successful. As we all do, Freud learned from his mistakes. There exists testimony of later analysands, showing in fact more satisfactory outcomes. She asserts that, probably for a variety of reasons, the majority of his later analysands came away satisfied. Such people, psychoanalysts themselves, or prominent intellectuals or artists, came of their own volition, and manifested a stronger and more durable transference. By then, Freud had prestige and many consulted him to learn of and experience psychoanalysis from its source. 

From his lofty status, he felt free to break his own rules, and often went against his own better judgement in taking on cases which he should have been able to see would be unsuccessful. This, I assume, is an aspect of what Roudinesco means by his relative lack of clinical skill. The case of Carl Liebman, one of those newly available for scrutiny, demonstrates this. Coming from a wealthy American family, Liebman was a fetishist and probably a paranoid schizophrenic, a case celebrated in his time but never fully and openly published, as he sought treatment of all the latest kinds. Roudinesco characterises it as a case Freud should never have taken on, being unsuitable for psychoanalysis. Freud analysed him for three years and vainly sought to convince him that his fetish – a jock strap – was the disavowed maternal penis. However, for Roudinesco, Liebman’s case epitomises the paradoxes of Freud. In it, “two orders of reality were opposed once again: the critical consciousness of a doctor on the one hand, and the tragic consciousness of a patient on the other – a divide between clinical thinking and madness” (Roudinesco, 2016: 328).