A new book adds to a long-standing debate over what, if anything, modern psychology owes him.
On January 24, 1895, in a letter that was kept unpublished for nearly 90 years, Sigmund Freud wrote nervously about a dangerous experiment he was planning to embark upon. “Now only one more week separates us from the operation,” he wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess, who would be performing the surgery. “My lack of medical knowledge once again weighs heavily on me.”
The patient who would be undergoing the procedure, Emma Eckstein, came from a well-regarded family in Vienna and began analysis with Freud when she was about 27. She complained of stomach and menstrual issues that made even walking a pain. Freud and Fliess believed that Eckstein’s suffering was related to her masturbation, which she discussed with Freud during their psychoanalytic sessions. It was a dubious logical path, but Freud and Fliess’s solution was almost comically unfounded. “Girls who masturbate normally suffer from dysmenorrhea,” Fliess later wrote in reference to Eckstein’s menstrual pains. “In such cases, nasal treatment is only successful when they truly give up this aberration.”
Freud believed that the sexual organs were connected to the nose, and sexual “issues,” particularly masturbation, were principle causes of neurotic maladies, and that they could sometimes be solved by nasal surgery. With the exception of Fliess, Freud’s contemporaries mostly found this theory to be bizarre and potentially harmful; and, as is evidenced by his 1895 letter, even Freud began to think that he might be out of his medical depth. Nonetheless, his convictions outweighed his doubts.
The operation failed. On March 4, 1895, a little more than a month after Eckstein’s surgery, Freud wrote to Fliess of the surgery’s complications: “Eckstein’s condition is still unsatisfactory … she had a massive hemorrhage, probably as a result of expelling a bone chip the size of a Heller [a small coin]; there were two bowls full of pus.” Eckstein survived, but in sticking to his scientifically unfounded theory, Freud nearly killed her.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for nearly a century, nearly every mention of this surgery — and of Emma Eckstein in general — had been purged from the official collections of Freud’s letters. It wasn’t until Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter and a staunch protector of his legacy, hired Jeffrey M. Masson to create a more complete edition of Freud’s and Fliess’s correspondence (an abridged version had been published in 1954) that the letters began to come to light.
Anna Freud provided Masson access to more than 75,000 documents to complete his task, but Masson quickly saw that something was awry in the history. “I began to notice what appeared to be a pattern in the omissions made by Anna Freud in the original, abridged edition,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 1984. “In the letters written after September of 1897 … all the case histories dealing with the sexual seduction of children had been excised. Moreover, every mention of Emma Eckstein … had been deleted.” When he asked Anna Freud why she had deleted certain sections, she said, according to Masson, that she “no longer knew why” and that “she could well understand” his interest, but that “the letter should nevertheless not be published.”
“In conversations with other analysts close to the Freud family,” Masson added, “I was given to understand that I had stumbled upon something that was better left alone.” After bringing these letters to the attention of Anna Freud, Masson, who had been set to succeed Kurt Eissler as director of the Freud Archives, was fired.
The hidden history of Emma Eckstein, ideas about repressed childhood memories of sexual abuse, and nasogenital theories were just the beginning of the unraveling of Freud’s legacy. In the early 1970s, the so-called “Freud wars” — a virulent academic debate over Freud’s legitimacy — began with psychiatrist Henri Ellenberger, philosopher Frank Cioffi, and historian Paul Roazen. “There were plenty of doubters before then,” says outspoken Freud critic Frederick Crews, an emeritus professor of literary theory at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the recent Freud: The Making of an Illusion. “Some of the keenest ones were Freud’s contemporaries. But only in the ’70s did the whole Freudian edifice begin to crumble.” Crews’s own 1980 essay, “Analysis Terminable,” in Commentaryand his 1993 follow-up essay in The New York Review of Books, called “The Unknown Freud,” further made the case that Freud was a fraudulent and unethical scientist, and together acted as the final bullet in the heart of his legacy.
And yet, although Freudian theories are no longer a part of mainstream science, Freud is still incredibly well-known, a figure with name recognition on par with Shakespeare. Just think of how his theories have entered into the contemporary vernacular: Mommy and Daddy issues. Phallic symbols. Death wishes. Freudian slips. Arrested development. Anal retentiveness.Defense mechanisms. The psychologist and Freud critic John Kihlstrom has written that “more than Einstein or Watson and Crick, more than Hitler or Lenin, Roosevelt or Kennedy, more than Picasso, Eliot, or Stravinsky, more than the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Freud’s influence on modern culture has been profound and long-lasting.”
The question, then, is how? How does a man whose ideas have been widely debunked by his successors hold onto this much cultural influence?
Part of the answer is that the link between Freud’s theories and historical and literary trends gives them an extra dose of gravitas, making his ideas seem like the unearthing of centuries-old truths. Think of Sophocles’s Oedipus plays or Shakespeare’s King Lear or Hamlet, for instance, and you’ll see how Freud took the underlying psychologies that had long been a part of foundational texts and turned them into “science.”
In doing so, he gave scientific license for these ideas to continue to undergird culture. The theory of the Oedipus complex later showed up in D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers; Freud’s theories of trauma and pleasure became a critical part of Virginia Woolf’s character Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway. In literary criticism, Peter Brooks applied Freud’s claims about dream symbolism to his idea of how all novels are plotted in Reading for the Plot; Harold Bloom used the Oedipus complex to explore poetic rivalries in The Anxiety of Influence. In the 1940s, literary critic Lionel Trilling noted the “poetic quality” of Freud’s theories. His theories descended from “classic tragic realism,” Trilling wrote in his book Freud and Literature, “a view which does not narrow and simplify the human world for the artist, but, on the contrary, opens and complicates it.” Freud was a master of words and socio-cultural insights. His genius was to bend science toward them.
He also had a crackerjack public relations team defending his name long after his death. How else could his name continue to survive after a statement like this from Crews in Psychological Science in 1996: “There is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas”? Or after the 1975 statement from Peter Medawar, a medical biologist with a Nobel Prize, calling Freudian psychoanalysis “the most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the 20th century”? Or the fact that, by 1980, nearly every mention of Freudianism had been deleted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders? Over the past century, a team of family members, friends, and those with “financial” or “emotional” interests, as Crews puts it in The Making of an Illusion, spent significant time redacting letters, making savvy donations, and writing histories that portrayed Freud as a noble scientist — liberating humankind from their sexual hang-ups and repressed memories.
But his reputation is a tautological loop — and one that has proven difficult to escape. Because Freud is well-known, one reasons that he must also be important; because he is important, he must have made great and lasting contributions to science and psychology. Freud “is destined to remain among us as the most influential of 20th-century sages,” Crews writes; but he also argues that Freud’s apparent importance was more the result of historical trends than anything Freud himself actually did.
For those who want to protect Freud’s legacy, the most compelling argument might rest not on Freud’s specific theories but rather on his way of thinking. His innovative marriage of culture and science opened up a fundamentally new way of understanding the world. “His theories provided a foundation upon which the most important new knowledge was built,” says Mark Solms, the chair of neuropsychology at the University of Cape Town and a founding figure of a combined neuroscientific-psychoanalytical approach to therapy. “The fact that 100-year-old theories are disproven does not diminish their importance. In this respect, Freud is no different from, say, Newton.”
“Freud was one of the great ‘master thinkers,’” agrees Samuel Moyn, a professor of history and law at Yale. “He wasn’t a ‘psychologist,’ so much as the first interdisciplinary theorist of humanity, straddling the boundary between nature and culture, and all fields of intellectual life.”