Frederick Crews
Follies of the Wise

In no sense was he aiming directly at imaginative fiction, acknowledged to be such. Although he was indeed a brilliant writer, his art was that of self-interested rhetorical seduction. His entire career as a psychoanalytic author was directed to a practical end: persuading his readers to endorse his self-image as a trustworthy reporter, a fearless investigator, an ingenious detective, a benevolent doctor, and a great scientific pioneer. Recognizing this fact is the essential step that must be taken by any reader who wants to graduate from being a charmed consumer of Freud's literary ploys to being a well-equipped analyst of them. Freud didn't set out to be a rhetorician; he expected to become the Copernicus or Darwin of the mind. But as Macmillan has shown with exemplary patience, not a single one of Freud's continually shifting theoretical expectations was corroborated by his clinical work. All of his rhetorical maneuvers were dictated by his decision to insist on the significance of his scientific breakthroughs in the absence of any supporting evidence for them. Hence, for example, his dictum that no one other than a psychoanalyst was qualified to pass judgment on psychoanalytic assertions, his declaration that opponents of his doctrine were suffering from the very repression that was centrally featured in that doctrine, and his stigmatizing of dropouts from his movement as having fallen into psychosis. Psychoanalysis had, by default, to become a self-validating theory, and Freud then had to bend his main effort to dissuading readers from coming to grips with that fact.

One might think it would be easy to see through such verbal coercion, which we certainly wouldn't tolerate from any other scientific claimant. But no one else has matched Freud's skills in self-glorification. Note, in the first place, his reliance on sheer brazen falsehood. Over and over he tells us that his patients have presented him with irrefutable evidence of mechanisms whose operation he has been reluctantly compelled to recognize. The show of reluctance is a key ingredient here. With brilliant cunning, Freud anticipates and 'identifies with' his readers' repugnance at being told, for example, that we all want to fornicate with one parent and murder the other.

It was only gradually, says Freud, thanks to my ascetic devotion to scientific ideals, that I myself was compelled to reach such conclusions. Thus we readers are offered a flattering reward: if we respond favorably to Freud's appeal and agree that we must be, in our repressed unconscious minds, oedipal monsters, we thereby become courageous vicarious discoverers, mini-Freuds who stand out from our timid, convention-bound neighbors. That is an attractive prospect for anyone, and for spite-filled literary intellectuals it has proven irresistible.

If Freud had ever admitted that his propositions were airy deductions and uncited borrowings from other theories as opposed to inferences from painstaking clinical induction, or that he had never cured anyone of any ailment, or that, far from listening attentively to his patients, he had typically hectored them into agreeing with his a priori formulations about their hidden desires, the whole game would have been over. Instead, he kept the ball in the air by continuing to dramatize the choice, which he personified in his own faked history, between facing and fleeing from the awful truth of the psyche.

Meanwhile, Freud wasn't naive enough to suppose that his readers would remain utterly unconcerned about evidence. At carefully spaced intervals he himself raised the very doubts that would be going through a reader's mind. He met those doubts by claiming to have shared them himself until 'psychoanalytic findings' had overwhelmed his skepticism. And, counting on our inattentiveness, he assured us that the proof in question had been supplied earlier in his text or would soon be forthcoming. Of course it is to be found nowhere in his collected works—but how many people have read through them in a spirit of sober inquiry?

Finally, let me mention Freud's consummately skillful recourse to false modesty. He often humbled himself before his readers, admitting to an earlier mistake that had now been corrected, confessing to having been held back by his plodding scientific scrupulosity and his bourgeois squeamishness about sexual weirdness, alluding to puzzles (such as the whole of female psychology) that remained to be satisfactorily solved, deferring to great writers who had anticipated his discoveries through intuitive powers that he could only envy, predicting that neurology would one day replace the (for now indispensable) formulations of psychoanalysis, and even confessing, in a safely late phase of his career, that he couldn't cure neuroses after all.

What a splendid fellow, shrinking from his own manifest greatness! But in each instance a cool rhetorical analyst will find that Freud has made a favorable trade, strengthening his scientific authority by detaching it from announced human failings that were, in fact, just as phony as his alleged accomplishments. The intended message is always that psychoanalysis, despite its imperfections and Freud's own, is still the very best that psychological science can put forward for now.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.