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Review of Adam Phillips, 'Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst'

Becoming Freud

June 4, 2014

“Become what you are!”

Nietzsche’s injunction is terse and direct, but simple it isn’t. Just about the most hopelessly off-target paraphrase possible would be that familiar bit of advice to anybody facing a socially anxious situation: “Relax and just be yourself!” The philosopher has something altogether more strenuous in mind: an effort in which “what you are” includes both raw material and the capacity to shape it. The athlete, musician, or artisan is engaged in such a process of becoming -- the strengthening, testing, and refining “potentials” that can barely be said to exist unless strengthened, tested, and refined.

Nietzsche’s influence on Sigmund Freud has always been a vexed matter. (Perhaps especially for Freud himself, who always denied that there was one, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.) Adam Phillips avoids the question entirely in Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, a new title in the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. The omission seems doubly odd given that Phillips himself is a psychoanalyst: Freud’s repeated but not quite credible insistence that he'd never been able to read more than half a page of the philosopher’s work sure does look like a symptom of, to borrow Harold Bloom’s expression, the anxiety of influence.

Originally presented as the Clark Lectures at the University of Cambridge earlier this year, Becoming Freud makes no claim to compete with the major biographies by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay. The annual lecture series (begun in the 19th century to honor a Shakespeare scholar who was a fellow at Trinity College) is dedicated to aspects of literature. But the book touches on Freud’s literary interests only intermittently.

Warrant for discussing the founding patriarch of psychoanalysis in the same venue where T. S. Eliot lectured on metaphysical poetry lies, rather, in the status of Freud’s work. It is “of a piece," Phillips says, "with much of the great modernist literature, all of which was written in his lifetime; a literature in which — we can take the names of Proust, Musil, and Joyce as emblematic — the coherent narratives of and about the past were put into question … [during] a period of extraordinary energy and invention and improvisation.”

At the same time, Freud’s participation in the upheaval was not a matter of choice or preference. He showed “little interest in contemporary art, and was dismissive of Surrealism, which owed so much to him; he had no interest whatsoever in opera or music, something of a feat in the Vienna of his time.”

The case studies he published bore proper medical titles (e.g., “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis” or "Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-old Boy”) and presented what Freud considered rigorous methods for a scientific understanding of the human psyche. But they read like short stories or novellas, and are now usually remembered for the pseudonyms assigned to the patients (“the Rat Man” and “Little Hans,” respectively) whose stories Freud tells and interprets. He wrote the papers as technical literature, not “creative nonfiction,” and blurring of genres troubled him. Getting the ideas taken seriously by his peers was hard enough without being taken as an experimental author as well.

A fluent and renowned essayist in his own right, Phillips has a knack for aphorisms and apothegms that, after a few pages, tends toward a rather oblique mode of accessibility. It’s been said that while his work always feels brilliant while you’re reading it, that’s the only thing you can remember about it afterward. And there is something to the complaint, much of the time. Becoming Freud is an exception, I think. The chapters add up in a way that his essays, when collected between covers, generally do not.

The book assumes at least some familiarity with Freud’s own life and work, as well as an immunity to caricatures of them. That thins out the potential audience considerably. But for the reader with a little traction, Becoming Freud is one of the more suggestive books on its subject to come along in a while.

The author takes as a central point Freud’s hostility to biography -- expressed in his late 20s, well before establishing himself professionally, let alone developing new ideas. A biographer gathers up documents and recollections, and assembles them into causal sequences revealing the shape and coherence of someone’s life. Which is not just a presumptuous task but one vulnerable to all the tricks of memory and private agendas (acknowledged and otherwise) of everyone involved.

“This, for Freud, would be faux psychoanalysis,” writes Phillips. “Freud revealed to us that when it comes to motive no one can speak for anyone else. And that more often than not people resist speaking on their own behalf.” What they do instead is to come up with stories, explanations, and assumptions that seem to make life coherent, at the risk of trapping them into "buried-alive lives” — both driven and burned out by "the inextricability of their ambitions and their sexuality.”

The alternative, of course, is analysis. Just for the record, I am not quite persuaded by that claim. (Karl Kraus’s remark that psychoanalysis is the very disease that it pretends to cure seems a lot more on the money, pardon the expression.) But Freud's fundamental insight retains its force: people are, in Phillips’s words, “the only animals that [are] ambivalent about their development,” that “longed to grow up” but "hated growing up, and sabotaged it.”

Freud's patients came from that portion of the population which could not find a practical way to combine desire, frustration, and misery in socially acceptable ways. And as a Jew working in Vienna (the city that elected a candidate from the Anti-Semitic League as mayor in 1896, while Freud was deep in struggle with his own emotions following his father’s death) he may have been at the perfect vantage point to develop his understanding of modern life as a process that, Phillips writes, "selected out the parts and versions of the individual that were unacceptable to the state and left the individual stranded with whatever of himself didn’t fit in.” The personality becomes a regime "in which vigilant and punitively repressive authorities are in continual surveillance.”  

Becoming Freud doesn’t narrate the development of psychoanalytic ideas or try to put them in social and cultural context; or rather, it does so only incidentally. It is primarily a book how Freud became someone able to think such thoughts, in such a context (how he became what he was) despite all the resistance that effort always generates. The book ends with its subject at the age of 50, with most of 35 more difficult and productive years ahead of him. I hope the author finds an occasion to write about those later decades — about how Freud occupied and managed what he had become.

 

 

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