150 YEARS OF FREUD:
THE HIGHER POWERS AND THE LOWER DEPTHS
by Robert Maxwell Young
Sigmund Freud was born in Frieberg, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) a hundred and fifty years ago on 6 May 1856 and died in Hampstead, London on 23 September 1939. His writings constitute one of the three grand narratives that dominated twentieth century thought, and their successors are nowhere in sight. The bi-centenary of one of the others, Charles Darwin (1809-1882), comes up in three years, and Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a near-contemporary of his. Freud greatly admired Darwin and thought little of Marx and Marxism. He deplored Marx’s failure to give credit to psychological factors in human nature and said of the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution, ‘A transformation of human nature such as this is highly improbable'. Someone said to him that the Russian Revolution would involve great distress followed by great happiness. He replied that he half agreed.
Most Marxists have mocked psychoanalysis as subjectivist, accusing it of ignoring material conditions, but there have been notable exceptions, e.g., Wilhelm Reich’s sexual libertarianism. He believed that neurosis could be eliminated by removing sexual repression as described in his The Mass Psychology of Fascism and The Function of the Orgasm. Herbert Marcuse attempted to integrate Marx and Freud in Eros and Civilization. He believed that repression was necessary for civility but distinguished biologically necessary repression from that which was specific to different historical peoiods, for example, the capitalist era.Both were gurus of the political movements of the 1960s. More recently, Victor Wolfensteain, who is both a political scientist and a psychoanalyst, has made imaginative integrations of psychoanalysis and Marxism in his The Victims of Democracy: Malcolm X and the Black Revolution, which I consider to be the best psychobiograpy there is, and Psychoanalytic-Marxism: Groundwork.
Freud was not illiberal. He advocated and supported free psychoanalytic clinics in Vienna. Unlike many other psychoanalysts then and since, he did not consider homosexuality to be a pathology. He and his family suffered considerable deprivation during World War I, and their friends had to send them ‘care’ packages of food and other essential items. During the last sixteen years of his life he was in serious discomfort due to cancer of the mouth. When he came to reflect on the human condition in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) he stressed that humankind is not essentially good but a profound mixture of the erotic and the destructive –- Eros and Thanatos. Discontent in the form of guilt and anxiety were the inevitable price of civilization. Without them he believed that there is no hope for humankind. He wrote, ‘Man is a wolf to other men’.
Freud did not set out to work in psychology. He wanted to pursue a career as a research scientist in neuroamatomy and neurophysiology, did laboratory work in Vienna after his medical training and wrote many purely scientific papers. Indeed, his first extensive treatise (unpublished) was an attermpt to express psychology in neurological terms. His first book was a neurological treatise, On Aphasia (1891). But in that setting a Jew could not make a living in research, so he turned to clinical work, having made a grand tour of the centres where nervous diseases were being interestingly studied, especially by Bernheim in Nancy and Charcot in Paris. He took on the cases other doctors could not help. He and his mentor, Josef Breuer, applied various nostrums, including hypnosis and electrotherapy, but mostly they listened and began to make interpretations about the sexual fantasies of their patients. This material proved too much for Breuer (more accurately, for Mrs Breuer), who abandoned this line of work. Freud persevered and came to attribute neuroses to unconscious sexual impulses and conflicts. He initially stressed sexual abuse but moved on to atribute neuroses to both actual and fantasied sexual distress.
The result was, in the first instance, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria (1895) and then Freud’s masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which had this motto: 'If I cannot bend the higher powers, I will stir up the lower depths'. It sold only 361 copies in the six years after its publication, but it came to be seen as one of Western culture’s great works. He also wrote some very popular books, e.g., The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He was not above writing populist pot-boilers to help the psychoanalytic press keep solvent -– Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and New Introductory Lectures… His Complete Psychological Works make up 24 volumes, but at the heart of it all is the role on sexuality, interpreted very broadly, in human nature and the role of the unconscious in human motivation. He argued that by far the largest portion of our thought processes are unconscious and that unconscious motivation is by far the most determinate part of our minds.
His discoveries in this area place him in the tradition of diminution of human arrogance and status which includes the Copernican dethronement of the Earth from the centre of the solar system, the Darwinian removel of humankind from a special place at the peak of living nature, qualitatively distinct from other primates, and the Marxist assertion that economic causation lies at the heart of human arrangements and culture. Current Darwinians are asserting a more rampant reductionism, nibbling away at the human spirit and attributing culture and behaviour almost wholly to instincts and genes, as if sociobiological eaplanations are somehow more basic, because more scientific, than the accounts of the human condition which derive from the liberal arts.
Freud’s concept of the ubiquity of sexual energy or libido has been broadened further in more recent work, in particular, by Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott and Wilfred Bion, who place object relations, i.e., our relations with the objects of our love and hate, at the base of human feelings and interactions. The claims about the role of the unconscious have also been broadened to say that the inner world is more determinate of who we are and how we act and feel than the outer world. This is not to say that the outer world is ineffectual but rather that our early experiences of care and upbringing set the tone of how we feel and react for the rest of our lives.
Freud’s influence grew apace. He was invited to lecture in America, psychoanalytic trainings and institutes were set up all over the world and continue to train psychoanalysts, while psychotherapy trainings have also prospered. He won the Goethe Prize for his writings, and he was made a Corresponding Member of the Royal Society of London when he immigrated to Hampstead just before he died.
When I was a university student in the 1950s psychoanalysis was at the peak of its influence in the arts, the human sciences, and many posts in the medical schools were held by psychoanalysts. But Freud and psychoanalysis have always had their detractors in culture, academic psychology and psychiatry, a situation that was not bearable to the more traditional psychiatrists or to the new generation of psychopharmacologists who aspired to treat mental illness by drugs. There was a concerted counter-attack by the traditional psychiatrists in the 1970s that centred on the editorship of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the main textbook of student psychiatrists and reference work for practitioners throughout the world. A professor at Columbia, Robert Spitzer (an ex-trainee psychoanalyst), was approached to edit a revision of the manual. He said he would accept on the condition that he could determine the board of editors and that they could expunge all trace of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic thinking from the revised edition. And so it came to pass. There was a standing ovation at the meeting when this coup was announced. There are many accounts of this wrench in the conceptual culture of psychiatry including a vivid one in The New Yorker (3 January 2005) and a very moving one of the deleterious effects it has had on the training of mental health workers, Of Two Minds, by T. M. Luhrmann.
There was in this period another institutional attack on psychodynamic therapies. The insurance companies that pay for psychotherapy became reluctant, to the point of refusal, to fund open-ended psychological treatments, preferring short-term interventions and ongoing drug regimes. Even though prolonged drug treatments have since been discredited for most conditions, this ruling has stood. Most people cannot afford private psychotherapy, much less four or five times per week psychoanalysis. Unlike in the US and UK, in some countries, e.g., Germany and Canada, the state health service does pay for such treatments.
There have also been swingeing attacks in the broader culture. These have come to be known as ‘The Freud Wars’. The best known was launched by Frederick Crews, a Berkeley professor of English Literature and a former adherent of psychoanalysis, in the New York Review of Books. A philosopher, Adolf Grünbaum, has launched an attack from the standpoint of phiulosophy of science, and there have been a number lighter-weight critiques. With few exceptions, e.g., Jonathan Lear’s Love and Its Place in Nature, the psychoanalytic community has not given a very good account of itself. Lear wrote, ‘The point of psychoanalysis is to help us develop a clearer, yet more flexible and creative, sense of what our ends might be. "How shall we live?" is, for Socrates, the fundamental question of human existence--and the attempt to answer that question is, for him, what makes human life worthwhile. And it is Plato and Shakespeare, Proust, Nietzsche and, most recently, Freud who complicated the issue by insisting that there are deep currents of meaning, often crosscurrents, running through the human soul which can at best be glimpsed through a glass darkly. This, if anything, is the Western tradition: not a specific set of values, but a belief that the human soul is too deep for there to be any easy answer to the question of how to live.’
I find this failure effectively to rebut the critics of psychoanalysis somewhat odd. There are perfectly good research findings supporting the clinical efficacy of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, for example, the writings of Professor Peter Fonagy of University College London, but there is an atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyism which prevents the supporters of psychoanalysis from being heard, or perhaps a better word is reckoned.
Part of the problem is that the charges against Freud and psychoanalysis are so crude and the motives of the attackers so base that one is tempted to say that they do not merit bothering to respond. This is not a sensible reaction, but it is a tempting one. Another reason has deeper cultural roots, despairing ones. It is increasingly felt that the truths about human nature are truths of the surface, that the human spirit is, as it were, passé. Behaviourists and Darwinian psychologists share a contempt for explanations in terms of unconscious motivation and opt instead for habits and genes as the determinants of human behaviour. I consider this to be a manifestation of the widespread phenomenon of the dumbing down of how we think of our humanity. And yet it is psychoanalysis, with its dynamic view of the complexities of human motivation, that resonates with literature, drama, fine art, film and music, including folk, country and pop. Moreover, there are fine writings based on a psychoanalytic reading of literature, e.g., The Chamber of Maiden Thought: Literary Origins of the Psychoanalytic Model of the Mind by Meg Harris Williams and Margot Waddell and Waddell’s Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality.
It is widely acknowledged that, with certain quite precise exceptions, drugs will not cure mental distress in the long run and that many more psychotherapists are needed, along with NHS funding for psychotherapy. The latest appeal, by Lord Layard, an LSE economist and Chief Downing Street Adviser, calls for ten thousand more therapists to treat the large number of people suffering from depression and anxiety, but he advocates that they should be cognitive behavioural therapists (CBT), decidedly un-psychodynamic. CBT is useful in its place, but it is psychoanalytic psychotherapy that reaches the parts other therapists do not reach.
The increasingly negative atmosphere around psychoanalysis sometimes strikes me as a miasma, sapping people’s better judgement. There is a shrinkage of patients, trainees and practitioners, though all agree that the amount of psychological distress and loss of work hours remain high and are growing. The elite psychoanalytic trainings have put their wagons in a circle and have created a caste hierarchy. Internal squabbles in and between psychoanalytic institutions abound, some doctrinal, some the result of group dynamics (see Douglas Kirsner, Unfree Associations: Inside Psychoanalytic Institutes). These squables are perhaps no worse than in other professionan subcultures, but, as with the clergy, one hopes for better from supposed experts in human relations.
As I look about me at an advanced age and in the present baleful state of the world I don’t feel a lot of hope but still seek to follow Antonio Gramsci’s motto: ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. After decades of experience, first as a patient and then as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, I still feel that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy work. They did for me, for people close to me and for almost all of my patients and my supervisees’ patients. I have known people to move as a result of psychoanalytic treatment from death’s door to fulfilled lives. With my own eyes I have seen it alleviate severe self-criticism, being ‘empty of oneself’, alienation, creative blocks, depression, eating disorders, psychosomatic disorders, perversion, depression, anxiety, trauma. Once again, drugs and behavioural therapies have their place, but they are (to put it mildly) less searching, less soulful.
Many have called Freud a pessimist. I find him and the leaders of the next generation of psychoanalytic thinkers to be realists. They have fully acknowledged our dual nature -– love and hate, constructive and destructive, caring and aggressive – and the need to acknowledge the full range of feelings and motivations that drive our natures. Unless we acknowledge them properly and find ways of containing and detoxifying the negative side of our being, what hope is there for humankind? Freud’s is the only general psychology that we’ve got that touches the depths of human nature and husbands the values that enlightened people cherish. It is also the only one that sheds much interesting light on the baleful and destructive aspects of human nature and offers ways of mitigating them. It speaks to the human condition in our very distressing times. As we take note of the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birth, let’s see if we cannot reverse the unmerited decline in his reputation and make more use of his insights and of those who have continued to develop psychoanalytic theory and practice.
Robert Maxwell Young was Professor of Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield and is a psychotherapist in London. He founded Free Associations Books and edits the ejournal Free Associations. His writings are at
This article was commissioned for Prospect Magazine in May 2006 and published in a shortened form on its web site