BOOK REVIEW / The psychopathology of everyday criticism: Freud's women - Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester: Weidenfeld, pounds 25

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FREUD'S WOMEN are not, alas, a newly discovered troupe of mistresses with whom the inventor of psychoanalysis toured Viennese dance-halls and snorted the odd line of coke. They are, on the contrary, a familiar cast of characters composed of his immediate family, his patients and his disciples; and of those feminist critics, from Juliet Mitchell to Kate Millett to Julia Kristeva, who have taken one side or another in the debate about his ideas.

The authors - novelist and film producer Lisa Appignanesi and Cambridge don John Forrester - have produced a text of nearly 500 pages to arrive at the conclusion that our century has indulged in a love affair with Freud, one which 'may have followed the patterns of idealisation and debasement he himself described so well, but . . . remains, nonetheless, a love affair'.

This vague conclusion is symptomatic of two of the book's shortcomings. These are a persistent refusal on the part of the authors to say what they really think, and an uncertain tone which perhaps has something to do with the book's dual authorship. The writing has a chameleon-like tendency to adopt the style, real or imagined, of the person being discussed at any given moment. Thus, in a discussion of the French theorist Jacques Lacan - who gets four pages even though he is not, strictly, a woman - we find sentences like this one: 'Yet the interminable ambiguities of the relation between the penis and the phallus render the correct reading of the Lacanian theory an unceasing hermeneutic labour in defence of a thesis that is never secure.'

This is well-worn Structuralist stuff, yet a chapter on Freud's Russian disciple Lou Andreas-Salome is couched in a series of cliches about the unknowable nature of woman, drawn from romantic fiction. We learn that 'Lou is simply, grandly, Lou'; she is 'a striking, splendidly female woman . . . she looks bold, proud, confident, but also strangely innocent'; she remains 'primarily herself: a woman, instilled with a sense of life's bounteous plenitude, navigating her own radically unconventional course'. She glides through the text, trailing her furs and her mystery, prompting Freud's theory of narcissism and seizing life 'uncomplainingly, with both hands'.

Aside from the problem of language, the chapter on Lou Andreas-Salome illustrates the difficulty which the authors have created for themselves in choosing this subject. Her life hardly qualifies as uncharted territory: the inspiration for Wedekind's Lulu, friend of Nietzsche and lover of Rilke, she produced a substantial amount of autobiographical writing and has been the subject of several biographies. Much the same problem arises with the chapter on Anna Freud: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's recent biography is dull but comprehensive. A similar sense of repetition is engendered by the chapter on Freud's writings on femininity, which were crisply anthologised and annotated by the same author only two years ago.

In their introduction to Freud's Women, the authors write as though they are pioneers, rescuing all these women from 'the standard historiographic treatment both by feminist and male historians which would see women analysts as mere pawns in a boys' game of institutional power struggles'. Yet the fact that this has already been done elsewhere - exhaustively, one might think - means that the book can work only if it provides more than summaries of lives and theories. In this it is hampered by its constantly reasonable tone, its unwillingness to take sides in the fierce disputes with which the history of psychoanalysis is littered. Even Jeffrey Masson, whose attack an Freud's change of mind over the reality of childhood sexual abuse strikes at the heart of psychoanalytic theory, gets this even-handed treatment and is dismissed in two paragraphs.

What this reflects, I think, is the authors' deep and abiding attachment to Freud. Admitting the existence of controversy but standing back from it, they are able to preserve a loyalty to his ideas which emerges in asides and underlying assumptions. To take just one example, their support for one of Freud's most dubious and surprising claims for psychoanalysis - that it is a science - becomes apparent only in a throwaway line on page 433. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Freud's Women is an unhappy hybrid, useful neither to convinced Freudians nor to sceptics.

(Photograph omitted)