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BOOK REVIEW / Putting new skin on original sin

Jerome Burne considers a comprehensive attack on the fundamental doctrines of Freud; Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis by Richard Webster HarperCollins, pounds 25
This is a very superior demolition job. It's like going backstage after being held in thrall by a particularly elaborate gothic opera. The dramatis personae - Dora, Anna O, Frau Emmy and the rest whose case histories put flesh on Freud's theories - are not quite what they seemed out front. Carefully and relentlessly, Webster introduces previously ignored evidence to show that Freud's catch-all category of hysteria was a misdiagnosis for conditions as various as temporal lobe epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome and rheumatism. Not only that, but none of them was actually cured - Anna O, for instance, the "founding case of psychoanalysis", ended her life in a sanatorium, an addict and as disturbed as ever.

The imposing sets turn out to be lash-up jobs. The theory of dreams is full of holes - why do we need to have elaborate repression mechanisms to disguise sex when we dream about intercourse all the time? - while the Oedipus complex is upside down: in real life it is the children who are at risk from the incestuous desires of the adults. As for the director, his professional behaviour was appalling - rushing into print with claims about cures, both with cocaine and via analysis, that he knew to be totally untrue. Not to mention producing the most ludicrous plots - masturbation as a form of neurological poison and babies, faeces and the penis being all one as far as the Unconscious is concerned.

If this is just what has been visible out front, the backstage machinery makes Heath Robinson look like a candidate for the design museum. Take Wilhelm Fliess, the one-time confidant and collaborator whose bizarre theories of links between genital problems and the nose - the cure was to snort cocaine - have always been something of an embarrassment. Psychoanalytic supporters gloss over him as an aberration but Webster shows how Fliess's pseudo-scientific theories - the cosmos explained in terms of the numbers 23 and 28 and so on - used just the same sort of infinitely flexible definitions and unsupported speculation that were such a distinguishing feature of Freud's own system.

Webster does a masterly job of weaving together a number of the recent revisionist accounts of Freud's work, most of which concentrate on a particular aspect, into a damning indictment. But this is only the beginning. Webster's sights are set on an even bigger target. His next step is to show how, far from being a radical and rational account of the wellsprings of human behaviour, the central Freudian idea was very old-fashioned Judaic-Christian theology dressed up in new medical and technical clothes.

What Freud actually did was to re-package the doctrine of original sin, the idea that we are all split, with a higher self or soul and a base or animal half. Just as Christianity proclaimed we are all damned through our base half, so Freud proclaimed that we are all in thrall to the untamed desires of infant sexuality and the unconscious and only via the couch, five days a week, can we achieve insight and rational control. The religious dimension is fleshed out with an account of Freud as a messiah and a penetrating chapter on the complex parallels between analysis and the confessional - the analyst as the silent remote god of Protestantism, listening inscrutably to the outpourings of a believer.

But to see what he's ultimately aiming at, Webster has to take an even longer perspective and look at psychoanalysis in the context of European thought. This unconscious angel-beast division was not unique to psychoanalysis; was there at the heart of the Puritan Enlightenment and it now runs right through the scientific method. Out go feelings, subjectivity and the emotions while reason and the mind take charge. Original sin is alive and hiding in the laboratory.

Webster's thesis is that such a bifurcated intellectual apparatus will never construct a truthful account of human nature. However, there is an alternative, and it was provided by Darwin, whose theory, in direct contrast to Freud's, was based on a painstaking examination of what actually happens. Webster's plea is for a science of human nature that is not rooted in chimerical and unverifiable mental process but based on careful observation of how people - how parents and children - actually behave, that places them in society and in history.

This is a big book that covers a lot of intellectual ground with great clarity and verve.