Books: The Eat a Bull Contest

Justin Wintle finds Dr Freud's prescriptions increasingly hard to swallow; The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute by Frederick Crews et al, Granta, pounds 9.99 Dispatches from the Freud Wars: Psychoanalysis and its Passions by John Forrester, Harvard Univ
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If you went to a doctor with a persistent cough and he told you the reason for it was you wanted to suck your father's penis; or, in his surgery you developed a nose-bleed and he said you were bleeding with love for him; would you (a) leave immediately? (b) report him to the BMA? or (c) sue? Yet these are things Freud said to some of his women patients. Not at the outset, but after he had imposed his formidable personality on their already disoriented minds. Whenever I hear Freud's name, I reach for my Zen manual. The Victorians entertained notions about childhood and the loss of innocence. With Freud, though, it's more a case of actual theft.

My father was a haemophiliac. Of necessity, he was a gentle man, though scarcely ineffectual. He could never be jostled, let alone hit. Fortunately his character communicated his condition to those around him without his having to advertise it. He encouraged respect, and and so led a tolerably active life. Even as a young boy, I knew he was different. There were dreadful episodes when he had to be taken quickly to hospital in terrible pain. As a result, and before I knew much about the pathology of haemophilia, I developed a protective attitude toward him. Later on, I did my best to shield him from the milling crowd. And to this day I sometimes have nightmares - real nightmares - about evil befalling him.

But then comes Freud, straight out of the sewer, with his occult claptrap about repression and the Oedipus Complex. Didn't you know, his books tell me, that all along you wanted your father out of the way? That that's why the nightmares continue, as covert wish fulfilment? His illness must have especially deflected his wife's attention away from her son. But your Unconscious has remained busy. Your Unconscious has never stopped devising stratagems for your father's demise.

It's no use arguing. If you argue with Freud or any of his cohorts the answer is unanswerable. The truth is repressed and you are exhibiting resistance. And the more resistance we put up, the further into the lion's maw we fall.

All men are patricidal mummy-bonkers, all women matricidal daddy-shaggers. That's putting it crudely, but as regards Freud's grand theory, the proposition holds good. There's no point discussing it in a rational way, because the laws of reason don't apply to the Unconscious and its contents. The laws that do apply are those discovered by the first man properly to enter therein - Freud - in large measure because he was the first. Since the Hadean voyage is unrepeatable, we have no option but to accept His Word.

Hence the Oedipal Complex is also - as in my adolescence I first misheard, and in keeping with the anecdotal Greekness of it all - an Eat a Bull Contest. There are two bulls in the ring, you and he. The name of the game is to sacrifice one to the other.

A century has passed since Freud created psychoanalysis. For many this has been a century too long. The last 15 years particularly have offered convincing refutations of his so-called science. Heavyweight thinkers such as Ernest Gellner and Adolf Grunbaum have shown that psychoanalysis functions as a cult, that its tenets are undemonstrable and its therapeutic claims spurious. Others, like Peter Swales, have investigated the man himself. The picture that emerges is anything but nice. Freud was systematically dishonest, an avaricious megalomaniac who misled his readers, who could brook no dissent among his followers, and who bullied his patients into accepting his ideas.

Yet, as both these new titles testify, versions of Freud still flourish amid the controversy. The more arresting is The Memory Wars, a tour de force made up of contributions to the New York Review of Books. In 1993 the NYRB published an unprecedentedly long essay by Frederick Crews, "The Unknown Freud", endorsing the latest batch of anti-Freud writings. Inevitably Crews's assessment incited a torrent of rebuttal, mostly from the psychoanalytic community, which had everything to lose.

According to Granta, such was the furore that copies of the NYRB "flew off the stands". Has Stephen Spielberg acquired the film rights? But the real punch was gruesome as well as fantastic. At the heart of Crews's assault was a concern with "recovered memory therapy". Across America, Crews reported, thousands of women had been brainwashed by their mainly feminist analysts into believing they were victims of incestuous child abuse. As a result, charges were pressed, fathers bundled into jail, and families wrecked.

At the end of 1994, Crews answered his critics in a second stand-voiding NYRB essay, "The Revenge of the Repressed". Not since the Salem witch trials of 1692, Crews urged, had the legal system been so duped. And all because of a superstitious belief in the validity of "repression". For us, there are overtones of Cleveland. In the US, analysts again flocked to Freud's cause. The Memory Wars, by including their rejoinders, makes some attempt at even-handedness. But in every case Crews insists on having the last word. He parades scientific empiricism to the death. As the debate becomes more acrimonious, one wishes he would devote more of his considerable acumen to the living issue: how to separate real and imaginary cases of child abuse?

"Critics of psychoanalysis seldom see," one of his more revisionist adversaries concedes, "that it is a process of dealing with a wildly moving target from a slightly less wildly moving platform". The mystery is how Freud ever came to be accepted on his own terms in the first place. Mainly this is a cultural mystery: a gratification of this century's cravings for sex, demonology and breakthrough medicine. Better, perhaps, that our dreams should mean what Freud says that they mean than that they should mean nothing?

Some, but not too many, clues are provided in John Forrester's scholarly Dispatches from the Freud Wars. Here there are excellent essays on Freud's lurid relationship with Sandor Ferenczi, and on Freud the collector of antiquities It begins, however, with a progressively impenetrable mix- comparison between Freud and the political theorist John Rawls, and ends with a rather washy interview with Freud's ghost. Forrester is on to the old crazy, but doesn't have the horns to finish him off.