Killing Freud: 20th-century culture and the death of psychoanalysis by Todd Dufresne

Disastrous victory of a 20th-century shaman
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Had Freud and his celebrated "talking cure" never happened, would BT still have come up with "It's Good to Talk"? Would the slogan have such ambiguous ring-tones? Post-Freud, the proposition is scarcely one that entices all subscribers. Good to chat, maybe; good to discuss and debate. But by its one-sided definition of "talk", psychoanalysis unsettles.

Encouraging the patient to let it all hang out should be empowering for the "analysand". In fact, the reverse is true. Nobody except a megalomaniac can "talk" (in a monologue) indefinitely without rendering themselves vulnerable to the suggestive interventions of that dictatorial wizard: the analyst. What may begin as a minor character trait is inflated into an obsession, then a phobic neurosis. There is little chance that an analysis will last less than several months, years or, in the most lucrative cases, decades.

As Todd Dufresne reminds us, Karl Kraus famously quipped that "psychoanalysis is the disease of which it purports to be the cure". For its practitioners, the embarrassing truth is that its therapeutic record is at best unproven, at worst contra-indicative. The scam scarcely ends there. Freud's untestable "discoveries" were not just a means of persuading unfortunates to part with their money, but a grand theory capable of uncovering the tap-roots of experience. And, in the wake of his admittedly enthralling Interpretation of Dreams, one discipline after another fell under his shamanist sway.

Dufresne suggests that the upshot of Freud's moribund triumph has been, intellectually, little short of catastrophic. Psychoanalysis subverts the essence of western rationality, substituting a bastard discourse for the fact-honouring conventions of dialogue that, intermittently, have served civilisation well since Socrates. Rightly, Dufresne identifies the excesses of post-structuralism and postmodernism as Freud's progeny, without wholly condemning all such movements. Yet his basic point rings true: wherever the bearded shadow of Freud falls, something unwholesome festers.

Killing Freud is the latest salvo fired in the Freud Wars, which got seriously under way during the "recovered memories" furore that gripped 1990s America. Dozens of parents faced imprisonment because their grown-up children were seduced into believing, by the inchoate shibboleths of Freudianism, that they had been abused as youngsters.

Dufresne does not attempt a demolition of Freud, though he is equipped to do that. He concentrates his fire on weak points in the enemy's defences: the way Freud systematically distorted his findings in case-histories, and the way psychoanalysis, as a profession, is a fiercely jealous guild. There is a wickedly funny section on the literal-cum-metaphoric ice-skating of Ernest Jones, Freud's English promoter and "official" biographer; and, more playful still, a supposedly unpublished memoir by an orthodox practitioner, forced to admit that psychoanalysis is nothing if not "a bad habit".

Killing Freud requires some knowledge of its subject-matters: Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, as much as Freud. While it is not a book for he uninitiated, for those minded to follow the Freud Wars, its erudition offers sure-fire caviar.

Justin Wintle's Rough Guide History of Islam is published by Penguin