Terribly far-fetched, said the Wolf-Man

DR FREUD: A Life by Paul Ferris Sinclair-Stevenson pounds 20

I ... came to understand that hysterical symptoms are derived from fantasies and not from real occurrences." Freud wrote this to explain his rejection of his earlier Seduction Theory, which had located the key to neurosis as sexual molestation in childhood. He felt (no doubt correctly) that he had bullied many of his patients into "remembering" having been sexually abused. He therefore inverted the more empirically evident parent-to-child sexual impulses. Instead, on the basis of one of his dreams, he asserted the universal occurrence of the infant's "Oedipal tendencies" - a boy's incestuous desire for his mother and murderous jealousy of his father (with, later, a more or less parallel scenario for girl- children).

Thus, as Paul Ferris makes clear in his highly readable biography, he replaced one "key to neurosis" with another just as false - and yet more pernicious, in that it validated the cover-up of genuine, widespread childhood abuse. This particular flight into fantasy is symptomatic. How far psychoanalysis has aped its founder is shown by the psychoanalysts described by Janet Malcolm in her book In the Freud Archives. Even for ex-inmates of Auschwitz, they maintained (and they themselves were Jewish), fantasy and reality have equivalent validity.

Equally, though, Freudianism can declare fantasy to be reality. Freud was given to compulsive symbol-spinning. He would feverishly work out permutations of phone digits and hotel-room numbers to compute the date of his death. This tendency to magical thinking may have enabled him to empathise with his patients' obsessively ramifying associations. But it also encouraged an extraordinary folie a deux in which Freud proliferated the meanings of each patient's associations beyond her wildest dreams, and then insisted that the way he construed them represented her forgotten childhood reality. So a dream of seven wolves (by the eponymous Wolf-Man) denoted the dreamer's buried memory of seeing his mother penetrated from behind, and explains his nostalgie de la boue and excessive deference to men. "Terribly far-fetched," said the Wolf-Man himself.

Whether or not these (re)constructed latent memories were accurate was usually academic, precisely because, as Freud himself stressed, they were latent. Undoubtedly, too, many of Freud's patients benefited from his charismatic attention. However, flouting the scientific for a delusory mind-over-matter omnipotence sometimes had disastrous consequences. He misdiagnosed a 14-year-old's stomach tumour as hysteria, and she died. His construal of temporal lobe epilepsy as hysteria encouraged years of similar misdiagnosis. He read an unconscious wish to arouse his affection into the unfortunate Emma Eckstein's nose-bleeds, noting darkly that she bled three times within a month and each bleeding lasted for four days "which must have some significance". He got his friend Wilhelm Fliess to operate on her nose in the name of his crackpot theory linking nasal and sexual dysfunction, and, because Fliess left half a metre of gauze in the wound, Eckstein haemorrhaged so badly she nearly died.

Freud toyed with various global panaceas: Fliess's numerology and biorythmic theories, hypnosis, astrology and telepathy. For a time he insisted that cocaine was a world-redeeming cure-all, utilising mysterious mechanisms to reduce food-intake while enhancing the body's functioning - until he realised that through his recommendations a friend had become addicted to cocaine. Predictably, Freud had not bothered with empirical underpinning or any research into side-effects. He periodically aimed at a more biological basis for psychology. In Heath-Robinsonian diagrams of the human body, squiggles and arrows were supposed to indicate a "flow of electricity". Apparently if this electricity/energy becomes blocked by wearing a condom, masturbating, or whatever other inhibition of sexual activity currently preoccupied him, toxins accumulate and hysterical symptoms are manifested. Again this pseudo-scientific model, with its unacknowledged hydraulics metaphor, is totally ungrounded in fact and based purely on associative magic.

The Church of Freud has been unsettled by a good deal of hearsay recently. Jeffrey Masson and Peter Swales have unearthed letters and secrets, and, in the case of Swales, been as Freudian as Freud in symbolic sleuthing that claims to disinter an affair with his sister-in-law and other discreditable behaviour. More importantly, Richard Webster's masterly Why Freud Was Wrong provides a balanced, stringent debunking of Freudianism.

Paul Ferris benefits, not always avowedly, from these revelations and reversals. His biography is wonderfully enjoyable, though slighter and less scholarly then Peter Gay's, and employing Webster-type critique too shallowly. Not enough space is given to analysis of Freudian theory (Ferris hardly even mentions the id or superego), and not enough justice done to the charisma and drive that largely account for Freud's success. Ferris delineates Freud's prim, tormented sexuality fascinatingly and fairly. Perhaps, as he speculates, it was Freud's own sexual repression that led him to stress the importance of sex.

Yet, whatever the origin of his concern, Freud was surely courageous and far-sighted in paying attention to his patients' sexuality and to what they said, and in developing Schopenhauer's insight - that "the ego is not master in its own house". He called this one of the "three severe blows" science has dealt to human vanity (the others being Copernicus's heliocentrism and Darwin's biological reductionism). But perhaps his own greatest, and typically paradoxical, insight is that a healthy civilisation depends on the very repression from which its members, in order to be healthy, need to be liberated.

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution