Books: Independent choice

Pick of the Freudians by David Cohen
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When Freud devised the key concepts of psychoanalysis, he had no doubt that he was creating a new science. Through analysis one could arrive at the truth about a person or a disease. Freud was no philosophical innocent. By his early forties, when he wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he had treated many neurotics and hysterics - he understood the complexities of seeking truth from patients in such conditions and believed that his technique could establish not a truth, but the truth about such conditions. Three new books support him by announcing their faith in him as one of the key minds of the 20th century. Yet two of the books question Freud's commitment to truth in surprisingly radical ways.

John Forrester argues in Truth Games (Harvard, pounds 15.50) that when Freud was conducting therapy he forgot the rules of science. The patient in analysis is told to say whatever enters his mind, whether true or false. Freud wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss in 1897 that "There are no indications of reality in the unconscious so that it was impossible to distinguish between truth and fiction invested with affect". Freud also admitted his theory of infantile seduction was wrong. Parents did not seduce their children. Rather, children fantasised it - perhaps even wanted it. In one of the elegant essays in Truth Games, Forrester argues that psychoanalysis is founded on the truth that in the unconscious there is no truth and no untruth. Freud, the analyst, knew and revelled in the murk. Freud the scientist refused to accept it. So analysis was left with a terrible split at its heart.

In Questions For Freud (Harvard, pounds 16.50), Nicholas Rand and Maria Torok don't just elaborate on the split, they offer an explanation for all Freud's maddening contradictions. I'm glad to report that their theory could come straight out of a farce. They claim that when Freud was ten his uncle Josef, in collaboration with Osias Wiech, was had up for trying to pass off fake roubles. The Imperial Russian police put agents on to Freud and Wiech, and caught them in a classic sting. For the Freud family, the shame was awful. No one would ever speak of this appalling secret. The Sigmund Freud collection in the Library of Congress marks these papers as restricted until the year 2000. Rand and Torok suggest that Sigmund was deeply affected by the scandal. They show convincingly that in many dreams Freud studied during his famous self-analysis, themes of Uncle Josef recur.

It's likely Freud's father knew that the counterfeit notes had been either made or bought in Manchester by two of Freud's half-brothers. The young Freud saw his family live with a disaster, and respond to it with shame and secrecy. One can only applaud Rand and Torok's detective work - actually the case was reported in the Austrian press, but no-one previously had the wit to look. It's a good story that explains some of Freud's ambivalence about truth - but it can hardly be the whole truth.

After these readable, riveting books, Adam Phillips's The Beast in the Nursery (Faber, pounds 14.99) seems less dramatic. Phillips argues that we are too ready to accept the myth that, as we grow up, we have to shed the vitality of childhood and accept reality. He writes beautifully and his thesis seems sensible, but it doesn't arouse the passions like the controversies of psychoanalysis still do.

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