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Books: Our guide to the vale of tears

Dr Freud: a life by Paul Ferris Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 20 Frank McLynn defends a guru who never promised miracle cures for his patients
The story is often told of a quack psychoanalyst who, asked where Herr Doktor was going for his holidays, replied to his patient: "Where would you like me to be going?" Paul Ferris, who disclaims all psychoanalytic allegiances, seems nonetheless to have picked up a few of the tricks of the consulting room, for he announces in his introduction that "Freud is what you want him to be". This sounds like relativism gone mad and alerts us to one of the flaws of this book: that it is written without commitment and even, at times, without a point of view.

Lack of commitment is not the same thing as objectivity, however, as Ferris's many critical asides make clear. After the denigratory epithets and phrases applied to Freud - "authoritarian", "ruthless", "fabricated evidence", "finding solutions to fit theories", - we proceed to more full- blown critical propositions. "Anything is possible in Freudian waters," argues Ferris; "His claims for psychoanalysis were so universal that every piece of behaviour had to be solvable, no matter how much tortured ingenuity was needed to make sense of it."

Although deploring the excesses of recent anti-Freudians - Richard Webster, Jeffrey Masson and, particularly, Peter Swales, whom Ferris rightly characterises as a "bounty hunter" who writes "brilliant science fiction" - Ferris is more sympathetic to them than to the most recent biographers, Peter Gay and Ronald Clark. He claims not to be writing a full biography, nor an examination of psychoanalytic theory, but simply to a dispassionate look at Freudianism. Yet it seems to me that he misunderstands Freud and the doctrine on at least three levels.

"Psychoanalysis without Oedipus is rather like Christianity without the Resurrection," writes Ferris. Not so. Psychoanalysis is properly understood not as dogma but as methodology, centred on the trinity of repression, resistance and transference, from which it follows that the Oedipus complex is an optional extra. Secondly, there is the question of truth. Psychoanalysis is "true" in the same way that Hamlet and The Brothers Karamazov are true, not in the sense that quantum theory and relativity are. It is curious how psychoanalysis is criticised for not meeting a criterion of truth no discipline except mathematics or physics ever meets.

Thirdly, psychoanalysis is accused of never effecting a cure. As C E M Joad would have said, it depends what one means by cure. Freud made it clear that the normal state of human beings was unhappiness and that his therapy was limited to bringing patients back from a state of neurotic super-unhappiness to our normal vale of tears. Yet there is a curious perception that one should emerge from psychoanalysis serene and detached.

If we apply these three strands of criticism to Ferris's book, not a lot is left. There is a very shrewd assessment of the underrated figure, Ernest Jones, the man who actually performed the task left undone by Jung and took the Jewish gospel to the Gentiles. But Ferris spoils the effect by letting both Jung and Adler off too lightly, so that Freud appears as the true neurotic in his well-known quarrels with them.

Ferris's volume is neither a searching examination of the life, like Peter Gay's, nor a thorough critique of the theory, like Richard Wollheim's. It is pleasantly written but too superficial in its analysis of the ideas and too idiosyncratic in its treatment of key events in Freud's life. Sometimes, it is maddeningly evasive, as when it hints at dark suspicions and persistent gossip about the death of Ernest Jones's wife but fails to enlighten us further.

Finally, despite some incidental merits and pleasures, this book emerges as a curiosity. Clearly, Ferris is interested in Freud, but one finishes his work puzzled as to what drew him to the subject in the first place.