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
Saturday 27 September 1997
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.
Life & Style blogs
Britain's kitchens so filthy that they present a health risk, says new research
Surgeon backs 'good death' plans - and reveals his own
NHS hit by stealth cuts of £2bn as tariffs received for medical procedures are reduced
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter
Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 5 The most powerful passports in the world
£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...
£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...
£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...
£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...