A Freud for all seasons

More than Marx, more than Einstein, Sigmund Freud was a huge influence on 20th-century culture and created our modern sense of ourselves. But, asks Christina Patterson, which of his now contested ideas will thrive in our century?
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'I'm going to give him one more year," says Woody Allen to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, "and then I'm going to try Lourdes." He is talking, of course, about psychoanalysis - a process which his character had been undergoing for a mere 15 years. It is impossible to imagine Woody Allen without Freud. It is also impossible to imagine Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, André Breton, Salvador Dali, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan - indeed most films, books and art. "Sigmund Freud," as the writer and critic Marina Warner has said, "shaped the 20th-century idea of what a person is. We would not recognise ourselves without him."

The man who invented the Oedipus complex was born 150 years ago in Moravia, now in the Czech Republic. It was while training as a doctor that he stumbled upon the theories of hypnosis and hysteria that were to lead him into a study of the human mind that would shake the foundations of Western thought. It's hard to believe now that there was ever a time when we didn't believe that childhood experience had a powerful effect on our adult life, that our dreams were mirrors of the psyche, that slips of the tongue are revealing, or that everything, ultimately, was about sex. If Freud didn't necessarily invent all these ideas, he was certainly the first to formulate them into a coherent system of thought. More than Marx, it seems, and on a par with Einstein, he was the leading intellectual force of the 20th-century - "the central imagination", as the American writer and critic Harold Bloom put it, "of our age". "To us he is no more a person now," wrote Auden in his poem "In Memory of Sigmund Freud", "but a whole climate of opinion."

In 1925 Samuel Goldwyn offered Freud £100,000 to collaborate on a film about Anthony and Cleopatra. Freud refused, but the following year saw the appearance, without his co-operation, of the first film about psychoanalysis. Secrets of a Soul, directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst, is still a gripping portrayal of a state of terror, punctuated by intense nightmares and compulsive thoughts of murder. Grappling with the not inconsiderable challenge of being a silent film about a talking cure, it relies on symbols - knives, razors, an Indian fertility statue and a giant doll - to tell the story of a man's neurosis and its cause. It also relies on the odd caption: "frightening dreams", "compulsive impulse" and "flight to the mother". Eighty years on, it's still brilliant, but also hilarious. The thoughts and symbols that were then so radical have become so much a part of the texture, and subtext, of our culture that the film now seems to have acquired a postmodern patina of irony, the kind of so-straight-it's-groovy irony of the Seventies haircut.

"We felt that we were the first," said Freud's daughter, Anna, who devoted her life to the continuation of her father's work, "who had been given a key to the understanding of human behaviour and its aberrations as being determined not by overt factors but by the pressure of instinctual forces emanating from the unconscious mind." Thomas Mann went even further. "As a science of the unconscious," he said in a speech at Freud's 80th birthday party, "it is a therapeutic method in the grand style, a method overarching the individual's case. Call this, if you choose, a poet's utopia." Freud was circumspect in his reply. It was, he replied, "the poets and philosophers before me" who "discovered the unconscious". "What I discovered," he declared, "was the scientific method by which the unconscious can be studied."

But was he right? More than a century after the invention of psychoanalysis, we are still trying to peel back the layers to find the true genius beneath. Is it Freud the scientist? Freud the doctor? Freud the healer of troubled souls? Or do we save our celebrations for Freud the raconteur, Freud the poet, Freud the spinner of surreal tales? Freud the purveyor, even, of cosmic jokes?

It was Nabokov who called Freud "the Viennese quack", and he was just the tip of a vast critical iceberg. Since the great break with Carl Jung, there has been a significant body of dissenters, all vying with each other to question Freud's theories and his methods. The philosopher Karl Popper, who believed that all scientific theories could be falsified by empirical tests, concluded that Freud's work could not be classified as science. The German philosopher Adolf Grünbaum believed that Freud did make falsifiable predictions and that they were indeed proved false. Freud's theories were therefore not just mistaken but scientifically wrong.

One of the most damaging attacks came in 1985, from the inner sanctum of psychoanalysis itself. A practising psychoanalyst and friend of Anna Freud, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson was project director of the Sigmund Freud archives when he accused Freud of suppressing his "seduction theory" of childhood sexual abuse. His book on the subject, The Assault on Truth, triggered (appropriately enough) an outpouring of international hysteria.

It was followed in 1988, by his equally explosive assault on the whole idea of therapy. The subtitle of Against Therapy, "Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing", gives some indication of the passion involved. According to Masson, "abuse of one form or another is built into the very fabric of psychotherapy", since "it is the nature of therapy to distort another person's reality". Drawing on the work of Jung, Fritz Perls and Carl Rogers as well as Freud, he argues that the financial, sexual and psychic corruption of the psychoanalytical enterprise is endemic. Masson was memorably described by the eminent medical historian Roy Porter as "the analyst as dick-head", but this is probably to underestimate the damage he wrought. His talent was to use a cluster of symptoms as demonstrations of a universal virus. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his argument, the mud certainly stuck.

In 1996 an exhibition about Freud's work and legacy at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, was postponed after a vigorous campaign by his critics. Among them was the academic and Freud scholar Frederick Crews, who called psychoanalysis "an apparently scientific doctrine which is, in fact, medieval in its assumptions". In this country, Richard Webster's book Why Freud Was Wrong, published at about the same time, argued that "Freud's messianic personality has profoundly distorted the perception of his theories". There is, he explains, no doubt that Freud's work is "shot through with real insights into human nature", but Freud was "unable to organise these insights systematically". Instead, he relied on "the aura and authority of scientific rationalism in order to create around himself a 'church' whose doctrines sought to subvert the very rationalism they invoked".

Certainly, there was more than a whiff of the religious revivalist meeting at a recent conference on "Freud Yesterday, Freud Today". Organised jointly by the Freud Museum in London and the Archives of the British Psychoanalytical Society, it was one of a raft of events planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary. More than 300 people, not all with beards, packed a large hall at the University of Westminster for a two-day programme of "presentations and discussion" by international experts. Freud's face bore fiercely down on us from a large screen on the stage as one academic after another shared learned thoughts on Freud as a writer, the current state of clinical psychoanalysis and Freud's relationship with anthropology, politics and art. Each paper was preceded by an introductory mini-paper, delivered with great formality, by a series of chairs with the deferential air of disciples. International experts speak, understandably, with strong foreign accents. They also speak for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that there was almost no time for questions.

In a lengthy disquisition on "some 'bad' images of Freud", the French psychoanalyst Alain de Mijolla lamented the growing violence of the attacks on Freud. "Passionate love," he declared, in the standard argument of the Freudian, "turns into hatred." He called for an international congress as a way of "silencing the voices against Freud". He would, he said, like to "look at the lives of each of these writers and identify the source of their animosity". Why, I asked him a touch nervously, would you want to silence your critics? "Because," he replied with a withering Gallic shrug, "criticism of psychoanalysis has done such a lot of damage!"

His sensitivity is perhaps understandable in the light of the current situation in France. French analysts are under siege. An 800-page tome, Le Livre Noir de la Psychanalyse has landed like (Freud might say) a giant turd in the French cultural landscape, setting the cat well and truly among the psychoanalytical pigeons. In France, about 70 per cent of psychiatrists still base their treatment on Freudian theory. In teaching hospitals it remains the core of the curriculum. Le Livre Noir, published in 2005, argued that psychoanalysis was not a science but a cult "immunised against proof", which had, by opposing treatments that were known to work, done untold damage. The French psychoanalytical establishment was quick to fight back. The cheaper cognitive therapies are, they argued, superficial and dehumanising, a quick-fix solution that suppresses a patient's symptoms in order to render him productive. It is psychoanalysis alone which offers the dignity, freedom and complexity that a troubled human soul deserves.

De Mijolla's desire to silence his critics was echoed, no doubt unconsciously, by the American psychoanalyst Harold Blum. "The analysts have been intimidated by the critics' arguments," he announced. Intimidated, Dr Blum? How interesting! Why would you be intimidated by an argument? Unless, that is, it's better than yours. Or is this what the great doctor would call a Freudian slip?

For Brenda Maddox, who is writing a biography of the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, and who was also at the conference, it's a sign of a more general anxiety about dialogue. "It's the last thing they want," she told me in a coffee break. "They're terrified of discussion. It's also about the economics. In the Freud-Jones correspondence they're always saying 'send me patients'. If you're in this school or that school you can't afford to change your views too radically, or you don't get patients."

Ivan Ward, director of education at the Freud Museum, is relatively relaxed about these excesses. "Having that image of Freud at the front was partly playing with the idea of whether it's a religion," he explained cheerfully. "A wishful fantasy needs a bit of examination. But it's true," he added, "there is something a bit po-faced about psychoanalysis in general." Roger Kennedy, president-elect of the British Psychoanalytical Society, has his own explanation for the revivalist atmosphere. "It's the large-group phenomenon," he told me over a cup of tea. "Large groups throw up psychotic anxieties."

Perhaps they do, but the fact is that most scientists now question the scientific basis for Freud's theories, and most healthcare trusts, in this country at least, have ditched psychoanalysis for cognitive therapy and Prozac. It is, in fact, writers and artists who are continuing to keep the Freudian flame alive. For AS Byatt, it has been a love-hate relationship. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, she was hugely irritated by "amateur psychotherapists who told you that things were about resistance or penis envy", but the writing itself was a revelation. It was, she explained in a panel discussion with the poet and critic Al Alvarez, while working on the novels of Iris Murdoch that she fell in love with the man she had previously dismissed as a bore. Murdoch's novels are, she said, "patterned on Freudian descriptions of the self", a concept she found "very exciting". "I don't think I work like that at all," she confessed, "but I started to love Freud when I read Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I loved it for its strong pessimism. Most of all, I love Freud for his quickness of understanding of metaphor and language and illusion. I love the way he understands how fairy tales work in the mind."

Freud wrote, according to the German psychoanalyst and Freud scholar, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, with a big, fat fountain pen on large sheets of paper, specially cut to size. He needed to have plenty of white space around the words. He also needed a fog of cigar smoke and a cluster of Egyptian and Roman statuettes. These factors together provided an appropriate air of solemnity to help him overcome his dread of the (sorry, but inescapably phallic) pen. He wrote quickly, once he started, with few corrections. Lacking, at least until 1919, much sense of the demands of posterity, he chucked out his handwritten versions as soon as the typed ones appeared. It was a process that clearly owed more to religious ritual than to the scientific method.

"Freud," said Alvarez in the discussion with Byatt, "was writing rather like a novelist, creating a form and significance out of the chaos of the unconscious. Writers and analysts," he added, "are both concerned with truth to feeling. As a writer, you have to be able to recognise when you start parodying yourself." For Alvarez, psychoanalysis has much in common with literary criticism - literary criticism, that is, "before it was hijacked by the theorists". "It's not out to prove anything," he explained. "In order to write real criticism, the critic has to let go of his own sensibility and immerse himself in the sensibility of the writer. All that is required is attention and detachment. I can't see that there's any difference between that and the attention that the psychoanalyst gives to the patient. I love reading Freud!" he declared. "I chose The Interpretation of Dreams as my book on Desert Island Discs. It's a great example of someone thinking on their feet."

In the end, it is surely for his stories that Freud will be remembered, "narratives", according to John Updike, "that have the colour and force of fiction". Freud himself was a little baffled by his literary gifts. "Like other neuro-pathologists," he declared in Studies on Hysteria, "I was trained to employ local diagnoses and electro-prognosis, and it still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science. I must console myself with the reflection that the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own. The fact is that local diagnosis and electrical reactions lead nowhere in the study of hysteria, whereas a detailed description of mental processes such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative writers enables me, with the use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind of insight into the course of that affection."

It is certainly hard to imagine stories that do more justice to the complexity of the human soul, a complexity that applies not just to writers or thinkers, but to every human being on the face of the planet. With Freud, we are all prey to the rich symbolic terrain of our dream life and the archeological layers of the mind. With Freud we are, in fact, all poets. It is about the imagination, and freedom and respect, but it's also about pleasure. "He wakes us up to things," said Adam Phillips, editor of the new Penguin Freud Reader, in a chat a few days after the conference. "For Freud, being amused is much more interesting than being convinced or persuaded. He is not in any sense a comic writer, but having read Freud, you will see meanings and amusement in things that wouldn't have occurred to you. And then," he added after a brief pause, "you will get more laughs."

For information on events to mark the 150th anniversary, visit www.sigmund-freud.co.uk; for information about the Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, visit www.freud.org.uk