His reputation may be shrinking but his influence grows

On Freud's ubiquity
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The Independent Online
As if to mark the enduring influence of Freud, a life-size bronze statue of the great man was moved last week from a neglected spot at the back of a north London public library to a more suitable resting place a few hundred yards up the road.

Jonathan Miller, an expert in neuro-psychology as well as a theatre and opera director, gave a short speech at the unveiling and many members of the Freud clan were present.

Perhaps they defiantly rescued the statue because they have been taken aback by the spate of books published recently attacking their distinguished ancestor in pretty vicious terms. Yet WH Auden's poem, written in memory of Freud on his death in exile in London in 1939, still perfectly describes his significance:

"If often he was wrong and, at times absurd,

to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives:

Like weather he can only hinder or help."

As for a whole climate of opinion, I logged the references to Freud in this week's Independent on Sunday. There were a surprising number, explicit and implicit, starting with a review of the latest biography. New accounts of his life seem to be published every two or three years as a few extra letters come to light or more work is done, reconstructing the lives of Freud's own patients. There was also an article on shrinks which in its first line quoted Freud as asserting that humour is often a mask for disturbing truths. And then in Joan Smith's column, where she continued her acute analysis of the reactions to Princess Diana's death, she used the same Freudian insight when she argued that it is because the reporting has been so one-sided that a rash of gruesome jokes has already begun to do the rounds, an uncomfortable reminder, she wrote, of the way in which "humour, sometimes of the most macabre sort, functions as an outlet for suppressed feelings". This is pure Freud, as is the notion that the millions of people who were moved by Diana's death, had seen their own conflicts and anxieties in the life of the Princess, so that public mourning was a sort of release.

I cannot claim that Matthew Sweet's review of this week's main film, Mike Leigh's Career Girls, which I managed to catch on Saturday afternoon, is written in Freudian terms. But in the film itself, one of the scenes has the two "career girls" attending lectures on Freud in their student days during the 1980s, and the action turns on the fact that the fathers of both women deserted their mothers when they were eight years old, leaving one of them with no memory of her childhood before that event. We thus immediately enter the territory of infants' relationships with their parents in which Freud made his still startling assertions about pre- adolescent sexuality.

Indeed, it is Freud's treatment of the sexual abuse of children by adults which now brings the sharpest criticism. Freud had become convinced by stories related to him by patients of the importance of sexual experiences undergone during childhood. He called them infantile seductions: "foremost among those guilty of abuses like these, with their momentous consequences, are nursemaids, governesses and domestic servants". He argued that the age at which the memory of the seduction was thrust back into the unconscious tended to determine the type of neurosis produced.

Then doubts set in. Freud told himself that "it was hardly credible that perverted acts against children were so general". And he began to suspect that in the unconscious, fact was indistinguishable from emotionally charged fiction. The seductions were not real but imagined and he went on to develop hypotheses, such as the famous Oedipus complex, which were rooted in the idea that, rather than the parents lusting after their children, the children had lusted after their parents. Freud is now pilloried for not believing his patients when they reported their childhood seductions.

The full charge sheet against Freud in recent literature is very long, though much is a re-statement of criticisms which have been made since Freud's work was first published. It is argued that Freud was not original. Fifteen centuries earlier, had not St Augustine speculated in his Confessions on the fact that recollections would suddenly thrust themselves forward into consciousness from some unknown reservoir?

The techniques of word association were developed by the British scientist, Francis Galton. Long before Freud, Goethe maintained that while some of the slips made by his secretary had an overt explanation, others were due to unconscious motives. Then, looking at psychoanalysis today, critics say that as a therapy, it simply fails to work often enough to be worth pursuing. And in any case the factual basis of the theory is weak. As the Cambridge academic, John Forrester, in his recently published Dispatches from the Freud Wars (Harvard University Press) notes, Freud is seen as untrustworthy, demented and dangerous. Freud, not his patients, was the principal author of the seduction scenes - they were the fabricated product of his feverish imagination. The only mind Freud laid bare was his own.

So what do the rest of us conclude? I like Forrester's distinction between, on the one hand, people who simply read Freud out of interest - he is very readable and is still a best-selling author - and, on the other hand, the body of qualified experts.

Ordinary readers can take from Freud what seems to make sense to them and to the extent that they do, his work will remain part of the climate of opinion. The professionals will go on conducting bitter internecine warfare. But at least his statue is safe; it can be found at the Tavistock Centre in Hampstead, London, close to the house where Freud died, and which is now an excellent museum.