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Freud’s introductory lectures, in both iterations, were intended not for professional psychoanalysts but for the curious amateur possessed of an attitude “benevolent, even though cautious,” toward psychoanalysis. Aware that he was already being regarded in some quarters as a sage, Freud warned his audience not to expect too much: “What people seem to demand of psychology is not progress in knowledge, but satisfactions of some other sort; every unsolved problem, every admitted uncertainty is made into a reproach against it … Whoever cares for the science of mental life must accept these injustices along with it.” Psychoanalysis was a radically ambitious theory of the mind and of human culture, but it couldn’t solve everything.
Almost a century later, the public seems to be demanding a lot of psychoanalysis once again. What has brought about this latest return to Freud, this renewed hunger for a theory to solve all our problems? Most explanations for the current psychoanalytic renaissance center on grief and discontent. The pandemic, with its millions of disavowed dead, its isolation for some and cruel exposure for others, is often named as a catalyst. Then, too, there was the trauma of the Trump years and their anticlimactic conclusion. Mental health has become an increasingly popular topic in the United States and elsewhere; at the same time, many are disillusioned with chemical cures and with methods of care focused only on symptom reduction. (As a friend said to me of cognitive behavioral therapy, “CBT made me want to get out of bed, but out of bed I was still myself.”)
Whatever the reasons for the resurgence of interest in psychoanalysis, the timing is certainly right for something like a new New Introductory Lectures. Freud, alas, is not around to write it, but we’re lucky to have an acceptable substitute in a posthumous volume by John Forrester, a celebrated historian and author of eight previous books on the topic. Titled Freud and Psychoanalysis: Six Introductory Lectures, Forrester’s book, like Freud’s, is written for the reader with a “benevolent, but cautious,” attitude toward the subject.
Much as Freud did in wartime Vienna, Forrester (who died in 2015) spoke extemporaneously, from notes, for an audience of laypeople (in this case, undergraduates at Cambridge University). Whereas Freud relied on his memory to turn his improvised remarks into text, Forrester’s lectures were recorded and then transcribed and edited by the writer Lisa Appignanesi (his wife and co-author) and Katrina Forrester, a feminist political theorist (and John’s daughter). Disseminated here, they should find an audience among those who are, once again, ready to hear what Freud had to say.
Psychoanalysis is both a theory of the mind and a clinical practice. Outside of the doctor’s office, it has had enormous effects on philosophy, literature, and the arts, as well as on society in general. Freud himself, however, always insisted that psychoanalysis was a science, first and foremost. Meanwhile many psychologists — maybe even most of them — would deny psychoanalysis the status of science at all.
Freud has two bodies: his own work and the ever-expanding canon of commentaries on and interpretations of that work.
As Forrester writes, psychoanalysis “leads the concept of science into a kind of crisis.” The philosopher Karl Popper (who for a time worked in one of Freud’s free clinics) argued that psychoanalysis was not a science, because it “explained too much” and its propositions weren’t falsifiable. Others have complained that it’s too subjective, not “hard” enough. As Forrester puts it, psychoanalysis demands that we answer the question: “Can knowledge produced in the first person be reliable?”
Forrester leaves this question open. Instead, he presents the case for psychoanalysis as a kind of democratic knowledge, something we do not have to leave to the experts, scientific or otherwise. As Forrester puts it elsewhere: “Everyone has an inner life, and the right, if not always the chutzpah, to share it.” His new book celebrates “the democratic potential at the heart of psychoanalysis.” The unconscious, and the tools to understand it, belongs to all of us, if only we know to want it.
Forrester presents the case for psychoanalysis as a kind of democratic knowledge, something we do not have to leave to the experts.
This last topic — the move away from hypnosis — is of particular interest to Forrester. In his early paper, “On Mental Treatment” (1890), Freud described the relation between hypnotic doctor and hypnotized patient as like that between a parent and a child, or like a love relationship where there is “extreme devotion.” This anticipates how Freud, once hypnotism is replaced with psychoanalysis, understands the clinical relationship between analyst and analysand, about which he would develop his famous theory of transference. “Freud’s emphasis on extremity here points in two directions,” Forrester writes. “The pathological can be the model for the normal, or the normal can be the model for the pathological. Love can be the model for suggestibility or suggestibility the model for love.”
These two principles — that the pathological symptom can be a form of communication, and that relationships between doctors and patients might mimic familial or romantic bonds — served Freud well when he began to work with hysterics under the supervision of his senior colleague Josef Breuer. Here we come to the birth of psychoanalysis, or one of its births. Forrester offers his students the familiar story of Anna O., a patient of Breuer’s who coined the term “talking cure.” Although Breuer still made use of hypnosis, he also debuted a new method of care with Anna: storytelling. Breuer guided Anna back to the moments in which her collection of hysterical symptoms — paralysis, a rejection of water, fear of snakes, the inability to speak her native language — first presented themselves. One by one, the symptoms were dispelled. Freud collaborated with Breuer on writing up the case, which resulted in the landmark Studies on Hysteria (1895).
Freud explained that the failure of hypnosis was due to two mechanisms: resistance and repression. Resistance was the idea that the more an analyst might offer a cure, the less inclined the patient may be to follow. Some patients, Freud found, were more attached to their symptoms than they were to the idea of being cured, at least until the true sources of those symptoms could be surfaced and articulated. This line of thinking gave rise to the concept of repression. Symptoms arise when an “affect” is split from its cause: For Anna O., for example, the symptom of rejecting water could only be cured once it was determined that she had repressed a memory of her companion giving her dog access to her water glass. Things will surface; the truth will out — and if their direct channel is blocked, they will show up, however disguised and mysterious, in another form.
The result was a treatment that fell outside the bounds of normative science, at least a little. It sounded more like storytelling, like fiction. Psychoanalysis, in Forrester’s words, “begins to occupy a curious hybrid space between the scientific and the imaginative.”
Forrester was speaking to college students in 2012, late in a decades-long downturn for psychoanalysis. He had to press his case. But today, Freud is back. It may be that reports of psychoanalysis’ death in the wake of the “Freud Wars” of the late 20th century were greatly exaggerated, that the Freudians just went quiet. Freud was not killed, only wounded. Psychoanalysis lay dormant, an available theory we could resurrect when we needed it, for it lived on inside all of us, inside our culture. “This lost, foreign world,” Forrester writes, “belongs not just to the occasional poet but to each and every one of us: It’s a universal prehistoric psychological legacy, complete with primal fathers, phallic mothers, and wonder at the mystery of sex.”
Forrester reminds his readers of the conditions of psychoanalysis’ birth:
After the deaths and ravages of the First World War, its consolatory function was particularly important: It provided ways of making meaningful the painful violence of that era. Meanwhile, the emphasis on sexuality, the very ability to speak of it, certainly appealed to the young and to writers, artists, intellectuals.
Psychoanalysis is consolatory, and it offers the power to speak the unspeakable. Why should this power, Forrester asks, be denied anyone?
The problem, of course, is that it is. In the United States, analysis is too expensive for almost anyone who might wish to undertake it, unless they can find an analyst in training or a coveted and rare sliding-scale slot with a clinician. Despite the “democratic impulse” Forrester plausibly places at the heart of psychoanalysis, this is the material reality of accessing psychoanalytic treatment today.
It may be that reports of psychoanalysis’ death were greatly exaggerated. Freud was not killed, only wounded.
In Freud’s own time, the number of his followers was even smaller than it is today. How, then, did psychoanalysis become so broadly influential? As an intellectual historian, Forrester is interested not just in psychoanalysis’ truth claims or use value but in the mechanisms of its dissemination. Patients are, of course, a key audience for analytic theory. Forrester shows how, in the 1920s and ‘30s, wealthy and prestigious patients formed a “taste network” for psychoanalysis. He wonders if these crucial patients were part of disseminating the science at national levels in England and in the United States. “We’ll never have the full picture,” he admits, “but I suspect that this confidential network of patients, many of whom at least at first were members of the social and culture elites, played a not inconsiderable role in the growth of the psychoanalytic movement.”
We might wonder the same thing about our own moment. Patients of analysis stand around 10,000 in number in the United States (although that statistic is pre-pandemic, and before the present return to Freud). How then have The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New Statesman, and other prestige publications determined that there is a resurgence of psychoanalysis today? There’s no positive proof of such a thing, but, as in the case of psychoanalytic research itself, empirical evidence may be the wrong standard by which to evaluate the resurgence of something that never left. There are no statistics that I’ve found that convince me there has been a return to Freud in any quantitative sense, nor do these trend pieces offer any. They do not establish the return to psychoanalysis on a demonstrated rise in the total number of patients, but rather to the kinds of people — young, influential, creative — who are gravitating to psychoanalysis today.
Our present situation, Forrester shows us, is not so different from the one that obtained at the beginning of the last century. “The concrete dissemination of psychoanalysis … takes place through influential ‘seedbed’ groups,” he says.
Writers, avant-garde artists and intellectuals, magazine editors, chattering Bohemians, café circles … One can never underestimate the influence of gossip, word-of-mouth and rumor, and many psychoanalytic ideas spread through these ordinary mechanisms.
To today’s seedbed groups, perhaps we might add podcasters, like Sam Adler-Bell of Know Your Enemy or Patrick Blanchfield and Abby Kluchin of Ordinary Unhappiness, to Forrester’s list, alongside online influencers and political commentators who convene fandoms much larger than any café circle.
These lectures, too, end ambivalently. Forrester’s great project as a scholar was to synthesize Freud with Michel Foucault, and here Foucault, with his litany of criticisms of psychoanalysis and its assumptions, seems to win out. The version of psychoanalysis that lived on after Freud was, undeniably, put to violent and conservative ends — toward conversion therapy, the racialization of diagnosis, and the adaptation and assimilation of gendered norms. There are times, for most of us who love psychoanalysis and what it offers, when this awful legacy becomes too much to bear, when the errors of the practice overshadow the imaginative and scientific contributions of the theory. There are times when Freud does not seem worth saving. These times, for the committed Freudian, usually pass. Or else they don’t, and the disillusioned disciple takes up arms against their former father, heads off to enlist in the Freud Wars.
To love psychoanalysis, though, one must accept its contradictions. Psychoanalysis is radical; it is also conservative. Psychoanalysis is scientific; it is also subjective. Psychoanalysis liberates its subjects; it also reduces them. John Forrester knew this, of course. It’s not surprising that, on certain days, he would turn away from the very practice he devoted his life to historicizing.
Forrester died in 2015 after a battle with cancer. I’ve often wished I could consult him when I’m asked about the current return to Freud. Compared to the 1990s, when the Freud Wars raged, the 2020s are decidedly less obsessed with objectivity, for better and for worse. Measuring Freud’s theories of mental activity against an fMRI no longer seems quite as compelling as before. Instead, many people — some of whom even consider themselves scientists — are turning to Freud in good faith with the expectation that he can help us understand the compulsions and repetitions of suffering or desire or any number of other phenomena.
In a recent profile in The New Yorker — another sign of the contemporary vogue for psychoanalysis — the literary critic Jacqueline Rose was quoted saying that psychoanalysis is “meant to be marginal.” She didn’t elaborate, but I imagine she worries about the watering down of psychoanalysis to its greatest hits, its stickiest bits of lingo, all of which risk papering over the true depth and difficulty of the issues it deals with. Forrester, I imagine, would have replied that psychoanalysis has never been marginal, not really, though it’s always been contested. It’s our inheritance. It will always be there for us. To understand it, we can do no better than to look to Forrester for our uneducation.