Eli Zaretsky’s magisterial Secrets of the Soul traces the history of Freudianism: Sigmund Freud, his intellectual circle, which grew into networks around the world, and especially Freud’s ideas. Freud’s psychology began essentially with The Interpretation of Dreams, which was post-dated to 1900—it was really published in 1899—and that book made Freud a centurion among doctors. The Interpretation of Dreams also hailed the advent of the twentieth-century “shrink", the talk therapist. “The study of dreams,” Zaretsky writes, gave “Freud a window into primary-process thinking,” the basic stuff of consciousness where instinct becomes culture. Freud’s ideas, presented in his brilliant literary style (he used the German vernacular with a jeweler’s precision), leapt upon the stage of the twentieth century and took a starring role. If you had to summarize the twentieth century in three words, you might not do better than “Freud and Einstein.”
Whether or not you’ve ever read a single word by Freud, you have been influenced by his ideas. The Oedipal theory, chewed up and garbled by the pop-culture machine of the twentieth century, is, next to the equally garbled Einsteinian idea of “relativity", the most influential idea of the past hundred years. Oedipal theory is a way of scapegoating psychological problems onto a private history: the cloud of unknowing of early childhood becomes the source of adult dysfunction, and parents become the ogres beneath the bed of consciousness. Never mind that science has largely discredited the Oedipal theory. The Prozac Nation gobbles anti-depressants, which are the magic bullets of current ideas about the source of our dysfunctions (“read my lips,” say the neuroscientists: “it’s the brain!”), all the while assigning an origin and source to those uncomfortable feelings that lie outside the self. “But that very influence,” Zaretsky says, “has made the task of achieving historical perspective difficult,” because historical “perspective requires distance.”
Zaretsky has managed to find the plateau, the distance, from which to observe the evolution and dissipation of the history of Freudianism. Secrets of the Soul is the history of a group of ideas. Readers expecting a biography of Freud will be surprised, and perhaps disappointed, by Zaretsky’s perspective. Where, for example, is the famous breakup with Carl Jung?, such a reader might ask. It is barely treated here because it is only incidental to the larger story of the circulation of Freud’s ideas.
Zaretsky argues that Freud’s ideas were deeply meshed with a vast change in the perception of self and family: “The relations of psychoanalysis to the family was at the heart of [a] paradox. With the advent of mass consumption, the family continued to lose its core identity as a productive unit based on the ownership of property. At the same time, it received new meaning as the realm of personal life, the sphere of society in which one expected to be understood and valued ‘for oneself.’” In other words, the long decentering of the family as the source of production, which began in the Industrial Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, took on a new and central meaning as the engine of individual identity. In this context, “the Freudian unconscious symbolized the freedom of individuals from the confines of space and time.”
An individual, in the words of Philip Rieff’s 1959 Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, which Zaretsky calls “an inspiration [for] this book’s focus on personal life,” was “no longer defined essentially by his social relations.” Who we are at work or at church became secondary, at best, to simply who we are. Pop therapists immediately took up the new Freudian locus of, and focus on, the self. In the memorable words of the French radio therapist Emile Coué, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
There was, inevitably, a backlash against Freudianism. In the German original, Freud’s books are literate and straightforward; in the English translations of James Strachey, Freud’s ideas become technical and jargon-laden. A thick coat of Greek and Latin words were painted over Freud’s texts, replacing the basic German vernacular vocabulary of the original. To give just one prominent example, “ego,” a Latin word new to English with Strachey’s translations, replaces “Ich,” the German first-person pronoun. Although Freud in German was never folksy, he was easy to grasp; in English, his ideas became specialized, requiring a rite of passage to be deployable. Thus, “early [American] critics” of Freud “such as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm… understood that ‘the only way around a giant like Freud was through him.’” Freud’s core ideas became a thousand flowers blooming in the gardens of thousands of therapists, and the inevitable distortions were all laid at the feet of the great man himself. The decadence of psychoanalysis, as exemplified by the lifestyle of a French practitioner, Jacques Lacan, with his expensive suits and tendency to read while his patients were talking their way through their therapies, doomed Freudianism to the same sorts of charges Luther made against Roman Catholicism. “By 1968,” Zaretsky writes, “the psychoanalytic church stood rigid, orthodox, ossified, and nakedly hypocritical.”
Of course, Freudianism was doomed early on by advances in neuroscience. As scientists learned more about the brain, the more Freud’s myth-based theories came under fire. Freud himself wanted to ground his theories in the material of the brain, and the materialism of hard science, but he didn’t live long enough to see that project through. “Drugs, infinitely more cost-effective than analysis, and converging with tendencies toward social pacification, marked the turning point.” Techniques of imaging the brain in action, such as MRI and PET, “completed the transition” of psychology “to the medical model.” As science, Freud’s ideas were completely discredited throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. Curiously, there has been a recent resurgence of Freudianism, which Zaretsky doesn’t mention. Some neuroscientist now see Freud’s model of the mind—rendered in English as Id, Ego, and Superego—as accurate. Scientists now see the brain as the material basis of mind—mind is a kind of emergent property of the brain, where the sum of the parts is greater than the parts themselves—and the brain-mind itself is composed of discrete but highly interdependent modules.
Freudianism has “done better as a cultural hermeneutic,” as Zaretsky points out, that is, as literary and cultural theory. Many intellectuals and scholars have always appreciated Freud more as a writer than as a scientist. Especially in the hands of French intellectuals, such as Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and Cixous, psychoanalytic theory gained great cachet in the humanities. These thinkers, and their American and British counterparts, created a marked break with earlier theories about the creation and uses of the literary, visual and musical arts. Where previously the arts were held to a standard thought to be universal and inviolable, a standard that included only certain works in “the canon” and dismissed most artistic production as unworthy of attention, these new thinkers made us reappraise the history of the arts from a new perspective. Critics came down from their ivory towers and became cultural activists, and “the personal,” as the Situationists of France’s near-civil war of 1968 said, became “political.” This trend, though, performed a grave disservice to theorists of the arts, and especially to young students trying to understand and appreciate artistic production. Like Freud’s ideas in English, the cultural-theoretical deployment of psychoanalysis became thick with jargon, especially in its “deconstructive” turn, requiring years of study to appreciate the simplest aspects of the arts. Psychoanalysis gave teachers and scholars a reason to ignore developments in the sciences, much to the detriment of the liberal arts. Those who couldn’t understand math and the sciences became English majors.
Fortunately, in recent moves towards critical realism (such as so-called “eco-criticism”), the sciences are being reunited with the study of the arts. The great cultural myths, ancient and modern, are being themselves reappraised for what they really are: the brain’s need to create stories. Without stories, the world is chaos, and the mind is sick, disoriented and violent. Armed with its stories, the human organism is able to make sense of the world. The turn to critical realism also helps us understand what happens when stories, such as the cognitive narratives of secular humanism and religious fundamentalism, collide. Zaretsky has provided us with a paradigm of one of the great narratives of recent history, with all the intellectual collisions and violence that implies.