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FreudReview - Freud
An Intellectual Biography
by Joel Whitebook
Cambridge University Press, 2017
Review by Michael Maidan
Apr 18th 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 16)

Joel Whitebook is a practicing psychoanalyst, a teacher and researcher associated with Columbia University where he directs the Psychoanalytic Studies Program.  His Freud: An Intellectual Biography  'is a study of the relation between the unfolding of his thinking and crucial developments in his life history' (16). The book is a readable, enjoyable and well-documented biography of Freud that summarizes current scholarship, and makes good use of recently published archival materials. But, it is also more than that. Whitebook argues that we can identify two aspects in Freud's theory. One is what we can call the 'official doctrine', centered in the notion that the 'Oedipal complex' and its resolution is the major event in the development of the child and also marks the limits of the psychopathological domain assigned to psychoanalysis. The second, or 'unofficial doctrine', pays special attention to the pre-Oedipal stage and to the mother-infant relationship, devaluing to some extent the centrality of the Oedipal stage. This 'unofficial doctrine' is more attuned to contemporary criticism of Freud's misogyny and patriarchal views. Hence, by introducing the distinction between an official and an unofficial doctrine, Whitebook is able to acknowledge the need to correct Freud's theories while being able to claim, at the same time, that such revisions are somewhat present in Freud's work. To accomplish this, Whitebook needs to identify those moments of potential insight, which were either repressed or incorrectly analyzed by Freud, thereby depriving him (and generations of analysts) of our current 'state of the art' psychoanalysis.

According to Whitebook, Freud's 'autoanalysis', the foundational event of psychoanalysis, left unresolved and unanalyzed a number of important issues, such as Freud's difficult relationship with his mother, his ambivalent relationship to his father, and his tendency to develop strong attachments to powerful male figures which, as in the case of his one time associates Fliess and Jung, he ultimately discards.  Freud's personal unresolved issues explain the limitations of the 'official doctrine' (10).

This thesis is further developed in chapter five, which is 'optional reading', targeted to more technical readers. Drawing on the work of Hans Loewald, Cornelius Castoriadis, Adorno and Horkheimer from the Frankfurt school, and other congenial authors, Whitebook elaborates his unorthodox reading of Freud. His exposé is punctuated with instances where Freud himself expressed similar heretical views. The 'official theory', first articulated by Freud in 1895, centers on the idea of the father as the main representative of the principle of reality, and that the psychic apparatus works along the lines of a 'tension-reduction' model, whereas pleasure is foremost a decrease in tension. Finally, the 'official model' subscribes to an understanding of maturity as a disenchanted vision of reality, which is the individual's equivalent to the scientific ethos. This ethos reflects an attitude of mastery and domination of external and internal nature, which the official Freud shares without hesitations.

The 'unofficial theory', while far from romanticizing the unconscious-instinctual life, grants the initial identification with the mother and the prohibition represented by the father a more positive role in the development of the child, and describes the maturation process as one of integration or coming to terms with the unconscious (166-167). The paternal figure is no longer characterized exclusively as the agency that lays down the primordial prohibition, but receives a more positive description as the force that helps the infant in the process of separating himself from his symbiotic relationship with the mother (168).  Regardless of the merits of this interpretation, the determination to assign those views to Freud himself remains the main question marks of this otherwise enthralling biography.

The remaining chapters (one through four and six through twelve) take us from Galicia to Vienna, from Freud's early study in the Gymnasium, through medical school, from his early interest in neurobiology, to his study with Charcot, the first hesitant steps into psychiatric practice, and the invention of psychoanalysis. In this familiar territory, Whitebook pays particular attention to examples of Freud's behavior, including his formulation of specific hypothesis regarding psychological development that reveal biases that can be traced back to his own psychopathology. Finally, the last chapter, 'Late Freud and the Early Mother' examines a few episodes in Freud's late life where he came close to acknowledge the importance of the early maternal relationship but ultimately failed to do so. Whitebook examines Freud's criticism of the idea of an 'oceanic feeling' that according to Romain Rolland is the original source of religion, Freud's attempt to re-visit the problem of female psychological development and sexuality after his mother's death, the complexities of his Moses and Monotheism, and finally the discussion about what can be considered a successful analysis in Analysis Terminable and Interminable (1937). In this text Freud .. taking exception to the work of fellow psychoanalyst Sándor Ferencz i.. expresses the rather pessimistic view that strong impulses prevent the analysand from fully reaching complete success in his analysis. In the case of women, she would not be able to abandon the repudiation of femininity, whereas in the case of man, he will not be able to overcome his fear of passivity and submit to his analyst. In both cases, Freud conceives this last threshold of resistance as biological, and not as a particular cultural formation. Whitebook remarks that both theses pertain to the contemporary struggle against misogyny, and he concludes that for those who still endorse psychoanalysis, the task is 'to use the resources with which the reluctant Patriarch provided us to criticize the patriarchy that he often seemed to embody' (454).     

 

© 2017 Michael Maidan

 

Michael Maidan, Bay Harbor Islands, Florida


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