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FreudReview - Freud
Darkness in the Midst of Vision
by Louis Breger
John Wiley & Sons, 2000
Review by Petar Jevremovic
May 7th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 19)

"Freud's face is instantly recognizable: the wise, gray-haired genius with his cigar, neatly timed beard, and finely tailored suit; the psychoanalyst whose gaze seems to penetrate the depths of the human soul. The picture on the next page shows Freud in his sixties, the icon the world has come to know. What the world does not know is that Freud worked hard to create this image; it is an integral part of a personal myth that he embellished over the years, a vision of his life that is part truth and part pseudohistory, a mix of fact and fantasy".

These are the opening lines of Breger's new biography of Sigmund Freud. I believe that everyone with an interest in psychoanalysis (its theory and its history) will really enjoy reading it. The text is well organized; there is a logical progression of argumentation that mediates between chapters. Development of the psychoanalytic doctrine is seen in the light of Freud's own biography. His own myth, personal myth. Breger's attempt was to "demythologize Freud", to demythologize his work and his biography, to demyhologize his personality. His main concern was to understand Freud's personal myth -- a myth that he (Freud himself) embellished over the years, a vision of his life that is part truth and part pseudohistory, a mix of fact and fantasy". Or we could put it in the other words: there is a lot of pseudohistory (a lot of dreams, ideology, fantasy and other irrational factors) in the history of Freud's life and work. If we want to understand Freud we must (as far as it is possible) see his life (his personality) from the within. We must understand his starting positions and his basic motives. And exactly this was the main idea of Breger's work.

According to Breger, Freud suffered a very traumatic, impoverished, and difficult childhood (not only because he was Jewish boy in Vienna) that left a legacy of fear, insecurity, and unhappiness. This had made his personality so complicated and potentially so fragile. "Freud suffered from fairly severe anxiety and depression with the specific symptoms of fear of dying and travel phobia, both concerned with the traumatic losses of his early years". Like many bright children in similar circumstances, he escaped into the world of his imagination. Even his mature psychoanalytic doctrine, his theory and his practice, could be seen as a fruit of this the same imagination. Freud's own self-analysis, his heroic attempt to understand himself and to master his deep inner conflicts, served as mediating link between his infantile imagination and his mature speculations and theories. His myths...

"In demythologizing Freud -- penetrating to the truth beneath the heroic image he created and that passes for the gospel in psychoanalytic lore -- the real person will emerge in all his human complexity. He was a man of great accomplishments along with significant failures and weaknesses; someone whose startling originality coexisted with a rigid adherence to dogma; a person who spent his life immersed in the most intimate details of other people's lives, yet remained wrapped up in himself and curiously remote from others; a man capable of penetrating insights who was also blind to the effect he had on other people".

Seen it this way, Freud's story is a story of a heroic struggle with his own deficits and discontents. There is a shadow and there is a myth. Between them there is a living person, Freud himself. His family situation was rather complicated, he was surrounded with very dominant female figures, his father was far from being convincing model for his son's identifications. For little Sigmund the reality was frustrating. Sometimes too much frustrating. His only reliable weapon was his imagination. His inner world. "The young boy who lived in the world of books and his imagination become a masterful stylist, capable of presenting his ideas in compelling prose, of shaping arguments with persuasive metaphors and rhetoric. He lived most intensely  -- his most powerful emotions were at play -- when he was writing.  Freud used his literary and rhetorical skills to control his personal legend as well as the history of the psychoanalytic movement. He was so good at this that many today, both friend and foe, are still engaged in either defending or attacking his ideas within the context that he created".

The main quality of Breger's book is not in presenting some new and unknown biographical facts and documents. This book is predominantly a fruit of the author's interpretative work, it is not a fruit of some massive investigations. And offcoures, Breger's book is not so uncritically glorifying as Jones's book, it is also not so detailed as the book written by Peter Gay. Its main quality (as far as I can see it) lies in authors creative and possibly enriching interpretations of some (more or less) well-known facts of Freud's life and work. There is no in Bregers book any traces of nihilistic criticism, like that of Elizabeth Roudinescon in her book about Lacan.  Freud is his hero, Freud is hero of his book. But he is a hero with human face, a real man with his virtues and shadows. Breger is clearminded, almost always objective, and well informed.  And off course -- there is a lot of originality in his readings of Freud.

I will cite just one example. There is in Breger's book rather interesting (critical) reading of the Studies of Hysteria. Freud was (in his Studies on Hysteria) ignoring -- or, we could say, he was repressing it -- his own case material. His own theory was highly contaminated with his own fears and anxieties. Insisting that sexuality alone was the underlying cause of neurosis, Freud had tried to escape from his much more deeper fears.  Or, in Breger's words: "In addition to Anna O. and Freud's four cases, six other patients were very briefly described in the Studies. They displayed a variety of symptoms, including outbursts of weeping, paralyses, a choking feeling and constriction of the troth, and a nervous cough. Three of the six had suffered deaths or the loss of loved ones, and the three others sexual assaults and molestations. ... From a contemporary perspective, the cases presented in the Stydies -- Anna O., Fray Emmy, Miss Lucy, Katharina, Fräulein Elisabeth, and the six that were briefly described-- demonstrate the variety of factors involved in hysterical-emotional breakdowns. The women suffered sexual molestations, betrays by intimates and family members, disappointed hopes, loss of love, deaths, disturbed relations of a variety of kinds, and difficult identity struggle. In many of these families, communication about emotions was absent, minimal, or forbidden.  The case material in the Studies on Hysteria does not support the sweeping theory of sexuality that Freud was increasingly promoting. Deaths and losses were more prominent in these cases than disturbances of what Freud termed 'the sexual function'. Anna O.'s symptoms made their appearance as she was nursing her dying father, while two of her three siblings died in childhood. Frau Emmy's family history was filled with the deaths of siblings, her mother, and other relatives, and her hysteria appeared following the sudden death of her husband. Miss Lycy's disappointed logging for love was connected with the threatened loss of her friends and young wards...And Fräulein Elisabeth's breakdown, much like Anna O.'s, occurred in reaction to the death of her father, her sister, and her mother's illness."

The search for a single cause for hysteria was a mistake. This is Breger's conclusion. It is not a unitary disease. There are much more factors that are important for understanding its structure and dynamics. Sexuality is only the one among them....  Any attempt to make a coherent (unimodal and monolite) theory of psychic matters will be subverted by the psyche herself. There is no one absolute point of understanding, we must face plurality of the psychic. Sexuality is, this would be Breger's conclusion, important segment in psychoanalytic discourse, but there are some other (also important) elements and dimensions of it. Confrontation with the death is, beyond any doubt, one of them. Psychoanalysis is a modern attempt to deal with Eros and with the erotic matters. At the same time it could not avoid dealing with dark twin brother of Eros -- Thanatos himself. Breger's work could be seen as one decent testimony about Freud's own personal (deeply traumatic) relation to death.

There is a lot about dreams, Oedipus complex, femimity, and about theory of neurosis, war. Also there is a lot about Freud's personal relations with Breuer, Jung, Abraham, Rank, Adler, Anna Freud.  I believe that this book will have positive reception among psychoanalysts and also among those that are in some other way related to Freud's personality and to his doctrines.


© 2003 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melane Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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