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On the Freud WatchReview - On the Freud Watch
Public Memoirs
by Paul Roazen
Free Association Books, 2003
Review by Gerda Wever-Rabehl, Ph.D.
Jan 4th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 1)

Let every man in mankind's frailty

Consider his last day; and let none

Presume on his good fortune until he find

Life, at his death, a memory without pain. (Sophocles' Oedipus Rex)

Despite, or perhaps thanks to, continued controversy, and, over the past two decades, dismissal, of Freud's psychoanalytic thought, the long-dead thinker remains a powerful source of fascination. While psychiatry departments seem to have simply abandoned Freud, others, inspired by our contemporary preference for cheap and easy, trash Freud's legacy in favor of Prozac and Viagra. Still others, despite Freud's unyielding conviction that philosophy can learn from psychoanalysis and not the other way around, philosophize Freud, and while they're at it, augment and alter his theories. Then there are those who demand more political interpretations of psychoanalytic theory and see psychoanalysis as a foundation of democracy.  In stressing psychoanalysis as having extensive social and cultural dimensions, Paul Roazen, a political theorist himself, might be seen as a representative of the latter group. Yet the thoughtful and carefully balanced inclusion of this argument makes On the Freud Watch: Public Memoirs a gem in the midst of the vehement arguments and pleas on the various Freud Front Lines. For Roazen, pluralism is clearly something more than 'verbal adherence' (p. 201.) And maintaining the integrity of the book's fabric of diversity is, as the opening quote suggests, Roazen's reminder that at the core of Freud's psychoanalysis lies the ancient question as to how to live. Roazen suggests that in answering that question, Freud departed from the presupposition that tragedy is an inevitable part of human experience and that human nature is frail. Following Freud, Roazen suggests that the best we can do is to learn to live with this frailty, as well as with pain and distress. Neurosis and inner conflicts, Roazen reminds us, are part and parcel of the kinds of beings we are. We cannot, nor should we, be cured from our condition. The notion of progress then, Roazen suggests, is, while promoted as the new faith, one of our most dangerous delusions- progress, if possible at all, can only be made in our rather fragile ability to live with our foibles and woes.

On the Freud Watch does not get of to a good start, however. Early on, Roazen confesses that having been heavily criticized by Kurt E. Eissler as well as by Anna Freud (who called him 'a menace') was traumatic for him. Unfortunately, this trauma inundates the first few chapters, which are permeated with self-vindicating discourse and consequently make for a rather tedious read.  Yet, the latter part of the book makes up generously for these somewhat wearing early chapters. These chapters are scholarly treasures of poised equilibrium. Vigilant of naiveté and continually reminding the reader of the complexities, inconsistencies and ambiguities of human affairs, Roazen intersperses references to Freud's connections with the Hitler regime and enthusiasm for Mussolini with beautiful and moving excerpts of Freud's writing. He juxtaposes Freud's moral ethics with his criticism of the United States and psychoanalysis' initial problematic approach to race with its bold and profound human insights. He reminds us that we are too often and too easily misled by our traditional faith in progress and warns against chauvinistic hindsight when it comes to the study of the past. For Roazen, the past is a central concern- for individual lives, and for our social institutions as well.

Real gems in On the Freud Watch are Chapter 11, Canada: Political Psychology, and Chapter 6; Charles Dickens's David Copperfield and Chapter 7, Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. In these latter two chapters, Roazen, continually supporting his ideas and interpretations with psychoanalytic thought, weaves together discerning interpretations of the life and writings of Dickens and O'Neill with insightful renderings of their main characters, thoughts on early trauma, child psychoanalysis and Freud's thoughts and comments on arts and artists.  These chapters are marvelous collages of theoretical interpretations, philosophy, fragments of letters, excerpts of stories, quotes of poems and bits and pieces of conversations.

Another must-read is Chapter 13, called Winners and Losers in the History of Psychoanalysis. This discussion of the history of psychoanalysis follows the, what Roazen calls, "teeter-totter" framework of history. On this teeter-totter of the history of psychoanalysis, as Roazen describes it, the elevation of some is accompanied by the fall of others. One of the 'winners,' and sitting on the elevated part of the teeter-totter, is Emil Kraepelin. Roazen connects the revival of Kraeplin's biological psychiatry (to the extent that there is a whole movement called the neo-Kraepelins striving to expand this thoroughly dated orientation) with the 'excessive rationalism' of our contemporary fascination with diagnostics, classification and heredity. Furthermore, he places the Kraepelin renaissance – whose representatives appear to be quite critical of psychoanalysis-- within the very same historical pragmatism in which American receptivity toward Freud was once grounded. Yet what makes this chapter particularly penetrating is the considerable time and attention Roazen spent on those on the floored part of the teeter-totter. Roazen explains early on that he is not interested in 'historical cheer-leading,' (p.21) and he lives up to that assertion. Instead, he forcefully shapes his self-proclaimed role as 'historical witness' (p. 48) in bearing witness not only to the winners in the history of psychoanalysis, but also to long-forgotten, but important and original voices such as those of Mikhail Bakunin, Franz Alexander, Sandor Rado and Abram Kardiner.

Roazen brings not only Freud's skepticism and irony back into clinical thought, but also revives many voices which were formative in the history of psychoanalysis but which have nonetheless been left and forgotten on the floored part of the teeter-totter of the history of psychoanalysis. Roazen includes these voices, as well as a wide variety of ordinary and extraordinary, provocative and controversial documents. Notwithstanding the somewhat rough start, On the Freud Watch: Public Memoirs is not only a powerful critique of contemporary insurance-driven, drug-dispensing psychiatric practices, but also an extraordinary account of the history of psychoanalysis.  


© 2005 Gerda Wever-Rabehl


Gerda Wever-Rabehl holds a Ph.D from Simon Fraser University, and has published extensively in the areas of social science, philosophy and philosophy of  education.


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