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Freud at 150Review - Freud at 150
Twenty-First Century Essays on a Man of Genius
by Joseph P. Merlino, Marilyn S. Jacobs, Judy Ann Kaplan and K. Lynne Moritz (Editors)
Jason Aronson, 2007
Review by Heather C. Liston
Apr 1st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 14)

Sigmund Freud was born May 6, 1856. One hundred and fifty years later, on September 15, 2006, the Austrian government sponsored a symposium at its embassy in Washington, D.C., to explore and celebrate the effects this singular man has had on the world in the intervening period. The new book, Freud at 150: 21st Century Essays on a Man of Genius, is largely an outgrowth of that event, and consists of thirty-eight (mostly brief) reflections and analyses by the four editors and twenty-four other distinguished contributors.

Relatively light on jargon overall, the book provides a refreshing variety of topics and styles that offer something to the curious newcomer who knows little of Freud's life or work and also to the more experienced student of psychology interested in the most recent interpretations and applications of his work.

The sociologist Edith Kurzweil (a former editor of Partisan Review and a 2003 recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities medal) starts off the volume with "Conquistador of the Unconscious," a lively historical introduction to the man and his work. She describes his early education as a medical doctor (he entered the University of Vienna with the intention of studying law but changed his mind after he got there) and his research on the gonads of eels, which led to one of his first publications, "Intersexuality Among Eels."

As Freud began studying and writing about dreams, experimenting with hypnosis, free association, and cocaine, and then, beginning in 1902, hosting a weekly salon of thinkers, (the "Wednesday Psychological Society") including Alfred Adler, Otto Rank, and others, he was gradually developing his theories of the unconscious. Freud's propensity to summarize the discussions of his colleagues and find connections to childhood sexuality, and his theory of the Oedipus complex, gradually brought discussions of sexuality into the open in Viennese society. And that, according to Kurzweil, "is how Freud set the stage for twentieth century discourse as much as Marx and Darwin had set it for the end of the nineteenth century." 

Although Freud didn't publish The Ego and the Id until 1923, when he was 67 years old, those terms, along with "superego," "projection," and "transference," have long since become household words for nearly all of us, and it is common today for lay people to discuss the Oedipal conflict, sublimation, and the subconscious; and the powerful, warring drives toward sex and death that Freud described as Eros and Thanatos. Anyone who would like to check her understanding of these ideas is advised to read the seven informative and (thankfully) comprehensible chapters by the Viennese college instructor and public relations executive Helmut Strutzmann, who earned his Ph.D. in drama, semiotics, and fine arts.

Much of the book, though, goes beyond reviews of Freud's life and principles and does something Freud himself could not do--check the lasting effects of his work some generations down the line.

Freud's life and work were deeply influenced by the wars and political unrest of his own time.  In 1919, he analyzed men traumatized by the First World War, and his correspondence with Albert Einstein, published in 1932 as "Why War?" is in part an attempt to explain, intellectually, the recurring scourge of war.  He concludes a letter to Einstein with the optimistic statement that  ". . . perhaps our hope that these two factors--man's cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take--may serve to put an end to war in the near future, is not chimerical." Freud did not live to see that future and so far, neither have we. He witnessed at close quarters the rise of the Nazis; although he escaped to London in 1938 and died there, of natural causes, in 1939, his four sisters were murdered in concentration camps over the next few years. Has his work on the psychology of war and the nature of mankind moved us any closer to eliminating such horror?

Freud at 150 includes a section called, "Psychoanalysis and Society: Can Psychoanalysis Help Us Understand Modern Conflicts?" which offers starkly varied looks at that question.

The Rutgers professor and president-elect of the Division of Psychoanalysis of the American Psychological Association Nancy McWilliams, urges that we let Freud help us make sense of some of the world's current fiascos. "I cannot imagine trying to understand these without the Freudian concepts of projection and denial, the repetition compulsion, and the other psychic processes," she writes. "If we do not appreciate these processes in the twenty-first century, I think we are in deep trouble.  .  . How else can we comprehend the Islamic extremist's suicidal appetite for holy war? . . .What sense could we make of the Christian extremists who try to avoid sexual ambiguity by vilifying homosexuality?  Or of . . .American political leaders who pander to our wishes to disown and project with concepts like 'the enemy' and 'the axis of evil'?" But the ultimate questions about psychoanalysis may be, "Is making sense of something good enough? Is it really a step toward solving the problem?"

"I end my remarks in despair," writes William L. Granatir, M.D., in an essay on, among other things, the war in Iraq. "Our psychoanalytic insights are of little use in the face of the weakened position of the United Nations and the United States."

In a more hopeful and personal essay, the psychoanalyst Richard Ruth describes the joy of his recent wedding to his male partner and says he "felt very close to Freud, that day in Toronto." Ruth acknowledges with gratitude both Freud's open-minded views on homosexuality and also--perhaps more important--his method of "modeling engagement with thinking about a charged topic, thoughtfully, carefully, deeply, and unflinchingly." 

"Had Freud lived into our time," writes Ruth, "I suspect his radical curiosity, profound commitment to scientific discovery, and insistence that the job of theory is to point the way toward transformative practice would have led him to take great pleasure in our incremental social and political advances."

Marilyn Jacobs, in her essay, "Freud is Everywhere," quotes Peter Gay as saying, "There are no neutrals in the Freud wars." Probably not. But there is certainly much misunderstanding and too little informed appreciation of all that his work has touched in our world. This thoughtful and balanced volume can help.

© 2008 First Serial Rights.  Heather Liston

Heather Liston is a free lance writer based in San Francisco


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