Freud Again

by Samuel Hux (November 2017)

Sigmund Freud, Ben Shahn for Time Magazine, 1956


There’s little new on the Freud front. Reservations about Freudian analysis have increased over the last few years, decades really; and that’s legitimate, even though the reservations, amounting actually to practical rejection, have become the new wisdom, with critics like Frederick Crews (Freud: The Making of an Illusion) now enthroned. But reservations and rejections of the Freudian system have begun to shade off into character assassination of Freud himself, and that is not legitimate. Before, or perhaps while, the corpse of Sigmund Freud is exhumed to be buried again, I would like to recall some thoughts about the great man (yes the great man, no matter how flawed, as he certainly was) that I had more than a quarter-century ago when I was assigned by a now-long defunct cultural journal to review two books on Freud and a few other figures. What follows is not the review itself, but rather a recollection of what I was thinking (I still have my notes, thank Providence)—and still do think—Crews Inc. be damned.


And if something of the autocratic pose,
The paternal strictness he distrusted, still
Clung to his utterance and features,
It was a protective imitation
For one who lived among enemies so long . . .

If W. H. Auden’s lines (excerpted from “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”) are essentially right, they are still a good deal less than the truth. There was a vindictive tenacity that “autocratic pose” and “paternal strictures” do not quite capture. Freud was fond of a saying of Heine: “One must forgive one’s enemies—but not before they have been hanged.” But Freud was capable of his own anathemas. In a letter to Arnold Zweig he wrote of Alfred Adler’s death in Scotland: “I don’t understand your sympathy for Adler. For a Jew boy out of a Vienna suburb a death in Aberdeen is an unheard-of career in itself.” Wilhelm Stekel, “a giant close at hand,” Freud said he had overlooked while he “made a pygmy great” (Adler), was later accused of “moral insanity,” and all overtures from the penitent were rejected for over twenty-five years. Freud could say of his wayward “son” Otto Rank, “Now, after I have forgiven everything, I am through with him.”

But it is true that these were only words, and the men noted above Freud considered traitors in a hostile world, and he never hounded them into bankruptcy or hired a hit-man; it would be hard to prove that his grudge-bearing ruined their careers or put their psychic lives in great danger. The better case could be made, and Paul Roazen made it in Freud and His Followers, that greater harm was done to some who remained loyal to “The Professor.”

Carl Jung was right when he wrote to Freud that his authoritarian treatment of his “pupils” was a “blunder.” “In that way you produce either slavish sons or impudent puppies.” There were exceptions naturally, but the rule holds fairly well; and Freud knew it. While he could dispense what Roazen called his “highest compliment” when a “pupil’s” paper remained within prescribed bounds of orthodoxy—“I feel as if a painter has done my portrait, and when I look at it, it is better than the original”—he could also grow weary of so much sacrificial adulation and complain of his circle, “the goody-goodys are no good, and the naughty ones go away.” He despised their dependency while he encouraged and demanded it; and then, in so many cases—Paul Federn, Victor Tausk, Ruth Mack Brunswick, for instance—backed off, and denied his dependents the personal access they were dependent upon, the latter two cases with tragic results.

One can appeal to the following rationale: The founder of psychoanalysis, knowing that personal proximity to him could mean succession through a kind of laying-on-of-hands, wanted to make absolutely certain that only the most intellectually loyal and strong minded would receive the imprimatur, for it would require a stature approaching Freud’s own to protect his creation in a hostile medical and psychological world; hence Freud’s early solicitation of the “Crown Prince” Jung and his hurt and anger at Jung’s “defection.” But to continue to worry about the place of psychoanalysis, and to act upon that worry in the last two decades of his life, when his system was effecting one coup after another, shows a strange uncertainty, probably related to Freud’s fear of a sectarian view of his creation as merely a “Jewish science.” Of this matter, more momentarily.

I suggest no exposé or somesuch of Freud: indeed the sheer difficulty of the man is not news, not even yesterday’s news. Years ago when I fell in love with Robert Frost’s poetry, I learned to accept the fact that whatever the great poet’s achievement he could give a pretty authentic performance as a son of a bitch. My own admiration for Freud has seldom known very many bounds—different from intellectual reservations, and mine are legion!—and it knows fewer the longer I think of him, as I have been doing in courses in the history of ideas for several years, that thinking formally initiated when I reviewed Roazen’s book along with John Murray Cuddihy’s The Ordeal of Civility. Nor do I suggest the late Paul Roazen had any sordid motive: the focus of his book was genius and suffering—both that of the genius and that which he could not help but inflict on others to some degree.

Reading Roazen it was impossible to escape the impression that the story of Freud and his followers is one of the more convincing substantiations of Freud’s theories: so often the autocratic father, so many rebellious sons, so often the father’s fear of the offspring, so often the fear justified. And perhaps one of the strengths of Roazen’s book was that it underlined how connected the evolution of psychoanalytic theory was to the biographies of the theorists (Freud observed to Rank, “The exclusion of the father in your theory seems to reveal too much the result of personal influences in your life”), and at the same time suggested how this is no devastating criticism (as Rank answered Freud, “You know as well as I do that the accusation that an insight is derived from a complex means very little . . . and . . . says nothing of the value or truth of this insight”). It is logical enough, given the narrative method of classical analysis, how close to autobiography theory is. One thinks not only of so “autobiographical” a work as The Interpretation of Dreams, but other early works such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life—the early works perhaps more significant in this context than the later formally autobiographical essays.

It is the nature of autobiography in any case, I think, to be dissatisfied with its ostensible function, and to strain toward a generalized projection onto others as exhortation, ethics, psychology. Such is the chemistry of our egocentrism. We single ourselves out as unique and thereby worthy of having our stories told, and then paradoxically enhance our uniqueness by suggesting it as representative. I intend no caviling here. Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy may be two of the most significant “autobiographies” of modern history.

The narrative nature of analysis aside, there remains the question of “science or therapy?”—an old question in relation to Freud, and judging by Freud’s statements and his practices it is truly difficult to assess his own priorities. Freud remarked his lack of any “craving” from the very beginning “to help suffering humanity,” and Roazen was probably right to suggest that “uppermost in his mind was the advancement of science” and that he was not as therapeutically ambitious as his followers. But on the other hand Freud was taking patients even up to the end and when his publishing days were over, prosthesis in mouth, hole in cheek, dying painfully in London, breathing the literal smell of decay. (An image of the man that still haunts me whenever I think the word Freud.) It’s easier to answer another question: Yes, Freud did wish his findings and practice to be thought science rather than art, whatever his priorities. And science rather than “philosophy.” Nevertheless, he is a philosopher in a sense that medical investigators seldom are, and as he almost grudgingly admitted with his late socio-cultural works: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, The Future of an Illusion, Moses and Monotheism, Civilization and Its Discontents—these for me, I admit, the epic Freud, the latter especially, one of the world’s essential books in my estimation. 

In a literal and chronological sense Freud’s psychological theories culminate in a body of social and historical philosophy represented by those late works. Freud spoke of a kind of return (“My interest, after making a lifelong détour,” he wrote in 1935, “through the natural sciences, medicine and psychotherapy, returned to the cultural problems which had fascinated me long before, when I was a youth scarcely old enough for thinking.”). I make no enormous claims of new and revolutionary insight for the kind of Burkean deep resonance and Hobbesean pessimism of his socio-political judgments—but he connected those traditions with, as he evolved his versions from, what he called “the mighty and primordial melody of the instincts.”

But his theories culminated in something else as well which he was not so welcoming of: not the inroads psychoanalysis made into psychiatry, which pleased him, but the natural and “unorthodox” revision of his own theoretical psychology. Practically every battle he pitched was ultimately lost.  Either wholly or in part, Jungian, Adlerian, Tauskian, Rankian “heresies” re-entered after having been with such cost cast out—often by subtle modifications effected by those who had retained his favor.

The factual point is that psychoanalysis, Freud’s creation, became, as it had to, Psychoanalysis, something a great deal vaster than “Freudianism.” But my narrative point—or tragic point or whatever—is: We have a story of genius and suffering in which the sacrifices are made for an impossible and un-retainable purity of psychological theory and method (although Freud himself was far from a purist in method); but in so far as the Freudian creation which most remains his is the “philosophical” canon, the sacrifices—through excommunication, anathema, injury—ultimately went for an older philosophical vision rather than a newer science of healing. Social philosophy is closer to my own intellectual considerations than medical science is, but I cannot help but notice a disproportionate cost.


Roazen noted a passage in The Question of Lay Analysis in which Freud rather mockingly refers to defectors who have tried to free society from “the yoke of sexuality that psychoanalysis was seeking to impose upon it.” One of them (Adler) “actually declared that sexual life is merely one of the spheres in which human beings seek to put in action their driving need for power and domination.”  Another (Jung) “explained that what is sexual does not mean sexuality at all, but something . . . abstract and mystical.” “They have met with much applause, for the moment at least.” These apostates in effect gave a symbolic value to the Oedipus Complex instead of accepting its literal sexuality. They are not the only ones, of course, to make of the complex a psychological symbol instead of a sexual experience, or generally to deemphasize its sexual content.

John Murray Cuddihy, in The Ordeal of Civility, located the origin of the Oedipus Complex, as well as Freud’s fascination with Sophocles’ play, in the child Freud’s response to a story told him by his father, and identified the operative notion in both play and story as “social insult.”

Jacob Freud told his son of a time when he was a young man in Freiburg, Moravia: a Gentile had contested for walking space—“Jew!  Get off the pavement!”—had knocked Jacob Freud’s hat into the mud, and Jacob had quietly stepped aside and picked it up. Freud consciously contrasts his father with Hamilcar the Carthaginian who had stood up to the Romans and made his son Hannibal swear to avenge him upon Rome. Cuddihy, with an argument more sophisticated than this summary can suggest, related this memory to the social insults between Laius and Oedipus on the road leading to Thebes and contended that Freud’s own unconscious “parricidal” desire had less to do with desire for his mother than shame for his father, who did not stand up to the Freiburger as Hamilcar did to Rome, or as Laius did to the stranger Oedipus.

Roazen connected this same story and Freud’s memory of it in a rather obvious way with Freud the Jew wanting to conquer Gentile “Rome”; indeed, “he founded a great movement, by which, in a sense, he sought to undermine Gentile values.” And Roazen was aware of ambivalences in this man who “disturbed the sleep of the world”: since Freud makes the original of the two Moseses in Moses and Monotheism an Egyptian, Roazen wondered if “by transforming the earlier Moses into an Egyptian—by depriving the Jews of their greatest figure—might not Freud have been unconsciously expressing his discomfort at being a Jew, converting himself to a Gentile in fantasy”—but, here’s the point—“thereby helping to ensure what he [had] hoped Jung would accomplish, namely protecting analysis from the charge of being merely a Jewish psychology?” While Roazen credited Freud’s being moved in multiple ways by the “social insult” in his father’s story, stressed Freud’s great concern for the “racial” reputation of his science, documented the byzantine complexities of his relations with the Gentile Swiss Jung, and referred more than once to Freud’s racial pride and attitudes to anti-Semitism, he made no approach to anything like Cuddihy’s view of the Oedipus Complex, nor to the thesis of The Ordeal of Civility.

Cuddihy’s book was a good deal more, however, than an eccentric interpretation of the Oedipus Complex; indeed, that was only one of many “probes” in the book. Studying “Freud, Marx, Lévi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity,” as the sub-title had it, Cuddihy considered these three thinkers (with more to say of Freud than the others) as Jewish intellectuals rebelling against a Gentile intellectual and social consensus.

Cuddihy argued that the great modern ideologies have been oppositional. But rather than opposing an intellectual ancien régime, they have opposed instead modernism. The cutting edge of modernization is differentiation, that is, home differentiated from job, fact from value, theory from praxis, and so on, but especially the differentiation of public behavior from private behavior, manners from morals: the creation of civility and the ordeal it causes. “Civility” requires “the bifurcation of private affect from public demeanor.” Whatever you are in the privacy of your soul, in public Be Nice!

Now, when the Jews spread out from the shtetlahk in the nineteenth century they expected European society to be a “neutral space” where Jew as Jew could meet Gentile as Gentile, where they could become citoyens by exercising the franchise of the citizen. But instead of finding a neutral space they found society a Gentile space inhabited by Gentiles who defined their behavior as genteel and any other as not. The Gentiles, already their ways “differentiated,” exercised public “decorum” whatever their “private affects,” while the Jews, still “tribal” instead of modernized, their behavior still undifferentiated, suffered “collisions with the differentiations of Western society.” They discovered that before they could enjoy their civil rights as citoyens, they had to undergo “civilizing” rites and become bourgeoises. Those who could or would did, while those who couldn’t or wouldn’t remained ungenteel-ungentile—Yids. Those who could were, to the Gentile’s view, “coarse” and “Yiddish” only in their deep recesses, which weren’t visible in public unless the assimilated Jew slipped up and showed his real self.

So how do Marxism and Freudianism relate to this absurd position into which Gentile society placed Jews? Obviously, Cuddihy argued, as a response to the pressure—but in no simple rebellious way. Instead, Marxism and Freudianism were “apologies” born partly out of a sense of injustice at what the Gentiles were forcing, but partly out of the Jewish intellectuals having bought the Gentile view that Jews were essentially coarse and rude. “Sociocultural wounds, it is my hypothesis, lie behind the ideological creations of the giants of the Jewish diaspora.”

The political intellectual, like Marx, whether he went to Socialism or Zionism, his “initial quarrel . . . was not with the larger society, but with the behavior—or misbehavior—of his fellow Jews.”  The quarrel might then be transferred to bourgeois society as a whole. With Freud the matter is only somewhat different, still a matter of projecting onto all one’s self-criticism and thereby rendering oneself relatively blameless. “In Freud’s ‘science,’ the social problems of a modernizing Jewry receive a self-enhancing cognitive gloss: social malaise becomes a medical symptom, offenses become defenses, kvetches become hysterical complaints; to be badly behaved is to be mentally ill.” (Suggesting the continuity of Cuddihy’s thesis, an allusion here to the great French anthropologist, with whom of the three he spent the least time: “Echoes of Freud and Marx can be heard in Lévi-Strauss’s obsession with the raw, the vulgar, the naked, and their transformation-mediation-sublimation into the cooked, the refined, and the clothed.”)

Realizing how the Gentile felt about supposed Jewish “rudeness,” lack of grace, Freud tried to ease a kind of assimilation which would allow Jews to remain Jewish by showing Gentiles that below their super-egotistical civility they were “Jewish” too. The rude, unruly, coarse Id (which desired no differentiation between “private affect and public demeanor”) was the equalizer between Gentile and Jew! 

The deep logic of Freudian analysis, then, according to Cuddihy, was an apologia for “Yiddishkeit” by universalizing the kind of “private affect” ascribed to it. Rather than reject imputations of Jewish rudeness, coarseness, vulgarity, Freud denied the uniqueness: it was the truth beneath the “Protestant Esthetic” and “Protestant Etiquette.” As Cuddihy put it, the “importunate ‘Yid,’ released from ghetto and shtetl, is the model, I contend, for Freud’s coarse, importunate ‘id.’”

I had no profound disagreement with Cuddihy’s thesis, but felt extraordinarily rebellious against a tendency of Cuddihy’s rhetoric, a kind of throaty, hip, verbal posturing (“the id of the ‘Yid’ is hid under the lid of Western decorum”), which I thought threatened to trivialize the subject, and which I objected to strongly in the review, while I thought with a balanced mind that “there are qualities in The Ordeal of Civility that make me want to speak of ‘the great tradition’ of sociology, where it leans toward social philosophy.” A brief aside:

This objection to the style caused me some embarrassment soon after I reviewed Cuddihy’s book those many years ago. I met him at a “New York Intellectual” party in Manhattan, hesitating to introduce myself. (Have you ever met socially someone you reviewed with serious reservations?) But a mutual acquaintance introduced us nonetheless—and I was surprised at Cuddihy’s enthusiastic (metaphorical) embrace of me. “Mary [or whoever],” he said to his wife, “this is the fellow who wrote that review!” Then we chatted amicably, as I thought to myself, “He’s confused my review with someone else’s” or “Great! He’s man enough to accept criticism.”  In any case I was delighted to have a new friend. So when I met him at another party some months later I walked up to him smiling, with a “Hello Jack, how’s it going?” With an expression part impatient and part condescending, he answered, “Are you any wiser now? Have you learned a goddamned thing since that review?” No longer with us on this earth, Jack isn’t around to hear my answer.

Cuddihy’s learning and scholarship, like Roazen’s (the late Roazen’s, I should repeat), was omnivorous. And scarcely a page did not have its reward. Like Freud and His Followers, The Ordeal of Civility was, is, remains a consequential book. My life—and I doubt I am alone—is vastly the richer for both. Which is one reason—beyond sharing my recollections of what I was thinking about Freud back then—that I spend so much time here on Roazen and Cuddihy: much of the stuff written about Freud today is so pettifogging, crude, self-satisfied, boring, and the opposite of intellectually brave, which certainly cannot be said of Roazen and Cuddihy, who are worth re-examining or rediscovering, as the case may be. They both went a long way toward bolstering my already mature admiration for Sigmund Freud, who, for all his crotchetiness, crankiness, and multiple characterological difficulties, remains one of my intellectual heroes.  And remains so not because of any intellectual identification with him—I think I have made it clear that I have deep reservations about his thought—but because of the extraordinary intellectual bravery of the man, who looked into the abyss without blinking, who, even if often wrong because he pushed so far, knew as William James knew that to disown or reject a struggled-for insight because you cannot have absolute certainty means not the dangerous pursuit of truth but merely the mundane safer thing, the avoidance of error: intellectual timidity parading as  plain-spoken honesty, so often the vice of the academic cozy in his study.

Dying the same year, 1939, William Butler Yeats was not speaking of Freud, but he might well have been.


Come let us mock at the great

That had such burdens on the mind

And toiled so hard and late

To leave some monument behind,

Nor thought of the levelling wind.


That’s a favorite quotation of mine. But I’d like to end, more than a little ironically, with another quotation, from Louis Menand’s remarkably balanced review of Crews’s epic bashing (in The New Yorker, August 28, 2017). Commenting on Crews’s  discussion both of Freud’s ambivalence (to say the least) toward the church and Freud’s rumored affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, Menand quotes Crews: “To possess Minna could have meant, first, to commit symbolic incest with the mother of God; second, to ‘kill’ the father God by means of this ultimate sacrilege; and third, to nullify the authority both of Austria’s established church and of its Vatican parent—thereby, in Freud’s internal drama, freeing his people from two millennia of religious persecution.” About which Menand comments, and I italicize, “It all sounds pretty Freudian!”  

It’s rather disconcerting that Frederick Crews, author of The Pooh Perplex, is apparently unaware that his analysis of Freud just above reads for all the world like a parody.


Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.

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