The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism.
Mark Edmundson's book chronicles the final two years of Sigmund Freud's life, from January 1938, when his cancerous jaw began demanding repeated surgical interventions, until his death on 23 September 1939. This tale of Freud's months of decline is intertwined with the historical rise of Adolf Hitler, in particular his annexation of Austria in March 1938, the political poker that culminated in the incorporation of the Sudetenland, and the invasion of Poland that marks the beginning of the Second World War. Edmundson's narrative is structured as a counterpoint that juxtaposes the very different stories of these two world-historical personalities in order to open up new, more psychologically nuanced perspectives on this historical epoch. The turning point in this narrative, and the event on which Edmundson expends the most time and energy, is the Anschluss of Freud's Austria by Nazi Germany, the triumphant return of Hitler to Vienna--the city he and Freud cohabited for several years early in the twentieth century--and Freud's emigration to London in June 1938. Coherent with this primary focus, the book is divided not into individual chapters, but instead into two broad sections, one bearing the title "Vienna" and treating the events leading up to Freud's departure from his life-long home, the other with the title "London," depicting the months of Freud's English exile.
The lives of Edmundson's two historical protagonists are connected in his telling not merely by the linkage of Hitler's rise and Freud's concomitant exile and fall, but also by certain themes articulated by Freudian psychoanalysis itself, in particular Freud's theory of the authoritarian patriarch. Edmundson views both Freud and Hitler as authoritarian father-figures, with the difference that Freud is, so to speak, the good father, who asserts his paternal authority in the interests of dismantling all authoritarian structures (p. 231), whereas Hitler develops as the prototype of the patriarchal tyrant who demands unflinching devotion, on the one hand, but also provides outlets for indulging the baser human instincts, on the other (pp. 100-01).
Edmundson uses a narrative approach in which engaging personal anecdotes are pieced together so as to form an overriding historical mosaic. This style lends a more intimate cast to the nitty-gritty details of Freud's existence in the final months of his life. It also highlights the simultaneity of personal and historical circumstances, thereby transforming Freud's individual experiences into microcosmic representations of the so-called spirit--or, if you will, dispirit--of the age in which Hitler advanced to the peak of his power. This is the sense in which Freud's death takes on a wider historical luminescence. Finally, this narrative technique draws the reader into the tensions created at the joints where its various anecdotes and episodes are juxtaposed, thereby enticing the reader to anticipate and project storylines that the narrative itself temporarily interrupts. The pathos and engagement invoked by this mode of storytelling is what makes Edmundson's account especially readable and compelling.
Those readers who are after more than a well-told tale, however, are likely to take issue with Edmundson when it comes to matters of scholarly substance. Indeed, the book makes few if any pretensions to scholarly rigor and originality, acknowledging openly its reliance on a handful of authoritative and standard biographical, critical, and historical accounts of Freud's and Hitler's lives and the historical events that frame their parallel biographies. For one thing, Edmundson's journalistic approach does not allow room for anything other than rather superficial, populist renditions of certain central tenets of Freudian psychoanalytic theory. As suggested by the subtitle to the book, Edmundson's more
specific interest homes in on the relationship between psychoanalysis and modern forms of what he calls "fundamentalism," a term under which he--perhaps erroneously, and in the interest of populist appeal--subsumes German fascism. A more subtle argument would distinguish more carefully between Freudian theories of patriarchal authority, present-day religious fundamentalism, and the mass political psychosis of German fascism, whereas for Edmundson they all are prepared in the same pot. Edmundson's central argument is that Freud diagnoses--primarily in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921)--the psychological dynamic that binds the instinct-indulgent German population of the 1920s and 1930s to the self-assured, charismatic leader embodied by Adolf Hitler. In this portrayal, Freud emerges as one of the most incisive and persistent critics of the authoritarian personality Hitler manifests, an authoritarianism that exploits the collective psychic insecurities of the masses and channels them into rituals for venting the primal instincts. This is where Edmundson seeks to intervene and take sides in the "Freud wars" that have raged for the last few decades: he maintains that Freud ultimately subjects himself and the psychoanalytic relationship between analyst and analysand to this critique of authoritarianism. In Edmundson's words: "Freud, in short, was tempted by the kind of power that he spent a major phase of his career demystifying. Freud, one might say, was a patriarch who worked with incomparable skill to deconstruct patriarchy. He wrote and lived to put an end to the kind of authority that he himself quite often embodied and exploited" (pp. 129-30). What differentiates Freud from Hitler, then, is not so much the investment in patriarchal dynasty-building, which they both share--concretized for Freud in the institution of psychoanalysis itself--as the willingness to include oneself and one's own strategies for accruing power within the purview of this critique.
Feminist critics of Freud are not the only ones who would question this argument and view it as far too generous. And this is where the weakness of Edmundson's book, its lack of scholarly rigor, comes back to haunt him; for he can muster little evidence in support of this central claim. Essentially his only argument boils down to a problematic interpretation of transference as a ritual that encourages patients to project authoritarian relationships from the past onto the analyst, so that they can then be systematically exploded and dismantled in effigy, as it were. In this view, Freud and the practice of psychoanalysis liberate the patient not only from specific psychological traumas, but from the authoritarian propensities that cause those traumas in the first place: patriarchy is exploited as an instrument to end all patriarchy. "Freud the sometimes patriarch," Edmundson thus remarks, "didn't just develop theories about the destructive effects of patriarchy; he developed a form of teaching that gave people the chance to undo oppressive authority" (pp. 212--13).
One would like to share Edmundson's optimism. However, barring any substantial evidence in support of this position, it amounts to little but vigorous pro-Freudian flag-waving from the safe distance of shallow trenches dug well behind the front lines of the actual conflict. It is unlikely, in short, that Edmundson will succeed in converting any of Freud's skeptics to his more friendly interpretation. The great virtue of his book, however, and what makes it a work that can be read profitably despite its scholarly deficiencies, is the vitality and vigor of his historical account itself. Edmundson is an exceptionally talented storyteller, and the tale he weaves around the parallel lives of Freud and Hitler is colorful, lively, and eminently engaging.
Richard T. Gray
University of Washington
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|Author:||Gray, Richard T.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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