The Palace Of Illusion: The Rise and Fall of a Grand Mythology

The final decades of the twentieth century, has seen the Freudian legacy come under increasing attack. The attack began in the late 60s and early 70s with the beginnings of revisionist Freudian scholarship in the work of scholars such as Paul Roazen, Henri Ellenberger and Frank Cioffi.


"At this point Freud's big chow was heard scratching on the door, and Freud rose, as he often had before, to let the dog in. She settled on the carpet and began licking her private parts. Freud did not approve of this behavior, and tried to make her stop. 'It's just like psychoanalysis,' he said."

Joseph Wortis
Fragments of an Analysis With Freud


The final decades of the twentieth century, has seen the Freudian legacy come under increasing attack. The attack began in the late 60s and early 70s with the beginnings of revisionist Freudian scholarship in the work of scholars such as Paul Roazen, Henri Ellenberger and Frank Cioffi. The 80s saw Eysenck as the chief carrier of formal revisionist theories. But it really reached the radar of popular culture in the mid-80s with Jeffrey Masson's The Assault On Truth (1984).

During the 90s, the Freudian house has been under a constant barrage. Some of the more important attackers have been Fuller Torrey in Freudian Fraud (92), Max Scharnberg's The Non-Authentic Nature of Freud's Observations (93) Allen Esterson's Seductive Mirage (93), Robert Wilcocks' Maelzel's Chess Player (94), Robyn Dawes' House of Cards (94), Richard Webster's Why Freud Was Wrong (95), Ernest Gellner's The Psychoanalytic Movement (96), Malcolm Macmillan's Freud Evaluated (97) and Frank Cioffi's Freud and the Question of Pseudoscience (98).

If the attack has possessed a "field marshall" it has been Frederick Crews. Just as Masson served to bring the debate into the ranks of popular culture in the 80s, Crews has done the same thing in the 90s. But whereas Masson used a "rifle" to hit a particular target in the Freudian edifice (Freud's suppression of the seduction theory), Crews pulls out a gattling gun and sprays a barrage of shells at all parts of the Freudian fortress. The Crews assault was documented in a series of brilliant articles titled "The Memory Wars" (later published as a book of the same title) in the pages of the New York Review of Books in the mid-90s.

But the real damage done to the Freudian edifice by Crews has not come from Crews as warrior but rather from Crews as "field marshall" monitoring and documenting the progress of the revisionist wars. One can almost imagine him holed up in some type of revisionist war room with wall charts of all the Freud battles in progress. A type of command headquarters for the great intellectual battle waging during the final years of the twentieth century. He knows where all the pieces fit in, the arguments linked together, the categories of the attacks, their relative value to the overall endeavor.

The position of grand observer and historian of the collapse of one of the twentieth centuries greatest myths is a strange position for a retired english professor. But could it really have been any other way? The psychoanalytic community seems either too brainwashed or too close to the situation to provide an adequate perspective. So the task rightly so falls to someone outside the "industry" to blow the whistle.

Now, a few years since those vicious intellectual battles between Crews and the Freudian disciples in The New York Review of Books, the smoke from the assault on the beach-head has started to clear and it seems an appropriate time for an assessment of the damage done to the Freudian structure. No one is better equipped to provide this assessment than Crews. He proves more than up to the task in Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront A Legend (Viking - 1998) where he assembles a wide-ranging collection of revisionist essays drawn from the past thirty years.

Not surprisingly, the authors of the essays come from a number of disciplines. Some are independent researchers, some world-renowned academics, some psychoanalysts. The scope of intellectual insight brought to the book is impressive and the essays clear and easy to understand. Crews notes in the book's Preface, it is written for the general reader and not to those already within the psychoanalytic fortress. As he says, "people who have publicly committed themselves to the psychoanalytic worldview are unlikely to acknowledge that the game is finally up." Crews' question at the beginning sets the tone for the book: Did Freud plumb the depths of the psyche, as many believe, or did he just clog our conception of the psyche with a maze of misaligned plumbing, leaving the effluent of his own strange imagination to circulate through our medical and cultural lore?

The book is divided into a few major parts. Part I "Wrong From The Start," Part II "The Illusion of Rigor," Part III "Psychic Inspector Clouseau" and Part IV "We Few." The general theme of the essays from the first part throws into question Freud's trustworthiness as a gatherer and transmitter of knowledge. Freud built his structure on a shaky foundation from the very start. The famous early case of Anna O was not the model cure achieved through memory retrieval that Freudian historians would have us believe. As Crews notes it was a story "of initial errors compounded by ignoble dodges and fibs."

Part II shifts its focus from the origins of psychoanalysis to its key knowledge claims. Approaching this is like riding a funhouse cart into a carnival house of mirrors. As Crews warns us, "Freudian theory has been endlessly resourceful in replacing discredited notions with fresh ones... Like the Hydra of the Odyssey that could always grow two new heads when one was lopped off." In the effort to ferret out the source of the Hydra heads, Crews wisely notes that one must focus on the quality of the arguments rather than the quirks of Freud's personality.

One of the key methods behind the arguments of psychoanalysis was free association. This was a process whereby a patient uttered any and all phrases that came to mind in connection with a given symptom, dream or "Freudian" slip. This remains the basic psychoanalytic method today. Once free association was used to glean insights about the patient, Freud was ready to reconstruct specific childhood events or fantasies that led back to the free associated words. "Words alone," as Crews notes, "spoken in a therapist's consulting room, could supposedly put the psychic investigator onto an unbroken causal trail leading back twenty, thirty, or more years."

Part III examines Freud's most famous cases and show, as Crews notes, how they were characterized by "a waywardness of reasoning, a refusal to countenance crucial but inconvenient factors, and rhetorical sleight of hand." The Freudian method of gathering and assessing data was more a means of confirmation than of discovery. In this sense it served to confirm what Freud wanted confirmed. As Crews notes, it "allowed him to find his presuppositions reinforced by literally anything a patient might say or do." This is why, as Crews remarks, "psychoanalytic theory as a whole is so riddled with unresolvable disputes and contradictions." This has saddled Freud's followers "with an all too facile habit of symbolic translation and a body of unclear dogma from which no path back to observation can be traced. Far from providing grounds for revising or refuting psychological hypotheses, then, Freudian interpretation tends to promote them into specious certainties." As Freud himself put it (The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 22, page 146) "applications of analysis are always confirmations of it as well."

Given the problems with its basic theories and methods, the faulty and unsuccessful case histories it was based on, how did psychoanalysis rise to its position as one of history's most prominent mythologies? These are the questions that Crews turns to in the final essays of Part IV of his book. A large part of its magic came from its similarity to methods used by cults or on political prisoners. Ernest Gellner argues in "Free Fall" that psychoanalysis has no peer among therapies for its ability to disarm the patient's critical judgment, to heighten his dependency on an authority figure, and eventually to welcome him into a grateful sense of membership in an elite community. As Crews notes, it was Freud's quasi-paranoid view of outsiders as well as his need to dominate his followers which endowed the next generation of analysts with a combination of subservience, fear of disapproval as well as an eagerness to carry out their leader's wishes.

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The book Unauthorized Freud goes far beyond another assemblage of Freud bashers with a subtext that asks some interesting yet still unanswered questions. After 30 years of revisionism, one could make a good argument that the battle against the Freudian system has already been won by the revisionists. Why then continue to "beat a dead horse" by putting more fuel on the fire (now perhaps faded to the dying embers after the great bonfire of 90s Freud revisionism) to simply prove something that has already been proven?

It is to Crews' credit that he has assembled a book far beyond the above. By selecting essays from some who have not yet completely abandoned the Freudian ship, the individual pieces provide us with a behind the scenes look at the workings of the Freudian system. Like being down in the boiler room of the Titanic under all the brilliant whiteness above on the upper (ego) decks. The authors of the essays put psychoanalysis on the "couch" so to speak and they know how to because many have been on the couch themselves. The effect is somewhat similar to that moment when Dorothy's Toto pulls the curtain away from the little booth in The Wizard of Oz revealing the great wizard to be little more than a grouchy old man. With these essays we are in effect behind the "curtain" (under the couch?) of the Freudian edifice which for so many years served to hide rather than reveal.

Far more fruitful than pointing out that the system was a myth is this subtext of the book that begins to explore just how it could have been such a great myth for so many years. It is a question that should have an importance for all citizens of the 20th century for the myth touched not only those analyzed but also the major institutions of society. Ultimately, it was not just a myth perpetuated in dim analytical rooms where dreams were talked about but a myth that exploded out into the full light of everyday popular culture ultimately obtaining the familiarity of the kitchen toaster. Psychoanalysis became a "household" word in the suburbs of middle America.

The perpetuation of this myth had as much to do with the needs of the patient as the needs of its creator. In this sense, we have all been "patients" to a certain extent in this psychoanalytic mythology. Its cultural popularity can be attributed to the fact that Freud's private mythology might really have been our mythology. One might say that the great ideas of history (like psychoanalysis) are never fully imposed upon people. Rather they gain their power from an acquiescence where the "patient" participates with the doctor in creating the disease.

By way of the Freudian phenomena, we arrive at one of the most perplexing questions of history. This is whether history is created by great men or simply interpreted by them. Are the legendary personages of the ages creators of their times or mediums of their times?

With Freud, the question is difficult. Yes, he might have been a strange paranoid man using his new quasi-science to exorcise his own demons as much as those of his patients. But then many of his own demons turned out (in retrospect) to be the demons of his period in history. For example, Carl Jung came to see Freud as a type of symbol for the dying Victorian age. In the essay "Sigmund Freud In His Historical Setting" from The Spirit In Man, Art, and Literature, Jung observed "The historical conditions which preceded Freud were such that they made a phenomena like himself necessary." The end of the Victorian age that Freud symbolized was to Jung "an age of repression, of a convulsive attempt to keep anemic ideals artificially alive in a framework of bourgeois respectability by constant moralizings." Jung feels these were the last collective ideas of the Middle Ages.

Apart from grandiose concepts addressed by Jung, there was a lot swirling about in European popular culture of late 19th century which found expression in the theories of Freud. It was a time which saw the height of popularity of seances, mediums, trance states and the final vestiges of the French and English infatuation with the pseudo-science of mesmerism. Freud's Interpretation of Dreams at the turn of the century is well known but an even more popular book was Theodore Flournoy's From India to the Planet Mars, the strange report of a woman who claimed she once lived on Mars. Within the cultural milieu of the above, the "talking cure" of Freud was more of a side road excursion off a well-traveled highway than a ground-breaking path into a lonely intellectual wilderness.

Interestingly enough, the symbolism behind seances, trances and Freud's "talking cure" has roots much deeper than the cultural past-times of the 19th century. The basis of these popular delusions really centered around the ancient process of catharsis. As Crews notes, there was a powerful source of inspiration in Aristotle that assured Freud he was onto something big. For example, in Aristotle's Poetics, theatrical tragedy is interpreted as a medium which, by invoking pity and fear, accomplishes a catharsis of these emotions in the audience.

As Crews observes, the Aristotlian concept was long understood to imply either a moral or aesthetic purgation of the emotions. But in 1857, the classical philologist Jacob Bernays advanced a novel medical interpretation arguing that Aristotle had conceived of tragedy as catharsis of emotions which if undischarged would assume a noxious property. In this way, catharsis moved outside the theatre and the realm of drama to become a popular topic among the fin-de-siècle Viennese haute bourgeoisie. It is inconceivable, notes Crews, that Freud was not influenced by this theory in creating his own theories. The Freudian system also mirrored interest in a growing literary genre created by Conan Doyle called detective fiction. Freud was a great fan of Doyle's master sleuth Sherlock Holmes so it not surprising that psychoanalysis had many similarities to the detective genre. Just like his literary hero Sherlock Holmes, Freud came to see the world composed of clues and hidden meanings concealing a great mystery. In a large sense, Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) was a detective manual, finding evidence or "clues" to the mystery of personality in everything. Freud in effect modeled much of his system on this emerging detective fiction, becoming a sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. A literary genre was appropriated to the emerging psychology of the unconsciousness. Perhaps more the case, Freud's system mirrored an emerging popular literary genre of the time.

* * *

Just as valuable as searching for symbolic connections between the rise of the Freudian system and the culture of his time, is searching for connections between the decline of the Freudian system and the popular culture of our current time. The connections between popular culture and the rise of the Freudian mythology must also be present at the demise of Freudian mythology. In this respect, one notes that the Freudian system is not the only psychology under revisionist attack at the end of the 20th century. Witness the work of Richard Noll and the attack on the Jungian system in his books The Jung Cult and The Aryan Christ. Is revisionism in some large sense part of a type of zeitgeist of the times?

And finally, one also needs to ask whether the Freudian mythology is really dead or has simply metamorphosed into other areas of culture which utilize Freudian techniques under different names. One here thinks of areas such as New Age philosophies, political theories and advertising techniques. Major techniques of psychanalysis owe much to the suggestive trance methods of hypnotism. One recognizes these methods employed in many aspects of today's popular culture. How many today are influenced by this power put forward by spin doctors and political pundits who quickly appear to provide "analysis" of major events in the news right after they happen. What is the effect of these "suggestions" on the shaping of public opinion? Is there similarity in their analysis of news to the analysis of the psychotherapist?

In the end, culture itself may really be that therapist in the dim room making hundreds of subliminal suggestions each day via advertisements that support another great mythology called consumer culture. And the neurosis Freud tried to cure in himself through his patients might ultimately be a neurosis owned by all of us.

It was here that Freud's speculations were perhaps ahead of his time or at least beyond it. In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud hypothesized that society as a whole might be collectively neurotic. "It can be asserted that the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds...The super-ego of an epoch of civilization has an origin similar to that of an individual...If the development of civilization has such a far reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization-possibly the whole of mankind-have become 'neurotic'?"

In this type of speculation, Freud suggested that cultures might be studied like a patient on the therapist's couch and that an "analytic dissection of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest." He felt that one day it might be possible to "embark upon a pathology of cultural communities."

Of course Freud would probably enjoy putting our post-modern culture, a culture in the process of debunking his ideas (as well as a lot of others), on the couch. Does this huge process of psychoanalytic revisionism demonstrate a type of neurosis? Is there something neurotic about our current age which finds much to destroy but little to create? Maybe so yet the destruction of repression was itself very much at the heart of the Freudian system and offers a final paradox. The paradox is that this devil which the Freudian method proposed to rid its patients of was itself such a vital component in hiding the true history (memory) of the pseudo-science's youthful years and building the great palace of illusion.


© 1999 - John Fraim

John Fraim is President of The GreatHouse Company a research, consulting and publishing firm with a focus in the area of symbolism and popular culture. He has a BA in History from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School (Los Angeles). His book Spirit Catcher (GreatHouse 1995) received the 1997 Small Press Award for Best Biography. His books Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication and The Symbolism of Popular Culture: Hidden Dynamics of Leading Brands, Products and Entertainment Genres are forthcoming from GreatHouse. INSIGHTS offers comment from a symbolic perspective about key contemporary issues.

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