Eyes wide shut. Edward Skidelsky reads Freud's great work 100 years after its first publication, and finds himself wandering through the sleazy back alleys of the Victorian mind

The Interpretation of Dreams

Sigmund Freud (translated by Joyce Crick) <em>Oxford University Pres

The Interpretation of Dreams is the great unread classic of modern thought. There is a vague feeling that you've read it before, so pervasive is its influence. I wish I could say that this feeling is unwarranted, that the original is misrepresented by the popular interpretation. Unfortunately, it isn't. Towards the end of his life, Tolstoy protested that he wasn't a Tolstoyan. He, the man Tolstoy, was more than his doctrine. But Freud was nothing more than a Freudian. The doctrine was more signifi-cant than the man.

Something of this is captured in W H Auden's at first sight puzzling remark that Freud "wasn't clever at all". Reading Joyce Crick's new translation of The Interpretation, I could see what he meant. I did not feel that I was in the presence of an acute intellect. Freud's prose is turgid. The famous ideas - the Oedipal complex, the theory of repression - are buried amid endless controversies with forgotten German academics. Freud is neither subtle nor perceptive. He pursues his "big idea" with a dogged, almost cranky, determination. His picture of the mind is dominated by the mechanistic physics of the 19th century; it is all a matter of pressures and resistances. His interpretations of literature are notoriously philistine. If there is a word to describe his cast of mind, it is naive.

Nowhere is Freud's naivety more evident than in his repeated insistence that he is a "scientist". In someone devoted to unmasking the pretensions of rational thought, this was an extraordinary act of self-deception. For it becomes obvious at an early stage that Freud's interest in the origin of dreams is far from scientific. He takes sardonic relish in revealing the latest sexual content of his patient's "innocuous" dreams. "Indeed, not at all innocuous," he smirks after interpreting a dream involving a broken candle. (Nearly all Freud's patients are women, suggesting an analogy between his pleasure in unmasking their dreams and the seducer's pleasure in unmasking the pretences of female modesty.) It is his "strict and single-minded opinion" that there are no innocuous dreams; they are all wish-fulfilments. Those who dispute this are merely betraying their own resistance to analysis. When one patient comes to him with a dream that Freud is incapable of analysing as a wish- fulfilment, he has recourse to an ingenious argument: her dream fulfilled "the wish that I should be wrong". You don't need to have read Popper to feel unconvinced by the scientific credentials of such a method.

But strangely enough, none of this matters. Those who try to debunk Freud by convicting him of pseudo-science miss the point; his influence, outside a small group of disciples, never rested on his claim to scientific respectability. His dream-analyses lose none of their fascination for being spurious. Their fascination is analogous to that of a Gothic novel. Freud leads you through the back alleys of the Victorian mind. His is a world of venereal disease, illicit abortion clinics, prostitution and sexual hysteria. With a kind of quiet violence, he demolishes the facade of respectability that screens this world from the waking eye. None of this has anything to do with science. In an age of scientific optimism, Freud reintroduced an Augustinian awareness of the shallowness of reason, the perversity of desire. If he himself maintained the pose of a Victorian man of science, this was nothing but a "protective imitation" (Auden again), enabling him the smoother to carry out his historic work of demolition.

Perhaps Freud's greatest achievement was his rediscovery of tragedy. The progress of civilisation had driven tragedy from the social world; Freud found it buried in the psyche. The memory of childhood disappointments never entirely deserts us, no matter how successfully we manage our subsequent lives. This is why the stories of Oedipus and Electra, at first sight so alien and bizarre, still carry such resonance. We recognise in them the fulfilment of our deepest wishes. Freud would not deny that most of us manage, through the discipline of work and marriage, to contain our infant rage. But contain it is all we can do. Civilisation is a thin, artificial order erected over and against the desires of the heart; it has no foundation in them.

When The Interpretation first appeared, 100 years ago, Europe was ripe for this doctrine. Darwin and Nietzsche had between them encouraged the view that morality is nothing more than a convention, without roots in human nature. The subsequent horrors of two world wars seemed to confirm their arguments.

But how remote all this appears to us today. Freud's world is not our world. This is the real reason for the odium that has come to envelop psychoanalysis. It is not that Freud has been "refuted"; it is simply that he no longer speaks to us. The Gothic netherworld of the Freudian id is alien to us, because we no longer police our sexual desires in the manner of the Victorians. The very success of Freud's disciples in destroying sexual repression has rendered Freud redundant. As has often been remarked, id and superego have exchanged positions in our culture. Sexual fulfilment has become a right, a duty even. It is failure to achieve it, rather than success in achieving it, that now incurs shame. The official hedonism of Cosmopolitan has replaced the official puritanism of the churches. This does not mean that we are all models of psychic health; still less does it mean that tragedy has been for ever abolished. It is simply that the old Freudian language for talking about tragedy is no longer available to us.

This cultural shift explains the incomprehension that greeted Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Set in contemporary New York, it is steeped in the sultry atmosphere of Freud's Vienna. Its theme is the fragility of marriage and the promiscuity of desire, and the centrepiece is a weirdly stylised orgy in a neo-baroque mansion. The reactions to this, I think, very good film were curiously unanimous. No one could respond to the atmosphere of menace that Kubrick had tried to create. The orgy appeared simply laughable. Everyone knows that even the most faithful couples have occasional promiscuous fantasies. What was Kubrick getting so worked up about?

What this reaction demonstrates is the obsolescence of the Freudian unconscious. The modern self has no unsettling depths. The unconscious, in so far as it exists at all, is merely a projection of the conscious. It is a literary construct, with no independent life. It can be portrayed only with a heavy dose of irony, otherwise it is absurd. Kubrick's error lay in his lack of irony. Clearly the old man hadn't been getting enough.

The Freudian philosopher Jonathan Lear has talked about a "crisis of knowingness" in our culture. Attempts to shock or unsettle us are simply answered with a knowing yawn. Our cynicism isn't even explicable as a mask for disappointed idealism; it is merely an automatic response to anything that threatens to disturb our equilibrium. In true Freudian fashion, Lear interprets this "knowingness" as defensive, comparing it to Oedipus's knowingness. But what is it a defence against? This question Lear cannot answer. The old Freudian answer - "against the desires of the unconscious mind" - no longer cuts ice. Freud's achievement was to give a name to the fears of his age. But what does our age fear?

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing