Fall into reason. Edward Skidelsky on Freud the theologian, a spinner of secular myths

Freud: darkness in the midst of vision

Louis Breger <em>John Wiley, 472pp, £19.99</em>

ISBN 047

Psychoanalysis is often thought of today as a softening influence on the personality, as a device for making people more tolerant, more open, more "in touch" with their feelings. It is seen - for good or for ill - as part of the trend towards the "feminisation" of the modern psyche. So it comes as a surprise that the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was the most severe of Victorian patriarchs. With his autocratic demeanour and phallocratic cigar, Freud has become something of an embarrassment to his modern disciples. One of these embarrassed disciples - Louis Breger, an American analyst - has now become his latest biographer.

Breger turns the weapons of Freudian analysis against Freud himself; this is biography as psychoanalysis. But in order to make room for his own analysis of Freud, Breger must first discredit Freud's self-analysis. At the age of 41, during a period of intense introspection, Freud stumbled on what was to become the centrepiece of his psychological theory, the Oedipus complex. "I have found, in my own case, too, the phenomena of being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood." Breger demurs. Freud, he argues, did not so much discover as invent the Oedipus complex. He invented it in order to conceal from himself the real cause of his childhood suffering, which lay in the more mundane experience of poverty, bereavement and maternal neglect. The example of Oedipus allowed Freud to picture himself as a powerful warrior, rather than the helpless and unhappy infant he must, in fact, have been. It was a machismo emblem with which to ward off memories of childhood trauma. Breger thus succeeds in discrediting Freud's most "patriarchal" doctrine, while remaining within the general framework of Freudian analysis.

This story has an initial plausibility, but only because it corresponds so closely to the nostrums of modern-day psychology. Freud is presented as a passive victim, rather than as an active protagonist. The "damaged" psyche of contemporary therapy has replaced the libidinal psyche of classical psychoanalysis. Yet here, Breger displays his parochialism. The "traumas" of Freud's infancy consist in experiences that any poor Jewish boy in mid-19th-century Vienna might have faced. Freud was no more "damaged" than any person of his background. In fact, he seems to have been relatively privileged. As soon as his intelligence was recognised, Freud became the darling of his family. It was their support, rather than any childhood trauma, that spurred his ambition.

"A man who has been the indisputable favourite of his mother goes through life with the feeling of a conqueror," wrote Freud, surely with himself in mind. Breger's certainty that Freud must have had a traumatic infancy rests on the tendentious doctrine, derived ultimately from Alfred Adler, that all ambition originates in feelings of helplessness and inferiority.

The Oedipus conflict was far more than a compensatory fiction for Freud; it was the central reality of his psychic life. In the battle between father and son, Freud was always on the side of the father. His own father was a weak and ineffectual man, and so, from an early age, Freud assumed the role of paterfamilias. He cast around for more inspiring figures on which to model himself; his imagination lighted on Hannibal, Alexander, Napoleon and Moses. Later on, his medical mentors, Ernst Brucke and Jean-Martin Charcot, played the same role. Freud's relationship with all these father figures was one of emulation rather than rebellion. He sought to appropriate their authority, to absorb, as he might have put it, their phallic potency. When at last he became a father himself (and "father" to the psychoanalytic movement), he jealously guarded his patriarchal status. Any deviation on the part of his psychoanalytic children was interpreted - in line with the thesis of Totem and Taboo - as an attempt to murder him. Freud's friendships with men were thus marked by a peculiar intensity. His relations with women, on the other hand, were anodyne and conventional. One gets the impression that he wasn't very interested in them. This is reflected in the passive and subordinate role they play in his theory.

One has to be careful drawing connections between Freud's life and his work, because this was, notoriously, a technique he himself used to discredit the work of rivals. Freud liberally employed diagnosis as a weapon of abuse, dismissing all rebellions against psychoanalytic orthodoxy as "neurotic" and "pathological". Adler's motives, Freud wrote to Jung, "are all of neurotic source . . . his influence on others depending on his strong terrorism and sadism". Later on, Jung was subjected to the same treatment: "One who, while behaving abnormally, keeps shouting that he is normal gives ground for suspicion that he lacks insight into his illness." And Freud took a similarly reductive view of other disciplines. James Strachey, Freud's English translator, once showed Freud a copy of Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Freud perused it and handed it back, saying: "Well, it's quite straightforward; the man's clearly an anal-obsessive." This, to my knowledge, is Freud's only recorded comment on his great compatriot.

The use of diagnosis as a tool of polemic was not a peculiarity of Freud alone; it characterised the movement as a whole. Meetings of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society were often marred by vitriolic personal attacks. Rudolf Reitler described a paper of Wilhelm Stekel's as "a neurotic symptom - a wave of asexuality has surged up in the author". Stekel, discussing a paper by Fritz Wittels, remarked that "the speaker has projected the unpleasant self-knowledge of his own insignificant hysteria on to a quite harmless class of people".

Something in the nature of psychoanalysis, it seems, lends itself to this form of abuse. An analogy can been drawn with Marxism. Both movements renounce the possibility of disinterested argument; both view reason as irredeemably tainted by unconscious motivation. Thus debate within Marxism and psychoanalysis inevitably carries a personal dimension: any disagreement over doctrine is simultaneously a clash of economic or psychological motives. And as no objective standard exists for resolving these disputes, victory normally falls to the person who can most successfully impugn the opponent's intentions. The bad manners of Marxists and psychoanalysts is no accidental trait; it is central methodological principle.

The history of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society - replete with disputations, splits and denunciations - bears an uncanny similarity to that of the Russian Communist Party. Freud acted as a miniature despot, surrounding himself, Stalin-like, with a posse of sycophants. These unpleasant creatures were zealous in their defence of orthodoxy, knowing full well that their status within the movement depended on the grace of "the Professor". Heretics were punished with expulsion from the society, accompanied by vicious personal attacks. They were readmitted only after making a full public confession and recantation. "From a state which I now recognise as neurotic," wrote the dissident member to the committee, "I have suddenly returned to myself . . . I can only hope, dear Abraham, that my painfully won insight into this whole matter and my sincere regret will make it possible for you to forgive and forget the wrong which came to you from my state of mind."

As Freud's biographer Ronald Clark points out, the wording of this letter closely follows the formula of a Stalinist confession. Breger provides detailed accounts of this and similar episodes, but fails to recognise that their source lies in the nature of psychoanalysis as a discipline, not merely in the despotic tendencies of its founder.

Yet it is too simple to dismiss psychoanalysis as pseudo-science. In his rejection of the Enlightenment doctrine of pure reason, Freud was returning to the central tradition of Christian theology. What the German philosopher Ernst Cassirer writes about St Augustine could equally well be applied to Freud. "Reason for Augustine does not have a simple and unique but rather a double and divided nature . . . From the time of the fall its original power has been obscured. Reason alone can never show us the way back. It cannot reconstruct itself; it cannot, by its own efforts, return to its former pure essence."

For Freud, too, reason is "fallen", captive to the dark forces of the unconscious. The path to truth lies not through rational argument, but through sudden revelation; only revelation can break the power of the unconscious mind and restore reason to its prelapsarian glory. Recognition of the fallibility of reason is both the glory and the curse of the Augustinian tradition. It is the source of its profound truths, but also of its vicious odium theologicum. It is like a scalpel that can be used both to heal and to murder. Insight into the irrational sources of our own thoughts and actions can be experienced as a tremendous liberation. Yet the same insight, directed against another person, can be used to malign and destroy. This is what makes Freud and Augustine such ambiguous figures. What is great in them is inextricably bound up with that which is repulsive.

The comparison with Augustine points towards the true status of Freud. He is not a scientist, nor is he - as Lesley Chamberlain suggests in her intriguing new book - a "secret artist". He is the last of the great theologians. If Marx provided the 20th century with a secular millennialism, Freud provided it with a secular Gnosticism. These secular myths give us something that the special sciences cannot, by their very nature, give us - a symbolic system in which we "live, and move, and have our being". This is why we cannot do without them. Despite the refutation of almost all of Freud's scientific claims, our understanding of the mind is still more Freudian than it is pre-Freudian. And we will continue to live under his shadow until a new theologian displaces him.

Edward Skidelsky writes regularly for the books pages