Slick Siggy

Pollitt and Sullivan

Slick Siggy

Pollitt and Sullivan

Slick Siggy
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 19 1998 9:52 AM

Pollitt and Sullivan

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Dear Katha,

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How nice to hear from you again. You summarize the Crews collection wonderfully. Far more wonderfully than I could have because I loathed almost everything in it. I too looked forward to it, since I think Freud's thought is ripe for revisiting; and because I think there's a reason this particular fin-de-siecle should return to the work of the most beguiling innovator of the last. But this collection was a serial rant of such dogmatic vehemence that I began to wonder whether Crews was in command of his senses.

First, the tone. It is hard to feel comfortable in the hands of an editor who feels little compunction in penning chapter titles like the following: "Wrong From The Start," "Was Freud A Liar?," "Made-To-Order Evidence," "Manifestly Fallacious," "Error's Reign," "Paranoia Methodized," etc. etc. The vituperation is relentless. Then there are the usual tropes of the fanatic. Defenders of Freud are described as engaged in a cult or the partisans of a meaningless orthodoxy. Freud was not merely wrong but a fraud. Freud's attackers are alternately beleaguered (i.e. persecuted by Freudians) or triumphant (they have proven their point beyond a shadow of a doubt). Any counterview is dismissed as either self-evidently wrong, or obviously motivated by self-interest. I love sentences like the following from Crews's introduction: "Freudians are finding themselves on the defensive, and the strategies of special pleading that they adopt are themselves symptomatic of intellectual bankruptcy." What's interesting about this kind of rhetoric is that it is almost always deployed by people who are actually insecure about their arguments. They make up for their failings by piling on the superlatives of derision. It's very tiring to read. And ultimately quite boring. At the New Republic, I used to get manuscripts like this from time to time, and I learned from editors like Dorothy Wickenden that they almost always betrayed poor argument, and needed to be calmed down in order to be in any way persuasive. This book needed an editor other than Crews who gives every indication of being a maniac. (Mercifully, I missed most of his tirades in the New York Review of Books.)

That said, like you, I find much of the evidence of Freud's distortion of some of his findings, abuse of some of his patients, ready capacity to switch theories and arguments whenever it suited him, loose plagiarism of others' ideas, and general arrogance and occasional rigidity to be largely irrefutable. I guess my response is: so what? The premise of the Crews theory is that you can assess Freud as one can assess, say, the scientific theories of Newton or Darwin, that his scientific pretensions are definitive of the essence of Freud, that the failures of many of Freud's "cures" or the way in which modern science has clearly undermined some of his theories render Freud not merely dated or limited but completely worthless, except as an example of an immensely gifted snake-oil salesman. Sort of Slick Siggy.

I don't buy vast amounts of Freud for a minute. His views on religion should hearten even the most rigid of village atheists; and his views on women (though excessively attacked, I think, in recent years) are largely indefensible. (Oddly enough, I think his analysis of homosexuality is far more persuasive and humane than his current detractors claim, and is still among the most persuasive accounts of the probable origins of homosexuality that we have. I defend him on this count in my forthcoming book, Love Undetectable.) But you really have to be somewhat unhinged not to see that Freud endures as far more than a scientific figure. Yes, he made scientific claims, and must be seen in that empirical context to some extent. And yes, he made therapeutic claims, which can and should also be weighed. But the importance of Freud in the history of ideas, in the deepening of Western consciousness and self-consciousness is surely second only to Nietzsche in the last 150 years. I'm not saying that he was right about everything. But certain notions, like the Oedipus Complex, or the concept of resistance, or transference, indeed the whole apparatus of repression and its effects, in and of themselves (though they have their origins elsewhere as well) should be enough in my book to render Freud an object at least of spirited, skeptical inquiry rather than dogmatic refutation. Crews simply doesn't get it, does he?

I wonder why. I can't help wondering, a la Siggy, why Crews has such resistance to a skeptical rather than dismissive approach to the old man. Why the anger and need to dismiss completely? Why the ludicrous hostility to the idea that human beings are at some level irrational and even unknowable, and almost hysterical opposition to a method of thinking about us that is a curiously modern blend of Enlightenment reason and post-Enlightenment unreason?

Does Crews need to see a shrink?

Yours therapeutically,

Andrew

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Katha Pollitt is associate editor at The Nation. Her most recent book is Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism. Andrew Sullivan is author of Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival and a senior editor of the New Republic. This week they discuss Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend, edited by Frederick Crews (Viking Press; 352 pages; $24.95).