American Imago 62.4 (2006) 499-505
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Eli Zaretsky's Secrets of the Soul offers a wide-ranging historical perspective and incisive commentary on psychoanalysis as a school of thought, an international movement, and a phenomenon of modernity. In Zaretsky's account, psychoanalysis as a system of thought has struggled from its birth until the present day through cycles of dynamism and stasis. As a movement, it has fluctuated similarly between charismatic and routinized structures. Finally, as a modern social and cultural phenomenon, its vicissitudes have followed both the expansive and retrograde tendencies that appeared with the second industrial revolution and mass consumer society. In Zaretsky's view, throughout this history of paradoxes and oscillations Sigmund Freud's fundamental discovery of the existence of a "personal unconscious" (5) has remained the source of the movement's continued social and cultural significance and its lasting contribution to modern consciousness.
At the center of Zaretsky's history is the question of how psychoanalysis managed to outlive its nineteenth-century origins to take on new life in the twentieth century. Psychoanalysis spanned the divide between nineteenth-century, universalist theory-building, as inspired by Hegel, Comte, and Marx, and modernist, antitheoretical consciousness. Freud saw the psychology of the unconscious as the key to interpreting not only inward processes and development but also widespread collective phenomena, including the origins of society itself. More thoroughly and extensively than earlier psychologists, Freud brought psychology into social and cultural research and theorizing, areas that until that time had been led in the main by philosophers, sociologists, and historians. This journal—like its forebear, Vienna's Imago—attests to the significance of that vision on the part of Freud and his followers.
But whereas the Freudian theory of the unconscious claimed universality, the methodology that Freud developed to interpret unconscious ideas, instincts, and images necessarily focused on the experiential—on the dynamic influence and [End Page 499] expression of the unconscious in conscious mental life. As Freud told the members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society on October 14, 1908, psychoanalysis sought to identify the specific psychic location of a given complex of thoughts, feelings, and impulses (Nunberg and Federn 1967, 9). Freudianism not only directed psychology toward the non-theoretical task of finding and exploring those locations—Nietzsche had earlier called for a similar effort—but provided psychology with a method to perform the task, one that recognized the displacements and distortions of such complexes within collective as well as psychic life. The development of a methodological as well as a theoretical framework gave psychoanalysis a continued and often expanding influence within a world that, especially after 1914, came to reject the universalist social and cultural models derived from the nineteenth century. For Freud himself, his methods, as much as and perhaps even more than his theories, possessed lasting and critical significance.
Zaretsky's answer to the question of why and how psychoanalysis remained relevant to the twentieth-century world strongly emphasizes Freud's conception of a personal unconscious. The train of thought that Zaretsky pursues from this starting point, and from his revival of the discussion of Freudianism's social relevance, is well worth following. While investigating the internal dynamic and expansion of Freud's thought and movement, the author also follows the ways in which psychoanalysis acted upon the world and was in turn influenced by it. In the course of his exploration, he impressively marshals the sources and vast literature on his subject in a way that offers a workable and illuminating framework to both the psychoanalyst and historian.
According to Zaretsky, Freud's conception of a personal unconscious clearly distinguished his theories of the mind from previous psychological and philosophic theories that also had recognized an unconscious. It brought about a revolution in psychology by identifying the unconscious within each human being as a highly individualized, experiential, and necessarily contingent product of personal history. In Zaretsky's words, "His core insight, which...