- Freud and His Aphasia Book: Language and the Sources of Psychoanalysis
Scholars have traditionally tended to dismiss Sigmund Freud’s early texts as “preanalytic,” a characterization designed to dramatize the revolutionary nature of his later work. In Freud: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend (1979), Frank Sulloway challenged this emphasis on discontinuity by arguing that Freud never abandoned the late-nineteenth-century biological views that he imbibed during his formative years. Valerie Greenberg’s new book—the first major study of Freud’s 1891 On the Interpretation of the Aphasias: A Critical Study—also opposes the preanalytic/analytic classificatory schema, but to quite different ends. Greenberg presents the aphasia monograph as not only an important precursor to psychoanalysis, but a “prescient neurological narrative” that anticipated contemporary theorizing about the brain (p. 13).
When Freud entered the field of aphasia studies, localization theory reigned [End Page 523] as the predominant conceptual paradigm. Building on the works of Paul Broca and Carl Wernicke, late-nineteenth-century scientists developed convoluted models that attributed specific types of language loss to specifically situated lesions. In his slim yet ambitious study, Freud interrogated this literature and exposed its limitations. He then proposed an alternative theory for making sense of the vast array of aphasic disorders. Though his approach did not entirely repudiate the concept of localization, it evinced a more complex understanding of the relationship between brain anatomy and language, allowing for what Greenberg aptly calls a “quality of indeterminacy” (p. 3). According to Freud, the brain’s functional unity and the diffuse nature of its “language apparatus” were such that, even when the site of a lesion was known, its effects would remain unpredictable.
Greenberg provides a nuanced close reading of the aphasia book and an extensive analysis of the intellectual context from which it emerged. Because her central four chapters follow Freud’s narrative in a basically linear fashion, it is best to read the two works in tandem. (For English readers, this unfortunately entails relying on Erwin Stengel’s 1953 translation, which Greenberg strongly criticizes.) By scrutinizing every reference cited in the aphasia book, as well as many other relevant sources, Greenberg successfully reconstructs much of the “intellectual network” in which Freud operated. Her meticulous, painstaking method also yields novel insights regarding Freud’s compositional strategies, intellectual debts, and personal allegiances and rivalries.
Ultimately, Greenberg hopes to demonstrate that the sources employed in the aphasia book became “sources of psychoanalysis,” though in ways not always readily discernible. For instance, she reveals how Freud, in referring to the work of linguist Berthold Delbrück, actually avoided appropriating specific examples that seem to anticipate psychoanalysis, as if he intuited enough of his future trajectory to experience the anxiety of influence. In other words, Delbrück may well have influenced Freud’s later thought, but in a concealed or unacknowledged manner. Through such attentive readings, Greenberg demonstrates the value of her hermeneutic approach.
Yet elsewhere, this interpretative zeal proves problematic. The desire to wrest significance from every passage distorts Greenberg’s sense of proportion; thus, an uneventful mistake in one of Freud’s footnotes becomes a “noteworthy error” requiring a page-long discussion (pp. 75-76). The same impulse also results in some farfetched speculation, as when Freud’s criticism of certain research is interpreted, quite groundlessly, as an implicit attack on cruel animal experimentation (pp. 123–24, 186–87).
On a more substantive level, Greenberg overstates her case in depicting Freud as a forgotten forefather of contemporary aphasia research. His study has not been as neglected as she suggests; excerpts from it are included in the Reader in the History of Aphasia: From Franz Gall to Norman Geschwind, to cite a recent example.1 Moreover, it is not clear that Freud’s constructive contributions to [End Page 524] aphasia theory are sufficiently elaborated to justify the assessment that Greenberg seeks. His single brief reference to Delbrück, for instance, does not really make the book a “forerunner of an integrative...