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  • Freud's "Megalomania."
  • Louis Breger
Israel Rosenfield , Freud's "Megalomania."New York: Norton, 2000. 173 pp. $21.95.

Was Freud a genius, a scientist whose ideas advanced our understanding of human psychology, a thinker who powerfully shaped our conception of ourselves? Or was he a charlatan, a man who constructed theories from his own fantasies, distorted observations of patients to fit his preconceived notions, and founded a closed and authoritarian movement that has more in common with religious and political ideologies than with science? As the "Freud wars" swirl around us, with the all-out attacks of Frederick Crews and his cohorts on one side, and the ever-faithful orthodox, such as Peter Gay, on the other, it is difficult to define a middle ground that captures what is valuable in Freud--and there is a great deal of value--while also illuminating the blind spots and wrong turns.

One way to approach this dilemma is by way of fiction, where an author has much more freedom and scope in exploring the byways of Freud's contributions. Israel Rosenfield, a professor of intellectual history at the City University of New York and author of several books and essays on the brain, turns his hand, in Freud's "Megalomania," to a work of the imagination: not quite a novel, in part a satire, a serious exploration of cognitive science and psychoanalysis, as well as a pseudohistory where imagined characters mix with real people and events: Anna Freud and John von Neumann, the mathematician whose work paved the way for the computer, engage in a fictitious conversation; a colleague of Gustave Eiffel's appears to tell Freud how Eiffel stole the invention of the famous tower from him. And all of this is carried off with intelligence and wry humor.

The book begins with an "Introduction" by one Albert J. Stewart, a fictional cognitive scientist, who has been given a manuscript--Freud's "Megalomania"--by a woman who identifies herself as Freud's granddaughter: the daughter of a woman who was the illegitimate child of Freud's Parisian [End Page 847] mistress. Like the manuscript, this mistress and her granddaughter are imaginary; for, if the emotionally constricted Freud were to have had an affair with anyone, it would have been--and, in fact, in some ways was--with the megalomaniacal Wilhelm Fliess. The title of Rosenfield's book suggests that Freud was himself a megalomanic, although the "manuscript" reveals the imagined Freud revising long-held theories and renouncing crucial early ideas. This fictional gambit allows trenchant criticisms of psychoanalysis to appear, as if from Freud's own pen.

Stewart's "Introduction" contains the most biting and humorous satire in the book as we are introduced to his colleague Norman Dicke, the self-proclaimed genius-discoverer of "loop theory," the newest thing in cognitive science: a grand system that--like some of Freud's metapsychological speculations--purportedly explains everything about the brain/mind. Dicke's theory can be expressed only mathematically though it is so abstruse that no mathematics exists to describe it. The closest we get are aphorisms--"we are loops and we loop" (24), "you get it and it disappears" (25)--which can seem either profound or meaningless, like the arcane jargon employed in many fields (psychoanalysis among them) to create an aura of pseudoprofundity. Dicke has built a computer, the "Marilyn Machine," programmed with loop theory to think and talk like Marilyn Monroe, though all it does is let out occasional squeaks and sighs.

In Norman Dicke and loop theory, Rosenfield satirizes the pretensions of cognitive science, artificial intelligence, computer models of the mind, game theory, and related areas he knows first-hand. But Dicke can also be taken as an exaggerated version of what is grandiose in Freud, many of whose psychoanalytic theories were meant to have a similar wide scope. Freud's "mistress," for example, knows him as "an extremely jealous, dictatorial man who had been so spoiled by his parents, his wife, his children and those 'worthless' students that he had taken it for granted that what he wished for would be" (42).

Following this introductory material, we come to the "Megalomania" essay itself, the...


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