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  • Freud’s Hatchet Man in an Age of Deidealization
  • Eli Zaretsky

When Freud died in exile in 1939, he was already a legend. By the 1950s, he exerted a grip on many imaginations comparable to that of the great figures—Dostoyevsky, Moses, Leonardo—about whom he wrote. There had always been critics and dissenters, of course, but they remained in the minority. In the 1970s and 80s, however, several substantial works called for a downward revision in his standing. Henri Ellenberger’s The Discovery of the Unconscious (1971) challenged Freud’s originality by situating his discoveries in the context of nineteenth century dynamic psychiatry. Frank Sulloway’s Freud, Biologist of the Mind (1979) did the same with nineteenth century biology. Adolf Grünbaum’s The Foundations of Psychoanalysis (1986) rejected Freud’s claims to scientific standing on philosophical grounds. Despite their criticism, these books were all respectful and complex engagements with Freud’s thought. In this respect, they are unlike the later spate of anti-Freud writings, especially Frederick Crews’s articles in The New York Review of Books (1994 and 1993).

No earlier critique had the immediate and dramatic impact of Crews’s. In part, this was the result of Crews’s unprecedented tone of disdain and contempt. One commentator called them “iconoclastic reaction[s] against [Freud’s] iconic status” (Goodheart 1995). It is perhaps not widely realized how effective these articles have been in at least temporarily vitiating Freud’s reputation, and how many people, perhaps especially among the young, now regard Freud as disproved, old hat, sexist, conservative, replaced by Foucault and the like. Crews performed his function—that of hatchet man—very effectively, but hatchets do not fell great trees unless many axe blows have first prepared the way. These axe blows did not primarily come from the scholars, such as Ellenberger, Sulloway, or Grünbaum, whom Crews cited, but [End Page 385] more importantly from social movements and cultural revaluations whose passions Crews effectively and disingenuously manipulated.

The purpose of this article is to situate Crews’s attack in the context of those movements and changes. The attack on Freud is about much more than Freud. At stake is a whole set of hopes and possibilities to which Freud, and psychoanalysis, are historically linked, sometimes reluctantly. Crews’s attack on Freud’s person is, in fact, an attack on Freud’s imago; as such it was an attempt to reconfigure the multitudinous lines of thought and emotion that imago condenses. By defying Freud’s authority, especially contemptuously, Crews seeks to claim that authority for himself. On its basis he advances a series of assumptions concerning the nature of morality and personal integrity, the character and value of modern knowledge (i.e., science) and the relevance of the welfare state to modern “technologies of the self” or “therapy.” I will show that his narrow and ungenerous views on all of these matters reflect a time of diminished possibilities in which optimism and the belief in progress are at a low point. Above all, the Crews episode reflects the significance of “post-feminism”: confusion over the meaning and future place of the feminist and gay movements. To argue these points, I will first supply the historical context so strikingly absent from Crews’s account. Next, I need to discuss the specifics of Crews’s criticisms, and I need to refute them. Situating Crews’s attack in its historical context raises the question of whether our culture at this time can actually tolerate the analytic enterprise when the fullness of its vision is noted. But it also opens the way, finally, for a positive discussion concerning the role that psychoanalysis might play in the culture now emerging.

How did Freud become such a commanding figure in modern Western culture? In part, I believe it was because of the subject matter Freud addressed. Freud mapped out and for a while presided over an historically new realm that emerged in the West during his lifetime—that of personal life. Earlier, the family was the basic economic unit in society. This meant that personal identity was rooted in one’s place in the system of production. The advance of industry separated...

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