Freud. Mind doctor? Novelist? Historian?
Throughout the twentieth century, studies of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) have been adopted and appropriated by any number of disciplines. His examination of the unconcious self, the repressed instinctual desires that drive human action, can be found in the abstract symbolism of literature just as easily as in scientific psychology. Indeed, in retrospect, it is possible to locate Freudian theories in almost any field of academic and popular culture. However, in attempting to categorise Freud as a mind doctor, novelist or historian, it is important to distinguish between his subsequent interdisplinary influence and his actual aims, methods and organisation. In the strictest sense Freud was a trained scientist, a doctor who grauduated from the University of Vienna in 1881, dedicated to rational categorisation of the mind. However, in pioneering a method of pyschotherapy that priveleged dreams as the route to the human pysche, Freud moved into the writer's arena of signification, imaginative interpretation and narrative construction. Furthermore, in placing emphasis on the formative importance of childhood development, the hidden past of the self, Freud offered an organised theory of individual progress akin to historical models of causality. Any examination of Freud as a mind doctor, novelist or historian is not an excercise in definative categorisation. Instead, the question offers a recognition of the tension between Freud's training as a nineteenth century doctor, his unconventional methods of imaginative interpretation and the possibility of historical organisation therein.
Despite such multiplicity, Freud's work is ostensibly most applicable to the scientific role of mind doctor. As noted, Freud trained as a doctor at the University of Vienna and it is arguable that a nineteenth century drive towards positivism, the rational organisation of scientific facts and human characteristics, grounded even his most subversive theories. For Peter Gay, Freud's training as a doctor manifested itself most clearly in the influence of his mentor, the physiologist Brucke (1819-1892). Gay argues that Freud's central aim was to find, 'practical psychological causes for physiological effects' that, despite his move from a study of the body to examination of the mind, Freud's work maintained Brucke's scepticism towards supstitious notions of involuntary movement (1). It is notable that, even as Freud substantially complicated the human subject, his conception of the mind remained ruthlessly organised, split into clear preconscious (developmental), unconscious (repressed) and conscious (intentional) systems (2). Rather than surrendering man to the irrational desires he unearthed, Freudian theory can be understood as a drive towards knowledge, and possible control, of the pysche via scientific compartmentalisation. In this manner, it is possible to root Freud's aims in the prevelant empricism of the period.
Moreover, that Freud pursued and developed his studies whilst working as a psychotherapist transforms his scientific aims into the practical purposes of a doctor. In his overview of the etymology of the word, 'unconscious,' Bill Schwarz posits that, during the decade immediately preceding Freud's work, the term had become short hand for unexplainable mental illness, 'the site of unexplainable delusions, possession and hysteria' (3). Conversely, Freud's practice as a psychotherapist pioneered a conception of the unconscious, more specifically therapy of the unconscious, as a route to curing mental illness. In one of his most famous case studies, rather than labelling the hysteria of a teenage girl, 'Dora,' as mysterious feminine degeneration, Freud concisely stated, 'hysterical symptoms are the expression of (a patients) most secret and repressed wishes' (4). Such a rational explanation of supposedly irrational symptoms created a space where Freud could work towards categorising, 'repressed wishes,' in order to cure volatile actions. It is no coincidence that Dora's father famously delivered her to the doctor with the plea, 'please cure her and bring her to reason.' (5). At the very least, select Viennese society perceived Freud as a practicing doctor of the mind, a man dedicated to applying palative reason to the diseased pysche.
However, not withstanding such rational aims, Freud's excavation of a zone of repressed wishes involved inherently uncoventional investigations and inferments into how the fragmented mind may work. It is notable that in treating the supposedly unknowable unconcious, Freud pursued therapy, such as hypnotism, that veered distinctly from contemporary medical methods (6). Arguably, Freud's pursual of the, 'ghostly dimension,' of the human pysche revealed the constraints of a strictly rational nineteenth century doctor, forcing him to move into a new realm of imaginative signification and interpretation (7). With the publication of On Dreams, an explication of the way in which dream imagery can stand for and release the tension of unconscious urges, Freud produced a model almost completely analogous with literary metaphor. When he writes of translating, 'manifest,' dream content, that is the signification of imagery, into a, 'language of meaning,' Freud is defining a transference between latent intention and symbolic representation, that lies at the heart of both his own studies and the world of literature (8). As Gay notes, Freud himself recognised the parallels between the role of the dream interpreter and the role of the creative writer when he acknowleged nine novelists, rather than nine scientists, at the beginning of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (9). Whilst Freud may have initially proceded as a mind doctor, the nature of the mind itself precipitated unique forays into abstract translation.
From this position, attempts to categorise Freud as a novelist seem relatively plausible. Many scholars, particularly psychoanalytic literary critics, have claimed Freudian dream theory layers intention under imagery in a manner similar to the narrative construction of a novel. As Peter Brooks argues, the novelist utilises plot as, 'a psychic process in which (he) translates desire through a need for coherence and understanding' (10). Such a definition particularly suits Freud's work, emphasising the imaginative governance that underpins his synthesis of empirical aims with more abstract methods of interpretation. The extent to which Freud operated as a novelist can be observed in his Preface to Dora's Case Study, a passage littered with literary terms (ie roman a clef) and composed around a novelistic conception of narrative, 'I have restored what is missing,' from, 'piecemeal imagery, woven into various contexts,' seemingly more suited to artistic invention than any medical study (11).
Nevertheless, despite such authorial methods, to conclusively label Freud a novelist would be as reductive as relegating him to the constraints of pure science. Interestingly, Brooks delineates the novel as a consistant circling around neurosis, propelled by a need for resolution, or, 'death of the plot' (12). In this context, it is significant that, due to the Dora's refusal of treatment after three weeks, her case remained a, 'fragment,' rather than, 'killing,' of hysteria. As a doctor Freud was prevented from curing Dora. More interestingly, as a potential novelist, Freud was unable to resolve Dora's plot, bound ultimately by a loyalty to reality rather than fictional transcendence. Brooks reads such lack of narrative closure as a nod towards the fragmentation of identity, and multiplicty of truth (endings), found in the modernist novel (13). However, such an alignment between an embryonic literary genre and Freud's unique work seems decidely revisionist, aided by a retrospective organisation of turn of the century movements. Instead, Dora's Case can be read as an expression of the conflict that lay at the heart of Freud's work. An integral tension between imaginative construction and scientific categorisation .
For, arguably, Freud was a doctor looking for a form of writing that could adequetely organise both scientific studies and abstract ideas. Interestingly, Schwarz argues that the historical academy experienced similar flux in the nineteenth century, '(when) debate raged...between the poetic and scientific (ie political, economic) dimensions of history' (14). Such concurrence points to the possibility of Freud operating as a Historian; a scholar engaged in an imaginative excavation of unconscious past in order to rationally trace the chronology of self development. This conception of Freud's profession is probably best expressed by Italian historian Ginzburg who, in an extraordinarily perceptive essay, traces links between Morelli, an art historian who came to Freud's attention in 1910, and the process of psychoanalysis (15). According to Ginzburg, Morelli's ability to identify individual artists using hidden details in their paintings mirrored Freud's, 'diagnosis through (repressed) clues,' of the human psyche (16). Here, Freudian study aligned with the dialectical debate within history, producing a, 'conjectural paradigm,' that utilised creative interpretation of clues (brush strokes, dream signification, or historical events) in order to attribute rational meaning, or causation, to human development (17).
Such parallels certainly seem convincing. Some historians, such as Peter Gay, have gone so far as to propose psychoanalytic historiography based on the conjecture that, 'the professional historian has always been a psychologist' (18). Whilst Gay's words should be tempered with a cautious acknowledgement of his professional aim to overhaul 1980s historical theory, the fact that Freud described himself as an, 'archeologist,' of the mind underlines the applicability of historical practice to his work (19). Perhaps the greatest benefit of casting Freud in the role of historian comes when, 'history principally signifies a retelling of past events which is professedly true' (20). Within such a defintion of, 'retelling,' and, 'professed,' truth Freudian theory is granted a flexibility that neither rigid scientific structuralism, nor the novel's need for closure allow. It is of note that Freud often heavily footnoted and revised his work. For example, Dora's therapy took place in 1899, was published in 1905 and underwent further re-structuring in 1923. Such revision could be used to relegate Freud's work to a vague zone of flux and fiction. However, as with the historian's ability to offer protean paths through the complexities of past society, Freud was engaged in a re-telling and re-organisation of the vicissitudes of the human mind. Like the elastic rigour of history, Freudian theory, 'remained open. Yet not formless or chaotic' (21).
Freud could reasonably be categorised as a mind doctor, novelist or historian. In undergoing a medical education, and studying symptoms of the mind, Freud ostensibly held the scientific aims of a doctor. Yet, as he noted with marked self perception, 'I have never been a doctor in the proper sense...(I wanted to) understand something of the riddles of the world in which we live and perhaps contribute something to their solution' (22). Significantly, Freud chose to pursue such understanding via examination of the unconscious, a move that necessitated unconvential methods and a turn towards imaginative interpretation. However, to recognise an element of creative writing in Freud's work is not to definatively claim he was a novelist. In contrast, rather than following the prescriptive narrative construction of a novel, Freud's theories reveal a form of organisation akin to historical chronology. In his work Freud practiced a minute form a history, a construction of rational causation from the scattered clues of the unconscious. As with a historian, Freud attempted to solve riddles through a re-telling of human activity.
1. Peter Gay, 'Introduction', in Peter Gay(ed), The Freud Reader, (London, 1995), p. 20.
2. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Megan Morris (eds), New Keywords: a revised vocabulary of culture and society, (Oxford, 2005), p. 360.
4. Sigmund Freud, 'A Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,' in James Stratchey (ed), Case Histories One: "Dora" and "Little Hans", (Harmondsworth, 1977), p.8. - In the case of Dora (real name Ida Bauer) her hysteria allegedly operated as a manifestation of the sexual advances, both real and imagined, of her father's friend, 'Herr K'. Dora's father was himself engaged in an affair with Herr K's wife.
5. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane, In Dora's Case. Freud, Hysteria, Feminism, (London, 1985), p.20.
6. Bernheimer and Kahane, In Dora's Case, p.7. - The authors refer specifically to the influence of French neurologist Charcot on Freud's treatment of hysteria. Charcot was well known for his use of hypnotism to produce and remove hysterical symptoms in patients at his female only hospital in Paris, Freud was witness to many of the hypnotism sessions Charcot would publically stage.
7. Bennett, Grossberg and Morris, New Keywords, p. 360.
8. Sigmund Freud, On Dreams, (New York, 1952), p. 131.
9. Gay, 'Introduction', in Gay(ed), The Freud Reader, (London, 1995), p. 21.
10. Peter Brooks, Psycho-analysis and Storytelling, (Oxford, 1994), p. 3.
11. Freud, 'A Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,' in Stratchey (ed), Case Histories One: "Dora" and "Little Hans", pp. 9-12.
12. Brooks, Psycho-analysis and Storytelling, p. 5. - according to Brooks death of the plot is most commonly acheived by a wedding or character death at the end of a novel.
13. Brooks, Psycho-analysis and Storytelling, p.7.
14. Bennett, Grossberg and Morris, New Keywords, p. 158.
15. Carlo Ginzburg `Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes’ in Umberto Eco & Thomas A. Sebeok (eds), The Sign of Three, (1984), p.10.
16. Ginzburg `Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes’ in Eco & Sebeok (eds), The Sign of Three, p.11.
17. Ginzburg `Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes’ in Eco & Sebeok (eds), The Sign of Three, p.15.
18. Peter Gay, Freud for Historians, (Oxford, 1985), p. 6.
19. Freud, 'A Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,' in Stratchey (ed), Case Histories One: "Dora" and "Little Hans", p. 12.
20. Bennett, Grossberg and Morris, New Keywords, p. 156.
21. Gay, Freud for Historians, p. 28.
22. Sigmund Freud, 'The Question of Lay Analysis,' in Peter Gay (ed), The Freud Reader, (London, 1995), p. 679.
Bennett, Tony, Grossberg, Lawrence and Morris, Megan (eds), New Keywords: a revised vocabulary of culture and society, (Oxford, 2005).
Bernheimer, Charles and Kahane, Claire, In Dora's Case. Freud, Hysteria, Feminism, (London, 1985).
Brooks, Peter, Psycho-analysis and Storytelling, (Oxford, 1994).
Freud, Sigmund, 'A Fragment of Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,' in Stratchey, James (ed), Case Histories One: "Dora" and "Little Hans", (Harmondsworth, 1977).
Freud, Sigmund, On Dreams, (New York, 1952).
Freud, Sigmund, 'The Question of Lay Analysis,' in Gay, Peter (ed), The Freud Reader, (London, 1995).
Gay, Peter, Freud for Historians, (Oxford, 1985).
Gay, Peter, 'Introduction', Gay, Peter (ed), The Freud Reader, (London, 1995).
Ginzburg, Carlo `Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes’ in Eco, Umberto & Sebeok, Thomas A. (eds), The Sign of Three, (1984).