“Others abide our question,” the poet Matthew Arnold wrote of William Shakespeare, “Thou art free.” Indeed, Shakespeare may be one of the few giants in any field to have escaped the vicissitudes of public opinion—and even he has come under fire in the twentieth century. Therefore, it should be no surprise to see that Sigmund Freud, the man whose discoveries about the human psyche had made him a household name even before his death, is now as often vilified as vindicated by scholars. What may be surprising, however, is the rapidity with which Freud’s star has fallen after its meteoric rise. Less than a century has passed since he published The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), his seminal work on the way the mind functions. Once the most revered practitioner of the art of psychology, Freud is now viewed with skepticism and even disdain by many who consider him not only misguided in his scientific method but also misogynous and myopic in his assessment of the human condition.
Of course, there are still some in the scholarly community who hold Freud in high esteem, and many in the general public who still assume he is responsible for much of the good that has come from the practice of psychology. For anyone who has spent time on an analyst’s couch, the debt to Freud and his methods is felt most keenly. The assumption among those not practicing in the field is that Freud is truly the father of modern analysis. Moreover, students of literature trained between 1930 and 1970 would probably claim to be as familiar with Freud as they are with the tenets of the New Critics. Psychological critiques of the writings of figures as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare were commonplace among the works of scholars in Europe and especially in America during those decades.
The tide has certainly ebbed, however, since the zenith of Freud’s influence was reached in the years immediately following World War II. Psychological research during the latter half of the century, coupled with the criticisms of feminist scholars who take strong exception to Freud’s dismissive portrait of women, has done much to discredit the value of his work. In academic circles, he has suffered the fate of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and others; his faults seem to outweigh any contribution he may have made to the advancement of knowledge. Nevertheless, even feminist critic E. Ann Kaplan is forced to conclude that “Freud’s long shadow still lingers over the twentieth century as it nears its end,” and despite feminism and post-modernism, his “powerful influence” will undoubtedly extend into the twenty-first.
For that reason, and because the Library of Congress has for many years held a large collection of Freud’s papers, curators there decided in 1996 to mount an exhibit honoring him. That, too, met with controversy, and the opening was delayed two years. Plans to provide as a part of this exhibit a catalog which would also serve as a retrospective examination of Freud’s work went forward, though, and the result isFreud: Culture and Conflict.
Edited by Michael S. Roth, the book collects eighteen essays by Freudians and anti-Freudians whose professional disciplines range from psychology and psychiatry to literature and history. Freud: Culture and Conflict is an anthology about Freud and his impact on modern society. Medical doctors and museum directors offer their opinions side by side with editors and journalists. Roth, who also curated the Library of Congress exhibit, has divided the volume into major sections that focus attention on Freud’s methods and talents as a writer; his work as a practicing psychoanalyst; his influence on disciplines such as history, literature, and popular culture; and his checkered reputation. Roth’s introduction summarizes these themes and offers a brief biographical sketch focusing on Freud’s career. James Billington, the Librarian of Congress, provides a brief foreword outlining the history of the library’s acquisition of its collection of Freud’s papers. The intent of this collective effort is, in Billington’s words, “to motivate a new generation of researchers to mine the Library’s Freud Collection for the continuing study of the impact psychoanalysis and Freud’s thinking more generally have had on our society.”
Though both acknowledge that there is no consensus about the value of...
(The entire section is 1805 words.)