(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Few thinkers have influenced the popular mentality of an age to the extent that Sigmund Freud has. In laying the groundwork for classical psychoanalytic theory, and by promoting that theory through a movement, Freud gained extraordinary personal renown. He also popularized a variety of ideas about human thought, behavior, and motivation, of which many of the implications are still umplumbed. Because of the nature of his ideas, and because of the personal domination he exerted in the movement, both Freud and psychoanalysis have tended to be treated either glowingly or with condemnation—leaving little room for middle ground. Ronald W. Clark, the biographer whose books on Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and the Huxleys have been widely acclaimed, attempts here to explore that terrain in the middle in assessing Freud and the psychoanalytic cause. This striking for balance is imminently praiseworthy, although it is also a project that is not without problems.

Clark proceeds in this effort chronologically, attempting to interweave the complexities of a mind at work into a cohesive whole. In reconstructing Freud’s “Jewish boyhood” and his adolescence, Clark focuses on Sigmund’s infatuation, at age 16, with a girl named Gisla Fluess. Most interestingly Clark has unearthed evidence that points to young Sigmund’s even stronger and more complex attraction to the girl’s mother. On this issue, Clark discovers in the sources themselves reflections of Freud’s attempt, continuing well into adulthood, to repress the recollection of his emotional yearnings for mother Fluess. Clark concludes that this snipet of “demi-memoire” was integrated into Freud’s “scientific” view, yielding the notion that repression is the cornerstone of psychoanalysis.

Clark sees the turning point in Freud’s early career as having come with his decision to go to Paris late in 1885. There he observed and worked under the direction of Jean-Martin Charcot, the head of one of Europe’s most progressive mental hospitals. This experience transformed the young and traditionally trained neurologist from Vienna into an eager explorer into the study of the mind in general and the problem of neurosis in particular.

Back in Vienna, Freud worked for a time in close association with Josef Breuer, but soon they parted. Clark richly details their relationship, although to this particular issue the biographer brings little that is new by way of either evidence or insights. The only quibble with Clark here might be that he tends to overemphasize the particular—the personal dynamics of Freud’s relations with Charcot and Breuer—at the cost of glossing over just where Freud’s specific directions fitted into the intellectual climate of increasing interest in the unconscious in the 1870’s and 1880’s. On this point, at least, the compelling work of intellectual history by Lancelot Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud, remains critical to understanding Freud’s contribution in its broadest context.

Clark’s tendency to emphasize the particular is not always off target. Chapter Six, on the unconscious, is launched with a discussion of the now famous case of “Anna O.” (the clinical alias for the well-to-do young Jewess named Bertha Pappenheim), Clark waffles on whether the Anna O. case reflected the validity of the psychoanalytic approach and its curative efficacy. Historically, however, it served to convince Freud on these points, and he used it as a point of departure for his elaborating upon the hypnotic methods he had learned from Breuer.

Freud’s renowned use of the sofa for his patients does not elude Clark’s lengthy discussion of it, nor does the important issue of “free association” as the linchpin in Freud’s analytical technique. With regard to “free association” and its origins, Clark takes the reader on a somewhat rambling account that leads back as far as the German writer Ludwig Boerne in the 1820’s and then on up to Francis Galton, the British anthropologist in the 1870’s. Freud’s own adherence to a brand of philosophical determinism clearly reinforced for him the appeal of “free association” and provided to the method a framework in which to exploit its possibilities for getting at traces of the origins of neurosis deeply rooted in the unconscious mind. Clark, however, lightly passes over the suggestion that Ernest Simon has made in his essay “Sigmund Freud, the Jew” that Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques bear strong correspondences to the Talmudic way of thought.

Freud’s split with Josef Breuer led to a period that Clark refers to as “splendid isolation,” quoting from Freud’s own description of it in On the History of the Psycho-analytic Movement. It was at this time that Freud began developing in earnest the view, so widely popularized since his day, that neurosis essentially stems from sexual...

(The entire section is 2009 words.)