Post-modern biography

With apparently only a passing interest in the ‘facts’ of Freud’s life story, Adam Phillips focuses much more on what can be ascertained from the father of psychoanalysis’s own writing and interests.

International Psychoanalytic Congress, 1911, with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the center. (photo credit: US LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKIMEDIA)
International Psychoanalytic Congress, 1911, with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the center.
Central to Adam Phillips’s Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst is a supreme paradox: A psychoanalyst with a literary flair has undertaken a project he himself acknowledges is doomed from the outset. The very endeavor of biography and autobiography, Phillips tells us at the beginning of what is ostensibly a biography of Sigmund Freud, has more to do with “how ingenious we are at not knowing ourselves, and how knowing ourselves – or the ways in which we have been taught to know ourselves, not least through the conventions of biography and autobiography – has become the problem rather than the solution.”
Biography is problematic for a number of reasons, explains Phillips. Complexities are simplified for the sake of coherence and plot. Plausible life stories become a refuge. The most painful, and therefore most revealing, experiences of childhood are repressed and remain unknown even to the person who experienced them. Often the very nature of one’s experiences – whether they are positive or negative – depends on how these experiences are interpreted – either by the person doing the experiencing or by the biographer. Events might not have even happened as experienced in the first place. The biographical “fact” might not just be irrelevant, it might be downright misleading.
Yet, while he makes a case for the futility of biography, Phillips nonetheless proceeds to provide us with what can only be described as a post-modernist impression of Freud; an impression, that is, which is extremely conscious of its own limitations, imperfections and ultimate inability to attain truth. Aware of their dubious value, Phillips seems to have only a passing interest in the “facts” of Freud’s life story. Instead, he focuses much more on what can be ascertained from Freud’s own writing and interests. The book, then, is an experiment in a new form of biographical writing that attempts to avoid the pitfalls that have been brought to our attention by Freud.
An interesting fact – its irony hardly acknowledged by Phillips – is that Freud himself wrote several biographies – of Moses and of Leonardo da Vinci. But if, according to Freud as presented to us by Phillips, biography is futile (in a sense the entire book is an extended treatise on the impossibility of knowing anything about anyone) why did Freud engage in the endeavor? Did he make the same mistakes as any other biographer? Were his written “according to [and about] the desire of the biographer” and therefore “perniciously misleading?” Phillips never tells us.
What we do know is that Phillips’s biography of Freud teaches us quite a bit about Phillips. Indeed, we could even apply Freud’s psychoanalytic method to Phillips’s writing to discover a bit about the author’s inner world (though obviously writing, unlike free association or dreaming, is a very conscious act that allows for the deployment of self-defensive measures). If repetition tells us something about our subject, for instance, Phillips seems obsessed with Freud’s fertility. Freud’s wife, Martha, gave birth to six children in eight years. This biographical fact is repeated so many times that one begins to wonder not just what is fueling Phillips’s compulsion, but whether the editors at Yale Press have fallen asleep on the job. On page 104 alone the fact is repeated three times after having been mentioned at least three times before in the same chapter. And this is not by any means an exhaustive list of the times in the book that Phillips tells us Sigmund and Martha “have six children in quick succession.” If this is biography written as psychoanalysis and it is Phillips who is on the couch, we can hardly avoid wondering about Phillips’s preoccupation with the pace of Freud’s child rearing. But isn’t this supposed to be a biography about Freud?
OF THOSE childhood experiences that Freud himself recorded, Phillips focuses on three that he calls the “most significant.” The first concerns his devoutly Catholic nursemaid, who looked after him for the first two-anda- half years of his life. When his mother was about to give birth, Freud’s half-brother Philipp had the nursemaid arrested for theft.
During self-analysis in 1897 (Freud never allowed himself to be analyzed by someone else, a point that the author apparently does not think tells us anything about Freud, such as, for instance, his need for control), Freud realizes that he had repressed a mistaken belief that it was his mother who had been imprisoned.
He expresses his relief at resolving the perplexity.
The second memory was of Freud urinating in his parents’ bedroom at the age of seven and of his father responding by saying, “That boy will never amount to anything.” Freud relates how this memory figures prominently in his dreams and is always followed in the same dream with an enumeration of his many accomplishments as if to say, “You see, I have amounted to something.”
The third, and probably best-known memory, concerns a story that his father told him of being humiliated by “a Christian” who knocked his father’s new fur cap off his head and shouted, “Jew! Get off the pavement.”
“And what did you do?” asked the young Freud.
“I went into the roadway and picked up my cap.”
Freud then relates how this struck him as unheroic conduct.
“I contrasted this situation with another which fitted my feelings better: The scene in which Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, made his son swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had a place in my fantasies.”
From these childhood experiences – as related and interpreted by Freud himself – Phillips wants to learn something about Freud: In all the memories something or someone disappears and something appears in its place. The nursemaid is replaced with an insight about his mother; incontinence is replaced with the dream of Freud as a success; his weak father is replaced with Hannibal.
But Phillips seems to forget what he himself warned against. We are, after all, at our most defensive when we are at our most coherent. Freud is relating these memories not when he is under hypnosis or while engaging in free association, which would have allowed access to his subconscious. Rather these are experiences that Freud has chosen to write about.
The image that emerges is self-laudatory, presenting Freud as someone adroit enough to solve his own childhood trauma of loss; who confronts his father’s accusations in his dreams; who replaces his weak father with a braver substitute.
Like a faithful psychoanalyst, not a biographer, Phillips is consciously refraining from passing judgment on Freud. Indeed, in the entire book he hardly has a critical word to say about him. Clearly he reveres Freud. But criticism is an important tool for uncovering aspects of a person’s character, even if ultimately the verdict is positive.
W.H. Auden eulogized the creator of psychoanalysis in a poem titled “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” While Auden obviously respected him, he never glorified or idolized Freud. Instead, he provided us with Freud’s full legacy, in all its innovation and all its absurdity: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives: Like weather he can only hinder or help, the proud can still be proud but find it a little harder, the tyrant tries to make do with him but doesn’t care for him much: he quietly surrounds all our habits of growth...
While Auden, who was moved to eulogize Freud in what has become one of his best-known poems, could bring himself to say Freud was at times wrong, Phillips seems unable to. Both men seemed to see psychoanalysis as more of an art than a science.
Auden in a 1934 essay entitled “Psychology and Art Today” wrote the following: “The task of psychology, or art for that matter, is not to tell people how to behave, but by drawing their attention to what the impersonal unconscious is trying to tell them, and by increasing their knowledge of good and evil, to render them better able to choose, to become increasingly morally responsible for their destiny. For this reason psychology is opposed to all generalizations.
You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and particular needs may draw his own conclusions.”
Similarly, Phillips, who is more a man of letters than a scientist – and tends to see Freud in a similar light – would agree with Auden that psychoanalysis is an act of storytelling.
Will this process lead to the patient’s improvement? Can we even be sure that the patient has the free will to change her behavior after reaching a greater level of self-awareness through psychoanalysis? Freud was vague on these matters. So is Phillips. But while Auden is willing to admit that Freud was sometimes wrong and even absurd, Phillips seems unable to.
This inability to criticize Freud or to admit he was wrong cannot be divorced from Phillips’s notions about the ultimately futile act of writing biography. If we cannot know anything about anyone from the “facts” of their life, how can we criticize them? But if we relinquish our critical faculties, our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, what are we left with?