Reviewed: My Friend Freud: An Intimate Memoir? by Rayner Soothill (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1983), pp. 136.
Freud is an unusual subject for an Australian author to tackle, so a book called My Friend Freud: An Intimate Memoir? aroused my curiosity. What depth of understanding of Freud and psychoanalysis would the book embody? Its publication by an important publisher, Angus & Robertson, and its endorsement by assistance from the Literature Board of the Australia Council also suggested that perhaps the book could be seen as indicative of a more general depth of understanding of psychoanalysis in Australia. It had, after all, been through a selection process. In the introduction to the section on psychoanalysis in Australia in Meanjin last year (3/1982) I commented on the relatively slight impact psychoanalytic ideas have had on Australian culture. Sadly this book demonstrates that observation only too well.
The book is organised around an unlikely friendship between Freud and a British drug smuggler, with each chapter centring on some encounter or shared adventure. These get increasingly bizarre as the book progresses, and towards the end the narrative does manage to arouse some interest. However, this is scarcely enough to overcome the general irritation the book engenders, particularly when one reads on the dustjacket that the author intends the book, although written in fun, to be a serious comment on psychoanalytic objectivity.
The dustjacket also claims that when reading Freud’s letters, the author became ‘fascinated with the man as revealed in his personal letters, a man very different from and far more human than the captive genius of a “School of Thought”.’ This claim leads one to expect that the author has some insight into Freud, (even if not having a great technical grasp of psychoanalysis), some insight into the confusions and preoccupations of a Jewish intellectual living in Vienna in the second half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, some grasp of the complex cultural and political life of that city as the precariousness of received social values and the increasingly illiberal political climate forced many intellectuals into new and exciting paths of thought. And if not that, at least some insight into the tension in Freud between his faith in reason and his conviction of the power of the irrational, between his social and moral conservatism and his radical iconoclasm, and perhaps a glimpse of the personal courage of his self-analysis, or of his increasingly tragic vision of civilisation. But the only indications in the book of the social and cultural context of Freud’s life are that he travels by train and that there are maids.
The Freud presented is a caricature of a Californian with a few weekend encounter groups under his belt, who says things like,
‘The thing which has always meant such a great deal to me in our friendship, Robinson, is that you are a man who understands me.’
‘One day, Robinson, you must tell me about your mother. I think it would be very interesting.’ (This in the 1890s!)
‘There is something about me that disturbs you, is there not? Come now, don’t be afraid to admit it.’
‘That young lady, you know, was slicing a cucumber. Every time I asked her a question, she smiled in a most disturbing way and continued with her slicing. Time and again, you see, my theories find confirmation.’
This Freud goes around obsessively noting phallic symbols, testing his ‘hypotheses’ and indulging in mildly paranoid phantasies.
The picture of Freud and psychoanalysis is that of vulgar, simple-minded positivism which sees psychoanalysis as a non-empirically testable set of hypotheses with its own inbuilt verification criteria. When a psychoanalytic explanation is objected to by the subject of that explanation, the analyst has only to appeal to defence mechanisms or phantasy or unconscious motivation and the objector is silenced. Asked how a patient is progressing, Freud replies:
‘Not as well as I could hope. The usual thing. Resistance. Her problems are obvious. I saw it all after I had spoken to her for only ten minutes and not one word has she said in the last six months to alter my view. She is very stubborn. What is more, she has the unfortunate habit of appearing to think quite rationally and whenever I give an interpretation she dreams up a highly sophisticated reason to show it must be wrong.’
Most of the book’s jokes are just variations on this tired old view of the psychoanalyst as arrogantly impervious to any objections or to the facts. A Sicilian girl fleeing for her life from her stepfather because she has accidentally learned too much of his Mafia connections is treated by Freud as the victim of persecution phantasies. He is even unmoved by such hard evidence as bodily wounds, saying when the desperate girl shows him a knife wound in her leg,
‘Please cover your leg … You are more desperate than I had thought. This is going to be a long case. But I must make one thing clear. My method involves talk, nothing else is necessary. It would have been quite sufficient if you had told me that you had a desire to show me your leg.’
In another incident we have the all-too-predictable pitting of Freud against a detective — psychoanalytic interpretation against forensic — in which both are shown up as wanting by good old commonsense.
I could go on and on enumerating the incompetence of the book’s understanding of Freud and psychoanalysis (the total misunderstanding of the concept of transference, for example, or the lack of any grasp of the chronology of the development of Freud’s thought), but perhaps none of this would matter so much if the book were well written. After all, it is a work of fiction, not a biography. But the vulgarity of the understanding of Freud is matched by the pedestrian drabness of the writing. These flaws are not, however, unconnected. Psychoanalysis is not about the explanation of behaviour, as the positivists would have, but the interpretation of language, and its practitioners must be sensitive to its powers and limitations in the expression and repression of desire. It is no accident that Freud was a great master of German prose.