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by Peter D. Kramer, M.D.
March 1996

Complex Gifts

Modern biography still features him as genius, hero, scientist, liberator of the mind. But revisionists deem Freud a hypocrite and charlatan, responsible for the suffering of women and children. At the end of last year, the Library of Congress postponed an exhibition called "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture," because of this controversy. For a century he represented moral courage, as the doctor who could stand up to the burghers of Vienna, speaking the truth about childhood sexuality and the dark forces active in the adult mind. Now critics say that he betrayed his patients, denying what he must have known, that they were molested in early life. His clinical work has come under fire--he espoused crackpot theories, gave bad advice that served his financial interest, misreported outcomes. His understanding of women faces attack from two directions--he underestimated them and idealized them-with agreement only that Freud's conclusions have served the forces of reaction. The perspectives will not merge. We can no longer find Freud.

This stalemate will continue for some time. We will not have Freud as a person, because the emotions he elicits are too strong and too diverse. But it is still possible to say something about why Freud stands in the Pantheon of influential thinkers in the last century and a half, along with Einstein, Marx, Darwin, and very few others--why he is a proper subject for a major retrospective.

Freud gave humankind an extra dimension. Yes, there was an "unconscious before Freud." Other thinkers had imagined dark recesses of mind. But is it Freud who gave form to the unconscious and made assumption of its constant presence part of our daily lives. Freud said that the unconscious was active, a locus of conflict, a place where creative compromise is made among (consciously) unthinkable urges. Lionel Trilling crystallized the importance of this contribution when he titled a series of lectures "Sincerity and Authenticity." Once, we demanded only surface integrity of people. That standard no longer suffices. Today, if you are technically supportive but emotionally undermining ("passive aggressive"), you will--and you should--be held to account for a destructive part of yourself of which you remain only partly aware. The post-Freudian demand is that you come to know yourself in more complete fashion, that you understand drives that are apparent in your characteristic behavior.

The list of what Freud gave to contemporary culture is extensive. The idea of stages in childhood development enters modern thought through Freud. So does our focus on defenses--characteristic responses to challenge that reflect our limited tolerance for self-honesty--and the notion that personality can be understood in terms of defenses and maturity gauged through them. Questions of reality versus fantasy aside, our practical sense of just how the child is father to the man, of how psychic trauma leads to symptoms, is Freudian. The role of sexuality, and sexual repression, may have been overstated and distorted by Freud, but it was Freud who made mentionable sexuality's contribution ordinary experiences of guilt, shame, and inhibition. And he is the modern exemplar of a long movement aimed at approaching mental illness from a humane perspective. Whatever the fate of classical psychoanalysis, all the modern talking cures that ameliorate suffering owe their legitimacy to Freud.

One of Freud's less thoughtful critics has said that to praise Freud for contributions of this sort is like praising him for "discovering breathing." It is true that precursors can be found for any particular idea we might trace to Freud. But to name breathing in a culture where that naming was taboo, or in which the presence of air had never been made explicit--that would be a grand gift. Besides, what Freud added was not obvious: the layering of consciousness, the stages of psychic development, the crucial role of the unspeakable. Important details of Freud's opinion have already proved wrong, and more will in time, but the structure of his thought will have lasting influence. It gives members of the post-Freudian world their identity. Freud changed forever our relation to our selves.

As to who he was, I suspect that once Freud's shortcomings have been digested, history will view him more as his contemporaries did than as we view him now. Yes, Freud was overbearing, arbitrary, and, capable of blindness toward self and others. He was often just wrong. But the Freud biography I trust most is W. H. Auden's elegy: "If some traces of the autocratic pose,/ the paternal strictness he distrusted, still/ clung to his utterance and features,/ it was a protective coloration." To Auden, Freud is the tyrant's enemy, the champion of unlucky children against their fate, the lover of night, a unifier of the warring elements within us, a man bound as all who serve enlightenment are bound to bear the cry of "Judas."

Copyright 1995 by Peter D. Kramer, M. D. Dr. Kramer practices psychiatry in Providence, R. I, where he is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University. He is the author of  Listening to Prozac and  Moments of Engagement.