What does one make of Freud? Enormous impact, voluminous writing, some penetrating observations mixed up with much nonsense. Compare him with Nietzsche and Marx he now appears a minor figure, more important for his influence on the culture, that the quality of his thought.
In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud quotes Friedrich Schiller:
The ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason upon your imagination. I will make my idea more concrete by a simile. It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason makes too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in – at the very gateway, as it were. Looked at in isolation, a thought may seem very trivial or very fantastic; but it may be made important by another thought that comes after it, and, in conjunction with other thoughts that may seem equally absurd, it may turn out to form a most effective link. Reason cannot form any opinion upon all this unless it retains the thought long enough to look at it in connection with the others. On the other hand, where there is a creative mind, Reason – so it seems to me – relaxes its watch upon the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it look them through and examine them in a mass. – You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves, are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.
He analyses this insightful passage thus.
Nevertheless, what Schiller describes as a relaxation of the watch upon the gates of Reason, the adoption of an attitude of uncritical self-observation, is by no means difficult. Most of my patients achieve it after their first instructions. I myself can do so very completely, by the help of writing down my ideas as they occur to me. The amount of psychical energy by which it is possible to reduce critical activity and increase the intensity of self-observation varies considerably according to the subject on which one is trying to fix one’s attention.
Previously, leading up to the comparison with Schiller’s account, he had written:
The self-observer… need only take the trouble to suppress his critical faculty. If he succeeds in doing that, innumerable ideas come into his consciousness of which he could otherwise never have got hold. The material which is in this way freshly obtained for his self-perception makes it possible to interpret both his pathological ideas and his dream-structures.
Isn’t there a problem here? For Freud this procedure allows for the unearthing of all the material necessary to ‘decode’ a person’s mental state; and the origin of his illness. It suggests that these ideas are inside us always, but suppressed by our Reason – for if this ‘psychical’ material was not always present, it would not cause us harm. Once out, of course, it can be interpreted by the therapist.
Yet what Schiller describes is the creation of some new thing; the outpouring of ideas to be later shaped by the controlling mind. He calls them these ‘momentary and transient extravagances’, suggesting the exuberance of the creative act (like water flowing over a weir). They are fancies, not hard fact, fancies that will be helped into art by the conscious mind; and in the totality of the work they may well lose their eccentricity – ‘it may be the most effective link’.
If we apply Schiller correctly: in each psychoanalytic session his clients let out their ideas, and Freud crafts them, giving them meaning and form. He is the artist, and they the material. Of course, his ideas can sometimes correspond to the reality, or at least the views, of his clients – we all have our favourite books that seem to speak to us directly. But few would believe that the words of Flaubert or Conrad originate from their own unconscious.
A corollary of Schiller’s comment on our ‘momentary and transient extravagances’, suggests that what Freud considers the patient’s unconscious ideas may in fact be created in the psychoanalytic session itself. Not only is Freud forming the pattern, he’s creating the material.
Freud says this is all very easy; but Schiller makes a distinction between the creative mind and the dreamer, depending on the length of the process. Implicit is the idea that the creative mind will use this material to shape their own art. But here is Freud:
If I say to a patient who is still a novice: ‘What occurs to you in connection with this dream?’, as a rule his mental horizon becomes a blank.
The use of the word novice is important because the mature patient would have absorbed the patterns suggested by Freud, reducing their experiences to highly schematised formulas. Here the experience is fresh, and….nothing. Again, by suggesting the similarities, or perhaps indicating free association is the same as creation, he misses the most obvious, but important, differences (one can see the influence on Breton, in these passages alone, who reduced creativity to automatic writing, to the unconscious with the mind turned off). This leads him to misinterpret the material, and thus mislead his patients. And what is marked is just how authoritarian he could be in this regard:
…here is a great deal of evidence, most of it in Freud’s own frank and astonishing words, that he went out of his way to persuade, encourage, cajole and sometimes bully his female patients to reproduce scenes of child sexual abuse which he himself had reconstructed from their symptoms or their associations… For in both cases his theories denied women autonomy and declined to validate their own experiences and their own memories. (Richard Webster)
Like an artist his material had to fit his pattern; and his alone.
However, if it wasn’t for this mistake it is unlikely that Freud would have been so influential. For by creating a series of universal psychological laws he appeared to give scientific status to Psychoanalysis, which then gave it authority in the general culture.