Skip to main content

Freud’s New York

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982
Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession. By Janet Malcolm. Knopf. $9.95

When Sigmund Freud paid his memorable trip to the United States in 1909, he spent a few days in New York City before going to Clark University for an honorary degree. A. A. Brill, then Freud’s leading disciple in America, was living on Central Park West; Freud expressed his approval of the spot, strongly encouraged Brill to remain there, and from that beginning arose one of the main geographic clusters of the New York analytic community. Even in those pre-World War I days, psychoanalysis was attracting the interest of Greenwich Village intellectuals; Walter Lippmann, for example, brought Brill for an evening at one of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s salons to explain the import of these new ideas. However welcome Freud’s system might have been in America, he himself remained resolutely convinced that his work was in danger of being corrupted here. Freud was not content that psychoanalysis become a mere medical specialty; since he sought a triumph in the life of the mind, this continent was to him not cultured enough to be as worthy a battlefield as the Old World.

Janet Malcolm’s book is a slightly expanded version of articles that originally came out in The New Yorker. It is odd how different one’s reaction can be to pieces which seem to be journalistic, as opposed to the consideration due a book recently nominated for a national award in nonfiction. At the time these articles first appeared, I read them dutifully, wondering whether the author’s purposes were clear to herself. For she began one of her pieces with such a banal quotation (“If two people are repeatedly alone together, some sort of emotional bond will develop between them”), reiterated here, that I questioned whether she did not harbor some unconscious savage intent.

The idea of interviewing in depth one anonymous psychoanalyst, whom she called “Aaron Green,” was an imaginative one. It sometimes appears as if she has adopted the device of creating a fictionalized alter ego to represent the thinking of a contemporary New York Freudian purist. To the extent that there are so many of America’s analysts now in New York, and more analysts in the United States than in any country in the world, it was daring to try to enter the inner sanctum of the establishment of Freud’s heirs. Yet The New Yorker articles made hard reading, as one had to slog through some elementary expositions of analytic concepts to glean bits and pieces of inside dope.

As a book, it is possible to assess the author’s work in a different light. On the second time around it makes a lively, quick read. Yet carefully considering the import of her approach, one can only conclude that she has succeeded in constructing a myopic view of the current state of psychoanalysis. Her narrow focus stems from her having accepted a series of questionable premises: that the New York Psychoanalytic Society and its doings are of weighty import; that other training centers in New York, not to mention elsewhere on the continent, are beneath consideration; and that American psychoanalysis is “a great cut above psychoanalysis elsewhere in the world.” Lillian Ross’s own New Yorker pieces some years back on New York’s analysts, collected in her Horizontal and Vertical, were implicitly far more sophisticated.

The results of Janet Malcolm’s efforts become a species of propaganda in behalf of a therapeutic approach which by now is justifiably widely suspect. One would like to believe that analysts like Aaron Green, since they still seem to exist, are not doing too much harm. He thinks of himself as a surgeon, impersonally working in a laboratory; after 15 years of analysis himself, he does not consider it out of the ordinary to see patients for eight or ten years, five times a week on a couch. The existence of such a fossil is a tribute to the persistence of human credulity, the fears of human contact that link both therapists and patients, and the quest for solutions to human dilemmas in the realm of secular religions.

We are given a narration about the creation of a “transference neurosis,” how a patient’s emotional life can come to revolve around the person of the analyst, without any questioning of the advisability of mobilizing such human feelings. Abundant evidence exists to lead to doubts about the traditional analyst’s capacity to meet the kind of regression evoked by the only apparently neutral setting of the analytic situation. Yet Janet Malcolm steadfastly presents things from Aaron Green’s point of view, tracing any alternative therapeutic procedures back to Sandor Ferenczi, Freud’s talented Hungarian follower.

The truth of the matter is that few of the early analysts, including Freud himself, would have behaved with such literal-minded coldness toward neurotic suffering. Freud, at his best, treated every patient as an exception, and the therapeutic rules or recommendations he laid down for others were intended as provisional guidelines, places where a beginner might go wrong. The author, however, treats Aaron Green’s musings on the magic of so-called scientific technique as the reasoning of some kind of soul expert. She quotes the head of the New York Psychoanalytic Society’s Treatment Center as saying of his cases: “There are no surprises, we haven’t had a surprise since 1974.” Anybody with horse sense should scoff at the mumbo jumbo underlying such pretentious arrogance. Even worse than the assumption that the likes of Aaron Green are privy to secrets of the human psyche unknown to other practitioners, she treats him as a kind of modern grand inquisitor, sorrowfully bearing the hardship of the burdens which others are too weak to undertake.

Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession fits into a line of apologetics for fundamentalist psychoanalysis which too many intellectuals have unashamedly undertaken. Even someone of Lionel Trilling’s stature could edit into a single book the three-volume authorized biography of Freud by Ernest Jones without seeming to be aware of what a biased act of clever statecraft Jones had undertaken. (At least Janet Malcolm does not repeat Jones” insinuation that Ferenczi was psychotic.)

Well-meaning people might be seriously misled by this book. If Aaron Green had an “unsmiling face” for Janet Malcolm, what are the clinical implications of humorlessness (or smugness)? Jokes are not just defensive maneuvers, as Green seems to think; Freud’s own analyses were rarely the “ordeals” that Green proposes his patients undergo. Although the founder of psychoanalysis had a more tolerant outlook on human diversity than some of his loyalist epigones, he might be amused by this fully analyzed analyst’s admission of his desire to be a beautiful woman.

What is really askew about this book is the misjudgments about the relative standing of the writers she has undertaken to talk about. It is as if she believes that the leaders of the New York Psychoanalytic Society are some sort of giants. Does she not learn anything from Aaron Green’s admission that his classes during his training were disappointments? At least some courses in old Vienna or Berlin were spectacles of intellectuality. Being infantilized toward a genius like Freud is different from being childish in a contemporary parochial bureaucracy. (In discussing Victor Rosen’s fall from grace with the powers-that-be in New York, for some reason she does not mention his name nor his subsequent suicide.) She cites some of the most creative figures in recent psychoanalysis, such as D. W. Winnicott in England, as if they were just the equal of some local logic-chopper. The late Heinz Kohut of Chicago does get a good deal of attention, altogether too much in terms of the history of the development of technical innovations; but then he is treated as a sinner against the alleged primacy of the Oedipus complex. Nowhere does she critically examine what there could be about unswervingly “classical” Freudianism that might have struck so many as appallingly destructive if not sadistic.

It has long been established that to sell books in America, one need only successfully appeal to the New York City market. It is unfortunately true that elsewhere in North America decent bookstores scarcely exist. New York’s cultural life is a high attainment; and if Janet Malcolm had given any account for the bases of the psychoanalytic schisms or revisionism over the years, she would at least have served the history of ideas. As it is, this apparent expose” may help reinforce authoritarianism and cultism in conservative training centers. The book reflects too much a mood of cultural self-congratulation. Given the objective problems of contemporary analysis, it would be a mistake to accept this version of orthodoxy as any less dubious than many of the other existing approaches for people in trouble.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Rabe's picture
Rabe · 5 years ago

One can pay a visit." But to "pay a trip" is gibberish. I don't imagine Malcolm was very troubled by this review.


Recommended Reading