What Colour Are Your Specs?

At some point in the past day or two, while pondering the latest upsurge in the Freud debate, I was inspired to look up ‘hysteria’ in The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. I was a little surprised at what I found.

A form of neurosis for which no physical diagnosis can be found and in which the symptoms presented are expressive of an unconscious conflict. In conversion hysteria, the symptoms usually take a somatic form (hysterical paralysis, irritation of the throat, coughs)…Hysteria has been explained in many different ways over the centuries; the most influential aetiology or causal explanation to have been put forward in the twentieth century is that supplied by Freud’s psychoanalysis.

There’s a problem with that. It inexplicably omits necessary phrases like ‘once thought to be’ and ‘it was thought that’ and ‘but increased knowledge of diseases of the brain and nervous system have rendered such explanations nugatory.’ The phrase ‘for which no physical diagnosis can be found’ ought to read ‘for which no physical diagnosis could be found until researchers discovered organic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and motor neurone disease, and developed a better understanding of the effects of closed-head injuries and spinal injuries’. And note the sly word ‘influential’ about the aetiology put forward by Freud. Not accurate, not correct, not well-founded, but influential. Note further that it doesn’t say influential on whom. Not on neurologists it wasn’t – fortunately.

There’s another absurd bit:

It was only in the nineteenth century that the phenomenon of ‘railway spine’ (a psychosomatic syndrome observed in the victims of the frequent railway accidents of the 1880s) led to the recognition that men too could suffer from hysteria.

Umm…railway spine? Spine? Frequent railway accidents? Does that suggest anything to you? Like, for instance, the possibility that the syndrome was not psychosomatic at all, but, you know, spinal injury? Isn’t it kind of an odd coincidence that it was specifically railway accidents that caused men to develop ‘hysteria’?

No, it doesn’t suggest that to the writer of this dictionary. Very odd. Causes me to ponder the ways of epistemic functioning.

I’ve also been browsing in Frederick Crews’ excellent, indispensable anthology Unauthorized Freud, which has been causing me to mutter darkly about credulity and suggestibility. Credulity is an interesting and often puzzling phenomenon, which turns up in places (and people) where one doesn’t expect it, sometimes.

I’ve been discussing these things with Allen Esterson lately, too – in particular the entrenched misconception that a lot of people have via Jeffrey Masson’s book The Assualt on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory: that the problem with Freud is that he concealed what his women patients told him about being sexually molested by male relatives. In fact Freud’s patients didn’t tell him they were molested or ‘seduced,’ he told them – and then he changed his mind and suppressed the theory. But try explaining that to people who are convinced of the first account. Go on, just try. I have, and I know: it is impossible to get them to believe you. They think you’re part of the cover up crimes against women crowd, or else just ill-informed and out of touch and not up to speed. I expostulated on this point to Allen, and he remarked in his reply:

What is extraordinary is that the indications that there is something odd
about Freud’s story is staring the reader in the face even in the most
commonly cited version of the story, in “New Introductory Lectures on
Psychoanalysis”: “In the period in which my main interest was directed to
discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me
that they had been seduced by their father….” But why should almost all
his female patients have reported these ‘seductions’ only during the period
when he was actively seeking infantile traumas? As is not uncommon when
Freud is misleading his readers, he gives himself away — at least to
someone who has acquired sufficient knowledge to see what he is up to.

That’s good, isn’t it? It made me laugh. “In the period in which my main interest was directed to
discovering infantile sexual traumas, almost all my women patients told me
that they had been seduced by their father….” Oh did they! My, what a coincidence! And in
the period when my main interest was directed to discovering the secret
role of the Illuminati in European history, almost all the people I sat
next to on the bus told me that they had been abducted by Illuminati.

Yes, life works out so neatly sometimes, you know? You develop a main interest in discovering something, and by golly, all of a sudden you start discovering it everywhere you go. In some cases, this happy outcome is called paranoid schizophrenia, and in other cases, it is called one of the great intellectual adventures of the 20th century. You just never know. It all boils down to prestige, and whether your ideas are ‘influential’ or not.

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