Monsieur Freud

So someone has finally told France – psst, Freud kind of got things wrong. Tiens! Sans blague?

A war of words has erupted among French psychiatrists after the publication of a “black book” that lambasts the teaching of Sigmund Freud and blames his followers for setting back mental health care in France by decades. In a country that is one of the last redoubts of pure Freudian psychoanalysis, the book has been like shock treatment for many in the white-coat establishment who accuse the authors of grovelling to the “Anglo-Saxon” trend towards behaviour-based mental therapy. The news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which published extracts of the 800-page work last month, was bombarded with letters charging it with “fascist rhetoric” and leading a “communist-style” propaganda campaign. One leading psychoanalyst described the book as a “fanatical chargesheet placed firmly in the camp of the revisionists”, while another accused its authors of “scientism” – an excessive belief in the power of science.

Scientism! Oh no! Anything but that. Guesswork, intuition, aura-manipulation, healing touch – anything.

In France, around 70% of French psychiatrists base their treatment of depression, phobias and other mental ailments on Freudian theory. Most countries now use of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – which works by helping a patient understand and overcome patterns of behaviour. Pure French Freudians see this as a superficial mechanism designed to return patients to usefulness in the results-based societies of “le monde Anglo-Saxon”.

Results-based! God, is that philistine or what. Those stupid empirical pragmatic Anglo-Saxons, actually wanting results when they’re mentally ill – actually wanting to get better and not feel depressed or phobic. How superficial. How trivial. How shallow. How utilitarian, returning patients to ‘usefulness’ – so much better and more authentic for them to be miserable and unable to function. Imagine, wanting to be useful – for instance to your children if you have them, to your friends, to the people you work with and for – if you’re a teacher, for instance, or a doctor, or a scholar, or a poet. Why would people like that want to be useful? So much better for them to curl up in a corner whimpering.

France is the world’s biggest per capita consumer of anti-depressants and tranquillisers as the result, the authors claim, of the failures of the couch-and-notebook school and the lack of any alternative. One section of the book entitled “Victims Of Psychoanalysis” contains painful accounts from French mothers of autistic children. Freudian theory had it that autism was caused by the mother’s “unconscious wish that the child should not exist”. A Swiss doctor accuses the French mental health authorities of being responsible for the deaths of more than 10,000 heroin addicts up to the mid-1990s by refusing to countenance methadone treatment. This was deemed by Freudians as a crude way of suppressing the symptoms of the problem, rather than addressing the inner cause.

Oh dear. So they kept addressing the inner cause until…oh dear.

According to the book, only last year Freudians persuaded the health ministry to suppress a report from the National Medical Research Institute which attested to the effectiveness of cognitive behaviour therapy. In the view of the critics, Freudian psychoanalysis is not a science but a hermetic cult “immunised against proof” which has inflicted untold damage on the nation’s mental health by opposing treatments that are known to work and by enforcing a politically correct “pensee unique” across the country.

Pensée unique. I like that – good phrase.

But the Freudians see the book as an attempt to introduce new-fangled American theories into France. Treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy – they say – are dehumanising, merely conditioning the patient to overcome his symptoms and render him “productive” again. Freud, they argue, recognises human complexity.

But even if not feeling miserable does make one ‘productive’ again, which no doubt it does, one, that’s not the only thing it does, and two, being productive is not necessarily a bad thing, is it. It’s not just being Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times’ or Dilbert. It could mean being an effective mental health doctor, for one thing. An artist, a dancer, a singer, a dentist, a gardener, a farmer. Furthermore, even if Freud does recognise human complexity, here’s a news flash: he’s not the only one who does. And a lot of the ‘complexity’ he recognises is his own invention. I’d rather just treat the symptoms, thanks.

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