A Bastion against Irrationalism

Crews, Frederick. 2006. Follies of the Wise: Dissenting Essays. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard. Pp. 405.
ISBN (10) 1-59376-101-5
ISBN (13) 978-1-59376-101-1.

Freud, Sigmund. 2006. Lettres à Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. Traduit de l’allemand par Françoise Kahn
et François Robert. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France (Bibliothèque de Psychanalyse). Pp. 763.
ISBN 2-13-054995-0.

The other week my mailbox received the serendipitous joint arrival of — from America — the latest collection of Frederick Crews’s critical essays in book-form, and — from France — the long-awaited and long-delayed uncensored French edition of the complete letters of Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (published in English by Harvard University Press in 1985 and in German by S. Fischer Verlag in Germany in1986). If ever an instance were needed to illustrate the cultural and intellectual divide — far wider than the Atlantic — currently separating the French university system from the American one (at its best), this was surely it. The simultaneous arrival that day of my weekly le nouvel Observateur (no. 2188, du 13 au 18 octobre 2006) merely confirmed this state of affairs. On the cover were Sigmund Freud and, almost leaning on his right shoulder, the faithful daughter, Anna Freud, and over the cover-photo the announcement of the publication of the French translation of the unexpurgated letters to Fliess on this sesquicentennial year: “Freud inédit. Révélations sur la naissance de la PSYCHANALYSE“. I almost expected a Boutique fantasque ballet between the competing papers, books, and wrappings so promiscuously bundled together in my inert mailbox. But all was safely transported upstairs to my dining table where I could consider the relative qualities of the protagonists.

The latest volume of collected essays by Frederick Crews, Follies of the Wise, is without any doubt the most timely of his several books. Although a “collection” of essays, largely published previously by The New York Review of Books, the volume has its own inner coherence: it is beautifully constructed and its four defined sections lead naturally the inquisitive, curious mind of the reader (and Crews demands his readers to have such minds!) from one instance of woolly ( i.e. unempirical, i.e. “thoughtless”) response to a more intelligently engaged involvement with the text. Of prime — but by no means sole — concern are the various proven rhetorical malfeasances of Sigmund Freud and the consequences of this blight throughout the whole of the Twentieth Century on clear thought in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, therapy, and “medical” therapies of various inventions. Crews does not say so in so many words — he leaves the reader to conclude appropriately — but, inevitably, Freud has been the single most disastrous invader (Freud’s term was “conquistador“) of the medical profession of psychiatry. Freud’s various influences have been in every measure negative and, on more than one occasion, literally deadly — from his misleading narratives of imaginary cures of misdiagnosed hysteria to the massive productions of family disintegration in North America via the production of false “repressed” memories dependent upon the therapeutic continuation and enactment of his theories of human psychological development. (On this specific issue one should read the excellent little book by the Harvard professor of psychiatry, Harrison G. Pope, Jr., 1997. Psychology Astray: Fallacies in Studies of “Repressed Memory” and Childhood Trauma. Boca Raton, FL: Upton Books).

Follies of the Wise is divided into four thematic sections (each with its own chapters) and two wonderfully informative conversational Appendices with representatives of the Universities he had been invited to speak at– one on Crews’s refusal to soft-pedal Darwinism when dealing with Creationism; the other on the sheer useless pseudo-scientific gibberish of Lacanism. It is in this latter Appendix (at the very end of the book) that we learn that Frederick Crews was one of the early confidants of Alan Sokal before the decision to publish the now-famous Social Text hoax article, the mock paper on deconstruction and quantum gravity — that Crews refers to joyfully as “surely the finest travesty of academic irrationalism ever written”. (The book by Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont, Impostures intellectuelles, published in Paris in 1997 by Odile Jacob, caused an academic tsunami — from which the French are still recovering!)

The four thematic divisions are the following: “The Antiscience” (dealing largely with the early Freud’s proposals and the unhelpful contributions of his recent American defenders ( e.g. Lear and Wollheim); “Modern Deviltry” (dealing with the “diagnostic follies” of recovered memory cases, the gross insufficiencies of the Swiss (Freudian) based “Ink-blot” test of Rorschach; “The Will to Believe” which deals with the Madame Blavatsky contribution to civilization of “Theosophy” and goes on to belabour the Creationists “and their Friends”; and, finally, “A Discipline in Crisis” where Crews is particularly (and rightly) critical of the notions bruited abroad in the Humanities by the “Poststructuralists”. These theoretically-driven denizens of the tenure-track posts in the Humanities departments of North American universities have not only relentlessly damaged their profession and their tame undergraduates,they have used in the most seductive and stupid ways possible the rhetorically persuasive arguments of Freud-AND-Marx. The combination has proved awkward to deal with in the United States — virtually impossible to challenge in France (for lack of an honest audience).

Crews’s compilation is in every sense a breath of fresh air for those suffocating under the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of the Common-Room. Yes! you may dare to think again! This is no guarantee of immortality.

For that you may need the assistance of Michael Schröter, Gerhard Fichtner, and Françoise Kahn & François Robert. The first two named are the German experts at Tübingen who deciphered and corrected the hand-written ur-text of Freud’s letters, the latter two are those we must be grateful to for having given to the French public — albeit a quarter of a century after the English-speaking peoples had access to it — the first uncensored, unexpurgated text of the Freud letters during the foundation years of what was to become psychoanalysis. The translators, and indeed PUF, are to be congratulated on relying solely on the original German of Freud’s texts as a basis for their translation. This edition is more scrupulous of its sources than the English edition. Jeffrey M. Masson’s notes have been incorporated into the body of notes prepared by the editors. The French journalistic response to the publication of these letters has been almost universally pro-Freudian! The national daily, Le Monde, for example chose the Lacanian trained Freudian Elisabeth Roudinesco to write a review of the Letters. The article was appropriately titled: “La passionnante correspondance de l’inventeur de la psychanalyse avec son ami Wilhelm Fliess: NAISSANCE DE FREUD“.

We do not see in this correspondence the early steps of a genius — quite the contrary! — we are witness to an unbridled and indiscreet series of “how-about’s” as Sigmund tried out — unsuccessfully, it seems — on his friend the ear-nose-and-throat doctor from Berlin, Wilhelm Fliess. And, contrary to usual psychoanalytic rumour, it does not seem that “Freud gradually distanced himself” from Fliess; but, on the contrary, that Fliess himself grew fed up with the nonsense he was receiving from Vienna. This does not, incidentally, make of Fliess some paladin of nose medication. Freud — out of sheer physiological ignorance — went along with Fliess’s insane notion of the turbinate bones in the nose (the tuberculi septi) being responsible for, or indicative of, “the nasal reflex neurosis” (a home-grown malady invented by Fliess himself and, for some time, credited by Freud) and allowed him to perform in February1895 the weird operation of the victim/patient Emma Eckstein which nearly killed her! These letters, one might think, were — if ever it were needed — the ultimate evidence that psychoanalysis is a scientific fraud founded upon the twin conceits of medical ignorance and rhetoric. For the anglophone reader, the extraordinary effect of the readings — and presentations — of these letters in the Presses Universitaires de France edition is that “Un autre Freud?” as their advert ribbon asks, is a “come-on” that only the French would be seduced by. It may well be poetic justice that the nation that showed Freud the magic of hypnotic “transference” during his short six months with Charcot at La Salpêtrière has since become the nation — along with Brazil and Argentina — that most respects the “discoveries” of Lacan and his Guru. It is scarcely revealing a secret to say that French psychiatry is virtually 100 years out of date! (A French empirical psychiatrist amazed me last year when he discovered on a trip to a military hospital in Paris that ALL military psychiatrists had undergone Lacanian psychoanalysis as part of their training programme.)

There were no discoveries — not even on the level of common-or-garden developmental psychology! The title chosen for this little review “a bastion against irrationalism” was taken from Frederick Crews’s own complaint that in America the Humanities had failed in their calling. Even the invention of outer-space invaders with a propensity to abduct humans was University sanctioned: “But another recent book about the UFO phenomenon offers a reminder that the contemporary academy, riven as it is by a chasm that has continued to widen since the 1970s, cannot be counted on as a bastion against irrationalism.” (page 211). Crews’s conclusions are bleak. But he means them; and he has thought them through carefully — them and their dire consequences! Nonetheless, because of his brilliant abilities to perceive the present and to warn of future difficulties, he remains the only kind of optimist we can safely trust: the skeptical sort. If I have one word to add, it is not for you, the potential readers, nor for Crews, but for his Californian publishing group — Shoemaker & Hoard — let them, as soon as possible ensure that a French and a German version of this excellent book be soon available in Europe. Europeans need to hear this kind of message. Crews is a “bastion against irrationalism”!

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