How Freud Canonized Himself

xl.jpg On February 16, 1951, the psychoanalyst Kurt Eissler announced to Anna Freud the formation of the Sigmund Freud Archives, Inc.'s board of directors, which included, among others, Bertram Lewin (president), Ernest Jones, Heinz Hartmann, Willi Hoffer, Princess Marie Bonaparte (vice presidents), Ernst Kris, Herman Nunberg, and Siegfried Bernfeld (members). Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Anna Freud were honorary members. Eissler himself settled for the more modest position of secretary. Anna Freud was delighted.

Anna Freud to Eissler, 27 February 1951: This wonderful list contains so many of our old friends that this alone should guarantee that all goes well as far as our future plans are concerned.

The goal of the Freud Archives had never been to make the documents of Freudianism available to the public, as Luther Evans, the Librarian of Congress, undoubtedly believed when Eissler approached him. In reality, the Library of Congress and the American people had been duped. What Anna Freud and the Freudian Family sought, quite simply, was a safety deposit box where they could lock up the archives -- their archives -- and protect them from the curiosity of outsiders. If their choice was the Library of Congress, it was because the American government and its legendary bureaucracy presented, in this respect, extremely solid guarantees of reliability and security. Not to mention the fact that the costs of archiving and safekeeping the materials were entirely thrust upon the American taxpayers: as Bernfeld had said, a 'type A' archives wouldn't cost a dime. Better yet, donations to the Library of Congress were tax-deductible, making for an excellent business, insofar as the 'expert' designated to appraise their value for the American Internal Revenue Service was none other than ... Kurt Eissler.

The censorship of Freud's correspondences, the sequestering of documents and reminiscences in sealed boxes in the Freud Archives, the compilation of the official Freud biography and the preparation of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud was a systematic and concerted enterprise, intended to consolidate and disseminate the Freudian legend. The legend was now everywhere, massive and virtually unassailable. Texts available to researchers and the general public had been carefully filtered and reformatted to present the image of Freud and psychoanalysis that the Freudian establishment wanted to promote. Thus it is no surprise that the apotheosis of psychoanalysis took place in the 1950s, and that it was from America and Britain, the new centers of the psychoanalytic family, that the Freudian wave spread through the world.

For half a century, this artificial construction has formed the basis of our knowledge of Freud and the origins of psychoanalysis. It is striking to see how widely it was accepted, even by those who otherwise had a critical and skeptical view of psychoanalysis. Even when Freud's works were reread and reinterpreted in heterodox ways, it was always on the basis of the sanitized and de-historicized version propagated by Anna Freud, Ernst Kris, Ernest Jones, James Strachey, and Kurt Eissler. Lacan's famous 'return to Freud' was simply a return to the version of Freud that they had canonized. Despite their sophistication and their refusal of Freud's positivism, the Freud which they interpreted/deconstructed/narrativized/fictionalized was always the same legendary Freud, dressed up in the new garments of the latest intellectual fashion.

The success of this propaganda mission rested on its invisibility, on the dissimulation of the Kürzungsarbeit: cuts in letters weren't indicated, inconvenient facts were omitted, skeletons were hidden in closets, critics were silenced, the names of patients were disguised, recollections were sequestered, tendentious interpretations were presented as real events, calumnies and rumors were taken as facts. The mythification of the history of psychoanalysis gave it a simplicity which rendered it suitable for mass dissemination. At the same time, the formidable obstacles which confronted historians rendered a wholesale challenge of the legend impossible.

The consequences of this state of affairs went far beyond the confines of the history of psychoanalysis and had profound effects on the way the enterprise of modern psychology as a whole was perceived. The legend effectively delegitimated the psychotherapies which psychoanalysis competed with in the mental health marketplace. At the same time it led to the rescripting of the history of ideas in the 20th century, giving psychoanalysis a prominence that it never properly had. To the extent to which psychoanalysis was placed at the center and the origin of the critical developments in depth psychology, dynamic psychiatry and psychotherapy, psychoanalysis became everything -- and at the same time nothing. All clothing suited it, because it all bore the label Freud. Already in 1920, Ernest Jones noted that the public only had the vaguest ideas of what psychoanalysis really was, and what distinguished it from other approaches.

Jones to the Secret Committee, 26 October 1920: From various recent reports I have had from America and from reading their recent literature I am sorry to say that I get a very bad impression of [the] situation there. I doubt if there are six men in America who could tell the essential difference between Vienna and Zurich, at least at all clearly.

Ninety years later, the situation has hardly changed: any kind of popular or intuitive psychology is precisely what passes for psychoanalysis, whether it be in university seminars, specialist journals and magazines, or on television or the radio. However, it is precisely this confusion and the manner in which Freudians successfully exploited it to promote psychoanalysis that significantly contributed to the success of the brand. If it appears to be everywhere, it is because so much has been arbitrarily Freudianized, franchised by psychoanalysis: slips, dreams, sex, mental illness, neurosis, psychotherapy, memory, biography, history, language, pedagogy and teaching, marital relations, politics.

Presented by

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen is a professor of comparative literature and French at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of many works on the history of philosophy of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and hypnosis.

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