Élisabeth Roudinesco, Sigmund Freud: en son temps et dans le nôtre, Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2014; translated as Freud In His Time and Ours by Catherine Porter, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2017
Élisabeth Roudinesco’s prize-winning biography of Sigmund Freud is nothing if not monumental, the summation of a life’s work devoted to the study of the past and present of Freudianism and psychoanalysis. The book is long – 582 pages in the original including ample notes and bibliography. It is the first biograhy of Freud ever to have been produced from within the psychoanalytic milieu in France. Inevitably, it may also be considered one of the more controversial biographies of recent times, though it was awarded the Prix Décembre and the Prix des Prix Littéraires (both in 2014). In 2017 the book gained a new lease of life by being translated into English (it had earlier appeared in Spanish). The comments that follow refer to Roudinesco’s French original.
Roudinesco’s work on psychoanalysis has long been the subject of ferocious criticism in France from her arch-nemesis, the anti-Freudian philosopher-at-large Michel Onfray. The English version of her biography was greeted favourably by some but, in the New York Review of Books (‘Freud: What’s Left?’, NYRB LXIV, 3, 23 Feb-8 Mar 2017, pp. 6-10), hyper-cacophonously by the critic Frederick Crews, once upon a time himself a Freudian and author of a psychoanalytic study of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but who today sees about as much merit in psychoanalysis as a UK Brexiteer does in the European Union.
It is not my intention to enter here into the details of the never-ending polemic between defenders and detractors of Freud and psychoanalysis. Roudinesco herself is and always has been a committed Freudian, within the French school and thus, inevitably, the orbit of Jacques Lacan (who is nonetheless all but off-stage in the book); she is by training both a psychoanalyst and a historian, and thus uniquely qualified to write such a life. Her encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary psychoanalysis, in France but also internationally, has borne fruit in a vast body of work, ranging from the state-of-the-art vindication ‘Pourquoi la Psychanalyse?’ (1999) to the remarkable ‘Dictionnaire de la Psychoanalyse’ (1997, compiled jointly with Michel Plon; soon to be republished in its fifth edition), which couples in-depth analyses of the key concepts with historical cameos of the fortunes of psychoanalysis around the world. For the biography of Freud, she has consulted an immense range of sources (as copiously listed in the bibliography), including, notably, the Freud archive at the Library of Congress. If anyone is capable of successfully marshalling the evidence in favour of Freud against the familiar charges of ‘charlatan’, ‘falsifier’, ‘megalomaniac’, etc, it is she. Meanwhile and pace Crews, the author shows herself throughout to be fully aware of the arguments of the anti-Freud camp as signified repeatedly in the notes, even as she makes every effort to refute them on an informed basis.
Roudinesco pays the necessary attention to all the different sides of Freud’s writings – the clinical and therapeutic (‘Studies in Hysteria’ or ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’), the metapsychological (‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ or ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’), and the cultural (she is particularly strong on ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ and ‘Moses and Monotheism’). At the same time, she does not limit her inquiries to Freud himself, and throughout underlines his (vexed or otherwise) relations with his disciples and fellow psychoanalysts, in a way that makes clear that psychoanalysis is also a collective phenomenon, a movement that exists to fulfil a cultural need and cannot be reduced to the idiosyncrasies of one individual. Indeed, in its later sections the book reads as much as a history of the early psychoanalytic movement as a life of Freud. Within the movement, she especially points up Princess Marie Bonaparte, psychoanalyst, great grand-niece of Napoleon Bonaparte himself and preserver of Freud from the Nazis, whose major stabilising and cohering contribution to the movement seems still not to have been fully studied or acknowledged. Within the movement, she especially points up Princess Marie Bonaparte (the major stabilising and cohering contribution to the movement of this psychoanalyst, great grand-niece of Napoleon Bonaparte himself and preserver of Freud from the Nazis, seems still not to have been fully studied or acknowledged).
While Freud’s role as cultural critic is strongly underscored, there is arguably a relative absence of attention to the literary dimension and impact of psychoanalysis: if ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Hamlet’ receive their due, Freud’s seminal exploration of the fantastic genre in ‘The “Uncanny”’ gets only a footnote, while Marie Bonaparte’s pioneering psychobiographical study of Edgar Allan Poe, which Freud himself prefaced, is not mentioned at all (albeit Roudinesco has examined that book elsewhere).
Roudinesco is visibly no adept of such contemporary phenomena as postmodernism, identity politics or censorship in the name of diversity: she is an older type of intellectual, committed to notions such as universalism, rationality and the Enlightenment values of which she clearly sees Freud as prime exponent. Obsolescent though some might consider such values, their continuing validity – and that of Freudianism – might nonetheless be argued for if one considers the institutions that have validated both Roudinesco’s work in general and this book in particular: the translator of this life of Freud into English, Catherine Porter, is a former president of the Modern Language Association, and that English version appeared under the imprint of Harvard University Press; and Roudinesco herself has lectured under the aegis of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, and was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2013.
Onfray has before now linked Roudinesco with ‘Stalinist’ attitudes, seeing her as one of the last of a dying breed. Those who view Marxist philosophy more generously than Onfray might wish to suggest that there are in fact positive analogies between Freudian and Marxist methods: both propose rationalist, Enlightenment-grounded models, both are atheist, and both are rooted in hermeneutics as against empiricism: if Marx aimed to ‘lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society’, Freud saw the interpretation of dreams as the ‘royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’. Both Marxism and Freudianism transcend the individual work of their founders, as collective movements with multiple branches and variants; and both are out of fashion today.
Élisabeth Roudinesco concludes her book with an evocation of Sigmund Freud’s resting-place in the Golders Green crematorium in London, and with the affirmation that her master remains ‘le grand penseur de son temps et du nôtre’ (p. 531 – ‘the great thinker of his time and of ours’). This her latest work firmly aligns Roudinesco within the ranks of those who may be called ‘last-ditch’ intellectuals, those who refuse to recant on the material of their life’s work and affirm their beliefs to the end, resisting pressure to conform and the vagaries of present-day ideology. Such a pantheon of arch-survivors or true believers, defenders of universalist rationality against the subjectivist pyrotechnics of postmodernism, would include, for Marxism, the late Eric Hobsbawm; for canonic literature, Harold Bloom; for secularism, the late Christopher Hitchens; for free speech, Salman Rushdie; and, yes, for psychoanalysis and with this life of Freud behind her, Élisabeth Roudinesco.