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The Paradoxical Legacy of Sigmund Freud

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By way of a new reading of The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, this book introduces the notion of a theory of practice to the psychoanalytic endeavour. Spelled out in terms of interdependent components, namely; aim, technique and theoretical premises, the author takes the reader through Freud's oeuvre so that he emerges as a relentless, theoretically grounded, practitioner.Frances Moran argues that the nub of the Freudian inheritance is the concept of human subjectivity. In the light of this finding and her reading of Freud, she presents the work of Paul Verhaeghe (On Being Normal and Other Disorders), anew and calls on Marie Cardinal, (The Words to Say It), to provide telling evidence of what it means to be a freudian subject. Given the objectifying processes at work in the contemporary culture, the relevance of Freud for our times becomes compelling.Here practitioners will find a clearly presented framework within which to operate and a way of organizing the material that informs their clinical pursuits. The exploration of an underpinning structure to the Complete Works will be of the utmost assistance to those who wish to embark upon a search for knowledge of the human condition through the highways and byways of the legacy of Sigmund Freud.

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Chapter One: Much ado about science

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Modern science has us enthralled. We believe in its perceived promise. It provides a pathway of hope towards a better future. Today the individual can partake of the benefits science offers in an immediate and personal manner: do I have a pacemaker? do I engage in IVF? are there any alternatives?—these choices touch each close to hand as never before. Furthermore, we have come to think scientifically in our everyday life, accepting scientific criteria as those of authentic value. Today, only that which is evidence-based and quantifiable is accepted as real. And, given the state of current medical technology, why would we consider it to be otherwise? As avid consumers in the marketplace we believe we benefit from medication, procedures, implants, and transplants all of a quality that was unimaginable not so very long ago. With the mapping of the human genome at our fingertips, we hope for more and better medical science and more control over life and death. We have confidence in the notion of unabated progress and are unwilling to take into account more sobering findings such as that, contrary to earlier understandings, ‘junk’ DNA is in fact of vital importance— a matter of huge consequence in the field of genetics where so much is at stake. Regardless, we of the 21st century have unmitigated trust that science will allow humankind to survive.

 

Chapter Two: Establishing the freudian field

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Easter Sunday, 25 April, 1886, marks the beginning of Freud's private practice as a specialist in nervous illnesses. He had not long returned from his time with Charcot at the Hospice de la Salpêtrière in Paris and brought with him the imprint of the Professor's views on hysteria. Over subsequent years he conversed about interesting cases with his friend and mentor, Josef Breuer, a respected Vienna physician. Their collaboration materialized into a joint publication, Studies on Hysteria (1895d), which provides the focus of this chapter. Here we find in Volume II of the Standard Edition the ground plan for Freud's future theorization.

Hysterics,” we are told, “suffer mainly from reminiscences” (p. 7). This early, pithy observation lies at the heart of Freud's approach to the neuroses. Although it may not be entirely original (see note 3, pp. 7–8) it nevertheless carries a central Freudian conviction associated with the role of memory in psychic life, a theme Freud is never to abandon. If hysterics suffer from reminiscences then several questions immediately arise. What is the nature of these memories that cause such disturbance? Why do they persist? How can they be dealt with? These are key issues for Freud and Breuer as they begin their investigations. Initially, in the “Preliminary Communication” (1893a), they together propose that hysterical symptoms are produced by what they term a psychical trauma. The latter refers to an experience which causes distressing affects. These affects include those of fright, shame or anxiety. The important point about traumatic experiences is whether or not the person in question reacts to the experience with affect. If the trauma is not sufficiently abreacted then memories will persist unconsciously and it is from these memories that the hysteric suffers. The clinical aim is therefore to bring such memories to consciousness and so abreaction and consequent relief.

 

Chapter Three: The fundamental hypothesis of the split psyche

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Freud had been in private practice for nine years when he wrote to Fliess on May 25, 1895 of the inhuman amount he had to do and of his long hours working with neuroses. He was engaged at that time—and throughout his entire working life—in an attempt to theorize his day to day practical activity. In this chapter we will trace the path he forged over many decades, the focus being his effort to conceptualize the split psyche, his fundamental axiom.

A number of interwoven themes emerge in reference to Freud's postulations concerning the unconscious: (a) the status of the unconscious as either place or state and (b) the source of theorization as either speculation or clinical observation. We will meet these themes time and time again as Freud grapples with the complexity of his terrain.

In the correspondence to Fliess mentioned above, Freud expressed his desire to write a full psychology and wrote of how very troubled he was by the problem of defence. Soon after, he sent Fliess a package of two notebooks; the third, dealing with repression, he retained. These two notebooks form the now well-known “Project for a Scientific Psychology” (1950a (1887-1902)), the aim of which was “to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science …” (p. 295).

 

Chapter Four

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Freud is renowned for his theory of human sexuality. It is precisely the direction of this set of propositions that has brought upon his work great opprobrium, if not outright dismissal. Yet in this demanding chapter I hope to make clear why so much of Freud's thought is taken up with the idea of sexuality as being integral to, and determining of, the human being.

As a practitioner in the field of nervous illnesses, Freud inherited the nosology that prevailed around about 1895, and, in addition, the accepted view of the aetiology of mental problems. Generally speaking the latter was held to be heredity. Freud had no sooner involved himself with cases of hysteria than he recognized the need to read-dress the aetiological question of the neuroses. He knew that he needed to explain the cause of the presenting problem if he were to be in the position to treat it with any sense of authority. The fulcrum of diagnosis, aetiology, and mechanism of splitting, provided Freud with a direction for his investigation. While he accepted the role of heredity, he also acknowledged the then suggested link between sexuality and the neuroses:

 

Chapter Five: Aim

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It is my argument that although Freud wanted to produce a theory that had scientific status, his works are most profitably read as having the structure of a theory of practice. From beginning to end, he had a practical aim in mind and our endeavour is to follow the changes he made in his aim, as his theoretical postula-tions traversed different lines of thought over numerous decades.

Freud aimed to bring about a change in the psychical world of his patients: “I have been engaged for many years (with a therapeutic aim in view) in unravelling certain psychopathologi-cal structures—hysterical phobias, obsessional ideas, and so on” (1900a, p. 100). His initial focus was the neuroses and he wanted to ‘cure’ his patients of the pain they brought to his attention. His aim was cure in the sense of what was expected of a medical practitioner in his time—practical results were constantly in mind. When he did consider the psychoses he likewise had therapeutic results in view. “The neuroses were the first subject of analysis, and for a long time they were the only one. … It would seem, however, that the analytic study of the psychoses is impracticable owing to its lack of therapeutic results (1925d (1924), p. 60).

 

Chapter Six: Technique

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Psychoanalytic technique, within the context of a theory of practice, cannot be a list of rules of thumb for the treatment of neurotic patients. Rather, it can be understood only within the context of the recursively interdependent components of which it forms but one aspect. Technique is the outcome or practical result of a thorough understanding of the premises and goal; it provides the link between the two. It is for this reason, I propose, that there is relatively little work on the topic of technique as such.

First, I will outline how changes in Freud's technique to be found over the years can be accounted for in the light of changes in his theoretical premises. Thus we will be in a position to appreciate the interdependence of the components of his theory of practice for psychoanalysis. What we will discover is that as the theoretical premises become more enriched, complex, and abstract, Freud's optimism in regard to his therapeutic aim waned. Here, with reference to his aim, I argue that while his ultimate aim remained the same, his growing realization of the scope of his task brought Freud to appreciate the limits of his life's work.

 

Chapter Seven: Subject to exclusion

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In the preceding chapters of this book we have seen how Freud wanted to be and considered himself to be a scientist. From his point of view, it is true, psychoanalysis is unquestionably part of the scientific enterprise. “Psycho-analysis is a part of the mental science of psychology” (1940b (1938), p. 282), he reminds us in his posthumously published elementary lessons in psychoanalysis. Be that as it may, what these first chapters of The Paradoxical Legacy of Sigmund Freud make clear is that Freud was about something different from science. He was involved in something that at the time, he was unable to recognize for himself. His life's work, as transmitted in the Standard Edition, reads as a thorough, energetically and constantly worked psychoanalytic theory of practice. As such, it gains unqualified and lasting value in its own right.

This, however, does not mean that we accept without question all that Freud taught throughout his lengthy career. Not at all. Freud was limited by the then available knowledge base and by the conceptual tools within his grasp as he tackled each problem. We may well see the same issues quite differently now.

 

Chapter Eight: To be or not to be?

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Freud died in Hampstead, London, in 1939. Some sixty-five years hence, Paul Verhaeghe, Professor of Psychoanalysis at the University of Ghent, Belgium, published his work On Being Normal and Other Disorders: A Manual for Clinical Psychodiag-nostics (2004). In the preface to his book, Verhaeghe explains that his argument is based on his reading of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis because this is the theory he knows best. For me, at least, this work exemplifies a contemporary Freudian inheritance of a Lacanian persuasion.

The author, a clinician and teacher, clearly finds the status quo of clinical diagnosis wanting. In the main this is so because diagnosis is predominantly symptom-, content-, or value-bound and has no underpinning theoretical basis. His interest, therefore, is to provide what he calls a “diagnostic theory” (p. x). He argues that “the connection between diagnosis and treatment can only be made through a conceptual understanding that holds the vicissitudes of identity as utterly central” (p. x). In this work, Verhaeghe places the emphasis on the relation between the subject and the Other. Why? Because he argues that identity formation takes place only in relation to the Other. This means that any pathology must be diagnosed on the basis of this relationship. Consequently, much of his book is taken up with an explanation of what he refers to as a “theory of subject-formation” (p. 157), for it is this developmental theory, he argues, that is basic to an acceptable diagnostics within his own psychoanalytic tradition.

 

Chapter Nine: Telling evidence

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Marie Cardinal confronts us with a strangely disconcerting paradox. As she thinks back on her analysis, the course of which is described in her autobiographical novel The Words to Say It (1975), she has difficulty in finding herself, that is, the self she used to be. This self of the past, the mad one, lived within her body just as she lives within it now. “I am she” (p. 8). The mad one saw with her eyes, she had the same fingernails, the same ring. But where is the mad one now and who is Marie Cardinal? Can they be one and the same? Or, are they somehow disjunct?

In this chapter we will follow Cardinal in aspects of her story. As we do, we will see her move from the presentation of herself in her designated madness, positioned as object in relation to the Other, to the presentation of self in her freedom, positioned as subject in relation to the Other. In so doing Cardinal's paradoxical self-description will be shown to harbour a depth of experience—the experience of an analysis in the Freudian tradition.

 

Chapter Ten: The paradoxical legacy of Sigmund Freud

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Marie Cardinal speaks for herself. By attending to her testimony, we gain not only an understanding, but also an intimate appreciation, of what it means to come to be a subject within the context of a Freudian-inspired analysis. Her story has been read by millions, quite literally. The cover of the 1993 publication of her novel states that the work received the prestigious Prix Littre 1976, has been translated into eighteen languages, and more than 2.5 million copies have been sold. It was subsequently made into a film of the same name. Surely we must ask the obvious question: why was this novel so popular? What could be so interesting to others about the highways and byways of one person's seven year analysis that millions wanted to read of her experience? Remember, too, this was during a period throughout which the anti-Freud genre blossomed.

The quality of Cardinal's writing is certainly to be admired; she is able to convey the gristle of psychical experience, mood, atmosphere, and most significantly she charts the movements that pertain to both the fragility and the strength of what makes up the fabric of psychic life. In many ways, The Words To Say It has outstanding literary and artistic merit. It is a good read, exciting and rewarding. But is this sufficient reason to explain its wide appeal? Maybe. Maybe not.

 

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