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The comedy and tragedy of psychoanalysis

By Prof Seamus O'Mahony - 05th Mar 2023

psychoanalysis

I wrote my new book partly because the work I wanted to read about psychoanalysis hadn’t been written

What are you working on?”, a friend asked me last year.

“I’m trying to write a funny book about psychoanalysis,” I replied.

“I didn’t think psychoanalysis was funny,” said my friend.

I thought so too until I immersed myself in the vast Freudian literature (both biographical and theoretical), which, although overwhelmingly tedious, jargonistic, and frequently impenetrable, contained more than enough absurdity to spark my interest. My journey began with the obscure figure of Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939) – the greatest English surgeon of the inter-war years, social psychologist, aphorist, ‘a philosopher in a profession where there are none.’ As a young man, Trotter’s best friend was his brother-in-law, the Welsh psychoanalyst Ernest Jones (1879-1958), who was Sigmund Freud’s biographer and most loyal disciple – his ‘bagman’. This friendship was sundered over Jones’s fanatical devotion to Freud; although Trotter admired him as a writer, he could not accept Freud’s largely speculative theories. The lives of these three men intersected, almost novelistically, over a thirty-year period from 1908, when Jones and Trotter attended the first ever psychoanalytic congress in Salzburg, to 1939, when Trotter attended the ailing Freud – the two men died within two months of each other.

I had long wondered about the dazzling success of psychoanalysis in the early decades of the 20th Century. The triangular relationship between these three men gave me the ideal framework to write about this phenomenon. Trotter, a scientific sceptic, embodies the empirical tradition; Jones, who didn’t have a sceptical bone in his body, was one of nature’s deuteragonists, while Freud, as the writer and psychiatrist Anthony Storr pointed out, had many of the characteristics of the guru: He claimed special insight based on personal revelation; this revelation came to him following a period of spiritual crisis; he generalised from his own experience; he was intolerant of criticism; he had personal charisma; he had absolute certainty about his ideas.

Although Jones was personally humourless, his life was picaresque and full of comedy. As a young man, he was sexually voracious. He had relationships with several women patients and the wives of colleagues; he was lucky, in 1908, to avoid a prison sentence for sexual offences. The only gentile among Freud’s ‘Paladins’ – the committee of six protectors who defended the psychoanalytic faith, Jones called himself the ‘Shabbes-goy’ of the movement – a gentile who performs tasks forbidden to Jews on the sabbath. Jones ran psychoanalytic societies and journals, sniffing out heresy and enforcing orthodoxy. In London, he maintained a mafia-like control over the supply of analytic patients. In middle age, he became puritanical and uxorious, sublimating his sexual energy into ice-skating, about which he wrote a best-selling book.

Trotter, meanwhile, had a brief moment of fame with his 1916 book, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, a best-selling treatise on social psychology. Thereafter, he devoted himself to his craft, and was revered at University College Hospital, where he spent nearly all his career. His only other appearance in the spotlight was in 1929, when he successfully treated George V for a persistent empyema. The king had been suboptimally managed by a team of eminent physicians and surgeons for more than six months before Trotter was finally called in to save the day.

“A perfectly straightforward case,” he told Lord Dawson, the king’s personal physician. He was offered a baronetcy, but declined; the only honour he ever accepted was the Fellowship of the Royal Society, bestowed on him for his famous experiment on cutaneous innervation. Freud’s complete works comprise 24 volumes; Trotter’s, just two. His slim Collected Papers – published posthumously – is still fresh and challenging, one of the best books about the ‘practical craft’ of medicine ever written. He is the hero of this book, the ‘perfect example of a good doctor’.

Trotter, Jones, and Freud are the principal players, but the comedy is in the secondary characters: Marie Bonaparte, the fabulously wealthy princess who became an analyst herself after undergoing analysis with Freud, and who was so convinced that pudendal anatomy governed female sexual response that she had her clitoris surgically ‘relocated’ on two (or possibly three) occasions; Melanie Klein, the doyen of child psychoanalysts, who was loudly heckled by her own daughter Melitta during the bitter feuding (‘the Controversial Discussions’), which tore apart the British Psychoanalytical Society in the mid-1940s; the feckless, directionless Bloomsbury younger sons James Strachey and Adrian Stephen, who having failed at everything else, somehow became successful psychoanalysts; Archie Cochrane, who, having followed his analyst Theodor Reik for two years from Berlin to Vienna to The Hague, concluded that psychoanalysis could treat little apart from hysteria, an insight that indirectly led to the foundation of evidence-based medicine; the wealthy and self-obsessed Cambridge undergraduates who, despite having no obvious ‘neurosis’, flocked to Vienna in the 1920s to take advantage of the weak Austrian currency, and to talk about themselves at great length on the analytic couch; the American writer Francis Levy, who estimated that his decades-long analysis had cost more than $1million.

There is tragedy, too: The death, aged just 26, of Jones’s first wife, the brilliant Welsh composer and musician Morfydd Owen; the premature deaths of Bob and Mabby Burlingham, the children of Anna Freud’s life-partner Dorothy Burlingham, who had undergone analysis for years with Anna, and who died, directly, or indirectly, as a result, sacrificed on the altar of psychoanalysis; ‘Little Richard’ the precocious boy analysed by Melanie Klein in 1941, who tried to bully him into believing that his perfectly reasonable fear of Adolf Hitler (the family’s house had been bombed during the Blitz) was simply a projection of his Oedipal hatred of his blameless father; the bizarre treatment (on Freud’s advice) in 1930 of the psychosis of Princess Alice of Greece (mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh).

I wrote this book partly because the work I wanted to read about psychoanalysis hadn’t been written. Books on the subject tend to be either unquestioning of Freudian theory or (excuse the pun) hysterically opposed to it. The interesting and neglected middle ground was the absurdity, the fathomless foolishness of humans. Psychoanalysis has undergone a prolonged and messy divorce from psychiatry and medicine, but survives in the academy and the great cosmopolitan cities of London, New York, and Paris, because it still appeals to what the great American historian Christopher Lasch called “the hydra-headed narcissism of the bourgeoisie”.

‘The Guru, the Bagman and the Sceptic: A Story of Science, Sex and Psychoanalysis’ is published by Head of Zeus.

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