Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips

From one of the world’s foremost authorities on Sigmund Freud comes a strikingly original biography of the father of psychoanalysis – explore Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips.

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst is the story of the young Freud – Freud up until the age of fifty – that incorporates all of Freud’s many misgivings about the art of biography. Freud invented a psychological treatment that involved the telling and revising of life stories, but he was himself sceptical of the writing of such stories. In this biography Adam Phillips emphasises the largely undocumented story of Freud’s earliest years as the oldest and favoured son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and suggests that the psychoanalysis Freud invented was, among many other things, a psychology of the immigrant – increasingly, of course, everybody’s status in the modern world.

To celebrate this new publication by British psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips, the following extract has been selected from Becoming Freud.

Becoming Freud: ‘Freud’s Impossible Life’

The facts of a life—and indeed the facts of life—were among the many things that Freud’s work has changed our way of thinking about. Freud’s work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves; but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view. “The facts in psychoanalysis,” Freud wrote, “have a habit of being rather more complicated than we like. If they were as simple as all that, perhaps, it might not have needed psychoanalysis to bring them to light.” Because we want to like our facts we are always tempted to simplify them. Psychoanalysis reveals complications that we would rather not see; before psychoanalysis, Freud suggests, the facts seemed simple, but now they seem complicated. “Bringing to light” might mean recovering something buried, or seeing something in a new light. Freud is not saying here that psychoanalysis has revealed new facts, but that it has revealed new aspects of the facts. The facts were always there, but now we can see them differently. What complicates the facts, in Freud’s view, is what he will come to call unconscious desire (so, for example, the fact that Freud invented psychoanalysis mostly out of conversations with men but through the treatment mostly of women—that psychoanalysis was a homosexual artifact—can tell us something about Freud’s homosexual and heterosexual desire, what he wanted men and women for; our desires inform our facts and our fact-finding). He will show us how and why we bury the facts of our lives, and how, through the language of psychoanalysis, we can both retrieve these facts and describe them in a different way. Though his writing is dominated, for reasons which will become clear, by archaeological analogies—by the archaeologist as hero—the practice of psychoanalysis was, Freud increasingly discovered, difficult to find analogies for. What Freud was in no doubt about, though, was the value of heroism, and of the discovery of psychoanalysis as somehow a heroic project. His writing is studded with references to great men—Plato, Moses, Hannibal, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, Shakespeare, among others—most of them artists; and all of them, in Freud’s account, men who defined their moment, not men struggling to assimilate to their societies, like many of the Jews of Freud’s generation; self-defining men, men pursuing their own truths against the constraints of tradition. In the young Freud’s myth of his own heroism, created in The Interpretation of Dreams, he was a man who would face, in a new way, the facts of his own life (he uses as his epigraph to the book a line—appropriately given his ambitions—from Virgil’s Aeneid, “If I can’t bend those above, I’ll stir the lower regions”). Through psychoanalysis the introspective hero born of romanticism went in search of scientific legitimacy. But heroism—not to mention scientific legitimacy— was another cultural ideal that would look different after psychoanalysis. What Freud would realize through his new science—and the devastation of the First World War would confirm this—was that the idea of heroism was an attempted self-cure for our flagrant vulnerability. Freud intimated, through psychoanalysis, that there might be other ways of finding life impressive, other pleasures that might sustain us.

We spend our lives, Freud will tell us in his always lucid prose, not facing the facts, the facts of our history, in all their complication; and above all, the facts of our childhood. Freud sees modern adults as people who cannot recover from their childhoods; as people who have a child’s view of what an adult is. He will show us how ingenious we are at not knowing ourselves, and how knowing ourselves—or the ways in which we have been taught to know ourselves, not least through the conventions of biography and autobiography—has become the problem rather than the solution. What we are suffering from, Freud will reveal, are all the ways we have of avoiding our suffering; and our pleasure, Freud will show us—the pleasure we take in our sexuality, the pleasure we take in our violence—is the suffering we are least able to bear. And to face all these improbable facts we need a different way of listening to the stories of our lives, and a different way of telling them. And, indeed, a different story about pleasure and pain; a story about nothing but the psychosomatic development of the growing child in the family, and the individual in his society; and a story with no religion in it. Instead of God as the organizing idea, there was the body in the family; the family that brings its own largely unknowable transgenerational history to the culture it finds itself in. Psychoanalysis, which started as an improvisation in medical treatment, became at once, if not a new language, a new story about these fundamental things, and a new story about stories. For Freud the modern individual is ineluctably, compulsively a biographer and an autobiographer. And his sexuality and his symptoms are among the forms his life story takes.

Taken from the introduction to Becoming Freud by Adam Phillips.
Published by Yale University Press, 5 June 2014, as part of the Yale Jewish Lives series.

Becoming Freud

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