Review: Frederick C. Crews. Freud. The Making of an Illusion. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company, 2017.

Frederick C. Crews is the confirmation of Freud's path-breaking argument that hysteria is not confined to women. Crews is the English prof who, in addition to churning out predictable potboiler anthologies and tenure-track-greasing books, has been obsessively issuing one Freud-bashing volume after another over the past forty-odd years—surely a case study in itself. Crews’ latest dissect-to-murder tome devotes some 740 pages to Doctor Freud and his evil thoughts, deeds and drives. If Freud had ever bothered to pen something along the lines of “Freddie: An Analysis of a Case of Crewsism” it would have filled one side of a foolscap.

Crews is that all-too common type, the bitter “one-time Freudian," as he describes himself. Hell hath no fury like a groupie scorned; or an ex-Jesuit; or any dropout from any cult, initiatory society or in-group. Psychoanalysis is unique in this respect, not because it doesn’t have its share of angry dropouts but because the psychodynamics of rejection among patients and others have been so thoroughly addressed within Psychoanalysis itself. As early as 1923 Freud warned of the "temptation for the analyst to play the part of prophet, savior, and redeemer to the patient," arguing that too strong an attachment to the analyst could eventually prevent certain predisposed patients from constructing a sense of self independent from the projected ego-ideal, like a daddy’s girl who can’t let go of Daddy. There are parallels between Freud-bashers like Crews or Jeffrey Mason and Freud’s early cases of female “seduction,” that’s why Crews and Mason are obsessed with those cases to begin with: in either instance the subject attempts to compensate for a crushing sense of betrayal by a revered authority figure (shrink or father), resulting in unappeasable rage against the supposedly all-powerful figure. It’s not called a dangerous profession for nothing.

More recently another analyst coined the expression “transference to theory,” meaning that psychoanalytic candidates and patients were at risk of displacing their blind love or—as in Crews’ case, blind resentment—from the analyst to Psychoanalysis in general. The fact that personalities like Crews are beyond the reach of analysis, or that, in the best case, they had a negative experience in a particular analytical relationship, doesn’t mean they’re entitled to assume everybody else is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis. As the French say, Faut pas cracher dans la soupe: “That’s no excuse for spitting in the soup-tureen.“

Crew’s personal resentment provides the core of his argument, and its incoherence. Grant, if you must, that Freud was a conniving, lying, cheating, grasping, drug-sniffing, pussy-grabbing, backstabbing hack and a bounder to boot, which pretty much sums up Crew’s argument; that’s not sufficient to prove Freud’s incompetence, let alone the ineffectiveness of Psychoanalysis. Hey, it’s not even enough to explain either. As a teacher friend of mine repeatedly tells her students, “Any number of people have taken cocaine. Only one such person wrote Interpretation of Dreams.”

Crews grandly claims to have exhaustively researched his subject—a grandiose claim, considering how vast the field. But as Louis Armstrong used to say, any cat can play the notes, it’s what’s between the notes that counts. Crews piles up the data like Pelion on Ossa but he’s unable to explain what bearing Freud’s supposed evils had on Psychoanalysis itself, instead stacking up a series of anecdotes that would appear benign to an unbiased reader, only to draw damning conclusions that we are meant to believe impugn not only Freud but Psychoanalysis itself. Crews might as easily have accused Freud of being a vegan or a carnivore, or both at once, for all the difference it would have made to his argument or lack thereof since there’s precious little connection between Freud the man and Psychoanalysis to be found in this book. Actually, there’s not even that much about Freud or Psychoanalysis since most of Crews’ obsessions focus on the early years, long before Freud’s major works.

But it’s the specifics of Crews’ argument that reveals the true nature of his thinking. Granted, Crews is just another monkey throwing shit at a wall, but even monkeys grab the shit that’s closest at hand. Because what’s stunning about this book—disgusting is the better word—is that Crews' brief is based on a series of anti-Semitic tropes that were common in Turn of the Twentieth Vienna—who says he hasn’t done his research? When Crews claims Freud pretended to invent a theory he had stolen from others he’s merely paraphrasing Richard Wagner’s well-trampled argument that because Jews are unable to create anything on their own they’ve developed an uncanny knack for imitating the creativity of others. The difference is, that Wagner, who wildly borrowed from Jewish composers like Meyerbeer, was able to create something new in Music while Crews can’t even move beyond the most infantile pseudo-Freudian clichés of the “Hate-Your Mother” variety. Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend…

The bulk of Crews’ paranoid anti-Semitic ravings is borrowed from Theodor Billroth, the eminent Austrian surgeon who pretty much invented Academic anti-Semitism, arguing that Jews should be kept out of the medical profession because they were only attracted to it for the money. It was Billroth who fostered a situation where the University became the scene of frequent anti-Semitic and eventually Nazi riots; where there were two separate departments of Anatomy and no, it wasn’t one for the milk and one for the meat. Surely Crews, who claims to have done such thorough research, would be aware of this? Instead he opines that Freud, in his unending quest to boost his image, exaggerated the anti-Semitism he encountered at the University since most of his Jewish colleagues “appear to have felt at home there.” Let’s leave aside the fact that Jewish professors like Julius Tandler had their classes repeatedly disrupted by anti-Semitic brawlers; Crews has taken up Josef Goebbels’ Greuelpropaganda argument that Jews deliberately set themselves up for persecution so they can blame the ones they truly persecute—as in Charlottesville, for instance. As Jean-Paul Sartre has pointed out, an anti-Semite feels, deeply, that the Jews is something that’s being done to him. That, of course, is typical of most narcissistic personalities; on the other hand it takes a very special kind of narcissist to be an overdrive Freud-basher.

Ultimately, Crews’ argument falls or rises on a single unresolved question: not the effect of Freud’s duplicity on Freudian theories but the effect of Psychoanalysis on its public. The same friend I mentioned above once raised a similar conundrum in a congress of psychoanalysts of all persuasions: it’s a well-known fact that Carl Jung was an enthusiastic supporter and enabler of the Nazis; that doesn’t invalidate his theories any more than Freud being a cheat. Conversely, the fact that Jung was avidly supported by the Nazis themselves and Hitler in particular begs the question: “What was it about Jung’s theories that drew in Nazis and might draw them in again?” It would be fair to ask of Crews what it was in Freud’s theories that made him, as Freddie puts it, as popular as Jesus Christ or, as the Crews case illustrates, as obsessively unpopular as Count Dracula?  It’s no secret that psychoanalytic practice in America has become the worst vindication of Freud’s warning of 1923: that it would encourage and entrench narcissism instead of helping the patient to overcome it. Like Donald Trump, Crews takes on one of the most powerful roles available in a consumer society: that of avenger-in-chief, an ego-ideal for the dissatisfied customer. It’s worth noting that reader reviews of Crews on Amazon and elsewhere follow the same pattern as reader reviews of Hillary Clinton: neither is about the actual content of Freud or Clinton’s work, pro or con, they’re all about personal satisfaction or dissatisfaction, like an inarticulate infant.

To turn the question right-side-up: What is it in Freud’s popularity that Freddie takes as a personal affront? How does he rationalize the (to him) “real” reason that Psychoanalysis fails to satisfy? Crews’ Freud comes straight out of those disturbing cartoons in Der Stürmer in which a bulb-nosed shrink is encouraging his blond patient to lie down on the couch and enjoy it; disturbing for the creator as well—how do they do that? What secret satisfaction does the shikse get that Crews can’t? At least with black folks Crews may have the comforting rationalization that it’s all because of their bigger penises; his Freud is a reincarnation of that other classic figure of late nineteenth century anti-Semitism: Svengali, with his unaccountable powers of—you guessed it—hypnosis.

So much, according to Crews, for the efficient cause of Freud’s popularity; what of the final cause, the motivation? Fred answers thus:

Freud’s eventual doctrine would constitute […] a “transvaluation of values” that delegitimized the Christian dichotomy between spirit and sexual passion. But Freud couldn’t acknowledge that impetus without exposing the “science” of psychoanalysis as an ideological production.

Christianity is a “science”? Who knew? Not even an ideological production like, say, English Literature? The book’s driving aporia—playing for Crews the part of the Virgin Birth—boils down to the all-too-answerable question, why him? Cur homo Deus, and a Jew to boot? One wonders how Crews would react to the recent affirmation by Pope Francis of the efficacy of Psychoanalysis; most likely, like his fellow Christian in resentment Steve Bannon, he’d ascribe it to the Pope’s own venality—in other terms his “Jewishness;” in fact that's exactly how the fringe anti-Semites in the Church reacted to the Pope’s announcement. Crew’s thought process reads like a Medieval disputatio in which a Jew and a Christian are invited to debate the truth of their respective religions before a Christian jury. If the Jew loses he loses; if the Jew wins he also loses, since the very fact that his arguments are persuasive proves the deviousness of Jews in concocting wining arguments—arguments against the scientific proof of Christian Doctrine, for instance. Nit gezoign, nit gefloygn.

Sandra Boynton’s opus magnus, The Compleat Turkey, contains a similar exchange between an academic turkey and his hapless student. Quoting roughly, and from memory:

Your paper fails to take into account the book’s deep humanity, the main character’s willingness to question his own beliefs, his humility in listening to others rather than assuming omniscience. You flunk.

Here is Crews’ own version:

[Freud’s] preoccupations incapacitated him for grasping what the rest of humanity intuitively knows: that positive sexual experience is a function not just of secretions, agitated tissues and discharges but of whole persons whose needs to feel respected is fulfilled in the encounter.

This is funnier than Boynton on many levels. First and most obviously, there is the contrast between Crews’ bitchy rage and the tolerance that’s demanded in any therapeutic transaction; second, the sudden switch: all of a sudden Freud is too coldly scientific enough for Freddie, whose previous argument is that Freud’s not scientific to begin with. (Fred is an English prof, and we all know how scientific English Lit. can be, don’t we?) Third: the tension between the application of theoretical knowledge and the immediate need to cure is very much present in modern day Psychoanalysis; one recent writer speaks of the

basic polarity between the drive model, which is disdained as biological, mechanistic, and insufficiently attentive to intersubjective dynamics, and the relational model, which is lauded for being empathic and concerned with human values.

Certainly Freud’s “drive” model favored biological over socially determined motivations, whereas many later Freudians favored the latter; in no way does that invalidate Psychoanalysis as Humanism, or as Science, let alone affirming Crews’ self-contradictory contention that Freud is at once insufficiently objective and insufficiently subjective: in either case the Jew loses. Crews has a hard time distinguishing between Psychology (the thing they teach in the Psychology Department) and Psychoanalysis (the thing they practice with suffering people): this split is self-evident in a discipline where the empirical authority of the therapist or professor or father-figure is consistently undermined by data that is, by definition, not accessible by empirical means; and it’s the inaccessibility of the data that enrages Crews.

The final reason (a lot less funny), is that Crews’ scenario, pitting the cold-hearted Hebrew against the Merciful Christian, is as old as Methuselah's scholiasts:

a modern avatar of the negative-positive bipolarity that had long characterized the Christian understanding of Judaism—law against grace, […] greed against generosity […] and, ultimately, the unconscious against conscience.

Note Crews’ careful choice of words—from an English Prof, no less: Freud was not merely prevented, he was “incapacitated” from feeling empathy, much as da Joos in Medieval Christian lore were generically incapacitated from empathy with the Crucified Christ. The only accusation missing from Crews' book is the part where Freud sticks a dagger into a Communion wafer to watch it bleed.

Traditional English criticism made much—far too much—of the role of the theoros in Ancient Greece, the appointed official whose role, supposedly, was to state the Truth: not to find it or question it, mind you; simply to state it. This is has become the designated role of certain faculty in American universities: those out-of-touch, out-of-relevance authorities whose power rests on nothing but their own fantasies of privilege and entitlement, the hallmark of a certain tweedy wannabes in the English Department. You’ll meet a half-dozen or so in every incoming class in every graduate department; what sets them up for failure, sooner or later, is that they are intellectually incapable of grasping Theory, or even Methodology. Most of them drop out by the end of the first year, or maybe with a Masters, making a career of bitter recrimination against “Deconstruction,” or “Marxism” or “Psychoanalysis” in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New York Review of Books. Others, like Crews, manage to make an academic career out of being “oppressed”—by the Marxists, the Postmoderns, or the shrinks. To these people, that someone like Freud should claim an authority greater than their own is intolerable, a cosmic joke and, as Crews amply demonstrates, beyond any kind of rational explanation among those for whom rational explanation does not come naturally. Freud wrote somewhere that not all people are worthy of love. I would place Crews and his kind at the top of that list.


September 18, 2017; last revised September 19.