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On the Couch: Writers Analyze Sigmund Freud review – the shrink’s shrink engagingly examined by Siri Hustvedt, Susie Boyt and others

On the Couch: Writers Analyze Sigmund Freud review – the shrink’s shrink engagingly examined by Siri Hustvedt, Susie Boyt and others

Spare a thought for Ida Bauer. The 17-year-old came to Freud’s consulting room with a host of symptoms – fainting fits, pains, hoarse cough, breathlessness. She told Freud her dad’s friend Herr K had tried to seduce her from the age of 13. Possibly K’s advances, for which she once understandably slapped him, were erotic payback for her father having an affair with Herr K’s wife.

Freud disagreed, arguing that, really, she wanted to be seduced by Herr K – and by her therapist too. Unsurprisingly, she terminated Freud’s therapy after three months. “Talk about unexamined projection!” writes the cartoonist and editor Sarah Boxer in the first essay in this often droll and always engaging collection, arguing that his treatment of Ida was: “Ground zero for ‘No means yes.’”

The world knows Ida Bauer as Dora, the name Freud gave her in his 1905 case study of hysteria, in which he was the unreliable narrator posing as sober scientist, she a bundle of symptoms without voice or agency. What does a woman want, Freud once asked. He scarcely needed to ask to know.

No wonder that, in another essay, the novelist Sheila Kohler rereads Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria and, even though impressed by Freud’s literary skills, rages: “I was appalled by the role of the therapist here, Freud’s bullying tone, his insistence on his assumptions. How dare he, I asked myself, insist this girl was in love with Herr K?”

But Freud did dare. That’s why books like this are being published 85 years after he died. “Our desire,” wrote Adam Phillips in his introduction to The Penguin Freud Reader, “when it is not solely the struggle for survival, is essentially, in Freud’s view, a desire for something forbidden, it is the very thing we try not to know about, it is the only thing that interests us”. If that’s the truth about human desire (and despite the biological determinists purporting to demonstrate that psychoanalysis is finished, it may well be), perhaps Ida did want to sleep with Herr K and with Freud too. Until we hear from Ida Bauer, these remain possibilities.

Women’s voices in this collection are alone worth the price of the book. Susie Boyt spends an overwrought night in London’s Freud Museum, worried she’s being monitored by CCTV to ensure she doesn’t sit on her great-grandfather’s fragile couch, before finally curling up, a sleepless Goldilocks, in Anna Freud’s bed.

Sigmund Freud in London in 1938View image in fullscreen

And then there’s Jennifer Finney Boylan snarlingly tearing up Freud’s thesis that everybody has penis envy, even women – from the perspective of a transgender woman who, we learn, happily lost hers.

That said, there’s one woman’s voice that doesn’t get an airing: at the end of Searching for Martha Freud, Daphne Merkin admits that when Freud’s wife died 12 years after Sigmund, she took “the mystery of who she was with her”.

The book is the clever idea of the literary agent Andrew Blauner. He commissioned 25 of his favourite authors to write about Freud. He’s found a lucrative literary groove: previous books include The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the Gang, and the Meaning of Life and Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference.

This one is a lovely grab bag of essays, with meditations on Freud’s dogs, terrifying glimpses into trauma (“My daughter leapt to her death off the Golden Gate Bridge. It was July in that first god-awful summer of Covid,” begins Thomas Lynch’s Freudian meditation on mourning), and analysands and analysts meditating on the value or otherwise of what they did inside the secular confessional. Peter D Kramer worries that his early years as a Freudian shrink may have harmed his patients, adding: “In a more general sense, my Freudian learning served patients well. I listened intently… I remained quiet and more restrained than most modern therapists.”

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But why bother putting Freud on the couch? Aren’t his Victorian views about women, homosexuality and much else besides as outmoded as crocheted covers for sexually arousing piano legs? It’s notable that it is the women here who make the strongest cases for the dead patriarch’s relevance to us. The sociologist Sherry Turkle calls for a return to Freud as cure for our age of inauthenticity, in which we are reduced to exploitable datasets that deny our inwardness, not to mention our polysemous perversity.

The novelist Siri Hustvedt concludes the book with a eulogy to Freud’s talking cure. “The therapist tolerates what others do not want to hear, and she answers without judgment.” Unlike, it should be added, Freud with Ida Bauer. But Hustvedt makes a good point: “In the room, the details of a person’s life stories are crucial not incidental. The person is not reduced to his brain, genome or diagnosis.” That’s why, no doubt, writers and artists, if not scientists, are still drawn to Freud.

It’s very striking that here Hustvedt uses “she” for analyst and “he” for analysand. Those pronouns suggest that today Freudian analysis is practised most significantly not by bearded patriarchs on hysterical women, but by women on often more or less hysterical men. With the twist that, let’s hope, this time around the shrinks are really listening.

  • On the Couch: Writers Analyze Sigmund Freud, edited by Andrew Blauner, is published by Princeton University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com