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Freud, Charcot and hysteria: lost in the labyrinth

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Freud and the Judaeo-Christian tradition: an exchange between Frederick Crews and Richard Webster


The Great Philosopher Series



Weidenfeld and Nicholson, Phoenix
Paperback, £3.00

It was Madame de Sévigné who wrote to one of her correspondents that, since she did not have time to write a short letter, she was writing a long one instead.

This book is 600 pages shorter than the first book I wrote about Freud and perhaps Madame de Sévigné’s words may help to explain why it has taken so long to appear.

Decanting a two-gallon jug of wine into a pint-sized bottle is not an easy task but that is what I have tried to do. A few drops have inevitably been spilled but this book does manage to tell the main story.

It focuses on Freud’s treatment of sex and the manner in which he wove his theories into his therapeutic methods. But it also locates the origins of psychoanalysis in medical history. It shows how Freud, failing to understand the depth of the neurological ignorance which prevailed in turn-of-the century Europe, made Charcot's diagnostic errors into the very foundations of his own science.

‘In this brief book, as in his earlier much longer work, Richard Webster has shone a bright and steady light into the dark, tangled, sometimes shocking world of Freud and his theories. Even when Freud stands convicted, it is usually out of his own mouth, while Webster’s style remains a model of calm lucidity.’

‘This is actually rather an entertaining demolition job, which ranges from an account of Anna O’s “hysteria” to the eventually discarded “seduction theory”, the problem of “reconstructed” memories, the Oedipus complex and the odd influence of an ENT specialist named Fliess. Webster remains unconvinced by Freud’s peculiar belief that “the rhythmic pattern of copulation is reproduced in going upstairs”, and that stairs in dreams thus symbolise sex. He invents his own hilarious theory of a fourth stage of psychosexual development, termed the “manual stage” - which explains, for example, “the compulsive hand-holding so frequently indulged in by mothers and children in our culture” - just to demonstrate how easy it is to make up plausible generalisations. If Freud is now largely defended in terms of his cultural impact, Webster insists that “Freud’s belief that he was constructing a genuine science remains crucial to any understanding of how psychoanalysis developed”.’

                                                        STEVEN POOLE, Guardian


For a better view of the splendid Delvaux painting, 'Les phases de la lune I'  featured on the front cover, please click here. Or for a larger and more gaudy reproduction, click here.