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The Borderline Whack-Jobs Who Pioneered Psychoanalysis

Some were fanatical prudes, while one was dubbed “the Pied Piper of carnality.”

By Dean Christopher
Mar 5, 2008 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:52 AM


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Papa Freud didn’t leave his psychoanalytic offspring without issues. In Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (HarperCollins, $32.50), psychiatrist George Makari traces analysis from its birth trauma and jittery adolescence through a conflicted young adulthood. He reveals the constantly shifting landscape of analytic trends, the roundelay of alliances and betrayals, schools—and reform schools—of thought. Collaborations. Fallings-out. One colleague thought Sigmund Freud was actually planning to murder him over a disagreement.

All the Big Names, and lots of lesser ones, make appearances. Many anecdotes, predictably, deal with sex. Felix Salten, the author of Bambi, wrote porn under an alias. Philosopher Otto Weininger, Makari tells us, “recommended a complete renunciation of sexuality even for propagation, published his magnum opus, and promptly committed suicide later that year.”

Some analysts held that masturbation caused madness; others thought it cured madness. Some were fanatical teetotalers, others wild libertines. One was even dubbed “the Pied Piper of carnality.” A major pillar of the early psychoanalysis movement, repeatedly accused of child molestation and other sexual excesses, fled his homeland; another famous analyst died in jail.

There were ethnic, racist, sexist, and religious hissy fits: Women were emotion machines destined for hysteria; blacks were inherently uncivilizable. Zurich’s Protestant analysts (Jung) maintained a tense relationship with Vienna’s Jewish group (Freud). Freud’s sexually perplexed protégé Fritz Wittels wrote, “As Sancho Panza rides behind Don Quixote, so syphilis behind Christianity.” Hungarian Jewish-born Max Südfeld, writing as Max Nordau, “believed Jews were disproportionately degenerate. To ameliorate this hereditary curse, Nordau lamely advised the practice of gymnastics.” Gymnastics? Pole-vault your way to stability? And what, exactly, does that pole represent?

Makari’s story portrays Freud as a complex, driven, troubled, egotistical visionary intent on establishing a legitimate new science but also a canny politician lusting for fame and success. To that end, the author writes, Freud was not above “borrowing” others’ ideas, adapting them to his own theories, even undermining colleagues’ contributions if he felt they threatened his primacy. Freud eventually admitted that—despite the most purely Freudian self-analysis in history—even he was not immune to the forces of repressed sexuality.

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