Sigmund Freud

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Jean-Martin Charcot believed there was an underlying problem. In the big picture, he was right.

The 19th-century physician, considered the “father neurology,” was pivotal in the understanding of ALS, Parkinson’s and other physical ailments, but it was his focus on neuroses that probably had the greatest impact on the world, through his own efforts and by those of his students.

In James Strachey’s introduction to a 1989 edition of Civilization and Its Discontents, he wrote:

Before his marriage, from October 1885 to February 1886, Freud worked in Paris with the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who impressed Freud with his bold advocacy of hypnosis as an instrument for healing medical disorders, and no less bold championship of the thesis (then quite unfashionable) that hysteria is an ailment to which men are susceptible no less than women. Charcot, an unrivaled observer, stimulated Freud’s growing interest in the theoretical and therapeutic aspects of mental healing. Nervous ailments became Freud’s specialty, and in the 1890s, as he told a friend, psychology became his tyrant. During these years he founded the psychoanalytic theory of mind.

It’s easy to look askance at Charcot’s dubious reliance on hypnosis (even he eventually though he overdid it) or Freud’s promotion of cocaine, but they were at that point essentially working in darkness, in possession of a few clues and searching for methods.

Charcot’s death was recorded in a September 10, 1893 article by Emma Bullet, Paris Correspondent of the Brooklyn Eagle. It includes a piece from an odd interview in which the doctor was asked if bicycling (which had only recently boomed in popularity) was healthy or injurious.

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It’s no small irony that Sigmund Freud died against the backdrop of one of the worst explosions of repressed rage the world has ever known. The Jewish “Father of Psychoanalysis” was hectored and hounded in his dying years by Nazis, who needed desperately needed the very inspection of self he encouraged. Freud ultimately fled Austria in a weakened state and died in London. Three Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles below tell part of the story.


From March 22, 1938:


From June 4, 1938:


From September 24, 1939.


A person isn’t merely a “satchel full of dung” as Bishop John Fisher argued in 1535, the year he was beheaded by King Henry VIII, but a surfeit of pride is just as bad as one of shame, maybe worse. In the middle of last century, psychiatry began trying to convince us we weren’t sinners but winners, as the “self-esteem movement” kickstarted with good intentions by Dr. Abraham Manslow began to take hold, even if there wasn’t much hard data to support its efficacy. Dissent eventually came from controversial research psychologist Roy Baumeister, son to a father driven by immense self-importance. The opening of Will Storr’s Matter piece,The Man Who Destroyed America’s Ego“:

“FOR MUCH OF HUMAN HISTORY, our beliefs have been based on the assumption that people are fundamentally bad. Strip away a person’s smile and you’ll find a grotesque, writhing animal-thing. Human instincts have to be controlled, and religions have often been guides for containing the demons. Sigmund Freud held a similar view: Psychotherapy was his method of making the unconscious conscious, helping people restrain their bestial desires and accord with the moral laws of civilization.

In the middle of the 20th century, an alternative school of thought appeared. It was popularized by Carl Rogers, an influential psychotherapist at the University of Chicago, and it reversed the presumption of original sin. Rogers argued that people are innately decent. Children, he believed, should be raised in an environment of ‘unconditional positive regard.’ They should be liberated from the inhibitions and restraints that prevented them from attaining their full potential.

It was a characteristically American idea—perhaps even the American idea. Underneath it all, people are good, and to get the best out of themselves, they just need to be free.

Economic change gave Rogers’s theory traction. It was the 1950s, and a nation of workmen was turning into a nation of salesmen. To make good in life, interpersonal sunniness was becoming essential. Meanwhile, rising divorce rates and the surge of women into the workplace were triggering anxieties about the lives of children born into the baby boom. Parents wanted to counteract the stresses of modern family life, and boosting their children’s self-esteem seemed like the solution.

By the early 1960s, wild thinkers in California were pushing Rogers’s idea even further. The ‘human potential movement’ argued that most people were using just 10 percent of their intellectual capacity. It leaned on the work of Abraham Maslow, who studied exceptional people such as Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt and said there were five human needs, the most important of which was self-actualization—the realization of one’s maximum potential. Number two on the list was esteem.

At the close of the decade, the idea that self-esteem was the key to psychological riches finally exploded. The trigger was Nathaniel Branden, a handsome Canadian psychotherapist who had moved to Los Angeles as a disciple of the philosopher Ayn Rand. One of Rand’s big ideas was that moral good would arise when humans ruthlessly pursued their own self-interest. She and Branden began a tortuous love affair, and her theories had an intense impact on the young psychotherapist. In The Psychology of Self-Esteem, published in 1969, Branden argued that self-esteem ‘has profound effects on a man’s thinking processes, emotions, desires, values and goals. It is the single most significant key to his behavior.’ It was an international bestseller, and it propelled the self-esteem movement out of the counterculture and into the mainstream.”


A 30-minute 1971 film about Maslow’s philosophical descendants.

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From a 1996 Tom Wolfe essay, a pithy explanation about how Freudianism and Marxism cratered and neuroscience became ascendant:

“The demise of Freudianism can be summed up in a single word: lithium. In 1949 an Australian psychiatrist, John Cade, gave five days of lithium therapy—for entirely the wrong reasons—to a fifty–one–year–old mental patient who was so manic–depressive, so hyperactive, unintelligible, and uncontrollable, he had been kept locked up in asylums for twenty years. By the sixth day, thanks to the lithium buildup in his blood, he was a normal human being. Three months later he was released and lived happily ever after in his own home. This was a man who had been locked up and subjected to two decades of Freudian logorrhea to no avail whatsoever. Over the next twenty years antidepressant and tranquilizing drugs completely replaced Freudian talk–talk as treatment for serious mental disturbances. By the mid–1980s, neuroscientists looked upon Freudian psychiatry as a quaint relic based largely upon superstition (such as dream analysis — dream analysis!), like phrenology or mesmerism. In fact, among neuroscientists, phrenology now has a higher reputation than Freudian psychiatry, since phrenology was in a certain crude way a precursor of electroencephalography. Freudian psychiatrists are now regarded as old crocks with sham medical degrees, as ears with wire hairs sprouting out of them that people with more money than sense can hire to talk into.

Marxism was finished off even more suddenly—in a single year, 1973—with the smuggling out of the Soviet Union and the publication in France of the first of the three volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Other writers, notably the British historian Robert Conquest, had already exposed the Soviet Union’s vast network of concentration camps, but their work was based largely on the testimony of refugees, and refugees were routinely discounted as biased and bitter observers. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was a Soviet citizen, still living on Soviet soil, a zek himself for eleven years, zek being Russian slang for concentration camp prisoner. His credibility had been vouched for by none other than Nikita Khrushchev, who in 1962 had permitted the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novella of the gulag, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as a means of cutting down to size the daunting shadow of his predecessor Stalin. “Yes,” Khrushchev had said in effect, “what this man Solzhenitsyn has to say is true. Such were Stalin’s crimes.” Solzhenitsyn’s brief fictional description of the Soviet slave labor system was damaging enough. But The Gulag Archipelago, a two–thousand–page, densely detailed, nonfiction account of the Soviet Communist Party’s systematic extermination of its enemies, real and imagined, of its own countrymen, by the tens of millions through an enormous, methodical, bureaucratically controlled “human sewage disposal system,” as Solzhenitsyn called it— The Gulag Archipelago was devastating. After all, this was a century in which there was no longer any possible ideological detour around the concentration camp. Among European intellectuals, even French intellectuals, Marxism collapsed as a spiritual force immediately. Ironically, it survived longer in the United States before suffering a final, merciful coup de grace on November 9, 1989, with the breaching of the Berlin Wall, which signaled in an unmistakable fashion what a debacle the Soviets’ seventy–two–year field experiment in socialism had been. (Marxism still hangs on, barely, acrobatically, in American universities in a Mannerist form known as Deconstruction, a literary doctrine that depicts language itself as an insidious tool used by The Powers That Be to deceive the proles and peasants.)

Freudianism and Marxism—and with them, the entire belief in social conditioning—were demolished so swiftly, so suddenly, that neuroscience has surged in, as if into an intellectual vacuum. Nor do you have to be a scientist to detect the rush.” (Thanks to The Electric Typewriter.)

More Tom Wolfe posts:

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In one clip, he smokes a cigar, which may have been just a cigar.