‘Becoming Freud’, by Adam Phillips

Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, by Adam Phillips, Yale, RRP£18.99/$25, 224 pages

Sigmund Freud had mixed feelings about biography. Though he had experimented with the form himself in studies of Leonardo da Vinci and Woodrow Wilson, it was not easily reconciled with his psychoanalytic convictions. As Freud explained in a letter to the writer Arnold Zweig in 1936: “To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies . . . biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were to be had we could not use it.”

Freud’s latest biographer, the psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips, makes much of this antagonism. He begins by explaining that “the traditional biography was the first casualty of the psychoanalytic way of seeing things”. This may be putting it too mildly. Freud’s theories added so much complexity – so much of the unknowable, the perverse, the paradoxical – to our sense of what a life is like, that to try to capture one in a narrative came to seem pointless.

With unconscious forces to bear in mind, deterministic readings driven by simple cause and effect were the stuff of cheap novels. Phillips puts it more forcefully: “A biography, like a symptom, fixes a person in a story about themselves.” The challenge he faces in Becoming Freud is to incorporate these doubts into an account of the psychoanalyst’s first 50 years.

One way Phillips gets through – and sometimes around – writing a biography of Freud is by recourse to his own preoccupation with saying what psychoanalysis is. He sees it variously as “a catalogue of modern griefs”, “a (secular) language in which frustrations and their possible satisfactions could be felt and figured out”, “a story about development” made from “a story about assimilation”, a “story about stories”, and “a story about why stories about childhood might matter”.

On a more general note, Phillips writes, “We are always, in Freud’s view, trying to contain the uncontainable”, and perhaps attempting to define psychoanalysis is one example of this. Another is the concept behind the book itself. Becoming Freud is part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, which requires the author not only to present a coherent life of Freud but to make it “Jewish” as well. There being no ingenious way round this issue, Phillips gives Freud’s Jewishness a conventionally biographical treatment. At times, he even goes so far as to be deterministic.

In many ways this makes for a treat: we get to enjoy Phillips in an unprecedented mode, displaying the usual superhuman fluency but unburdened of his scepticism. He seems to enjoy the change himself, magicking up with ease the electric culture, “the fragile democracies and unstable aristocracies” of fin-de-siècle Europe, and the tensions of Jewish life in Vienna.

But it is as if attempting to write history takes him so far out of his psychoanalytic comfort zone that he finds himself saying things he can’t wholly believe. “Perhaps the most important thing about Freud’s family was that they were immigrants in the Vienna that Freud spent most of his life in,” he writes, and goes on to argue that Freud’s work “redescribes the transgenerational frustrations of his community in terms of the new science of child development”. All of which leads him to conclude, in what seems to be a bid to convince himself that he is still himself, that “Psychoanalysis is first and foremost a psychology of, and for, immigrants (people who can never quite settle).”

For all his unease in the role of biographer, Phillips still manages to create an impression of Freud as a man. He gives particular life to his subject as the father of six children, whose passions and new teeth feature in the letters alongside all the grander ruminations. In a characteristically charged phrase, Phillips suggests that the “return to family life that is the new family” was crucial to Freud’s work.

Equally compelling is his sense that there is an “unguarded intensity” in Freud’s account of sibling rivalry in the New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933). Writing aged 77, Freud describes how the birth of a sibling leaves the elder child “dethroned, despoiled” and with “a grievance against the faithless mother”. With the agility that defines his best thinking, Phillips uses this to connect Freud’s own experience of dethronement (he was the “favourite” eldest of eight siblings) with the idea of Jews as at once chosen and displaced. It is a profound association that gives a great surge of life to Phillips’ suggestion that Freud’s sensibility was “elegiac rather than celebratory, possessive, rather than openhanded”.

Becoming Freud offers more than enough proof that Phillips is the ideal author of a book about Freud – and also that biography is at once too speculative and too limiting a form for that book to take.

Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist

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