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Freud: A Life for our Time by Peter Gay,

Dent, 1988, Pp. xxii + 810 pages, hb 16.95

Reviewed by Robert M. Young

Freud: A Life for Our TimeThis is a fine biography. If asked for a book on Freudian psychoanalysis, I would hitherto have recommended Richard Wollheim's Freud (Fontana) or Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Chicago). Now I would place Peter Gay's biography before them.] What Gay achieves is the closest to an integration of the personal, intrapsychic, intellectual, social, cultural and large-scale political history of any biography I can recall, except for Victor Wolfenstein's psychohistory of Malcolm X: The Victims of Democracy (California). Throughout the text, Gay gives each of these levels of analysis its due and interweaves their roles to the degree that he feels able in a given episode. Some are tightly woven, some loosely; some are left until more evidence is available — for example, how intimate was Freud's relationship with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays?

There is a clear and competent exposition of each of Freud's major writings and many of the minor ones. I'd have liked more details of the neurological writings and the 1895 'Project for a Scientific Psychology' and believe that the secondary literature merits a closer integration of these writings with Freud's later ones. Even so, and on the whole, the expositions are consistently illuminating.

Gay is particularly clear about the fate of Freud's writings on the origins of civilization and his forays into history — especially Totem and Taboo, Michelangelo, Moses and Monotheism. The relevant disciplines have not been kind to these speculations, and in some cases Freud was just wrong. Yet when Gay puts these into a broader picture, including The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and its Discontents, the unity of his cultural vision makes the errors in his historical speculations less worrying. Freud was after the solution of larger issues — Edenic and apocalyptic. As he said in 1895, 'One cannot do without people who have the courage to think new things before they can demonstrate them' (p. 76).

I am left feeling, however, that the social level of explanation still requires an efficacy of its own, and that Freud's direct extrapolations from the intrapsychic and the familial to all social institutions were too sweeping. Freud wrote:


...the events of human history, the interactions between human nature, cultural development and the precipitates of primeval experiences (as whose representative religion pushes to the fore) are only the reflection of the dynamic conflicts among the ego, id and superego, which psychoanalysis studies in the individual — the same events repeated in on a wider stage. (p. 547)

Gay's comment is: 'He could not have stated the essential unity of his thought any more forcefully.'

More is needed — mediating levels of causation. On the other hand, Freud may not have been thoroughgoing enough about the persistence of the primitive in the substance of cultural — including scientific and artistic — creativity, as recent works on transitional phenomena and on Kleinian epistemology are, in my opinion, showing. Gay does not enter into these issues or go very far into recent controversies about the scientific standing of psychoanalysis. He is inclined, however, to sympathize with those who would press for scientific justifications of psychoanalysis based on a natural-science model.

Of the biographical studies I have read, Gay's is the most evocative and touching about the texture of Freud's life. This is particularly true with respect to his account of the privations suffered during and after World War I. We are given careful expositions of just what it was like to be without food, to suffer mega-inflation, to need packages with this or that particular item sent from abroad. He also gives a close account of the rise of Nazism and the decision to emigrate in 1938. Finally, we are given the details of Freud's long illness, its terminal stages and his death. The last of these is told with great dignity, and the final passage is beautifully written.

I have read many accounts of controversies that occurred among the founders of psychoanalysis. Until this one, they have all depressed me. Paul Roazen and Vincent Brome seem to delight in the exposition of how badly people can behave, while Peter Swales and Jeffrey Masson seem to me to want to show that people are genuinely and irredeemably corrupt, even sleazy and dishonest. They seem to wish to rest with this level of understanding. Gay — like Phyllis Grosskurth, but with a surer hand — takes a more worldly view. This is born, l suspect, of his greater experience as a cultural historian and the psychoanalytic training he undertook during the writing of his current series of psychohistorical books (see Freud, Jews and Other Germans, 1978; The Bourgeois Experience: Education of the Senses, 1984; Freud for Historians, 1985: The Bourgeois Experience: The Tender Passion, 1986; A Godless Jew, 1987) .


The more biographies one reads, the more obvious it is that every career, if truly told, is replete with setbacks, jealousies, bust-ups, bad times. Admiration is due to those who persevere; compassion to those who cannot. The biographer's job is to keep his/her wits in the midst of all the splits, and Gay does this admirably. Too often the biographies of intellectuals are histories of ideas plus life's vicissitudes. Sometimes — as with Grosskurth — most is right, but the account of the inner life spills over into wild analysis. Gay is balanced; he occasionally chances his arm, but carefully labels his speculations.

As l have said, l think this is a fine book and recommend it unreservedly. I read some reviews in the popular press that said that it was not all that well told, and one said that it bordered on being boring. This is wrong; I read most of it on holiday. I admit to reading a biography of Sinatra first, and dipping into biographies of Joseph Cotton and Burt Lancaster on the way. But day after day, the Gay biography won out.

One more thing about it is that the text is not cluttered by superscripts. There are quite a few qualifications in notes at the foot of the page. The citation notes are at the end, and behind that is a feast — a reflective bibliographical essay on each chapter, full of judgements, adjudication and reflections. These are lovely, and a mine of fine thought that shows what a beautiful distillation the main text is. The book is gracefully written throughout, and Peter Gay can be said to have produced a biography that supersedes Jones's magisterial one with a much more human document.

1098 words

Reprinted from Free Associations No. 18 (1989), 119-22

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ



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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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