Interview with the Dr. Todd Dufresne examines Sigmund Freud’s deception and the legacy of psychoanalysis.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Lakehead University Philosophy Professor Dr. Todd Dufresne. During the interview Dufresne examines Freud’s deceptions from a modern academic perspective:
Alex Tsakiris: I always stop at this point and say, “What would that look like in term of modern academic standards?” What would happen if any intellectual, academic figure of our time was known to have done those things?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: The problem is, Alex, that’s there’s hardly any modern equivalent to Freud. What Freud got away with for so long, was essentially passing off incomplete results, or fraudulent results as the truth. He did all of the things you said he did. He manufactured evidence and even the evidence that he had, he may have felt legitimately and honestly is so shot-through with epistemological problems because there’s the contamination of results by the expectations he had on the patients. We know this is called “suggestion,” right?
One of the things that’s interesting about Freud is that he was a scientist and as a scientist he had followers. These followers routinely referred to his major works like The Interpretation of Dreams as their “bibles.” So we’re already in Freud’s life in the presence of a kind of cult or church or something that’s not scientific. He asked some legitimate questions. He explored these questions but at some point ambition took over and he fudged the results in many ways like you’re saying.
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Today we welcome Dr. Todd Dufresne to Skeptiko. Dr. Dufresne is a social and cultural theorist best-known for his work on Sigmund Freud and the history of psychoanalysis. He’s a Professor of Philosophy at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario and the author of several fascinating books on this topic. I’ll give you a couple of them: one is titled, Killing Freud: 20th Century Culture and the Death of Psychoanalysis. Another that I dipped into in preparing for this interview is Tales From the Freudian Crypt: The Death Drive in Text and Context. Interesting twists in that one, as well.
So with that welcome to Skeptiko, Todd. Thank you so much for joining me.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Thanks for having me, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: We have a lot of ground I’d like to cover. Hopefully we can do a good job of covering it all, but can you tell us a little bit about your basic bio? Your background? And then lead into your interest in Freud from a research perspective?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: I’d be happy to do that. I guess I came to Freud accidently. My background is I did a B.A. in Philosophy at a university called Western in London, Ontario. At Western I really discovered and was interested in post-structuralism, actually. So after my undergraduate I went off to an interesting program at York University in Toronto called “Social and Political Thought,” where I did my master’s and Ph.D.
In some ways I went there with the intention of studying deconstruction, which I suppose you could say is literary theory but for philosophers, of course, it’s a philosophical idea and Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction, is a philosopher.
What I realized pretty quickly is that if I was going to study deconstruction I needed to study not just deconstruction, because really it’s parasitical upon whatever it’s analyzing, so I needed to study deconstruction and something. It could be deconstruction and Plato, deconstruction and Rousseau. I stuck on doing deconstruction and psychoanalysis because so many of my colleagues at York, in Toronto generally, were deeply invested in psychoanalysis which was a surprise to me.
Alex Tsakiris: Can I interject a couple of things? Why was it a surprise to you? And maybe before that, back up and give folks the Cliff Notes version of deconstructionism, the big picture view there.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Deconstruction is a theory that to me is the cutting edge of what is called post-structuralism, which is essentially what French philosophy was from 1968 through to the ‘80s. I did my graduate work in the ‘80s which is the period sometimes called high theory, which is to say a lot of people worked on French philosophy.
What Derrida Deconstruction is really about is a critique of foundations and what is sometimes called in a fancy way, essentialism. So theories of meaning which are essentialist classics would be Platonism, the idea of the theory of forms, the idea that there’s an essential notion of truth which only certain people have access to, and what we have with deconstructionists is a deep analysis of the assumptions of authority and ultimately a power to go into these theories.
Alex Tsakiris: So The Simpsons’ version of this, if you will, is just the idea that everything is up for grabs in much more of a way than we’ve been led to believe. We’ve kind of bought into a system of education and culture that has some fundamental assumptions that need to be challenged and deconstructed. Is that what Lisa would say?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: That’s what Lisa would say. Yeah, critiquing authority and power. That would be the very short thing to say. Usually at the level of how texts and authors contradict themselves in their basic assumptions. That would be something that deconstructionists do. I suppose when I was in my graduate school period, I was very much a committed deconstructionist.
What happened to me, which is kind of funny, is I was interested in deconstruction and did work on that but because I wanted to do a field that made sense as a site for deconstruction what I had to do was something about Freud and psychoanalysis. I had some exposure to it as an undergraduate so I wasn’t completely cold on it but I didn’t know a whole lot. Because of the cultural interest in deconstructure and psychoanalysis in Toronto it just made sense for me to look at it.
I think what you asked me was why I was surprised that psychoanalysis was so popular and important to my graduate school colleagues. Well, what’s interesting in Ontario, Canada where I was doing my graduate work is that psychoanalysis was covered–and still is covered as I understand it–by our health care plan so many of my graduate school colleagues and many graduate students in general would go into psychoanalysis, which was free.
It was four or five days a week of 50-minute hours. They would explore themselves, right? So in some sense people were doing it often not just because they were neurotic students but in that purer sense that they wanted to explore themselves as artists, which is like what Woody Allen was trying to do with his many, many years of psychoanalysis. Not only would you have some things you’d want to explore, some neurotic tics or whatever, but just because it may make it easier for you to think creatively about the world around you, etc.
It’s the kind of thing, in other words, that people with excess time and money usually do. In the case of Toronto there’s a huge psychoanalytic institute there so there’s a lot of psychoanalysts and there’s a huge number of students that are willing to take it up. So many of my colleagues were into it.
I came from a fairly traditional conservative school, Western in London, where the idea that people were in psychoanalysis was completely foreign to me. Before that I’d come from Northwestern Ontario where I’m sure I knew about Freud but not in any serious way and certainly had never heard of anybody that actually had been in analysis. So when I went to grad school I met many people that were in analysis. I just thought it was very surprising to me. So that’s how I got interested in Freud.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so that’s how you got interested in it. Then once you got interested in it you, like a lot of folks who have a fair-minded, open-ended research interest, you find a lot of history that hasn’t been adequately explored and explained, at least until recently.
Can you take us through the evolution of this Freud scholarship? What’s emerged in the last 20 or 30 years in terms of who Freud really was? What’s the story behind these murmurs we hear in the background that maybe Freud wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: That’s a good question. I’ll back up just for one second and say this first to get into that: for myself, because I was interested in deconstruction, what happened to me is when I looked at Freud I realized that the work of deconstruction and psychoanalysis was not actually very good. So ironically I ended up being somebody that was interested in deconstruction but became a specialist in Freud. My first self-authored book, Tales From the Freudian Crypt, that you mentioned ends essentially before I started doing my own thing with a critique of Derrida on deconstruction.
What I was left with was realizing the limitations of deconstruction and stuck with an area of study that I in fact never had any intention of being a specialist in, which is Freudian psychoanalysis. I’m very unusual, I suppose, because I came to psychoanalysis not because I was in analysis or I particularly liked it. Just purely because I was curious about it.
To follow up on the rest of your question, the evolution of Freud scholarship, one of the things that really struck me pretty quickly was I got lucky in some ways. I was a TA for a guy named Paul Rosen, who’s a major Freud scholar and he was the main Freud scholar at York University. He’s one of the main biographers of Freud in the world. He has since passed away. I happened to be set up with him to be his TA, which made sense given my interests.
What I quickly realized is that in the field of psychoanalysis there are certain texts and certain thinkers that are verboten. They’re not allowed, right? And certain kinds of thinkers that are not looked upon very well. Rosen was one of these people. My great luck is that I worked with a guy that was already kind of a heretic in psychoanalysis.
I was immediately struck by how politicized the field was and how if you simply read somebody like Rosen’s work or many other scholars who have been on a list of heretics, you realize that there’s lots of great work out there that many people simply won’t read because it is somehow it’s been blacklisted one way or another. What I had to realize is that I had to find my own way.
And that the field of criticism in the last 30-40 years was made possible by people like Paul Rosen, Henri Ellenberger, a great historian, as well. At the other end of that you’ll find Frank Coffey, a great philosopher who has since passed away as well and in the ‘90s somebody like Frederick Crews, who is an English professor from Berkeley, since retired. These people had to have a certain amount of courage to go against everyday convictions about Freud and psychoanalysis because, like I said, certain criticisms of Freud and certain viewpoints of Freud were just not indulged at all.
So for me, I didn’t have to be brave in some ways. The field was already opened up by these people who suffered the consequences of their heresy, I suppose. Rosen, who started off as a darling of the psychoanalytic field and became a heretic, he really suffered personally at the hands of institutional psychoanalysis. He would have wanted to be accepted in some way, I think.
For me, of course, I had no illusions. I never cared to be accepted by them and I also had no problem reading works that people wouldn’t read.
Alex Tsakiris: Before we talk past that too much, give people a sense for this criticism. There are layers of criticism and the way you’re saying it I think people might get the impression that there’s a little tussle over how this should be interpreted or that should be interpreted when in fact the real historical touch-points that we have paint just a horrible picture of Freud—of someone who’s really a complete fraud. Who manufactures evidence in order to support his theories, that copies without attribution other people’s work or at least he promotes himself as being this original great genius when he’s really stood on the shoulders of all these other people.
I mean, the history of it beyond just critiquing theory is just stunning for people who haven’t fully encountered it. The other side of that that I really want you to get into to support that is how we know this information was really held under lock and key and protected under the tightest controls for so long. Then it’s gradually pried loose. So give people a sense for that.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: There’s so much to say I hardly know where to begin. In some ways, from my perspective, what really happened was Ernest Jones came out with this three-volume biography in 1953, 1955, 1957, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work. Then he died. Basically you have everything after the Jones biography, which is an official biography of psychoanalysis, as kind of a response to this official biography. What happens is that people start becoming more and more critical of psychoanalysis.
For me, Rosen is one of the first figures in this regard and it’s around 1967 when he publishes a book called, Brother Animal, in which he reveals that one of Freud’s earlier followers committed suicide. I guess the radical side of this is that Freud was very unmoved by this follower’s plight. He was a sycophant like half the people surrounding Freud, and Freud rebuffed him in various ways and the guy committed suicide.
Okay, that’s horrible but not entirely surprising in some ways. But deeper and more radical than that, Rosen exposed that during two periods in the 1920s Freud analyzed his own daughter, Anna, and that’s what really got him into trouble. That’s kind of the beginning of this movement to reassess the fundamental myths of psychoanalysis or the things we didn’t know were myths but certainly we now know are myths.
I call it really the beginning of critical Freud studies. I take it to be a post-Jones movement, roughly from the mid-‘60s through to the late 1990s and maybe going on today, as well. I see it as like the whole purpose of scholarship and Freud studies is to move to critical Freud studies.
Now how did it happen? It’s really amazing. One of the untold stories of psychoanalytic studies or Freud studies, as it’s usually called, is that one of the reasons there’s so much misinformation is that the vast majority of books published and that appear under the library heading of BF173 to BF175 roughly—go to any library and you’ll find all the Freud books there.
Most of this work is vanity publishing. So much of the field is run by psychoanalysts who have positions of authority. They start their own book publishers. They start their own journals. Pretty soon they have an authority in the marketplace of ideas so it’s very, very hard to actually find in the thousands of books published on Freud anything that actually tells the truth. It’s a hard thing for somebody to free themselves from many, many misconceptions about Freud.
You mentioned a couple of them. Freud manufactured evidence. One of the things that’s not well-appreciated is how Freud went out of his way to manipulate the reception of his own work, right? He wrote his own histories, first of all. Many times he revised his own histories and sometimes there are discrepancies with his own histories. He was always trying to spin his history in advance because Freud always perceived himself as an historically important person, so he proceeded accordingly.
He destroyed some of his correspondence. He would destroy some of his process notes that he used to create his famous case studies, of which there really is only four that he wrote, all of which are failures, by the way. He destroyed the notes and these were important cases. You’d think you’d keep them but he destroyed them. He tried to get his famous letters with Wilhelm Fliess destroyed but Marie Bonaparte preserved them against his wishes.
So Freud was always interested in manipulating the reception of his work and he was largely successful in many ways. People have generally believed what he said.
Alex Tsakiris: Can we stop right there? One of the things I always like to do when we get into these discussions with people and I have just a very superficial understanding of this stuff—you could get into it in much greater detail. I always stop at this point and say, “What would that look like in modern academic standards?” Just what we already know there. What would that look like if any intellectual, academic figure of our time was known to have done those things? I can’t imagine but that they would be completely ostracized as just the beginning of it. They’d be a complete joke.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: The problem is, Alex, that’s there’s hardly any modern equivalent to Freud. What Freud got away with for so long, which is essentially passing off incomplete results or fraudulent results as the truth—I can give you some examples as we get into it later. He did all of the things you said he did. He manufactured evidence and even the evidence that he had, he may have felt legitimately and honestly is so shot-through with epistemological problems because there’s the contamination of results by the expectations he had on the patients. We know this is called “suggestion,” right? And undue influence.
One of the things that’s interesting about Freud is that he was a scientist and as a scientist he had followers. These followers routinely referred to his major works like The Interpretation of Dreams as their “bibles.” So we’re already in Freud’s life in the presence of a kind of cult or church or something that’s not scientific. This guy was a trained neurologist, right? He asked some legitimate questions. He explored these questions but at some point ambition took over and he fudged the results in many ways like you’re saying.
What should happen with Freud is the minute people see that he fudged the results in a number of ways that are absolutely clear—there’s no question—well, anybody that has any fair-mindedness would say that everything that follows from these results is therefore questionable. But that’s not what happens with Freud, and that’s because we’re in the presence of a belief system, like a religion, so people don’t want to question it. Anything like this today, you’d lose tenure. You’d lose your job. You’d be fired. When this happens people fall into disgrace. But Freud has never really seriously fallen into disgrace.
One of the things that’s happened which is amazing to me because I’m somebody who works in the humanities is that part of the blame belongs to people in the humanities and social sciences that don’t really care about science, or in some ways truth, not to be too general about it. They don’t care that maybe he fudged the results; they’re just interested in this as a hermeneutic system, a way of interpreting the world. So this is the place we get, where people are really non-skeptical about Freud and they don’t want to hear it, you know? They do not want to hear it. And that’s my colleagues, I’m afraid.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s really interesting. I think it will be very interesting to a lot of our listeners because I think that kind of theme comes up again and again on Skeptiko and that’s that we all think that we’re driven by data and evidence. What we come to find out is that we aren’t so much driven by data and evidence; we’re driven by beliefs and values and all sorts of strange ways that we protect ourselves.
Now might be a good time to give us a couple of examples.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: We’ll start at the beginning. The case of Anna O. was a case that Freud and his colleague, Josef Breuer, produced as Chapter 1 of Studies in Hysteria. It was presented as the first successful cure of hysteria through talking. Anna O.’s actual name was Bertha Pappenheim, who coined the phrase, “chimney-sweeping and the talking cure.” That’s her invention which was taken up by psychoanalysis.
It was presented as a cure but in fact we know conclusively, with no question, and we’ve know it since 1972, that when Bertha Pappenheim finished with her analysis with Josef Breuer, she was put into a sanitarium where she was diagnosed as hysteric. Not only was she hysteric, she was also addicted to some drugs for a facial neuralgia which wasn’t even mentioned in the case study.
Incidentally, Bertha Pappenheim, in her later life, records that she hated psychoanalysis. Of course she did. She knew they published a case in which she was presented as a hysteric who was cured by psychoanalysis when she knew perfectly well that she wasn’t. Of course, she couldn’t come clean and say, “By the way, I’m the hysteric they’re talking about, that crazy person, and they never did cure me. You know why they didn’t? Because I was still hysteric.” This is not something she could say.
Bertha Pappenheim became an important social worker and Feminist in Germany so this was not somebody who could say anything. I think Freud and them knew that. And Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen has written a really good book in which he basically says they banked on her silence. Okay, here’s an example where they presented as the first cure, somebody who literally clearly was not cured. And really, that’s how everything goes in the history of psychoanalysis. They present stuff that is completely untrue.
Alex Tsakiris: Another part of this history that I think folks might find interesting is later in his career. Can you talk a little bit about Freud publishing these psychoanalysis papers on public figures and celebrities that he had never even met? I think that’s just extraordinary. In our time it’s just laughable but he really did try and pull this off.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Well, he did some analyses of Dostoevsky, whom he had never met. This is more of what Freud himself would almost admit is like a wild psychoanalysis but he indulged himself because he was a cultured guy and he was interested in a wide range of themes.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, but keep in mind what you said before. He’s a scientist, right? He’s proposing a theory and he’s built this whole enormous edifice of consultants that are going out and making all this money. So with that, what is he saying about folks?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: The funny thing is he is a scientist but he’s heavily influenced by literature. What he thought he was doing in some ways was making scientific the insights of poets and philosophers before him. So this is why he was so deeply interested in Shakespeare, who he couldn’t believe was the actual author of those works. Or this is also why, on the other hand, he was interested in Nietzsche but in a negative way. He would never cite Nietzsche and claimed that he never read him though we know conclusively that in fact he studied him in university and studied with people that knew lots about Nietzsche.
So Freud is trying to do the science of the unconscious. The unconscious had a history that predated Freud and he was going to make it scientific. So he’s dealing with really the history of the humanities and social sciences, in a way. He was a very smart guy so he had a diverse set of interests that much outstripped the interests of his followers who, like you say, were clinicians who were trying to make money off of a particular therapeutic practice. But Freud didn’t just engage in therapeutic practice. He engaged in this theoretical sort of work which is where he gets himself into all kinds of trouble.
Now, why did he do that? Because in a way, Freud never wanted to be a therapist in the first place. Freud wanted to be a scientist. Freud wanted to be a research scientist in a university. Really, he wanted to be a professor but that route was denied to him because he was a Jew. So faced with this anti-Semitism, plus he got married and they started having kids right away, Freud started a private practice.
The necessities of a private practice are that you have to have patients. Freud had a private practice as a nerve doctor. He was trained as a neurologist but he studied people’s nerves, which we know has nothing to do with neurology. He created this practice out of the tritest of the medical system, which is to say people who suffer from hysteria and things like that were being ignored by the medical profession. So the good thing about Freud is he took serious psychosomatic complaints that everybody ignored before. That made him the first real psychotherapist.
The bad side of this is he didn’t really care about therapy; he cared about science. So what he did is he took the analytic couch as his laboratory. Freud was constantly on the look for something that would make him well-known and respected as a scientist and that’s what’s driving his findings and his manufacturing of findings. It’s driving his claims about cocaine earlier on in his career and about childhood sexual abuse and childhood sexual fantasy. This stuff is driven by his desire to be recognized, which is completely understandable and human, but that’s what gets him into trouble.
Your question was about this work where he branches off and does what I call “a wild biographical study” of Dostoevsky and others. The best one of all is one that psychoanalysts believe he didn’t even write and was published in the 1980s. It’s called Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study that he wrote with William Bullitt.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s one I’ve heard of, right.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: It’s hilarious. It is so awful. And what’s also great is that the psychoanalysts claim there’s no way Freud wrote that, that it must have been by William C. Bullitt, who was a fraud. But we know that he did write it so that just shows you how much they wanted to distance themselves in the 1960s from what was obviously not just wild analysis but bullshit through and through. Freud hated Woodrow Wilson.
He also disliked or you could say hated Americans, but at the same time needed the Americans because they were fueling his practice after WWI for sure. He had many, many patients from America. He needed their money; he let them pay him in American dollars, but at the same time really hated Americans.
He’s got some great line where he says, “The problem with one American patient I had is that he had no unconscious.” That’s the ultimate insult from Freud. And that says something about what he thinks about Americans in general. Clichés. No history; no unconscious; no depth. This is a European matter, right?
Alex Tsakiris: How does this idea that gets germinated here in the United States as it moves over of psychoanalysis and that we need to break through these barriers and all that? How does that work its way into and maybe tap into some cultural trends that are already in existence? It does have this kind of snowball effect. That’s something you’ve done a nice job of pulling apart. How does it hit those chords that we already believe? What is it about psychoanalysis and about Freud’s ideas that made us want to believe, that made us want to jump into it like that?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: There’s quite a bit of work done on it and in some ways I suppose you could say it’s a mystery how it is that this European theory about depth in history fits so well with American ideas, especially when Freud thought America was the opposite of that. It wasn’t about the unconscious, but the conscious. It wasn’t about the Id; it’s about the ego, and so on. He said Americans are only interested in “dollaria.” He attacked them very much. But somehow it caught on.
For him it was because it had to have been misunderstood, right? Because psychoanalysis is such a rebellious, revolutionary idea that if anybody immediately likes it obviously they’ve misunderstood the radical import of it. That was his view.
This is why when it was picked up in France and they took it as a point of honor or pride that they resisted Freud for a very long time until it caught on in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s because they took it seriously, right? They resisted it and then understood it deeply. Americans just took it up right away.
I think some of the things about American individualism—this is about the psychoanalysis of one person, not looking at what the social and cultural determinants of your illness are but what it is about your psychological makeup. What is it about your dreams? It’s really about the individual. So that fits with American ideas.
To one of the last things you said about politics, I think one of the keys to understanding why it is that criticism of Freud–that he’s like a Teflon god in the face of all this criticism—in an English-speaking world, especially in America, Freud really was the proponent of not free sex. Not just the unconscious. But of a kind of liberal view of the world. A greater openness. And this fit in not with everyone in America, of course, but with what we call nowadays the liberal elites living along the coasts, right? So all the big cities on the coasts plus Chicago and some other places.
These are the hotbeds of psychoanalytic interest. Why? Because these urbanites are sophisticated enough to understand that here finally is a philosopher/doctor/scientist saying that it’s okay to live freer, more carefree, individualistic lifestyles. So in that sense it’s good, right? Freud is on the side of the angels for liberals.
As soon as somebody attacks Freud, like me or my colleagues, that’s why their first reaction is well, you must be a neo-Nazi conservative right-wing crazy person.
Alex Tsakiris: Or have some kind of weird religious…
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Exactly. It’s not for intellectual reasons. Obviously your politics have got to be bad if you’re against Freud because Freud is on the side of good. On the side of progressiveness. Well, in a way, yes he was. That’s how the American Left received him. Great. That’s why he made possible people like Herbert Marcuse and another crazy guy, Wilhelm Reich, who was huge in the States for quite a while with his orgone accumulator and all the rest of that. So Freud is on the side of progressiveness. To go against him must mean you’re a conservative jerk.
That’s happened still in France, as well. That’s how the French have received the critics, too. You must be anti-Semites. You must be conservative. How can you possibly criticize somebody who’s on the side of progressive politics?
Alex Tsakiris: And at the same time, as you point out in this book, Tales From the Freudian Crypt, he’s playing some notes that resonate with our religious traditions, our Adriatic traditions, right? Of this death drive. This apocalyptic kind of situation that we’re in, right? It’s a grim kind of message in some way that he’s painting in a much more subtle kind of way.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Yeah, that’s true. It’s funny you say that because the funny thing about Freud’s views of human nature, especially the late work of Freud is thought to be after 1920 so that’s the work made possible by Beyond the Pleasure Principle, which is what I discuss in the book that you mentioned. That’s the work that everybody’s actually familiar with which is, The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents. That is made possible by the late work.
What’s interesting about that work and it’s funny that it’s so popular in a way, is that this work is Freud’s darkest work. His view of human nature is, as you say, a grim view of human nature. Even in The Future of an Illusion which seems like on the surface an anachronistic, enlightenment attack on religion still has in its Conclusion very dark views about how humankind can only change over the space of geological time. The more obvious Freudian view of the world is Civilization and Its Discontents. We are discontented with civilization so yeah.
His view of religion is that religion is an infantile illusion but society itself is something that represses the individual. The late Freud is this Freud that realizes that he can’t escape that. There’s no escaping the illness caused by being a member of society. There’s no escape from being in society and there’s no cure for it.
Alex Tsakiris: You touched on this earlier, Todd—why can’t we shake free of Freud? And in particular, why do folks in the liberal arts have such a hard time turning their back on Freud?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: You know what? There’s a huge investment in ego, in time, in prestige—whatever word you can put into it—that people have invested a lot. For some people to have written a positive book review or positive essay about Freud or a positive book, it’s hard to back down from that. Or somebody who’s been in analysis for four months or four years or fourteen years, it’s hard to say, “Man, that was a waste of time. How foolish I was.” People double-down when it comes to their core beliefs and they don’t want to say, “Was I ever had on that. Was I ever a fool.” Nobody wants to say that.
They want to say, “There’s something about it that’s really interesting. You’re too dogmatic and you’re prejudiced against it. I learned a lot about myself, blah, blah, blah.” But you learn a lot about yourself by going to church on Sundays, too. That doesn’t mean that it’s scientifically correct; it just means that it makes you feel good. There’s no argument to be made on a level of science.
Why do my humanities and social science colleagues hold onto it? I just think the investment in it is too great. They don’t know how to think without it. In addition, not to be as hard on them, after Freud became dominant in North American culture in influencing editors and people who make movies and Hollywood, you have movies and books that are written according to the code of psychoanalysis. If you don’t understand psychoanalysis you can’t understand major works of literature in the 20th Century. You can’t even understand movies.
You can’t even understand, at the very bottom of the pile, insider jokes about trains traveling through mountains, right? Everybody has a little chuckle when that happens in a movie. That’s a code for sexual intercourse. In order to understand the world that we live in in the 20th Century you have to understand Freud because the world has adjusted itself to Freudian ideas. I mean at the level of its culture.
So these people see lots of validation of Freud. All you have to do is read D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel. How could you know anything about that work unless you knew something about Freud? That’s because D. M. Thomas has invested in Freud so in order to understand it you’ve got to know something about Freud. It’s a hermeneutic circle and people exist within it and they can understand the world according to psychoanalysis but that doesn’t mean that it corresponds to the world in any realistic way, if you want to use that term.
Alex Tsakiris: I love your line about how we double-down on our core beliefs. It reminds me of Festinger, When Prophecy Fails. He does this analysis of all these cult groups that are around these charismatic leaders who have this prophecy. I think it was published back in the ‘50s or something.
What you’d expect is when the prophecy fails that they’d all disband and go their separate ways. Of course, what happens is the opposite. They just re-galvanize them toward some new prophecy or some new thing. I like yours, though. Double-down on our core beliefs.
So, Todd, tell folks a little bit more about what you’re doing. In our email exchange you mentioned that you do continue to teach students on this topic but maybe some of your research interests have moved on past Freud. Is that true? What are you doing these days?
Dr. Todd Dufresne: That’s a good question. I’m one of these people that invested a lot of time in Freud but luckily I was on the critical side of things so I can endlessly say things about Freud. At some point it becomes pointless. You’re either talking to the converted, people who already agree with you that Freud is problematic in some serious ways, or you’re not ever talking to the people that need to read your work.
I almost had my say, you know? I really should have already had my say but I’m editing a volume of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents for a publisher. I’ve done two of his other ones, Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Future of an Illusion, so I promised them a third one. So I’ll do that and I’ll finish this book I’m doing on the late Freud called, All the Riddles of Life: Love, Friendship, Community and the Late Sigmund Freud. It will be my last work on Freud. It’s one of those ironic things; it will also be easily my best work. I’ve spent so much time doing work on it, I know what I’m doing in it and now I have nothing more to say about it. There you go.
Now I’m moving on. I’m teaching a lot more and doing work in aesthetics. I’m a wanna-be artist, I suppose. I do photography and sculpture and various things on my own. So I’m going to do more work in aesthetics. I’m interested in film and philosophy because I think it’s has a field that is absolutely awful so I have something to say there. And I’m doing work on capitalism and globalization these days. I figure within the next ten years I will have absolutely moved beyond Freud. This interview will be one of the last times I ever talk about it, I suppose.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey, that’s great. We’ve got your last word on Freud. Well, it’s been great having you on again. Our guest is Dr. Todd Dufresne. Many books on Freud. Just go to Amazon and look for his name and you’ll find all that stuff, including this new one that he was just telling us about.
Todd, thanks again so much for joining us today.
Dr. Todd Dufresne: Thanks, Alex. It was a pleasure.