08 January 2007

"Freud and the Media" by Sylvia Zwettler-Otte.

By Rivka R. Eifermann

Zwettler-Otte's thin yet broadly embracing volume investigates three interrelated issues: (a) The reception of Freud's psychoanalysis by the medical community of Vienna as it emerges from historical documents, (b) Freud's own different perception and experience of this reception, as it emerges from his writings and (c) how psychoanalysts embraced Freud’s version regarding his reception, and how this influences the present-day understanding, and response to, the reception of psychoanalysis by the non-analytic therapeutic community today. While the major bulk of the volume is devoted to Freud's reception by the Austrian medical community, it is the author's view that historiography's main value is in what it can teach us about the present. In her examination, the author considers it to be "of cardinal importance" to take into account "both conscious and unconscious motivation(s)" (p.23) and hence her investigation is interpretative in nature.

The author briefly refers to one other investigator, Ellinger, who in 1990 reported (in Psyche) a quantitative-statistical analysis of reviews of Freud's publications in the period 1900-1945, which covers US as well as European publications. Since hers is an almost exclusively in-depth qualitative study, it is more limited in coverege. For the purpose of her investigation, Zwettler-Otte carefully scanned two well respected Vienna medical weeklies chosen "because they meet the decisive criteria of plotting a tight time grid for observation, and were published without interruption from 1895 to 1938". The main conclusions derived from this examination are, that contrary to Freud's own claims and the official tradition regarding the reception of Freud, he was never ignored. While the reception of psychoanalysis was "highly ambivalent", and there were differences in attitudes and the criticisms, the reactions to his published work has "one thing in common: …they frequently display an extraordinary degree of fascinated interest and appreciative open-mindedness. The study, in short, proves one thing beyond any doubt: the notion that has been kept alive to this day, that psychoanalysis was anathema to contemporary Austria or that it was 'cut dead', cannot be sustained any longer in this unqualified form." (p. 8)

A major part of the book is devoted to a detailed presentation of material from texts and short notices that appeared in the course of the years in the two journals examined. These are discussed under eight chapter headings covering major "recurring issues" that emerged in the course of the study. Interestingly, despite the claim of an ambivalent reception, all the headings are formulated in critical terms: "The 'excessive prominence' given to sexuality in the aetiology of neurosis"; "The downplaying of hereditary and constitutional factors"; "The charge that psychoanalysis does not qualify as a science"; "The exclusivity of psychoanalysis"; "The threat posed by analysis to traditional moral values"; "The question of the therapeutic efficacy of analysis"; "The differences and quarrels among Freud's followers". The view expressed by the author that fascinated interest and appreciative open-mindedness were also often expressed is, moreover, qualified by the fact that the authors of many of the reviews were psychoanalysts themselves (though acceptance for publications by the editors of the journals was still needed). Unfortunately, no information is provided about the percentage of Freud's followers among the reviewers. As the author has pointed out (personal communication), however, this may have been difficult to carry out since becoming a follower was often a result of a gradual, slow process. In addition, as the author points out, the "fascinated interest" not infrequently reflects a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the psychoanalytic enterprise, and the "appreciative open-mindedness" only too often is based on watering down Freud's revolutionary ideas, or simply discarding his more disturbing ideas. A striking illustration is a six page contribution on The Interpretation Dreams written by the director of the Vienna Burgtheater, which he concludes with the comment that his own dreams contained no wishes (Zwettler-Otte, personal communication). Zwettler-Otte, in fact, suggests that Freud was repeatedly offered a "deal" whereby "if he was willing to rid himself of his postulate of infantile sexuality, all would be well and recognition of himself and of his teachings would be assured" (p. 37).

The author regards Freud's early isolation as a "myth", aims to show that the traditional view of historiography "definitely overstated the early academic isolation of psychoanalysis and unduly extended its time limits" (p. 21, emphases in the original). She also offers an explanation of the major motives of Freud and his followers in perpetuating this myth. She refers to two retrospective views expressed by Freud himself regarding his isolation in psychoanalysis' formative years: In On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement (1914) Freud looks back on the "lonely years" in which he discovered "important facts and connections", which were met with silence. Freud claims that during that period, which retrospectively seemed "like a glorious heroic age", he continued his researches into the human psyche in "splendid isolation" (p. 22); ten years later, in his An Autobiographical Study (1924) Freud describes his early years thus: "For more than ten years after my separation from Breuer I had no followers. I was completely isolated. In Vienna I was shunned; abroad no notice was taken of me" (p. 48).

Zwettler-Otte considers (and accepts) a number of explanations for Freud's need to present himself as having lived in "splendid isolation". Amongst them are, his own need to distance himself from his environment (Peter Kutter), caused above all by his need for creative solitude (Leupold-Loewenthal). She backs up and explains his desire to be an isolated hero by quoting, among other of his writings, from Moses and Monotheism (1938), in which Freud defined the hero as someone who had the courage to rebel against his father and has in the end victoriously overcome him" (p. 12).

Concerning traditional acceptance of Freud's claims in regard to his isolation, she argues that for a long time Freud's biographers subscribed to and perpetuated Freud’s view of his early inefficacy because they seemed to have shared his "craving for a hero myth", and were in need of a naïve idealization of Freud and identification with him. These tendencies, she proclaims, are detrimental to analysts' realistic view of the present situation of psychoanalysis. She maintains that her historical study throws light on the present reception of psychoanalysis outside analytic circles, in particular among competing psychotherapies, "in which the originally ambivalent interplay of interest and fascination on the one hand and anxious defence on the other have led to opaque and control-resistant compromises" (pp.10-11).

Zwettler-Otte thinks that the prevalent view among analysts that psychoanalysis is in crisis is exaggerated. Her view is that through our identification with Freud's myth of a hero, we have tended not only to stand head and shoulder above the rest of the therapeutic community but, like Freud, have regarded it with an attitude of "a certain degradation" (p. 108), and enjoyed "our real and putative superiority as analysts" (p. 109). Added to this arrogance we, just as early analysts and not least Freud himself, were keen to isolate psychoanalysis in order to protect it from dilution and distortion, but this ran counter to the wish to propagate psychoanalysis, Thus, she argues, we did not take the effects of the "revolution" caused by analysis seriously enough and have substantially contributed to the complex reception of psychoanalysis which nowadays, just as in its early days is characterized by, "(1) a mixture of curiosity and envy, (2) attempts at appropriation, (3) attempts to press for modifications that potentially aimed the at destruction of key tenets underlying psychoanalytic theory, and (4) urgent demands for time-saving effectiveness and greater scientific verification" (p. 110). The author states that these constant features are not evidence of a crisis. Rather they reflect struggles between the will to knowledge on the one hand and repression and defence on the other, between the recognition of instinctual desires and fantasies and resistances to them; these form the very core of analytic theory. To wait for these struggles to end would seem to be as pointless as trying to sit out those inner conflicts that dominate the life of the psyche" (p. 109).

Yet at the same time she laments that analysts do not consider it their duty to transform the envy of potential recipients of psychoanalysis – psychotherapists, potential therapists or patients as well as interested laymen – "into deeper interest, to demonstrate to them the weakness of psychoanalysis that results from dilution and from an excessive number of compromises, and resist the demands of pragmatism by pointing out what will be lost if we do not stand our ground" (pp. 111-112).

The author further wonders to what extent analysts' libidinous involvement in acquired analytic knowledge (p.111), as well as their conscious and unconscious fears, doubts and uncertainties regarding that knowledge, is projected onto such threats as the source of the presumed "crisis of psychoanalysis" vis-a-vie such threats. She firmly believes that for those analysts who project their unconscious fears and uncertainties regarding psychoanalysis because their own analyses are a thing of the distant past, "the revival of the capacity for self analysis most certainly will" (p. 113) remedy their lost conviction!

It seems to me that Zwettler-Otte's concern with the relationship of "psychoanalysis" with other fields comes at the expense of facing the problems within psychoanalysis itself. . The psychoanalysis she firmly believes in and speaks on behalf of, is nowadays unfortunately regarded by many analysts as outdated. There is little room for self-analysis in any psychoanalysis whose focus is exclusively on the interactive analytic situation. Moreover, free associations has in many psychoanalytic quarters lost its relevance as an integral part of psychoanalytic praxis, "too many analysts have shoved this technique aside and dismissed it" (Bollas, 2006, p. 144).

Indeed, many of the "recurring issue" that emerged from her investigation of the early critics have become non-issues in "modernist" quarters. Relational analysts, intersubjective analysts as well self-psychologists do not regard "instinctual desires", or sexuality, as part of their basic tenets; their view is similar to that of the early critics whom Zwettler-Otte quotes, who regarded sexuality as having been given "excessive prominence" (p. 33). "Inner conflicts" have similarly lost their centrality among these theorists. Even her basic assumption, that "[M]ost analysts agree that there is no alternative to analysis as a method to explore the unconscious life of the psyche" (p. 10) may be put into question, since she clearly regards the unconscious in ways similar to Freud's, which are incompatible with some prevalent views (Eifermann, 2007).

Freud was more very than skeptical about the meaning of the reception of his ideas, as well as of the possibility that psychoanalysis will become widespread. Thus for example he say in On the History of the psycho-Analytic Movement (1914), "I can only express the wish for an agreeable upward journey to all those who have their stay in the underworld of psycho-analysis too uncomfortable for their taste….our labours in[to] the depth" (p. 66).

There is reason to believe that the attraction of psychoanalysis as a professional goal as well as a therapeutic method increases when its "uncomfortable" tenants become more diluted (Blass et al., 2005). This is our problem from within, which corresponds to the growth and flourishing of so-called "dynamic psychotherapies" that have no Freudian roots at all.

Finally, I return to Zwettler-Otte’s investigation of the historical records. For me as reader the major fascination of the volume is in the live historical details revealed in it, which revive the atmosphere surrounding Freud in medical circles in the period covered by the study. It is a real gift to those professionals as well as members of the general public interested in the story of the reception of great discoveries and discoverers. Zwettler-Otte's attempt to use the historical material in a way that is relevant and can be weaved into a perspective on the state of psychoanalysis today, deserves further exploration. While the volume presents two tables containing information regarding the number of notes and of full texts relating to Freud published in each of the years explored, no other quantitative or qualitative analyses have been undertaken in this study. As a result, one remains with the author's impressionistic conclusions, rather than with a firmly based grasp of the data presented. For example, the author states that "fierce opposition" of the critics was counterbalanced "equally" with "fascination" (p. 21). Yet following my own reading of the material, I remained under the impression that opposition had the upper hand. The author herself indicates some further methodological limitations, such as the fact that each specific critique may relate to more than one issue, e.g., "excessive prominence of sexuality" and "threat to traditional moral values." Zwettler-Otte even points out that "[In] most cases we are confronted with varying combinations of these points" (p. 32, emphasis added), and that hence the same respondents are repeatedly quoted under more than one point or issue. More information on these interdependences would clarify the picture. In view of the richness of the material one would like to encourage the author to apply additional, sophisticated qualitative methods of content analysis to it, so as to further enrich our knowledge of our past and its relevance to the presence. Such relevance could be further clarified if, inspired by the present study, additional research on the reception of psychoanalysis is conducted in variety of countries and cultures.


Blass, R. (2005). Explaining diminished interest in psychoanalytic training and practice. A tale of two cities. Presented at the IPA Conference, Rio de Janeiro, July 2005.

Bollas, C. and Bonaminio, V. (2006). Transformations Wrought by the Unconscious. Creativity of the Unconscious. Vincenzo Bonaminio (Italian Society) interviewing Christopher Bollas (British Society). Psychoanalysis in Europe, 60, pp. 133-160.

Eifermann, R.R. (in press). On the inevitable neglect of the unconscious: A contemporary reminder. In Calish, C. and Hinz, H. (eds.) Depth and Understanding: The Place of the Unconscious in Contemporary Psychoanalysis (provisional title). London: Karnac.

Freud, S. (1914). On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement.

---------- (1924). An Autobiographical Study.

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