Robert's Reviews > Freud and Man's Soul: An Important Re-Interpretation of Freudian Theory

Freud and Man's Soul by Bruno Bettelheim
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's review
Jun 19, 2012

really liked it
Recommended for: Thoughtful people, poets, psychologists, psychoanalysts
Read from July 01 to 09, 2012 — I own a copy , read count: Twice

I should begin by saying I have the American first edition (1983), which is simply titled Freud & Man's Soul. The edition pictured above has the superfluous and misleading subtitle: An Important Re-Interpretation of Freudian Theory.

Superfluous, because it adds nothing; misleading, because rather than reinterpret "Freudian Theory," Bettelheim essays to illuminate it by correcting some terrible and suspect translations. For example, where Freud had once written: "Psychoanalysis is part of psychology which is dedicated to the science of the soul," this idea would be translated into English as: "Psychoanalysis is part of the mental science of psychology."

Bettelheim calls attention to, and discusses, quite a number of problematic translations, and he offers a number of alternative readings, so I won't list them here. What I found as interesting and necessary to rehibilatating Freud's reputation, and reasserting his relevance, is what else Bettelheim sets out to make clear.

First and foremost, Bettelheim reminds the reader that Freud is more a philosopher than a man of science. He is a humanist in the truest sense of the word, concerned, fundamentally with what it means to be human. There is no debate that Freud held a tragic and pessimistic view of life. However, this perspective did not preclude the possibility that one could have a rich and satisfying life. The point of Freudian psychoanalysis was to enable men and women to "know themselves;" and so develop a more textured, nuanced and satisfying understanding of human consciousness and its complexities.

Bettelheim sees at the root of the mistranslations is the American psychoanalytic community's insistence that their practice be recognized as a medical specialty. (In fact, for a time they demanded only physicians be allowed to practice psychoanalysis--a point of view completely at odds with Freud's notion of the discipline.) They held this position in spite of the fact that Freud's "discoveries" were first inspired by art and literature, and later by self analysis and introspection.

Freud confirmed his opposition to the medical community's point of view writing that unlike science, which aims at replicable results, and, ultimately, seeks to quantify and codify its findings, psychoanalysis sought poetic, personal and thus profound truths. (A surprising admission by a man who was both a physican and a scientist.)

Bettelheim is unsparing in his critique of bad and/or lazy translations, especially as many of these translations enabled generations of psychologists, especially those of the Behaviorist and Developmental schools to challenge and dismiss many of Freud's ideas as less than useful. He is also dismissive of those who read Freud ill-prepared to understand the man's metaphors.

As Bettelheim makes clear, if one is unfamiliar with the story of Eros and Psyche, he may easily confuse mind and soul. If one is not really familiar with the story of Oedipus, she can not grasp the nuances that make Freud's use of the drama so valuable. If one does not know the tragedy of Narcissus, one can not truly understand the the destructive impulses of Narcissism, let alone conceive of such nonsense as "healthy narcissism."

Bettelheim makes clear that Freud's theories transcend mere usefulness. Freud, whose interests stretched from antiquity to the modern, sought to bring to light those human issues that have troubled the sleep of writers and philosophers and, in fact, all thoughtful persons, since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex. What's more, his interest in archeology enabled the man to conceive a world that could be reconstructed by broken bits and partially concealed objects. Which is how he understood that a life hidden from view should not be confused with illusion. An understanding of archeology is key to understanding both Freud as a man and his conception of the unconscious and its workings.

Bettelheim makes clear that few of Freud's American peers shared his erudition, or immersed themselves to the same degree in the wisdom of poets and writers. Many of those both loyal to and antagonist to Freud's ideas were men of science working during a period when time was of the essence and human endeavors were being quantified at an accelerating pace. In this sense one could say Freud's biggest obstacle to wider acceptance was that he was a philospher in an age of emerging medical specialties. His peers wanted cures to unhealthy mental states, not investigations into them.

The inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi read, "Know Thyself." As Freud knew this imperative was not easily understood and so the Oracle was too often misinterpreted. Freud's great contribution to this ancient dilemma/riddle was knowing one can never thoroughly know oneself but if one hoped to gain any meaningful knowledge he or she could not remain on the surface or avoid the dark.

The epigram Bettelheim chose to open his book came from a letter Freud wrote to Jung. It reads; "Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love." I believe this book's true value is as an invitation to those interested in the difficult business of being human to reconsider Freud as a guide.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Rich Castles I too was immediately struck by the strange subtitle to the edition here. Re-interpreting or rescuing? Another telling lapse.

Robert Rich wrote: "I too was immediately struck by the strange subtitle to the edition here. Re-interpreting or rescuing? Another telling lapse."

Rich, I suspect that the new subtitle was inserted to make Freud more palatable to contemporary readers, most of whom have, at best, a glancing understanding of Freud, and who believe his investigations and theories been largely discredited by later psychologists, critical theorists and feminists.

In a way, it's another case of "dumbing down", which to borrow from your use of the word rescuing—throwing an anchor to save a drawing man.

Have a fine day,


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