He’s Back: Freddy Crews Claws Freud

For Crews, the nightmare remains the same.

Posted Oct 12, 2011

Some eighteen years ago, Frederick Crews brought his acidic pen and hyper-charged animus to the Freud Wars. Neither an historian of ideas, nor one of medicine or psychoanalysis, his major claim to scholarly achievement in this arena rested on his work as an extreme Freudian literary critic who ran Shakespeare through a grinder. Sometime afterwards, Crews went over to the other side. He donned a hockey mask and since then has tried to eviscerate Sigmund Freud and his admirers. With his 1993 and 1994 essays in the New York Review of Books, Freddy brought the battles over Freud to a fever pitch.1 And now with two recent essays, he's back.2

In the past two decades, Freud studies have left his brand of crude polemic behind. However, for Crews the nightmare remains the same. Freddy spins a tightly-controlled web around exaggerated or deeply improbable, even childish speculations. He avoids broad context and deplores real dialectic. His book reviews read like the pamphlet that Mr. Kurtz wrote in the Congo; somewhere as one moves from one semi-reasonable paragraph to the next, it becomes clear that in the margins, the author has wildly scrawled "exterminate all the brutes."

Let us examine ten tools from this propagandist's workshop:

1. Early on, preferably in the first paragraph, pick something innocuous and be silly nice about it. "Your hair looks amazing today" says I am not a hater! For example, sing the praises of William Halsted. Dr. Halsted was the best surgeon ever.3 Love that guy.

2. Establish your Olympian certitude and then reign like Zeus over the puny authors you pretend to review. In their 5,000 erudite footnotes, surely there are twenty errors. Nail the idiots for screwing up a middle name; remind your reader that it was December, 1886, not November. Try not to sound too smug... On second thought, axe that last thought.

3. Now get to your prize, your demon-lover, your man, Sigmund Freud. Start by praising his early neurological works, even though you don't really know much neurology. Just say it. Say: they were brilliant. OK, was that so hard?

4. Go in. Nice Mr. Zeus can now say wild stuff, and from within his own phantastikon, believe that no one will blink. Try this: Sigmund Freud "at no point" put his patients above his ambition.4 At no point. Never. Not even once. No reader will ask how a mere mortal could know such a thing.

5. Rip Freud for everything he published, said, sang, joked, mused, yodeled, wondered, might have said, muttered, cursed, or rapped.

6. Nail the Viennese doctor for the ideas he revised or rejected. The recovered memory movement is his, even though he gave up on sexual trauma nearly a century before those zealots emerged. Once a coke-lover always a coke-lover. No take backs!!!

7. Nail Freud for never taking stuff back. Ugh, such arrogance.

8. Assert, promise to prove, then in conclusion, assert. Relax. It's all good. If you repeat stuff enough, it seems true. At the end of essay number one, promise that in your next installment you will demonstrate how Freud's cocaine "left permanent traces, on many more minds than his own."5 At the end of essay number two, having proved... well, nothing about cocaine and the spread of psychoanalysis, declare Freud's coke use left permanent marks on many more minds than his own.6

9. Employ the logic of parapsychologists. Those dudes have the sleight-of-hand down.

a. Report that a shadow in the clouds might be a UFO. Or in this case, state "we seem to be witnessing" the effects of cocaine on Freud's theorizing.7 OK. Fair enough. Possible.

b. Transform this questionable inference into a concrete thing. A cigar shaped flying saucer created the shadow. Or, Sigmund Freud did not just use cocaine, he had a "cocaine self" that accounted for the eternal effects of the drug, years after his last sniff.8

c. Having eliminated doubt, get to the point. The Martians have surely sent these flying saucers to herd up our children. Or, Sigmund Freud's famous Interpretation of Dreams represents "an unequivocal commitment to that (cocaine) self."9 Unequivocal? Indeed.

10. Being unequivocal yourself, toss off a world-historical claim or two. Just make sure to use a conditional verb. This is amazing; you can say almost anything! Don't bother to waste countless hours in archives doing research; no research necessary! This feel-good, fool-proof baby can be trotted out again and again, as in the rise of Sigmund Freud "may be" the greatest publicity hoax ever,10 or Freud might have been a Stalinist double-agent, or a hirsute cyborg, or a phantom in the stricken dreams of a retired Berkeley English professor. He may have been. No way to argue with that.


1. Frederick Crews, The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute (New York: New York Review of Books, 1995).
2. Frederick Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part I," New York Review of Books, 58:14 (September 29, 2011), 92-97; Frederick Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," New York Review of Books, 58:15 (October 13, 2011), 17-19.
3. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part I," 92.
4. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 19.
5. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part I," 99.
6. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 19.
7. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 18.
8. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 18.
9. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 18.
10. Crews, "Physician, Heal Thyself: Part II," 19.