As foreshadowed by his previous work (Freud for Historians, A Godless Jew, etc.) and suggested by his subtitle, Gay's long,...

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FREUD: A Life for Our Time

As foreshadowed by his previous work (Freud for Historians, A Godless Jew, etc.) and suggested by his subtitle, Gay's long, comprehensive biography of Sigmund Freud is--unlike much recent Freud-iana--more reverent than revisionist. But Gay is candid enough about Freud's failings, and authoritative enough about the vast, complex sources and issues, to make this the most credible summing-up of Freud's achievement thus far--if not the most congenial or manageable sort of book for the general reader. Throughout, Gay acknowledges the private obsessions, neurotic blind spots, and cultural limitations that came into play during Freud's career as researcher, theorist, self-analyst pioneer, and leader: his ""impressive capacity for repressing inconvenient memories""; his ""need for martyrdom"" (stemming from a childhood bedeviled by sibling rivalry); his devious, rageful aggressiveness in scientific politics. But ""if there was ever a physician poised to convert his mistakes into sources of insight, it was Freud."" And Gay views nearly all the crucial developments in psychoanalytic theory--the Oedipus complex, the unconscious, narcissism, the dynamics of repression, the ego/id/superego topography, etc.--as hard-won truths, often involving ""agonizing"" second thoughts. In only one area--Freud's uneven attempts at female psychology--does Gay stress failure rather than triumph: Freud ""was strenuously defending himself against the recognition that the tie to his mother was in any sense imperfect."" Likewise, the portrait of Freud-the-man is balanced but fundamentally admiring: kindly, faithful, if far-from-passionate husband; warm father, unconsciously ""seductive"" with doting daughter Anna; stoic victim of longterm cancer; tetchy, demanding colleague--but never the villain sketched by Paul Roazen, et al. For Gay, above all, Freud is heir to the 18th-century Enlightenment--open-minded (even to telepathy) but, while proudly Jewish, impervious to religion's irrational consolations. The extensive, sturdy explications of theory here inevitably undermine the life-history's chronology, focus, and drama. Newcomers to psychoanalysis will probably flounder; specialists may find that Gay's eclectic approach doesn't give quite enough attention to their concerns. (Some theoretical/historical brouhahas are relegated to footnotes.) But, for the fairly sophisticated reader who wants both Life and Work at once, this densely challenging, literate study is likely to be the strongest choice for some time to come.

Pub Date: March 28, 1988

ISBN: 0393328619

Page Count: -

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1988