Basic Freud, Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century (Book Review)

Author:  Kahn, Michael
Publisher:  New York: Basic Books, 2002
Reviewed By:  Walt Beckman, Winter 2004, pp. 41-43

Michael Kahn, professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz, has written a gem of a book. Kahn’s writing is lucid, concise, and personal. His style will evoke memories of one’s most stimulating and enjoyable undergraduate teachers. In addition, Basic Freud will provide a perspective and understanding of psychoanalytic theory not heretofore readily available. While this book may deepen the understanding of the seasoned therapist not trained in dynamic theory, it will be an important revelation to the newer therapists. It is my observation that many doctoral and masters level therapists are leaving their graduate programs with the firm belief in the rightness of “evidence-based therapy.” They receive little or no exposure to psychoanalytic theory at its best. Most likely they will have been taught an unenlightened view of 1950’s American psychoanalysis with the misconception that the field has remained stagnant for the last fifty years.

Over the years there have been numerous introduction-to-Freud books written. Some are in cartoon format and others just not very good. Until now, the best of them has been Calvin Hall’s A Primer of Freudian Psychology, first published in 1954. While the best in its class, to no surprise, Hall’s book reads like it was written in 1954, which is to say somewhat dry and turgid. The personal and vital essence that makes Basic Freud so inviting begins in the first paragraph of the preface. Kahn writes,

“When I returned to college I wandered into a course on Freud’s theory of the unconscious and found myself in a world unlike any I had ever imagined. I was excited and intrigued. Here, I thought, was a way of dealing with my bewilderment. Here was a way of looking at feelings and conflicts that offered to make sense of them. I found the elegance and drama of the theory downright beautiful. Over the long years that I have studied this theory and taught it, it has never lost its fascination for me. During the many years that I have tried to help my clients understand themselves, I have never found another theory that so illuminates their worlds. This book is an attempt to convey my sense of that beauty and efficacy. I intend it to cover those aspects of Freud’s theory that I hope will be useful to those wanting to better understand their internal world. I believe those same aspects of the theory will be useful to clinicians wanting to better understand their clients” (p. xi).

Perhaps this is the first Freudian self-help book.

Kahn’s writing is very much in keeping with the subtitle, Psychoanalytic Thought for the 21st Century. He reminds us that Freud saw human suffering as a reflection of a tormented soul rather than simply mechanisms of mental functioning gone awry. The preface ends with the following quotation from Bruno Bettelheim: “By exploring and understanding the origins and the potency of [the forces that reside in the depths of our soul] we not only become much better able to cope with them, but also gain a much deeper and more compassionate understanding of our fellow man” (p. xii).

An incidental benefit of Kahn’s book is its bringing back into view Bettelheim’s too-little-known Freud and Man’s Soul. That work discusses Freud’s interest in the soul of man and the experience-near quality of the original German words he employed in first presenting to the world his ideas about the conflicts in that same soul. Just as part of the impetus behind the introduction of “two-person psychologies” was to more fully understand the human interaction that is psychoanalysis, Kahn’s way of presenting Freud returns to him the humanity and vitality that Bettelheim and others saw stripped away in English translations.

The reader approaching the subject with a negative bias may be further disarmed by the first sentence of Chapter 1, “It’s not hard to find things to criticize in Freud’s work.” Kahn notes that Jonathan Lear, in his defense of Freud, “cheerfully acknowledges that ‘Freud botched some of his most important cases. Certainly a number of his hypotheses are false, his analytic technique can seem flat-footed and intrusive, and in his speculations he was a bit of a cowboy’” (p. 1). Kahn mentions the rise and fall in popularity of Freudian theory, its attention from feminist writers, plus other criticisms over the decades, and yet, “outside of those specific non-psychodynamic schools, more and more therapists now believe that whether or not Freud is fashionable, they cannot understand their clients without understanding the unconscious forces that shape their behavior” (p. 5).

“The subject of this book,” we are told, “is unconscious motivation, understanding it and communicating it to the client” (p. 11). A number of examples about couples provide an added bonus, offering the opportunity to see how the benefits of this type of understanding can be applied beyond the bounds of psychoanalysis. For instance, we read:

“Karl and Katherine consult a couple’s therapist. Karl complains that Katherine is “frigid.” Katherine shamefacedly agrees. They have previously consulted a sex therapist. The couple’s therapist inquires about what advice they were given. Katherine reveals that Karl had refused to follow the advice because he thought it useless. The therapist begins to wonder if Katherine was allowing herself to be labeled as sexually unavailable to protect Karl. And indeed, as they work together, the couple and the therapist discover that Karl has two deep-seated fears: He is afraid of being sexually inadequate and he is afraid that, should his partner be in touch with her passion, she will betray him with other men. None of this was conscious in either of them” (p. 13).

The second chapter, The Unconscious, opens with the following vignette from Freud’s Introductory Lectures: “I was once the guest of a young married couple and heard the young woman laughingly describe her latest experience. The day after her return from her honeymoon she had gone shopping with her unmarried younger sister while her husband went to his business. Suddenly she noticed a gentleman on the other side of the street, and nudging her sister had cried: “Look, there goes Herr L.” She had forgotten that this gentleman had been her husband for some weeks. I shuddered as I heard the story, but I did not dare to draw the inference. The little incident only occurred to my mind some years later when the marriage had come to a most unhappy end” (p. 15).

Kahn then makes clear to the reader that the inference Freud had not wanted to draw was that the bride “knew” soon after her wedding that she did not want to be married to her husband.

He goes on to describe how the unconscious had been long known to poets and philosophers, and that “What Freud did was add greatly to our knowledge and workings of unconscious processes and show how that knowledge could greatly increase the power both of therapists to help their clients and of all of us to understand the nature of our own psychic life and that of others” (p. 16).

The central statements of Freud’s theory, Kahn tells us, are that we do not know why we feel what we feel, fear what we fear, think what we think, or do what we do. And, he says, the reasons for all of this are far more complex and interesting than most people would ever guess.

He continues with a description of the topographical model and clarifies the reason Freud moved on to the structural model. Kahn, again the splendid teacher that he is, explains this in terms of agencies, avoiding the reification of the id, ego, and superego. He talks about primary and secondary process, and uses Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to illustrate the reality and pleasure principles. At the close of this chapter Kahn lays out proof of the unconscious in mental life by putting forth examples from dreams, neurotic symptoms, and parapraxes.

Kahn begins the chapter, Psychosexual Development, with a brief overview of the theory of infantile sexuality and its explosive impact on society. Kahn then links the origins of Freud’s theories with his method of treatment. He explains the uniqueness of psychoanalysis in the profoundly important observation, “In the whole history of human relations nobody, no parent or lover, no priest or doctor, may ever have listened like that over such a sustained period” (p. 36).

In a section on fixation and regression, Kahn provides a clear discussion of fixation. However, his remark about regression is the first point I found objectionable. He states, “A stage at which one is fixated retains some large part of the importance and emotion it originally had.” So far so good, but then he writes, “Thus it is the comfortable psychic place to which to regress if the going gets rough.” I think the qualifier relatively should precede “comfortable” so as to not mislead those unfamiliar with the concept into thinking of regression as necessarily comfortable.

Kahn then does something very interesting and useful to the budding clinician. For the oral, anal and phallic stages, he describes the stage and then discusses possible parental responses to the child and subsequent consequences and fixations that may ensue. Thus he adds to his presentation of Freud the object relational component that he suggests Freud himself had been moving toward at the end of his life. Kahn credits Freud’s followers for developing the object relations component that has so greatly enriched the psychoanalytic picture.

The Oedipus Complex is almost twice as long as any other chapter in the book, a tribute to its importance in Freudian theory. The opening quotation from Sophocles reads:

Oedipus: Once on a time the oracle said that I should lie with my own mother and take on my hands the blood of my own father.
Jocasta: Before this in dreams too,. . . . many a man has lain with his mother.

A discussion of Hamlet’s anguish over avenging the death of his father and Freud’s reference to Sophocles’s drama in The Interpretation of Dreams further illustrate the place of the Oedipus complex in human history. Kahn talks about work in behavioral genetics and anthropology, including cross-cultural studies, which further verifies its ubiquity. In keeping with his consistent eye on balance, Kahn also notes the arguments of feminist scholars and self psychologists relevant to the discussion.

Kahn’s discussion of the role of rapprochement, as described by Mahler, and the impact of the different development tasks facing boys and girls described by Chodorow, will contribute even more to the appeal this book will have to the uninitiated and the skeptical. Also of tremendous value to the novice therapist are sections on the Oedipal victor and what Kahn calls “the tenderness/passion split.”

The chapters on Anxiety, Defense Mechanisms, Guilt, Dreams, Grief and Mourning, and Transference, continue in Kahn’s lucid style. But, to this reader, they seemed too concise. His excellent use of examples to illustrate the concepts, however, does provide clarity in each of these areas.

In the service of objectivity, I will mention two areas with which I take issue. I disagree with Kahn’s statement that “only the most orthodox Freudians find the theory of the death instinct clinically or theoretically useful” (p. 103). A recent edited collection by contemporary Kleinian and also Middle School analysts focuses specifically on the clinical significance of the death instinct. Kahn’s book contains so many wonderful references it is unfortunate this one is not among them.

The second and more significant issue concerns Kahn’s treatment of the specific defensive operation of avoiding painful affect. Inasmuch as this is a major motivation in the repetition compulsion I would have liked more elucidation. Instead, Kahn said the replaying of painful situations, without changing the outcome to a happy one, seemed to be about “unconsciously trying to understand what had happened and why.” He continues, “the situation with a happy ending would cease to be the original situation, which is defined by conflict, frustration, and guilt, and thus would lose its attraction” (p. 97). In fact, the replaying is not the original situation, but rather a symbolic representation of it, and as such lacks the emotional impact of the original, and the very point of replaying a symbolic representation is to keep at bay that emotional impact that would coincide with understanding what had happened and why.

Kahn closes by stating, “it would be hard to imagine an intellectual history of the last century that did not also prominently include Freud, who taught us to be skeptical about everything we think we know and endlessly curious about what else we might really know” (p. 205). It would likewise be hard to imagine a more enjoyable introduction to Freud’s contribution to that history. The true beauty of this book is that it is just the thing to make a newcomer wish to know more.

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