Freud at 150: 21st-Century Essays on a Man of Genius (Book Review)

Authors:  Merlino, Joseph P.; Jacobs, Marilyn S.; Kaplan, Judy Ann; and Moritz, K. Lynne (Editors)
Publisher:  Jason Aronson, 2007
Reviewed By:  Anthony F. Tasso, January 2011, pp. 208

On September 15, 2006 the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC sponsored a celebratory symposium in honor of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. This event, titled Freud's Place in Our Minds: A Day of Reflection on Sigmund Freud's Significance in the 21st-Century, was organized by the four major American psychoanalytic organizations: the American Psychoanalytic Association, Division 39 of the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, and the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work. This day-long tribute brought together not only psychoanalysts and practitioners but also individuals from the humanities and social sciences all of whom spoke about a man whose contributions continue to influence our understanding of human functioning some seventy years after his death.

Freud at 150: 21st-Century Essays on a Man of Genius is the collection of reprints of the presentations from this historic event. Edited by Joseph Merlino, Marilyn Jacobs, Judy Ann Kaplan, and K. Lynne Moritz, this compact book transports the reader to that special 2006 day. Despite being a compilation of numerous talks, the presenters/authors manage to enthusiastically celebrate the breadth and depth of Freud's influences while still lauding his contributions. This book is a pleasant read and fittingly casual for an event designed to extol one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. With 28 authors conducting 37 different discussions all covered in less than two hundred pages of text the chapters are very brief (often 2-3 pages) and are structured like a series of celebratory talks, not a dispassionate critical evaluation common to textbooks. As such, Freud at 150 is as easily accessible to non-academics as it is enjoyable to the erudite scholar.

Divided into three sections, each part of Freud at 150 provides a window into different aspects of Freud's personal and professional life. Part I (Sigmund Freud: Conquistador of the Unconscious) is a two-chapter section that lays the groundwork for Freud the budding professional. Edith Kurzweil takes us to Freud's beginnings: From his birth in Freiberg, Moravia (now Pribor, Czech Republic) to early life in Vienna with his parents Jacob and Amalia and his siblings, the author then turns to Freud's academic achievements. Chronicling his early work in animal research, to mentorships from Ernest Brüke, Jean Martin-Charcot, Joseph Breuer, and later to his relationship with long-term confidant Wilhelm Fleiss, the author outlines some of the significant people who directly and indirectly influenced a developing professional and a fledging field. Kurzweil explains how Freud's charisma, curiosity, and vision attracted the brightest and most innovative scholars, all of whom figured prominently in the evolution of psychoanalysis as a field of study and practice. However, she explains how Freud's hubris often drove them away. The author powerfully describes how these formative years shaped a person who would change how the human mind was understood and a treatment that would revolutionize the amelioration of human suffering.

In Part II (Freud, 2006) Helmut Strutzmann first describes the sociopolitical, cultural, and technological forces of Freud's time (emphasizing the ominous threat and subsequent onset of World War I) and provides a bullet-point timeline of Freud's significant personal and professional experiences. Strutzmann then discusses enduring psychoanalytic concepts: Free association, the Oedipus complex, id, ego, and superego, and the centrality of dream analysis, as well as providing basic information on some of Freud's well-known patients, such as Dora, The Rat Man, The Wolf Man, and the famous conductor and composer Bruno Walter. Strutzmann concludes by appropriately seating Freud along side of Copernicus and Darwin as one of three prominent thinkers who shattered the illusion of human omnipotence, with Freud's contribution debunking the notion of free will.

Strutzmann also shows the inextricable link between Freud and literature and the arts. Psychoanalysis and literature have long shared a mutually beneficial relationship. Freud unapologetically borrowed from classic literature to elucidate his insights; specifically the works of Jensen, Dostoevsky, and of course, Shakespeare. As such, the human dilemmas so beautifully illuminated in these literary classics soon found their place in psychoanalytic theory. The author explains that as much as Freud was influenced by the arts, he profoundly influenced them. Whether it is Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, or Freud's grandson and accomplished figurative painter Lucien Freud, artists (and art admirers) have long appreciated the relevance of unconscious processes in creativity. Thus, this second section firmly anchors Freud's place as a cultural figure outside the realm of pure treatment and study.

Section III, the bulk of the book, enlists twenty-six different authors to discuss Freud's Place in Our Minds. Consisting of five different subcategories (with multiple presenters in each) the first subsection is opened by Judy Kaplan, who focuses on one of Freud's greatest strengths: his unyielding curiosity. Kaplan stresses how it was Freud's willingness to ask questions, rather than merely seek answers, that truly primed psychoanalytic treatment. His inquisitive nature allowed him to use previously insignificant data (e.g., parapraxes, bodily postures, cadence) to create a lucid picture of the patient's dynamics. Kaplan emphasizes that it was this curiosity that lead Freud to transcend the parameters of corporeal medicine and to the creation of psychoanalysis, which still is considered by many to be the most intellectually stimulating theory of the mind and modality of treatment.

Ann-Louise Silver discusses Freud's influence on the conceptualization and treatment of psychosis. She explains that although Freud shied away from treating psychotic individuals, he was indeed a trailblazer for those (e.g., Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, William Alanson White, Harry Stack Sullivan) specializing in psychoanalytically-informed treatment of the severely disturbed. H. Michael Meagher touches on the psychoanalysis-neuroscience marriage—a relationship that likely has only scratched the surface of what it may eventually do for clinical work. Marilyn Jacobs reflects on her psychodynamically-based work with medical patients and her interactions with medical providers. Jacobs explains how oft-highly skeptical (if not cynical) medical professionals are now slowly moving towards embracing psychoanalytic approaches in the comprehensive treatment of complicated medical conditions. Golnar Simpson, also in this subsection, discusses the challenges and benefits of utilizing transference phenomena with an ever-changing multicultural society, while John Kafka closes this part by addressing the pluralistic roles of psychoanalysis on the global level.

The following subsection explores the application of psychoanalysis in non-clinical settings. Stanley Palombo underscores how Freud's proposed life and death instincts pervade all facets of humanity, as J. David Miller discusses Freud's well-documented analysis of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, something that many consider the sine qua non illustration of sublimation. Jaine Darwin explicates the ways in which psychoanalysis is a bona fide public health endeavor, with its genesis being Freud's early focus on the need for adequate health care for the poor and concern for child welfare. She highlights how psychoanalysts' focus on human welfare remains evident today with the field's pro bono emphasis as well as its responsiveness to societal crises. Put simply, Darwin extends the ethos and ability of analysis from the consulting room to the public sphere in order to benefit humanity at-large.

Katherine Brunkow and Cesar Alfonso connect psychoanalytic principles to creativity. Brunkow applies free associative processes to address "writers block" and explains how this tried-and-true writing technique "uncovers" one's creative material that was just out of conscious awareness. Alfonso discusses the concepts of psychic determinism and primary process vis-à-vis artistic creation and appreciation. He underscores how artists and art appreciators are—knowingly or not—forever indebted to Freud. Kruzweil returns to close this subsection by postulating what Freud might say about this upcoming century. Particularly, the author speculates how Freud's embracing of biological substrata, how his proclamation that biology was "the land of unlimited possibilities," would fit quite well with the burgeoning subspecialty of neuropsychoanalysis. Kruzweil leaves the reader with the plausible notion that Freud would support the integration of the natural science model into the psychoanalytic field, and that science will ultimately decide what works and what does not. What is clear is that this section of Freud at 150 successfully takes the reader on an exploration both of historical fact and a contemplation of psychoanalysis' ability to further enhance artistic appreciation, alleviate human suffering, and to inform our understanding of why humans do what we do.

The next symposium/subsection assays the current significance of Freud's theory of mind. K. Lynne Moritz and L. Gordon Kirschner describe the significance of Freud's topographical (conscious, preconscious, unconscious) and structural (id, ego, superego) models of the mind, while Miriam Pierce demonstrates the applicability of these models within a clinical vignette. Usha Tummala-Narra speaks on Freud's long-term correspondence with Girindrashekhar Bose, the first Indian psychoanalyst. She concludes by highlighting the relevance of psychoanalytic themes, irrespective of cultural background. James Kleiger delves into the multiple personal and societal events that led to Freud's development of the death instinct and how his Beyond the Pleasure Principle marked a significant theoretical alteration. He describes how Freud's posited regressive tendencies to an inorganic state—not just libidinal pleasure—vexed many of even his most ardent followers. Klieger provides compelling examples of the ways in which this concept of psychic motivation was relevant then and remains so today.

Psychoanalysis and Society is the next subsection. Richard Ruth explores Freud's theorizing on homosexuality and how today's more permissive, non-demonizing views are only now broaching that of Freud's. Audrey Thayer Walker explores the events of September 11th, 2001 and the dynamics of individual and societal vulnerability. She touches on the impact of shattered illusionary invincibility and the heightened regressive tendencies that followed. Joseph Merlino and William Granatir investigate conflict theory's applicability to Middle Eastern conflicts as well as the current state of the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They Reference Einstein's query to Freud about what leads to war and Freud answered "what makes for cultural development is working also against war." The authors further highlight the ways in which the aggregate of group narcissism, regression, primitive idealization, and devaluation collectively fuel national violence. Nancy McWilliams closes this section by illuminating the ways in which intrapsychic and interpersonal conflicts manifest today. She highlights enduring (e.g., religious extremism) as well as contemporary (e.g., internet personas, cosmetic surgery) expressions of conflict, lending further support to the durability of Freudian thought.

The final subsection, and the closing of the book, is titled Freud in the 21st Century, and speaks to Freud's enduring legacy. Eli Zaretsky opens this concluding subsection with a thought-provoking discussion on the three-prong foci of psychoanalysis: method of healing, theory of culture, and ethical current of everyday life. The author theorizes on how western culture's fluctuations on its views of each (healing, culture, and personal responsibility) juxtapose society's appreciation of psychoanalytic principles. Zarestsky takes the reader on a socio-historical journey examining the varying degrees psychoanalysis' acceptance and also underlines internal and external factors impacting the mainstream view of psychoanalysis.

Shelia Haftner Gray postulates what Freud's position might be in today's "empirically supported treatment" era and raises interesting dialogue on the natural science model-anecdotal narrative clinical data debate. Harold Blum discusses the broad applications of psychoanalytic theory. From psychotherapy to medicine to the humanities, the author accentuates the ubiquity of psychoanalytic thought and how Freudian views became part of the fabric of western and non-western cultures. Blum underscores how now even non-professionals understand the basic concepts of symbolic meaning, the significance of early childhood experiences, and that the seemingly bizarre and alogical content of dreams do in fact have meaning.

Nancy McWilliams returns and discusses aspects of Freud the professional as well as Freud the person. Specifically, she explores the ease with which he embraced ambivalence. As examples Freud's ambivalent disposition, McWilliams turns towards his proclivities for both tentativeness and dogma, his theory of the universality of bisexuality, and his belief in the benefits of both rational and emotional decision-making. Miriam Pierce anchors Freud's impact on social work and highlights how early psychoanalytic principles were precursors for today's multi-disciplinary individual and family treatment approaches (e.g., physical and occupational therapies, exercise physiology). She also describes Freud's work with Little Hans and how his psychoeducation of the boy's parents, as opposed to the direct analysis of the patient, is suggestive of a social work approach. Thomas Aichhorn ends the book by succinctly summarizing different ways in which leading analysts have historically celebrated the genius of Freud. He closes by appropriately paying homage to the man of genius and leaves the reader by expressing his profound hope that this next century will appreciate Freud as much (or more) than we have this past 100 years.

Freud at 150 successfully represents a memorable event that brought together professionals from the four major American psychoanalytic organizations and beyond. Each speaker/author brings to life various areas of Freud the life-changing professional and Freud the complex individual. This book truly captures the celebratory atmosphere for one of the most important figures in western civilization.

Freud at 150 may not be for everyone. This is a pithy, conversational-style book, not an academic textbook common to professionals. Therefore, those more interested in a traditional textbook or a hard analytical exploration of Freudian theory may find this disappointing. Nonetheless, I contend that most readers will likely find this book a nice break from the more academically organized texts. Furthermore, the fun, casual, collection of conference presentations gives an authentic feel of sitting in the conference room during the celebratory 2006 event. Another possible limitation is that the much of the book's information is probably already known to most psychoanalytically informed individuals, however, I imagine that even the most well-versed Freud historian will learn something new from these distinguished presenters. The rarely seen pictures alone make it a worthy purchase. In closing, any person interested in Sigmund Freud or psychoanalysis will surely enjoy Freud at 150: 21st-Century Essays on a Man of Genius.


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