By Élisabeth Roudinesco (Trans: Catherine Porter)
Harvard University Press, £25
'Of making many books there is no end," said Ecclesiastes, and that certainly seems to be true of books about Sigmund Freud. More than 75 years after the death of the great Jewish founder of psychoanalysis, this river of works - biographies, critical studies, novelistic re-imaginings, hagiographies, debunkings - seems still to be in full flow. This is partly because there remains more to discover about him, thanks to the fact that many of his personal documents are only now becoming available in the Library of Congress in Washington, having been locked up there for years by order of Kurt Eissler, acting according to the wishes of Anna Freud. But it is also because everyone who takes or has taken an interest in Freud has her or his own "Freud".
Some studies of Freud have been terrible but fortunately in each generation since he died there has been at least one book of real significance. Ernest Jones's Life and Work appeared in the 1950s and is still an essential source, even though it presented Freud as a singular Great Man and Scientist, editing out many of the bumps and disasters in order to advance Jones's own assessment of the political needs of the psychoanalytic movement of the time. Peter Gay's 1988 title, Freud: A Life for Our Time, delivered Gay's view that the "time" needed a reconsideration of Freud in a detailed, beautifully written, loyal and sympathetic account that became the standard against which all other biographies would be measured.
Now we have a new standard from Élisabeth Roudinesco, its title echoing Gay's. Roudinesco is herself an extraordinary figure, a combative literary historian who was part of the school of psychoanalysis that formed around the maverick, inspirational French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and who, among other things, has written several indispensable books on Lacan that have offered a wonderful mix of scholarly history, gossip and personal reflection. Her new book on Freud is, if anything, an even more masterful achievement. It lacks some of the gossip, presumably because she never knew Freud, and in fact is scathing about many of the rumours that have grown up around him.
But it has the same tangible mix of insouciance, scholarly thoroughness and psychoanalytic acumen, and it demonstrates Roudinesco's critical and philosophical talent. The book's strength is not so much in providing new material, although it does supply intriguing details about Freud's patients and his relationships with family, friends, opponents and disciples. Rather, Roudinesco offers us a re-reading of Freud that makes sense of him in relation to his emergence in the Jewish Vienna of the second half of the 19th century, and to the "old Europe" to which he was so attached until it crumbled in the 20th. Roudinesco's Freud also speaks to contemporary concerns (the "our time" of the title), as a radical conservative: patriarchal, old-fashioned, anti-feminist, constrained, contentious; but also revolutionary and fearless in his thought. Some of this radical element derives from his Jewish "outsiderness", and the question of what it means to have a Jewish identity was one from which Freud could never escape; yet out of this specific history he has become a universal figure - one who, despite his own blind spots, provided a new vision of the human soul.