Adam Phillips, an English psychoanalyst and general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Sigmund Freud, has written a concise biography, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, which follows Freud up to the age of fifty.
Interestingly for someone whose life work was explicating a patient's biography, Freud was against anyone writing his. Indeed, when he was 30 he wrote his fiancee that he had destroyed all his notes, letters, scientific excerpts, and manuscripts of his papers to frustrate future biographers. This, Phillips points out, from a man "with no distinctive professional achievements . . . a man [who thinks he] will be worthy not of one biography but of many."
Phillips does his best to put Freud into his place and times. Although Freud was a secular Jew, he was conscious of his Jewishness (and a sister died in the Holocaust) and worried that psychiatry would be seen as a "Jewish science." He was trained as a doctor, but had little interest in medicine. He was far more interested in language, in the stories people tell about themselves, and in writing his books. He presented himself as a scientist, but his books—Interpreting Dreams (1900), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) and others—are hardly scientific.
However, as Phillips writes, "[t]he facts of a life—and indeed the facts of life—were among the many things that Freud's work has changed our way of thinking about. Freud's work shows us not merely that nothing in our lives is self-evident, that not even the facts of our lives speak for themselves, but that facts themselves look different from a psychoanalytic point of view." I found it interesting that while Freud listened to his patients for hidden meanings, symbols, buried fears, unacknowledged lusts, and more, working on the theory that these existed, he seems to have been arrogant enough to believe he himself was exempt from them. That, indeed, he could successfully analyze himself.
Yet, the psychoanalyst, Phillips writes, "is a historian who shows us that our histories are also the way we conceal the past from ourselves; the way we both acknowledge it and disavow it at the same time (to disavow it is, one way or another, to simplify it; to acknowledge it is to allow complication)." Freud showed modern people "how unconscious they were, how removed from a clear sense of their own intentions, how determinedly ignorant they were about their own pleasure." As a result, Freud argues, we are fundamentally divided against ourselves. We no longer know what is in our best interests—or even what our best interest might be.
For a short book (162 pages), Becoming Freud is both expansive and profound. Because Freud and his ideas have had such an impact on 20th century thought, Adam Phillips has done us a service by writing about the man and his thought so effectively.