Freud's Megalomania: A Novel


"Wonderfully contrived ....a triumph of that false-memory syndrome called contemporary fiction."—New York Times Book Review
In an inventive blending of "comic energy and intellectual muscle" (The New Yorker), Israel Rosenfield serves up for our scrutiny and sheer delight Freud's long-lost last "manuscript," which reveals a Freud who in reflecting upon his life's work realizes that he has gotten it all wrong! A victim of his own self-delusion, Freud goes about setting the record straight with a preposterously ...

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"Wonderfully contrived ....a triumph of that false-memory syndrome called contemporary fiction."—New York Times Book Review
In an inventive blending of "comic energy and intellectual muscle" (The New Yorker), Israel Rosenfield serves up for our scrutiny and sheer delight Freud's long-lost last "manuscript," which reveals a Freud who in reflecting upon his life's work realizes that he has gotten it all wrong! A victim of his own self-delusion, Freud goes about setting the record straight with a preposterously seductive new theory of human behavior: it is not drives that motivate us, but rather our boundless capacity to deceive ourselves. Such are the explosive contents of his last manuscript, Megalomania. Its discovery years later prompts a postmortem that effectively puts the icon to rest, resurrects the man, and exposes the naiveté of Freud's disciples and the megalomaniacal tendencies of his detractors. This "wise and witty" (Boston Sunday Globe) intellectual spoof delivers a surprising twist on history and a playful challenge to today's enduring Freud debate.

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Editorial Reviews

Adam Phillips
Wonderfully contrived ....a triumph of that false-memory syndrome called contemporary fiction. —New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, Rosenfield delivers in his first novel an intellectual spoof of the so-called "Freud Wars," which have been fought out in NYRB's pages and letters columns. The controversy pits luminaries like Frederick Crews, who dismiss Freudian explanations as pseudo-scientific, against intellectuals who believe Freud's work illuminates the deepest structures of the human psyche. Rosenfield imagines a lost manuscript in which Freud criticizes his own work. This manifesto is an addendum to Moses and Monotheism, Freud's last book. Here the Master realizes, at last, that the great force in human nature is not unconscious drives but self-deception--upon which he has built his own empire: psychoanalysis. Instead of a science, psychoanalysis turns out to be merely a ploy for attention--on a historic scale. The fun here is in the imitation of Freud's sometimes rambling style, and the scholarly armature with which Rosenfield surrounds his document. The work is introduced by a Prof. Albert J. Stewart, an anti-Freudian with his own axes to grind. The document's discovery leads to the story of Freud's heretofore secret love child, Emma, and his mistress, Adelaide Benesh. The endnotes refer to real and imaginary characters, many featured in the NYRB controversy. Freudophiles should enjoy parsing the numerous scholarly notes and research documents and deciding whether they are historically based, pure fiction or an ingenious blend; the descriptions of Freud as a presumptuous, arrogant lover and father are winning. Readers who follow current academic or literary controversies will find this novel amusing and expertly satiric, but the crux of the cleverness may remain mysterious for the uninitiated. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Adam Phillips
Fascinating . . . Carefully framed to sustain our expectations, but also to keep us mindful of the pleasures of pastiche. . . . A triumph of that false-memory syndrome called contemporary fiction.
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
This difficult but rewarding first novel, which mixes biography and fition, literary criticism and scientific intrigue, concerns Freud's last paper...In less skilled hands, this academic material would be unpromising; luckily, Rosenfeld has enough comic energy and intellectual muscle to succeed.
Kirkus Reviews
What if Freud had left a final paper declaring, revolutionarily, that morality arises not from the guilt caused by Oedipal desires but, instead, from simple fear of the absolute, unchallengeable authority demonstrated in megalomania? CUNY history professor Rosenfield makes just this the premise of his novel debut—and produces a wonderful, chewy, intellectual delight. Rosenfield mixes real with fictional characters, giving Freud a mistress (and also a daughter by her), with whom he leaves his last paper, Megalomania, before departing from Europe forever. The paper, unread and unauthenticated, manages to survive WWII and come finally into the hands of Freud's granddaughter, who in turn brings it to the attention of cognitive scientist Professor Albert J. Stewart: and it's Stewart who tells us about his own first and astonished reading of the paper, then presents it to us in toto with his own annotations, clarifications, and background comments. Stewart himself has just ended a five-year collaboration with one Norman Dicke, winner of the "Looker Prize," creator of "Loop Theory," and fabricator of a thinking—Marilyn Monroe robot. Framed by Stewart's tales of the despotic and despicable Dicke, Freud's paper becomes all the more riveting as it treats Freud's real-life and also despotic colleague, Nobelist Julius Wagner-Juarreg, who gave shock treatment to soldiers during WWI, declaring them "malingerers" rather than traumatized victims. He was cleared, in 1920, of charges of unethical practice—though the testimony Freud himself gave in the trial left him haunted ever after, feeling that he had failed "to adequatelydefend .. . the young men who had been tortured." And the cause of his failure? Simply the sheer force of Wagner as megalomaniac—a man so bold that he "had perfected the art of lying to a point where truth had become unrecognizable," the sheer power of his fraud having become the truth. "Fraud is Man," declares Freud in this brilliant, learned, ambitious, and wildly thought-provoking masterpiece of fictional revisionism.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393321999
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/17/2001
  • Pages: 178
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.41 (d)

Meet the Author

Israel Rosenfield, author of a number of nonfiction books, writes frequently for the New York Review of Books and teaches history at the City University of New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

An Apparent Oversight

Not very long ago I wrote that to deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken lightly—especially when one belongs oneself to that people. I had no sooner finished writing that sentence than I found myself paralyzed and unable to continue.

    I had wanted to write a book about the origins of the Jewish people and the deep-seated resentment toward them throughout history. My plan had been to write a historical novel, though I am neither historian nor artist, for I thought that this was the best way to answer the question that had preoccupied me for so long, how one man could effectively create a "people" from a collection of individuals who cared little about each other and had no desire to form any permanent associations. What is more, Moses not only effectively united these disparate individuals and families, but stamped them with a character that they would retain for thousands of years.

    When I had completed my book The Man Moses (Der Mann Moses) I realized that what had truly preoccupied me for the past quarter of a century was the psychology of the man, Moses, not the psychology of his followers. I had created a theory that, I believed, could answer the second question, but I had no idea about the first, ultimately far more important and revealing, question—the psychology of men who are accepted as authorities.

    Psychoanalysis has taught us that such apparent oversights are certainly not accidental and, ofcourse, what suddenly upset me when I recognized that I had been avoiding the very question that troubled me the most was that the foundations of my life's work, psychoanalysis, the very tool that now revealed to me the inadequacy of my own investigations, was crumbling before my very own eyes as my life was drawing to a close.

    I had always known that the fate of all scientific endeavors is oblivion and that the lucky scientist dies well before the first cracks appear in his edifice. But having spent the greater part of life confronted by the scorn and ridicule of men whom I knew were my intellectual inferiors, it appeared to me to be a cruel fate to end my days knowing that history would praise my enemies and throw my books into the scrap heap of past stupidities.

    For sure progress depends on the ability of future generations to dismiss the past. Airplanes were not developed because men sang the praises of Icarus flapping his waxen wings.

    But then it would be a mistake to assume that the recognition of the inadequacy of one's own work means that work is absurd or meaningless. It is in our failings that we often recognize not only truths about ourselves, but the nature of social and cultural pressures that have, as I have discussed in my earlier book Civilization and Its Discontents, driven us to a despair out of which has emerged some of the greatest achievements of mankind.

    I make no such claims of greatness for myself, but I admit that as my days are numbered and as I reread some of the works that I had once considered my most important contributions to our understanding of human psychology, there is a constant sense of expectation, a sense that I am about to come upon some insight that will astonish future readers as much as it might continue to astonish me. But as I read on I have the feeling that I have disappointed my reader, as I now confess I have disappointed myself; the sudden sense of understanding is just not there.

    I have criticized religions for creating a false sense of security in the face of the unknown by forcibly imposing an infantile mentality and mass-delusion; and I have written that the depth of religious feeling is only fully understandable if we recognize its infantile source: the conviction of the irresistible, all-embracing power of a god—the need for being given a set of laws that must be obeyed—comes from the same admiration, awe and gratitude that the child, confronted by the lawless world, shows to the law-giving father. I have not hesitated to see in religious explanations attempts at fulfilling childish fantasies. And now, with a force that time makes all the more unbearable, I see in my own work some of the very childish fantasies that I have so harshly criticized in religion.

I have concerned myself with the details of the stories we tell about ourselves and I have found in those stories the deceptions and the distortions that, I have argued, hide often contradictory and unacceptable desires that we are only able to master and control with our extraordinary capacity for self-deception. I have seen self-deception as a universal trait of the species, but I have never asked myself if self-deception does not have the status of a primary characteristic of human psychology, if it is not the bedrock on which all else, including civilization, is founded.

    I created psychoanalysis, after all, to control, if not, I must confess, naively, to eliminate a lack of self-awareness. But now, as I look over the many discoveries of psychoanalysis, I see that the forces that cement together the psyche are of such a nature that we can never recognize within ourselves, we can never tolerate knowing, just how deeply miserable we all are; and therefore we cannot know just how these forces drive us to constantly deceive ourselves in our self-observations and in our observations of others.

    It is the mechanisms of the psyche, not our needs and our desires confronted by unbearable familial and social pressures as I had once believed, that are at the root of this self-deception. Psychology exists because of these mechanisms; no matter how hard we try to correct them, to evade them or to outwit them, we will inevitably be the greater fool. We have tried and self-deception has won out through greater and more subtle subterfuges.

    The history of human psychology is the history of these subterfuges, whose subtlety and nastiness has only increased over time. The remarkable progress we have made in our understanding of the material world can only be matched in our understanding of ourselves, if the cement of self-deception that is so central to maintaining even a modicum of our psychological equilibrium can somehow be dissolved, torn asunder and rendered harmless. I don't know if we will ever have the power to do this; and if we do, we will have to confront a psychology that has little to do with our present selves. Indeed, I fear that if we could destroy the cement of the psyche, we would destroy the psyche in all its essential characteristics. I am not sure that is either desirable or possible.

    The problem is not that we cannot recognize that what we say about our thoughts and actions is, at best, incoherent; we can and do recognize this after the fact. But once having admitted to ourselves our own subterfuges we are confronted by newer forms, which again we only recognize after the fact. We can never at the moment itself be honest with ourselves, never really understand when we are acting out what we are truly all about. It is only in retrospect that we can explain ourselves, and this retrospective view is hardly reassuring because it does so little to alter our behavior in the future.

    Indeed, it is not honesty about ourselves that we are seeking, but a vague recognition that if we cannot really control ourselves, if we can only in retrospect understand what we are all about (and then even our retrospective view is hardly reassuring, since it is inevitably distorted by oversights that we try to fill in to create a coherent view of ourselves), we can hardly claim to understand the motives and actions of those around us.

    It is our failure to be reassured about others, our recognition that whatever explanations others might give us must also be distorted by the same mechanisms that seem so beyond our control—that is what is truly disturbing. Because if we are constantly deceiving ourselves concerning our own motives and actions, certainly those deceptions are ultimately turned to our own benefit. But we know that we are doing likewise with family, friends and acquaintances and that therefore they must be doing the same.

    And we know that there is thus a limit to our understanding of our relations with others, and our ability to rely on others, that we cannot go beyond. The recognition of this fact is not clearly articulated, but felt, sensed, in a deep and disturbing way. It is what ultimately makes us wary, suspicious of each and every person we know, a suspicion that we learn to control either by ignoring it, and hence accepting the deceptions of the others—chalking them up to so much dishonesty on their part—or allowing our suspicions to become an overwhelming sense of distrust that can paralyze our lives.

    Those who become paralyzed we see in our clinics and we label them paranoid. We comfort ourselves saying that some paranoia is justified, but theirs has gone beyond what is reasonable. But this a strategy of survival for us.

    Suspicion in a moderate form we consider tolerable and reasonable, because this is what is most reassuring for most of us. Yet this "normal" form of suspicion and what we want to call its pathological form—paranoia—are not the only forms in which self-deception can manifest itself.

    Far more important is that the whole of society ultimately rests on our distrust of each other, our need for rules and regulations that are forcibly enforced; culture is the consequence of this distrust, these rules and organizations that we have created in order to reassure ourselves about the others. And it is the psychic mechanisms behind this transformation of distrust into culture that only now I am beginning to perceive, having spent most of my life uncovering the little foibles and distortions that are part of our everyday thought and action.

    Indeed, if we could not deceive others and ourselves we would have no imagination, no thoughts, no pleasures, no pains, no defense against others, no desires to know others—no society, and most important of all, no notion of being, no sense of self, such that no one can ever possess us or know us in our entirely. Self-deception is at the root of society, but it is so transformed—for if it were not, society even as we know it would not be possible—that we do not recognize it. Inevitably it breaks down and we have periods of social and political crisis, ultimately wars, the roots of which we do not understand, because their psychological causes have been so distorted.

    Law is self-deception's answer to paranoia. And behind law, behind the notion of law and our psychic ability to accept it—even though we all know it does not and cannot work (or why would we need to constantly rewrite our laws?)—is the paranoia that we all have and that we accept within ourselves, puzzled by it, even dismissing it, and rarely recognizing it for what it truly is, though certainly prepared to see it when necessary in others. We can have a clarity and insightfulness about our friends' and neighbors' states of self-deception that we can never accept about ourselves. Nor would we ever be so foolhardy as to insist on the blindness of others. We only hint at what we think and what we understand about those who are close to us; we are wise enough to keep silent about our greater insights, if real insights they are.

    But if the psyche is capable of such subterfuge, it would be wrong to assume that our self-deceptions must limit themselves to a vague sense of distrust and, in the more pathological cases, paranoia. Law may ultimately be the product of paranoia, but no citizen, no lawmaker would ever describe legitimate law as the product of a paranoid mentality. Law is paranoia transformed, disguised so that we can no longer recognize it for what it is.

    (Indeed, law is but a symptom of a more general problem—the enormous complexity of our relation to ourselves, others and our surroundings; our knowledge will always be too limited for us to understand why we have so acted in the past, or how we should act now or in the future. If we were completely rational we would never be able to ever decide what to do. We would never know enough. Thus our emotions create the illusion in us of what we want or desire. In deceiving us our emotions make us act.)

    Hence if there was one lesson I learned from psychoanalysis, it was the lesson of self-deception. The more I tried to distance myself from my patients' constant diversions, the more I found myself trapped by them in unexpected ways.

    But, as I will explain, I think I have come to understand why psychoanalysis was doomed. The reasons were deeper and other than I had supposed. For within the confines of analysis I was never able to advance any theoretical arguments about the nature of self-deception and paranoia. I had put the question aside because any new science cannot try to tackle too many questions at once, and we had begun to establish, I thought, a solid understanding of the nature of neuroses. If our treatments were not always as effective as we might have desired, there was, I believed, the problem of resistances that manifests itself in so many unpredictable ways that we could not be blamed for our inability to break them down.

    But I always knew that I would, if time permitted, one day have to confront the deeper questions of our self-deceptions and ultimately the paranoid personality that I had for so long ignored in the interest of the advance of our young science.

As we gingerly construct new buildings, monuments that have never been seen before, we have to create a scaffolding that will eventually be thrown out. Future theorists will find it easy to point back at me and laugh at the crudeness of the structures I have had to produce, at the cords and pulleys I have installed in my scaffolding, the cranes I have used to haul up the building blocks of an edifice that is only barely visible though the scaffolding. Surely the cranes, the pulleys and the cords have nothing to do with the final structure; yet knowing we may never see the final edifice, we can often become enamored of the scaffolding itself (for it has its own beauty), and this can lead to a certain amount of confusion. How we construct our buildings and theories is instructive in itself. Our constructions are limited by engineering techniques, as our scientific theories are limited by our mathematical and logical skills; and it is only over time that subtle new structures, new understandings that had been hidden from view, will begin to take shape.

    The recent recollection of a series of personal events that I had long since put out of my mind has made me aware that I have overlooked critical issues in the theory of psychoanalysis. Certainly, had I tried to overcome the weakness of the theory earlier on, I would have been confronted by insurmountable difficulties. However, leaving it in its present state, fully aware of the theory's limitations, would be both dishonest and misleading for the future.

    The circumstances that awoke within me a recognition of my theoretical oversights concerned one of my oldest acquaintances from my years in medical school, a man who was to become the most honored member of the medical profession in Vienna during my lifetime, Julius Wagner-Jaurreg. Wagner's name came up in connection with a scandal that had become the preoccupation of Vienna, a story to which I will now turn.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 11
Note on the Manuscript 36
Preface 39
1. An Apparent Oversight 57
2. The Rape 69
3. The Malingerers 74
4. The Obituary 79
5. The Inquiry 82
6. Paralysis 88
7. An Outdated Morality 93
8. Megalomania 100
9. The Hallucinating Superego 118
"The Tower of Babel" 133
Anna Freud: Notes on a Conversation with Johnny von Neumann 154
A Final Note 163
Endnotes 165
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