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Debating Freud on His Sesquicentennial

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Debating Freud on His Sesquicentennial

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Debating Freud on His Sesquicentennial

Debating Freud on His Sesquicentennial

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Sigmund Freud was born 150 years ago this week. One of his greatest contributions — the talking cure — is used less these days in favor of psychiatric drugs. Commentator Lennard Davis would like to defend Freud, and talk therapy. Lennard Davis is a professor of Literature, Medical Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where is also the director of Project Biocultures.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDRED from NPR News. This Saturday is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysts and cultural critics are hosting conferences, special issues of journals, and exhibitions. Commentator Lennard Davis teaches about medical education and literature. He says Freud's reputation has taken a beating in recent decades on all sides.

Prof. LENNARD DAVIS (Medical Education, University of Illinois): In the past 30 years Freud's reputation has plummeted. First he was attacked by feminists who said his ideas about penis envy were sexist. Then the brain scientists came along with their PET scans and said that our mental states were merely electrical impulses. Biochemists said that depression turned out to be based on lack of serotonin, not bad toilet training. And now the insurance companies expect us to fix ourselves with quick therapy or drugs rather than a lengthy talking cure.

So why shouldn't we dump Dr. Freud on the trash heap of expired ideas? I continue to teach Freud to my students despite the fact that my research assistant calls him Dr. Fraud. My students start out dubious because all they've heard is how sexist Freud is. And he is. But then they quickly discover that there's much to appreciate in his work. Freud's contribution was considerable, after all he invented the unconscious.

We all know somebody who's neurotic, even anal. We say that we're sublimating our energies, projecting our fears, repressing our drives. We wouldn't laugh at Woody Allen if we didn't have Freud. In fact, you really can't talk about yourself and your emotions without using his language, and you can't say Freudian slip without, well, you know.

Among Freud's detractors are the neuroscientists. They can show us how the brain works but they can't really help us with the mind. That complex creature that lives in our skulls and may follow the laws of chemistry and electricity, but seems to have a will of its own. Brain scientists little say that the mind, other than to give us the formula, mind is what brain does. But Freud thought mind is what mind does. For him, the best way to understand the mind was to scrap all the technology of his own era, the bromides, the Babs, the electrical prods and do something revolutionary. Simply talk. Freud didn't invent the talking cure, but he was smart enough to adopt it from one of his patients, the now famous Anna O. Talk therapy is all about the mind, its twists and turns, its ways of conceiving the universe and its use of reason to understand the irrational. Recent studies show that talk therapy's as good, if not better, than many drugs. And talk can enhance the performance of those drugs.

Another big objection to Freud is that he links everything to sex. Well, that objection may have been shocking in the beginning of the 20th Century, but it's a moot point in the 21st century when everything, or almost everything, is actually about sex. What makes us human according to Freud isn't sex per se, but the conflict between our rational selves and our drives. The ego and the id. Freud's still with us, despite some bad press, because he brought us to the point of a truth universally acknowledged, I'm neurotic, therefore, I am. Happy Birthday Sigmund.

NORRIS: Lennard Davis is a professor of literature and medical education at The University of Illinois at Chicago.

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