“Psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love”


a book Freud and Man’s Soul by Bruno Bettelheim


New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1983.


In this short but masterful work Bettelheim sets out to show how the essen­tial nature of Freudian psychoanalysis has been distorted in its transmission to the English-speaking world.


“The erroneous or inadequate translation of many of the most important original concepts of psychoanalysis makes Freud’s direct and always deeply per­sonal appeals to our common humanity appear to the readers of English as abstract, depersonalized, highly theoretical, erudite and mechanized—in short ‘scientific’ statements about the strange and very complex workings of our mind”.


Psychoanalysis, as Freud experienced and transmitted it, is an intensely per­sonal system of self-discovery, an exploration of a vast and subtly shifting world of inner experience. Hidden and totally unsuspected, this is a place of mystery, beauty and chaos, of the never ceasing struggle between the forces of light and the forces of destruction. Freud saw that man in ordinary life—his actions, their results, in fact all that may be perceived of him—is determined by the interplay of forces in this unknown inner life.


Understanding this as a result of rigorous and persistent observation both of himself and others, Freud came to see, not only the existence of this inner world which he named the unconscious, but also the existence of a universal barrier to its exploration, a resistance met by anyone attempting to penetrate its mysteries. He thus attempted in his practice, through the creation of definite and special situations, and in his writings, through the most careful choice of words and metaphor, to create optimal conditions for direct contact between thought and feeling, between theory and living experience. Through the written word, the reader must be brought to the realization that this is my self, I myself am possessed of these strange forces, these mysteries are my life. He was, in time, widely recognized as a master in the uses of language and the craft of writing.


In support of his central thesis that Freud in English represents no more than the dessicated outer husk of Freud in German, Bettelheim presents a number of compelling examples. Among the most striking is the complete omission of the word “soul” from the English translation, and the substitution for it of the word “mind”.


“Freud never faltered in his conviction that it was important to think in terms of the soul when trying to comprehend his system, because no other con­cept could make equally clear what he meant.” In the opening passage of an arti­cle entitled ‘Psychical Treatment’ (Treatment of the Soul) he wrote:


“Psyche is a Greek word and its German translation is ‘soul’. Psychical treat­ment hence means ‘treatment of the soul’. One could think that what is meant is treatment of the morbid phenomena in the life of the soul. But this is not the meaning of this term. Psychical treatment wishes to signify, rather, treatment originating in the soul, treatment—of psychic or bodily disorders—by measures which influence above all and immediately the soul of men.”


In the Standard Edition (the recognized, authoritative English translation), the title of the paper is given as “Psychical (or Mental) Treatment”, and the passage is translated thus:


“Psyche’ is a Greek word which may be translated ‘mind’. Thus ‘psychical treatment’ means ‘mental treatment’. The term might accordingly be supposed to signify ‘treatment of the pathological phenomena of mental life’. This, however, is not its meaning. ‘Psychical treatment’ denotes, rather, treatment (whether of mental or physical disorders) by measures which operate in the first instance and immediately upon the human mind.”


The impression that something is lost between the first and second passages is striking. Psyche, a Goddess more beautiful even than Venus, is often depicted as having the wings of a bird or butterfly.


“Birds and butterflies are symbols of the soul in many cultures, and serve to emphasize its transcendental nature. These symbols have invested the word ‘psyche’ with connotations of beauty, fragility, and insubstantiality—ideas we still connect with the soul—and they suggest the great respect, care, and con­sideration with which Psyche had to be approached, because any other approach would violate, even destroy her.”


The quality of feeling has been destroyed. We are left with one dimension, man as mind.


This “flat” view of man permeates the Standard Edition. The translation of Die Traumdeutung as The Interpretation of Dreams illustrates another aspect of the same phenomenon. Dream and Traum are exact equivalents. Between Deutung and Interpretation there exists, however, a subtle but definite dif­ference. Deutung does not mean interpret, but rather “an attempt to grasp the deeper sense or the significance of something”. Its use thus places emphasis not on the idea of explanation, but rather on the idea of depth, of penetration, and of mystery. Furthermore, this soul, this mystery demanding exploration, is not just anywhere; it is within me. To emphasize this, and to draw the student into himself, Freud chose to name the major divisions of the soul the ‘I’ and the ‘it’. These concepts have been universally translated in English as the ‘Ego’ and the ‘Id’. For Freud, ‘I’ encompassed conflict, a struggle between life and death that gives life its deepest meaning. The inner reverberation which arises from the sounding of the word / has mass and resonance; it occupies a definite place near the center of the organism. Ego, on the other hand, is flat and resounds but weakly in the head. In the realm of experience these two words have no connec­tion, no link to one another.


How could it have come about that such a qualitative discrepancy exists be­tween the original text and the official translation? In addition to perfectly reasonable social and political reasons, Bettelheim suggests the more “psychological” possibility that the translations were affected by an unconscious tendency to avoid the full emotional impact of Freud’s teachings. It thus appears that the universal wish to remain unaware of one’s own unconscious and its at­tendant army of resistances pervades the whole of life with unsuspected subtlety and acts at the most delicate and crucial moments. Freud himself, in his hope that psychoanalysis would free individuals, their children and their cultural life as a whole, may not have fully appreciated the magnitude of the forces which he had touched, their vastness,, and their permanence.


Could it really be that there is much more to this issue of knowing one’s in­ner life than even Freud began to suspect? It might well be that ‘Self Knowledge’ involves more than in Bettleheim’s words ‘a spiritual journey of self discovery. . .an exploration of whatever personal hell we may suffer from’; that the injunction ‘Know Thyself’ can only be fully understood with the aid of a further key, ‘As Above, So Below’. Analysis of man from the point of view of man may be as unidimensional as the analysis of mind by mind. What is there in Freud’s ‘science of the life of the soul’ which will not only draw the seeker deeper into himself, but simultaneously allow him to rise to meet what is highest in creation?


Bettelheim writes, “I should point out, however, that when Freud speaks of the soul he is talking not about a religious phenomenon but about a psychological concept; it too is a metaphor. . . .Freud was a passionate man. For him, the soul is the seat of both the mind and the passions.”


What is most significant about this book is that it brings into question, if just a little, an understanding that is taken for granted, of some very common terms, household words, so to speak. Perhaps it is time to ask again what Freud is all about and why was he so influential, what was the gap that he filled?

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