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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Freud's Megalomania

Israel Rosenfield

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To purchase Freud's Megalomania

Title: Freud's Megalomania
Author: Israel Rosenfield
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 173 pages
Availability: Freud's Megalomania - US
Freud's Megalomania - UK
Freud's Megalomania - Canada
La mégalomanie de Freud - France
Freuds Megalomanie - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B- : some good ideas, lost in a jumble of attempts at literary cleverness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Book Review . 3-4/2001 Kevin Patrick Finucane
The NY Rev. of Books B 2/11/2000 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Times Book Rev. A 9/7/2000 Adam Phillips
The New Yorker A- 14/8/2000 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "I found little in the main portion of Rosenfield's novel as amusing, or as pointed, as the introductory material. (...) (T)he fictional Freud is nowhere near as much fun to read as the real one." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books

  • "In less skilled hands this academic material would be unpromising; luckily, Rosenfield has enough comic energy and intellectual muscle to succeed." - The New Yorker

  • "Freud's 'Megalomania' is carefully framed to sustain our expectations, but also to keep us mindful of the pleasures of pastiche. (...) Freud's 'Megalomania' is, in short, a triumph of that false-memory syndrome called contemporary fiction" - Adam Phillips, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Israel Rosenfield's ambitious little book centers around what is purported to be a newly-discovered piece of writing by Sigmund Freud, his last manuscript, titled Megalomania, in which the Viennese father of psychoanalysis comes to some startlingly different conclusions than he had previously.
       Rosenfield presents the book as one might such an academic find. There is an introduction, by a "Professor Albert J. Stewart", a Note on the Manuscript explaining some of the history of the document, a Preface by "Bernadette Schilder", Freud's granddaughter (the daughter of a previously unknown mistress of Freud's). Beside the text of Megalomania there is an additional, unfinished manuscript by Freud, "The Tower of Babel", a note by Anna Freud describing a conversation with Johnny von Neumann, as well as "A Final Note", Endnotes (as well as a fill of footnotes throughout the text), and two lists of the cast of characters (one for those "from the imagined world", and one for those "from the world reinvented"). A lot of layers to get through.
       Rosenfield's send-up of academic presentation falls fairly flat. Humour is not his strong point, and unfortunately he tries constantly to be funny. Least successful (and there's a lot to choose from for that distinction) are the inside jokes, hidden in the footnotes, referring to the ongoing dispute around the figure of now somewhat ill-repute (i.e. Freud) that has raged (or simmered) for the past decade or so -- including in the pages of The New York Review of Books, for which Rosenfield frequently writes. The footnotes and much of the historical supporting material (figures, anecdotes, stories) are an uncomfortable mix of fact and fiction; the payoff should be greater if one resorts to such a drastic mixing and melding of truth and lies. A select audience of Freudians and anti-Freudians may laugh at the cleverness of some of this, but most readers won't get much out of this aspect of the book.
       Some of the book does offer a bit more for a wider audience, but the unnecessarily unlikely circumstances leading to the publication of Megalomania strain credulity and wear patience. The Introduction, by Professor Albert J. Stewart, a loopy Loop Theorist, begins "I never liked Freud." Nevertheless, it is to him that Bernadette Schilder entrusts the mysterious manuscript. Reading it changes his life, as he then walks away from his collaborator Norman Dicke, inventor of Loop Theory (a theory that (along with its protagonists) runs as a not so clever minor plotline throughout the various texts).
       Stewart's meandering introduction isn't very useful. There are obvious attempts at humour, especially regarding the Loop Theory, but Rosenfield wields a very blunt pen here -- exemplified by a ridiculous exchange between Dicke and a reporter from The Economist in an extended footnote. Rosenfield doesn't attack broadly enough to make for decent satire, and his jabs and gibes seem forced. Practically all of it is also simply not funny, on any level. The introduction is unsuccessful both as a mock-academic piece and as satire.
       The story Rosenfield creates around the manuscript, as related by Bernadette Schilder in her preface, is similarly overly complex and muddled, not entirely certain of the point it wishes to make. Is it the news of Freud's mistress that is the point ? The manuscript itself ? The questions regarding its authenticity ? It all reads like the hackwork of self-published authors writing about some crank uncle's nutty theories that they have preserved over the decades.
       Finally, the reader comes to Freud's Megalomania -- and it turns out to be half worth the wait and frustration. Rosenfield has some decent ideas -- he is a clever man, after all -- and there is some fun to be had with them. Unfortunately, the presentation is again ... inexpert, to put it mildly. Love him or hate him, there was one thing Freud could do, and that was write. It may not come across in all the English translations, but Freud was a fine stylist, and he also presented his cases, theses, and arguments well. Presumably based on the idiomatic English translations some of Freud's writing might seem to echo in Rosenfield's version, but for any one familiar with the German Rosenfield's language is often laughable and an affront. Freud may start some of his sentences with the assuring "Gewiß", but a better English equivalent must be found than "For sure". One stretch of seven paragraphs of Rosenfield's writing includes three beginning with "But" and two with "Indeed" (plus a "Hence").
       Rosenfield's Freud also does not tell his story very well -- helped by Professor Stewart, who chooses to find remarkable similarities between the case Freud discusses and a similar contemporary one, mentioning it a number of times in his footnotes. Still, the basic idea is not a bad one: Freud discusses his break with fêted Austrian Nobel laureate, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, a former friend and colleague. Freud describes testifying at an inquiry into the methods by which Wagner-Jauregg "treated" soldiers who suffered from hysterical paralysis or similar ailments during World War I. These ailments, while seeming to have no physical cause, prevented the malingerers from doing their duty and dying for the fatherland. Wagner-Jauregg worked together with a sordid Dr. Kozlowski, who had written a book called Innocent but Guilty, about a notorious rapist of the times, Hans Hellbach. (This is also where the comparisons to a similar modern-day rapist are introduced.)
       Quite cleverly Rosenfield makes his point, allowing Freud to realize the truth behind human nature and activity: self-delusion is the true key to it all. Each of the instances cited -- and naturally also all those in the Introduction and the Preface -- show cases of self-deception. Freud dismisses his previous ideas, realizing:

What we know, and what we dare not say, is that the worth of a man, his value, is his ability to fake it, to respond in circumstances in which his ignorance is total without revealing, for even a moment, just how ignorant he is.
       Here Freud sees "the rock bottom of man's greatest achievements and glories". And it is also "the root of human psychology". It's a fun thesis, and Rosenfield's colourful cast of characters (no matter how dulled by his presentation) make a good case for it. Contemporary readers naturally also think of the greatest self-deceiver of all, lurking around the corner: Hitler.
       Rosenfield gets a few more decent points in -- a fun chapter on the great deceiver Moses, and an explanation of how things now work when the excuse of "God spoke to me" doesn't really fly any more. Conscience -- "our sense of morality" is said to "originate in an hallucination". A decent idea, again.
       Freud concludes his study of megalomania by acknowledging that the deluded Wagner-Jauregg:
(...) was the ultimate psychoanalyst. His cold indifference, surface veneer of concern, was what I always insisted on for my students. Inflicting pain in the service of cure.
       Perhaps Rosenfield goes about damning the profession a bit too simplistically (Freud's near-deathbed conversion is too scripted), detracting from some valid arguments, but there is still a lot to think about here.
       The unfinished essay appended takes a different case to make the same points (focussing on the Eiffel tower, sans symbolism), as does Anna Freud's conversation with Johnny von Neumann.
       Rosenfield's book offers interesting ideas, and the basic stories he uses to convey these are fundamentally sound. Unfortunately, his presentation falls far short. This novel begs for a strong editorial hand to shape it into the truly good book it could be. As is, it is an immensely frustrating read, worthwhile because there is a fine mind at work behind it, off-putting because the presentation is wholly inadequate.

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Reviews: Sigmund Freud: Julius Wagner-Jauregg: Other books on Freud under review: Other books under review that might be of Interest:

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About the Author:

       American author Israel Rosenfield has both an M.D. and a Ph.D. (in Intellectual History), and is Professor at the City University of New York. He has won a Guggenheim fellowship.

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