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Interview by Michael Cromartie
Although his psychoanalytic empire is in disarray, weakened by assaults from without and divided by bitter internecine rivalry into a thousand squabbling fiefdoms, Sigmund Freud still casts a long shadow. True, "the Viennese quack," as Vladimir Nabokov dubbed him, is no longer enshrined in the pantheon of science, but who can deny that Freud has been Very Influential?
To take the measure of that influence, the Library of Congress planned an exhibit, scheduled to open in 1996, called "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture." Late in 1995, however, after a number of scholars signed a petition calling for the proposed exhibit to "adequately reflect the full spectrum of informed opinion about the status of Freud's contributions," the show was postponed. The library cited budgetary reasons, but most observers attributed the action to the controversy raised by critics of the advisory board, which was heavily stacked with Freud partisans such as biographer and historian Peter Gay.
Predictably, the New York Times weighed in with the judgment that the "never-ending backlash against Freud confirms the potency of his theories." (Heads, I win; tails, you lose.) Peter Gay agreed. "Freud's message is really hard to take," he said, implying that the critics needed psychotherapy.
After a long delay, the exhibit, curated by Michael Roth, finally opened in October 1998. In that same month, Michael Cromartie interviewed scholar Paul Vitz about Freud and his legacy. Vitz is professor of psychology at New York University. He is the author of more than 100 articles and four books, including Sigmund Freud's Christian Unconscious (1988). Vitz and Cromartie spoke via telephone.
What is the state of the debate concerning Freud today? Why is he still such a controversial figure? There are two kinds of controversy. First, there is controversy over Freud the man and what kind of person he was. There is a lot of evidence that, as he himself said, he was an "intellectual conquistador." He was an intellectual ...