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Samuel Lézé, Freud Wars

Yannis Gansel (English translation)
Traduction de Lucie Krovatin et Mei Senegas
Cet article est une traduction de :
Samuel Lézé, Freud Wars. Un siècle de scandales
Freud Wars
Samuel Lézé, Freud Wars. Un siècle de scandales, Paris, PUF, 2017, 180 p., ISBN : 978-2-13-079245-1.

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Notes de la rédaction

Review translated by Lucie Krovatin (Columbia University, Barnard College) and Mei Senegas (ENS de Lyon), as part of the Transatlantic Collaborative Translation Workshop between Barnard College-Columbia University and the École normale supérieure de Lyon. Supervised by Professors Laurie Postlewate (Barnard-Columbia) & Layla Roesler (ENS de Lyon).

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1How can one explain why people have been declaring Freud to be dead and almost buried for the past one hundred years? Indeed, Samuel Lézé starts his “biographical chronology” of “anti-Freudian attacks” with the Frederic L. Wells’s 1912 critical essay, “The Interpretation of Dreams”, published over a century ago. What came then were Pierre Janet’s refutations, followed by the waves of critiques – or rather the successive cycles of controversy – which little by little formed the diverse body of anti-Freudians. The title Freud Wars references only one of these periods, which took place in the United States during the 90s. Still, the objective of this book is to assemble the emergence of this body of criticism, some of which remain well-known, while others have been forgotten.

  • 1 The Walking Dead is an American television series broadcast since 2010 by AMC, and adapted to the s (...)

2This short, 130-page essay is concise, descriptive, and riddled with irony, drawing on relevant examples from popular culture (The Walking Dead, V for Vendetta)1, as well as from classical authors (Flaubert, Byron). Here, Samuel Lézé discusses the “unchanging debate” and the “ritual of debasement” employed non-stop by anti-Freudians (p. 98). Indeed, the movement consists of two aspects: one of rational criticism (debate) and the other of moral denunciation (debasement). Lézé further develops nuances through the configuration of these two facets.

3The first nuances are of a temporal order. Rational critique was the first to develop, going from an argument against argument basis in the 1920s to a “summation” of Freud’s ideology in the 1940s. The tone changed in the 1950s, with refutations increasingly taking the form of pamphlets, while the second phase – which was no longer simply rational, but also moral – of anti-Freudian critiques emerged. Whereas the first phases used a summary of Freud’s arguments to contest them and demonstrate their shortcomings and inconsistencies, the subsequent phases used his biography. For these, it was essential in the 1960s to point out Freud’s “defects”, and then, in the 1970s, the traumas and neuroses of the father of psychoanalysis, by unveiling his hidden or misunderstood life events. These critiques, which were at first scattered, began to work together to take on an increasingly more collective dimension in the 1970s and 80s, before becoming a routine form of criticism in the 1990s.

4The second nuances addressed by Freud Wars touch upon anti-Freudian movements within the context of different countries. In the United States, where the medical jurisdiction over “personal problems” is influenced by religion, and restrict psychoanalysis to the clinical sphere, critics target “Freud the scientist”. In France, critics go after “Freud the philosopher”, as he is included among the Marxist and Catholic intellectuals. In short, within each of these national contexts, anti-Freudians trail on the Freudians’ heels.

5This is exactly what makes the book unique: its demonstration of the extent to which each critique is dependent on the Freudian icon it wishes to cast aside. All this criticism is, however, in vain, since the postmortem efforts to write Freud off are ineffective on the icon that is Freud and, to paraphrase Flaubert, it’s better not to touch, lest the gilding come off on your hands. Thus, the anti-Freudians only manage to reproduce a parallel to the work they intend to destroy, creating an “a-historical history and an a-critical or non-reflexive critique. [...] Anti-Freudianism is thus contaminated or predetermined by Freudianism itself” (p. 106). In addition to the inefficiency of the anti-Freudian criticism, Lézé’s analysis also shows the Weberian “paradox of consequences” that anti-Freudians begot. The rationalist critique of Freud synthesizes and totalizes the complex, contradictory, and disparate Freudian theories with intellectual precision, while paradoxically promoting the circulation of these theories. The moral critiques, by “turning the [biographical] weapon” against its author, validate the affective and psychological analysis of the dissenting stance carried by Freudians (p. 125). Worse, the satirical style that they use and undertones of scandal that they spread reinforce the prophetic stance of previous critics.

  • 2 Gauchet Marcel, Swain Gladys, La pratique de l’esprit humain. L’institution asilaire et la révoluti (...)
  • 3 Gansel Yannis, “La bipolarité épistémologique de la psychiatrie française”, L’Évolution psychiatriq (...)
  • 4 Martuccelli Danilo, “Néolibéralisme”, in Philippe Zawieja et Franck Guarenir (dir.), Dictionnaire d (...)

6Thus arrives the fated moment when the reviewer must evaluate the work, and the following question occurs to me: what came over me to propose to read the essay of a colleague and collaborator, a man with whom I work in the DSM team (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) at l’Institut d’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités? “Neurosis”, Freud would no doubt respond... In any case – since I cannot be both judge and defendant, and also since I am aware of the risk of being read as self-promoting – I propose to reveal the perspectives, rather than to consider this work by a certain criterion of assessment which would be inherently biased. More precisely, Lézé’s book asks three questions. First, what does the inertia of this debate say about those who use mental health resources today? Here at play is the incessant, never entirely resolved confrontation between the rational man – in control of his own destiny, aware of his own will – and the predetermined subject – an object of invisible forces. This division of the subject is constructed around pathological terms such as “diplopia”2 or “bipolarity”3, terms that have defined psychiatry for the last 200 years. Will the pre- or infra-diagnostic mental health practices that are located in the community and independent of asylums and their taxonomies reproduce these tensions? Or will they disappear into the shadow of the sovereign individual, the “entrepreneur of himself”?4

  • 5 Blanchard Véronique, Gardet Mathias, Mauvaise Graine. Deux siècles d’histoire de la justice des enf (...)

7Second, what are the moral implications of scandal on society? In Freud’s case, unbeknownst to and against the intention of anti-Freudians, the scandal associated with Freud’s works only upholds the iconic reputation of the Viennese psychoanalyst. Despite this, scandals have brought change in other social settings. One might consider the scandal of children’s prisons, introduced by Alexis Danan5 and other journalists during the period between the two World Wars, which greatly contributed to the closing of these penitentiaries and led to the reformation of disciplinary institutions a few decades later. What will come of, for example, the scandal that people think “France is lagging behind” on matters concerning autism? Or rather, what are the conditions of the right place, time, and person for a scandal to facilitate change instead of an identical repetition? Finally, these two questions bring about a third: how can one talk about mental health nowadays? Who has the right to speak of these disorders, which have become increasingly indistinct and stretched out into psychological suffering, and who can speak of those who suffer from these disorders outside the asylum’s walls? Which voice is the most legitimate, the most intelligible, the most fitting to speak of a changing world? Is it that of the psychiatrist, his or her patient, the biologist or the anthropologist? Is Foucault’s approach to psychiatry - outlined 50 years ago - still relevant nowadays? Can it still be put into words? Freud Wars allows us to take a look at these questions which we must continue to explore through historical and ethnographic inquiry.

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1 The Walking Dead is an American television series broadcast since 2010 by AMC, and adapted to the screen by Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman, who created the original graphic novel. V for Vendetta is an American film produced in 2005 by James McTeigue, and starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving.

2 Gauchet Marcel, Swain Gladys, La pratique de l’esprit humain. L’institution asilaire et la révolution démocratique, Paris, Gallimard, 1980, p. 309.

3 Gansel Yannis, “La bipolarité épistémologique de la psychiatrie française”, L’Évolution psychiatrique, vol. 79, n° 1, 2014, p. 134-141; available online at:

4 Martuccelli Danilo, “Néolibéralisme”, in Philippe Zawieja et Franck Guarenir (dir.), Dictionnaire des risques psycho-sociaux, Paris, Seuil, 2014, p. 501-503.

5 Blanchard Véronique, Gardet Mathias, Mauvaise Graine. Deux siècles d’histoire de la justice des enfants, Paris, Textuel, 2017; reviewed by Yannis Gansel for Lectures:

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Yannis Gansel (English translation), « Samuel Lézé, Freud Wars », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 21 janvier 2021, consulté le 09 mars 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Yannis Gansel (English translation)

Gansel is a psychiatrist and a researcher in the social sciences. His professional associations are with Hospices Civils de Lyon and Institut d’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités (IHRIM, UMR 5317).

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