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Young, R.M. (1989). Freud: A Life for our Time, by Peter Gay, Dent, 1988, xxii + 810 pages, hb£ 16.95. Free Associations, 1W(18):119-122.

(1989). Free Associations, 1W(18):119-122

Freud: A Life for our Time, by Peter Gay, Dent, 1988, xxii + 810 pages, hb£ 16.95

Review by:
Robert M. Young

This is a fine biography. If asked for a book on Freudian psychoanalysis, I would hitherto have recommended Richard Wollheim's Freud (Fontana) or Philip Rieff's Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (Chicago). Now I would place Peter Gay's biography before them.

What Gay achieves is the closest to an integration of the personal, intrapsychic, intellectual, social, cultural and large-scale political history of any biography I can recall, except for Victor Wolfenstein's psychohistory of Malcolm X: The Victims of Democracy (California). Throughout the text, Gay gives each of these levels of analysis its due and interweaves their roles to the degree that he feels able in a given episode. Some are tightly woven, some loosely; some are left until more evidence is available — for example, how intimate was Freud's relationship with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays?

There is a clear and competent exposition of each of Freud's major writings and many of the minor ones. I'd have liked more details of the neurological writings and the 1895 ‘Project for a scientific psychology’ and believe that the secondary literature merits a closer integration of these writings with Freud's later ones. Even so, and on the whole, the expositions are consistently illuminating.

Gay is particularly clear about the fate of Freud's writings on the origins of civilization and his forays into history — especially Totem and Taboo, Michelangelo, Moses and Monotheism. The relevant disciplines have not been kind to these speculations, and in some cases Freud was just wrong.

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