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Meyer, B.C. (1972). Some Reflections on the Contribution of Psychoanalysis to Biography. Psychoanal. Contemp. Sci., 1(1):373-392.

(1972). Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Science, 1(1):373-392

Some Reflections on the Contribution of Psychoanalysis to Biography

Bernard C. Meyer, M.D.

To some extent the history of the application of psychoanalysis to biography has tended to reflect the historical evolution of psychoanalysis itself. A number of the earlier biographical works carry the clinical stamp of Freud's (1911) Schreber paper; intentionally or not, the objects of these inquiries were often viewed as “cases,” and the entire enterprise bore the unfelicitous designation pathography, thereby emphasizing the basic concern with abnormality and leading to the conclusion that what psychoanalysis had to offer to an understanding of the lives of great men consisted mainly in a documentation and explication of their foibles and follies. Like much of the psychoanalytic thinking of the times, moreover, these studies were often preoccupied with drive and defense-a sort of chassis-orientation, wherein the engine and brakes are equated with the entire vehicle. Hitschmann's (1956) assertion, for instance, that the philosopher “reveals by his endless doubting, searching, struggling, that he has never done with the primary problems and ‘suffers’ from them all his life,” represents a rather monocular view of some of the greatest thinkers in the history of mankind (p. 36). The same may be said of his characterization of the career of Albert Schweitzer as an expression of reaction-formation (p. 249), a formulation that is to be deplored, not because it is incorrect, but because it is restricted. Commenting on this same study, Kohut (1960) has reminded us that an awareness of the misery existing in the world and the determination to live a life devoted to the suffering are also manifestations of the autonomous attitudes of a mature ego.

These comments are especially appropriate to the biography of Woodrow Wilson by Freud and Bullitt, who, giving but passing attention to the fact that Wilson became a world leader and a figure of impressive importance in his time, appear to have dispensed an overdose of rather acrid criticism in demonstrating that “Little Tommy Wilson” was an emotionally disturbed and morally weak man.

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