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A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis

A-SecretsSoulSeventy-five years after Sigmund Freud’s death, controversy over his ideas—particularly the value of psychoanalysis—remains alive and well. The Viennese doctor believed that each of us has, as Zaretsky puts it, "an inner world that is, in good part, not only unconscious but repressed," an internal universe that governs our behavior and relationships. But Zaretsky, a history professor at the New School University in New York City, goes far beyond simply restating Freud’s emphasis on self-awareness through intensive introspection. Instead, he explores in depth how Freud’s teachings influenced most major facets of 20th-century culture, from film to feminism, from world war to the rise of mass consumerism and the conflagrations of the 1960s.
Knopf. 429 pages. $30. ISBN: 0679446540

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The legacy of psychoanalysis is not easy to assess. Secrets of the Soul is a welcome guide through the labyrinth." George Scialabba

The Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Freud left us with the indelible understanding that we each have an inner world, and that it binds us to the social and political world in which we live. Zaretsky does an admirable job of showing us how he did it." Paul Raeburn

Chicago Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"The ambitious scope of Zaretsky’s work leads him at times to paint with a broad stroke; occasionally he loses in specificity what he gains in breadth. … Nevertheless, those interested in psychoanalysis as well as in social and cultural history will come away with a deepened sense of the far-reaching entanglement of psychoanalysis with the changing historical trends of the past century, and of the variegated turns taken by psycho-analytic theory as it has traversed the decades." Celia Brickman

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"It is not at all a criticism of Zaretsky to note that his heart seems to lie with history. By putting psychoanalysis in the context of the broader canvas of the age, Zaretsky reveals to poignant effect how marked and spindled and interrupted the discipline has been by histories both large and small." Stacey D’Erasmo

Houston Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The role that transference and countertransference play in treatment and theory is mostly missing from this book. … There are equally frequent omissions when [Zaretsky] tries to describe and connect historical and cultural elements." Cynthia Macdonald

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"It is also, alas, marred by pedantic writing and infelicitous sociological jargon like ‘the resanctification of domesticity grounded rationalization in the individual’s life cycle.’ … The ambivalent emotions—half-admiring, half-resistant—that that Freud inspired from the start are very much evident here, and they give Zaretsky’s discussion a lively if somewhat congested quality of interior debate." Daphne Merkin

Los Angeles Times 1 of 5 Stars
"Much of Zaretsky’s discussion uneasily combines potted biographical material about Freud and his followers, synopses of ‘theoretical’ developments and conflicts among a squabbling set of prima and seconda donnas, and sweeping assertions about the centrality of Freudian ideas to the history of the 20th century. … Why we should accept such wild assertions is left unclear." Andrew Scull

Critical Summary

The word "ambitious" pops up in most reviews of Secrets of the Soul. Beyond that, there’s little consensus about how successfully the author examines the impact of Freud’s thinking on 20th-century life and culture. Some hail the book as a valuable addition to scholarship on psychoanalysis. Others consider it an important effort to examine Freud’s work in a cultural and historical context. A few, notably a Los Angeles Times reviewer whose dismissive commentary prompted a scathing public exchange of letters with the author, criticize it as containing too many tangents, generalizations, or unsupported assertions. And, for the Freud novice, reading will be challenging at times. Ultimately, all but the harshest reviews conclude that Secrets of the Soul is a comprehensive, richly detailed resource for anyone interested in Freud’s legacy.