For Sigmund Freud by Bernard-Henri Lévy. The Huffington Post

logo huffingtonMichel Onfray complains of being criticized without being read?
Well then, I read him.
I did so while forcing myself to put aside, as much as possible, old companionships, common friendships and, it goes without saying, the fact that we share the same publishing house.
And the truth compels me to admit that I was even more dismayed when I put the book down than the few accounts I was, like everyone else, familiar with would have led me to expect.

Not that I am among those for whom the « idol » Freud is untouchable; from Foucault to Deleuze, Guattari, and others, many have crossed swords with him and, while not agreeing with them, I have never denied that they have further contributed to the debate.

Nor is it the anti-Freudian resentment, even anger and hatred that I read here and there in this Crépuscule d’une idole — Twilight of an Idol — that made me feel uneasy. Great books are inspired by anger! And it is, in itself, rather healthy that a contemporary author should mix his own affects with those of a glorious forbear and pit himself against him, settling scores with the latter’s work in a tract that, in the heat of confrontation, offers new insights or arguments. And, moreover, Onfray has often done so, and with real talent.


What bothers one about this Crépuscule is that it is unexpected, banal, simplistic, puerile, pedantic, sometimes borders on the ridiculous, inspired by conspiracy theories as preposterous as they are perilous and, perhaps the most alarming, written from the proverbial « valet’s point of view » which everyone since Hegel knows is rarely the best angle from which to judge a great man or, even worse, a great work.

Banal: I offer as a sole example the little list of books (Zwang, Debray-Ritzen, René Pommier) Onfray has the honesty to mention, along with others, at the end of the volume, all of which have already defended the thesis of Freud as a corrupter of morals and a harbinger of decadence.

Simplistic: It takes a strong stomach to stand, without laughing or being horrified, the quasi-interrogative method Onfray uses in interpreting and adapting the fine Nietzschean principle he, of course, knows better than anyone, according to which a philosophy is always a cryptic or disguised biography. (Roughly put, if Freud invented the Oedipus complex, it was to hide his outraged thoughts about his kind father and to recycle his scarcely less nasty impulses regarding his mother.)

Puerile: His regret at not having found, in « the six thousand pages » of the complete works, that « honest critique of capitalism » which would have filled the founder of the Université populaire de Caen with joy.

Pedantic: Pages 73 to 76, where he seriously wonders what undisclosable debts the founder of psychoanalysis may have contracted, but without wishing to admit it, to Antiphon of Athens, Artemidorus, Empedocles or Aristophanes of Plato’s Banquet.

Ridiculous: It is the page where, after some dubious reflections on Freud’s probable resort to onanism, then an equally bizarre dive into the registers of hotels–«most of them luxurious» (p. 162)–that would have sheltered his guilty love affair with his sister-in-law, Onfray, carried away by his vice squad sergeant fervor, concludes by suspecting him of having impregnated said sister-in-law at an age when this kind of blessed event very rarely occurs, except in the Bible.

The plot: It’s like in The Da Vinci Code (but, according to Onfray, isn’t psychoanalysis the equivalent of a religion?), the fantasized vision of gigantic « containers » of archives, buried deep in the basement of the Library of Congress in Washington, guarded by militias of Freudian Templars that are greedy, ferocious, and as clever as their venerated master.

And last, the valet’s point of view: It is the ever bizarre formula that consists of taking the unsubstantiated little weaknesses of the man (his habit of himself choosing — who knows why! — the baptismal names of his children « according to his own personal mythology, » his none less supposed faults (desire for glory, cyclothymia, cardiac arrhythmia, addiction to smoking, mood swings, inadequate sexual performances, fear of trains — I’m not making it up, this catalogue of « flaws » can be found on pages 102 and 157 of the book), and, if necessary, his errors (such as the autograph for Mussolini, a fact that has never been a secret but that Onfray apparently has just discovered and that, taken out of context, seems to drive him into a state of great frenzy) in order to conclude that the whole theory is invalid. Here, Onfray attains the summit at the very end when he relies outright on Paula Fichtl’s book, that is to say on the memoirs of the woman who was chambermaid to the Freud family for fifty years and then to Freud himself, to denounce the author of Moses and Monotheism’s contacts with Austrian fascism.

All this is lamentable.

It pains me, in every sense of the word, to find in this tissue of platitudes, sillier than they are malicious, the author of a few books — among them Le Ventre des philosophes (The Philosophers’ Stomach) — that seemed to me so promising twenty years ago.

Psychoanalysis, which has seen worse, will get over it. I’m not so sure Onfray will.

Bernard-Henri Lévy
Translated by Janet Lizop

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