Deep down under

In his novel Double-Wolf (1991), Brian Castro brought the story of one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous patients, the Wolf Man, to the Blue Mountains. Throughout his career, the poet Alec Hope was alert to aspects of Freudian psychology. In one poem he conceived of individuals as ‘wandering islands’, while in his criticism he borrowed Freud’s notion of ‘dream work’ to explain some of the generative processes of his poetry. Neither author appears in Joy Damousi’s fine and welcome study, Freud in the Antipodes, although she does trace the influence of Freud’s theories on visual artists, especially in the 1940s.

Damousi (whose book’s range is more inclusive than its title suggests) begins by distinguishing between psychology, concerned with the conscious world and socialisation, and psychoanalysis, which ‘privileges the life of the unconscious as the way to understanding psychic life’. Her intention is to relate the story of psychoanalysis in Australia, particularly in intellectual circles and within less sceptical sections of the medical profession. What she does not include, presumably because it might be thought of as hearsay, is the penetration of ersatz Freudianism as far down as school playgrounds in the 1950s and 1960s, when introvert/extrovert, inferiority/superiority complex were ways in which kids sought to understand and perhaps to brand one another.

Damousi’s introduction announces three grand themes: the ‘gradual move through the 20th century in both medical and general terms to concentrated listening’; the appropriation of Freudian thought for ‘different temporal and cultural reasons’; and the way in which Freudian theories have been used ‘to shape the idea of the “self” in modern society’. The movement of the book is chronological. The narrative is punctuated by pen portraits of leading figures—practitioners and controversialists in the history of psychoanalysis in Australia.

There are illuminating details of wider social history. Despite the unprepossessing introduction—‘The auditory self in the age of modernity’—Damousi analyses how, ‘as with the practice of psychoanalysis, radio established a relationship between the speaker and the listener, in ways which could be both intimate and therapeutic’. She also discusses the rise of the ‘talkies’ and of the telephone, which became so vital to business communications from the 1930s.

The historical sweep of Freud in the Antipodes begins with Victorian notions of the causes and right treatment of insanity. Physical methods were applied, but some doctors—such as the Australian John Springthorpe—began to wonder how they could ‘better access the mind’. Damousi aptly notes that before the advent of Freud’s ‘talking cure’, it was the autobiography (and she might have added lyric poetry and fiction in the first person) ‘that expressed the inner life of the Victorians both in Australia and in Britain’.

In the slow but sure development of sympathy towards mental illness, the diagnoses of shell shock among soldiers of the Great War was crucial. The notions of Freud’s that were co-opted included those of defence mechanisms, the repression of traumatic memories and the conversion of emotions into symptoms. So the ground was prepared for the development of psychoanalysis in Britain and Australia, and for its gradual institutionalisation. But not without resistance: one Broughton Barry triumphantly noted that the use of the drug Cardiazol to treat schizophrenic patients with epilepsy doomed psychoanalysis. Its adherents, he gloated, ‘are left swirling in their own mephitic vapours’. Rhetoric apart, the issue was a vital one, and Damousi returns to it in her conclusion: ‘The threat to psychoanalysis by the pharmaceutical solution where an instant “cure” or immediate alleviation is promised, looms large in the new millennium.’

Many pathways are constructively followed in this book. Damousi examines attempts to reconcile psychoanalysis with socialism, with anthropology (for instance in Geza Roheim’s work with Australian Aborigines) and with feminism. In a less rigorous or academic fashion, Freudian ideas permeated the discussion, from the 1930s, of the importance of the ‘emotional life’. Summarising this spectrum, Damousi writes that in the inter-war years ‘the confessional as a form of listening began to appear in the popular media, and in some disciplines like anthropology a focus on the auditory began to emerge’.

World War II highlighted psycho-analytical methods once more. William McRae, Damousi contends, stereotyped gender roles and pathological deviations and was notably affronted by ‘the perversity of women in uniform’. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, she writes, ‘“normalcy” was perceived in a prescriptive way’. There was an emphasis on ‘homogeneity and assimilation’, in sex and politics. Perhaps it is the case that Damousi’s grand narrative of the history of psychoanalysis in Australia is too much in lockstep with the broader account of political and social developments (and their pathologising).

Damousi sometimes rehearses seemingly familiar material—on ‘consciousness raising’, women’s liberation and Freud—but does so responsibly, with an eye on general and maybe younger readers for whom these tales may be a novelty. For all concerned she writes plainly, even-handedly, without stylistic flair but with unflagging attention to the complexities of the business. Damousi is to be saluted for Freud in the Antipodes, as is UNSW Press (even at $65 for the paperback).      

 Freud in the Antipodes: A cultural history of psychoanalysis in Australia, Joy Damousi.
University of New South Wales Press, 2005. isbn 0 868 40888 3, rrp $65

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.


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