Book Review

In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm

is the conscious or the subconscious mind the most potent agent in our lives

I bought this book for myself on my birthday.

I’m old now (33), just broadly considered to be the last age at which one can be considered a success when beginning something new. I’m alluding – of course – to Jesus, for he was 33 when he became a-slash-the Messiah.

I don’t think I have any messianic pretensions although, as regular readers will know, in my mid-20s I wrote a sexed-up biblical novel featuring a Jesus who was 100% based on my own idealised self.

What is an idealised self?

I suppose my younger self’s idealised self would have been pretty similar to the person I have turned out to be, albeit not bald and yes, much less sexually repressed.

Rereading the manuscript of hip-hop-o-crit for the last time before publication (now available for pre-order!) it struck me that this is probably my most personal and open book yet, which – to any of the tens (fewer?) of people who’ve read my previous books – might sound like a surprise.

What is honesty?

What is the truth?

One person’s word, that’s all any written testament ever is.

What we call non-fiction essay, to someone else may seem fiction; the interpretation of truth, the interpretation of the language, is something we don’t talk about much.

We take the words that we read or hear at their presumed value; words are what they represent… what they represent is what they are… but it isn’t true;

there is a cognitive dissonance between the things we describe and the words we use to describe them.

“Sex” is a word the captures none of its own essence; so too is literature; so too is art; so too is every abstract noun. Every abstract noun is a lie.

Am I getting philosophical?

Not literally, not really, not truly.

There’s nothing I do truly anymore; there’s nothing I do with 100% of my soul, body and concentration.

I don’t give my all to anything; there’s nothing I want to give my all to, and that’s the problem really rather than anything else…

I like reading Janet Malcolm, I like reading books about books.

I’m walking home again, I’m always fucking walking home or walking to the opposite of home, I’m never going anywhere: going to the place I sleep or the place I go and bore myself fucking stupid five days a week.


I’ve been using the voice to text feature recently and editing subsequently because it’s not very reliable. Even if I enunciate everything like a hammy actor, it still doesn’t get every bloody syllable.

And somehow it feels less like writing, y’know, doing this dictation into my own phone… but it is writing, well, it’s not writing (is it?) because it’s dictation.

I don’t know what I need to do, I’m feeling malaise and I think it comes from the fact that I have a plan for the future again. I have a plan and this part is the part of the plan that is unendingly tedious and there will be exciting, adventurous, satisfying things in the future. I can read some good books while I’m stuck in this dull, pleasureless pit of bullshit. But that’s about it.

There’s no form of escape that’s going to happen this winter; I have nothing, I have no plans between now and the spring, and even if I made some, what would they be? What could they be? The borders are still closed and I don’t have 100% security that I’d be let back into the country if I left, due to the COVID-induced delays to visa processing. 


Janet Malcolm’s book is it about various people who study Freud, not as psychoanalysts themselves (one of them tried to be a practising psychoanalyst but gave up), these are people obsessed with the history of Freud’s life, with his works as literature; it’s about people who explore and expand and analyse the life of Freud.

In The Freud Archives is about the chain of succession as one old man gets ready to pass on the chairmanship of the Freud Archives to someone from a new generation who, alas, turns out to be a shit.

Malcolm writes like Malcolm always writes, with a pleasing detachment and that very honed exploration and analysis of the language used by her subjects. Not just in what they’ve written, but in what they say and how they speak both about themselves and others.

I’ve never read any Freud and I probably should.

I have a copy of one of his books (obviously translated into English) in a cheap paperback edition that (I was going to say “I stole” but “I took” would be would be a better word) that I took from my life before.

The ideological schism between the various groups of Freud scholars is of the importance of reality in relation to psychological disturbances.

The younger ones seem to argue that – contrary to his published work – Freud’s true belief was that imagined trauma/abuse is just as impactful as real trauma/abuse on the psyche, if not more so. The older ones think that the imagination is more powerful, which, I dunno, sounds like obvious crap.

I don’t know which of these camps contemporary psychotherapists put themselves, but one hopes it is the group that seems to have more realistic ideology.

Surely experience shapes us more than imagination?

Surely we are the sum of what has happened to us and of what we have done and of what has been done to us? We are this, combined, not the sum of what we have dreamed? Or are we? How does this apply to my lived experience?

This is why I went back to my tragic flaw at this post’s opening: my destructive and dangerous level of repression (as explored in hip-hop-o-crit (available for pre-order now)). Maybe the old psychoanalysts are right, and I am what I’ve wanted and who I haven’t been; maybe I am impacted by what I want and wanted, what I haven’t done more than by who I am…

Are the things we regret heavier, more powerful, than the things of which we are proud?

I don’t spend very much time at all thinking about the “successes” I have had, even though those regrets always close to my conscious mind are, ultimately, minor fucking regrets, just like the successes are minor fucking successes.

But the minor regrets hold me;

they want control, they want supremacy in my thoughts and my memories;

we are not haunted not by our minor successes;

we are haunted by our regrets, whatever their size, and we are haunted, too, by our unrealised dreams

Buy Janet Malcolm’s In The Freud Archives direct from NYRB Classics here is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

1 comment on “In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm

  1. Pingback: Boy Parts by Eliza Clark (Influx Press, 2020) – Triumph Of The Now

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