‘For Freud, the Jewish tradition was outdated in regard to their love’


Wedding photograph of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays

From Sign and Sight:

The correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancee Martha Bernays stretched over 52 months, from June 1882 until their marriage in September 1886. When Freud met the 20-year-old Martha, a friend of his sisters, in the spring of 1882, he had just finished studying medicine. And since external circumstances made it impossible for him to continue his university career, he was now aspiring to become an established neurologist at the Viennese General Hospital. Soon after their engagement, which was initially kept secret, Martha’s widowed mother decided to move with her two daughters to Wandsbek near Hamburg. During what was to be almost four years of separation the engaged couple wrote letters to each other on an almost daily basis, a vast bundle of correspondence.

At the time, 1882, no one was happier than he. This is his underlying tone. Freud does not write to convince himself; there is no need of that. From the outset their relationship had been affirmed as leading to the union of marriage, a bond based on rationality. The becoming of the romantic relationship was in and of itself as problematic as it is for every other person. But Freud had solved the problem on two fronts. He was able to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his further scientific and medical education and find himself at the same time. Without having to roam afar. There was a social relationship between the two Jewish families, the Freuds and the Bernays, during his period of emancipation. The couple also took on the role of matchmaker. Anna, one of Freud’s five sisters, became engaged a year later to Martha’s brother Eli.

Freud was much taken with Martha and accurately gauged her abilities. For her part, everything about him was significant, not only as the persona of the “man” as the girl calls him, but also the position in society that awaited her and the role that she would thereby play. The existence of countless engagement letters written throughout the years before their marriage can be explained by the dictates of convention, which Sigmund Freud generally respected. These were the usual obligations; and good middle class families kept a close watch that they were observed. The aim of love was marriage and this was fulfilled by the birth of children, which required a regular income. Freud was still unable to provide this, which prescribed the duration of their correspondence. However, this period can be interpreted very differently from the perspective of the aspiring mate. Convention acquires its true meaning somewhere else.

Martha Bernays lived in a law-abiding family. The Jewish religion is mentioned in the letters, although it is not a major topic of discussion. Martha does not write on the Sabbath. For Freud, the Jewish tradition was outdated in regard to their love. “On this point, he is unamenable,” writes Freud about her brother, “we recently read together the famous passage in Isaiah, in which the prophet puts in the mouth of his god the most outright contempt of any purely formal observances. If he only knew, what a heroine Martha shall become!” Their union of marriage was another solemn promise, which according to Freud had brought her into the realm of the spirit. This is no avowal of assimilation and by no means one of proselytism, as with her uncle Michael. For Freud, the Jewish faith had opened up a positive means an objective investigation of reality. Judaism did not need to dissociate itself from Christianity.

“The Freudian romance”, Jean Bollack, Sign and Sight