The Interpretation of Freud


Portrait of Sigmund Freud at His Desk, Max Pollak, 1914

by Stuart Walton

Freud: An Intellectual Biography,
by Joel Whitebook,
Cambridge University Press, 2020, 484pp

‘Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?’ Joel Whitebook wonders at the outset of this voluminous latest contribution, supplying the ready response lest the question seem rhetorical: ‘The answer is an emphatic yes.’ If it has generally proved impossible to tell the story of Freud’s life without relating the formulation and development of the theory of psychoanalysis from the 1890s on, it turns out to be quite as unthinkable to illuminate the theory of the unconscious, its vicissitudes and pathologies, the discovery – or is it invention? – of its labyrinthine structure, without referring it to the circumstances of its proponent’s life.

Freud’s early years in provincial Austria, prior to the family’s move to the capital, began auspiciously enough when he was delivered in his mother’s amniotic sac. A child ‘born in the caul’ was destined by the popular belief of centuries past for a charmed future but, as Whitebook narrates, the course of Siggi’s childhood was anything but straightforward. His mother Amalie’s post-natal depression and her subsequent probable sexual relationship with his half-brother, who was her own age, the death of Freud’s baby brother Julius, the nurturing presence of a Czech nanny who has entered history without the benefit of a name, the memory of being bathed in water still red from her menstrual blood, and the foreboding atmosphere of the Catholic churches to which she took the young boy in a town without a synagogue – all played their part in what Whitebook and others have identified as the great lacuna in classic Freudian theory: the lack of a maternal role in the child’s early development.

There is a substantial corpus of feminist critique of the overbearing paternalism of psychoanalysis, which is acknowledged and explored in this book with due diligence. Freud’s own early relationship with his future wife, Martha Bernays, was one of immature possessiveness and manipulativeness. After their six children had been born in fairly rapid succession, he appears to have lost interest in her, forming an intense, years-long sexual engagement with Wilhelm Fliess, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Berlin. Fliess had formulated a theory that the nose was an unacknowledged physiological hindrance in human sexuality, which could be rebalanced by surgical removal of the turbinate bone. A starstruck Freud himself underwent this procedure. They then both presided over its application in the infamous case of Emma Eckstein, the patient who would feature in Freud’s ‘dream of Irma’s injection’. Eckstein was left in atrocious agonies after Fliess badly botched the pointless operation, leaving her with traumatic infection and haemorraghing. The details of this hideous episode remain as distressing for their evidence of Freud’s cringing acquiescence in the malpractice of a doctor, whose career should by rights have been ended by it, as they do for its victim’s suffering.

Nonetheless, Whitebook convincingly shows that the origins of psychoanalysis lay in Freud’s relentless self-scrutiny during the Fliess affair, much of it potentiated by the prodigious quantities of cocaine he was using. ‘If you are [sexually] forward,’ he would write to his wife prior to a visit home, ‘you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body.’ In due course, Freud would develop another erotic obsession with the youthful Carl Jung, whose eventual break with him would constitute one of the great epigonal betrayal myths of twentieth-century science. The divergence of their paths was prepared by anxiety-led fainting fits on Freud’s part, every time the latter thought he detected a death-wish towards himself in the elaboration of Jung’s own increasingly free-floating theory of the primeval mythical underpinnings of the modern psyche. Swooning into a blackout at the Park Hotel in Munich in 1912, during what should have been a rapprochement between them, Freud came round to find himself being carried in Jung’s arms to a sofa. ‘I shall never forget the look he cast at me,’ Jung said. ‘In his weakness he looked at me as if I were his father.’

In the early years of the Great War, Freud’s training in physical medicine was put to work assessing young men’s fitness for conscription to active service. The experience of war would do them good, he felt, despite his private agonies that his own sons and younger relatives might not survive it. (They all did.) His final years were dogged by virulent cancer of the jaw, probably induced by the habit of smoking several cigars a day, which he never gave up, and he had to wear a complicated oral prosthesis that affected his speech and ability to eat. In 1938, he fled Vienna after the Anschluss, not without berating a party of Gestapo who turned up to search his offices on the Berggasse, and, lifelong anglophile that he was, lived out his last year in north London.

Whitebook is rightly unsparing about the validity and the ideational basis of many of Freud’s theories, providing perspicuous readings of the key texts. He points out that the man Vladimir Nabokov habitually called ‘the Viennese quack’ was not an empirical positivist. Psychoanalysis claims the authority of science but without its methodological procedures, beginning with elementary verifiability. There is nothing remiss with speculation, in pushing thoughts to the limit of their conceptual elasticity, and even beyond it – the Frankfurt philosopher Theodor Adorno acknowledged as much in stating famously that in psychoanalysis, only the exaggerations are true – but the analytic approach to mental and emotional pathology has never quite shaken loose its origins in improvised postulation and ethereal supposition.

As he executed his own cultural turn in later life, Freud grew less interested in exemplary cases of individual neurosis and focused instead on a rich, typically flawed, engagement with the distorted sociocultural forms that repression had produced in mass society. Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930) remains one of the great documents of western cultural analysis, while the final testament, Moses and Monotheism (1939), is the most eloquent evidence of his helplessly masculinist interpretation of human history. The critique of religion at the heart of his later thought does little more than repeat the Voltairean Enlightenment argument that everybody is groaning under the impress of antique superstition, as though all human fallibility could be cured if people would just release their hold on transcendence and reconcile themselves to the misery of what Freud himself called ‘brutal reality’.

Any investigation of the discursive structures of psychoanalytic treatment must take into account their distant roots in the hypnosis in which Freud was trained as a young doctor. This emphasised the importance of insistence on the practitioner’s part, with the obligating power of coercion initially drilled into patients by actual physical pressure on their heads, in order to unlock traumatic memories. Subjects were impelled into the revelations Freud sought, which then emerged during hypnotic trance. His early disciples, those who remained loyal, frankly doubted whether analysis was applicable to all but a privileged few, who could both afford its notorious interminability and were imaginatively tolerant of the kind of interpretation applied to Leonardo da Vinci’s early recollection of being struck by a bird’s tail-feathers while he lay in his cradle. ‘The memory, Freud argues, comprises a homosexual fantasy, in which the vulture [his mistranslation of the Italian word for a red kite] represents the phallic mother inserting her penis into the boy’s mouth.’ In his own mind, he was just saying what we were all thinking.

About the Author:

Stuart Walton is a cultural theorist and novelist. His books include A Natural History of Human Emotions (2004), In the Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling (2016), Intoxicology: A Cultural History of Drink and Drugs (2016), and Introducing Theodor Adorno (2017). His next book, An Excursion through Chaos, is due from Bloomsbury in February 2021.

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