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Freud Dying

In response to:

Doctoring Freud from the August 10, 1972 issue

To the Editors:

Charles Rycroft suggests two basic errors in Schur’s approach to understanding Freud’s attitudes to his own death (NYR, August 10). “But it does not seem to have occurred to Schur that courage, endurance, and serenity are virtues which belong to a system of moral values which Freud himself unwittingly did much to undermine by his advocacy of psychic determinism. It is, after all, illogical to admire moral attributes if one believes that will is an illusion and that all behavior is causally determined, and paradoxical to admire them in the very person who converted the world to a deterministic view of human nature.” This surprisingly simplistic statement ignores so much of the real complexity of Freud’s contributions that some amplifications and correction are required.

Psychic determinism” refers to the fact that no mental production, no thought, feeling, behavior is random. “God does not throw dice,” not only in the universe of atoms, but in the psychic universe of an individual. Because there is a potentially traceable cause in every mental act, heretofore unexplainable “irrational” mental productions—dreams, neurotic symptoms, slips of the tongue—can now be deciphered and genetically explored. The discovery of psychic determinism led Freud to analyze his own “free” associations, enabling him after years of painful, solitary introspection to exercise his “will” to maintain the courage, endurance, and serenity described by Schur. Similarly, psychoanalytic treatment aims toward an optimal dominance by rational intelligence and mature values, while recognizing the persistence of unconscious infantile drives and primitive modes of mental operations. Psychoanalytic theory postulates that man’s ego, although derived from biological roots, becomes increasingly autonomous from the rigid instincts that rule lower forms, and enables him to create the moral, aesthetic, and intellectual achievements of civilization. The distorted impression that psychoanalysis is the victim of a genetic fallacy, or that it reduces the mind to common elements of pathology or “vices,” ignores the major thrusts in this field since 1936 (Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense), 1939 (Heinz Hartmann’s Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation), and Schur’s own additions to the theory of anxiety.

Secondly, Schur is criticized for attempting to analyze Freud’s attitude to death and dying by using Freud’s own self-analytic discoveries about their origins in his early relationships to his father and brothers. Rycroft, taking issue with the Freudian approach, would emphasize more the “fear of separation from those who are loved now and concern for the future of those who will be left behind.” Seventy years of experience in psychoanalytic therapy have supplemented Freud’s self-analysis as evidence of the power of such early relationships to determine basic attitudes, fears, and fantasies about life and death. Far from neglecting current fears of separation from loved ones, the psychoanalytic process unfreezes feelings of love and realistic concern for the future by permitting new resolutions to conflicts surrounding the earliest relationships, as these regularly appear in the “transference” to the analyst. In his book, Schur touchingly, and, yes, admiringly, describes the flight to England of a dying man whose personal “narcissistic investment” had become transformed into a passionate wish to establish a future home for psychoanalysis and for his family. Schur’s carefully documented, undogmatic interpretations of Freud’s words and actions repeatedly demonstrate that Freud’s unique awareness of his emotions and motives did not “cure” him of human feeling, or of the ability to make considered choices. In our time, unfortunately, the ubiquitous belief that too much self-knowledge paralyzes the will and undermines moral values indicates that the Freudian ideal of self-recognition as the predecessor of rational action has hardly “converted the world.”

In a final note, Rycroft speculates that Schur’s recounting of the clinical details of Freud’s final physical decay implies unconscious hostility toward Freud. To tell the whole story unflinchingly is, however, consonant with the ideal of psychoanalysis as Freud shaped it. This ideal is embodied in the pact Max Schur made in 1929 with his patient, Sigmund Freud. Whatever his unconscious feelings may have been, the book is a worthy tribute both to Freud and its author.

Shelley Orgel, MD

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