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Shrinking History—Part One

Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood

by Sigmund Freud, translated by Alan Tyson, edited by James Strachey, edited by Alix Strachey, edited by Anna Freud, edited by Alan Tyson
Norton, 101 pp., $1.45 (paper)

Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study

by Sigmund Freud, by William C. Bullitt
Houghton Mifflin, 307 pp., $6.00

The Dynamics of Creation

by Anthony Storr
Atheneum, 248 pp., $7.95

Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art

by Ernst Kris
Schocken, 396 pp., $3.45 (paper)

Wilson and Colonel House: A Personality Study

by Alexander George, by Juliette George
Dover, 382 pp., $2.50 (paper)

Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences, Vol. 4

edited by Warner Muensterberger, edited by Sidney Axelrad
International Universities Press, 295 pp., $6.00

In a letter dated October 9, 1898, Freud made mention of Leonardo da Vinci: he was “perhaps the most famous left-handed individual,” and he “is not known to have had any love affairs.” The letter was one of many addressed to Wilhelm Fliess. As Freud step by step began to formulate what we know today as psychoanalysis, he turned to his friend to present his thoughts openly and with some passion, as if he needed to ask whether all those ideas made any sense or were hopelessly out of kilter—useless notions prompted by the disturbed minds a psychiatrist sees, not to mention his own dreams and fantasies, which he had relied upon rather significantly in The Interpretation of Dreams.

That book, published in 1900, was unquestionably Freud’s masterpiece; rich with years of clinical observations, written in a forceful style, it is by no means out of date now, nor will it ever be. A writer had sensed something important about human experience and found for himself an original language—a means by which his ideas might take hold of the reader’s imagination. Soon after its publication Freud broke with Fliess. Why write letters about ideas when they are already set down in a book? Why discuss possible discoveries when they have been made, and are even attracting a limited but impressively brilliant cadre of admirers? Anyway, if Freud had once overestimated Fliess extravagantly, soon enough the latter’s distinct limitations became apparent, and that was that—no awful scene, just a moment or two of recognition that became much more only as time passed.

Leonardo da Vinci was harder for Freud to put aside. Though by 1907 he was caught up in psychoanalytic work (by then the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society had been established), there is evidence that the achievements and the spirit of one genius were very much on the mind of another. Freud was reading a study of Leonardo that year, and called it one of his favorite books. On December 11, 1907, he spoke at some length about the general subject of psychoanalytic biography. Two years later he again referred to Leonardo, this time in a letter to Jung dated October 17, 1909: a patient under treatment had the same “constitution,” the same psychological make-up, as the famous artist, but not his genius. He also told Jung that he was hoping to obtain a book, published in Italy, on Leonardo’s youth.

In early December of 1909 Freud spoke to his Vienna colleagues at the Psychoanalytical Society about Leonardo, not the first time, incidentally, that such a presentation had been made. Isidor Sadger, one of the earlier members of the society (he joined in 1906, the same year Rank did), had studied the lives and writings of Heinrich von Kleist and C. F. Meyer. A short story of Meyer’s, “Die Richterim,” had also interested Freud; he once wrote to Fliess about that, too, remarking how Meyer’s own life seemed to come across in the fiction he wrote.

By 1910 Freud was engaged in more than a casual inquiry; he went through every book on Leonardo he could lay his hands on, and he started writing one of those inviting, even charming essays of his that have a way of stirring up far more controversy than they seem meant to. In America the essay was translated by A. A. Brill and published as Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality. More recently Alan Tyson has made another translation that is more faithful to the German at points, yet reads much better in English: Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. In 1957, nine years before the surprise publication of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, supposedly a collaborative “study” by Freud and William Bullitt, the editors of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud described the short book on Leonardo as “not only the first but the last of Freud’s large-scale excursions into the field of biography.”

It is an excursion well worth looking at today. What Freud tried to do over a half century ago still is being done, sometimes under the name of “psycho-history.” Moreover, both his successes and his difficulties as an analyst of a long-dead historical figure’s mental life are being experienced by others in our time. The Leonardo book stirred up an immediate reaction of disapproval—“more than the usual amount,” we are told.1 In 1910 everything Freud wrote was met with incredulity or anger by his colleagues. With the appearance of this new book many could find him guilty of an additional crime: not content with declaring the behavior of his patients to be the result of sexual tensions deviously expressed, he was now implicating one of the greatest artists of all time.

In fact Freud took pains to express his admiration for Leonardo. He was not writing an exposé. He had no intention of hurting the reputation of a great man. He was writing of “one who is among the greatest of the human race,” and doing so because he firmly believed that “there is no one so great as to be disgraced by being subject to the laws which govern both normal and pathological activity with equal cogency.”

Freud was intent on finding at all costs a way of looking at the human mind. He had started doing so with a few patients, then had the courage and honesty to include himself in their company, and around the time of the Leonardo study was ready to look elsewhere: at ordinary men and women who have no symptoms and never see psychiatrists; at patients with disorders other than those he would be likely to see in his office; and in this instance, at a historical figure whose life in certain respects seemed to lend itself to the kind of investigation Vienna’s psychoanalysts were making with (as they saw it) astonishing success.

The point was to move from the given clinical case to the broader statement, from the specific to the universal—the “laws” Freud mentions. He wanted to move from the apparent, the readily observable, to “deeper layers”—to those unconscious forces he was convinced control just about every aspect of our lives. He wanted to leave the psychiatrist’s office and find in the life of a man who was never a patient further evidence that it is correct for analysts to deny that “health and disease, normal and nervous, are sharply distinguished from each other, and that neurotic traits must be considered proofs of a general inferiority.” And finally, he wanted to go back far in time, find in the remains, so to speak, of a man of great historical importance—his words, remarks attributed to him, his sketches and paintings—evidence that explains some of the contradictions and ambiguities of his life.

Freud acknowledges that not much is known about Leonardo’s childhood. He refers to “the obscurity” of the artist’s boyhood. Still, in his scientific notebook Leonardo did mention a childhood memory:

It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.

When mentioning the bird Leonardo used the word nibio, which in the modern Italian form nibbio refers to a kite, not a vulture. Freud keeps on using the German word geier, meaning vulture. He was misled by several German translations.

There is no doubt that this memory of Leonardo’s stirred Freud’s imagination. He argues his case not only forcefully but elegantly. He does indeed make the sexual interpretations that by now are unsurprising to those who either have experienced psychoanalysis firsthand or live under that “whole climate of opinion” W. H. Auden refers to in his memorial poem upon the occasion of Freud’s death. The vulture is the mother, yet Leonardo, strangely, has “succeeded in endowing precisely this bird which is a mother with the distinguishing mark of masculinity.” Such a paradox is explained, and soon (if we are disposed to go along) a man’s memory is made the clue to his later psychological characteristics.

Nor does Freud stop there. Immensely learned, and especially so about the various ancient cultures, he makes what Alan Tyson calls “the Egyptian connection.” Leonardo was not alone, and may well have known so, Freud suggests, because the hieroglyph for the Egyptian word for “mother” also happens to represent a vulture. Moreover, Freud’s friend Oskar Pfister came up with another notion, and in 1919 Freud added it as a footnote to his book’s argument: in Leonardo’s St. Anne with Two Others, at the Louvre, Mary’s “curiously arranged and rather confining drapery” turns out to have the “outline of a vulture.” Pfister called it an “unconscious picture-puzzle,” and by the time he was through with his analysis one part of the drapery is “a bird’s outspread tail, whose right-hand end, exactly as in Leonardo’s fateful childhood dream, leads to the mouth of the child, i.e., of Leonardo himself.”

It is easy to scoff at all this. Freud was not altogether won over to Pfister’s imaginative vision, as it could be called; but apart from Pfister’s contribution Freud had constructed his own elaborate interpretation on what turned out to be, in retrospect, rather shaky ground. Still, the immediate response to his book had nothing to do with the details of the argument, but rather was moral: how dare these psychoanalysts, their minds always so grimly centered on pathology, most of it sexual, take on a much revered man, dead several hundred years, and saddle him with a host of psychiatric complexes and disorders? No matter how generous Freud was to Leonardo’s genius, no matter how carefully and incisively he tried to connect the artist to every single one of us, the anger and mockery continued; nor were they without effect.

Irrational rejection breeds even in the best of men disappointment and sadness. Freud often reassured his colleagues that some day the world would take seriously their various formulations and conjectures—and one measure of his genius was just that self-assurance. On the other hand, under constant assault he and his coworkers became victims of their effort to defend themselves. Wrongly dismissed, they in turn dismissed others, however well intentioned such skepticism and misgivings were. Well-educated and cultivated men, they couldn’t help becoming cliquish, even parochial, and highly self-protective. The next step, alas, was a kind of arrogance that demolishes all criticism as “irrational,” or treats such criticism with a barrage of unnecessarily self-justifying counterargument—for example Kurt Eissler’s effort to challenge the more cautious and justifiable criticism of Freud’s Leonardo study.

Eissler’s Leonardo da Vinci is a long book, in comparison to which Freud’s own seems a mere monograph. Much of Eissler’s argument is set forth, far less polemically and legalistically, by the four editors (James and Alix Strachey, Anna Freud, and Alan Tyson) in their introduction to Mr. Tyson’s translation of Freud’s book. They grant that certain “arguments and conclusions are invalidated by careful analysis of Freud’s assumptions.” (A kite is not a vulture.) Still, assuming a certain psychoanalytic sensibility in their readers, the editors quite justifiably refuse to give way completely. Leonardo’s memory or fantasy or daydream (who can ever know exactly which?) seems justifiably of psychological interest, as does the “interesting problem” of how it came about that the Egyptians linked the ideas of “vulture” and “mother.” Egyptologists attribute the connection to chance: a phonetic coincidence. Psychoanalysts have a right to speculate otherwise, though not at Leonardo’s or anyone else’s expense, unless with some evidence.

  1. 1

    Editor’s Note, Volume XI of Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Macmillan, 1964).

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