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Freud’s masterpiece; rich with years of clinical observations, written in a forceful style, it is by no means out of date now, nor will it ever be.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 …

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Letters

Psyche-History October 4, 1973

An Exchange on Psychohistory May 3, 1973