• Email
  • Print

Freud’s Creative Illness

The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud To Wilhelm Fliess: 1887–1904

translated and edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Harvard University Press, 505 pp., $25.00

Sigmund Freud, Aus den Anfängen der Psychoanalyse

edited by Marie Bonaparte, edited by Anna Freud, edited by Ernst Kris
Imago (London, 1950)

Extracts from the Fliess papers in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume 1

translated and edited by James Strachey
Hogarth (London, 1966)

The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Volume 1

by Ernest Jones
Basic Books

The Origins of Psycho-Analysis

by Sigmund Freud, edited by Marie Bonaparte, by Anna Freud, by Ernst Kris
Basic Books

Some Additional ‘Day Residues’ of the ‘Specimen Dream of Psychoanalysis”’ in Psychoanalysis—A General Psychology

edited by R.M. Loewenstein, edited by L.M. Newman, edited by M. Schur, edited by A.J. Solnit
International Universities Press

The Assault on Truth

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Freud: The Man and the Cause

by Ronald W. Clark
Random House

In December 1936 Reinhold Stahl, a Berlin bookseller, sold to Princess Marie Bonaparte, Princess George of Greece and Denmark, friend and pupil of Sigmund Freud, a set of documents he had acquired from the widow of Wilhelm Fliess (1858–1928), who in his day had been a successful ear, nose, and throat specialist in Berlin and a well-known writer of speculative works about the relationship between the nose and the sexual organs and the part played in man’s destiny by what are now called biorhythms.

These documents consisted of 270 letters from Freud to Fliess, fourteen enclosures (now known as Drafts A–N) in which Freud had reported on his attempts to formulate a general psychological theory of the neuroses, and two note-books which contained the 40,000-word manuscript of an untitled work (now known as Project for a Scientific Psychology), in which Freud had attempted “to furnish a psychology that shall be a natural science,” that is, one in which “psychical processes” were envisaged as “quantitatively determinate states of specifiable material particles,” viz., neurones (nerve cells).

Not surprisingly, Marie Bonaparte immediately informed Freud of her purchase. In his reply Freud told her that he did not have Fliess’s letters to himself—“I do not know to this day whether I destroyed them, or only hid them ingeniously”—offered to contribute to the expense she had incurred, and stated roundly: “I do not want any of them to become known to so-called posterity.”

In March 1937 Marie Bonaparte took the documents to Vienna and showed them to Freud, who must, I think, have reread them, since he is on record as knowing which letters were missing and as remarking of one that it was “very important.” He gave Marie Bonaparte permission to read them herself but tried to persuade her to destroy them. She refused and instead deposited them in the Rothschild Bank in Vienna, from which, after the Anschluss in March 1938, she removed them, using her trebly royal status to get around the Gestapo. From Vienna the documents went to Paris where, in February 1941, Marie Bonaparte deposited them with the Danish legation. They remained there until after the end of the war and were then shipped to London, where Sigmund Freud had died and Anna Freud was now living, “wrapped in waterproof and buoyant material to give them a chance of survival” if the ship struck a mine.

At some date in the late 1940s Marie Bonaparte gave the letters to Anna Freud, who allowed Ernest Jones access to them while he was writing his life of her father; and in 1964 she gave transcripts of them to Max Schur, who had been Freud’s personal physician. His use of them to write a paper demonstrating that Freud’s Irma dream, the “specimen dream of psychoanalysis,” had obvious connections with a dramatic and unedifying event in Freud’s practice, to which he had not referred in his own analysis of it, gave rise to the idea that the complete Fliess letters might contain sensational details that would seriously dent Freud’s image and might necessitate radical revision of the early history of psychoanalysis. In 1980 Anna Freud donated the letters to the Library of Congress, where they remain restricted from public view.

Meanwhile Anna Freud had published a selection of them. In 1950 Sigmund Freud, Aus den Anfängen der Psycho-analyse, edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, and Ernst Kris, was published in London, and an English translation, The Origins of Psycho-Analysis, appeared in 1954. This work includes all the drafts and the Project, but only 168 of the 270 letters—and of the 168 letters included, more than 120 have suffered excisions, many of them trivial but some of them not.

To complicate matters further, a selection of the selection was included in Volume 1 of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1966). Translated and edited by James Strachey, this further selection was made with the “serious student” of psychoanalysis solely in mind. It contains thirty letters, all except one of the drafts, and the Project, and its numerous footnotes are concerned exclusively with establishing connections between theoretical ideas advanced in the letters and those developed at length in Freud’s published and mostly later writings.

The present The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 1887–1904, translated and edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, is designed to complement and supplement these two earlier selections but not, I think, to supplant them. Not only does Masson in his own introduction say that Ernst Kris’s introduction to the Origins is “a milestone in the history of psychoanalysis…still unmatched today” and refer to James Strachey’s “improved translation and excellent notes,” but he has also adopted a deliberate policy of not mentioning in his footnotes information that can be got from Kris’s and Strachey’s introductions and notes.

In my annotation I have attempted not to elaborate on the obvious, or to cite information that the reader can easily obtain (for example, by consulting Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography of Freud). For this reason I have frequently not reproduced material that is available in Ernst Kris’s notes to the earlier edition of the letters, but have simply referred the reader to that edition. Nor have I duplicated Strachey’s labors.

The Project is not included in the Complete Letters.

Although this policy decision of Masson’s reveals a becoming and perhaps surprising modesty, it has had the effect of making the Complete Letters a book that cannot be read on its own. Much of it will be incomprehensible to readers who have not got a copy of the Origins to refer to, and its main interest derives from the fact that it reveals precisely what in 1950 Anna Freud, Marie Bonaparte, and Ernst Kris saw fit, or felt entitled, not to include in their selection.

However, if one refers back, as the present reviewer has had to, to the editors’ note to the Origins, one discovers that Anna Freud and Ernst Kris—Marie Bonaparte seems not to have taken part in the selection—were more concerned with what they were entitled to publish than with what they were entitled to leave out.

The selection was made on the principle of making public everything relating to the writer’s scientific work and scientific interests and everything bearing on the social and political conditions in which psycho-analysis originated; and of omitting or abbreviating everything publication of which would be inconsistent with professional or personal confidence….

The author of the material in this volume would not have consented to the publication of any of it. It was Freud’s habit to destroy all notes and preliminary drafts as soon as they had served their purpose, to publish nothing incomplete or unfinished, and to publish material of a personal nature only when it was essential for the purpose of demonstrating unconscious connections. These letters were brought to light by chance, and the editors feel justified in publishing them in spite of the hesitation which respect for the author’s attitude in the matter inevitably imposes.

In assessing Anna Freud’s and Ernst Kris’s editorial policy, it has to be remembered that in the 1950s discretion and reticence were still accounted virtues and, furthermore, that children and relatives of both Freud and Fliess were still alive and active in the psychoanalytical movement. Not only was Anna Freud the daughter of Sigmund Freud, she was actually born during the period when the letters were being written, and the Complete Letters contains numerous references to her mother’s health while she was carrying her, to her birth, infancy, and childhood, and to the activities and illnesses of her elder brothers and sisters. And although these references throw a pleasing light on Freud as a husband and father, they have no bearing on the development of his ideas, and one can appreciate why so many of them were not included in a selection of letters that was designed to throw light on the “Origins of Psycho-Analysis.”

And not only was Anna Freud the daughter of Sigmund Freud, the other selector, Ernst Kris, was married to a niece of Fliess’s wife. He must also, I think, have been an acquaintance if not a friend of Robert Fliess, Wilhelm’s son (and, therefore, a first cousin of Kris’s wife), who became a psychoanalyst. Several passages in the Complete Letters which do not appear in the Origins refer to Kris’s father-in-law Oscar Rie, and do so in an unpleasant, condescending way. Rie, it seems, was skeptical of both Freud’s and Fliess’s ideas, Fliess was contemptuous of Rie’s rigidity, and Freud, during the period of his infatuation with Fliess, buttered him up by being nasty about Rie. Since Rie was one of Freud’s best and most longstanding friends, as well as pediatrician to Freud’s children and, later, grandchildren, one can again appreciate why these passages were not included in the selection published in 1950.

Publication of the complete letters in 1950 would in fact have caused considerable embarrassment and distress among the editors’ relatives, friends, and colleagues, and one can understand why it was only in 1980, when Anna Freud was in her mid-eighties and had become one of the last survivors of the generation that had personal memories and attachments to her father, to Fliess, and to their milieu in the 1890s, that, after considerable persuasion, she gave Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson access to the Fliess letters and permission to prepare a new, complete edition.

Although the editors of the Origins may well have been entirely justified in having been as discreet and selective as they were in 1950, Anna Freud and her circle must have appreciated that curiosity, which could not be dismissed as prurience, would eventually be aroused by every detail of Freud’s life and would eventually have to be satisfied. But they seem to have wished to postpone the day as long as possible and to have adopted a policy toward Freud’s papers which did, indeed, preserve all the evidence for posterity but nonetheless conveyed the impression that secrets, scandals, and sensational details were being withheld. The Fliess letters were preserved, when Anna Freud could, I imagine, have destroyed them had she wished; but researchers were denied access to them, and other collections of Freud’s correspondence were acquired, often by purchase, and placed in the Library of Congress, but with embargoes on them until well into the twenty-first century.

But since Freud claimed that he had made many of his revolutionary discoveries about sexuality and neurosis during the course of his own unique self-analysis, and since the Origins, and also Chapter 13 of Volume I of Jones’s life, had revealed that this self-analysis had been part and parcel of his relationship with Fliess, anyone wishing to check, question, or challenge the validity and success of Freud’s psychoanalysis of himself was bound to wish for access to the Complete Letters. And now we have them.

The first thing to be said about them is that they confirm to the hilt Jones’s statements that Freud’s relationship with Fliess was “the only really extraordinary experience in Freud’s life,” that it was “a passionate friendship for someone his inferior,” in which for several years he subordinated his judgment and opinions to those of Fliess, and that he liberated himself from this thralldom by his self-analysis. For years Freud seems to have accepted uncritically every idea of Fliess’s, however fanciful, to have deferred to him on every point, to have accepted his advice without demur, to have pined for his company—and then quite suddenly, in the letter of August 7, 1901, which Freud in March 1937 declared was “very important,” he suddenly finds his own voice. He points out that he and Fliess have “drawn apart to some extent,” observes that Fliess’s recent remark that “the reader of thoughts merely reads his own thoughts into other people” constituted a complete devaluation of his work, and, in passages which are not in the Origins, accuses Fliess of uncharitableness toward mutual friends (Rie, Breuer) and of contempt for friendship between men. “I do not share your contempt for friendship between men, probably because I am to a high degree party to it. In my life, as you know, woman has never replaced the comrade, the friend.”

This letter marks, I think, the end of the affair, and also of what Henri F. Ellenberger called Freud’s “creative illness.” “A creative illness,” wrote Ellenberger,

succeeds a period of intense preoccupation with an idea and search for a certain truth. It is a polymorphous condition that can take the shape of depression, neurosis, psychosomatic ailments, or even psychosis. Whatever the symptoms, they are felt as painful if not agonizing, by the subject, with alternating periods of alleviation and worsening. Throughout the illness the subject never loses the thread of his dominating preoccupation. It is often compatible with normal, professional and family life. But even if he keeps to his social activities, he is almost entirely absorbed with himself. He suffers from feelings of utter isolation, even when he has a mentor who guides him through the ordeal. The termination is often rapid and marked by a phase of exhilaration. The subject emerges from his ordeal with a permanent transformation and the conviction that he has discovered a great truth or a new spiritual world.

Readers of the Complete Letters will discover that Freud went through just such a creative illness and that the insights he acquired into the meaning of dreams and symptoms, the Oedipus complex, and the importance of fantasy marked stages in his recovery.

Some of the consequences of Freud’s long thralldom to Fliess, who proved a reluctant, unreliable mentor, were absurd and trivial, others were more fateful. Fliess had theories about the nose and sexuality and he had a scheme of biorhythms. Freud seems to have seriously believed for a while that his son Martin, born in 1889, wrote poetry and had nosebleeds under the influence of his twenty-eight-day feminine biorhythm. This can have done no one any harm, but his faith in Fliess’s theories about the nose and sexuality led to serious trouble.

Freud and Fliess both suffered from migraine and what was, I presume, chronic sinusitis. Fliess twice operated on Freud’s nose, without either benefit or harm; Fliess’s nose was operated on twice by some third party, again without benefit; but despite this lack of evidence for the efficacy of nasal psychosurgery, in 1895 Freud persuaded Fliess to operate on the nose of one of his (Freud’s) neurotic patients, Emma Eckstein. Fliess inadvertently left half a meter of gauze in Emma Eckstein’s nose, as a result of which she had numerous postoperative hemorrhages and nearly died. Freud, however, exonerated Fliess completely, denied that he had been in any way negligent, and eventually persuaded himself that Eckstein’s bleeding had been hysterical, the expression of a longing for love.

This incident was described by Max Schur in 1966 in his paper on the specimen dream of psychoanalysis, and more recently, and in greater detail, by Masson in Chapter 2 of his The Assault on Truth (1984), both accounts being based on letters that are in the Complete Letters but are not in the Origins. It demonstrates, to paraphrase Ronald W. Clark (Freud: The Man and the Cause), the almost unbelievable lengths to which Freud went to rationalize his faith in the scientific judgment of his indispensable authority figure, Wilhelm Fliess. According to Anna Freud the relevant letters were omitted from the Origins “since the story would have been incomplete and rather bewildering to the reader.” It has always been admitted that Freud was kein Menschenkenner, no judge of men, but it now appears that he could lose all common sense.

Another fateful consequence of Fliess’s influence on Freud concerns Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. It now appears that the original version of this book had as its core not the so-called Irma dream, which Schur and Masson have shown is really about Emma Eckstein’s operation and Freud’s need to exonerate Fliess, but another dream, which Freud removed in deference to Fliess’s opinion that it was indiscreet. Details of this dream, which must have been about Freud’s wife Martha, were apparently contained in one of the letters which Freud in 1937 said were missing from the set Marie Bonaparte had shown him. Nothing further is known about it, but the Complete Letters reveals that Freud valued it highly and accepted its removal meekly:

So the dream is condemned. Now that the sentence has been passed, however, I would like to shed a tear over it and confess that I regret it and that I have no hopes of finding a better one as a substitute. As you know, a beautiful dream and no indiscretion—do not coincide.


The loss of the big dream that you eliminated is to be compensated for by the insertion of a small collection of dreams (harmless, absurd dreams; calculations and speeches in dreams; affects in dreams).

It is disconcerting to discover that one of the seminal works of the twentieth century lacks its centerpiece—and tantalizing too, since, in Masson’s view, “there is still a faint hope that the letter will one day be found. It would no doubt be the most important letter of the collection, since it contains the only dream Freud ever analyzed completely.”

The Complete Letters also tells the story of how Freud came to believe that all his hysterical patients had been sexually abused in childhood by their fathers—and that his own four sisters and one brother had been abused by their father—and how he eventually abandoned this idea and replaced it by that of the Oedipus complex. However, as Masson has discussed this stage in Freud’s thought in his recent The Assault on Truth, where he argues, to my mind unconvincingly, that Freud never really did abandon this seduction theory of the neuroses, and betrayed psychoanalysis by pretending to have done so, there is no need to pursue the matter further here.

As I have already mentioned, Masson’s edition of The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 1887–1904 is not a book that can be read on its own. Much of it is incomprehensible without reference to the introductions and footnotes in the Origins and Volume I of the standard edition, and some of it remains incomprehensible even if one has these to hand; frequent allusions to Fliess’s missing letters and unexplained nineteenth-century medical jargon render whole paragraphs wholly opaque. It will, however, become an essential reference book for those who believe that mysteries about Freud and what made him tick are still waiting to be discovered.


The Seduction Theory October 24, 1985

  • Email
  • Print