The Jewish Freud

Freud’s Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria

by William J. McGrath
Cornell University Press, 336 pp., $25.00

Freud and His Father

by Marianne Krull
Norton, 320 pp., $18.95

When Sigmund Freud was twelve and out walking with his father Jacob in the streets of Vienna, his father wanted to show his son how much better things had become for Jews since the days when he was a poor peddler wearing a beaver hat and a kaftan in the shtetls of Galicia. So he told his son about the time in Tysmenitz when a gentile had crossed his path on the pavement and had knocked his hat into the gutter jeering after him, “Jew, get off the pavement.”

What did you do?” the indignant Sigmund asked his father. Jacob replied, “I stepped into the gutter and picked up my cap.”

From this bitter little memory, the adult Freud was to date his disillusion with his father, and the birth of one of his most persistent fantasies, his identification with Hannibal, the Semitic warrior king who wrought vengeance on the Roman oppressors of his people.

In both books under review Freud’s reckoning with his Jewish past is seen as the decisive psychic process at work in the making of psychoanalysis itself in the tormented year of self-analysis following Jacob’s death in 1896. This was the year, in Freud’s own words, in which he “felt torn up by the roots,” sometimes so immobilized by neurosis that he could not put pen to paper, while at other times swept along by the thrilling “surges” of creative insight which were to result in the abandonment of his seduction theory of hysteria, the first intimations of the Oedipus complex, and the writing of The Interpretation of Dreams.

Heated controversy now centers on this year of crisis. Anna Freud, Ernest Jones, and Freud himself believed his greatest achievements were born in this victory over neurosis, but in Freud: The Assault on Truth, Jeffrey Masson argued that the abandonment of a theory that blamed actual parental seduction for infantile neurosis in favor of one that traced hysteria to repressed infantile sexual wishes amounted to a cover-up of Victorian patriarchy’s dark secret: child abuse. The new Oedipal theory, far from being a theoretical advance, was, in Masson’s view, a retrogression that left psychoanalysis incapable of explaining why some people become hysterical and others do not. Despite their differing estimates of Masson’s work, both McGrath and Krull seem to agree that neither he nor Ernest Jones has ever done justice to the encounter with Jewishness that lies at the roots of Freud’s self-analysis.

In McGrath’s argument, Freud’s intellectual and personal crisis must be seen against the background of deepening political hysteria and anti-Semitism in Austro-Hungarian Vienna. Freud’s crisis year, 1897, also saw the confirmation of the suave anti-Semite Karl Lueger as mayor of Vienna, and anti-Semitic riots in Prague. Freud’s dreams and his correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess record these seismic tremors in the public world. In the increasingly vile and hysterical political climate of the late empire, Freud had to face up to the fatal weakness of …

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Letters

The Jewish Freud January 15, 1987