Freud’s Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria
Freud and His Father
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 Austrian Enlightenment liberalism in which he and his father had put their faith as assimilated Jews. Freud also had to confront the fact that pan-German nationalism, a cause of his student days, was now disgraced by the anti-Semitism of Lueger and of the pan-German leader Georg von Schönerer. As early as 1885, when studying in Paris with Charcot, Freud told the French neurologist Giles de la Tourette that being a Jew, he was neither an Austrian nor a German and therefore had no stake in any future war between the great powers. Yet the inner strain of this outward detachment soon became apparent. In 1897 after attending The New Ghetto, a play written by the future Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, Freud wrote Fliess that he had been worrying “about the future of one’s children to whom one cannot give a country of their own.” Here the forlorn image of the wandering Jew reveals itself beneath the cosmopolitan mask.
McGrath’s achievement, which builds on the work of Carl Schorske, Alexander Grinstein, Peter Loewenberg, and Mark Kanzer, is to decipher the dense inner world of personal fantasy and symbol through which Freud lived this crisis in Central European Jewish identity. Throughout his life, the biblical figure of Joseph, the interpreter of dreams who rose to become the chief minister in Pharaoh’s Egypt, stood in Freud’s mind for the path of success and assimilation in the gentile world through science and dream interpretation. Set against this figure was Hannibal, who incarnated the fantasy of warlike vengeance against the anti-Semitic oppressor. Mediating between these two symbolic poles of Jewish response to gentile hostility was the figure of Moses, the patriarch who had mastered his fears and hatreds and found the inner strength to guide his people to the promised land.
As Freud tracked associations to these symbolic figures back to his childhood reading—particularly in the nineteenth-century translation of the Bible by the German philologist Ludwig Philippson—he became aware of the power of such political fantasies to deflect him from his scientific path and to arouse neurotic inner rage. The Hannibal fantasy was especially corrosive in its standing incitement to foredoomed revolt.
To confront the malign hold of the Hannibal fantasy on his own life, McGrath argues, was to bring to consciousness the role of fantasy—both sexual and political—in the making of neurosis. “The political events he lived through stirred his own phantasies so powerfully and directly that Freud suddenly came to realize that phantasy could foster driving emotional forces as powerful as, or even more powerful than those generated by real events.”
It was against this public background that Freud began to realize that we are made ill not only by what is done to us—by the oppression of the hostile gentile world—but also by what we desire: by, in his case, the searing conflict between assimilationist and rejectionist fantasy. In abandoning the seduction theory, Freud was able—both McGrath and Krull agree—to be reconciled not only to his father’s sexuality, but also to his Jewishness. What had once seemed the father’s craven acceptance of the gentile insult now came to seem a stoic and dignified refusal to rise to a provocation. Jacob had shown the self-command of a Moses.
In the same weeks that Freud returned from his first visit to Rome, at last free of the hold of the Hannibal fantasy, he wrote to Fliess announcing his renunciation of the seduction theory; he also began his association with the Jewish association B’nai B’rith, which offered him a dignified asylum from the philistine contempt of the Viennese gentile world. The bimonthly taroc games with the sober Jewish doctors, lawyers, and merchants at the B’nai B’rith clubhouse were an ironic pastime when we think of the wild young self who had dreamed of being his people’s warrior-avenger, but he had learned to be reconciled to his father’s example of quietly dignified refusal to rise to provocation. For McGrath, as for Ernest Jones, this reconciliation was a breakthrough, marking the emergence of the imperturbably composed Moses of the mature psychoanalytic movement.
But for Krull, the abandonment of the radical iconoclastic self represents a theoretical and personal capitulation. In Krull’s version of the story, the public atmosphere of anti-Semitism in Vienna is neglected for the sake of a tight focus on the private story of Sigmund’s reckoning with Jacob Freud. The centerpiece of Krull’s case is Freud’s dream of November 1896 in which he saw himself in a barber shop on the day of his father’s funeral. In the dream he saw a sign reading:
YOU ARE REQUESTED TO CLOSE THE EYES.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud re-remembered the notice as reading:
YOU ARE REQUESTED TO CLOSE AN EYE.
In Krull’s ingenious reading of the sign, Jacob was commanding his son to wink an eye at, i.e., to keep silent about, his craven surrender to the gentile who knocked his cap into the gutter, but also to suppress any memory of his “perversion,” his role as the primal seducer. Krull maintains that the Oedipal theory developed in Freud’s mind as a screen to prevent himself remembering anything incriminating about his father’s sexuality.
With the sort of circular illogic that sometimes mars Freud’s own dream interpretations, Krull asserts that Freud’s dreams never “reached his real childhood experiences,” and then proceeds, on the basis of these very dreams, to re-create the suppressed truth of that childhood. Her claim to omniscience may be dubious, but by carefully juxtaposing the hints that Freud’s repression allowed to his consciousness with what researchers like Peter Swales have discovered about Jacob Freud in the Czech archives she adds much to Ernest Jones’s account of Jacob Freud’s Jewish past.
In leaving the closed, sexually repressive Hasidic world of the shtetl for the precarious assimilation of Freiberg in Czech Moravia, Jacob himself accumulated a weight of guilt and denial about his Jewish past which was passed on to the son. For Freud, coming to terms with Jacob meant coming to terms with Jewishness. It also meant coming to terms with the father’s vanished sexual life: the wife he abandoned in the shtetl, a furtive second marriage to a shadowy Rebecca in Freiberg, then marriage to the formidable Amalie, Freud’s mother; and the father’s jealousy toward Philip, his adult son, for his attraction for Amalie.
Krull also uncovers the chain of business incompetence and failure that led Jacob to leave Freiberg with his family for Vienna, a move which Ernest Jones had smoothly portrayed as a response to Moravian economic decline. This sudden departure for Vienna was, for Krull, the decisive trauma of the young Sigmund’s life. For it was in Freiberg, at the hands of his Czech Catholic nurse, and in furtive gropings in a sunlit meadow with his niece Pauline, and possibly in a glimpsed embrace between his mother and his half-brother Philip, that the young Sigmund had his initiation into the glowing world of sexuality. In Krull’s reconstruction, the three-year-old Sigmund understood the family’s flight from Freiberg as the father’s attempt to punish him for his incipient sexual awakening, and the boy developed the symptoms of anxiety—notably the train phobia, picked up on the voyage from Freiberg to Vienna—that were to burst forth into the crisis of 1897. Fear of the father’s castrating power was joined to a bitter disillusionment at Jacob’s failure in business, which resulted in the family’s slide into “helpless poverty,” flitting from one dingy apartment to another in the teeming Leopoldstadt ghetto.
Sigmund’s fear and disillusionment would have been easier to bring to consciousness had Jacob been a tyrant. Instead, the logic of the son’s repression lay in the father’s love. For this was the father who so adored his son that he seems to have abandoned his own fumbling career to live vicariously through Sigmund. This was the loving father who inscribed the family Bible on his son’s thirty-fifth birthday with words that could only have heightened the son’s sense of messianic destiny:
Thou hast seen the vision of the Almighty.
Thou hast listened and ventured and achieved, soaring on the wings of the wind.
It was to the force of this love, Krull seems to be saying, that Sigmund capitulated in 1897, when he abandoned the seduction theory. On her account, the son who loved his father could not bear to pursue his self-analysis back to a primal scene of seduction—a “‘seduction,”’ she writes “by his nursemaid Resi Wittek [that] had felt exciting and pleasant, and yet highly dangerous because of the allied threat of castration.” He developed instead an Oedipal theory which exonerated the father—by transforming the parents, in Krull’s words, into “passive objects” of their child’s wishes.
This is where, it seems to me, Krull’s argument goes astray. To argue that the conception of the Oedipus complex “exonerated” Jacob is to ignore the castrating father of Freud’s mature psychoanalytic theory. Moreover, like Masson, Krull clings to the pleasing illusion of infants as passive and innocent sexual objects. It was this fiction which the seduction theory sought, in vain, to sustain, and which could not survive Freud’s discovery of his own infantile sexual activity.
If it is the case that it is more difficult to admit the truth about oneself than to admit the truth about one’s father, the key neurotic block of the year 1896—1897 was where Freud later said it was: in admitting that he was just like his patients, a middle-aged hysteric, in a loveless marriage, forced to masturbate to obtain sexual satisfaction, then remorseful and melancholic afterward, and occasionally immobilized by hysterical anxieties which refused to vanish before the light of his own intelligence.
In concentrating exclusively on Freud’s self-analysis, both McGrath and Krull neglect the extent to which this analysis was conducted in the mirror of his patients’ symptoms. To admit that he was just like his patients was to confront the very core of his identity and authority as a doctor. It was to break with the defense mechanisms he had seen at work in Josef Breuer when faced with the amorous advances of Anna O., or in his revered teacher Theodor Meynert when confronted with his own homosexuality. It was to admit that the suave and authoritative persona of Viennese medical science that he had struggled up from Jewish poverty to assume was a neurotic sham. When he wrote Fliess that “every single one of my patients is a tormenting spirit to me,” he meant that he saw his hysteria in theirs, his neurosis in theirs. His greatness was in refusing the shelter of medical authority, in taking their pitiable, human truth into himself.
McGrath and Krull take sharply differing views of both the man and the theory that emerged from this harrowing confrontation with his inner self. William McGrath argues that the abandonment of the seduction hypothesis represented the transformation of Freudian theory from a theory of illness and neurosis into a universal theory of human nature. The resolution of the crisis of 1897 marks the emergence, in other words, of Freudianism as a general theory of culture, personality, and society. The theory did not lose explanatory power or sociological reach in the crisis: rather it gained it. Moreover, once the seduction theory had been abandoned, Freud immediately began to work away from the father toward the mother, toward a recognition of incestuous wishes, and thus to fill out a sexual theory until then exclusively fixated on fathers. If Krull admits this, as she seems to, how then can she regard a seduction theory, so neglectful of the mother, as preferable to Oedipal theory?
Krull also admits that the classical seduction theory was bound to collapse from its own implausible insistence on actual sexual seduction by the father. Yet, from what seems to be a feminist desire to keep attention fixed on the wickedness of patriarchal sexual abuse, she tries to salvage the seduction theory by construing it as a theory of miseducation. Children become neurotic, she argues, as much from moral disillusionment with their parents’ misbehavior—their divorces, their lies, their adulteries—as from actual sexual encounters with them. But to vindicate this claim, from her own Freudian perspective, she must show that moral disillusionment can have the same pathogenic force as repressed sexual wishes. For the core of Freudian theory is that while we may repress many things, moral disillusionment among them, only the disavowed sexual secret has the power to make us ill.
Like Masson, Krull argues that psychoanalytic theory lost its way when Freud turned away from real trauma toward the effect of fantasy. Yet the original seduction theory never claimed that it was trauma itself that did the harm; it was the repression of the memory of trauma that engendered the hysterical symptom. Freud’s renunciation of the seduction theory did not alter his conviction that the roots of hysteria were to be traced to the patients’ work of inner repression. Moreover, after the seduction theory had been renounced, he continued to believe that seduction could have traumatic effects if the memories were not brought to consciousness, just as he continued to believe in the neurotic aftereffects of such real events as masturbation and coitus interruptus. The theoretical shift of 1897 was not from “reality” to “fantasy,” but toward a theory which said that what makes us ill is the insatiable way the unconscious seeks to turn reality into fantasy.
If Krull and McGrath disagree on the theoretical consequences of Freud’s resolution of the crisis of 1897, they also disagree about the consequences for Freud the man. McGrath follows Ernest Jones in believing that the resolution of the crisis set Freud on the road to what Jones called the “imperturbable composure” of his mature years. Krull insists that since the truth about Jacob was never faced, the crisis was never fully resolved and continued to haunt Freud throughout his life. She points to the adult Freud who fainted during the stormiest hours of the encounter with Jung, whose depressions during the war years and after made it impossible for him to write a complete synthesis of his work, who only dared broach the issue of female sexuality on his mother’s death in 1930, and who was wrestling with his father and with Judaism until his very last work, the posthumous Moses and Monotheism. Yet this does not prove that Freud’s self-analysis of 1897 failed. It merely vindicates Freud’s own wry and rueful remark that there are no cures in this life, only the possibility of converting hysterical misery into common unhappiness.
McGrath seems to imply that the resolution of the crisis of 1897 left Freud reconciled to his Jewishness. But isn’t there a lingering touch of self-loathing in that tortuous exercise of his final years, Moses and Monotheism, which set out to prove that Moses was not a Jew after all but an Egyptian? What dark energies drove Freud to make this disavowal of Moses at the very moment in 1938 when his daughter Anna was forced to spend hours with the Gestapo?
Outwardly of course, Freud preserved an indomitable composure in the face of persecution but inwardly, as the work on Moses suggests, his response to the travail of his people was a good deal more complicated. We know that long before his final hours in Vienna, he had expunged any affection he had for the dream of many of the Viennese Jews of his generation: Herzl’s vision of Zion. At the core of the sometimes grimly stoic adult Freud was a new harshness toward political hope and illusion. It is in Freud’s attitude to Zionism that, as McGrath shows, we can see the effect of Freud’s struggle to expunge the Hannibal fantasy of Jewish messianism. In an interview between Freud and the son of Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, in 1914 Freud said, “Your father is one of those people who have turned dreams into reality. This is a very rare and dangerous breed…. I would simply call them the sharpest opponents of my scientific work.” Against Hannibal, Freud had chosen the path of Joseph, the Jew who managed to reconcile messianic dreams with successful assimilation through the interpretation of the Pharoah’s dream.
The idea that political messianism threatened his own scientific work was true in an ironic way he could not have foreseen. The messianism of a miserable Viennese house painter—a true “robber in the underground of the unconscious world,” as Freud had called Herzl—was to see in psychoanalysis precisely that degenerate Jewish conviction of messianic superiority that Hitler vowed, with every fiber of his being, to wipe from the face of history. It is because the story ends in 1938 with old Moses going into exile at the hands of this new and vicious politics of fantasy that William McGrath’s methodical reconstruction of Freud’s heroic struggle to master the tumultuous force of his own political fantasy becomes something more than just a study of Freud: it becomes an archaeology of messianism in the nineteenth-century soul, in the Jewish forms that have given many people such redemption of themselves as seems possible, and in the anti-Semitic forms which have brought us to the heart of darkness.
Standing back from the fascinating history that McGrath and Krull retrace for us, one begins to see psychoanalysis as an inward-turned variant of Jewish messianism, as both Marxism and Zionism were its outward-turned forms. Herzl, Marx, and Freud—the greatest of the nineteenth-century Jews—each saw his face in the mirror of Moses, and each sought to find a secular path of redemption for those left behind in the ruins of their religious belief. Marx and Herzl substituted the proletariat and the modern Jewish diaspora for the old twelve tribes and pointed their way toward a secularized promised land. Freud took Jewish messianism and turned it inward, as Joseph had done. The Talmudic science of dream interpretation would bring believers to a promised land of inner health. Yet messianism is a poignant destiny. Moses never lived to see the promised land. What, one wonders, would these three prophets make of the promised lands built in their names?
The Jewish Freud January 15, 1987