• Email
  • Print

The Jewish Freud

In response to:

The Jewish Freud from the June 12, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Michael Ignatieff’s review of William McGrath’s Freud’s Discovery of Psychoanalysis: The Politics of Hysteria and Marianne Krull’s Freud and His Father [NYR, June 12, 1986] has some of his usual felicities and suggestive speculations. But unfortunately, it is vitiated by a series of errors that deserve to be noted. These are not simply careless mistakes about minor biographical detail, but they lie at the heart of Ignatieff’s argument and, I believe, have incapacitated him from getting to the heart of the two books he has reviewed.

First: “…his very last work, the posthumous Moses and Monotheism.” The fact is that Freud had been at work on this study at least since 1934, and published the first two of its three parts, “Moses an Egyptian,” and “If Moses was an Egyptian,” in Imago in 1937. He completed the last, longest and most subversive part during the early days of his English exile in 1938, and lived to see not only the original German in print, but even a complete English translation.

Second: this first mistake acquires its importance from the second one: “What dark energies drove Freud to make this disavowal of Moses [that Moses was not a Jew after all, but an Egyptian] at the very moment in 1938 when his daughter Anna was forced to spend hours with the Gestapo?” It is an intriguing question, but it is unanswerable because the puzzle is imaginary. As I have noted, Freud published his “disavowal” of Moses the year before, that is to say, a year before the Nazis marched into Austria. This matters, because Freud’s insistence on his theory that Moses must have been an Egyptian got him into a good deal of trouble in his own last years, and has occasioned much head-shaking since. If it could be shown that Freud came upon this radical notion (which in any case he did not invent) just as his beloved daughter, partner, and successor was being interrogated by the Gestapo, one would have to make some interesting amendments to Freud’s biography. But, for the reasons I have indicated, it cannot be shown.

Third: “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.” With deep regret (for the scene would make a terrific television drama), I must point out that Freud repudiated the seduction theory in a letter to Fliess in September 1897, but could not bring himself to go to Rome until four years later, September 1901. What he did do in 1897 was to recognize, as he told Fliess, that his longing for Rome was very neurotic. This too matters, because Freud suffered from an inhibition about Rome, which stood for more things in his mind than I have time to enumerate in a single letter. The four years that intervened between his giving up the seduction theory and his final conquest of Rome were occupied with the most strenuous years of Freud’s self-analysis, and it was this analysis that made it possible for Freud to conquer his neurotic inability to visit the Mother of Cities.

Fourth: Freud “only dared broach the issue of female sexuality on his mother’s death in 1930….” Here Ignatieff is paraphrasing Krull, but since he does not object to this statement, one must assume that he is making it his own. Again, what drama reality denies us! Freud no doubt had his psychological problems with his mother, and never analyzed them. But they did not keep him from writing about female sexuality. He broached the subject in the mid-1890s in the Studies on Hysteria he did with Josef Breuer; he referred to it in the several editions of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, which he first published in 1905. None of these treatments may be considered systematic; that had to wait until he had developed the structural theory of mind in 1920. But after that, there was no holding him. I refer only to important papers like “The Infantile Genital Organization” (1923), “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex” (1924), and most important, “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes” (1925). Precisely because Freud’s theories of female sexual development are enveloped, rightly, in controversy, it is important to note that whatever his difficulties with his mother may have been, this did not inhibit him from studying the female psychology even while she lived.

Fifth: “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.” There is no such letter. The passage belongs to Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. There one may read of the worry of which Ignatieff speaks, but that book was not published until the end of 1899 (dated 1900). Freud tells Fliess in January 1898 that he is going to see Herzl’s play, but does not comment on it later to Fliess at all. Rather, he dreamt about it and then used the dream as one of the many specimens in his “dream book.” The year 1897 is important for those, like McGrath, who insist on interpreting Freud’s psychoanalysis as a kind of “counter-politics.” It was in 1897 that the populist and anti-Semitic Karl Lueger was finally installed as Mayor of Vienna, after Emperor Francis Josef had prevented his accession before. Again this matters for our reading of Freud, because what is striking about Freud’s intimate correspondence with Fliess, the most intimate correspondence he ever carried on except with his fiancée in the early 1880s, is the absence of political comment. When, in 1895, the Emperor refuses to confirm Lueger’s election, Freud triumphantly celebrates with some forbidden cigars and tells Fliess about it. Otherwise, virtually nothing.

And this is why I am writing. It would be one thing if a busy scholar like Michael Ignatieff, pressed for time and drafting this review, as I imagine him doing, on a trans-Atlantic plane ride, simply got a few things wrong because he has failed to look them up later and misremembers them. But the errors I have cited make it impossible for him to see that the question of Freud’s character, especially the matter of his Jewishness which is in question in the books under review, and in the review itself, has not been resolved by those two books. He quotes McGrath to the effect that “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.” This of course means that, according to McGrath, Freud rejected the seduction theory of neuroses because Lueger’s access to power convinced him that fantasy has a profound impact over the human mind.

The trouble with his political reading of Freud’s inner history (first developed in an influential, elegant, but to me wholly unconvincing article by Carl Schorske, “Politics and Patricide in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams,” of 1973), is that there is virtually no evidence for, and much evidence against it. Freud, as I have written elsewhere, had many very different ambitions, and his dreams and correspondence testify to the variety and their power. He identified himself with great figures of the past and present, not all of whom were politicians. The idea that he invented or discovered psychoanalysis because he could not, as he had hoped, become Prime Minister, must fail simply as we consider the chronology of his life and his interests. The man whom he seems to have envied most was Schliemann for realizing a childhood dream in adult life. By the time the Austrian liberals were officially bankrupt (which is to say in 1897), though they had been growing visibly feebler before, Freud was in the midst of his self-analysis, had thoroughly analyzed dreams for at least two years, had theorized about the sexual origins of the neuroses for longer years before that. It is not that Freud was somehow “fated” to become the world’s first psychoanalyst. But his interest in the riddles of his world, as he put it, and in the riddles of the mind, predate the shift in Austrian politics by a number of years and have, I think, practically nothing to do with politics. McGrath’s book is a sober and careful research study of Freud’s early years, which gets everything right in detail but which maintains a thesis that is simply untenable.

But this is not the place to review the books Ignatieff has reviewed. All I want to say is that it is essential to get the “smaller” details straight to be able to do so, and that, unaccountably, Michael Ignatieff has failed to do.

Peter Gay

Yale University

New Haven, Connecticut

Michael Ignatieff replies:

The errors of fact which Gay has pointed out do not invalidate the argument that Freud’s reckoning with his Jewishness played an important role in the theoretical crisis which resulted in the abandonment of the seduction theory. Freud’s personal crisis of 1897 was triggered by the death of his father. Working through his feelings about his father meant facing up to his father’s Jewishness: to do so at a time when Lueger was challenging the precarious droit de cité which Jews had won since the 1860s was of necessity to engage in a reflection at once personal and political.

Moreover, as McGrath, Schorske, and Krull demonstrate, Freud understood his Jewishness through the symbolic figures of Hannibal, Moses, and Joseph. The Hannibal figure was associated in Freud’s mind with fantasies of Semitic revenge on gentile persecution, and these fantasies in turn were a reaction to his father’s humiliation at the hands of a gentile. In the year of mourning after his father’s death, Freud battled with the suspicion that his father had been his seducer, but also with the image of his father as a cowardly Jew. Abandonment of the seduction theory required a reconciliation with the father both as a sexual being and as a public person, i.e., as a Jew in a hostile gentile world.

Gay turns this interpretation—not mine, but one I put together from two interesting and carefully researched books by McGrath and Krull—into a reductive caricature when he portrays McGrath as arguing that Freud “rejected the seduction theory of neuroses because Lueger’s access to power convinced him that fantasy has a profound impact over the human mind.” The caricature becomes cruder still when he summarizes Carl Schorske as claiming that Freud “invented or discovered psychoanalysis because he could not, as he had hoped, become Prime Minister.” Neither Schorske nor McGrath ever linked Freud’s crisis with external political events in such a grossly reductive way. Instead they show how these external events were symbolized—taken inside and given a private meaning—in Freud’s dreams and fantasies. Lueger’s arrival in office was only an outer catalyst in an inner process of reckoning with his father and with Jewishness which went back, as both Krull and McGrath demonstrate, to the beginnings of Freud’s life, and which as Krull points out, continued right up until the writing of Moses and Monotheism.

Gay makes much of the fact that Freud began writing Moses and Monotheism before the Nazis marched into Vienna, and not in 1938 when Anna was interrogated by the Gestapo. But he was still occupied with revisions to the final part of the essay in the days of the Anschluss, and in any case, whether in 1934 or in 1938, the point remains the same: Freud set out to remove Moses from the pantheon of Jewish heroism just when the Jewish people entered their years of torment. The puzzling and disturbing relationship between Freud’s inner reflections on Jewishness and the encircling outer darkness is not illuminated by caviling about the dates of editions.

What exactly is Gay claiming when he argues that Freud’s “interest in the riddles of his world…and in the riddles of the mind” had “practically nothing to do with politics”? If by politics Gay means Freud’s occasional daydream of becoming prime minister, then he is construing the word so narrowly that he cannot fail to win his argument. But if by Freud’s politics we mean his encounter with his status as a Jew in a political culture which invented modern anti-Semitism as a demagogical style, how can we possibly deny this dimension of Freud’s life its due in the making of his theory? Gay insists the evidence is simply not there, yet Freud’s own dreams, the ones since known as My son the Myops, Hollthurn, Count Thun, and the Uncle with the Yellow Beard, are saturated with anxiety and anger about the future of his children in a gentile world, and the blocking of his career “for denominational reasons.” Learning to understand this anger and anxiety, and the fantasies of revenge and violence to which they gave rise, was as much part of his theoretical struggle in the 1890s as his more specific quest to decipher the part of sexual fantasy and sexual trauma in the making of neurotic symptoms.

No one is claiming—not I, not Schorske, McGrath, or Krull—that Freud’s lifelong reckoning with Jewishness and with the hostility of the gentile world is the only determinant of either his biography or his theory. These “political” interpretations merely add a vital additional dimension to a historiography of Freudian discovery which has neglected the extent to which he was a public man, a Jew in a world quickly becoming fatal for Jews.

As for the errors of fact which I failed to spot in my exploration of this historiography, I apologize to the editors of this paper and to its readers, and thank Professor Gay for taking the time from his transatlantic plane rides to point them out to me.

  • Email
  • Print