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Oedipus at Berggasse 19

Freud: A Life for Our Time

by Peter Gay
Norton, 810 pp., $25.00

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis

by Peter Gay
Yale University Press, 182 pp., $17.95


On the title page of Peter Gay’s Freud is a drawing of Oedipus contemplating the riddle of the Sphinx, an appropriate emblem for the biography of a man bent on understanding life’s great enigmas. Gay sees this characteristic as a unifying thread in Freud’s life: “The only thing that gave him peace when he was in the grip of a riddle was to find its solution.” He emphasizes, as did Ernest Jones, the importance of Freud’s own puzzling family constellation, with half brothers the age of his mother and a nephew who was a year older than himself. “Such childhood conundrums left deposits that Freud repressed for years and would only recapture through dreams and laborious self-analysis.”

Within Gay’s book, the drawing of Oedipus and the Sphinx reappears as a kind of logo marking the separate parts of each chapter, leading the way as this quality led the way in Freud’s development. The many hours spent studying the Moses of Michelangelo revealed “Freud the compulsive researcher, who was not at liberty to refuse the solicitations of a puzzle once it possessed him.” Of his efforts to unlock the secrets of hysteria, Gay observes that “judging from the cases he presented in Studies on Hysteria, he made learning from his patients a kind of program.” Freud is seen as a careful scientist who studies the evidence relentlessly until a solution becomes evident.

As his subtitle suggests, Gay puts great emphasis on Freud’s life. Freud’s ideas and writings are extensively discussed, but the picture of how he actually lived his life emerges in these pages with particular force. In describing the privation of the postwar years, after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Gay writes:

The condition of Freud himself, and of his immediate family,…was rather forlorn. Preoccupation with sheer survival came to dominate his life, and his correspondence, for two years and more. Food in Vienna was no less unpalatable or inadequate, heating materials were no less unobtainable, than they had been during the last two years of the war. The government tightly rationed all necessities.

He shows Freud’s resourcefulness in dealing with these problems:

At one point, Freud wrote a paper for a Hungarian periodical and asked to be paid not in money but in potatoes; the editor, who lived in Vienna, carried them to Berggasse 19 on his shoulders.

Gay’s portrait of Freud draws on a truly impressive accumulation of new archival materials and considerably enlarges our understanding of Freud’s life. This is particularly true of Freud’s middle and later years, where Gay relies on unpublished documents from the Freud Museum in London, the Freud Collection of the Library of Congress, and other important collections, in describing the establishment of the psychoanalytic movement and its subsequent stormy history. For the most part, his treatment of this highly controversial subject is even-handed, despite his clear sympathy for Freud in the various disputes with his early psychoanalytic colleagues.

Gay traces the psychoanalytic movement from its Viennese beginnings, where the Wednesday Society was founded in 1902, through its transformation in 1908 into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society and on into the later period, when it became a truly international movement. As he proceeds, he gives brief and often sharp accounts of the early analysts and their relations with Freud. Of Sándor Ferenczi he writes:

But Ferenczi proved a problematic acquisition. His most powerful, and debatable, contributions to analysis were in technique. They were so powerful and so debatable in large part because they grew visibly from his extraordinary gift for empathy, his capacity for expressing and eliciting love. Unfortunately, Ferenczi’s eagerness to give was only matched by, and the pendant to, his hunger to receive. In his relations with Freud, this meant boundless idealization and a craving for an intimacy that Freud, disillusioned after the calamitous fate of his affection for Fliess, was quite unwilling to grant.

When he deals with the followers with whom Freud eventually quarreled, such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Stekel, and describes how their personal failings exacerbated these disputes, Gay does not neglect Freud’s own weaknesses. Quoting a passage from one of Freud’s letters in which he declared that he would “never imitate Jung’s brutality,” Gay observes, “The disclaimer would have been more telling if Freud had been less savage in his own correspondence.” Gay counters the suggestion that Freud was unable to form and maintain close friendships by pointing to a number of lasting relationships—for example with Ernest Jones—but he recognizes that Freud had his own quirks of personality, among them particularly a tendency at first to form intense brotherly relations he could not sustain, which made continuing friendship difficult.

The strikingly defensive attitude characteristic of Freud and the early adherents of the psychoanalytic movement, and their tendency to form an exclusive, largely Jewish in-group, also emerge clearly in Gay’s account. He writes of Ernest Jones:

Virtually the only gentile in Freud’s intimate circle, Jones was at once outsider and insider. Storing up Jewish jokes and Jewish turns of phrase with his customary verve, he made himself into a kind of honorary Jew who fitted almost if not quite seamlessly into the relatively closed, defensive psychoanalytic culture in Vienna and Berlin.

Freud came to see the overwhemingly Jewish composition of his early circle as a danger to psychoanalysis, for it made the movement vulnerable to anti-Semitic attack. His attempts to guard against this danger had important repercussions for the early history of the movement. This was certainly a factor in Freud’s troubled relationship with Jung. Gay writes that “Freud did not just exploit him as a respectable gentile facade behind which Jewish psychoanalysts could do their revolutionary work” (my italics), and there can be no doubt from Gay’s account that Jung’s Christian background was an important factor in Freud’s fateful decision to make him president of the International Psychoanalytic Association.

This decision led to acrimonious disputes within the movement, and it presented Freud with serious problems when he later broke with Jung. Eugen Bleuler, another of the Swiss analysts whom Freud temporarily won over, offers eloquent testimony to the ill effects of Freud’s defensiveness. When he resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1911 he told Freud: “This ‘who is not for us is against us,’…this ‘all or nothing’ is in my opinion necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties. There I can understand the principle as such, but for science I consider it harmful.” Gay does not adequately explain the origins of such defensiveness on Freud’s part, but he recognizes and clearly describes the effects of Freud’s “all or nothing” approach.

Gay brings to his treatment of Freud the results of his own extensive psychoanalytic training, the benefits of which are evident throughout his book, particularly in the chapter “Therapy and Technique,” where Gay examines the classic case studies of Freud’s middle years, and gives instructive descriptions of such important patients as Little Hans, the Wolf Man, and the Rat Man. Since the real identities of these patients have now been discovered, we can compare the details provided in Freud’s accounts with the historical information we have about their lives, and get a more realistic picture of Freud’s work with his patients. In the case of the Rat Man, who was first identified as Ernst Lanzer by Patrick J. Mahony in Freud and the Rat Man (1986), Gay writes:

The case had everything in its favor. Ernst Lanzer, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, struck Freud from the first meeting as clearheaded and shrewd. He was also entertaining; he told his analyst amusing stories and presented him with an apposite quotation from Nietzsche about the power of pride over memory which Freud happily quoted more than once.

Gay also brings his psychoanalytic training to bear on Freud himself, offering insights into important emotional relationships in his life. This is sometimes done tentatively in footnotes, but Gay also deals directly with such central and obscure issues as Freud’s relationship with his strong-willed and energetic mother. Freud was much more open about his father, and Gay argues that “there is no evidence that Freud’s systematic self-scrutiny touched on this weightiest of attachments, or that he ever explored, and tried to exorcise, his mother’s power over him.” Gay explores some of the consequences of Freud’s reticence, and he offers plausible readings of Freud’s late papers on female sexuality and femininity as reflecting Freud’s own unresolved feelings about his mother.

That Freud adored his mother but was reluctant to examine his ambivalent relations with her is certainly of interest in helping to explain his views about women generally. Gay notes,

By the early 1920s, Freud seemed to have adopted the position that the little girl is a failed boy, the grown woman a kind of castrated man.

He describes sympathetically the efforts of such early analysts as Karen Horney and Ernest Jones to challenge this view, and he tries to explain Freud’s stubborn adherence to his position by tracing the evolution of his theory. His views of women, Gay writes, “followed from his puzzling through of theoretical difficulties, in particular from new complications he introduced into his account of the Oedipus complex, its emergence, flowering, and decay.” Here one feels that Gay might have had more to say about how Freud’s relation to his mother helps to explain his concentration on the Oedipus complex and his relative neglect of the earlier development of infants in relation to their mothers.

Gay’s knowledge of psychoanalysis is also valuable as he attempts to sort out the long and complex development of Freud’s theory, particularly in his treatment of Freud’s “late psychoanalytic system, with its stress on aggression and death.” Referring to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Gay writes:

This slim volume, and its two successors [Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and The Ego and the Id], demonstrate why he could not publish [his] much-announced, much-postponed book on metapsychology. He had complicated and modified his ideas too much. Not least of all, they had not had enough about death in them—or, more precisely, he had not integrated what they had to say about death into his theory.

Gay takes note of the old theory that the emphasis on death in Beyond the Pleasure Principle reflected the death of Freud’s daughter Sophie in 1920, and he reaffirms Freud’s own position that the work was completed in 1919 when she was still healthy. Gay traces the origins of Freud’s idea of the death instinct to his own early “death wishes against his little brother, his hostile oedipal feelings against his father,” and other early experiences. He also considers the possible impact of World War I on this shift in Freud’s theory, but following Freud’s own statements he concludes that its influence was minor:

The war, he insisted with some justice over and over, had not created the interest of psychoanalysis in aggression; rather, it had only confirmed what analysts had been saying about aggression all along.

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