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Schadenfreud

In response to:

The Boy Friend from the January 17, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

It has always been fashionable to build a reputation by attacking greater ones. Nonetheless it came as something of a surprise to find in Phyllis Grosskurth’s review [NYR, January 17] a mud-slinging logic more worthy of a gutter journalist than an esteemed biographer. In the course of two pages full of shoddy implications and unsubstantiated suggestions, Ms. Grosskurth evokes an “implacable” Freud, scurrilous, petty and power-seeking, so malevolent that he is the uncaring perpetrator and concealer of his patient’s supposed suicide, so bereft of intelligence that one wonders why the twentieth century, let alone a journal of the NYR‘s calibre, has bothered with him at all. With melodramatic flair, Ms. Grosskurth paints a Freud who “used” up Silberstein, and then “expunged” him “from history.” Her evidence?: the death of their youthful friendship, and the fact that at some point in the next fifty years Freud disposed of Silberstein’s letters. Grosskurth concludes with grave profundity that: “Falling in love for Freud always seems to have meant disenchantment”—as if this were a black mark on Freud’s soul, yet another sign of his brutal inhumanity, rather than the most distressingly commonplace experience in the world—from which Freud, for one, learnt something interesting he could communicate to others.

Grosskurth chooses further to attack Freud through his wife, whom she terms “a rather petulant and boring Hausfrau,” itself a petulant and rather contemptuous description it would be difficult to find witnesses for; and a mother who was “constantly complaining of ill health. (In fact, she lived until the age of ninety-five.)”—as if the “serious tuberculosis of the lung” (an 1884 diagnosis) Freud’s mother suffered from were a hypochondriac’s maladie imaginaire.

The method of juxtaposition used in the last quote from Grosskurth’s review is worth pausing over, since Grosskurth reverts to it on a number of occasions. It consists in first giving an account of an event or espousal of belief in terms that historical actors might well have recognised, followed by a parenthetical interjection brimming with the gleeful and spiteful hindsight of the knowing biographer. The sequence seems intended to reveal to the reader the bad faith of the historical actors concerned. To give another example: under his teacher Brentano’s influence, Freud described Feuerbach to Silberstein as “one whom I revere and admire above all other philosophers.” Grosskurth immediately adds, in her knowingly ignorant fashion: “(In later years he would deny that he was indebted to any philosophers.)” May we suggest she read some of the books written by Paul-Laurent Assoun, or Paul Ricoeur, or Philip Rieff, or William J. McGrath (who discussed at illuminating length the implications of this early enthusiasm for Brentano on Freud’s development in his Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysts: The politics of hysteria)—or even the Sigmund Freud who, both in 1884 and 1895, quotes the Prior analytics in Greek, before she make such an assertion? We know—both because and despite of her review of this youthful correspondence—that Freud was seriously interested in and committed to philosophy as a student, but can she really be serious in her attitude to philosophy when she concludes: “What seems to have impressed Freud most about the former priest [Brentano] was his ability to attract disciples to him.” Such a conclusion is remarkably flat-footed and tired in its lack of respect for the intellects of others, let alone the life of the intellect in general. But then, for Grosskurth, its illocutionary force lies in the tawdry suggestion that Freud, in 1875, was already only interested in how to attract and keep disciples with a view to his own later imperial projects. It says little for Grosskurth’s power of self-criticism if she can in all seriousness insinuate, even to herself, that Freud’s major interest in Brentano was as an example for the future leader of the yet-to-be-born psychoanalytic movement. But then Grosskurth has no respect for any history of ideas. She is more interested in the faintest hint of personal pettiness than in contending with the complex development of a quite interesting specimen of humanity; she manages to concede Freud’s love of Cervantes might be significant, but she is quick to consign to oblivion his preoccupation with evolutionary biology by unilaterally deciding that Freud’s first original research, on the controversial biological question of the sex of eels, was not in any way interesting. (There is almost the tone, “Why did he bother wasting his time on these slimy slippery animals?”)

All this might have been excused if Grosskurth had shown some sensitivity to the emotional development of the young Freud; she instead declares her own handicap in her very first sentence: “It is difficult for us to believe that Freud was ever a young man.” This self-declared myopia of the imagination is rendered into her review’s main thesis when she concludes: “In entering adulthood, Freud appears to have shed the gaiety that is evident in his relations to his friend.” She thus tempts the reader into thinking that the newly published evidence of his relationship with Silberstein is the only vestige of the young Freud: with the discarding of Silberstein, she implies, he had become the “patriarchal bearded figure with his eyes gazing solemnly and disapprovingly at the world.” Yet she could easily have quoted, if only to scrutinise sceptically if she had so wished, Freud’s own account to Martha Bernays of his friendship, to give a more complex account of how the young man became somwhat older: “When he [Silberstein] was still very young, [my sister] Anna was his first love, then he had a liaison with Fanny, in between he was in love with every girl he met, and now he is with none [this following Freud’s account to Martha of his marrying for money]. I was in love with none and am now with one. That is the story of my friend Silberstein, who has become a banker, because he didn’t like jurisprudence. Today he is about to gather together again his old boon companions in Hernals, but I am on duty, and in any case my thoughts are not in the past, but elsewhere” (Freud to Martha Bernays, February 7, 1884). Such an elegiac tone, whilst being, as all retrospective accounts of one’s past are, self-serving, at least reminds us that the young Freud did not metamorphose directly into the implacable patriarchal disapprover of Grosskurth’s somewhat barren imagination. His ambition and turning his back on the past were not only in the service of fame and the domination of others, but also directed at earning sufficient money and reputation to get married.

While the scanty matter of the review is to be deplored, it is the tone which irritates most. It is a commonplace that great men and women are also merely men and women. Why the discovery of their everyday humanity and failings should so shock and enrage some as to drive them to desire the obliteration of their greatness is a question perhaps best left to their biographers.

Dr. Lisa Appignanesi
London, England
Dr. John Forrester
Cambridge, England

Phyllis Grosskurth replies:

This letter is valuable in suggesting what any writer who does not write piously about Sigmund Freud may expect from certain of his admirers. It is worth noting how in each case the writers convert a straightforward observation about Freud, for which there is much evidence, into a sinister attack on him. For example, the statement that “falling in love for Freud always seems to have meant disenchantment” is read by these two authors as an accusation of “brutal inhumanity.” But this characterization is entirely in their own minds, not in what I wrote. Again, that Freud on several occasions denied that he was indebted to philosophers for his ideas is a much cited fact of which the writers seem unaware. That he had in fact been influenced by the ideas he encountered in his youth has been much commented on, for example, in William McGrath’s essay in these pages [NYR, August 18, 1988], and is certainly not denied in my review. Why these writers should have felt impelled to concoct a completely different review from the one I wrote, in order to attack it, is a question perhaps for analysis.

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