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Lost Illusions

The Diary of Sigmund Freud: 1929–1939, A Record of the Final Decade

translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Michael Molnar
Scribners/A Robert Stewart Book, 326 pp., $50.00

Toward the end of his life, Freud must surely have imagined at times that he had somehow wandered into his own real-life version of Karl Kraus’s drama The Last Days of Mankind. During his final decades, nightmarish political developments, painful physical illness, and deep disappointments in his relations with his psychoanalytic followers all combined to produce in him a deepening sense of resignation. The popularity of such works as Civilization and its Discontents has made the somber tone of Freud’s thought during his final years well known, but what is less widely appreciated is the stark contrast between this period and the bright hopes of his youth.

In The Secret Ring, Phyllis Grosskurth draws attention to Freud’s youthful optimism by way of introducing the rather dispiriting story she goes on to tell about the secret committee he established in 1912 to guide the development of the psychoanalytic movement. Referring to the recently published letters from Freud to his boyhood friend Eduard Silberstein, she observes,

Because much of our knowledge of Freud comes from the letters of his mature years, it is difficult to imagine him as young. But we see him in these letters as very young and high-spirited, delighting in the vagaries of life (“Isn’t life one of the strangest things in the world?”), even suffering from a hangover occasionally.

One finds in the letters a charming, light sense of humor and an enthusiasm for life that seem to have vanished by 1919, when he wrote to Sandor Ferenczi, the leading Hungarian psychoanalyst, to say, “I can’t remember a time of my life when my horizon was so thickly veiled by dark clouds…” Grosskurth asks, “What had happened to the joyous Freud of the early letters?” and the various answers to this question reveal much about Freud’s personality and the relationship between his work and the historical forces of the time.

Certainly one contributing factor to the increasing pessimism of Freud’s later years was the onset of the physical ailments that accompanied his old age, one of the major themes to emerge from Michael Molnar’s edition of The Diary of Sigmund Freud, the brief chronicle Freud kept during the last decade of his life from 1929–1939. His struggle with cancer of the jaw, which began in the early 1920s, is recorded in many entries listing, but seldom commenting on, the painful operations and treatments he endured during these years.

Even more numerous, however, were the entries taking note of political events, and here the record was one of ever deepening disaster. Molnar augments Freud’s brief entries with information about the people and events he mentions, as well as passages from Freud’s letters and those of his family and friends. In one of these, Anna Freud writes to a friend a few weeks after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor that “sometimes I am amazed that in such times as the present spring and summer come as if nothing had happened.” In a letter of 1935, Freud provided an ironic professional evaluation of his own mental state: “I would diagnose it as senile depression in anyone else. I see a cloud of disaster passing over the world, even over my own little world.” But Freud’s feelings proved to be fully in touch with reality.

The political world had not always been a source of disappointment and danger to him. During the early 1870s, when he began his correspondence with Eduard Silberstein, the successes of Austrian liberalism had so inspired Freud’s hopes that he had briefly considered pursuing a political career. Nor did he abandon his political interests when he decided instead to go into science and medicine. Freud shared the belief of many Austrian liberals that the main opponent of enlightened rationalism was the superstitious, medieval perspective of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed his early work on hysteria had hidden political concerns which reflected these anti-clerical sentiments. Following the great French psychiatrist Jean Martin Charcot, with whom he studied in Paris, Freud took the view that what medieval Catholic superstition had seen as witchcraft and demonic possession was actually misunderstood examples of hysteria. Freud’s later work on such subjects as dreams, telepathy, and the occult derives in part from this early interest in witchcraft, and his approach to these sometimes bizarre subjects reflected the values of Austrian liberalism, particularly the idea that reason and science could unlock the secrets of superstition and remake the world along more modern lines.

In the writings of his later years, such as Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud openly argued that the forces he saw at work within the human psyche could also be seen to shape the external world of politics, society, and culture. For Freud this was a “felt” correspondence, which depended on the experiences of his own intellectual and emotional development. But we can now see that the political and social forces of Freud’s own time powerfully influenced his thoughts and feelings in a way that shaped his understanding of psychology throughout his life, from his early conviction that demonic possession was misunderstood hysteria to his final book on Moses and Monotheism; as he wrote to Arnold Zweig, the Nazi persecution of the Jews impelled him in this book to explore the origins of the enduring power of anti-Semitism.

During the 1880s and 1890s the rise of anti-Semitism and authoritarian political forces in Vienna—culminating in the election of an openly anti-Semitic mayor—made Freud feel that he must disengage himself emotionally from his previous hopes. He accomplished this in two ways. First by transferring many of the liberal values of his youth into his work in creating psychoanalysis, and second by using the external world and his own reactions to it as a kind of laboratory for understanding the correlation between inner psychological forces and society at large.

This process can be seen in the late 1890s in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and something similar is evident in the history of the secret committee described by Grosskurth. Writing in the years following World War I, Freud drew on his experience in the advice he offered Sandor Ferenczi on dealing with his sympathies for Hungarian nationalism; he told him to “retrieve your libido in good time from the fatherland and give it shelter in psychoanalysis, for otherwise you will suffer.” The extreme nationalism of the postwar years directly affected the functioning of the secret committee. Commenting on the ceaseless conflicts among its members, Grosskurth observes, “The dissension within the Committee was a microcosm of the wider world.” The nationalistic tensions of the age had their counterpart in psychoanalytic nationalism, in the efforts by the various members of the committee to gain preeminence for their particular national psychoanalytic associations.

Grosskurth calls her history of Freud’s secret committee The Secret Ring for several reasons. The idea for the secret committee was initially put forward by Ernest Jones,1 the leader of the psychoanalytic movement in Britain and later the author of the first detailed biography of Freud. Jones thought of it as a circle that would protect Freud from his opponents, whether anti-Semites, conventional critics of his inquiries into sex, or opponents within the psychoanalytic movement. “My wish,” Jones writes to Freud, “has long been to form a ring round you of men who will deal with the opposition while you progress with the work itself.”

Freud authorized the members of the secret ring to undertake much of the management of the movement, including appointment of the editors of its journals and the officials of the movement’s organizations in various countries. In keeping with the romantic spirit of a secret committee Freud gave each member an ancient intaglio which they then had mounted in gold rings: “Traditionally intaglios had been used as seals on contracts…. The rings were pledges of eternal union, symbolizing the allegiance of a band of brothers to their symbolic father, Freud the ring-giver.” Grosskurth argues that Freud saw himself “as a towering figure in a Wagnerian opera,” and she refers at various points in her book to the Ring of the Nibelungs, calling one of her later chapters “The Twilight of the Committee.”

Freud was not particularly drawn to Wagner’s operas but occasionally he made ironical allusions to the Nibelungenlied in his dealings with its members. In letters to Ferenczi, for example, he referred to the money set aside for the psychoanalytic movement by a rich benefactor as the “Niebelung-treasure,” and he later observed that while the practice of giving a kiss as a harmless greeting might have been followed “in the time of the Niebelungs,” it was not appropriate as part of Ferenczi’s analytic technique. Grosskurth is not being far-fetched when she implies that Freud enjoyed playing the role of Wotan. She recalls that in 1923, at Freud’s request, the other members of the committee gathered at San Cristoforo in the South Tyrol to carry on their discussions in his absence while he remained two thousand feet above them at a hotel atop a nearby mountain.

In tracing the history of the secret committee Grosskurth emphasizes that it is a story that “has no heroes.” Wotan never found a Siegfried to lead and protect the psychoanalytic movement. In fact the secret committee was created at least in part to undo the damage resulting from Freud’s earlier choice of Jung as his successor, a choice that once again reveals the pernicious influence of politics. One of Freud’s main reasons for choosing Jung was that he was not Jewish and would, Freud believed, help to insulate the psychoanalytic movement from the constantly increasing force of political anti-Semitism. But the choice of Jung simply caused more dissension within the movement, in part because the many Jewish analysts resented the reasons for it and in part because of Jung’s independent temperament and ideas. The secret committee was above all a secret from Jung, and its initial task was to ease him out of the positions of leadership Freud came to regret giving him.

Although the story of the secret committee, as Grosskurth caustically tells it, has no heroes, it does not lack for villains. Freud himself emerges as deeply flawed in his inability to sustain friendships, in his reluctance to accept intellectual challenges to his own ideas, and in his failure to even allow, let alone encourage, his followers to become independent of him. These failings were particularly evident in Freud’s relationship with the youngest member of the committee, Otto Rank, who served as his right-hand man in running the Vienna psychoanalytic establishment. Freud treated him as a favored youngest son and entrusted him with key editorial positions on two of the psychoanalytic movement’s most important journals, Imago and the Internationale Zeitschrift für ärtzliche Psychoanalyse. But from Grosskurth’s account we get an unattractive picture of Rank as obsequious in his relations with Freud and arrogant in his relations with others in the movement. His break with Freud in the mid-1920s proved to be particularly destructive to the work of the committee.

  1. 1

    The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones (to be published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in June 1993) clarifies the part that the leading Hungarian analyst Sandor Ferenczi played in originating the idea with his proposal for a group organized on the principle of apostolic succession. As Jones explained in a letter to Freud, Ferenczi had mentioned “the possibility of a few men being analyzed by you, so that they could serve as representatives in different places to teach other beginners” (p. 149).

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