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On Statues


In September 1938, Freud moved into his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, along with his collection of several hundred antique statuettes. How shocking, how hostile the previous sentence would be if for “antique statuettes” one substituted the phrase “fluffy toys.” It’s the fluffiness that would shock, though, the frivolity of it—not the idea that Freud had toys, and played with them all his life.

For how could such behavior shock us, in a man known for his belief that happiness consists in the realization of a childhood wish? That was what made Schliemann happy when he discovered Troy. This was the way Freud thought, and if Freud too found happiness among his statuettes, we can hardly be wrong in looking for some infantile component in this happiness.

Did he talk to his statuettes? Did they talk to him? Our metaphors are never far from such assertions, and Max Pollack’s etching of 1914 seems to imply a dialogue between Freud and the objects on his desk. 1 Striking too is the fact that, whereas many a horror story has been based on the idea that a toy, a doll, comes to life and acquires a will of its own, Freud himself thought there was nothing uncanny in such an event. He found that “in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating dolls like live people,” and that “children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it.”2

As for the idea that a marble sculpture might come to life—this is not only the theme of the essay on Jensen’s Gradiva, it is also consciously evoked in the discussion of Michelangelo’s Moses. “How often,” says Freud, “have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero’s glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned—the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.”3

And the statue must come to life, because what Freud wants to know is: what was happening the moment before the moment depicted by the artist, and what will happen next? What was the hand doing with the beard? What will happen to the Tablets of the Law? And it seems that Freud thought that one day he would be given the answer to these questions, if he came cautiously upon the statue, and seized upon its living self, just as a child captures a limpet unawares, by stalking it on its rock.

That was the instinctive inquirer. You will recall that Ernest Jones, in whose honor this lecture is given, provided some scholarly evidence, a proof of Freud’s hypothesis, when he sent a copy of the Burlington Magazine containing an illustration of a small bronze Moses in the Ashmolean Museum, then attributed to Nicholas of Verdun. And Freud was delighted that Jones had found a Moses that held its beard in the way that he surmised that Michelangelo’s had been grasping its own, in that moment before the moment the artist chose. And the earlier, bronze Moses “shows us an instant during his storm of feeling, while the statue in San Pietro in Vincoli depicts the calm when the storm is over.”4

So these statues are expected to serve in an inquiry into the mind and the emotions of Moses himself, and Freud stands before them in the role of the backsliding Hebrew. Surely if there can be life in such statues, there may be toys, speaking toys, among those several hundred statuettes; and it might well be that those who arranged Freud’s possessions in Maresfield Gardens felt, as they set out the statuettes upon the desk, that they were making the old man happy, as one seeks to make a child at home by taking its dolls to the hospital bed. Statuette, doll, statue—they are not synonyms, but they belong to a family of meanings. Change the word a little, the whole sentence shifts to reveal new treasures of truth.

In September 1938, Freud moved into his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, along with his collection of several hundred statues. What an event that would have been! They would have had to pull down the neighboring houses, and lay out new grounds to accommodate the collection. And if we had been standing nearby as the old man arrived with his stone retinue, and if I had asked you who this Freud was, with his hundreds of statues, his thousands of antiquities, you would have been moved to make sense of it thus: this Freud is a foreign prince who has come here to die, and the statues have been brought for his tomb. And what you would have said would have been true, for these antiquities form both his memorial and his tomb—since they include the urn in which his ashes are buried, and since Maresfield Gardens is his mausoleum.

But if, with a final turn of the switch, one were to transform the sentence yet again, and say that Freud arrived in his last home with a collection of several hundred colossi—statues so huge that the whole triangle between Finchley Road and Fitzjohn’s Avenue and, say, Frognal Lane, would have to be obliterated to accommodate them—and once again we were bystanders, and I asked you for your interpretation of the event, then I think you would say that this Freud must be a magus, and that the king of this country has invited him here and laid out these new avenues and set up these colossi to protect this city and this country from its enemies.

And once again I must congratulate you on the grandeur of your interpretation which, while it seems grossly flattering to our monarchy, reflects something of the grandeur of Freud’s own sense of purpose. “After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Titus,” he wrote, “Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakkai asked for permission to open a school at Jabneh for the study of the Torah. We are going to do the same. We are, after all, used to persecution by our history, tradition and some of us by personal experience….”5

And so we have Freud’s permission, his encouragement, to compare the retinue moving into Maresfield Gardens with the Jewish people at the start of the Diaspora, but with this difference—that Rabbi Jochanan ben Sakkai must have taken his books to Jabneh, but Freud’s library had been sold. What Freud took into exile we might want to compare with the gods which Aeneas and his father carried from blazing Troy, were it not that, if we call these statuettes gods, we are in danger of walking straight into the plate glass window of taboo. Freud can be a rabbi on his way to Jabneh, can be Moses leading his people to the promised land—but not with these heathen gods in tow, not with these falcon-headed images, these sphinxes, these idols of Amon-Re and the Baboon of Thoth.

Did Freud worship these images? Did he bow down before the Baboon of Thoth? We know already, because we have had his word for it, that when he comes before Michelangelo’s Moses it is as a member of the mob, “the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.” That is what we meant by calling him a backsliding Hebrew. It does not strike Freud as necessary to point out that the statue of Moses itself embodies an infringement of Mosaic Law, a particularly bold infringement if the statue is said to represent the moment at which Moses sees his people worshiping the Golden Calf. But this infringement is part of an age-old tradition, most vividly represented by a statue in Bern which shows Moses holding up the Tablets of the Law and pointing specifically to the second commandment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.6

You must not make any representational object, and you must not, having made such an object, venerate it in any way. No other art has been honored with such a general taboo. No other art is of concern to the author of the Ten Commandments. That the fight between art and religion is an ancient and a necessary one we may concede, since all art tends to arrogate authority to itself, and all religion aspires to a monopoly on authority. But the arrogance of the other arts can be contained. Music can be put to good use. Poetry too has been set its tasks around the house of God. Even drama has been allowed to encroach, although always under profound suspicion. But the representational arts, and particularly that of sculpture, come with such a freight of heathenish memory, such a burden of idolatrous implication, that they have been banned outright…

…and have won, piecemeal, their appeal against the ban. So we learn that some Jewish authorities “interpret the second commandment as forbidding only those images made by a Jew for worship by a Jew, while at least one commentator asserts that the verse applies even to images a Jew might make for non-Jews to worship. Some take ‘sculpted’ to mean incised as well as built up; others regard it only as three-dimensional. Some speak of ‘image’ as referring to the human form; others see it as intending any form.” And some, apparently, have tolerated a painted profile, while maintaining a ban on the human face seen fully frontal.7

All of which is a tribute to the power of man’s desire to represent, and to the ability of his mind to block out an inconvenient injunction—to interpret a text away. Freud was not at the head of a backsliding tradition—he was its heir. Jewish representational art, as seen in the old cemeteries of Europe, has a tradition dating back to the second century before Christ. The taboo had been well broken, and for long. But while Freud seems to have been happy to collect graven images (some of them, no doubt, of precisely the type that the scriptural writers abhorred), he was not as insouciant about the taboo as he seems in the essay on Michelangelo. At least, by the time Freud reached London he had come to the conclusion that the prohibition against worshiping God in a visible form had had a profound effect upon the Jews:

  1. 1

    Lynn Gamwell and Richard Wells, editors, Sigmund Freud and Art: His Personal Collection of Antiquities (Abrams, 1989), p. 152.

  2. 2

    The ‘Uncanny,’ ” Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 14, p. 355.

  3. 3

    The Moses of Michelangelo,” Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 14, p. 255.

  4. 4

    The Moses of Michelangelo,” Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 14, p. 282.

  5. 5

    Ernest Jones, Sigmund Freud: Life and Work, (Basic Books, 1957), Vol. 3, p. 221.

  6. 6

    Exodus 20:4-6.

  7. 7

    Arnold Schwartzman, Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone, foreword by Chaim Potok (Abrams, 1993), p. 9.

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