Fun With Freud

The one big prize that Sigmund Freud won wasn’t the one he’d been hoping for. “Definitively passed over for Nobel Prize,” the seventy-four-year-old founder of psychoanalysis grumbled in his Chronik, his private diary, in November 1930. It wasn’t the first time his life’s work had been passed over for recognition by the international scientific and medical communities—or the first time he’d complained about it. As early as 1917, when he was nominated by a previous winner, Freud had been fervently hoping for a Nobel in physiology. But it wasn’t to be. “No Nobel Prize 1917,” he wrote on April 25 of that year. He was still sufficiently preoccupied with the Nobel the following year to make note of it once again as the Europe he knew disintegrated around him. The Chronik entry for October 30, 1918: “Revolution Vienna & Budapest.” For November 3: “Armistice with Italy. War over!” For November 4: “Nobel Prize set aside.”

You’d never guess from Freud’s morose 1930 diary entry that he had, in fact, been awarded Germany’s most prestigious literary honor, the Goethe Prize, only three months earlier. Granted each year by the city of Frankfurt to “a personality of established achievement whose creative work is worthy of an honour dedicated to Goethe’s memory,” it had previously been given to humanists such as Albert Schweitzer, the poet Stefan George, and Leopold Ziegler, the philosopher of culture; the citation that accompanied Freud’s prize duly emphasized the importance of Freud’s work in nonscientific contexts. “Psychoanalysis has not merely stirred up and enriched medical science,” it read, “but the mental world of the artist and the pastor, the historian and the educator, as well.” (The citation went on to describe Freud in terms that must have warmed the heart of the Goethe-loving physician. Freud, it declared, was “Mephistophelian” in the way that he had rent the veils of convention, “Faustian” in his insatiable hunger for knowledge.1) In his acceptance speech—delivered by his daughter Anna; by this time his health was failing seriously—Freud made an oblique but stinging reference to science’s failure to recognize what literature had: “I think that Goethe would not have rejected psychoanalysis in an unfriendly spirit, as so many of our contemporaries have done.”

Freud—like psychoanalysis itself, some would argue—has been stranded between science and literature from the start. As with Plato, another totalizing theorist of mind, his theoretical and intellectual contribution is impossible to evaluate without taking into consideration his prose style. You can’t get the content without the form. It is at least partly for this reason that Penguin has commissioned a vast new translation of all of Freud’s writings, the first volumes of which will begin appearing next year. The standard edition of Freud’s work—the twenty-four-volume edition published by the Hogarth Press between 1953 and 1974 in a translation by James Strachey—has, indeed, often been thought to misrepresent the …

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    There was a hidden irony to the prize that crowned Freud as a literary if not scientific figure: in what may well have been a bit of personal myth-making, Freud in later life attributed his early decision to pursue medicine, rather than law, to the emotional reaction he had during Gymnasium days to an essay called “On Nature” that was (wrongly) attributed to Goethe.