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David Oppenheim’s Case

To the Editors:

My grandfather, David Oppenheim, would have been delighted to find his life and work discussed in your pages by a reviewer as knowledgeable about ancient Greece, the varieties of human sexuality, and Jewish life in Vienna at the turn of the century as Daniel Mendelsohn. Nevertheless Mendelsohn’s review of Pushing Time Away [NYR, December 4, 2003] contains several factual errors that ought to be corrected.

  1. It is odd to say that my grandfather’s collaboration with Freud “fizzled out” because my grandfather sided with Adler in his dispute with Freud. That gives the appearance of a gradual parting of the ways, whereas the collaboration appears to have been in full swing right up to the date of the split, and the evidence suggests that from the day on which my grandfather cast his lot with Adler, Freud never spoke to him again. It is also incorrect that the joint work by Freud and my grandfather was never published. See Sigmund Freud and D.E. Oppenheim, Dreams in Folklore (International Universities Press, 1958), and also The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974), Vol. 12, pp. 177–203.

  2. Mendelsohn says that Oppenheim’s published papers appeared in “a minor psychoanalytical publication that he himself helped to edit.” Mendelsohn is referring to the Adlerian International Journal of Individual Psychology. But as Pushing Time Away indicates, Oppenheim published scholarly work before that journal even existed, and he published a wartime paper in another journal for Austrian high schools. In addition, his essay on suicide in students was published in, and indeed formed the basis for, a special publication of Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytical Society.

  3. My grandfather’s book, Fiction and Knowledge of Humanity, did not receive a “feeble review” in the International Journal of Individual Psychology. On the contrary, the reviewer for that journal praised it extravagantly, comparing Oppenheim’s discussion of Othello with Goethe’s of Hamlet.

  4. It was not “as a white person living in Australia,” but during a stopover in Singapore that my aunt Doris wrote about how she had had the experience of being “superior” to someone of a different race. (Mendelsohn’s slip does make one wonder what conception of Melbourne life he could have. I wonder what “inferior” race he imagines is present in major Australian cities. Australians of aboriginal descent, perhaps? That’s rather like thinking that there is an underclass of people of Native American descent in US cities.)

  5. Although David rejected Jewish dietary laws as a form of superstition, and therefore ate non-kosher food, I know of nothing that suggests he did so “gleefully.”

Finally, Mendelsohn is entitled to his own judgments about my prose style. But in saying that my grandfather’s letters “are beautifully written, deeply feeling, and stylish in a way that Singer’s prose is not,” he might have acknowledged that he has only read those letters in my translation.

Peter Singer
Princeton, New Jersey

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

I am both grateful to Peter Singer for calling my attention to inaccuracies in my review of his book, and relieved to see that the errors that have moved him to respond to my review in such detail are neither substantial nor, indeed, substantive. I will respond to his reservations in order, and in the same spirit of exacting concern for precision with which he notes them.

  1. With respect to the ending of Oppenheim’s and Freud’s collaboration, I must say I hadn’t realized that my writing that their relationship had “fizzled out” might mislead readers in any way deserving of a published correction; the meaning of “fizzle” that I had in mind (although I admit I hadn’t devoted nearly as much thought to my diction here as Professor Singer has) was that given in the dictionary: “to come to a lame conclusion.” (Even so, Professor Singer paints a picture of his grandfather’s gradual estrangement from Freud and embrace of Adler during the controversy that ended, finally, in Adler’s apostasy; Singer indeed refers to a “final rupture,” p. 98, between Oppenheim and Freud, which to my mind suggests the end of an ongoing process.) In any event, my presentation of this lame conclusion, whether it fizzled, guttered, sputtered, or otherwise went out—particularly my repeating the story about Freud’s petty deletion of references to Oppenheim in subsequent editions of The Interpretation of Dreams—was intended to emphasize that the lameness was all Freud’s, as I’m sure Oppenheim’s admirers, of whom I am one, will agree.

  2. As for David Oppenheim’s publication history, I can indeed see how my review might have led to some misinterpretation of the points Professor Singer raises. It wasn’t my intention to suggest that all of Oppenheim’s published work appeared in the International Journal of Individual Psychology (obviously: it was his paper on a magical curse in Tibullus (p. 78), after all, that first piqued Freud’s interest, well before Oppenheim was drawn into psychoanalytical circles). My comment was made in the context of a characterization of Oppenheim’s career as an academic classicist, and it remains my impression that most of Oppenheim’s thoughts about classical (and indeed most literary) texts—the article about Seneca that I referred to in my review, for example, which was published in a Festschrift for Adler’s sixtieth birthday (p. 146), or Oppenheim’s talk on Plutarch’s life of Q. Fabius Maximus (p. 107)—were expressed either in papers published in the International Journal of Individual Psychology or in lectures delivered at the various Annual Congresses for Individual Psychology. It was at one of the latter, for instance, that David Oppenheim presented his paper “The Woman’s Struggle for Her Social Position as Reflected in Classical Literature” (p. 160), which indeed seems to have been admirably prescient. It wasn’t my intention to denigrate David Oppenheim’s intellectual work, but merely to emphasize, as his grandson readily acknowledges, that he was not one of the great German-language philologues, and that we must therefore be the more grateful to Professor Singer for bringing this minor but fascinating character to the world’s renewed attention.

As for the publication history of “Dreams in Folklore,” here again I ought to have been clearer. I was of course aware that the paper was published long after the deaths of both its authors, since Professor Singer ends his chapter on the paper with an interesting story about its publication; what I intended to convey (again in the context of illuminating the…well, fizzling of the relationship between the collaborators) was that it was “never published” as surely both parties expected it to be published—i.e., within their lifetimes, and soon after their work on the manuscript had ended.

  1. I am less willing to concede an “error of fact” in the case of the review of David Oppenheim’s book. In her biography of Adler, which Professor Singer quotes in his book (p. 141), Phyllis Bottome talks about the reception of Fiction and Knowledge of Humanity:

Professor Oppenheim…published a book of which he was inordinately and perhaps unjustly proud. A review promptly appeared in the International Journal of Individual Psychology, of a slight and rather damning nature. This was ascribed to Manès Sperba [sic], and Adler did nothing to counteract the impression made by the review. He did not even read the book. No one knows the exact cause of this neglect, though when the author asked…why Adler did not read his friend’s great work, he replied: “I myself tried hard to read that book, but found that I could not; it was unreadable.”

Professor Singer, it is true, goes to some trouble to cast doubt on Bottome’s assessment of the reception of Oppenheim’s book. He says that the only review he could find in the International Journal of Individual Psychology was signed by Professor Rudolf Pick-Seewart, although this in itself means nothing: the review could well have been penned by Sperber (Bottome spells his name wrong, as Professor Singer is quick to point out), who was known as something of a troublemaker in the Individual Psychology circles, and signed by Pick-Seewart, perhaps to give it greater legitimacy. Professor Singer goes on to say that the review he was able to locate commends the book as one that could be read “with profit”—hardly one of the great raves of all time—and, further (the point that he repeats in his letter), that the reviewer lauded the Othello section. Here, too, in the absence of the complete review, which I fear I have been unable to locate, there is nothing in this partial praise of one section of the book to contradict Bottome’s characterization of it as “slight and rather damning.” (To single out one section can, as we all know, be an effective technique for damning the rest by comparison.) Nor do Professor Singer’s protests that Adler remained in touch with his grandfather well after the publication of the book in themselves demonstrate that “it is unlikely” (as Professor Singer claims in his book, p. 142) “that Adler failed to read my grandfather’s book.” It seems not to have occurred to Professor Singer that Adler was capable of writing postcards to an enthusiastic acolyte whose work he actually found tiresome. So I remain persuaded that the (as it were) in-house reception of David Oppenheim’s magnum opus was less than sterling.

  1. As for the “gleeful” attitude with which Oppenheim rejected Jewish tradition, I am happy to acknowledge that I may have been completely wrong about this; my sense that there was a bit of mischievousness in Oppenheim’s self-conscious ignoring of Jewish dietary laws was based, in part, on a somewhat comical memory of the married couple’s life by a niece of Amalie’s, who recalled, of a Sabbath dinner, that “while David walked around with a book in his hand, whatever he happened to be reading at the time, Amalie took over the traditionally male role, covering her head and saying the prayers” (p. 46).

  2. This leaves one indisputable factual error, which is that I referred to a letter that Professor Singer’s aunt wrote as having been written in Australia, when in fact it was written during a one-day stopover in Singapore when she was en route to Australia. I somehow suspect that the only reason that Professor Singer cared to bring up this tiny inaccuracy—which hardly affects one’s understanding of the point at issue, an appreciative point about his grandfather’s profound sense of humanity in a trying time—was to afford himself an occasion to take a swipe at my knowledge of Australian culture. I have in fact been to Australia (Sydney, it’s true, not Melbourne), where I recently spent some time interviewing Holocaust survivors for the book that I’m currently working on. (As it happens, it was this, rather than the familiarity with Classics, and sexuality, and fin-de-siecle Austro-Hungarian culture to which Professor Singer so kindly alludes at the beginning of his letter, that made me eager to read his own book.) Although race relations (at least Australian race relations) were not uppermost in my mind at the time, the treatment of Aboriginal peoples did in fact seem to be a preoccupation of many white Australians, and for all I know this was the case half a century ago. Still, I am happy to admit that I don’t have a great expertise in Australian culture and history, and I can only say, in conclusion, that I am happy that my lack of deep feeling for another culture marred a book review, rather than an entire book.

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