Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine

Lou Andreas-Salomé was the mistress of Nietzsche and of Rilke, and a pupil, friend, and confidante of Freud. She was a sentimental tourist, and she had a flair for finding those points of interest which, in any guide book to her times, would be marked with the words “vaut bien le détour.” She can be seen as one of the “free spirits” of late romanticism, a voracious adorer, a Rebecca West who urged men of intellect to assert their powers, and particularly their powers of intellectual destruction. Shaw, converting the heroines of Ibsen into figures of high comedy, would have been delighted by her. Her writings on the then fashionable topics of femininity and narcissism are often murky and tiresome, as romanticized biology is apt to be; they fall into a half-world of new thought, which is neither literature nor science. But the evidence of this book shows that the picture of her we have had so far has been incomplete.

There is an easy explanation of the interest that she aroused in such diverse men of genius: simply that she was an extraordinarily intelligent woman. She could grasp new ideas with a quite unfeigned clarity; she could immediately see connections which others could not yet see. She was therefore able to relieve the loneliness of men who had long taken it for granted that they would always be misunderstood, and therefore feared, even if the fear was masked by reverence. Freud was wholly at ease with her. She was quite free from the envy that any extravagance of imagination, or of intellectual power arouses in most people. Her biographers, and biographers of Nietzsche, may speculate that her envy was of the other, the sexual kind. This cannot be known.

But this Journal, written during her association with Freud in the years 1912-1913, when Lou Andreas-Salomé was fifty years old, shows a precocious understanding of his purposes and methods which naturally amazed him. He directed his lectures at her, solicited her comments afterwards, and was dismayed whenever she could not attend. Though the story of her relations with Nietzsche is well known, the story of Freud’s lectures in Vienna, of the discussions of the disciples, walking home in the snow after the lectures, of the formation of groups and selection of favorites, of the crossing of the lines of loyalty involved in knowing Jung and Stekel—all this is not so well known. The atmosphere of the middle years of the founding of psychoanalysis in Vienna—something that is largely missing from Ernest Jones’s biography, and even from Freud’s published letters—is alive in this Journal.

Behind the gossip and anecdotes, often in themselves delightful, some of Freud’s own uncertainties are revealed. One sees more clearly why his tentative speculation was so often converted into hard doctrine: why he found it necessary to be so absolute in insisting on his theoretical distinctions, even when the clinical evidence, still minute in quantity, evidently left many alternatives open. He was frightened of being welcomed as a philosopher. It is often remarked that Freud both disliked and distrusted philosophy, or anything that resembled it; he remained an uncritical positivist, with leanings towards a materialist metaphysics, until the end. An explanation of his distrust is more than once suggested in this book. Psychoanalysis could in those years, and in that city, very easily have become one more variety of new thought, an eclectic philosophy of life, or a key to a new Weltanschauung.

In the period of the “Last Days of Mankind,” as Kraus recorded it, or of the Decline of the West, as Lou Andreas-Salomé believed, new doctrines of regeneration were springing up all across Europe, as they allegedly had in the late Hellenistic Period and in other periods of anticipated disaster; and nowhere more feverishly than in the Vienna of Mahler, Schönberg, Wittgenstein, Schnitzler, and Kraus. In his association with Fliess, Freud had come close to the abyss that separates medical science from a regenerative philosophy of the soul. When the pull was constant towards a higher synthesis of philosophy and biology, towards a California-style doctrine of salvation, Freud had to over-compensate in the opposite direction, if psychoanalysis was to survive at all as a branch of clinical psychology. The over-precise mechanical metaphors, the doctrine of psychological forces, the pseudo-quantitative explanations of conflict, amounted to a kind of promissory note; this note might perhaps be redeemed later when a more adequate physiology was available. In the meantime, the appearance of scientific precision, even if it was sometimes illusory, might serve its purpose of keeping philosophers of the soul at bay.

As Lou Andreas-Salomé noted, this was part of the significance of the battle with Jung. The concept of libido, with its unique expression in sexuality, prevented psychology from being satisfied with explanations in purely mental terms. The danger that Freud saw in Jung’s hypotheses, as in all the heresies which rejected his concept of sexuality, was that they suggested explanations in terms of the concept of the mind alone. They thereby cut the cord that might at some time re-unite clinical psychology with physiology. Freud contrasted philosophy with science, not only as seeking syntheses rather than a more minute analysis of the data, but also as explaining behavior in terms of ideas only, whether conscious or unconscious ideas.


Although he mocked, he could tolerate Lou Andreas-Salomé’s philosophizing, because from the beginning she understood his strategy of driving neo-Freudianism, as a doctrine of mental healing, outside the movement. She might willfully speculate on the relation of mind and body, and on Freud’s resemblance to Spinoza, but she agreed that sexual drives and feelings must be the center of psychology, if only because they are already the accepted point of contact between the physical and the psychical realms. Freud himself always turned away from general speculation of the kind that engaged Lou Andreas-Salomé, just because her speculations could not suggest specific and testable solutions to specific problems. He sometimes can be seen to be wearily hoping that problems, when stated in his terms, would allow specific tests and solutions; in those early stages it was essential to keep up the appearance of tentative advance rather than to fall into the surrounding morass of philosophical generalities. In the last twenty years one has seen how empty, and how consoling, neo-Freudian generalities can be, particularly in sociology. Freud loathed consolation; for him the first condition of science was the suppression of wish and the postponement of total solutions.

There are pictures of Freud in Lou Andreas-Salomé’s Journal that deserve to be remembered. “He enters the class with the appearance of moving to the side. There is in this gesture a will to solitude, a concealment of himself within his own purposes.” One encounters again his willful melancholy, his tired and persistent pessimism about human beings and their opportunities of happiness. It is as if he had abandoned all spontaneity in an earlier existence, and was now, in some attenuated form of life, looking back upon the unavoidable errors of normal experience. His disillusion seems to have been so radical as to cause him, after his marriage, to deny, like Spinoza’s free man, that any mere passive emotions, unmodified by irony, could be imputed to him. He often speaks here as if he were only reflecting on experience, which for him was in the past and complete, as a man in mourning might speak. Ten hours of analysis during the day would be followed by the delivery, or preparation, of lectures in the evening. His living was working; and only in his emotional demands upon his followers does his temperament appear in this Journal. The reader of this book must, therefore, be warned of frustrations: upon introducing Rilke to Freud, Lou Andreas-Salomé writes: “I was delighted to bring Rainer to Freud, they liked each other, and we stayed together that evening until late at night.” That is all. The Journal is both fragmentary and egotistical in this way.

Coming to psychoanalysis from literature and philosophy, Lou Andreas-Salomé did not seriously question its scientific credentials: in this she was typical of her time. Vienna in 1912 was the decaying center in which the beginnings of the new music, of the new architecture, of the new philosophy, the new psychology were being sketched and formed, as parts of a general revolution of ideas. We may now think that the revolutionary ideas of this century have been mainly scientific ideas—in physics, biology, and in the mathematics of probability, logic and communication theory. But in a longer perspective this might turn out not to be the whole truth. For the dividing line between the empirical sciences, as previously defined, and other human inquiries may now be less clearly marked; those inquiries which lie on the margin of science may still prove surprisingly fruitful. Freud’s hypotheses, judged by existing criteria, were at many points improbable guesses, elaborated in the terminology of an exact science. In the process of analysis itself, he had invented a variant of scientific observation; for the fantasies that he detected in free association and in dreams were to be detected through interpretation. And interpretation was a procedure of literary and aesthetic inquiry and of literary and aesthetic explanation. In his own life, as he is partially revealed here and in his letters, he alternated between two poles: at one extreme was the requirement that he should be a pure scientist, and that his theory of repression and of neurosis should be precise, and spelled out as a scientific hypothesis; at the other extreme there was the requirement that he should be a kind of artist, who needed extraordinary sensitiveness, and a suspension of disbelief, in uncovering the fantasies concealed in most forms of human expression and behavior. The hybrid that results is unintelligible without the same aesthetic and scientific culture which he inherited and preserved. An empiricist philosopher will be repelled by a hybrid claim to knowledge, which substitutes interpretation for mere observation of the data as its base. How can there be theory worthy of respect which does not rest on unchallengeable fact, independent of interpretive insight? This principle of exclusion, as applied to claims to systematic knowledge, may be unanswerable. But at least a similar hybridness can be suspected in other tentative inquiries which are characteristic of our time. For example, he who studies as scientifically as he can, the forms of language and the process by which a child learns language, might find that he cannot isolate the unchallengeable phenomena which his theories are required to cover. The isolation of distinct phenomena in this field may not be independent of interpretations, which in turn are to some degree guided by the theory. If this were the situation, and if therefore theories of language were less than scientific judged by established standards, it would not follow that the inquiry was uninformative and useless. It would follow only that alternative reconstructions were possible, and that certainty had not been achieved. One cannot always know in advance whether a given complex subject matter—e.g., the forms of language or the content of dreams—is susceptible to a scheme of explanation that has proved adequate in the natural sciences. The material that is of interest may be just too complex, and we may need to be satisfied, at least for a time, with a hybrid understanding of it.


In these early years Freud was not in a position even to guess what limitations upon precise knowledge be would encounter. He could only go ahead, and this Journal shows at least some of his strategies: above all, his two-sided attachment to an idea of himself as an empirical scientist and also as an imaginative interpreter of the language of the passions. The interpretations are made to fit the theory, and the theory is adjusted to fit the interpretations. The argument is therefore circular, and we have no detachable conclusion, which so far constitutes systematic knowledge. We are left with a method of inquiry, indefinitely extendable, which shows the mechanism of repression at work, and which may be used to retrieve some of the ideas and wishes that are repressed, and to recover some of the energies that are lost.

This Issue

February 11, 1965