In a letter dated October 9, 1898, Freud made mention of Leonardo da Vinci: he was “perhaps the most famous left-handed individual,” and he “is not known to have had any love affairs.” The letter was one of many addressed to Wilhelm Fliess. As Freud step by step began to formulate what we know today as psychoanalysis, he turned to his friend to present his thoughts openly and with some passion, as if he needed to ask whether all those ideas made any sense or were hopelessly out of kilter—useless notions prompted by the disturbed minds a psychiatrist sees, not to mention his own dreams and fantasies, which he had relied upon rather significantly in The Interpretation of Dreams.
That book, published in 1900, was unquestionably Freud’s masterpiece; rich with years of clinical observations, written in a forceful style, it is by no means out of date now, nor will it ever be. A writer had sensed something important about human experience and found for himself an original language—a means by which his ideas might take hold of the reader’s imagination. Soon after its publication Freud broke with Fliess. Why write letters about ideas when they are already set down in a book? Why discuss possible discoveries when they have been made, and are even attracting a limited but impressively brilliant cadre of admirers? Anyway, if Freud had once overestimated Fliess extravagantly, soon enough the latter’s distinct limitations became apparent, and that was that—no awful scene, just a moment or two of recognition that became much more only as time passed.
Leonardo da Vinci was harder for Freud to put aside. Though by 1907 he was caught up in psychoanalytic work (by then the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society had been established), there is evidence that the achievements and the spirit of one genius were very much on the mind of another. Freud was reading a study of Leonardo that year, and called it one of his favorite books. On December 11, 1907, he spoke at some length about the general subject of psychoanalytic biography. Two years later he again referred to Leonardo, this time in a letter to Jung dated October 17, 1909: a patient under treatment had the same “constitution,” the same psychological make-up, as the famous artist, but not his genius. He also told Jung that he was hoping to obtain a book, published in Italy, on Leonardo’s youth.
In early December of 1909 Freud spoke to his Vienna colleagues at the Psychoanalytical Society about Leonardo, not the first time, incidentally, that such a presentation had been made. Isidor Sadger, one of the earlier members of the society (he joined in 1906, the same year Rank did), had studied the lives and writings of Heinrich von Kleist and C. F. Meyer. A short story of Meyer’s, “Die Richterim,” had also interested Freud; he once wrote to Fliess about that, too, remarking how Meyer’s own life seemed to come across in the fiction he wrote.
By 1910 Freud was engaged in more than a casual inquiry; he went through every book on Leonardo he could lay his hands on, and he started writing one of those inviting, even charming essays of his that have a way of stirring up far more controversy than they seem meant to. In America the essay was translated by A. A. Brill and published as Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality. More recently Alan Tyson has made another translation that is more faithful to the German at points, yet reads much better in English: Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood. In 1957, nine years before the surprise publication of Thomas Woodrow Wilson, supposedly a collaborative “study” by Freud and William Bullitt, the editors of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud described the short book on Leonardo as “not only the first but the last of Freud’s large-scale excursions into the field of biography.”
It is an excursion well worth looking at today. What Freud tried to do over a half century ago still is being done, sometimes under the name of “psycho-history.” Moreover, both his successes and his difficulties as an analyst of a long-dead historical figure’s mental life are being experienced by others in our time. The Leonardo book stirred up an immediate reaction of disapproval—“more than the usual amount,” we are told.1 In 1910 everything Freud wrote was met with incredulity or anger by his colleagues. With the appearance of this new book many could find him guilty of an additional crime: not content with declaring the behavior of his patients to be the result of sexual tensions deviously expressed, he was now implicating one of the greatest artists of all time.
In fact Freud took pains to express his admiration for Leonardo. He was not writing an exposé. He had no intention of hurting the reputation of a great man. He was writing of “one who is among the greatest of the human race,” and doing so because he firmly believed that “there is no one so great as to be disgraced by being subject to the laws which govern both normal and pathological activity with equal cogency.”
Freud was intent on finding at all costs a way of looking at the human mind. He had started doing so with a few patients, then had the courage and honesty to include himself in their company, and around the time of the Leonardo study was ready to look elsewhere: at ordinary men and women who have no symptoms and never see psychiatrists; at patients with disorders other than those he would be likely to see in his office; and in this instance, at a historical figure whose life in certain respects seemed to lend itself to the kind of investigation Vienna’s psychoanalysts were making with (as they saw it) astonishing success.
The point was to move from the given clinical case to the broader statement, from the specific to the universal—the “laws” Freud mentions. He wanted to move from the apparent, the readily observable, to “deeper layers”—to those unconscious forces he was convinced control just about every aspect of our lives. He wanted to leave the psychiatrist’s office and find in the life of a man who was never a patient further evidence that it is correct for analysts to deny that “health and disease, normal and nervous, are sharply distinguished from each other, and that neurotic traits must be considered proofs of a general inferiority.” And finally, he wanted to go back far in time, find in the remains, so to speak, of a man of great historical importance—his words, remarks attributed to him, his sketches and paintings—evidence that explains some of the contradictions and ambiguities of his life.
Freud acknowledges that not much is known about Leonardo’s childhood. He refers to “the obscurity” of the artist’s boyhood. Still, in his scientific notebook Leonardo did mention a childhood memory:
It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures; for I recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips.
When mentioning the bird Leonardo used the word nibio, which in the modern Italian form nibbio refers to a kite, not a vulture. Freud keeps on using the German word geier, meaning vulture. He was misled by several German translations.
There is no doubt that this memory of Leonardo’s stirred Freud’s imagination. He argues his case not only forcefully but elegantly. He does indeed make the sexual interpretations that by now are unsurprising to those who either have experienced psychoanalysis firsthand or live under that “whole climate of opinion” W. H. Auden refers to in his memorial poem upon the occasion of Freud’s death. The vulture is the mother, yet Leonardo, strangely, has “succeeded in endowing precisely this bird which is a mother with the distinguishing mark of masculinity.” Such a paradox is explained, and soon (if we are disposed to go along) a man’s memory is made the clue to his later psychological characteristics.
Nor does Freud stop there. Immensely learned, and especially so about the various ancient cultures, he makes what Alan Tyson calls “the Egyptian connection.” Leonardo was not alone, and may well have known so, Freud suggests, because the hieroglyph for the Egyptian word for “mother” also happens to represent a vulture. Moreover, Freud’s friend Oskar Pfister came up with another notion, and in 1919 Freud added it as a footnote to his book’s argument: in Leonardo’s St. Anne with Two Others, at the Louvre, Mary’s “curiously arranged and rather confining drapery” turns out to have the “outline of a vulture.” Pfister called it an “unconscious picture-puzzle,” and by the time he was through with his analysis one part of the drapery is “a bird’s outspread tail, whose right-hand end, exactly as in Leonardo’s fateful childhood dream, leads to the mouth of the child, i.e., of Leonardo himself.”
It is easy to scoff at all this. Freud was not altogether won over to Pfister’s imaginative vision, as it could be called; but apart from Pfister’s contribution Freud had constructed his own elaborate interpretation on what turned out to be, in retrospect, rather shaky ground. Still, the immediate response to his book had nothing to do with the details of the argument, but rather was moral: how dare these psychoanalysts, their minds always so grimly centered on pathology, most of it sexual, take on a much revered man, dead several hundred years, and saddle him with a host of psychiatric complexes and disorders? No matter how generous Freud was to Leonardo’s genius, no matter how carefully and incisively he tried to connect the artist to every single one of us, the anger and mockery continued; nor were they without effect.
Irrational rejection breeds even in the best of men disappointment and sadness. Freud often reassured his colleagues that some day the world would take seriously their various formulations and conjectures—and one measure of his genius was just that self-assurance. On the other hand, under constant assault he and his coworkers became victims of their effort to defend themselves. Wrongly dismissed, they in turn dismissed others, however well intentioned such skepticism and misgivings were. Well-educated and cultivated men, they couldn’t help becoming cliquish, even parochial, and highly self-protective. The next step, alas, was a kind of arrogance that demolishes all criticism as “irrational,” or treats such criticism with a barrage of unnecessarily self-justifying counterargument—for example Kurt Eissler’s effort to challenge the more cautious and justifiable criticism of Freud’s Leonardo study.
Eissler’s Leonardo da Vinci is a long book, in comparison to which Freud’s own seems a mere monograph. Much of Eissler’s argument is set forth, far less polemically and legalistically, by the four editors (James and Alix Strachey, Anna Freud, and Alan Tyson) in their introduction to Mr. Tyson’s translation of Freud’s book. They grant that certain “arguments and conclusions are invalidated by careful analysis of Freud’s assumptions.” (A kite is not a vulture.) Still, assuming a certain psychoanalytic sensibility in their readers, the editors quite justifiably refuse to give way completely. Leonardo’s memory or fantasy or daydream (who can ever know exactly which?) seems justifiably of psychological interest, as does the “interesting problem” of how it came about that the Egyptians linked the ideas of “vulture” and “mother.” Egyptologists attribute the connection to chance: a phonetic coincidence. Psychoanalysts have a right to speculate otherwise, though not at Leonardo’s or anyone else’s expense, unless with some evidence.
Most important, for all his ambitiousness and speculative ingenuity, Freud never lost the guardedness that clinical work demands. “The aim of our work,” he said at the end of his study, “has been to explain the inhibitions in Leonardo’s sexual life and in his artistic activity.” To a degree he succeeded. Leonardo’s hopes and his fears make a good deal of sense to the receptive reader by the time he has read the various interpretations offered by a writer who had more than a touch of the novelist in him: the text is clean and direct, its narrative power hard to resist. Very important, there are discussions that amount to a separate contribution; Leonardo’s life stimulated Freud to think about a number of psychoanalytic issues he had not before dealt with very seriously, and for the first time he broached the subject of “narcissism.” Later on that aspect of human development would prompt in him and other analysts no end of concern.
On the other hand, he ran into difficulties, some of them not unforeseen. Leonardo had himself in his own language admitted to the “sexual inhibitions” Freud calls to our attention repeatedly, so he was not in the position of making a case that may well be false. Perhaps on that account the writing at times is so relaxed and satisfactory: we are not being nervously grabbed by the collar and told to ignore all existing documents and legends in favor of a premise that can never be proved, only believed.
However, quite another tone appears when the second part of the author’s “aim” is being fulfilled. We are warned that some critics, and even more significantly some of Leonardo’s contemporaries, simply didn’t look upon his “artistic activity” as “inhibited”—not that they were likely to use such a word. Instead, they offered excuses for his failure to finish much of his work, or were frankly puzzled by it, or felt prompted to remember that others (like Michelangelo) also worked slowly, even enigmatically. They also have insisted that Leonardo was a man of the very widest interests; when he was not painting he was occupying himself with an astonishing range of scientific investigations and forecasts, often wedded to his artistic capabilities through intricate sketches or drawings.
Such efforts to look at Leonardo as a thoroughly successful and productive artist and scientist, entitled to make his own decisions about what to work on and for how long at a time, are to Freud “excuses,” admittedly “valid” but not sufficient. Whereas he freely admits that little is known about Leonardo’s childhood and youth, he is less willing to stress what is nevertheless true: that absolutely nothing is known about any thoughts or “associations” Leonardo may have had about his decision to pursue careers as an artist and a scientist, and to do so at his own speed. His problems as a child and later as a man who feared sexual relations with women and sought out intense relationships with men are treated sensitively by Freud, and in such a way as slowly to produce a plausible picture: against considerable odds a particular man struggled hard to find the best kind of life he could, given impediments he simply could not shake off.
In contrast, when Freud considers Leonardo the man of Western scientific and cultural history, a rather different approach becomes evident. Things are not so much clarified and furnished a perspective as made the subject of all too fixed and unqualified interpretations. Leonardo’s interest in how birds fly, his prophecies that man may one day do the same, move Freud to ask: “But why do so many people dream of being able to fly?” The answer: the wish to be able to fly is nothing else than a “longing to be capable of sexual performance.” Leonardo’s career as a sharp naturalistic observer is explained this way: “His rebellion against his father was the infantile determinant of what was perhaps an equally sublime achievement in the field of scientific research.” True, the Mona Lisa is a portrait, the product of observation and imagination, but the artist found his model’s smile so powerful and unforgettable “for the reason that it awoke something in him which had for long lain dormant in his mind—probably an old memory.”
The memory, of course, had to do with his mother, and her influence on Leonardo’s later life is put this way: “For his mother’s tenderness was fateful for him; it determined his destiny and the privations that were in store for him.” Elsewhere Freud is more restrained; Leonardo’s mother is connected only to part of his destiny—as a celibate and lonely man. But at the end, after pointing out modestly that “psychoanalysis does not throw light on Leonardo’s artistic powers,” Freud feels he has to insist that both the “manifestations” and “limitations” of those “powers” are indeed made “intelligible” to us by psychoanalytic inquiry—and then he goes on to make this claim:
It seems at any rate as if only a man who had had Leonardo’s childhood experiences could have painted the Mona Lisa and the St. Anne…have embarked on such an astonishing career as a natural scientist, as if the key to all his achievements and misfortunes lay hidden in the childhood phantasy of the vulture.
That last phrase is, of course, not at all substantiated, nor has the fate of any psychoanalyst ever since been to find such a “key” to anyone’s career, however “astonishing.” It can be argued that the same holds for anyone’s life, even that of a terribly hurt and suffering mental patient who can barely stay quiet long enough to read a book or look at a painting with any concentration. Ironically and without prejudice one might observe that it is a key dream of the author’s that is revealed in such a comment: somewhere a person’s creativity—his or her “astonishing career,” all the achievements that get recorded in history—can be located and then exposed.
Yet the study throughout works against such a conclusion. Again and again Freud connected Leonardo’s presumed childhood experiences and his later psychological characteristics to those that millions of other people have. Health and illness, he emphasized, are not so “sharply distinguished from each other,” nor are the so-called “normal” from those referred to as “neurotic.” In so far as each of us is a “civilized human being,” he points out, we are susceptible to one or another neurotic tendency; the repressive function of the mind, so constantly in operation, guarantees such an outcome. Leonardo was indeed “obsessional,” but so are millions of other people. The real question, of course, is what Leonardo did with his life; not just with his neurosis, but with his remarkable energy—his emerging intelligence, his perceptiveness, his sensitivity, his imagination, his resourcefulness of spirit, his artistic sensibility, his capacity to take note of how all sorts of things (including the body’s muscles and joints) work.
These are not words or phrases Freud uses. He more or less takes for granted Leonardo’s genius. He mentions it but does not “analyze” it. That is not the kind of analysis he is up to. Mostly he is willing to admit that as a psychoanalyst he will never be able to make such an analytic attempt. He calls his study a “pathographical review” and defends it as such against those who would call it “a piece of useless impertinence.” Such people, he insists with some truculence, really want utterly untarnished heroes. Such people go about idealizing certain gifted historical figures and for that reason “find all pathography unpalatable.” Still, he puts in the mouths of such people an argument that he never answers, intent as he is on analyzing their “real” (worshipful) intent. The argument is that a psychoanalytic study of a great man “never results in an understanding of his importance and his achievements,” so there is no point in making “a study of things in him that could just as easily be found in the first person one came across.”
As one reads Freud carefully in this important psychoanalytic biography his dilemma becomes apparent. He wants to comprehend an elusive and gifted man. He has a limited amount of information to go on. He is not interested in undercutting his subject, turning him into some perverse eccentric whom everyone without his talents can pity. He is a man of discrimination and refinement. He wants to learn—from his own frailties, as they come across in dreams, slips of the tongue, fantasies, as well as from Leonardo’s life, in so far as it can be discerned.
On the other hand he is in his own way as insatiably curious as Leonardo was; he wants answers—and not just to small questions. He once likened himself to a conquistador, but like all conquistadors, there was just so much territory he could conquer. He had at his disposal a nineteenth-century mechanistic view of nature, a cause-and-effect mentality that scientists of his day found helpful in the course of their work. This produces that. One thing brings about another. X lies at the root of Y. And if it doesn’t seem that way, if there are many other forces at work and all of them make for a murky atmosphere, then the greater the challenge. With more knowledge comes increased specificity—and that is the direction a scientist travels. So, back and forth he goes, even from paragraph to paragraph. One moment he says he is trying to fathom Leonardo’s “trivial peculiarities” and the “riddles of his nature” so as to discover “what determined his mental and intellectual development.” The word “determined” stands out, especially when it is used in connection with Leonardo’s intellectual development. No wonder, a page or two on, we encounter quite another line of thinking:
In Leonardo’s case we have had to maintain the view that the accident of his illegitimate birth and the excessive tenderness of his mother had the most decisive influence on the formation of his character and on his later fortune, since the sexual repression which set in after this phase of childhood caused him to sublimate his libido into the urge we know, and established his sexual inactivity for the whole of his later life. But this repression after the first erotic satisfactions of childhood need not necessarily have taken place; in someone else it might perhaps not have taken place or might have assumed much less extensive proportions.
We must recognize here a degree of freedom which cannot be resolved any further by psychoanalytic means. Equally, one has no right to claim that the consequence of this wave of repression was the only possible one. It is probable that another person would not have succeeded in with-drawing the major portion of his libido from repression by sublimating it into a craving for knowledge; under the same influences he would have sustained a permanent injury to his intellectual activity or have acquired an insurmountable disposition to obsessional neurosis.
We are left, then, with these two characteristics of Leonardo which are inexplicable by the efforts of psychoanalysis: his quite special tendency towards instinctual repressions, and his extraordinary capacity for sublimating the primitive instincts.
One can try to pin a life down, but only so far. There is that “degree of freedom”—frustrating to a scientist who wants to have every possible “variable” tracked down and fitted right in its place. Even more vexing, that “quite special tendency” and that “extraordinary capacity” were by no means only Leonardo’s, nor are they only the property of a few geniuses. Those tendencies or capacities are widespread. Many kinds of talented people respond to thousands of different childhood experiences through their own unique blend of repressions and sublimations. Anyway, as Freud goes on to say, there is a biological element in all this that defies our comprehension—even now, decades later. He writes of “the organic foundations of character on which the mental structure is only afterwards erected.”
His language here is as vague as the state of knowledge warranted. What I suppose he might have said, were he less of a hopeful, ambitious scientist and of a more philosophical nature, would go something like this: we can understand some of this man’s psychological troubles, but his gifts as an artist and a scientist are beyond anyone’s ken; they are God-given or part of Nature’s mysterious design, though maybe someday, centuries later, we’ll know more—and meanwhile let’s not try to do the impossible with the valuable but thoroughly limited tools available. If he sometimes approaches saying that, he also backs into quite another corner: only a man with Leonardo’s kind of childhood could have painted the Mona Lisa.
The difficulties Freud faced and candidly admitted in his study of Leonardo have persisted, despite the efforts of psychoanalytically sophisticated biographers. Nor have all of Freud’s successors been as fair and self-critical as he was when he wrote about Leonardo. In the name of “applied psychoanalysis” the lives of an assortment of political leaders, generals, artists, and writers, not to mention characters in novels, short stories, and plays, have been examined; and as one goes through those attempts, dozens and dozens of them, one keeps coming back to the Leonardo study—and to Freud’s superior qualities as a thinker and a writer.
He may not have been able to transcend the limits of his own historical era. He may have made mistakes of fact, even at times of judgment. He may have tried unsuccessfully to harness language to a number of ambitions. As a scientist searching for tangible discoveries, but also as a man of artistic temperament, especially sensitive to the opportunities and hazards that words present, he was not unlike Leonardo, caught between opposing directions of his own making. But Freud did not in frustration, resentment, and envy turn on the man he was trying to learn more about. Words like “oral” or “anal” or “phallic” are not fastened upon Leonardo. His ideas about religion are discussed in the context of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in which he lived.
If Freud shows pride and more than a dash of the messianic explorer, determined at fifty-three to find an intellectual New Jerusalem, he is also able to be tentative, and frankly so. Almost inadvertently, and ironically just at the point when he becomes categorical, we are given a chance to see the confines of his own thinking. When we are told that psychoanalysis finds “inexplicable” Leonardo’s particular bent for repression and his remarkable powers of sublimation we are confronted with the author’s own impasse. Freud can describe Leonardo in new ways but in the end that impasse remains: a man’s various gifts defy the imagery of pathography. If I am able to play tennis all day and score quite well at it, too, I do so not because tennis has a symbolic meaning to me, based on a “problem,” or because I lack various diseases or handle certain physiological stresses in a way that differs from that of many others, who find that their symbolic sense of what tennis “means,” based on their past or still present “problems” and their physiological make-up, however like mine, do not get translated into my kind of game.
To put it differently, infirmities, or the thoughts they prompt, or even the absence of infirmities don’t explain the presence of assets. Here words and phrases come to mind that Freud for his own reasons learned to distrust: will, determination, ingenuity, spirit, ambitions—dreams of a broader kind than he tended to analyze. He had found it necessary to move away from those ways of speaking (and looking at the world) because many of his first patients had for years been slapped on the back or kicked somewhere and told to find will power, shape up, and get better. The more he listened to his patients the less respect he had for the moralistic pieties of Victorian consciousness. He wanted to expose all that for the sham it was. Anyway, he was not a fuzzy or abstract philosopher, certainly not a theologian, but a neurophysiologist become psychiatrist become a new kind of scientist, a psychoanalyst, so he did not wish to talk about Leonardo’s willful spirit, which at times had given way to indifference or apparent apathy.
In a sense, then, Freud’s study was a dramatic stand-off. There was Leonardo, across the centuries, a man whose obvious capacities and achievements could not be taken for granted or buried under an avalanche of terminology developed in response to the plight of seriously disturbed patients. And there was Freud, anxious to extend his observations to include people like Leonardo, but smart enough to hold back, or venture out only for so long on thin ice.
The best psychoanalytic theorists, first Freud himself, then his daughter Anna and Heinz Hartmann, have tried to find concepts that would make it easier for them to consider not only Leonardo but those many people who may have their moments of tension, but who in general live useful and untroubled lives. The ego has been emphasized; its capacities have been described in detail. The id may exert its pressures, but we have those various “mechanisms of defense” to call upon. Moreover, the ego is not only in the position of reacting to demands or outright assaults made upon it. The ego has its own energy, some of it “conflict free.” When we mobilize our intelligence, use the mind’s power of logic and analysis, we are summoning “conflict-free” energy.
The expression “conflict free,” used so often by Heinz Hartmann, is a revealing one; with respect to man’s everyday work, his various successes as a competent and resourceful creature, it is as far as psychoanalysis can go conceptually, given its history, its concerns, and not least, the nature of its imagery. Hartmann, like Freud, was a man of vast knowledge, and sensitive to the respect and good manners, if not admiration, that novelists or artists, like other human beings, have the right to assume from those who study them. The same can be said for Ernst Kris, a colleague of Hartmann’s who had a special interest in artists and the sources of their creativity; and for Anthony Storr, whose recent book2 shows that such an interest continues to preoccupy certain analysts. Kris worked hard at distinguishing between the paintings or drawings of hospitalized psychotics and those done by artists, and Storr emphasizes the difference between what he calls “pornographic images” and “great art.”
But one wonders whether there is any need for psychoanalysts to bother themselves with such distinctions, however well intended. Critics, maybe even ordinary viewers, are quite able to do so on their own. No doubt both of those analysts were angered by and ashamed of what some of their colleagues have done in the name of psychoanalytic “interpretation” of writers, artists, political leaders. Yet at a certain point, all these psychological efforts at biography, literary criticism, or the “analysis” of artistic production come upon the very stumbling blocks Freud had the good sense to discuss openly in his Leonardo book. Here, for example, is Dr. Storr, writing about “creativity” over half a century after that book was published:
Man is a creature inescapably, and often unhappily divided; and the divisions within him recurrently impel the use of his imagination to make new syntheses. The creative consequences of his imaginative striving may never make him whole; but they constitute his deepest consolations and his greatest glories.
Always it is trouble, problems, conflicts, “divisions” that generate novels and paintings, or for that matter, the efforts of history’s gifted leaders. A phrase like “impel the use of his imagination” may be an attractive way of putting it, but the cause-and-effect assertion is both utterly clear and utterly unsubstantiated—and the use of such a phrase only serves to show that those of us who are trained to dwell upon psychopathology, to think of people as variants of one or another “psychiatric model” (the anal or oral or phallic “character,” and on and on), are also “impelled” to use our imaginations for certain reasons.
To his credit Kurt Eissler has furthered discussion of this issue substantially:
The question, however, has not been answered, what connection exists between the genius’s psychopathology and his achievements. Psychopathology, in general, is looked upon as defect…. Observation of the genius, however, suggests the possibility that psychopathology is indispensable to the highest achievements of certain kinds.
He then takes the next logical step:
Consequently if what we observed in the genius struck us as neurotic or psychotic or perverse or even criminal, we would then have to reconsider our classification under these accustomed headings. If, for example, an apparently obsessional symptom was indispensable to geniushood…there would be no sense in calling it a neurotic symptom. Whatever the essence of neurosis may be, the concept of neurosis makes sense only when it is correlated with a deficit.
Needless to say, what goes for the genius goes for the near-genius and on down. One has a right to ask the broader question: What connection is there between an ordinary human being’s daily achievements and his psychopathology, or between a psychiatrist’s, a lawyer’s, a politician’s accomplishments and the various emotional upsets he as a human being is bound to have? Open-minded on this issue as Eissler is, he can’t give up the conviction that psychopathology of some kind is a sine qua non of genius. In fact, psychopathology is a sine qua non of life—as Freud among others (Job, Isaiah, St. Paul, not to mention some of those geniuses Eissler mentions) has made quite clear. Why is its presence in anyone, gifted or not, an occasion for surprise, and more than that, aggrandizement—the insistence that other elements in a person’s life are tied to, or are expressions of, or are causatively linked with “deficits” or neurotic developments in childhood or “mechanisms of defense,” such as sublimation?
For some reason it has been psychoanalysts, among psychological theorists, who have been most anxious to study the lives of creative men and women, or of historical figures. Piaget, whose studies of intelligence as it develops over the years might be considered particularly well suited to such studies, has avoided them, perhaps because his speculations always follow from what he has watched and heard, even as Anna Freud has in recent years insisted that “direct observation” ought to precede theoretical formulation and elaboration. Perhaps a scientist like Piaget knows full well that the “variables” that make up a man’s creative life—be it a writer’s or a political leader’s or a psychoanalyst’s—defy the language and concepts of any particular psychological theory.
Anna Freud once referred to “the universally envied gift of creative energy.”3 There is no point in turning that gift into an unapproachable mystery. Scientists have a right to move closer toward any “phenomenon” they happen to find interesting. Nor need such an approach be insulting, abusive, or destructive. The issue is one of evidence—is there enough of it?—but also of motives, as Miss Freud has mentioned; and envy is only one of them. Theorists, like the presidents and dictators they study, can be overcome by ambition and a kind of intellectual aggressiveness that has to be checked by the prudent skepticism of critics.
In this regard, some of Freud’s most valuable discoveries—the nature of “resistance” and the workings of “transference” and “countertransference” in psychoanalytic therapy—have become ironic instruments in the most narrow kind of ideological self-justification. Doubts or misgivings are chalked up to a lack of psychoanalytic experience or sophistication, if not to outright “hostility” or “ambivalence” of one or another kind. This ad hominem tendency obviously undercuts the possibility of any rational argument, except of the kind sanctioned by those who do the thinly disguised name calling.
Even friends can get caught in such intellectual warfare, where sides are taken and one is considered either a friend or a foe. Referring to an interesting and suggestive biography, Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, the editor of a collection of essays called Psychoanalysis and History makes an interpretation of sorts: “Brodie’s review-essay of the Georges’ book about Wilson points up the overtly psychoanalytic aspects of their work, which they felt constrained to conceal in a footnote.”4 The editor himself notes a few sentences later that the book’s subtitle is “A Personality Study.” Furthermore, in an author’s note at the very beginning, even before the table of contents, Alexander and Juliette George acknowledge forth-rightly the influence Harold Lasswell and Nathan Leites had on their study of Wilson’s relationship to his longtime principal adviser. A special “Research Note” discusses that influence for six pages—before the section called “Notes and Bibliography” even begins.
What have they concealed—or rather, why are they described as concealing anything? True, they write as historians. That is to say, they want to examine the psychological quality of a particular president’s involvement with one of his aides, but they also want to move from one point in time to another, and carry their readers with them. In other words, their interests are chronological and narrative as well as psychological. They have a broad view of American political life to present and, just as important, to document convincingly—in a way that will make the reader understand what he is reading and feel satisfied that a sincere effort has been made to start with facts, assemble them into a point of view, and present the latter as that and only that, not as the answer to a “problem.”
No doubt about it, psychoanalytic terminology is avoided by the Georges. We are not told, as we are in Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study by William Bullitt and Sigmund Freud, that “the libido insulated in his [Wilson’s] reaction-formation against his passivity to his father had been without outlet and had reached such a pitch of intensity that it had to break out against someone.” We are told much about Wilson and his father, considerably less but nevertheless much about Colonel House. They found in each other a fateful dovetailing of psychological qualities. Certainly they worked out “neurotic needs” through one another, as we all do, and eventually (when things were going down-hill on other accounts) at each other’s expense. But the Georges can’t seem to forget that the involvement of the two men has to be viewed from other directions: the nature of the presidency, the social and cultural characteristics of a given moment in American history, the particular stresses that wars, accidents, unexpected tragedies (the death of Wilson’s first wife) can bring upon a man’s character and personality, whatever the determinants of childhood that bear down on him, on all of us.
I doubt very much that even the most eager proponent of “applied psychoanalysis,” or one of its contemporary equivalents or closely related “areas” of inquiry, “psycho-history,” would want to change the perspective the Georges have given us. How might they have made their debt to psychoanalysis more explicit? As other historians and essayists have done over the centuries, they have drawn upon knowledge that is available, traditional modes of study or reflection and new modes, and made of it all an exercise in exposition, explanation, and comment.
If they conceal anything from the reader it is any temptation they may have felt to fix static labels on the men they were studying or to come up with sweeping, unqualified statements such as this: “In fact, psychoanalytic theory fully accounts for the observation that no known charismatic leader can be described as a genuine genital character.” 5 Or, “The personality of the charismatic leader can be characterized briefly, since we already indicated that his behavior must conform to childish fantasies about how omnipotent adults behave.”6 Or, with regard to Robespierre: “Unfortunately, the implacable superego coupled with the released sadism and the projective paranoid mechanisms common to the Leader and the masses created the need for further human sacrifices, and thus the Revolution in a truly cannibalistic way devoured its own children.”7
Nor is Robespierre unique: “The psychological truth expressed in this last speech of the doomed leader exceeds his singular case and applies to every revolutionary leader and to every dictator.”8 And later: “Thus Robespierre, like every revolutionary leader, fed on and grew with the support provided by his followers. Yet his ego, after having absorbed all this wrath and aggression, could not help being destroyed in the paranoid process, until finally he himself fell a victim to the wrath he helped to unleash.”9
People wrote like that in the middle 1950s, at exactly the same time the Georges’ book was published, not at the turn of the century, when a particular theory was in its growing pains. For that matter, as recently as 1971 the same determined struggle to find out what it is that makes a man a successful political leader or a gifted novelist was going on—and the same errors of logic were being repeated. In a sensitive and respectful essay on Conrad we are nevertheless told that “although the pregenital mother may be discerned behind Conrad’s attachment to his father, it seems to me crucial that the active struggle with the father figure is at the heart of Conrad’s most successful fiction….”10
The phrase “is at the heart of” may be felicitous and suitably vague—even nicely suggestive. One wonders, though, whether the heart of Conrad’s writing had to do with other matters. He and millions of others have secretly shared the ego “process” in which part of oneself is experienced as “passive” in relation to another, more active and assertive psychological train of events. As for struggles with father figures and pregenital mothers, they figure in everyone’s life: President Nixon’s and Senator Kennedy’s, Joseph Conrad’s and the sad if energetic scribbler located in the back ward of just about every mental hospital, not to mention anyone’s favorite lawyer, teacher, or psychiatrist.
It may be that some men and women are born with a particular kind of neurophysiological equipment that makes them more alert or responsive, as Freud often speculated. It may be that a certain kind of heightened intelligence comes into development among particular boys and girls, along the lines Piaget has described. It may be that certain friends or teachers or events or sets of circumstances have specially touched a life here, another life there—bringing out traits otherwise dormant, initiating perceptions, supplying understanding, furthering awareness.
And as to those mothers and fathers whom we have all learned to approach with such foreboding, perhaps their influence is indeed decisive. Perhaps Leonardo, Conrad, Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi, Zapata or Cesar Chavez, Mao or de Gaulle, slowly learned much from their parents: determination and patience; a capacity for deep attachments or passionate involvements; glimpses into all sorts of things; suspicions about how corrupt a given society is; a store of knowledge; a host of skills or talents; an appreciation of the world’s complexity; encouragement to stretch the imagination; an aptness for words; a sharpness of vision; a readiness to listen or speak in such a way that others listen; a turn of mind that is a bit different; a taste for the nuances of meaning or emotion.
Parents are often enough resented and never forgiven for all their failures of omission or commission. In this century the love they give us, the good and decent intentions they possess and offer to us as something to imitate and make our own, the cultural heritage they hand down—so many facts, so many assumptions, so much that has to do with proficiency and self-assurance and comprehension of the world—all of that somehow is either taken for granted or overlooked in favor of “complexes” of various kinds.
There is, further, a pejorative streak in the language of psychopathology that not only demeans the “object” of description but the writer doing it and his or her “discipline.” There is also a stinginess of spirit in some of the descriptions psychiatrists and psychologists (and those who follow their lead in other disciplines) give to individuals of the most obvious attainments. Which contemporary historians or critics advocate unthinking, reflexive sentiment or glorification? These days the danger comes from quite another direction: Will the application of psychological “insight” to history or the arts be done in such a way as to produce caricatures of human beings—and those only to be turned into proof of some larger generalization about the “laws” that govern the human mind?
Or will one kind of knowledge be called “superficial” simply because it possesses its own richness and complexity of vision—in contrast to another kind of knowledge that somebody else happens to find congenial or happens to be trained to call upon? Or will a book’s manner of organization and language be pushed into intellectual arguments or vendettas that really have nothing to do with what an author has intended?
In the case of the Georges’ book on Wilson, two historians have nicely drawn upon psychoanalytic principles without in any way doing an injustice to their own responsibilities. To imply that they are hiding something out of fear is to be less than fair not only to their profession but to their scholarship. No one would deny that some historians, like some doctors or lawyers or writers, have no use for any effort to look at historical figures from a psychoanalytic perspective—overtly or otherwise. Still, it is absurd at this time for analysts and those interested in “applying” psychoanalysis or developing a “field” called “psychohistory” to imagine themselves embattled, scorned outcasts, neglected on all fronts—rather as Freud and his first followers were.
(The second part of this essay, in which Robert Coles discusses books on Nixon, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther, among others, will appear in the next issue.)
February 22, 1973
Editor’s Note, Volume XI of Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Macmillan, 1964). ↩
The Dynamics of Creation (Atheneum, 1972). ↩
Foreword to Vincent Van Gogh: A Psychological Study by Humberto Nagera (International Universities Press, 1968). ↩
Psychoanalysis and History edited by Bruce Mazlich (Grosset & Dunlap, 1971). ↩
“Charismatic Leadership in Crisis” by George Devereux, in Psychoanalysis and the Social Sciences edited by Warner Muensterberger and Sidney Axelrad (International Universities Press, 1955). ↩
“Dictatorship and Paranoia” by Gustav Bychowski, ibid. ↩
“Joseph Conrad: The Conflict of Command” by Robert Armstrong, in The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, Volume 26 (Quadrangle Books, 1971). ↩