Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud; drawing by David Levine

How It Begun




Barren Women


Robert Burton has set it down in Part. 1, Sect. 3, Memb. 2, Subs. 4 of his Anatomy, with respect to the melancholies of maids, nuns, and widows, in a way unimprovable, thus:

…the most ordinary symptoms be these, a beating about the back, which is almost perpetual, the skin is many times rough, squalid…. The midriff and heartstrings do burn and beat fearfully, and when this vapour or fume is stirred, flieth upward…their faces are inflamed, and red, they are dry, thirsty, suddenly hot, much troubled with wind, cannot sleep, &c. And from hence proceed a brutish kind of dotage, trouble-some sleep, terrible dreams in the night, a foolish kind of bashfulness to some, perverse conceits and opinions, dejection of mind, much discontent, preposterous judgement…now this, now that offends, they are weary of all; yet will not, cannot again tell how, where, or what offends them, though they be in great pain, agony, and frequently complain, grieving, sighing, weeping and discontented still, without any manifest cause….

And with such observations it may have begun: at Charcot’s clinical theater, Brücke’s Physiological Institute, Meynert’s neurological lab, whatever it was: a thought, a therapy, a theory of nervous diseases: in the consulting room, at the bedside, the dissecting table, where gradually whatever It was became Es and Id.

There was the case of Anna O for a start (she threw cushions); there was Frau Emmy von N, who emitted curious clacking sounds like those of the wood grouse, Fräulein Elisabeth von R, then, who slept in her father’s sickroom (the good doctors gave to each a discreet and ladylike letter of the alphabet, an altered place, and a rubbed out year); there was a Miss Lucy R too, one Katharina (otherwise letterless) whom Freud encountered on the summit of a mountain. Fräulein Rosalia H, Frau Cäcilie M, women whose illnesses now enliven patches of our modern faiths and fictions the way the peccadillos of the gods once did, whatever their troubles were.

Yes, whatever these troubles ultimately were, in lives full of sabbaths and sacrifice which nevertheless displayed all the menacing emptiness of abandoned buildings, they were tribulations marked and occasioned by severe anxieties, odd and naughty behavior, hallucinations, facial paralysis, a compulsive cough in some cases, leg pains, loss of breath in others, by unbearable disappointments in love, profound yet groundless feelings of unworthiness, perhaps the persistent odor of burned pudding or noises like Captain Hook’s ticking clock which followed the ear or nose about, embarrassing compulsions, irreparable losses, suspiciously many importunate uncles, frustrations like those of a fly abuzz in the pane of a window, constrictions of every kind, boredom beyond description; and as these symptoms accumulated like trash in a can and Freud waited for them to say where they came from or what they meant, he found among them many of his own queer tics and quirks, the same bugs biting in his own bed.

Hobgoblins—urinary incontinence for one, chronic constipation, migraines, other bugbears and glowghosts, upsetting insecurities about travel combined unwisely with spells of wanderlust, superstitions regarding dangerous dates and fatally significant numbers, as well as wild and sometimes sudden swings of mood—followed him for much of his life.

Freud also had his share of fixed and foolish ideas whose protective function we can now readily see since he himself taught us this kind of alertness: that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford, that there just might be something to Fliess’s nasal theory of sexuality, or to thought transference, and so on. With all Freud’s luminous self-knowledge and characteristic control, he was still of course capable of slips and unintentional epiphanies. Like the muscleman’s ripple, his ability to hate was perhaps too finely developed to be counted a strength, and when he took his theories touring through foreign areas of information, it was sometimes with a bit more ease and arrogance than was altogether wise. Freud’s dislike of Americans was founded as much on guilt and ingratitude as on reasoned judgment, and the book about Woodrow Wilson which he wrote with William Bullitt is oddly and nervously bad.

Freud believed and wrote a lot of twattwaddle, too, and had illusions about the love of mothers for their sons, for example, or of the virgin for her husbandly penetrator. He suffered fits of fainting as well as other similar attacks of anxiety, tobacco addiction, a premature slackening of the sexual urge, and those fairybabes of tombs and graves, as Burton has it: fears for his heart, of open spaces, debilitating illness, death.

It would be too simple to say that Freud was driven into medicine by poverty and to the study of neurological disorders by a dislike of blood, although these were factors. He was, like the psyche, an opportunist. He would make his mark, if not on this tree, then on that wall; if not with claws or teeth, then with penknife and razor.


Freud’s patients, as it happened, weren’t all women or exclusively strangers, but they each had problems picked up at home like lint on a trouser. They suffered from their fathers, their brothers—from family, the repeated scuff of culture—the way miners do from black lung, because the job of being a son or a daughter in our day has never been easy, no one is born for it, not everyone is up to it, there’s nothing about it in the genes. Unlike the enervating injuries of poverty and economic exploitation which occupied the mind of Marx, these were illnesses of education and economic ease—cases of parlor scent and sofa sickness—not that money didn’t matter to the middle class or penis envy occur among the proletariat, but only the Unconscious of the relatively well-to-do could afford to equate shit so simply with gold and silver.

There were the thoughtful exchanges with Breuer, the letters to Fliess, &c, but there was no one who could help Freud draw the remarkable parallels between his patients and himself which were so essential to his own analysis; there was no one who could hypnotize him or put a palm upon his brow or order his eyes to close and his mind to associate and conjure. He had his deep stubbornness and courage, of course, and his almost perfectly formulated ambitions, to drive and guide him, while his fierce delight in opposition, and the compulsion then to overcome every obstacle, would supply his theories with many of their central concepts.

Freud had the hero’s need to be self-made to such an extraordinary degree he replaced his father first with Fliess and finally with himself.1 Will and work were his personal gods. Weakness was for others. His attitude toward suicides was severe, even brutal, and although he believed, and had chewed many a cigar while endeavoring to prove it, that character was inescapable and frequently fatal, he was often exasperated by the fact that people would not simply pull themselves together and behave like free, disciplined, and purposeful adults.2 Soon he thought he’d seen every kind of frailty and failing, and understood a good many of their causes, nevertheless he really could not approve of his patients, or even the talented students and supporters who spanieled about him later, and his opinion of mankind grew progressively poorer as a consequence.

In the development of psychoanalysis, Freud’s literary skills and interests, peculiar as they were, are not to be discounted either, for he saw everything extraordinarily as if it were taking place in a book, and in the same way his Jewish heritage touched everything he touched. He had the precise Jewish instinct, HD says, “for the particular in the general, for the personal in the impersonal or universal, for the material in the abstract….” Deutero-Isaiah had had the wit to interpret the plight of the Jewish people in terms of a determining history and Freud would do the same. The past was a parent, and he was fully mindful of every begetting, so he admired in the little antique figures he collected the appearance of something perfect from the past which was also perfectly expressive of its period, an object recovered from the burials of time the way his interpretative techniques made ancient artifacts uncave themselves like bears from an early earth-fold.

There were in addition—never secondarily—philosophical presuppositions which varied very little through a lifetime; philosophical ambitions he sometimes cautiously hid, and certainly discouraged in others, but would uncover under comfortable conditions.

Freud has published some scientific papers, unwisely advocated the use of cocaine,3 translated Mill, persuaded Breuer to write with him a work on Anna O and the others, when he writes in the present tense to Fliess as follows:

I see that you are using the circuitous route of medicine to attain your first ideal, the physiological understanding of man, while I secretly nurse the hope of arriving by the same route at my own original objective, philosophy. For that was my original ambition, before I knew what I was intended to do in the world.4

And now at forty, having begun at this symbolic age his own self-analysis, and just completed the impressive Project for a Scientific Psychology (though eventually it will be cannibalized and banished), Freud has the necessary data warmly under his belt like a wholesome English pie; he is no longer a mere sense-struck boy but a man of analytic enterprise who is ready for smartly stepped formations, ordering and philosophy.


It is at an exactly similar breath in life that Thomas Hobbes, with whom Freud will share matter, motion, reason, cause, some first principles, and certainly the ideal of a unity of science, glancing through Euclid, cries out, “My G—, this is impossible!” only to be persuaded otherwise when he tracks the offending proposition back to its grounds.

When he is seventy-seven, Freud’s spectacles are black round lines against his pale beard, face, and head; cancer has bitten through his lip and robbed him of his public eloquence; but the tense remains present though the task is past when he says to HD one day during her analysis:

My discoveries are not primarily a heal-all. My discoveries are a basis for a very grave philosophy. There are very few who understand this, there are very few who are capable of understanding this.5

There is no question that Freud used philosophical language loosely, and that, for example, he was apt to describe thoughts’ functional dependence upon the brain (a condition far closer to epiphenomenalism, the belief that consciousness is a material by-product of the behavior of the body) as if it were really a case of psychophysical parallelism (the notion that mind and matter run on independent but fortunately synchronous tracks).6 He drew, in an undisciplined way, from everything that struck him, and many of his sources were derivative. He was one, as Henry James had hoped for his heroines and himself, on whom little was lost, and so from the beginning the theory which would eventually emerge from all his endeavors would be the consequence of a veritable synagogue of causes, including the fact that like Nietzsche he grew up surrounded by women, an eldest son with five sisters; that his first competitor was slain by omnipotent wish at eight months, while the arrival of others, always threatened, was put off ten years, every growl followed only by girls, until he was able to name his ultimate brother, calmly, Alexander. Instead he took a nephew for his sibling rival.

As in a fine poem, so in a creative and productive life, relevance is the rule: he once incontinently peed in his parents’ room and was informed by his father that on this account he would surely amount to nothing; he was forty and halfway to his own death when this father died (again that fatal age); he played catch up and get even, had heroes like Hannibal and Leonardo, Moses and Napoleon, was Viennese, knew Mach, read Schnitzler, and attended the lectures of Franz Brentano.

Then inside Freud’s female melancholics, who were, as Burton had said, “cholerick, and soon hot, solitary, sad, often silent, watchful, discontent,” there were the actual cortical lines, the wrinkled fruit in the skull, and somehow active within these lines energies of an electrical kind passing to and fro, accumulating as a battery does, discharging sometimes with considerable zap, or influencing neighboring areas like urban blight, the rise around a wound, cathecting, magnetizing maybe, establishing fields…how or why or what wasn’t then clear, nor is it now.

Still, a lesion could be seen and studied. The damage was visible, like flaking paint. Freud’s patients put on behavior that was particularly nervewracking and upside-down. Their bodies were booths in an exhibition hall where nothing was immediately for sale. When an ordinary cold compels the chest to squeeze air through its throat like the bulbous honk of a horn, the victim’s feelings are caused by that closing chest and forceful cough; they are centered on that throat and nose. Such sicknesses obey the geography of the body. They understand and are respectful of anatomy.

However, the illnesses Freud grew concerned about were those in which the behavior of the body became expressive and symbolic in a way no measle ever was, or runny nose, so that an hysterical paralysis might define an arm by means of the shape and limits of a sleeve. The infection, in short, was that of an idea, not common germ or fancy virus. A thought had invaded the body. Anna O, Dora later, the Wolf and Rat men, were cases in which the puzzling (perhaps impossible) meeting of mind and body had been so rudely and raucously announced, and had taken place with such sordid and raunchy results, that all the skid-and-squeamy issues of ontology seemed to solidify inside them like grease in a cold pan. Was it like the noisy mating and scratch of cats, or a holler across a chasm, this connection? Beckett’s man astride his bike? independently orbiting satellites? romantic strife or classical harmony? the apparently purposeless flutter of a thousand bats, for example, or something like the gargle made by turbulence in pipes? Whatever the eventual outcome, I daresay since the Greeks no discipline which aimed to become a science began with data so outrageously metaphysical.

It aimed to become a science, yet if there was a target which the phallic arrow of analysis fell no way near, it was this one. It is even likely that psychoanalysis ended more metaphysically than it began. Freud knew, of course, that the territory was strange. He knew that his theories would meet with irrational resistance. He wanted his work credited with being truly observant, yet what he saw was not a half of what he heard, and the subject of his science soon became the story in the voice, in reported scenes of nightmare and daydream, in what could be inferred from his patients’ feelings about words and their inadvertent play with language, the total history of a case…eros through logos…by the light of the sun to find the entrance to the cave. Since his reports would seem bizarre, his “situations” delicate, the analyst’s behavior had to be severely objective, his aims rigorously professional, his mind tough, his facts hard. He had to say “science” fiercely and firmly, firmly and loudly, loudly and often. And since he was a doctor, he had to cure. And since he was a husband and a householder (so surely a “he”), he had to be paid.

Nevertheless, the therapeutic success of psychoanalysis has been dubious; its empirical base remains weak; its testability is nearly nil; its openness to quantification, despite Freud’s early predilections, is precisely that of the latched lid. In addition, it has remained suspiciously tied to its founders, and has shattered like a clumsy beaker into faddy camps of every conceivable Californucopial kind, rival schools whose appearance could have been anticipated if Freudianism had been perceived as a philosophical or religious undertaking instead of a scientific one.7

But no real science cares to remain so culture-bound and value-laden. There’s none which delights in cultist spin-off either. Analysis has felt too national, too personal—too remedial—too racial, even, to its followers, in whom it has provoked a passionate interest in orthodoxy, and from whom we have received volumes of gossip principally about the passage of power and the true chain of leadership. I think one can reasonably doubt the scientific status of a theory it feels so good to believe. Whatever it once was or was meant to be, Freudianism is now no more a psychology than Marxism is an economics.8

In the midst of the master’s own misdirections, the cries of plagiarism and betrayal, charges of heresy, simony, and lewdness, occasional canonizations and frequent courts of excommunication, the capture of the theory by literary critics,9 mentalists, and religious mountebanks, the promises of cure and countercure, as though the analyst’s office were Lourdes, the anti-Semitic insinuations, the creamy work of the popularizers…after the parlor games, clever seductions, the jokes…it was difficult indeed to get one’s bearings, hear a single sane word, perceive a great philosopher inside that medicine man, messiah, and mischief-maker, who seemed to some the ultimate Asclepian, a miraculous cathartic in human spoon, a god made of good gritty soap, while to others he seemed equally an arch-defiler, sick Jew, god poisoner—the thick and sticky dirt itself.

(This is the first part of a three-part article.)

This Issue

April 17, 1975