Freud: The Man and the Cause
“Biographical truth,” Freud wrote to Arnold Zweig, “is not to be had.” The truth of a life, he seemed to imply, would always slip away under the biographer’s gaze, for where is such truth embodied and how is it confirmed? It can hardly be captured by cataloguing the meals eaten, the homes inhabited, the beliefs and constructions of the intellect, or the reports from colleagues, friends, passers-by. Moreover, the biographer is bound up in the truth he finds. Freud warned Zweig against writing an account of his life: “Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding.” In his own biographical essay on Leonardo da Vinci (a “fiction,” he called it) he writes, “Biographers are fixated on their heroes in a quite special way.” They idealize or degrade—not only their subject but themselves. The biography, Freud implied elsewhere, may contain all the conflicts and confusions of an analytic session.
Arnold Zweig heeded Freud’s advice. Many since have not. Ronald Clark, the author of a fine biography of Albert Einstein and respected works on Bertrand Russell and the Huxleys, has managed to avoid many of the pitfalls which Freud foresaw and to which his earlier biographers have succumbed. In fact, in this sober and restrained account of the life. Clark finds beneath the exotic theories a man of “worldlywise common sense,” a common sense in which this biography participates.
This achievement is all the more noteworthy in view of the intoxicated or infuriated reactions Freud has often inspired in the past, including lies, hypocrisy, flattery, lack of understanding, and of course concealment. Freud’s daughter has reportedly exercised a veto power over certain biographical studies, and misleading excisions have been made from the published correspondence. The classic example of a pioneering and invaluable biography that fell prey both honestly and dishonestly to all the dangers of what an analyst would call “transference” is the three-volume work of Ernest Jones. He claimed to have “worked through” his “hero-worshipping propensities” before meeting Freud, but Clark quotes from a letter Jones wrote to Freud (now stored in the Jones archives): “I owe my career, my livelihood, my position, and my capacity of happiness in marriage—in short, everything—to you and the work you have done.” Under such indebtedness, biographical truth is bound to be concealed; it is difficult to imagine, for example, the “serene and benign” Freud that Jones sees in the later years. One does not write objectively about one’s psychoanalytical mentor.
It is also difficult to write about his theories; Freud’s life is intimately tied to his “scientific” work. Newton’s psychological vagaries will always be less important than his results, and Einstein’s personality, however intriguing, will never overshadow his theories. But Freud’s results, he himself insisted, came not only from observation but from introspection. The richest examples in The Interpretation of Dreams…
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