On the title page of Peter Gay’s Freud is a drawing of Oedipus contemplating the riddle of the Sphinx, an appropriate emblem for the biography of a man bent on understanding life’s great enigmas. Gay sees this characteristic as a unifying thread in Freud’s life: “The only thing that gave him peace when he was in the grip of a riddle was to find its solution.” He emphasizes, as did Ernest Jones, the importance of Freud’s own puzzling family constellation, with half brothers the age of his mother and a nephew who was a year older than himself. “Such childhood conundrums left deposits that Freud repressed for years and would only recapture through dreams and laborious self-analysis.”

Within Gay’s book, the drawing of Oedipus and the Sphinx reappears as a kind of logo marking the separate parts of each chapter, leading the way as this quality led the way in Freud’s development. The many hours spent studying the Moses of Michelangelo revealed “Freud the compulsive researcher, who was not at liberty to refuse the solicitations of a puzzle once it possessed him.” Of his efforts to unlock the secrets of hysteria, Gay observes that “judging from the cases he presented in Studies on Hysteria, he made learning from his patients a kind of program.” Freud is seen as a careful scientist who studies the evidence relentlessly until a solution becomes evident.

As his subtitle suggests, Gay puts great emphasis on Freud’s life. Freud’s ideas and writings are extensively discussed, but the picture of how he actually lived his life emerges in these pages with particular force. In describing the privation of the postwar years, after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Gay writes:

The condition of Freud himself, and of his immediate family,…was rather forlorn. Preoccupation with sheer survival came to dominate his life, and his correspondence, for two years and more. Food in Vienna was no less unpalatable or inadequate, heating materials were no less unobtainable, than they had been during the last two years of the war. The government tightly rationed all necessities.

He shows Freud’s resourcefulness in dealing with these problems:

At one point, Freud wrote a paper for a Hungarian periodical and asked to be paid not in money but in potatoes; the editor, who lived in Vienna, carried them to Berggasse 19 on his shoulders.

Gay’s portrait of Freud draws on a truly impressive accumulation of new archival materials and considerably enlarges our understanding of Freud’s life. This is particularly true of Freud’s middle and later years, where Gay relies on unpublished documents from the Freud Museum in London, the Freud Collection of the Library of Congress, and other important collections, in describing the establishment of the psychoanalytic movement and its subsequent stormy history. For the most part, his treatment of this highly controversial subject is even-handed, despite his clear sympathy for Freud in the various disputes with his early psychoanalytic colleagues.

Gay traces the psychoanalytic movement from its Viennese beginnings, where the Wednesday Society was founded in 1902, through its transformation in 1908 into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society and on into the later period, when it became a truly international movement. As he proceeds, he gives brief and often sharp accounts of the early analysts and their relations with Freud. Of Sándor Ferenczi he writes:

But Ferenczi proved a problematic acquisition. His most powerful, and debatable, contributions to analysis were in technique. They were so powerful and so debatable in large part because they grew visibly from his extraordinary gift for empathy, his capacity for expressing and eliciting love. Unfortunately, Ferenczi’s eagerness to give was only matched by, and the pendant to, his hunger to receive. In his relations with Freud, this meant boundless idealization and a craving for an intimacy that Freud, disillusioned after the calamitous fate of his affection for Fliess, was quite unwilling to grant.

When he deals with the followers with whom Freud eventually quarreled, such as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Wilhelm Stekel, and describes how their personal failings exacerbated these disputes, Gay does not neglect Freud’s own weaknesses. Quoting a passage from one of Freud’s letters in which he declared that he would “never imitate Jung’s brutality,” Gay observes, “The disclaimer would have been more telling if Freud had been less savage in his own correspondence.” Gay counters the suggestion that Freud was unable to form and maintain close friendships by pointing to a number of lasting relationships—for example with Ernest Jones—but he recognizes that Freud had his own quirks of personality, among them particularly a tendency at first to form intense brotherly relations he could not sustain, which made continuing friendship difficult.

The strikingly defensive attitude characteristic of Freud and the early adherents of the psychoanalytic movement, and their tendency to form an exclusive, largely Jewish in-group, also emerge clearly in Gay’s account. He writes of Ernest Jones:


Virtually the only gentile in Freud’s intimate circle, Jones was at once outsider and insider. Storing up Jewish jokes and Jewish turns of phrase with his customary verve, he made himself into a kind of honorary Jew who fitted almost if not quite seamlessly into the relatively closed, defensive psychoanalytic culture in Vienna and Berlin.

Freud came to see the overwhemingly Jewish composition of his early circle as a danger to psychoanalysis, for it made the movement vulnerable to anti-Semitic attack. His attempts to guard against this danger had important repercussions for the early history of the movement. This was certainly a factor in Freud’s troubled relationship with Jung. Gay writes that “Freud did not just exploit him as a respectable gentile facade behind which Jewish psychoanalysts could do their revolutionary work” (my italics), and there can be no doubt from Gay’s account that Jung’s Christian background was an important factor in Freud’s fateful decision to make him president of the International Psychoanalytic Association.

This decision led to acrimonious disputes within the movement, and it presented Freud with serious problems when he later broke with Jung. Eugen Bleuler, another of the Swiss analysts whom Freud temporarily won over, offers eloquent testimony to the ill effects of Freud’s defensiveness. When he resigned from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1911 he told Freud: “This ‘who is not for us is against us,’…this ‘all or nothing’ is in my opinion necessary for religious communities and useful for political parties. There I can understand the principle as such, but for science I consider it harmful.” Gay does not adequately explain the origins of such defensiveness on Freud’s part, but he recognizes and clearly describes the effects of Freud’s “all or nothing” approach.

Gay brings to his treatment of Freud the results of his own extensive psychoanalytic training, the benefits of which are evident throughout his book, particularly in the chapter “Therapy and Technique,” where Gay examines the classic case studies of Freud’s middle years, and gives instructive descriptions of such important patients as Little Hans, the Wolf Man, and the Rat Man. Since the real identities of these patients have now been discovered, we can compare the details provided in Freud’s accounts with the historical information we have about their lives, and get a more realistic picture of Freud’s work with his patients. In the case of the Rat Man, who was first identified as Ernst Lanzer by Patrick J. Mahony in Freud and the Rat Man (1986), Gay writes:

The case had everything in its favor. Ernst Lanzer, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, struck Freud from the first meeting as clearheaded and shrewd. He was also entertaining; he told his analyst amusing stories and presented him with an apposite quotation from Nietzsche about the power of pride over memory which Freud happily quoted more than once.

Gay also brings his psychoanalytic training to bear on Freud himself, offering insights into important emotional relationships in his life. This is sometimes done tentatively in footnotes, but Gay also deals directly with such central and obscure issues as Freud’s relationship with his strong-willed and energetic mother. Freud was much more open about his father, and Gay argues that “there is no evidence that Freud’s systematic self-scrutiny touched on this weightiest of attachments, or that he ever explored, and tried to exorcise, his mother’s power over him.” Gay explores some of the consequences of Freud’s reticence, and he offers plausible readings of Freud’s late papers on female sexuality and femininity as reflecting Freud’s own unresolved feelings about his mother.

That Freud adored his mother but was reluctant to examine his ambivalent relations with her is certainly of interest in helping to explain his views about women generally. Gay notes,

By the early 1920s, Freud seemed to have adopted the position that the little girl is a failed boy, the grown woman a kind of castrated man.

He describes sympathetically the efforts of such early analysts as Karen Horney and Ernest Jones to challenge this view, and he tries to explain Freud’s stubborn adherence to his position by tracing the evolution of his theory. His views of women, Gay writes, “followed from his puzzling through of theoretical difficulties, in particular from new complications he introduced into his account of the Oedipus complex, its emergence, flowering, and decay.” Here one feels that Gay might have had more to say about how Freud’s relation to his mother helps to explain his concentration on the Oedipus complex and his relative neglect of the earlier development of infants in relation to their mothers.


Gay’s knowledge of psychoanalysis is also valuable as he attempts to sort out the long and complex development of Freud’s theory, particularly in his treatment of Freud’s “late psychoanalytic system, with its stress on aggression and death.” Referring to Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Gay writes:

This slim volume, and its two successors [Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and The Ego and the Id], demonstrate why he could not publish [his] much-announced, much-postponed book on metapsychology. He had complicated and modified his ideas too much. Not least of all, they had not had enough about death in them—or, more precisely, he had not integrated what they had to say about death into his theory.

Gay takes note of the old theory that the emphasis on death in Beyond the Pleasure Principle reflected the death of Freud’s daughter Sophie in 1920, and he reaffirms Freud’s own position that the work was completed in 1919 when she was still healthy. Gay traces the origins of Freud’s idea of the death instinct to his own early “death wishes against his little brother, his hostile oedipal feelings against his father,” and other early experiences. He also considers the possible impact of World War I on this shift in Freud’s theory, but following Freud’s own statements he concludes that its influence was minor:

The war, he insisted with some justice over and over, had not created the interest of psychoanalysis in aggression; rather, it had only confirmed what analysts had been saying about aggression all along.

Why then did Freud take so long to give the forces of aggression the place they eventually had in his system? Here Gay’s answer seems inadequate. Before that time, “Freud had simply not been ready.” Gay’s attempt to show that the theory of a death instinct had been anticipated in Freud’s earlier work is convincing, but he is much less plausible in dismissing the possible effects of historical circumstances. “While the appalling daily display of human beastliness sharpened Freud’s reformulations,” he writes, “his reclassification of the drives owed far more to problems internal to psychoanalytic theory.”

Indeed the treatment of the relationship between psychoanalysis and history is one of Gay’s most serious weaknesses. For all the historical detail he provides, history remains a largely neutral backdrop to the developments that take place. In describing the setting of Freud’s life and work, Gay borrows from his own previous study, The Bourgeois Experience: From Victoria to Freud.1 Situating Freud in a broadly conceived European bourgeois society, Gay describes how he grew up, married, and pursued his profession according to middle-class values and expectations, and much is made of his being “bourgeois.” Of Freud’s reservations about the enfranchisement of women, Gay writes, “Like other conventional bourgeois of his day, Freud made much of the difference between the sexes.” His relationship with his wife reflected this view: “Martha Freud was the complete bourgeoise. Loving and efficient with her family, she was weighed down by an unremitting sense of her calling to domestic duty.” Freud’s bourgeois mentality is also invoked, without any direct evidence, to explain his hesitation about espousing his early seduction theory, the belief that hysteria could always be traced back to actual incidents of sexual molestation in early life. Gay writes, “To be sure, the conviction had been hardwon; as a good bourgeois, Freud had adopted it only after overcoming strong inner resistances to such a notion.”

While Gay’s emphasis on the cosmopolitan, bourgeois character of Freud’s life seems a plausible reading of his later years, it neglects the important emotional and intellectual legacy of the German nationalism of his youth. Gay does not mention it, but Freud became politically committed to nationalist views during his adolescence, and he retained this outlook as a student at the University of Vienna, where he belonged for many years to a German nationalist student society that espoused radical views. The young Freud’s enthusiasm for German politics and culture during a key period of his intellectual development has no place, however, in Gay’s essentially ahistorical thesis that “Freud could have developed his ideas in any city endowed with a first-rate medical school and an educated public large and affluent enough to furnish him with patients.” Gay tends to discount not only Freud’s early political views and his Viennese background, but, as we shall see, also his Jewish heritage and his early philosophical interests in the psychology of religion, in favor of a narrow emphasis on the more purely scientific aspects of his education and world view.

Gay recognizes that the scientific status of psychoanalysis has often been challenged, and this is one of the many controversies regarding Freud’s life and work to which he draws attention in his preface:

Was Freud the scientific positivist he claimed to be, or was he, rather, principally indebted to the cloudy speculations of the romantics or to Jewish mysticism?

Gay believes he was a scientific positivist. He discusses many other controversies involving Freud’s personal and professional life: his supposed middle-aged love affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays (which Gay tends to doubt took place); the question of his addiction to cocaine; what he called his “homosexual” feelings for Wilhelm Fliess; his abandonment of the seduction theory, among others. Perhaps because he wants to avoid intimidating readers with the thicket of controversy surrounding Freud, Gay chooses not to discuss views on such issues that differ from his own. He writes,

In the text itself, I do not argue with anyone: I have taken positions on the contentious issues that continue to divide commentators on Freud and on psychoanalysis, but have not sketched the itinerary leading to my conclusions.

Readers who wish to pursue the controversies over Freud can consult an appended “extensive and argumentative bibliographical essay, which should enable them to discover the reasons for the stands I have taken, and to find materials presenting rival opinions.”

While this strategy may seem responsible and evenhanded, it has serious disadvantages. In giving his opinion on various controversial issues Gay refuses to confront the evidence presented by opposing positions, whether in his text or in his long and often useful bibliographical essay. There he cites rival views and briefly mentions his points of agreement or disagreement with each, but rarely considers specific questions. In discussing the extensive literature on the scientific status of Freud’s theories, for example, Gay writes,

The most formidable among the skeptics, who has made the credibility of Freudian science (or lack of it) into an obsessive concern for a decade, is the philosopher Adolf Grünbaum; he has summed up his researches in The Foundations of Psychoanalysis: A Philosophical Critique (1984).

Gay then provides a series of references to works that attempt to counter Grünbaum’s arguments, and notes that one benefit of Grünbaum’s “polemic is that it disposes of Karl Popper’s argument, long thought (by many) irrefutable, that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, since its propositions cannot be disconfirmed.” But the reader is given no sense whatever of Grünbaum’s own extensive arguments against the claims of psychoanalysis to be a science. If Grünbaum is the most formidable opponent of psychoanalysis on an issue central to Gay’s view of Freud, his arguments call for more explicit and objective discussion by Gay himself.

Gay’s reluctance to deal directly with the evidence and arguments of opposing positions is troubling. When he writes, for example, that Freud and Martha took cocaine together during their engagement, he immediately adds, “There is no evidence, though, that she (or, for that matter, her fiancé) ever acquired the habit.” Yet on the following page he says that Freud continued to use cocaine and to dream about it for more than a decade (between the mid-1880s and the late 1890s). Some might see that statement as the very evidence that Gay has just said did not exist, but he does not address it.


Gay seems intent on presenting Freud’s development of psychoanalysis as the result of a purely scientific pursuit of truth, isolated from any external influences: he declares that “the origins of psychoanalysis…are untouched by his historical situation” (his italics), and he holds this extreme opinion against strong contrary evidence. Since his essays collected in A Godless Jew concentrate on this issue, their more argumentative style provides an opportunity for testing Gay’s evidence and logic on an issue of fundamental importance to both books.

Gay’s title is taken from a question Freud put to his friend, the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister, in a 1918 letter: “Quite by the way, why did none of the devout create psychoanalyis? Why did one have to wait for a completely godless Jew?” Freud’s question suggests that both his rejection of religion and his Jewishness had a part in his creation of psychoanalysis, but Gay attempts to prove the former while contesting the latter. Gay can accept Freud’s religious skepticism as part of his commitment to a scientific approach, but to admit that Jewishness had a part would tie psychoanalysis to the historical situation of its founder.

To support his position, Gay tries to deal with a great many different opinions regarding the place of religion and of Jewishness in Freud’s life and work. Not-withstanding Freud’s direct opposition of psychoanalytic theory to religious belief, believers such as Pfister attempted to find common ground between religion and psychoanalysis. Gay convincingly shows that Freud was impatient with such efforts: “For Freud…, the common ground that some had discovered between psychoanalysis and faith was a swampy, treacherous bog in which both must sink.”

More troublesome to Gay are arguments that psychoanalysis itself is a kind of religion or that it was significantly influenced by religion, two very different issues that are sometimes confounded. Of the argument that psychoanalysis was a surrogate religion, Gay observes,

It is only too tempting to describe Freud as the pontiff of psychoanalysis,…the fundamental principles informing psychoanalysis as its articles of faith, Freud’s disputes with Jung and Adler as heresy trials, and the defectors themselves as apostates. Indeed, Freud’s critics have applied these metaphors with barely suppressed smiles of triumph.

Gay cites a number of hostile critics as examples, among them Camilla M. Anderson and H.C. Philp, and he has no difficulty showing they were unfair to Freud.

But Gay’s task is complicated by Freud’s own frequent use of religious language or metaphors to describe his work.

Freud was trapped by his gift for vivid metaphor. He appealed to his “god logos” and scattered other terms borrowed from theology through his voluminous writings. As a medical student, he glorified “our most modern saints, like Darwin, Haeckel, etc.”

In fact Freud’s allusive language is frequently revealing and helps to fill out the meaning and the emotional mood of his statements; and a “secret message,” as Gay puts it, is often made apparent by the context of the images he used. For example, Freud’s comment about “our most modern saints” came from his description of a lecture on Feuerbach, to whom he referred as “this man whom I honor and admire more than any other philosopher,” and he went on to praise the lecturer, as well, expressing his joy “at having such a staunch fighter for our truths.”2

To Gay, however, these are only “metaphors,” although he concedes, “it is admittedly risky to suggest that Freud’s energetic and effective similes—Freud’s of all people’s—have no secret message to convey.”

Ludwig Feuerbach, one of the most radical thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century, was famous for a view of religion that anticipated in its essentials Freud’s later treatment of religious belief as a projection of inner emotional needs. Freud’s image of “our most modern saints” appropriately plays on the parallel between the religious and the secular so central to Feuerbach’s thought, and the reference to Feuerbach as a fighter for “our” truths conveys the mood of enthusiasm associated with Freud’s sense of himself as part of a movement that was self-consciously substituting secular meaning for religious meaning. Gay discusses Freud’s early interest in Feuerbach elsewhere, but his failure to mention the specifically Feuerbachian context of this passage obscures the fact that Freud’s use of a religious image reflects the struggle with religion that was so important to him.

Unfortunately, Gay follows Jones and Siegfried Bernfeld, the early Freud scholar on whom Jones often relied, in playing down the significance of Freud’s strong interest in philosophy during his college years. Gay mentions but makes little use of the new evidence provided by Freud’s still unpublished letters to his high school friend, Eduard Silberstein, which show Freud’s lively and continuing interest in the issues raised by his teacher, the philosopher Franz Brentano. Freud took no fewer than five courses from this charismatic professor, whose dualistic approach to psychological investigation emphasized the importance of combining the evidence of external physical phenomena with evidence gained from the investigating scientist’s perceptions of his own inner psychological processes. Freud employed this dualistic approach in much of his most important work, most notably in his self-analysis, and although Gay notes that Brentano’s “psychological writings left significant deposits in Freud’s mind,” he then goes on to treat this philosophical interest as a passing phase which soon became irrelevant.

Freud’s work with Brentano, which concentrated on the relationship between psychology and religion, pointed directly toward issues of central importance to his later discoveries. In one of Freud’s college letters to Silberstein he describes the powerful impact on him of Brentano’s thought in opening up new fields of psychological investigation, mentioning among other examples of exotic mental phenomena the case of a certain Louise Lateau. This devout young Belgian woman seemed to be a living example of a Christian miracle; while experiencing mystic visions of the Crucifixion, she herself displayed stigmata, bleeding from the places on the body where Christ was wounded.

The miraculous interpretation of these events was challenged by D.M. Bourneville, a close associate of the famous French psychiatrist J.M. Charcot. Bourneville argued that Louise Lateau was actually a hysteric whose strange symptoms could be explained scientifically. Freud’s comment of 1875, ten years before he went to Paris to study hysteria under Charcot, thus represents the first evidence of his interest in hysteria. That he wrote about this interest in connection with Brentano suggests the importance of the philosopher in Freud’s development, and it also provides an example of the way Freud’s sense of being in competition with religion could impel him to concentrate on particular psychological phenomena. The belief in the miraculous seemed to be a weak point in the religious mentality, and subjects like hysteria offered an opportunity for science to strike at the foundations of religion. Gay fully appreciates Freud’s antagonism to religion, but he fails to show how it could have shaped his specific psychological interests.

By isolating the development of psychoanalysis from the historical situation of its founder, Gay tries to clear the way for seeing it as pure science, and in discounting philosophical or religious influences he serves the same aim. Unfortunately, he does so at the cost of ignoring important evidence about the intellectual environment within which Freud’s interest in the psychological first emerged. For example, when Gay describes Freud and his teachers Ernst Brücke and Theodor Meynert as hard-headed scientific positivists, he neglects an important part of their thinking. In the Vienna medical school of this period, scientific positivism was often combined with elements of the German idealist tradition, as in the case of Meynert, who frequently drew on Kant and Schopenhauer in introducing his lectures on brain anatomy. Gay rightly emphasizes Freud’s debt to the French Enlightenment and its positivist heritage, but this needs to be balanced by a consideration of his debt to the culture of the late German Enlightenment, with its deep interest in the interrelationship of religion, philosophy, and psychology.

One of Gay’s hardest problems in arguing for a purely scientific pedigree for psychoanalysis is to explain why Freud, and many of those closest to him, so often linked psychoanalysis to Jewishness in their comments or images. The question Freud put to Pfister about why psychoanalysis was discovered by a godless Jew implies such a link. Moreover there is the awkward fact that Anna Freud not only accepted the description of psychoanalysis as a “Jewish science” but indeed proclaimed it to be “a title of honor.” Gay’s attempt to explain away this statement is not at all convincing, and even if one puts her comment aside as a rhetorical flourish, there are other examples showing the importance of Freud’s relation to Judaism, not least the comments of Freud himself in his preface to the Hebrew translation of Totem and Taboo, in which he refers to

the emotional position of an author who is ignorant of the language of holy writ, who is completely estranged from the religion of his fathers—as well as from every other religion—and who cannot take a share in nationalist ideals, but who has yet never repudiated his people, who feels that he is in his essential nature a Jew and who has no desire to alter that nature. If the question were put to him: “Since you have abandoned all these common characteristics of your countrymen, what is there left to you that is Jewish?” He would reply: “A very great deal, and probably its very essence.” He could not now express that essence clearly in words; but someday, no doubt, it will become accessible to the scientific mind.

Gay fails to appreciate the importance of this comment and he does not take adequate account of the work of such scholars as Dennis Klein, whose well-documented book, Jewish Origins of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1981), contains important evidence that Gay never confronts. Klein shows, for example, how the establishment of the Wednesday Psychological Society was in certain ways prefigured by Freud’s participation in the Vienna B’nai B’rith lodge from 1897 to 1902. Freud used the lodge as a forum for presenting and discussing his psychological theories, and several of the lodge members whom he had recruited later went on to join the Society. Freud’s involvement in a Jewish cultural organization that grew considerably in size in response to the spread of anti-Semitism, moreover, seems highly relevant to the defensiveness of the early psychoanalytic movement and to the issue of its Jewishness. In his bibliography Gay declares, “Though I find Klein’s thesis, summarized in the title, unacceptable, I have found much of value in his material.” Gay frequently offers this sort of summary evaluation of opposing scholarly opinions without making any attempt to evaluate the specific evidence of the studies he discusses; and this has the appearance of being an arbitrary rejection of inconvenient evidence.

Those who see a relationship between Freud’s early religious background and his ideas have an unambiguous statement by Freud himself to back them up. In his Autobiographical Study, Freud writes, “My deep engrossment in the Bible story (at a time almost before I had learnt the art of reading) had as I recognized much later, an enduring effect upon the direction of my interest.”3 In the assimilationist atmosphere of Jacob Freud’s household, the Jewish religious tradition took on an aspect highly congenial to what we think of as Freud’s later interests. The religious teacher to whom he was sent thought it important to make the biblical figures come alive in the minds of the young, so that they could provide models for life, and Freud’s enduring fascination with such figures as Joseph and Moses reflects the success of this approach.

Moreover, the editor of the Bible he read as a child, Ludwig Philippson, was steeped in the culture of the late German Enlightenment, and in his commentary he drew heavily on this tradition. Philippson regularly put forward anthropological or psychological insights to explain the miraculous elements of the story and render them acceptable to rational understanding. This commentary provided the young Freud with the first impetus toward what proved to be a lifelong interest in the psychology of religion, and it introduced him to a psychological mode of analysis on which he built in his later enthusiasm for Feuerbach.

Gay dismisses the importance of the young Freud’s religious instruction, arguing that Freud’s father Jacob,

who did know Hebrew, was no more religious for all that. He had married…in a Reform ceremony and had, in the course of years, shed virtually all traces of religious observance. He continued to celebrate Passover and to read the Bible—in Hebrew—but that was all. He had his son circumcised, yet there is no evidence that Freud had even a trace of religious instruction at home.”

Gay considers the issue too narrowly, and he exaggerates the secular atmosphere of the young Freud’s home. For example, in an 1873 letter, Freud wrote that he and his sisters performed at home a theatrical piece for Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from massacre by Haman. Freud was almost seventeen at the time. He told his friend that Purim “fell on the—to all of us holy—13th of March, on which of course Caesar was also murdered.”4 Freud was in error about the date, but the Ides of March was a “holy” day to the aspiring political radical, who felt it appropriate to proclaim his belief in freedom and opposition to tyranny on a day devoted to the suffering of the Jews under a tyrant, Haman. That Freud took part in observing Purim does not mean that he was still religious during his final year of Gymnasium, but it does show the continuing relevance of religious tradition to his thoughts and feelings. Similarly, the religious language Freud sometimes used in association with psychoanalysis, and the biblical images found in his writings and his dreams, are not evidence that Freud founded a substitute religion, but they do reflect the religious background of Freud’s earliest psychological interests.

The forces of history crashed in on Freud’s life with shattering effect during his final years, when Hitler returned to Vienna, and Gay provides vivid descriptions of these terrible events. But history otherwise almost never emerges from the background of Gay’s book, and the vitally important historical forces at work on Freud during his early formative period do not receive sufficient attention. Gay’s work on Freud has many strengths, and offers much that contributes to a deepened understanding of his life and personality, but this achievement is diminished by his failure to deal convincingly either with deep controversies over his thought or with the relation of his ideas to the history of his time.

This Issue

August 18, 1988