Oedipus at Berggasse 19

Freud: A Life for Our Time

by Peter Gay
Norton, 810 pp., $25.00

A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism, and the Making of Psychoanalysis

by Peter Gay
Yale University Press, 182 pp., $17.95


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…

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