The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein, 1871–1881
It is difficult for us to believe that Freud was ever a young man. We are so conditioned by the photographs of the patriarchal bearded figure with his eyes gazing solemnly and disapprovingly at the world and by his letters which so frequently predict an imminent death that we tend to think of him as eternally old.
But young he once was, young, high-spirited, and delighting in the vagaries of life. “Isn’t life one of the strangest things in the world?” he demanded suddenly and impulsively of his young Romanian friend Eduard Silberstein when they were both fifteen. With the publication of the letters of Freud to Silberstein, written between 1871 and 1881, we discover an entirely different Freud, although in his relations with Silberstein we catch glimpses of the implacable streak in his character that was to become so prominent in later years.
The correspondence has been translated elegantly by A.J. Pomerans, who has managed to capture the insouciant tone of a playful friendship. The editing by Walter Boehlich, however, is disappointing. One of the more interesting features of Freud’s correspondence with Jung and Fliess is the respective accounts by William McGuire and Jeffrey Masson of how the letters came to light. But all we learn from Boehlich about the Silberstein correspondence is that it was deposited in the Library of Congress in the late Seventies by “the esteemed Kurt R. Eissler,” the New York psychoanalyst who was then in charge of the Freud archives. I shall return to Boehlich’s unsatisfactory treatment of crucial missing letters.
Freud and Silberstein probably first met when both were fourteen in 1869 at a spa near Freiberg where their mothers were taking the cure. In 1871 Silberstein’s father, a well-to-do banker in Braila, sent him to Vienna where he and Freud attended the same high school. They wrote to each other when Silberstein returned home for the holidays. A close friendship sprang up between them almost immediately. Freud’s letters express an adolescent longing to pour out his ambitions and fears to a single, intimate friend. When separated from Silberstein, Freud was little inclined to make other friends. Their letters provided a way to create a deeper bond between them. Freud confessed to being bored by his contemporaries; no one could fill Silberstein’s place, although Freud had “enemies by the dozen and of all shapes and sizes” (December 11, 1874). What time he had, he admitted, “I should prefer to spend it with you alone. I suspect we have enough to tell each other to dispense with a third for an audience.”
In a much later letter of 1884 Freud gave his fiancée, Martha Bernays, a long account of his early friendship with Silberstein, whom he had seen that very day and whom he found “as devoted to me as ever.”
We became friends at a time when one doesn’t look upon friendship as a support or an asset, but when one needs a friend with whom to share things.
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.