Lost Illusions

The Diary of Sigmund Freud: 1929–1939, A Record of the Final Decade

translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Michael Molnar
Scribners/A Robert Stewart Book, 326 pp., $50.00

Toward the end of his life, Freud must surely have imagined at times that he had somehow wandered into his own real-life version of Karl Kraus’s drama The Last Days of Mankind. During his final decades, nightmarish political developments, painful physical illness, and deep disappointments in his relations with his psychoanalytic followers all combined to produce in him a deepening sense of resignation. The popularity of such works as Civilization and its Discontents has made the somber tone of Freud’s thought during his final years well known, but what is less widely appreciated is the stark contrast between this period and the bright hopes of his youth.

In The Secret Ring, Phyllis Grosskurth draws attention to Freud’s youthful optimism by way of introducing the rather dispiriting story she goes on to tell about the secret committee he established in 1912 to guide the development of the psychoanalytic movement. Referring to the recently published letters from Freud to his boyhood friend Eduard Silberstein, she observes,

Because much of our knowledge of Freud comes from the letters of his mature years, it is difficult to imagine him as young. But we see him in these letters as very young and high-spirited, delighting in the vagaries of life (“Isn’t life one of the strangest things in the world?”), even suffering from a hangover occasionally.

One finds in the letters a charming, light sense of humor and an enthusiasm for life that seem to have vanished by 1919, when he wrote to Sandor Ferenczi, the leading Hungarian psychoanalyst, to say, “I can’t remember a time of my life when my horizon was so thickly veiled by dark clouds…” Grosskurth asks, “What had happened to the joyous Freud of the early letters?” and the various answers to this question reveal much about Freud’s personality and the relationship between his work and the historical forces of the time.

Certainly one contributing factor to the increasing pessimism of Freud’s later years was the onset of the physical ailments that accompanied his old age, one of the major themes to emerge from Michael Molnar’s edition of The Diary of Sigmund Freud, the brief chronicle Freud kept during the last decade of his life from 1929–1939. His struggle with cancer of the jaw, which began in the early 1920s, is recorded in many entries listing, but seldom commenting on, the painful operations and treatments he endured during these years.

Even more numerous, however, were the entries taking note of political events, and here the record was one of ever deepening disaster. Molnar augments Freud’s brief entries with information about the people and events he mentions, as well as passages from Freud’s letters and those of his family and friends. In one of these, Anna Freud writes to a friend a few weeks after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor that “sometimes I am amazed that in such times as the present spring and summer come as if nothing had happened.” In a letter of 1935, Freud provided an…

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