In September 1938, Freud moved into his last home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, along with his collection of several hundred antique statuettes. How shocking, how hostile the previous sentence would be if for “antique statuettes” one substituted the phrase “fluffy toys.” It’s the fluffiness that would shock, though, the frivolity of it—not the idea that Freud had toys, and played with them all his life.
For how could such behavior shock us, in a man known for his belief that happiness consists in the realization of a childhood wish? That was what made Schliemann happy when he discovered Troy. This was the way Freud thought, and if Freud too found happiness among his statuettes, we can hardly be wrong in looking for some infantile component in this happiness.
Did he talk to his statuettes? Did they talk to him? Our metaphors are never far from such assertions, and Max Pollack’s etching of 1914 seems to imply a dialogue between Freud and the objects on his desk. 1 Striking too is the fact that, whereas many a horror story has been based on the idea that a toy, a doll, comes to life and acquires a will of its own, Freud himself thought there was nothing uncanny in such an event. He found that “in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating dolls like live people,” and that “children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it.”2
As for the idea that a marble sculpture might come to life—this is not only the theme of the essay on Jensen’s Gradiva, it is also consciously evoked in the discussion of Michelangelo’s Moses. “How often,” says Freud, “have I mounted the steep steps from the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely piazza where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero’s glance! Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned—the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience, and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.”3
And the statue must come to life, because what Freud wants to know is: what was happening the moment before the moment depicted by the artist, and what will happen next? What was the hand doing with the beard? What will happen to the Tablets of the Law? And it seems that Freud thought that one day he would be given the answer to these questions, if he came cautiously upon the statue, and seized upon its living self, just as a child captures a limpet unawares, by stalking it on its rock.
That was the instinctive inquirer. You will recall that Ernest Jones, in whose honor this lecture is given, provided some scholarly evidence, a proof of Freud’s…
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.