Milton, Freud, and My Cousin Hymie

Ruth Gwily

Ruth Gwily

When I was in my teens, my grandmother took me to the industrial town of Luton, an hour’s drive north of London, to meet a relative who used to be both a private detective and a con man. Once, in his younger years, this relative had decided to try making a living as a private detective but wasn’t sure how to get started. He had an ingenious idea: he went around the neighborhood stealing every cat or dog he could get his hands on and took them back to his flat. He waited until lost pet posters began to appear on fences and lampposts, and then visited the unfortunate owners, promising to find the pet within twenty-four hours, for a fee. Once they agreed, he’d return home, allow a period of time to elapse to allay suspicion, pluck the relevant animal from the waiting pack in his living room, and take it back to its true home, pocketing the reward and earning himself a reputation as a swift and effective investigator.

It was difficult to reconcile the elderly man we met with the huckster who had cooked up such a scheme. Yet, over the course of our visit, it became clear that he was still living a double life, or at least a life featuring a long-standing cover story. As far as my grandmother was concerned, we were visiting her cousin Hymie Stobonovitch: a man who shared what had been her maiden name, with a first name so resoundingly Jewish that it’s standard for the protagonist of the classic Jewish joke. But at some point in his life, he had abandoned his birth name and become Ronald Simms. As our visit unfolded, my grandmother and his wife began a silently declared, passive-aggressive war with each other across the living room over how he was to be addressed, the one insistently calling him Hymie, the other pointedly naming him Ron.

Cousin Hymie/Ronald comes to mind whenever I’ve wrestled with myself over what it means to be both British and Jewish, and whether it’s possible for these facets of my identity to combine or even coexist. These questions have returned to haunt me more frequently in the past few years, which has been the first period in my life when my identity as a British Jew has felt like a matter of public interest and debate. Far from being a welcome moment of recognition, it has generally been a frustrating, bewildering, and painful time. Amid cynical accusations of anti-Semitism, actual anti-Semitism, and both well-meaning and nakedly self-interested philo-Semitism, there has been too little room for good-faith exploration of the complex ways in which identities manifest in individual lives.

Furthermore, I have come to feel in recent years that my working life, too, involves a form of routine self-concealment. I have made a career teaching English literature at two institutions, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, that have historically created and perpetuated normative versions of Englishness; the authors I principally teach, and write about—Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Milton—lie at the heart of what is generally considered the English literary canon.

There is, of course, no necessary contradiction here. I am a white Englishman; it was only natural that I should study white, English, male authors. Yet my Englishness feels scarcely more firm or unequivocal than my cousin Hymie’s.

My grandmother was the eldest of fourteen children, born in the East End of London to Yiddish-speaking parents who had come to England from Ukraine early in the twentieth century. When I was growing up, two generations later, Yiddish was no longer the default language that my family spoke, but our English at home was seasoned with Yiddishisms, and not just those that have made their way into common parlance, such as shlep and shmuck. From a young age I learned a low-level code-switching: only at home was a facecloth a shmatter, a knickknack a shmonsy, to be openly proud was to kvell, someone who stole a bite of your ice cream was a shnorrer or a chaper, a falling-out was a broigus, a foolish or unworldly or unpleasant person was a nebbish or a nudnik or a shmendrik or a shmerrel or a lobbes or a shlemiel (though just which he was depended on a set of fine but unarticulated distinctions). The Yiddish sprinkled through my family’s English became the linguistic manifestation of our difference from the world around us—not just from non-Jews, but also from most Jews we knew who didn’t seem to use Yiddish in the same way.

My family experienced anti-Semitism, in ways direct and vicious, but what particularly shaped me as I grew up, I now realize, were less those moments of fear and anger and more a pervasive sense that to give myself away as different—through the inadvertent use of a Yiddish word, or by saying that a new toy had been a Chanukah gift rather than a Christmas present—was to invite, not necessarily hostility, but a perception of oneself as alien in a way that was disconcerting to non-Jews precisely because it was mild and unobtrusive. That unsettling differentness could be easy to overlook and ought therefore to be easy to conceal. And, if you could conceal it, why weren’t you doing so?


So, while I never hid my Jewishness, I never made a big deal of it either. I rarely corrected those who took my surname to be just vaguely Eastern European. And mostly, I kept private my inner conflict at having chosen to pursue a life studying and teaching the great writers of English literature when, on many levels, I did not feel English at all. Was teaching the immortals of English literature in ancient English universities tantamount to changing my name, as fraudulent as a dognapper moonlighting as a private detective?

One of the claims often made about great artists is that their greatness resides in the universality of their work, which is another way of saying that anyone can identify with their art and find themselves in its tradition. I don’t believe this; in fact, I am skeptical of the idea that we identify in such a straightforward way, as if we’re always in search of a mirror. “The danger,” Samuel Beckett once wrote, “is in the neatness of identifications.” This doesn’t mean that I am skeptical of identification altogether, but that I am interested in its messier forms. We can identify with individuals not on the basis of shared characteristics or beliefs, but rather through common struggles with the identities and languages we inherit. We might ask what it means to identify with one’s religion, mother tongue, or country of birth rather than with a person or an idea. The selves we forge in the course of such identifications and refusals might turn out to be stranger and more convoluted, less stable and less integrated, than we sometimes allow ourselves to admit.


Sigmund Freud is a ready point of reference for any discussion of the formation of identity. His writings explore the self-defeating ways in which the self emerges via, as the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips has recently put it, an “inevitable process and project of identification.” And yet, Freud has always been of interest to historians and biographers because he is both so keenly alert to the unobtrusively influential shapes that identification can take and so imperfectly aware of his own identifications, disavowals, and refusals. Nowhere is this truer than in his vexed relation to his own Jewishness.

For all the pages devoted to interpreting just what Freud meant when he called himself a “Godless Jew,” it has seldom—in fact, almost never—been noted that Freud repeatedly expressed a deep love and affinity for the poetry of John Milton. In 1907, a man named Hugo Heller wrote to Freud asking him to name “ten good books.” Freud nominated the works with which he’s most readily associated—Hamlet, Faust, the tragedies of Sophocles, Darwin’s Origin of Species—but went on to say, “You did not even ask for ‘favourite books,’ among which I should not have forgotten Milton’s Paradise Lost and Heine’s Lazarus.” The status of Paradise Lost as a particular favorite and touchstone of Freud’s is confirmed in a more intimate letter. Addressing his future wife Martha Bernays, he wrote:

Today I was thinking that everyone ought to have someone great and powerful to be his lord and protector, to whom he could turn in dark, heavy hours. I reached out for John Milton, with his sublime enchantment that can transport me as nothing else can from the dull, unsatisfying world of daily care, so that the earth becomes like a little dot in the universe, and the vast heavens open.

While praising Milton for his “sublime enchantment” is typical, especially among his German-speaking readers, Freud’s desire to claim Milton as his “great and powerful…lord and protector” is more unusual and revealing. It grants the poet a status that sounds both paternal and paternalistic. In a later letter to Martha, written shortly after their engagement, he told her:

I am aching for independence, so as to follow my own wishes. The thought of England surges up before me, with its sober industriousness, its generous devotion to the public weal, the stubbornness and sensitive feeling for justice of its inhabitants…I am taking up again the history of the island, the works of the men who were my real teachers—all of them English or Scotch; and I am recalling what is for me the most interesting historical period, the reign of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell with its lofty monument of that time—Paradise Lost, where only recently, when I did not feel sure of your love, I found consolation and comfort.

This trio of references to Milton in Freud’s letters together suggest a fairly clear instance of identification. Milton, paired with Cromwell, stands in Freud’s mind for an idealized version of England and of Englishness, as well as of masculinity. This ideal can be linked to Freud’s ambivalence about his own Jewishness, and especially with his defensiveness regarding the recurrent strain within anti-Semitism that had for centuries associated Jews with femininity. A pernicious stereotype, entangled both with the fact of Jewish circumcision and with the myth that Jewish men menstruated, construed Jewish men as like women in their supposed changeability, formlessness, volubility, and deceptiveness.


Freud most famously reflects upon these anti-Semitic attitudes and their effect on him in The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he describes his disappointment with his father’s passivity in the face of anti-Semitic abuse, contrasting his father in his mind with the father of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who had made his son swear to avenge him on the Romans. Hannibal is not, however, the only great soldier who contrasts with this image of Jewish meekness within the pages of The Interpretation of Dreams. At another point, Freud mentions that he named one of his sons “after a great figure in history who had attracted me powerfully when I was a boy.” The child in question was named Oliver, and the inspiration was Cromwell.

It was not uncommon for Jews in later ages to idealize Cromwell—who had pushed for the readmission of Jews to England in 1656—as a philo-Semite (even though, like other philo-Semitic Puritans, he was motivated by apocalyptic fervor rather than humanitarian concern). Freud’s letters suggest that he took this idealization of Cromwell further, and connected it with Milton. The two Englishmen served as paragons of the manly political leader and the manly sublime poet, respectively; two lordly protectors whose example could save Freud from his precarious and feminized position as an Eastern European Jew.

In pairing Cromwell and Milton as exemplars of English liberty and masculine prowess, Freud was participating in a long tradition. As Cromwell rose to prominence with astonishing speed in the late 1640s, he came to be seen as the embodiment of masculine courage and self-control, in contrast with the decadent and effeminate excesses of Charles I and his court. Milton, who wrote a sonnet praising “Cromwell, our chief of men…Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,” would also come, in the ensuing centuries, to be seen as “chief of men” among great poets, the writer who embodied, in the words of the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “the misogynistic essence of what Gertrude Stein called ‘patriarchal poetry.’” Not just in his particular views of women, but in his entire stance of lofty sublimity and steely forcefulness, Milton has often seemed to embody an inherited idea of what it means to be a male poet and a man—not just any man, but an Englishman.

The Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton has noted that Milton has come to be viewed as “something of a national institution, as much a part of the English landscape as fox-hunting or the Bank of England,” and as such he has often been co-opted for displays of nationalist sentiment. At the 2018 conference of the Conservative Party, Britain’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, reveling in the UK’s separation from the European Union, roared out a soaring sentence from Areopagitica, Milton’s great 1644 defense of the freedom of the press: “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks.” This Milton would offer a figure like Freud—offer a person like me—all of the temptations and consolations of belonging, assimilation, acceptability, and normality. A figure overbearingly certain of his maleness, his Christianity, and his Englishness. A refuge from the feebleness ascribed to the ethnic group to which one belongs, and more generally a refuge from doubt. A true lord and protector.

To love a poet like this and the England for which he seems to stand, as Freud did, could be the equivalent of choosing a new name, one that is not readable as Jewish. I am not a criminal, a lowlife, as many of my fellow Jews are held to be, but a hero. I’m here not to steal your cats and dogs, but to save them.


This is one way to tell the story of Freud’s affinity for Milton. Given that these two have been read as doyens of patriarchal self-certainty, it might seem unsurprising that Freud would gravitate to Paradise Lost. But neither figure rests easily within the identities that I have just assigned them. Both Freud and Milton can seem to embody the essence of patriarchal power and yet offer alternatives to it. This shared capacity is, I would suggest, linked to the question of Jewishness.

And so, for that matter, was Oliver Cromwell. In his later life—by then a virtual dictator, a king in all but name—Cromwell’s masculine public image collapsed, and critics styled him a decadent oriental despot, a “Turkish Tyrant.” As the Oxford scholar Diane Purkiss has shown, some seized specifically upon Cromwell’s most famous physical feature: his large, warty nose. One satirist, making anagrams out of Cromwell’s name, wrote: “OLIVER CROMWELL; RULE WELL OR I COM/Rule well or I com cry’d the red nos’d Jew,/’Tis just (since you trap all men) I trap you.” Cromwell, protector of the Jews, fell prey to the hoariest of stereotypically Jewish features, the oversized nose. Seen from this perspective, his example is a less straightforward embodiment of the English prowess that had attracted Freud.

The same, it turns out, is true of Milton. For while Milton has often been held up as an avatar of Englishness, he occupies this position in a markedly unreliable way. The poetic virtues and vices of no other English writer have inspired such long and heated debate, and those who are ambivalent about Milton’s literary achievements have typically insisted, in one way or another, that he is not English enough. This criticism was already being leveled in the eighteenth century, when Samuel Johnson claimed that Milton “was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom,” such that he wrote in “a Babylonish Dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius,” so that even when admiring it, “we find grace in its deformity.”

During the so-called Milton Controversy that unfolded during Freud’s lifetime, the supremely influential English critic F. R. Leavis insisted that, far from having any literary merit, the poet’s “consistent rejection of English idiom” demonstrated “simply that Milton has forgotten the English language.” The mannerisms Leavis had in mind—the long, grammatically convoluted sentences and often obscure syntax and diction—were typically attributed to Milton’s deep immersion in Latin. When the poet Ezra Pound similarly took Milton to task for trying “to turn English into Latin” and “distorting its fibrous manner,” however, he connected this tendency to what he saw as Milton’s “beastly hebraism.”

That Pound’s notorious anti-Semitism reared its head at this moment was not an aberration in the unfolding controversy. As Matthew Biberman, professor of English at the University of Louisville, has argued, a subtler version of this alignment of Milton’s supposed crimes against English with the linguistic transgressions of Judaism reverberates in the writings of Pound’s friend T. S. Eliot, whose anti-Semitism is more debated. Eliot criticized Milton for “the deterioration—the peculiar kind of deterioration—to which he subjected the language,” and specifically for his recourse to “foreign idiom, the use of a word in a foreign way or with the meaning of the foreign word from which it is derived rather than the accepted meaning in English.” Eliot does not mention Jews or “Hebraism” in that essay, and his criticisms of Milton suggest not so much Pound’s open bigotry but the kind of genteel, “drawing-room” anti-Semitism that even Eliot’s defenders have acknowledged.

I would not suggest that Eliot saw Milton either as literally Jewish or as harboring a secretly Jewish soul, but Eliot’s charges of Milton’s corruption of the language are strikingly similar to those that have been leveled at Jews since the Middle Ages. Eliot makes a surprising but telling comparison in his essay between Milton and Eliot’s own friend and rival James Joyce: both, he writes, had “musical tastes and abilities, followed by musical training, wide and curious knowledge, a gift for acquiring languages, and remarkable powers of memory perhaps fortified by defective vision.” Joyce had come increasingly to trouble Eliot, since the mingling of languages and traditions in Joyce’s writings threatened to undermine and make porous the version of European, classical, and Christianized tradition that Eliot sought to defend—a project not unrelated to Leavis’s concern to establish English literature’s “Great Tradition.”

Eliot had praised Ulysses, but only by stressing its classicism, its fidelity to Greco-Roman antiquity, and he politely avoided the question of Joyce’s choice for his Homeric novel of the wandering, assimilated Jewish protagonist Leopold Bloom, just as he overlooked Joyce’s wider refusal to partition the classical and the Hebraic, encapsulated in the novel in the line “Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet.” The deeper resemblance between Milton and Joyce, the one that disconcerted Eliot, was their shared and troublingly Jewish tendency to make extremes of language and identity meet and mix.

Even when it comes to questions of literary history, processes of identification and disavowal are rarely straightforward. Milton, even more than Cromwell, emerges from this discussion as a profoundly unstable figure, capable of representing both the strong, self-confident Englishness that Freud craved and the perceived destabilizing threats to language and nation that were typically associated with the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Freud’s time. I’m inclined to read Freud’s affinity for Milton as working, as things so often did for Freud, on more than one level at once. Milton functions both as an ideal with whom Freud identifies, and as the embodiment of the threats against which such an ideal is supposed to guard. He stands at once for a stable and secure form of linguistic and national identity and for everything that, as detractors like Eliot worried, undercuts such stability and security.

There may be a further clue in Freud’s other favorite book, Heinrich Heine’s Lazarus. Heine had become a lightning rod for debates over German-Jewish identity: although Heine had converted to Lutheranism, the composer Richard Wagner pilloried him in a notoriously anti-Semitic screed for writing “poetic lies” that corrupted German poetry from within. Freud’s pairing of Milton with Heine suddenly seems significant, and fitting: Freud was expressing his love for two figures whose writings placed immense pressure on questions of language and belonging.


Freud’s admiration for Milton suggests to me that our affinities and identifications are always complicated matters, comprising multiple and sometimes conflicting strands. If I am drawn to understand these men based on the affinity between them, this, in turn, is not because I straightforwardly identify with either, personally, culturally, or intellectually. The qualities that Freud found in Milton, I find in both—but, knowingly or unknowingly, suppressed: a shifting combination of likeness and unlikeness, some characteristics that I feel I might understand or sympathize with and others I know I never will. The encounter with literature and with history might seem to be defined by connections of this sort, oscillating between the comforts of rapport and the shocks of alienation. The figures who fascinate me are not necessarily those that hold a mirror to my own self, but those who seem to embody the tangled and self-contradictory processes by which the formation of any identity comes about.

If Milton’s critics have found him un-English on grounds that resemble anti-Semitism, rather than defending Milton against these charges I would like to suggest that they were, in a sense, right. One way of understanding his strange and virtuosic use of English would be to take very seriously Leavis’s claim that “Milton has forgotten the English language.” Milton spent a great deal of his career thinking and composing in languages other than English—especially in Italian, Greek, and, above all, Latin. What if we considered this multilingualism not just as a feat of extraordinary erudition, but as a process by which Milton, in effect, untaught himself English—relinquished the unselfconsciousness that we associate with the native speaker? What if we saw Milton’s writing in English as the type of subtly distanced virtuosity that we associate with Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov in English, or with Samuel Beckett in French?

Milton as a writer without a first language would be another way of understanding the long-standing conjunction of him with otherness, specifically with Jewishness—and the more distinct alignment that I am suggesting with Yiddish-speaking Jewishness. Yiddish has been attacked throughout its history, by non-Jews as well as by upwardly mobile Jews, as a hodgepodge of other languages, and therefore as a non-language. Franz Kafka, defending Yiddish against the “dread mingled with a fundamental distaste” that it often provoked, acknowledged that it “consists solely of foreign words,” but insisted that this is precisely what gave the language its mobility and vitality: “these words are not firmly rooted in it, they retain the speed and liveliness with which they were adopted.” More typical was Wagner’s insistence that “the fact that the Jew speaks modern European languages only as learnt and not as native, makes it impossible for him ever to speak colloquially, authoritatively or from the depths of his being.” The Jew is the figure who, in lacking a native tongue, lacks true language altogether.

English, too, borrows rampantly from other languages in ways that have always posed a challenge to those fixated on insular and separable forms of national identity. A generation before Milton, an Italian immigrant to London noted the number of words absorbed into English from elsewhere, so many that “if every language had his own words again, there would but a few remain for English men.” While Yiddish has always had a vexed relationship with the languages by which it is surrounded, its connections with English are particularly complicated, because it represents a version of what the English language is always sliding toward: a fragile mixture of borrowings and cross-pollinations. From this perspective, the English sprinkled with Yiddish that we spoke in my childhood home was less an aberration than an accentuation of the norm.

A characteristically magnificent and strange passage from Paradise Lost encapsulates Milton’s own, idiosyncratic version of a language so rich with borrowings that it seems barely a language at all—what I see as his Yiddishisms. This is the moment from Book II when Satan’s daughter and incestuous lover, Sin, opens the gates of Hell and the two of them stare into the world beyond, the abyss of Chaos.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable ocean without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth, and height,
And time and place are lost; where eldest Night
And Chaos, ancestors of Nature, hold
Eternal anarchy, amidst the noise
Of endless wars, and by confusion stand.
For Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry, four champions fierce
Strive here for mastery, and to battle bring
Their embryon atoms…

… Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage: for no narrow frith
He had to cross.

This passage captures something of the delight and difficulty of reading Milton. The content is remote from our experiences and from most modern belief systems, full of learned allusions and abstruse references, often confusing as the long sentences spill across the lines. But here, more than anywhere in the poem, this confusion seems to be apt and invited: it is literally a scene of chaos. The anarchic rhythms of the scene upon which Satan and Sin gaze infects the rhythms of the poetry itself: repeated lists of monosyllabic words—“Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry,” “sharp, smooth, swift or slow,” “sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire”—hit the reader like the “embryon atoms” of this disorderly realm.

But the brevity of the words is significant in itself; it was often claimed that, in the words of the early seventeenth-century antiquary Richard Rowlands, “This our ancient language consisted most at the first of words of monosillable.” These emphatically English sequences are woven into a tapestry conspicuous for its use of languages from which English has been constructed and from which it rampantly borrows: Greek (“anarchy,” “embryon atoms”) and Latin (“confusion,” “pondering,”) as well as Old English (“hoary,” “frith”). Milton artfully emphasizes this mixture of origins by yoking monosyllabic and polysyllabic words into tight sequences: with the “dark/Illimitable ocean,” a short Old English adjective is followed by Latinate adjective and then by Greek noun; the resonant power of the phrase made famous in our time by the author Philip Pullman, “His dark materials,” is partly created by the same short and simple adjective adhering to a flowingly polysyllabic, Latinate noun.

So we are battered by the atoms of Chaos and of several languages colliding within the same space. By allowing us to experience, enjoy, and be overwhelmed by this realm of matter and of language confused, Milton makes English into a kind of Yiddish. Or at least what Yiddish was held to be, by both its speakers and its detractors: the undoing and fragile remaking of language. These lines perfectly embody the poet Daljit Nagra’s recent claim that “John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of those rare moments in poetry when language is inside-outside the central tones of English, and I feel at home in this choppy music.”

I have worried at times that my investment in English literature and in canonical writers like Milton amounts to a kind of disavowal, a submission to some impulse to fit in, to feel normal and fully English: as if I, like Freud, seek to venerate England “with its sober industriousness” and “the stubbornness and sensitive feeling for justice of its inhabitants.” And there is, I am sure, an element of truth in this. But drawing these connections between Milton, Freud, and Cromwell has helped me to understand that it is not the whole story. Rather, the desire for authority and respectability is often haunted by the threat of its own undoing, by the possibility that strength will give way to weakness, purity to mixture, identity to difference. And literature—for me, preeminently, Milton’s Yiddish-esque poetry—is the space where these possibilities can be played out, experienced, suffered, and enjoyed. Not because we necessarily identify with the writers whom we love, or because we share their belief systems, but because the instabilities of their own sense of who they are, who they wish to be, and who they turn out to be match and mesh with ours.


The most famous description of psychoanalysis as “the talking cure” was coined, as is quite well known, not by Freud himself, but by the first psychoanalytic patient: the woman known as Anna O. She was treated by Freud’s mentor, Josef Breuer, and her case opened their collaborative Studies in Hysteria. Anna O. was not cured, but the talking that she did with Breuer was entirely remarkable. Her physical and mental symptoms, which included bodily paralysis, uncontrollable coughing, and periods of lost or suspended consciousness, were accompanied by remarkable fluctuations of language. She would veer in her speech between German, English, French, and Italian—at times, mixing them within a single sentence; at other times, able to speak only in one language and not another. Breuer commented that she put her sentences together “laboriously out of four or five languages” until she “became almost unintelligible,” and that in writing, “she employed the same jargon.” One later reconstruction of the way her speech might have sounded suggests the following sentence: “Jamais acht nobody bella mio please lieboehn nuit.” On occasion, she would cry out a single word: “Tormenting!” For his part, Breuer judged that she would be cured when she spoke only one language at a time, and knew that she was doing so.

In 1953, when Ernest Jones published his biography of Freud, he revealed Anna O. to be Bertha Pappenheim, who went on after her treatment to become a renowned writer, translator, educationalist, and pioneering defender of women’s rights. Since her identity became known, her case has been the subject of much discussion and debate—not least over the fact that, as with several of the other case studies foundational to psychoanalysis, Freud and Breuer had concealed the fact that she was Jewish. This intentional omission reflected Freud’s wider fear that psychoanalysis would be stigmatized as a “Jewish science,” a particular risk because Anna O.’s behavior—the wildness and unpredictability of her body and speech—seemed to provide fodder for central anti-Semitic stereotypes. Indeed, the word that Breuer used to describe her mixed language, “jargon,” was the very word that German speakers, non-Jews and anxiously assimilating Jews alike, contemptuously used for Yiddish.

When I first read the case of Anna O., without any knowledge of who she truly was, it was her mixture of languages that most fascinated me—and especially, given my own work, the fact that this multilingual woman gravitated in the depths of her suffering toward English, and English literature in particular. “She now spoke only English,” Breuer noted, “and could not understand what was said to her in German. Those about her were obliged to talk to her in English.” And when she wrote, “she used Roman printed letters, copying the alphabet from her edition of Shakespeare.” For Anna O., Shakespeare and “jargon”—whether this meant Yiddish or a mixed tongue of her own invention—went hand in hand. The same remained true for Bertha Pappenheim in the decades following her treatment: she was fluent in both Yiddish and English, and later translated from both languages into German. She produced important translations of the memoirs of Glückel von Hameln, the seventeenth-century Yiddish memoirist to whom she believed she was related, and of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and she did so while living a remarkable life of travel and fierce intellectual independence.

A different interpretation of her use of language emerges from the account of Anna O.’s treatment by the scholar Mary Jacobus. She suggests a source for Pappenheim’s repeated cry of “Tormenting!” Noting that Pappenheim read Shakespeare, Jacobus speculated: “If she read Milton too, like this feminist critic, she might have recalled Satan’s envious outburst in Paradise Lost, Book IV, at the sight of Adam and Eve (our first parents) engaged in the erotic dalliance which Adam later refers to as ‘sweet converse.’” The lines to which Jacobus refers read as follows:

Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, while I to hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other
torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.
[My Roman]

It’s a tantalizing possibility and a brilliant insight on Jacobus’s part. The scene from Paradise Lost is a psychoanalyst’s dream: Satan’s desiring another’s desire, contrasting his burning and futile lust with the genuine love between the first human couple that taunts him yet remains beyond him. Is it possible that when Bertha Pappenheim cried out, she did so with words that were all the more hers because they had been Milton’s? Paradise Lost was certainly part of her cultural milieu, as Freud’s own admiration for the poem indicates. If she was indeed quoting from Paradise Lost amid her psychic distress, what could this mean?

One is struck by the intensity and relentlessness with which Pappenheim was scrutinized and interpreted by men. Breuer and Freud manipulated her for their own purposes, concealing aspects of her case. When the famous behaviorist Richard von Krafft-Ebing was also called to consult on Pappenheim, and she didn’t seem to notice him, he sought her attention by blowing smoke in her face, which led her to attack him in fury. Milton might have elbowed his way briefly into her mind as a fit addition to this group of men: a bullying, domineering presence, colonizing the very language in which she voiced her suffering. If she did have that specific moment from Paradise Lost somewhere in mind, the voyeuristic Satan might stand for the figures who observed and plotted against her, even as she in turn resembled the side of Satan who could not abide surveillance by an all-seeing God. This is the Milton whom we have already encountered, the lord and protector who appealed to Freud.

But as I have demonstrated, there is another side to Milton, who seems to have fluctuated in his own writings between an overbearing self-confidence and a deep inclination to relinquish control, to allow himself to be taken over by words that arrived from somewhere beyond him. Consider the opening passage of Paradise Lost’s climactic Book IX, where the narrator insists that he cannot write his poem through his powers alone, but only

If answerable style I can obtain
Of my celestial patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse.

Milton fears that the poem will fail “if all be mine/Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear.” He can succeed only if he is not entirely in control, instead receptive to a voice that arrives from elsewhere. This is the Milton whom Bertha Pappenheim seems not to rail against but to resemble: not another controlling foe but an accomplice, when who one is and what one says begins to break down, and the language that one speaks becomes an Other’s tongue, an idiosyncratic jargon that some cannot or will not understand. Freud may have idealized the first of these versions of Milton as a kind of escape from what the second version represented—as a way of hurtling toward one identity while in flight from another—the same kind of escape my grandmother’s cousin, Ronald Simms, had attempted. But wasn’t Bertha also like Hymie Stobonovich: both orderly and disorderly, crook and detective? Even if she was able, in her youth, only to suffer from their collision, her tormented seeming-citation of Milton stands as a heroic moment in a lifelong endeavor to make more than one identity, more than one language, occupy the same space.

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