On the Couch
The Freud Museum announced earlier this week that it needed £5000 to restore Freud’s couch, the centerpiece of a study crammed with other relics, a cluttered cabinet of antique curiosities that Freud called his ‘old and dirty gods’. (‘Overwhelmed by the response’, they ‘are now seeking to raise around £40,000 to conserve Freud's collection of antiquities’.) The altar of psychoanalysis – on which Dora, Anna O. and the Wolf Man lay like sacrificial victims to the nascent science – is covered with an oriental rug and several opulent cushions; to preserve them the room is lit only with lugubrious light. The couch, behind its velvet rope, is apparently in a state of frayed disrepair that seems entirely appropriate. I always imagined Freud, who sat behind his patients in a green velvet armchair, pulling the loose threads as he disentangled their troubled minds.
H.D., who travelled to Vienna in 1933 to undergo analysis with Freud, had the thought first: she described the couch, which she found surprisingly short, as an
old-fashioned horsehair sofa that had heard more secrets than the confessional box of any popular Roman Catholic father-confessor in his heyday, the homely historical instrument of the original scheme of psychotherapy, of psychoanalysis, the science of the unravelling of the tangled skeins of the unconscious mind.
The use of a couch is a vestige of psychoanalysis’s origins in medical hypnosis, which involved putting the patient in a recumbent trance. Lying on the couch to free-associate was supposed to facilitate a similarly drowsy condition of relinquished control. H.D. described being propped up like Jacques-Louis David’s Madame Récamier on the mass of cushions, and found herself constantly slipping down the bolstered divan. In Vienna, its position allowed her to warm her feet on a porcelain stove until, because of deafness in his right ear, Freud was forced to reverse the arrangement and, in 1934, moved the couch to another wall. She described the catharsis she felt there, ‘in this mysterious lion’s den or Aladdin’s cave of treasures’, as like ‘a feeling of evaporating cold menthol, some form of ether, laid on my “morbid” brow’.
It is hard to imagine an issue of the New Yorker without a cartoon featuring a psychoanalytic couch, behind which sits the analyst. Freud – who referred to the couch as an ottoman or examination bed – apparently disliked eye contact (he wasn’t much of a hypnotist). He couldn’t, he said, ‘put up with being stared at by other people for eight hours a day’. He could observe the analysand’s facial expressions, but they couldn’t be influenced by his, which, he said, helped ‘to prevent the transference from mingling with the patient’s associations’.
The couch, which followed Freud from Vienna to London, was given to him by a grateful patient, Madame Benvenisti in about 1890; the ‘Smyrna rug’ that covered it was an engagement present from his cousin Moritz, a trader in oriental antiquities. In an excellent essay for Raritan, ‘Freud’s Couch: A Case History’, Marina Warner says that the carpet is a Qashqa’i piece. Each rug apparently tells a story and the zigzag white birds and fan-tailed, four-winged creatures with which it is decorated – and which, in Freud’s study, inspire obvious comparisons to Oedipus and the Sphinx – document some lost tale. The rugs were also made by child labour. Warner quotes an old Iranian proverb discovered by the art historian Sergio Bettini: ‘Up to the age of eleven girls are good for carpets; after the age of eleven for love.’
A friend of mine, the great-grandson of the neurologist-psychologist James Jackson Putnam, with whom Freud stayed in Boston during his 1909 trip to America, was brave enough to jump over the velvet rope and do the unthinkable: lie on Freud’s sacred, lumpy bed. I’ve always been terrifically jealous of his having joined the elite of hysterics, neurotics and obsessives to have done so, and every time I visit Freud’s study I battle the temptation to do the same. ‘It felt nothing like the 1970s-era hard, black, leather Manhattan-analyst article,' my friend said. 'It was in fact so soft as to call to mind a classic 1970s waterbed. To lie here was to sink down into literally undulating depths of self.’