On the Couch

Christopher Turner

H.D. on Freud’s 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.’


  • 10 May 2013 at 3:14pm
    attentiontodetail says:
    Anna O. was never a patient of Freud. Her case study was the result of an analysis conducted by Josef Breuer.

    • 10 May 2013 at 3:18pm
      attentiontodetail says: @ attentiontodetail
      quite apart from the fact that her case was conducted in the 1880s, a decade before Freud had the couch (per this piece)...

    • 11 May 2013 at 12:33pm
      philip proust says: @ attentiontodetail
      Well spotted on both counts, attentiontodetail: a Freudian slip on Christopher Turner's part, apparently.

  • 12 May 2013 at 6:02pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    In late summer of 1972 my wife and I, in Vienna on vacation, happened upon the Freud Museum at Berggasse 19 (several blocks beyond the Ringstrasse on its northern side). This was pure chance, as we were just strolling through the neighborhood at the time. There was a divan-style couch in the study (or office), obviously not the original. I do remember bookshelves and a cabinet with small knick-knacks (presumably Greek and Roman small pieces). The place was dimly lit and a little musty, and, as I remember it, we were not allowed to go upstairs to the Freud family’s living quarters (which may have been in the process of restoration). A little old lady was acting as custodian, and during our half-hour or so there, there were no other visitors. An interesting fact that turns up on an internet search of the address is that it was the location of an earlier home (destroyed) that had been occupied by Viktor Adler and his family. While Freud himself has become a “key cultural artifact” of Vienna during the late Habsburg years, Adler, as leader of the Austrian Socialist Party, was a key player on its political stage. Like Freud he was Jewish and born in Bohemia. At some point in his career Adler (probably an agnostic or atheist) converted to Christianity “to get the subject out of the way” as he put it, but I doubt that this move affected the judgments of those of his numerous critics who were motivated primarily by anti-Semitism. While pleased by this chance encounter, I myself was searching for another Austrian, the zither-player Anton Karas, who had supplied the music for Carol Reed’s film, The Third Man (I never found him, but he was alive and well, running a wine-bar in Grinzing, as I learned to my chagrin years later). Eric Kandel (a Nobelist in medicine and physiology) wrote one of the more interesting books on the connections among the arts, sciences, and everyday political life in the Vienna of this era (Carl Schorske and Janek and Toulmin covered some of the same territory years ago), and it’s always fascinating to read about this time and place when Mitteleuropa was quite cosmopolitan (it still is, if you make the effort to find it in the region’s larger cities).

    • 14 May 2013 at 9:47am
      David Gordon says: @ Timothy Rogers
      A small point, maybe trivial but maybe not. Freud was not born in Bohemia, but in Moravia, in Příbor. The modern day Czech Republic is made up of Bohemia, Moravia, and part of Silesia. The Bohemians and Moravians are different: but fortunately there is no sign (yet) of any serious Moravian independence movement.

    • 28 May 2013 at 2:54pm
      Simon Wood says: @ David Gordon
      One of my pub riddles is:

      "Who was German? Freud or Jung?"

      People puzzle over this, then choose one.

      "Neither," I say. "Freud was Austrian, Jung was Swiss."

  • 14 May 2013 at 1:58pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I stand corrected, and now I'll have to check whether Adler's hometown (and Mahler's too)are in Bohemia or Moravia. Because, as an old, early medieval kingdom, Moravia has precedence over Bohemia, some Moravian "nationalists" might dredge up that fact to support an independence movement (doubtful), I'll be more careful next time.

Read more