Dubious Relations

Sander Gilman

  • The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 1887-1904 edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
    Harvard, 505 pp, £19.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 674 15420 7

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the former Projects Director of the Freud Archives, has brought out an English edition of what is in effect the key document for anyone with an interest in the history of the early Freud: Freud’s letters, written in the years 1887 to 1904, to the ear, nose and throat doctor Wilhelm Fliess, two years his junior and living in Berlin. Masson was given permission to reedit these extraordinary letters as part of his role at the Freud Archives, but two years ago Masson broke with the orthodox Freudians. The reason for the break is set out in his recent book Freud: The Assault on Truth, in which Masson claims that Freud consciously ‘suppressed’ knowledge of the actual seduction of children in order to refocus his theory of the origin of neurosis on the role played by fantasies of seduction. Freud’s initial view was that an actual act of seduction was the source of his patients’ illness. During the course of his exchanges with Fliess, he realised that all his patients, and by extension all human beings, suffered not from memories but from a fantasy (the so-called Oedipus triangle) rooted in the struggle to create an independent identity. The charge that Freud abandoned the seduction theory (which, Masson implies, was right all along) is spurious, as most reviews of Masson’s book noted, since he continued for most of the rest of his career to make a distinction between incestuous seductions and universal fantasies about such seductions. Freud does not discount the importance of actual molestation, but such cases were of secondary interest to him, since the main direction of his thought is away from a limited set of specific instances (in line with the positivistic science of his day) towards the universals of human behaviour, a movement away from the pathological towards the normal.

Even after Masson was removed from his post at the Freud Archives he maintained his contractual hold on the publication of the Freud-Fliess correspondence. His scholarly credentials for such an undertaking were slight. A trained Sanskritist, he knew the basic rules for preparing a critical edition, but he had no German, knew nothing about the complexities of 19th-century German orthography, had little knowledge of Viennese dialect and only a tenuous grasp on the social history of medicine. He learned German quickly on being proposed as Projects Director of the Archives and just as abruptly immersed himself in the history of 19th-century European psychiatry. The volume we have here is a patchwork. The German transcription which Masson used was prepared by one of the most knowledgeable of the few West German historians of science who deal with psychoanalysis Gerhard Fichtner, professor of the history of medicine at Tübingen; the draft translation was prepared by Lottie Newman, a confidant of Anna Freud; the archival work, outside of the material in the direct possession of the Freud Archives, was undertaken in Jerusalem by Peter Swales; and the draft notes were prepared for the simultaneous German edition of the letters by Michael Schröter. Masson’s contribution was evidently to polish and edit the translation and to contribute those limited notes which he considered necessary for English-language readers.

Rather than informing the reader, he often uses the footnotes – and even the chapter divisions – to air his own quirky reading of Freud. For example, in the notes to the letter of 10 March 1898, he ‘presumes’ (his word) that Freud is reading a volume by the French neurologist Janet, in which, Masson reports, there is a reference to Freud. He then remarks: ‘further on, however. Janet describes the seduction of a seven-year-old girl and explains the suicide attempts and hysterical attacks in a 14-year-old as due to attempted rape.’ Freud probably did read Janet’s book and he probably read the reference to his own work (if my own practice when I read books in fields to which I have contributed is anything to go by, he most certainly did) and therefore – Masson reasons – he must have ‘suppressed’ the information about child abuse which would have undermined his abandonment of the seduction theory. Faulty syllogisms of this kind mar Masson’s own monograph and poison the notes to this edition. There is no basis for the assumption that Freud ignored the existence of child abuse. His awareness of it as a pathological anomaly is clear throughout his work – he didn’t need Janet’s monograph on fixed ideas to bring the point home.

It is Masson’s ignorance of the basic rhetorical structure of Continental monographs on psychopathology that causes him to be surprised that child abuse should be discussed in this context. In fact, most works of psychopathology had as their subtext the relationship between modes of social control and mental illness. The subtext of Janet, of Krafft-Ebing, of Freud himself, is the relationship of psychopathology to legal questions about responsibility and control. Nineteenth-century psychiatry and neurology (indeed, medicine in general) considered itself one of the central structures of control in European society, and most psychiatric textbooks of the period concluded with a summary of the laws which the medical texts were glossing. Without a doubt the paradigmatic text, which Freud and all of his contemporaries in Vienna knew, was Krafft-Ebing’s work on sexual pathology.

On other occasions Masson simply misreads passages in order to support his own thesis. Thus Freud closed the letter of 4 October 1897 with the statement: ‘Where do all patients get the horrible perverse details which often are as remote from their experience as from their knowledge?’ Masson’s gloss on this passage concludes: ‘In this rhetorical question he implies that such details speak for the authenticity of the memory, they are recovered, not invented.’ It is clear that by framing this question in relation to all patients Freud is beginning to question the validity of the patients’ accounts as recovered memories. Indeed the very statement that these ‘horrible perverse details’ are ‘remote from their experience’ mimics the movement away from the seduction theory towards the centrality of fantasy. If these events are remote from the patient’s experience (Erleben), they must have their roots in the patient’s fantasy. Such faulty readings pepper the notes to the volume and make the entire project suspect.

The result of Masson’s labours is a volume which, like the horse constructed by a committee, has something of the appearance of a camel. It is a useful and necessary edition, but not a first-rate one. The original edition of the letters, published in 1950 (in German) and again in 1954 (in English), edited by Anna Freud and others from her most intimate circle, was heavily censored. This edition contained 168 partially published letters and documents; the present edition has added 133 new letters and printed the complete texts of those which appeared only in part in the earlier edition. Here we have the entire correspondence for the first time, including the letters not sold to Marie Bonaparte by the Fliess family and discovered by Peter Swales among the Fliess papers in Jerusalem. We learn much more about Freud’s relationship to Fliess, especially about his extraordinary devotion to Fliess’s odd – if not crackpot – views. Masson, however, does not make any suggestions as to the basis for this attraction. The edition still contains only half the letters, for Freud evidently destroyed all but two of Fliess’s letters to him. Thus the only voice we hear is that of the young and adventurous Freud, formulating the key principles of psychoanalysis in half a dialogue with his new friend.

Traditionally Fliess is represented as a marginal figure in the history of medicine. He is the sounding-board for Freud’s views and everyone (up to but not including Peter Swales, who is now writing Fliess’s biography) has wondered how Freud, bright and perceptive as he evidently was, could have got himself associated with him. It is generally accepted that Fliess was a quack, that the views he put forward were absolutely mad: he suggested, for example, an intimate relationship between the nasal passages and the genitalia as well as proposing that male physiology like female physiology reflected rigid periodic cycles. Even more striking, Fliess actually acted on these theories, undertaking surgical procedures on the nose to relieve sexual problems. His surgical ineptitude in applying one of these procedures to Freud’s patient Emma Eckstein almost killed her. Given that he had operated on Freud’s nose during the same stay in Vienna, Fliess’s action, as Max Schur stated when he first revealed this material more than a decade ago, must have had a bad effect on Freud, not only because of the incompetence it revealed but because Freud had placed Fliess on the intellectual plane on which he himself wished to be considered. The fact that all of Fliess’s patients, Freud included, were Jewish seems to have escaped Masson’s awareness.

Now this is all part of the official view of the silent Fliess, the missing voice in the correspondence. Fliess was clearly as marginal to the Berlin medical community as Freud was to the Viennese. But being ‘marginal’ means relating in a direct manner to the centre. Both Freud and Fliess oriented themselves to the centre of German medicine, both sought (and Freud obtained) the status of the medical academic. Medical discourse, however, was not only critical of marginality but defined it in racial terms. Let us look at these ideas of Fliess’s – on the relationship between the nose and the genitalia and the ‘proof’ of male periodicity – in the context of late 19th-century German and Austrian medical science with all its racist overtones.

The idea that the nasal cavities were anatomically parallel to the genitalia grew out of the study of human embryology during the 19th century. As early as G. Valentin’s 1835 handbook of human development, the parallels between the development of soft-tissue areas and cavities of the foetus had been noted. By the time Wilhelm His published his standard atlas of human embryological development in 1885 the assumption of such parallels was at the centre of European embryology. But the history of embryology, and His’s notion of ‘standard developmental stages’, is rooted in the ideology of recapitulation. Nineteenth-century biologists believed that they could see in the development of the human foetus a repetition of all the stages of evolution. Central to this biological reworking of the ‘great chain of being’ was the innate superiority of man, but in late 19th-century Germany some men are better than other men, and it is the implied sense of hierarchy which characterises German embryology.

Embryology also proved that the development of the nasal passages and the incipient genitalia occurs very early in the development of the foetus. Fliess came to believe that the ‘head’, as the source of the rational, and the ‘genitalia’, as the source of the irrational, were related on an atavistic level and that the manipulation of one could affect the other. The assumption of a primitive relationship between sexuality and the nose is not only bad embryology but bad medicine. On the other hand, there was nothing very surprising in the fact that two Jewish scientists of Fin-de-Siècle Europe were preoccupied with the significance of this dubious relationship. Anti-Semitic cartoons were a common sight in Vienna and Berlin in the 1880s and they all stressed one central aspect of the physiognomy of the Jew, his nose – which represented that hidden sign of sexual difference, his circumcised penis. The Jew’s sign of sexual difference, his sexual selectiveness as an indicator of his identity, was, as Nietzsche strikingly observed in Beyond Good and Evil, the focus of the Germans’ sense of the superficiality of their own recently created national identity – and hence of their fear of the Jews. When Fliess attempted to alter the pathology of the genitalia by operating on the nose, he was drawing on widely-accepted ideas in the German biology of race.

The central sign of male periodicity for Fliess (and for Freud) is male menstruation. And its representation, according to Freud in his 20 July 1897 letter, is an ‘occasional bloody nasal secretion’. (This central reference is missing in Masson’s index.) Masson uses this concept as a way of distancing Freud from Fliess’s quackery. Masson comments on Fliess’s observations on male menstruation that it is ‘highly unlikely that these communications to Freud played any role in Freud’s research at the time.’ Had Masson looked into the history of the concept of male menstruation, he would have found a lively 19th-century medical literature on this topic, as well as a fascination with this question in relation to the problem of hermaphroditism. Had he dug further, he would have uncovered an ancient discussion of male menstruation.

The idea of male menstruation is part of the Christian tradition of seeing the Jew as inherently, biologically different. Thomas de Cantimpré, the 13th-century anatomist, calling on St Augustine as his authority, presented the first ‘scientific’ statement of this phenomenon. Male Jews, he said, menstruated as a mark of pathological difference. The image of the Jewish male as female was introduced both to link the Jew with the corrupt nature of women and to stress the intransigence of the Jews. Thomas de Cantimpré describes how the Jews tried to cure themselves. They are told by one of their prophets that they would be rid of this curse Christiano sanguine – through the blood of a Christian – when in fact it was a matter of Christi sanguine – the blood of Christ in the sacrament – which was required (hence the libel of the blood guilt, the charge that Jews sacrifice Christian children in order to obtain their blood). The persistence of menstruation among Jewish males is thus not only a sign of the initial curse of the Father but of their inherent inability to hear the truth of the Son – the truth which would cure them.

The belief in Jewish male menstruation continues down to the 17th century. Heinrich Kormann repeats it in Germany in 1614, as does Thomas Calvert in England in 1649. Franco da Piacenza, a Jewish convert to Christianity, includes menstruation in his catalogue of Jewish maladies, published in 1630 and translated into German by 1634. He claimed that the males (as well as the females) of the tribe of Simeon menstruated four days a year. These charges continue throughout both the Enlightenment and the 19th century in only slightly altered form. Jews show their inherent difference through their damaged sexuality and the sign of that is the fact that their males menstruate. What Freud and Fliess attempted to do was to make this a sign not of difference but of universality. Just as Franco da Piacenza tried to remove himself from the curse of Eve by claiming that only ancient Jews (and those of one of the Lost Ten Tribes at that) menstruated, so Freud and Fliess, who are desperately trying to escape their classification as racial inferiors, take up the idea of a universal law of male periodicity linking all human beings, male and female. Thus Fliess was not simply a quack, and what is considered to be his ‘quackery’ was accepted by Freud because it provided an alternative to the pathological image of the Jew in conventional medicine. One would have hoped that Masson’s edition of the correspondence would have taken account of the social history of 19th-century medicine in order to help the reader of these complex documents to relate them to their cultural context. A great deal of research has been done in this area by such scholars as Fritz Stern, Carl Schorske, William McGrath and George Mosse and it is a pity that Masson makes no reference to it. It is useful to have a new, augmented text of the letters, but it would have been even more useful had it contained some intellectual meat beyond Masson’s drumming for his own views. The Freud papers should be published in a neutral context and not by acolytes, who can quickly become heretics. As things stand, however, the fascinating archival material whose existence is hinted at by Masson in the context of his study of Freud probably won’t see the light of day for many decades because of his and some of his colleagues’ irresponsible actions.