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.

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