Freud and his Mother

Adam Phillips

  • The Riddle of Freud: Jewish Influences on his Theory of Female Sexuality by Estelle Roith
    Tavistock, 199 pp, £25.00, September 1987, ISBN 0 422 61380 0

Psychoanalysis is a conversation that enables people to understand what stops them having the kinds of conversation they want. But as the unconscious and sexuality have gradually been replaced by developmental theory and normative standards of emotional health, the conversation has become predictable, when people’s lives, of course, are not. As psychoanalysis has become one of the helping professions, it has lost some of its original vitality. Despite Freud’s affirmation that it is not more truthful to be serious, psychoanalytic theory, at least in Britain, is not in the least bit funny. It is always sober and usually earnest. The romance of psychoanalysis has been undermined by coercive fantasies of rigour and expertise promoted by the owners of psychoanalysis.

Riddles were once part of the romance of psychoanalysis. So the title of Estelle Roith’s book is promising: it is when we get to the subtitle that the trouble starts. She takes her epigraph from Freud’s ‘New Introductory Lecture on Femininity’: ‘Throughout history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity.’ Confounding hands and heads, walls and doors, the awkward felicity of Strachey’s translation begs a characteristically Freudian question: what do all these people want who have been banging their heads against, or racking their brains about this riddle? It is not altogether clear, in Freud’s vision of history, why femininity is assumed to be one thing, nor why it is understood to be a riddle – in which case to solve it might be to finish with it once and for all. The central preoccupation of psychoanalytic theory with the difference between the sexes has tended, paradoxically, to draw attention away from the differences within the sexes. The language of psychoanalysis does not make these kinds of difference available for description as they are, for example, in novels. Despite its commitment to the idiosyncrasies of personal history, psychoanalytic theory can only tell us what we have in common with other people. And at its best this is a good thing for it to do. In filling in the Jewish background of Freud’s personal history and its inescapable influence on his work, Roith has gathered together some fascinating and often pertinent information about the origins of psychoanalysis. But she has told us nothing in particular about the fact that there were lots of Jewish boys from comparable families growing up in Vienna in the 1860s and 1870s, and only one of them invented psychoanalysis.

In ‘Family Romances’, one of his greatest papers, Freud describes the way the child deals with his disillusionment as he begins to realise that his parents are unexceptional: unexceptional, that is, in their regard for him. ‘There are only too many occasions,’ Freud writes, ‘on which a child is slighted, or at least feels he has been slighted, on which he feels he is not receiving the whole of his parents’ love, and, most of all, on which he feels regrets at having to share it with brothers and sisters. The child’s imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents of whom he now has a low opinion and replacing them by others, who, as a rule, are of higher social standing.’ The Oedipus complex, like much of the psychoanalytic theory built around it, is itself a form of family romance, a potentially self-aggrandising allusion to the two ancient but unmythological people who happen to be one’s parents. As Roith writes, referring to the precursor of her own book, Marine Robert’s From Oedipus to Moses, ‘the primordial murdered father in Freud’s Oedipean drama was not a legendary Greek king but a gentle, unsuccessful Hasidic merchant from Galicia.’ Roith shows, and it is the strongest part of her book, that Freud’s followers, and in a different way Freud himself, tended to deny the significance of Freud’s Jewish origins or, more simply, just drew attention to other things. The emphasis on the cultural furore, for example, of Fin-de-Siècle Vienna imposes a family romance on Freud’s ordinary family life. His parents did not talk about Mahler and think about Logical Positivism. To understand the history of Freud’s views on women, or on anything else, we must take into account his ‘familial and subcultural origins, which, of course, were not those of the Fin-de-Siècle Viennese Christian bourgeoisie, as is often assumed. Freud was a man of great cultivation and scholarship, a brilliant classicist and scientist ... But his first experience was that of the son of Jewish parents, both of whom were born in the kind of provincial ghetto or hamlet of Eastern Europe where Jews had lived, in the main, in isolated communities and in a state of strict religious orthodoxy for hundreds of years.’

Just as Freud would claim Goethe, Helmholtz, Brucke and Charcot as forefathers, substituting intellectual affinities for family history so, by the first decade of the 20th century, people would be making exorbitant claims for the ways in which Freud’s work had changed their lives. It was, however, integral to his theory that these (developmentally) very late identifications and formative kinds of hero-worship grow out of the vicissitudes of our earliest desire. Our intellectual heroes and heroines – not to mention our analysts, if we have them – arrive quite late in the day. Desire is where we start from, but in relation to our parents. And psychoanalysis has interesting things to say about the sense in which our parents are, or can become, real people to us, and about what we are doing as we gradually become interested in other people. Roith’s socio-historical account confers an exemplary ‘Jewish’ reality on Freud’s parents – first-generation assimilationist immigrants, weak worldly father, strong home-bound mother – that can tell us very little about their reality for him. Her often detailed reconstruction of what Freud’s parents were probably like, given their background and tradition, and the influence of all this on his theory-making about women, reveals some intriguing connections. It cannot show us the process of Freud’s unique metabolism of what he inherited. Psychoanalysis is what he made of it; and while we have access to what he made in 24 volumes, what he found, and its influence on him, is open to more tendentious kinds of speculation.

Roith’s version of Freud’s cultural origins brings him back down to earth, and the earth, of course, does not belong to him. He was a Jew living in a Christian culture, and a city in which neither he nor his parents had been born. The psychoanalytic notions of sexuality that he was to describe originated, as Roith says, ‘in a meeting between two cultures whose sexual ideologies differed radically from each other in their most important respects’. So Freud’s double disparagement of women – for example, that they are both the enemies of civilisation and sexually deficient – she regards as typically rabbinic attitudes mediated by the family rather than part of the ethos in which Freud worked. There is, she reminds us in a fascinating discussion of rabbinic views on sexuality, a regular morning prayer thanking God that one was not born a woman. She also notes Freud’s profound and persistent ambivalence about his own Jewishness, and most interestingly, his complicated relationship to Hebrew and Yiddish. Yiddish was sometimes the only language that the women in the Eastern European ghettos could read or write. Since women were excluded by rabbinic law from the Sacred Tongue of Hebrew, the mother-tongue was Yiddish. Freud’s mother, Roith tells us, spoke ‘broken German’, Mauscheln, which was a Germanised form of Yiddish. For immigrant Jews, keen to assimilate, Yiddish was the language of their despised ‘primitive’ Eastern relatives. As we shall see, Roith suggests that in Freud’s theories of female sexuality, women become the repository for a good deal of – partly Jewish – anti-semitic sentiment. It was part of Freud’s anti-semitism to have to ‘confess’ to his friend Fleiss about his collection of Jewish jokes, many of which were in Yiddish. He even denied in a letter ever having known Hebrew or Yiddish when in fact his relationship with his Hebrew teacher – the distinguished Professor Hammerschlag – is well documented. If the unconscious is structured like a language, perhaps that language is Yiddish. Certainly for the assimilating Jewish male there was a lot of disowning to do. And as Freud would later remark in the kind of striking insight that psychoanalysis had made possible, everything you deny returns from outside. Just as Jung would represent to him the mysticism Freud feared, so Melanie Klein would later offer him the idea that the castration anxiety that was at the centre of his theory was a derivative of a more profound envy of the woman’s fertility.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, Roith claims that it was the traditional emphasis on the culture of learning, as opposed to physical prowess, that not only enabled Jewish males ‘to maintain their sense of identity as a cohesive group but also permitted a sense of superiority and omnipotence which effectively complemented the sense of vulnerability experienced by them as an ethnic minority’. Several critics have noted, as she says, the pervasive emphasis in psychoanalysis on brains (insight) rather than bodies (pleasure), on the intellectual mastery of unappeasable desire. Psychoanalytic theory is about sexuality and yet curiously counter-erotic; you could never gather from reading it quite how pleasurable, or exciting, or evocative sex can be. Its vocabulary of plenitude or satisfaction is notably impoverished. Nor is there any consideration or real description in psychoanalytic case-histories or theoretical discussions of what people – meaning both analysts and patients – look like. In psychoanalysis, no one seems to want to save appearances. So, when Sartre wrote of a Jewish tendency to treat the body ‘rationally ... without joy’, or when Thomas Szasz argued that Jews ‘spoiled eroticism’ by making marriage and reproduction compulsory, they were taking seriously something that could be described as a Jewish influence on Freud’s thought, though hardly an exclusively Jewish one. For Roith, the rabbinic rationality of Freud’s thought is a key to his limitations as a theorist of female sexuality. The values and status inherent in the physically passive, scholar ideal safeguarded the pre-emancipation Jew’s sense of masculinity,’ she believes, and this precarious masculinity was propped up by retarded Eastern European Jewish views about femininity.

However, her attempt to provide instructive generalisations that will shed light on the development of psychoanalytic theory leads her into the dead end of a familiar kind of essentialism. Though some ‘models’ of femininity are more satisfying than others, it is misleading to suggest, as she does, that there could be ‘a satisfactory model’ (the word ‘model’ has unfortunate connotations in this context). Psychoanalysis is always a retrospective history, not a prospective modelling agency. It does not try, Freud wrote, ‘to describe what a woman is – that would be a task it could scarcely perform – but sets about inquiring how she comes into being’. Freud realised that attention to the process of a life – how someone comes into being – precluded the possibility of conclusive definitions. And this made Freud fanatically tentative in his theory-making, as even the most cursory reading of any of his papers shows. Roith feels, however, that ‘Freud’s views arise from some unexamined assumptions on his part and from a highly defensive stance in relation to women that helped direct and shape them.’ To understand this proposition we need, first, to be able to imagine what an examined assumption might be on this subject, and what the consequences would be of having one; and secondly, what an ‘undefended stance’ in relation to women (or men) would look like, leaving aside the psychoanalytic sense in which defence is always a form of recognition.

Freud’s ‘unexamined assumptions’, and his anxieties about women, Roith finds not only in the content of his theories, but also in his relationships with his female followers. In what are often lucid chapters on each topic, she tries to demonstrate the ways in which Freud was ‘biased’ against women while still valuing their contribution to psychoanalysis. The stories she tells of Freud’s polite domination of Andreas-Salomé, Helene Deutsch and Marie Bonaparte, among others, is a revealing, and in some ways disreputable, chapter of psychoanalytic history. But her account is unmodified by a simple psychoanalytic point: Freud had always insisted, without exempting himself, that man was the ambivalent animal, by which he meant not that we have mixed feelings but that we have contradictory feelings. His attempt, for example, to find useful stories for what were initially considered to be pervasive forms of female unhappiness was not exclusively a wish to diminish women’s autonomy.

After explaining in some detail Freud’s changing account of female sexuality, and the fascinated controversy it evoked – was femininity primary or secondary, were little girls to all intents and purposes little boys, was it true, as Karen Horney had suggested, that the little girl’s ‘undiscovered vagina is a denied vagina’? – Roith discovers Freud to be ‘in self-contradiction on some fundamental issues’. The question here, of course, is ‘who isn’t?’ But Roith wants to make what might seem to be a more ambitious point: that Freud’s work was an organised, though mostly unconscious attempt, from within a distinctively Jewish tradition, to deny the power of the mother by disparaging femininity. Freud, she notes, was uncharacteristically stubborn and dogmatic about questions of female sexuality. She does not consider a more illuminating analytic perspective that might suggest that vision is a selective blindness, that only repression makes expression possible, that all inhibitions are sponsored by exhibitions elsewhere. If nothing else, Freud provided blind spots in which other people could work. ‘Freud was strongly influenced in his theories of women,’ Roith writes, ‘by the fact that he was unable to confront and resolve his own complex relationship with his mother and by the ambivalent feelings that he experienced in relation to his own sexual identity.’ Poor Freud.

The language of developmental achievement in psychoanalysis, of confrontation and resolution, is especially banal in relation to Freud’s life. Despite all this, Roith does make a strong case for the way in which, in Freud’s versions of femininity, the woman is the Jew as seen by the anti-semite. She is promiscuous, sensual, anarchic, envious and hysterical. She terrorises the civilised virtues of masterful composure with her occult emotionality and her furtiveness. And this view of women – which is not the whole Freudian story – also helped Freud to be accepted by the culture he aspired to, because it fitted with a prevailing ethos of increasingly elaborate descriptive explanations of women’s insufficiency.

It is also true, as Roith points out, that Freud did not write about male matricidal fantasies – matricide does not occur in the index of the Standard Edition – and that he ignored Jocasta’s fate and motives in his unusually literal reading of the Oedipus story. But to suggest that Freud’s ‘theoretical neglect of the mother in the early life of the child’, and his stress on ‘phallic paternal power’ were due to his ‘disturbed relationship’ to his own mother, and then to add that ‘it may seem no accident that the most powerful and organised movement to correct this balance came from an analyst who was also a Jewish woman’ – Melanie Klein – is to adopt what might be called the Whig view of psychoanalysis: that it has become progressively more truthful, but by going back to earlier and earlier stages of development. One could, however, read the story the other way round. After all, why would adults want to go back to increasingly infantile, pre-linguistic paradigms of emotional life if not to escape from their desire, the problematic and intriguing sexuality constituted by the triangular relationship?

Jones’s monumental biography of Freud was notably guarded both about Freud’s Jewishness and about his mother, and there clearly are connections to be made, as Roith shows, between Freud’s Jewish origin and the invention of psychoanalysis. As a Jew, for example, it is possible to think of one’s Jewishness in the same way that Freud thought about the unconscious, as that which defines one’s being but which one is unwilling, or unable, to assent to fully. Roith has done very interesting research but has come, I think, to misleading conclusions because she is bewitched by the equation of personal truth with some normative developmental process. We are left with a Freud who is singularly inadequate compared, say, with Melanie Klein. It is striking that despite the apparent progress of psychoanalysis – analyses lasting longer and longer, and going deeper and earlier – it has produced so little originality. There is only one thing stronger in psychoanalytic theory than the repetition compulsion, and that is the compulsion to be dull.

Despite all the work that has evidently gone into it, the ghost of So What? haunts the Riddle of Freud. The riddle is alive, though, in Freud’s words, which are the place to start. One could start, in fact, with just one of his phrases: ‘the hereditary vice of virtue’.