All about Freud

J.P. Stern

  • Freud: A Life for Our Time: A Life in Our Time by Peter Gay
    Dent, 810 pp, £16.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 460 04761 2

Professor Peter Gay is an eminent American cultural historian of German origin, an enthusiastic convert to Freudian doctrine, and an honorary member of the American Psychoanalytical Association – you can’t, as a warmly sympathetic biographer of Freud, do-better than that. The sheer amount of biographical, historical and psychoanalytical detail that has gone into the making of this Life is, as far as I can see, unparalleled in the literature of its subject; and so are the care and informed intelligence with which this stupendous mass of facts, conjectures and speculations has been sifted, as well as the attractive, good-humoured and unstrenuous way most of it has been presented. The book could have been shorter. Some of the bitter quarrels fought out in Freud’s circle of disciples, some of the tales of defection and betrayal, and some of the inconclusive arguments relating both to the most controversial of Freud’s publications and to his personal attitudes, are written out at greater length than seems necessary, and some quotations don’t improve by being repeated. But even where similar insights are presented more than once, the longueurs seem to be caused, not by a loss of narrative control, but by a scrupulous regard for fairness – fairness, one need hardly add, to Freud rather than to his adversaries. In one sense, the subtitle of the book, A Life for our Time, is justified. Professor Gay has been able to use a great deal more material than did Ernest Jones when he wrote his three-volume Life and Work (1954-1957). And as long as the guardians of Freud’s archives continue to exercise their censorship (which, now that scarcely any of the participants in this story are still alive, seems indefensible), this is bound to remain the definitive biography. In the bibliographical essays appended to each chapter Gay has indicated what the nature of the material still being withheld is likely to be, and how it may affect his own conclusions. (Thus one may infer from the evidence hinted at that Freud’s own sex life, which, it had seemed, came to an end when he was not quite 44 years of age, may turn out to have been less impoverished.) Gay is scrupulous in his affection, claiming to have preferred reasonable and probable conjectures to scandalously improbable ones. By and large, this is a remarkably accomplished and rounded portrait of the last Central European intellectual, and it seems unlikely that any future disclosures will greatly alter it.

Does Sigmund Freud deserve such a detailed going-over? There is of course a sense in which his importance as a European and Western phenomenon can hardly be exaggerated. The kind of attention that Gay has brought to bear on his subject yields answers to some of the pressing questions we are likely to ask, while other questions, no less urgent, are left open.

The early part of the book adds little to previous studies. Surprisingly, Freud’s early childhood in Moravia (1856-1859) is given almost no historical setting, nor are we told much about the first few years after the family’s move to Vienna. Unsurprisingly – for this is, after all, a Freud biography by a Freudian – the boy’s glimpse of his naked mother, conveyed by Freud in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in Berlin in decorous Latin, figures more fully than does the account of the family’s social situation. To be sure, there are some dutiful background pages (together with a daunting bibliography) on Vienna in the brief era of liberalism and the subsequent reactionary era under Karl Lueger, the city’s celebrated mayor, whom Hitler admired. But except for his account of life in the city during the Austrian Anschluss of 1938, which is exemplary, Gay’s Vienna is less convincing than his evocations of Freud’s visits to the Berlin of Isherwood’s days. Repeatedly, Gay asks why Freud, who was for ever declaring his dislike of Vienna, nevertheless continued to live there for eighty years, and why even after the Anschluss he was most reluctant to leave. The only answer we get is provided by that old stand-by called, ‘ambivalence’; a more generous view of Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna (1980), or indeed Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities, might have yielded a more abundant answer. On the other hand, Freud’s warm if critical admiration of England (which, he shared, incidentally, with members of the Viennese Jockey Club), his remarkable command of English, and his consistently affectionate and trustful relationship with Ernest Jones (the Welshman who went about in a sort of honorary yarmoulka), as well as his conventional dislike of America, are dealt with at great length.

The story of Freud’s friendship with the Berlin ENT specialist Wilhelm Fliess, which ended in 1902 with a quarrel over a question of originality, sets the pattern for a series of similar rows throughout Freud’s life. Gay’s subtle account shows how many diverse elements were involved in this relationship. Closest mutual consultation in the treatment of patients, some of it with disastrous results; repeated and, as it turned out, temporary acquiescence in Fliess’s fantastic diagnoses and cures; Freud’s almost unreserved reports on the progress of his own self-analysis together with his theoretical speculations at a time when most of the tenets of psychoanalysis were maturing in his mind, not to mention his use of Fliess as an object of analysis – all these are aspects of a collaborative enterprise unique in Freud’s life. This is the collaboration of as if equals. It founders on Freud’s assertion of independence and originality, his will to power. Gay presents the relationship as a focal point symptomatic of feelings of guilt and Oedipal aggression. A non-analytical way to see it would be as the first of the numerous occasions marking Freud’s indifference to the common-sense distinction between criticism and betrayal. No other emotional and intellectual relationship was ever as close. Though Freud’s hatred of those who ‘betrayed’ him in later years was no less implacable, and though at one time or another his enemies came to include most of his disciples, no break – not even that with Jung – was as influential in his development. German intellectual history in the early 20th century is not renowned for its irenic ways, but only the anathematising of the German Marxists by their Muscovite enemies throughout the Thirties can compare for sheer harshness with Freud’s reactions.

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