Gleichenstein’s Hat

Robert Simpson

  • Beethoven Essays by Maynard Solomon
    Harvard, 375 pp, £23.50, July 1988, ISBN 0 674 06377 5

In contemplating the psychology of a dead artist, referring to the only sure thing we have to go on – his work – can be tricky: we are tempted into making the evidence conform to our theories, Freudian or other. Maynard Solomon recognises this danger, but is not altogether saved from rashness. An example is his chapter on the four dreams that Beethoven happened to describe (very briefly and sketchily) in letters. In one of these letters, addressed to Ignaz von Gleichenstein, he says: ‘The night before last I had a dream in which you seemed to me to be in a stable, where you were so wholly bewitched and captivated by a pair of magnificent horses that you were oblivious to everything around you.’ That is all. In the same letter Beethoven refers to a hat which Gleichenstein seems to have asked him to collect from a shop. Beethoven says that when he collected it, it had a rip in it, and he quite reasonably advises Gleichenstein to make the shop take it back, since it was so expensive. It would be surprising if a psychoanalyst were to refrain from the usual sexual interpretation of the pair of horses. Solomon, however, goes on to explain that the rip in the hat bespeaks ‘the feminised son, castrated in the presence of the copulating parents’. But the innocent hat was not part of the dream! To be fair, such mistakes are quite uncharacteristic of Solomon: but one might wonder what his analyst would say about this one. In another essay, Solomon devastatingly dismantles Editha and Richard Sterba’s aggressive theory about Beethoven’s alleged homosexual interest in his nephew. Throughout the book we are aware of Solomon’s high intelligence, the immense width of his reading and his often shrewd perceptions, as well as his deeply sympathetic approach to Beethoven’s day-to-day problems. As a psychoanalyst, Solomon must be expected to tackle any human subject according to the ideas he espouses, and he is considerate enough to warn ‘those who cannot abide such speculations’ against Chapters Four, Five and Six, where he discusses Beethoven’s dreams, the effect on him of the death in infancy of his elder brother (also Ludwig, born about a year earlier), and the psychological implications and consequences of his deafness. For my own part, I must confess to doubts about the validity of such deductions, drawn from what is, after all, often flimsy and circumstantial evidence.

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