Freud’s Idols

Adam Phillips

This complaint at the uniformity of the world is really a complaint at not having been mixed profoundly enough with the diversity of the world.

Kafka

Anyone who goes to the Freud Museum in North London is immediately struck by Freud’s collection of antiquities, and, especially, by the forest of figurines from various cultures on Freud’s desk. Freud, as the analyst, would sit overseeing them as he listened to the patient from behind the couch; and the patient lying on the couch could see them by turning to the right, but could not, as we all know, see Freud. In the first psychoanalytic setting – the paradigm of every psychoanalytical consulting-room – the patient could not see the analyst but could see his idols.

Clearly, for many reasons, entering Freud’s consulting-room would have been an unusual experience; the Wolf-man was reminded, he wrote, ‘not of a doctor’s office but rather of an archaeological study. Here were all kinds of statuettes and other unusual objects which even the layman recognised as archaeological finds from ancient Egypt.’ Psychoanalysis, of course, always takes place in a museum – and for the more idolatrous, usually in the Freud museum – but the museum, the stored past, comes to life in language.

Hans Sachs, one of the early members of Freud’s Wednesday Psychological Society in Vienna, recalls in his memoir, Freud: Master and Friend, how ‘under the silent stare of idols and animal-shaped gods we listened to some new article by Freud, or read and discussed our own products, or just talked about things that interested us.’ Presumably, the irony of the situation was not lost on them. And since Jewish thought, by definition, sets itself against idolatry, we should take this as one of the important scenes in the history of psychoanalysis: a group of Jewish men, in a room full of idols, having a new kind of conversation about sexuality. Even though they thought of themselves as secular Jews, this was the equivalent of putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It was a critique of traditional forms of reverence, because to talk about sexuality, from a psychoanalytic point of view, was to talk about the nature of belief. As the conventions of love poetry have always insisted, it is in our erotic life that we return, so to speak, to idolatry. And our erotic life – as psychoanalysis would reveal – is intimately connected to our acquisitive, materialistic life.

Towards the end of the 19th century, in the major European capitals, it was possible to purchase gods. ‘The ancients gods still exist,’ Freud wrote to his friend Fliess in 1899, ‘for I have bought one or two lately, among them a stone Janus, who looks down on me with his two faces in a very superior fashion.’ You know the gods still exist, Freud jokes, because you can buy them. They had become a new kind of commodity, just as the personal past was becoming something you could buy in the form of psychoanalysis. Recent archaeological discoveries had given vivid form to the idea that the dead do not disappear. And Janus, we may remember, the Roman god of gods, was the opener and closer of all things, who looked inward and outward, before and after, a pertinent god to have acquired, given Freud’s new-found preoccupations at the turn of the century.

It is, of course, tendentious, to refer to what Freud called his ‘grubby old gods’ as idols. In his collection of over two thousand pieces there were many representations of deities, but Freud did not worship them. He simply collected them with some relish and obviously prized them very highly. On the other hand, it would not be wildly speculative from a psychoanalytic point of view to infer that there were powerful unconscious identifications at work with both the people who had worshipped them and the people who had found them. If, as has been suggested, they also represented his family romance – his wishful allegiance to alternative cultures – then they were also a rather grandiose parody of that idea. It would not be a family romance that could contain Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Near-Eastern and Asian members, so much as a world-historical romance. ‘I have made many sacrifices,’ he wrote to Stefan Zweig, and it is a telling phrase, ‘for my collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and actually have read more archaeology than psychology.’ He couldn’t, we know, have had comparable Jewish antiquities because there could be no such thing.

It is an interesting irony that psychoanalysis – in which only words and money are exchanged, in which no graven images are used, and which is carried out in an atmosphere of relative abstinence – had its beginnings in a setting populated by old gods. Freud’s consulting-room, in other words, was a rather vivid representation of an old dilemma: how many gods, if any, and what are they for? None of Freud’s antiquities was kept in his living quarters. So what was Freud telling his patients and himself by displaying his collection in the rooms where he practised psychoanalysis, a theory and a therapy that was a consistent and impassioned critique of religious belief? These antiquities in a Jewish doctor’s consulting-room articulated two things about culture, which had interesting implications for the new science of psychoanalysis. First, that culture was history, and that this history, which was of extraordinary duration, could be preserved and thought about. The present could be a cover-story for the past. And secondly – and more threatening to the monotheism of a putatively chosen people – that culture was plural. These figurines from such diverse cultures, representing what Freud called ‘the splendid diversity of human life’, ‘the varied types of perfection’, might suggest that the only viable notion of True Belief was as something local, provisional and various. The figurines underlined the fact that there were all sorts of cultural conventions and worlds elsewhere, as many as could be found.

Much has been made of Freud, rightly, as a post-Enlightenment man of his time, committed to progress under the aegis of science, and to a critique of religion as enslavement through superstition. Freud was convinced that cultures, like individuals, developed, in so far as they were able to, from infantile, primitive magic to mature rational science. What is less often spelt out is that Freud was obsessed by the notion of belief. Both magic and science, hysteria and common human unhappiness, delusion and psychoanalytic theory, he began to realise, could be described as matters of belief. As he famously wrote in his conclusion to the Schreber case, ‘it remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet able to believe.’ The psychoanalytic question becomes not, ‘Is that true?’ but: ‘What in your personal history disposes you to believe that?’ And ‘that’ could be psychoanalytic theory. In other words, from a psychoanalytic point of view, belief changes from being a question about the qualities of the object of belief to a question about the history of the subject, the believer. What is the unconscious problem that your belief solves for you, or the wishes that it satisfies? In therapy it is always interesting to ask someone in a state of conviction: what kind of person would you be if you no longer believed that? A symptom, of course, is always a state of conviction.

Despite Freud’s disclaimers – his descriptions of himself, in one form or another, as a ‘godless Jew’ – it is clear to me that in his work the Jewish boundary between idolatry and something else we might call True Belief, was recontested. The distinction that had organised Judaism became blurred as he used psychoanalysis to redescribe the roots of belief.

Freud’s preoccupation with Moses is obviously relevant in this context. His interest in Moses, as many people have pointed out, was partly based on his identification with him both as an interpreter and as an abolisher of idols. In his first study of the patriarch, ‘The Moses of Michelangelo’ (1914), Freud tries to describe his internal reactions to the Moses idolised, so to speak, in Michelangelo’s famous sculpture. ‘In 1913, through three lonely September weeks,’ he wrote, ‘I stood daily in the church in front of the statue, studied it, measured it, drew it, until that understanding came to me that I only dared to express anonymously in the paper.’ There is a certain irony in Freud’s devotion to this idol of a man whose project was the destruction of idolatry. When Ernest Jones went to Rome in 1913 Freud wrote to him: ‘I envy you for seeing Rome so soon and so early in life. Bring my deepest devotion to Moses and write me about him.’ Jones replied obediently: ‘My first pilgrimage the day after my arrival was to convey your greetings to Moses, and I think he unbent a little from his haughtiness.’ It is not obvious who the joke was on.

One reason why Freud was drawn so irresistibly to this statue was in order to understand why he was so drawn to it; why, that is to say, he seemed, quite unconsciously, to have made it into an idol: ‘No piece of statuary,’ he wrote in his paper, ‘has ever made a stronger impression on me than this. How often have I mounted the steep steps of the unlovely Corso Cavour to the lonely place where the deserted church stands, and have essayed to support the angry scorn of the hero’s glance. Sometimes I have crept cautiously out of the half-gloom of the interior as though I myself belonged to the mob upon whom his eye is turned – the mob which can hold fast no conviction, which has neither faith nor patience and which rejoices when it has regained its illusory idols.’

Freud, in this curious scene, half-identifies with the idolators, the ‘mob’ as he calls them contemptuously, which has ‘neither faith nor patience’. Freud may be guilty of abandoning the religion of his fathers, but that wouldn’t necessarily place him, a man of science, in Aaron’s party, having to withstand ‘the angry scorn of the hero’s glance’. In this context perhaps, if you are not a Jew you are an idolator, but what are Freud’s ‘illusory idols’ whom he creeps cautiously out of the church to return to? It would be glib simply to say that his idols are now Science and Psychoanalysis: but it is his psychoanalytic method that he returns to and uses to understand what we might call his transference to Michelangelo’s Moses. And the interpretation of the statue that his paper explains is particularly interesting in the light of these considerations.

Freud is preoccupied with two things about Michelangelo’s Moses: first, what is Moses’s mood, the state of mind that Michelangelo has tried to represent? And secondly, at what point is Moses in the story? Reviewing the evidence of previous scholars, Freud begins by accepting what was then the traditional interpretation of the statue: Michelangelo saw Moses at the moment when he first sees his people worshipping the Golden Calf, the moment just before his rage. But then Freud, after his own analysis, comes up with an alternative construction. Actually, he proposes, the artist has shown Moses after his rage, in a state of recovery: that is, after the idolatry of his people has had to be included in the story – not the moment of discovery, but the immediate period of realisation. And this, Freud says, is what is so compelling for him about Moses. ‘What we see before us,’ Freud writes, ‘is not the inception of a violent action, but the remains of a movement that has already taken place. In his first transport of fury Moses desired to act, to spring up and take vengeance and forget the Tables; but he has overcome the temptation, and he will now remain seated and still in his frozen wrath and in his pain mingled with contempt.’ If Freud, in this scenario, finds himself identifying with the idolatrous mob, he also admires Moses because of his self-control. He is an object of emulation for Freud because he does not take quick revenge on the idolators: he suffers their difference.

This essay of Freud’s, written in 1913, clearly also refers implicitly to Jung’s defection; though, ironically, in this parallel Jung becomes the idolator, fleeing from Freud’s devotion (so to speak) to sexuality. But the essay also describes an internal configuration which is dramatised throughout Freud’s work. More precisely, a relationship is described between an inner authority which organises and defines, and a less developed, non-heroic idolatrous mob which is impatient and unwilling to believe in the hero. The mob is sceptical and the hero has conviction. The hero, from the mob’s point of view, is excessively demanding: the mob, from the hero’s point of view, is immature. A misleadingly neat set of equations suggests itself: Moses as the super-ego, Aaron as the ego, and the idolatrous mob as the id. In Freud’s redescription of Exodus idolatry is infantile; it signifies a failure of renunciation. But Freud’s interpretation of Michelangelo’s Moses suggests that Freud is trying to contain – to keep alive in himself – the relationship between the Moses figure and the idolators.

Returning to Moses twenty years later in his weird and wonderful book Moses and Monotheism, Freud gives final form to the possible virtues – the developmental achievement – which in his view distinguishes Moses and his religion from what he contemptuously calls the ‘mob’. In crude terms, it is fair to say that Freud reduces all religious belief to a longing for the father: ‘A child’s earliest years,’ he writes, ‘are dominated by an enormous overvaluation of his father’; and this overvaluation gets transferred onto a deity. But in Moses and Monotheism we find – amid much fascinating and bizarre speculation – both an enthusiastic defence of monotheism and a profound distrust of it. And this ambivalence reflects both the child’s ambivalence about the father and the religion of the fathers, but also Freud’s ambivalence about the version of adulthood generated by psychoanalysis.

Monotheism, for example – which he explicitly links with imperialism – in Freud’s view produced intolerance: ‘Along with the belief in a single god religious intolerance was inevitably born, which had previously been alien to the ancient world and remained so long afterwards.’ There is clearly an idealisation of the ancient world here, but it is nevertheless worth bearing in mind that in what Freud calls the ‘ancient world’ there were a large number of deities of both sexes, and that the gods of the Classical ancient world were hedonists. This point is not incidental because for Freud, in Moses and Monotheism, monotheism seems to represent a triumph of the mind, or what Freud calls the ‘intellect’, over the body. And this, Freud says, but with considerable misgivings, is its great virtue. ‘For various reasons,’ he apparently remarked to Ernest Jones, ‘the Jews have undergone a one-sided development and admire brains more than bodies.’

In what now seem to us to be questionable categories, it is as if the body produces and worships idols, and the intellect produces the sublimated rigours of monotheism, what Freud calls the ‘heights of sublime abstraction’. On the one hand, he criticises monotheism for its intolerance of other people, and on the other, he praises it for its intolerance of the body. There is bodily clamour and there is restraint. And for those like Moses and other chosen people who have managed what Freud calls this ‘triumph of intellectuality over sensuality’ – this abstinence – there is one rather dubious reward: ‘All such advances in intellectuality have as their consequence that the individual’s self-esteem is increased, that he is made proud – so that he feels superior to other people who have remained under the spell of sensuality.’ It is, of course, children – placed by Freud in the same alarming category as women, neurotics and ‘primitive tribes’ – who remain under the spell of sensuality. It is they who are prone to idolatry: but by the same token, in Freud’s terms, they do not get their sexual excitement from feeling superior to other people.

From a psychoanalytic point of view, to talk about religion, or to talk about sexuality, is, in effect, to talk about childhood. And childhood begins, at least, ‘under the spell of sensuality’. Throughout his writing Freud is extremely interested in this spell – both in how resilient it was and in what broke it or, rather, modified it. Like adults in analysis, and for the same reasons, children were seen to be extremely resistant when it came to relinquishing pleasures. In his late paper ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’ – a paper that is markedly sceptical about the therapeutic efficacy of psychoanalysis – Freud offers as an example telling children the so-called facts of life. ‘After such enlightenment,’ he writes, ‘children know something that they did not know before, but they make no use of the new knowledge that has been presented to them. We come to see that they are not even in so great a hurry to sacrifice for this new knowledge the sexual theories which might be described as a natural growth and which they have constructed in harmony with, and dependence on, their imperfect libidinal organisation – theories about the part played by the stork, about the nature of sexual intercourse and about the way in which babies are made. For a long time after they have been given sexual enlightenment they behave like primitive races who have had Christianity thrust upon them and who continue to worship their idols in secret.’

It is surely one of Freud’s greatest contributions to have multiplied the possibilities for irony. Once again we find here complicated and ironic identifications at work. In what sense, for example, are the facts of life – the scientific facts of life – like Christianity? Freud made no secret of his views about Christianity – and yet Christianity is being used here, albeit figuratively, to represent the truth about sex. It is not clear whether this is a parody of Truth or of Christianity. The history, which Freud knew only too well, made it abundantly obvious that it wasn’t only ‘primitive races’ that Christians had wanted to convert; they had wanted to convert the Jews who were, of course, notorious in anti-semitic jargon for their sexual preoccupations. If Freud is showing us in this example the conflict between Christianity and infantile sexuality, then we need to remember that Freud thought of himself as the discoverer of infantile sexual theories in adult life; and that his work was, among many other things, a fierce critique of Christianity.

Children, confronted with the truth, ‘make no use of the new knowledge’, but ‘continue to worship their old idols in secret’. And their idols are theories: like psychoanalysis, theories about sexuality. In this example, Freud, as a man of science, must – ironically – side with the Christian missionaries; but his sympathies are manifestly with the refusal of the idolatrous children, whose sexual theories he refers to as a ‘natural growth’. In other words, we find once again in Freud, as we did in his accounts of Moses, the generosity of a split identification. He has internalised the ancient Jewish struggle between idolatry and True Belief; and in each of these instances, true belief involves submission to a more powerful authority. The truth becomes something we give in to.

In The Future of an Illusion – Freud’s most sustained investigation into the personal origins of religious belief – he defines religious ideas as ‘teachings and assertions about facts and conditions of external (or internal) reality which tell one something one has not discovered for oneself and which lay claim to one’s belief’. Religious ideas, in other words, are imposed, and not found. And clearly, as always in Freud’s writing, there is an implicit parallel being drawn with psychoanalytic ideas; the question being not ‘Are they true?’ but: ‘Why do you believe them?’ A distinction is being made here by Freud which we are more familiar with from later object-relations theory: the distinction, that is, between an object that can be found, and an object that is forced upon us. And we should remember in this context that pleasure, unlike pain, cannot be forced upon us.

Freud asks – in the sometimes reductive generalisations of The Future of an Illusion – what kind of objects are religious beliefs, and what are they used for? And he answers that they are paternal objects, which we invest with power and authority, to console us for our original and pervasive helplessness. In fact, in Freud’s terms, we don’t believe: we wish – and above all, we wish to believe. Because of our formative helplessness, every belief, we think, protects us from something. And in this sense a belief, for Freud, is like a symptom; we imagine a catastrophe will ensue if we relinquish it. And again, like a symptom, religious belief, Freud says, is a way of not leaving home. Anyone who has been able to relinquish what he calls the ‘religious illusion’ will ‘be in the same position as a child who has left the parental house where he is so warm and comfortable ... Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into hostile life. We may call this “education to reality”.’ Reality, we must infer from this, is that which cannot be wishfully improved: something we could, perhaps, call Nature.

It is the element of wish-fulfilment which for Freud makes all religious belief a childish illusion. Something called ‘reality’ now fills the space once inhabited by the monotheism of Moses. And this reality is ineluctable, like death; all belief is now idolatry and idolatry is an anaesthetic. The believer, Freud insists, is like an addict, and ‘the effect of religious consolations,’ he writes, ‘may be likened to that of a narcotic’ – a ‘sleeping draught’. Religion is simply an elaborate acknowledgment of what Freud calls ‘the perplexity and helplessness of the human race’, but it is a ‘bitter-sweet poison’. This is all very simple. The child believes in his father – though quite what, in detail, the child believes about his father is not spelled out – and the adult, in the same way, believes in his God because he is too frightened to grow up. But why is Freud, as many people have noticed, when he tells his own story about religion so unusually, indeed excessively, hostile to it? If it is so obvious what religion, in the abstract, really is, why does he have to keep telling us? We can ask a simple question: what are the doubts he is trying to stifle by his over-insistent critique?

One of the doubts, I think, had to do with the possibility that he was not only talking about religion. About two-thirds of the way through The Future of an Illusion Freud begins to realise that he may be using religion as a pretext to talk about belief. And this had interesting implications for psychoanalysis, because Freud had developed a treatment that made use of this infantile capacity for belief. Transference, after all, is a form of secular idolatry. Just as Freud was manifestly uncertain as to what there was beyond transference, so he begins to doubt, again, in The Future of an Illusion, whether there is any essential or discernible difference between idolatry and true belief, and whether any area of our lives can be anything other than what he calls illusion: ‘May not other cultural assets of which we hold a high opinion and by which we let our lives be ruled be of a similar nature? Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? And is it not the case that in our civilisation the relations between the sexes are disturbed by an erotic illusion or a number of such illusions?’ And what of psychoanalysis itself, which Freud noticeably fails to mention, but of which he, and some of us, hold a high opinion, even if we don’t let our lives be ruled by it?

Through psychoanalysis Freud suddenly seems to have collapsed the traditional opposition between idolatry and true belief. And he had certainly, of course, described an Unconscious that was the antithesis of an idol, that could not be worshipped and should not be idealised. If all belief is idolatry, and even Moses was childish, what then is the alternative? The answer, Freud states emphatically in the conclusion to The Future of an Illusion, is Science, because at least in science our beliefs are subject to correction. This could, of course, be the most ironic wish of all: a wish that our wishes be correctable. But from one of Freud’s many points of view, potential objects of belief were to be replaced by a method of enquiry into the personal history of belief.

The analyst, Lacan says, is the one who is supposed to know, but that is a false belief. So we are left with a paradox which is integral to our present subject. With the discovery of transference Freud evolved what could be called a cure by idolatry; in fact, a cure of idolatry through idolatry. But the one thing psychoanalysis cannot cure, when it works, is the belief in psychoanalysis. And that is a problem.