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.


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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in