The Unimportance of Being Ernest

Adam Phillips

  • The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones 1908-1939 edited by Andrew Paskauskas, introduction by Riccardo Steiner
    Harvard, 836 pp, £29.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 674 15423 1

The first chapter of Ernest Jones’s misleadingly entitled autobiography, Free Associations, ends with a bemusing paragraph about the Welsh ‘servant who acted also as a nurse’ during Jones’s early childhood: ‘One of my memories of this nurse was that she taught me two words to designate the male organ, one for it in a flaccid state, the other in an erect. It was an opulence of vocabulary I have not encountered since.’ As this superbly-edited correspondence shows, this childhood memory was a kind of symbolic omen, an uncanny foreshadowing of Jones’s later preoccupations. The translation of psychoanalysis – both trying to get it across and turning it into English – was to be Jones’s mission.

Ernest Jones has gone down in psychoanalytic history as the rather priggish servant who also acted as a nurse both to Freud and to the psychoanalytic ‘movement’, as it is often referred to in these revealing letters. (At other times it is a ‘campaign’ or a ‘cause’.) Apparently convinced of the unimportance of being Ernest – he wrote a famous paper, ‘The Inferiority Complex of the Welsh’, in which he compared them unpromisingly with the Jews – Jones has always seemed rather a pompous, ridiculous figure in that ‘secret ring’ of early analysts; Jones the Joke, the man with no sense of humour. Who other than Ernest Jones could have defined cunnilingus in the Glossary of his psychoanalytic papers as ‘apposition of the mouth to the vulva’? But the man who, appropriately, contributed the term ‘rationalisation’ to psychoanalysis (in 1908) – ‘the inventing of a reason for an attitude or action the motive of which is not recognised’ – also established psychoanalysis in Britain; organised, at first single-handedly, the translation of Freud’s work; and was instrumental in saving many of the early analysts, including Freud himself, from the Nazis.

‘You have really made the cause quite your own,’ Freud writes to him in 1926, after the first twenty years of their collaboration, ‘for you have achieved everything that could be made of it: a society, a journal and an institute.’ But as Freud knew, fixing Jones with this kind of praise, this is the ‘everything’ of an ambitious bureaucrat. The cause was Freud’s: Jones had simply made the arrangements. Jones may be more than the straight man in the double-act of these letters, and in the tortured history of psychoanalysis, but what the correspondence does reveal is the sado-masochism of his relationship with Freud. By the same token it also reveals the new genre of ‘honesty’ produced by psychoanalysis, of which Jones’s sometimes gruelling candour is an example, but from which Freud notably exempts himself. There are no confessions here from Freud. True to the spirit of psychoanalysis, Freud has no truck with the explicit, while Jones’s ‘honesty’, true to the letter of psychoanalysis, entails boasting about vulnerability or what he considers to be personal weakness, as though telling the truth means describing all the ways in which he isn’t as good as he should be. And when he is, according to him, it’s thanks to Freud. ‘To me it is clear that I owe my career, my livelihood, my position, and my capacity of happiness in marriage – in short everything – to you and the work you have done.’ The excess of Jones’s gratitude was not entirely to Freud’s liking; in the complicity of these letters – Freud’s composed reticence sustaining and sustained by Jones’s clamorous appeals – Freud is more than willing to remind Jones of his abject self.

Jones was certainly preoccupied, in more ways than one, by what to call his potent self: ‘Jones’ seemed singularly unpromising. Given, as Jones writes in one of these letters, that ‘psychoanalysis is Freud,’ who, then, is Jones (or anyone else)? When his son was born Jones decided he would change his name because ‘some names like Jones and Smith have lost the first function of a name, that is to separate them from other people.’ He decided to ‘amplify’ his name to Beddow-Jones. Once Freud had poured elaborate and mocking scorn on this – ‘I only know that you will continue to be Ernest Jones to us’ – Jones, with characteristically unwitting bathos, immediately withdraws the idea: ‘So I must continue to assimilate the pinpricks involved in being called Jones or E. Jones.’ But letters, like dreams, refer to a backdrop of stories. Jones’s wife, we discover, left him for someone called Jones (Herbert); and 11 years after Jones first proposed making his name more opulent Freud was to write to him of someone Jones had enquired about: ‘He may be called Freud; the name is not as rare as one might wish.’ Rarer, though, than Jones.

If one of the pleasures of this book is Freud’s wit, which thrives on Jones being true to his (first) name, the other is the myriad of deferred and interrupted stories that the correspondence contains. Any keyword – ‘Women’, or ‘Fate’, or ‘Science’, or ‘Originality’, or ‘Telepathy’, or ‘Klein’ – followed through the 31 years of this correspondence (the longest of any of Freud’s correspondences) will disclose the multiple and conflicting histories that make up psychoanalysis. ‘The readers,’ Freud wrote to Jones, ‘should not be induced to forget the historical moment’ of any element of psychoanalytic theory; and this correspondence, for better or worse, certainly thickens the plot, making us newly suspicious of the suspicion called psychoanalysis. What it provides is a kind of source-book for the muddles and conflicts of contemporary psychoanalysis in which, though there are no longer ‘heresies’ and ‘apostates’, to use the Freud/Jones vocabulary, people still defend ideas as though they were parents. (The child, it should be remembered, always defends the bad parent more ferociously than the good.)

Jones probably did more than anyone in the early years of psychoanalysis to promote and sustain Freud’s work. And his expressed view of Freud in these letters is consistently admiring, sometimes ingratiating and occasionally idolatrous (‘what has made my life worth living, my relationship to you and your work’). Jones’s lack of irony, so striking in these letters, is more than compensated for by Freud (‘Any article of yours on the Mystery and Mythology of Flatus will be welcome’). In his autobiography, however, Jones allows himself two significant grievances against Freud which are particularly relevant to their correspondence. It was, he writes, Freud’s mistaken admiration for Jung that ‘was the first indication that I had that Freud, despite his extraordinary genius in penetrating the deepest layers of the mind, was not a connoisseur of men ... He underestimated or overestimated people over and over again on the simple criterion of liking or disliking them on personal grounds ... [he] was prone at times to very subjective judgments.’ Freud, Jones suggests, understood Human Nature but not individuals, the depths but not their shallow representatives, people. There is an implicit, and alarming, belief here in a ‘correct’ judgment of people. Jones prided himself on being a scientist, and refers in his letters to people’s ‘subjectivity’, whatever that is, getting in the way of the work (Ferenczi, as one would expect, gets a lot of stick for this). Jones was a great believer in technique, as opposed to character, in the practice of psychoanalysis; and according to him, Freud – who does not seem to have been very interested in technique – lacked scientific rigour: he simply liked or disliked people.

The other, and clearly related, adverse judgment of Freud Jones permits himself has to do with translation, one of the main topics of the correspondence (translation, that is, in the several senses of the word). When Jones complained to Freud about one of the early translations of his work Freud apparently replied: ‘better to have a good friend than a good translator’. ‘I have not to this day,’ Jones writes, ‘been able to fathom his cavalier attitude in this matter of translations, which almost produces the impression of indifference concerning the promulgation of his work abroad.’ It is as though Freud is a bit too personal and careless for Jones (one of Freud’s fears, expressed in these letters, about the Kleinian version of analysis that Jones was backing was that it made ‘analysis unreal and impersonal’). Of course, Freud as a casual person, liking and disliking people and preferring friends, undermines the image of Freud’s stoical austerity that Jones had worked so hard to promote in his bizarre and monumental biography. These letters show him straining to keep a certain version of Freud going; when Freud gets what in Jones’s view is a poor American translation of one of his papers, Jones writes: ‘some of the expressions you are made to use are decidedly undignified ... and therefore clash with our conception of you.’ Jones’s protectiveness is disarming, and reveals the potential of psychoanalysis as a form of dissociated knowledge. Certainly he would have had no trouble analysing this kind of idealisation in one of his patients. ‘You are proof by now,’ he writes to Freud in 1921, ‘against misunderstandings, and can also rely on us to correct them for you.’ From a psychoanalytic point of view, misunderstanding was the name of the game. With the idea of the unconscious Freud had proposed a new paradox of knowledge: that there were misunderstandings, but no understandings. This, for the scientific Joneses, of which there were to be many, not to mention the critics of psychoanalysis, was too much.

After giving a successful talk on psychoanalysis to the British Psychological Society in 1920, Jones writes to Freud that his success ‘made me think of your saying: a man is strong so long as he represents a strong idea.’ But Freud realised that psychoanalysis had ironised the whole idea of the strong idea and the strong man, while still promoting them as ideals. Freud, that is to say – and perhaps he had learnt this partly from Mill – was an adept critic of his own apparently strong ideas. Criticising something of Jones’s, he speaks of ‘the danger inherent in our method of concluding from faint traces, exploiting trifling signs’. When they write to each other, if it is not about business, it is about issues of competence. What you are allowed to do in the treatment and still call yourself a psychoanalyst – and who is in a position to decide – has always been the central question among psychoanalysts. So Jones’s correspondence with Freud is organised around two related obsessions: how authoritative is Freud (and psychoanalysis) and who can best represent – that is, translate – his work? Because Jones is so determinedly convinced of the Truth of psychoanalysis – ‘of the highest importance for the race in general and for civilisation in particular’ – he is mystified by Freud’s casual and sometimes dismissive attitude to the translation of his work, as though Freud might even be ambivalent about Truth.

It is clear from the correspondence that Freud is often contemptuous of Jones’s endless concern about translations, implying that those who can, do; those who can’t, translate (edit magazines and arrange conferences). ‘If you lay so great stress on the translations of my books I cannot but give in to you,’ Freud writes glumly, ‘but I continue to regret the amount of work it means for you and could be spent better on original research.’ Given the time and the importance Jones obviously devoted to the translation of Freud’s work, it must have been dismaying to receive letters in which Freud makes it quite clear that he is ‘getting sick of this translation business’; that ‘the whole topic of American and English translations is, so to speak, on the periphery of my interest,’ the implication being that anyone with any originality could not possibly take it so seriously. Translation, paradoxically – or sadistically – becomes, among other things, the stick Freud uses to beat Jones with. In a devastating criticism of Jones’s book On the Nightmare he mentions ‘that it was the sort of book that did not greatly interest [me] because it was too much a question of simply making translations from the unconscious.’ Obviously, in Freud’s view, there were more interesting things to do. And as a ‘wandering Jew,’ he may have had very mixed feelings – a combination of grandiose ambition and intransigent privacy – about the wider circulation of his work. What comes through in the correspondence is his sense of Jones’s devotion to the task as often more of a symptom than a virtue, and Jones’s bewildered feelings of humiliation; Jones doing his best and Freud slightly amazed that he can be bothered, but praising him occasionally. ‘You probably know you have the reputation,’ Jones wrote in 1938, in one of his last letters to Freud, ‘of not being the easiest author to translate.’ Jones’s last translation, so to speak, was the unequivocally heroic one of bringing Freud and Anna to London in 1938.

Jones, it seems, was only too glad to accept Freud’s estimate of him as work-horse, and propagandist. ‘Nothing has taken me back to past days so much,’ Jones writes in 1920, ‘as that wonderful evening when you discoursed to me of your new ideas and plans; they will find a fruitful soil in me, you may be sure.’ Jones was so available for Freud partly because, as he wrote in his autobiography, ‘however enterprising I might be intellectually, I was not intended for a pioneer’s life.’ (What tends to pass for self-knowledge, and even wisdom, in psychoanalysis is a strong sense of one’s personal limitations.) In his ‘subjective’ way Freud quickly saw – and exploited, to their mutual advantage – Jones’s much-flaunted doubts about himself. ‘I am glad you are not one of those fellows,’ Freud writes to him (in English) in the early days of their relationship, ‘who want to show themselves original and totally independent when they do something in writing, but you do not despise to show yourself as interpreter of another’s thoughts.’

This treads a thin line between what might have felt like accurate, and therefore reassuring recognition and a demand on Freud’s part: ‘who I want you to be’ cast as ‘this is who you are’, which is an ingredient in all psychoanalytic interpretation. The die was certainly cast early for Jones. Jung, Ferenczi, Rank and Abraham were all, as Jones knew, far more theoretically innovative than he could be; and in the end the only way he could stand his ground against Freud was on behalf of someone else’s supposed originality – that of Melanie Klein. Despite what Riccardo Steiner, in a notably cautious introduction, calls the ‘frankly wild analysis’ of this correspondence, it is striking how the two correspondents keep each other in place – the same place – through all the conflict and collaboration. So Jones responds enthusiastically to Freud’s sense of his lack of initiative. ‘My ambition,’ he writes back,

is rather to know, to be ‘behind the scenes’ and ‘in the know’, rather than to find out ... I realise that I have very little talent for originality ... my work will be to try and work out in detail, and to find new demonstrations for the truth of, ideas others have suggested. To me work is like a woman bearing a child; to men like you, I suppose, it is more like fertilisation.

This is not only revealing of Jones’s relationship to Freud, but also of his picture of women as essentially disciples and research assistants. These images matter because one of the many interesting things about the correspondence is the backdrop it provides to the formative psychoanalytic debate on female sexuality.

In the early days of psychoanalysis male sexuality was of interest but female sexuality was a ‘riddle’, what Freud was eventually to call, in an unfortunate pun, ‘the dark continent’. Male sexuality didn’t produce a flurry of controversial papers: it was, so to speak, women and children first. If translation was a ‘vexed question’ between Freud and Jones, women – or their psychoanalytic synonym, female sexuality – promised to have the answer, or to be keeping the secret, to the most important theoretical conundrums. The issue of translation raised the question of who was competent, other than Freud himself, to represent psychoanalysis. The question raised by sexual difference was: who is equipped, as it were, to speak about female sexuality? It very quickly seemed as though these two questions were inextricably linked. The contest enacted in this correspondence may have been the conventional one between men – who’s the expert on women? – but the uses of their so-called expertise were to have exorbitant consequences. Nothing – apart from the pathologisation of homosexuality to which it is related – has been more coercive or misleading in psychoanalysis than its generalisations about women. It is baffling, in retrospect, that turning women into objects of scientific enquiry did not lead these early psychoanalysts to ask: what kind of sexual act is understanding or scientific knowledge? What was this knowledge, supposing there was such a thing, to be used for?

Psychoanalysis had to invent certain kinds of women to legitimate its practices. But every picture of a woman, like every picture of a man, is, among other things, the solution to a (largely unconscious) problem. Freud was committed, so to speak, to penis envy; Jones to the belief, as he put it in his late paper ‘Early Female Sexuality’, that woman is not ‘un homme manqué ... a permanently disappointed creature struggling to console herself with secondary substitutes alien to her true nature’. Freud needed a picture of a woman who wanted to be a man, because he needed to believe he was something someone else (or other) would want to be. Jones needed a picture of a woman who wanted to be a woman, so he wouldn’t have to do it for her. It is part of their legacy that we are bewitched by descriptions of sexual difference either in terms of insufficiency and lack – the sexes representing to each other what is rightfully theirs, and the (often violent) consequences of that – or in terms of an (allegedly) essential femininity, which brings with it a different kind of violence, the violence of normative standards and obligations to conform.

Jones, frequently embroiled, we infer, in what the editor quaintly calls his ‘penchant for women’, writes with clinical detachment about the women in his life. Freud, the enduringly married man, is usually affectionate and admiring of the women he writes about, one of whom is Jones’s first wife, whom he was analysing in the early days of his relationship with Jones (Jones quite often sends people to see Freud, who was supposed to improve them in some way). One of the problems Jones had with his wife – and not only with her, alas – was that she didn’t believe in psychoanalysis: ‘she has terribly strong complexes against the work,’ he writes in his familiar tone of ingenuous bafflement, ‘and I have never had a chance of breaking her resistance.’ His ‘chance’ came when he finally persuaded her to go to Vienna and have analysis with Freud. Confident of Freud’s effect on his wife, Jones writes: ‘I trust you will get a look inside this volcano of emotion, and teach her how to make a better use of its fires.’ This is as concise a picture as one could wish for of Jones’s picture of Freud, of his wife, and of the function of analysis.

Jones often sounds in these letters as though he is sending people to the headmaster with a bad report (‘Putnam is incorrigible; he is a woman not a man’). And the Head can be quite strict: ‘I was sorry too having heard you got yourself into fresh difficulties with a woman,’ Freud writes to Jones (in English), ‘I pity it very much that you should not master such dangerous cravings.’ (For that generation, it seems, either you ‘mastered’ the desire or you ‘mastered’ the woman; it took the generation of Winnicott and Lacan to understand how Freud’s idea of the unconscious made a mockery of mastery). When Jones finds his talented colleague and ex-patient Joan Riviere unmanageable – ‘it is not easy for anyone to get on well with her unless either he is in a position of acknowledged supremacy, as you are, or else is effeminate’ – he sends her to Freud for correction. But this time, Jones intimates, the Tamer of Volcanoes will be really up against it: ‘The saying here is that her visit to Vienna will be the final and most severe test of psychoanalysis, and people are most curious to see if her disdainful way of treating other people like dirt beneath her feet will undergo any modification.’ In his rage Jones implies that psychoanalysis (or Freud himself) was something that he needed to protect him from being dominated by a woman. But his wish to discipline the women – ‘I think, however, that her judgments are apt to be impulsive,’ he writes of the French analyst Marie Bonaparte, ‘and to need a steadying influence’ – was, as it always is, a complicated and painful thing. On the one hand, these women were a problem for Jones because they represented, among other things, the part of himself that refused to submit (to Freud, to psychoanalysis, to whatever he felt oppressed and coerced by). On the other, they carried his doubts about Freud, and the consequences of those doubts (Jones letting Riviere do the ‘testing’ he could never let himself do). Writing to Freud in 1926 about ‘what in the female corresponds with castration in the male as the resolver of the Oedipus Complex,’ Jones comes to what now seems like a rather personal conclusion: ‘After working through various layers I found as the deepest with [women] the dread of being disapproved of and deserted by the father, because this meant the loss of all hope of penis and child.’ If this dread of being disapproved of and deserted by the father is the man’s deepest fear, then perhaps he has found a way of getting women to carry it. Jones was lucky enough to find, in Melanie Klein, a woman who could tolerate the disapproval of a father.

Until Klein arrived on the scene Freud tended to treat Jones’s ‘problem’ with women either by being outrageously patronising – ‘your understanding of your marital constellation is excellent’ – or by stressing how impressed he is, how fond of these people whom Jones can’t manage. Indeed, there is sometimes a note of glee in Freud’s celebrations of them, as though the joke is on Jones (‘I daresay,’ Freud writes to Jones, ‘you need not be more afraid of Mrs Riviere than of any other person’). And where Jones is more than willing, under the aegis of science and objectivity, to write about women’s ‘deepest’ fears and needs, Freud is more circumspect. ‘Everything we know,’ Freud writes to Jones in 1928, ‘about early female development seems to me unsatisfactory and uncertain.’ As a parallel text to the influential theoretical papers – Jones’s ‘The Early Development of Female Sexuality’ (1927), ‘The Phallic Phase’ (1933), ‘Early Female Sexuality’ (1935), and Freud’s ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931) – the correspondence gives us a glimpse of the fraught lives behind the more measured ‘scientific’ prose. From the papers you get a sense of debate and inquiry; from the correspondence you get the sense that both men are dealing with this unmanageable thing that is sometimes called ‘female sexuality’, or the ‘unconscious’, or ‘psychoanalysis’ itself. But it is Jones who has the more urgent need to sort things out, who is in search of theoretical convictions. Jones could never acknowledge the sense in which psychoanalysis, or rather, Freud’s notion of the unconscious, ironised efficiency, and it was this that created the wrangle between them that is so evident in the letters. In psychoanalysis the need for certainty, and the militant competence that goes with it, leaves one without an unconscious to speak of (as in much Kleinian theory). You can no more be ‘in the know’ about the unconscious than you can believe in it. An expert on psychoanalysis would be a person without an unconscious.

In Melanie Klein Jones found someone who knew what was in the unconscious. With Klein’s arrival in London in 1926 he began to feel himself for the first time at the forefront of psychoanalytic progress – prior to this, as the letters show, Jones had continually felt that both he and the British Society were manifestly inferior to the Continental analysts – and was clearly both troubled and exhilarated by the possibility of a split with Freud and the Vienna group. For anyone interested in British psychoanalysis – which is itself inevitably ‘symptomatic’ (as people used to say) of wider social issues – this is the main drama of the correspondence. The question that had been all dressed up with nowhere to go had now turned up in London: who in psychoanalysis is in a position to speak and be believed? Who has privileged access to the depths, the deepest depths? Or, to put it another way: who’s in charge – Freud and his accomplice Anna, or Klein and her accomplice Jones? Within a short space of time the canon of psychoanalytic preoccupations was formed: child analysis, lay analysis (an unusual term for such a virulently anti-religious ‘cause’), and female sexuality. (Just to add a bit of context to this: Freud had analysed his daughter, Anna, and Klein had analysed Jones’s son; both Klein and Jones had been briefly analysed by Ferenczi; neither Anna Freud nor Melanie Klein were doctors.) Klein represented the possibility of rupture with Freud led by a woman.

What was revolutionary about Klein was not so much her theory or technique (her views are mostly just a logical and often parodic extension of Freud’s), but that she succeeded where others had failed – in dividing the psychoanalytic community. Ferenczi never had a following, and Jung and Adler stopped calling themselves psychoanalysts. Klein’s dismaying picture of the child was, and still is, perfectly compatible with a certain strain in British culture. Her work is a kind of psychoanalytic Pilgrim’s Progress in which Truth, Terror and Disappointment are inextricable. Jones, as one might expect, knew why some people didn’t like it: opposition to Klein indicated ‘nothing but resistance’, he writes to Freud, ‘against accepting the reality of her conclusions concerning infantile life’. ‘Disagreement’ would have been a better word because it acknowledges the validity of both points of view. The question was: what can you hear when you listen to a child speak, and who is in a position to decide? Freud knew the answer: ‘Melanie Klein is on the wrong track,’ he writes to Jones, ‘and Anna is on the right one.’ Jones accused Anna of being insufficiently analysed – always the most disreputable way psychoanalysts have of disagreeing with each other – but he could also acknowledge his own doubts about it all: ‘The great question of whether we in England have advanced your theory farther or whether we have made a rather serious mistake still remains an open one as far as I am concerned.’ ‘Farther’ is clearly the important word here.

Both Freud and Jones thought of themselves as scientists, but they meant very different things by it; and Freud’s explicit wish in these letters is to rescue psychoanalysis from being the exclusive terrain of medical scientists, like Jones himself. And it is easy to see why. But Jones does have one insight in passing – which is where most so-called insights tend to turn up – that has a different kind of rigour from his other pronouncements in these letters. ‘Many analysts,’ he writes to Freud, ‘are sufficiently well-analysed for other activities in life, but not for doing analytic work.’ Psychoanalysis might make one want to do things other than psychoanalysis. But psychoanalysts are the only people who can never be cured of their need for analysis.