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.)

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