Women: what are they for?

Adam Phillips

  • Freud and the Child Woman: The Memoirs of Fritz Wittels edited by Edward Timms
    Yale, 188 pp, £19.95, October 1995, ISBN 0 300 06485 3

For anyone interested in the history of psychoanalysis, or indeed, in how people start having new kinds of conversation, The Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society are an inexhaustible source of amusement and instruction. From 1906 to 1915, in his role as official secretary to the Society, Freud’s keen and earnest young student, Otto Rank, recorded the first formal psychoanalytic discussions by the first men who thought of themselves as psychoanalysts. A surprisingly wide range of topics is covered in the three hefty volumes published in America in the early Sixties: from, as perhaps one might expect, masturbation and female assassins – ‘Federn comments that to slips of the tongue and the hand, we must now add slips of shooting’ – to works of philosophy, psychology and literature. There are early moments of what would become an influential new genre, psychoanalytic seriousness – ‘According to Bölsche, clothes are the cause of nudity’ – and glimpses of esoteric romance: ‘the genitalia are said to be the first gods, and religious feeling is derived from the ecstasies of intercourse.’ It is clear, despite the almost palpable presence of Freud in these pages – ‘our great father in Vienna’, as Wittels calls him in his memoirs, ‘the greatest psychological genius of all time’ – that a lot of these people were relishing the demand that they speak their minds, and on such diverse topics. A profession that encouraged people to say whatever occurred to them is bound to be interesting to observe when it wants to keep to the point.

Reading these ur-minutes is rather like reading a play within a play. The characters are coherent – they stick to their subjects, ‘Urethral Erotism’, say, or ‘Psychic Hermaphroditism’ – but their formal conversations are informed by a shared belief in digression. They often speak with great conviction about extreme irrationality, as though they have all just learnt a new language – which they have – and can’t wait to speak it with each other. And far from being merely Freud’s dramatic monologue this is a play whose minor characters are more and more intriguing. The person we think of as Freud would have been unintelligible without these others, many of whom we have never heard of, and whom Freud often disparaged as a group in his private correspondence. But among the more than supporting cast, some are rather more insistent, more obviously ambitious and pressing in their claims, than others. Fritz Wittels, the author of this fascinating, terrible book – it would once have been called a ‘symptomatic text’ because it is so revealing by being so artlessly crass – stands out in the minutes by his aggrieved, rather hectoring omniscience. And for his choice of topics: Tatjana Leontiev (a Russian revolutionary who tried to assassinate a Tsarist official), ‘Venereal Disease’, ‘Sexual Perversity’, ‘Female Physicians’, ‘The Natural Position of Women’. In the memoir, a bumptious mea culpa, he refers to the ‘one-sided and unjust way in which I flourished the shining blade of psychoanalysis’. It is a portrait of the psychoanalyst as a young idealist, a bit too impressed with his new sword.

Wittels, in short, was a rampant misogynist, as he almost admits in his unendearingly naive way. He records the ‘irony’ of his earlier article against women doctors, ‘inasmuch as I have changed my mind completely and for many years have been in favour of them. I love intelligent women who eventually may beat one in an argument.’ As a born-again analyst, callow and idealistic, Wittels was something of a problem for the Vienna Society. Of his paper on the Russian revolutionary the minutes record that ‘the speaker expresses his personal dislike of Leontiev and of all hysterics.’ In one sense, he was owning up to something that the other analysts were inevitably troubled by. After all, psychoanalysis was about how complicated liking is; and the hysteric was the person who liked in baffling ways, who was adept at (unconsciously) asking for the opposite of what she wanted. But Wittels was rather too smug, too pleased with himself, with his hatred and his ‘honesty’. ‘One must not condemn the assassins so harshly and unmask them because of unconscious motives,’ Freud said in response to Wittels’s paper, ‘the harshness of such a judgment would be repulsive.’ Federn, one of the most incisive members of the Society, ‘sees the error of those who, totally imbued with the Freudian way of thinking, ignore all other points of view’. It is precisely the way Wittels manages to ruffle the more powerful members of the Society that makes him such a significant figure. They want him to be kinder, less fanatical; and yet Wittels, in his revolutionary zeal, is taking psychoanalysis to one of its logical conclusions.

‘The mission of psychoanalysis,’ he writes in his memoir, ‘is to make our hearts free from anxiety and guilt and free for joy.’ But he was too ferocious a maker of hearts. Once her unconscious motives have been disclosed, the revolutionary will be free to be a sexually satisfied – and, more important for Wittels, satisfying – woman. Women, Wittels believed, must learn to wear the uniform of sexual satisfaction. In the Vienna Society he seems to speak up, as it were, for the bewildered hatred of women (and therefore of men) that is a potential agenda in any psychoanalytic theory. Psychoanalysis, one could say, has been an attempt to think through the terror of women (in both senses). Wittels’s contributions to the Vienna Society, backed up by this memoir so ably edited and reconstructed by Edward Timms, make possible a reconsideration of some of the most contentious issues in psychoanalysis: the problem of the ‘problem of women’, and the disappearance of the idea of sexual liberation. And indeed the question of why sexuality should be so easily linked to ideas of liberation. It is clear from this preposterous, hair-raising memoir why Wittels was such an embarrassing shadow for Freud.

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