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.

Wittels was showing the Vienna Society how easily the key psychoanalytic ideas about sexuality and the unconscious could be used as revenge – against women, against fathers and against the ill. It was as though Freud’s psychoanalysis could be liberating because it legitimated character assassination in the name of truth. For Wittels, as much of the memoir confirms, psychoanalysis was virtually a science of revenge. After he had delivered his paper on ‘The Natural Position of Woman’, Hitschmann quite accurately remarked that ‘the speaker seems to be fighting a series of obstacles which he resents as impeding his sexual life; he fights: pregnancy, women who have become inaccessible because they are educated, then syphilis.’ As with his more virulent paper on female doctors – one of the group noted his ‘anger that women wish to study rather than to have sexual intercourse’ – the audience was unsettled by what Wittels seemed to be using psychoanalysis for.

Wittels saw psychoanalysis – more boldly, he believed, than Freud himself – as unequivocally a source of sexual and therefore human liberation. It ‘proclaimed an imminent revolution in our sexual mores’, he writes in his memoir, ‘of which Freud, strictly conventional in his private life, would have preferred to hear as little as possible’. This may be a case of the son beating (to use one of Wittels’s words) the father at his own game, but it is also accurate. Freud was listening to something he didn’t entirely want to hear about. On the other hand, Wittels’s untrammelled eagerness, his ingenuous embrace of the freer sexuality promised by psychoanalysis, comes out in his writing as resentment of women’s apparent unavailability. With the advent of psychoanalysis he can call it neurosis. If women weren’t people we would all be free. For a woman to have a life of her own, he consistently implies, is a form of withholding. Before we condemn Wittels, however, we should consider whether we have never had this thought ourselves; and what we do with it once we have had it. Wittels, in other words, produces a particularly awkward distaste in the reader. And by the same token he makes us question whether, from a psychoanalytic point of view, we can come up with a version of sexual liberation that is not a covert revenge fantasy; or merely a wish to be liberated from women or, indeed, sexuality itself. Women, Wittels believes, were made for ‘love’, but ‘civilisation’ has distorted their sense of themselves. Freud, ‘the Master’, the ‘magnificent healer’, was the ‘liberator of suppressed sex life – this was his destiny.’ He had shown Wittels the way, in his writings. What Wittels calls in the memoir the ‘fury of my revolutionary attitude’ was inspired by Freud. As the members of the Vienna Society, including Freud himself, clearly acknowledged, Wittels may have been cross but he was also clever.

To talk now about sexual liberation seems cute, like talking about the withering away of the state, or loving Great Literature. And yet in the early days of psychoanalysis Freud himself clearly sensed the possibilities for sexual freedom implied by the kinds of theory he was making up. But he was discovering his version of sexuality in middle age (he was 49 when the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality were published). Ageing and the harshness of life – not to mention his temperamental suspicion of pleasure and mysticism, which are always inextricable – had the effect over time of eroding his sexual hopes for people. And psychoanalysis after Freud, always the province of the middle-aged, has made its grandest metaphysical claims for states of deprivation. But in his great early paper, ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness’ (1907), Freud says quite clearly that ‘the injurious influence of civilisation’, as he puts it, is due to ‘the harmful suppression of the sexual life of civilised people (or classes) through the “civilised” sexual morality prevalent in them’. His new psychoanalytic sentences were written, as Wittels recognised, in the service of a new set of acknowledgments about sexual possibility.

Freud’s two radical propositions in this paper offer us what might be called an ambivalent utopianism, an idealism that is wholehearted only by being always divided against itself. First, he suggests, sexuality is ineluctably conflictual. There’s no such thing as a free association. The Oedipus Complex – and the later concept of the Death Instinct – make of sexuality an unappeasable war. For human beings, like and unlike other animals, sexuality always struggles against something else. Wittels passes over this point with unseemly haste. Freud’s second proposition, though, is both more compatible with Wittels’s wishes and more disturbing. ‘In man,’ Freud writes, ‘the sexual instinct does not organically serve the purposes of reproduction at all, but has as its aim the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure.’

This was to be the real scandal of what Freud called infantile sexuality. Not only that it is a warm-up for adult life – and therefore that children are prototypically sexual creatures – but that infantile sexuality, with its sole aim of ‘gaining particular kinds of pleasure’, is the fundamental paradigm for erotic life. As Wittels writes towards the end of his memoir, ‘before Freud, only the act for the purpose of propagation was called a sex act. Freud saw in our sexuality the god Eros, the constructive principle, in manifold forms. Beauty, fragrance, music, the mouth, the teeth, eyes, skin, muscles, all the mucous membranes have to play their role in this magnificent symphony.’ Most small children adore the obvious pleasure of pleasure; what the adults politely call ‘affection’ is often irresistible to the child’s profoundly sensual self. It is this, along with their intense, sometimes daunting suffering, that adults find most unsettling about small children; their suffering can make the adults distraught, but their erotic pleasure always makes the adults awkward and uncertain.

The counter-Darwinian implications of a human sexuality untied from procreation – or even anti-reproductive – seem to make an even starker conundrum of women’s sexuality. Either, one might think, sex without procreation is an (envious) attack on women’s (and men’s) generativity; or else, given the availability of safe contraception, not to mention cures for sexually transmitted diseases, it is a story about sexual liberation; about the (sometime cruel) giving and getting of pleasure that Freud referred to as the child’s polymorphous perversity, and which ‘civilised’ notions of relationship merely obscure. For sex to be free it must issue in nothing but sensual delight, in appetite regained. We may all know that it can’t be as simple as that, but we can still be puzzled about why it isn’t. If Wittels is too gauche to be sufficiently puzzled in this memoir, he has nevertheless heard something in Freudian theory that has been too easily trivialised: the sheer scale of erotic inhibition, the contemporary loss of confidence in sexuality, suggests that we need to rethink what we are using our sense of our own complexity to do to our erotic lives. Psychoanalysis has always been about, among other things, the ways we price ourselves out of the market. Freud and the Child Woman, with its tabloid title – not, it should be said, the title Wittels gave it: it was unpublished at his death in 1950, but he had considered calling it ‘A Story of Ambivalence’, or slightly less catchy, ‘The Story of an “Orthodox” Freudian’ – is a tellingly brash document in the generally uninspiring psychoanalytic history of sexual liberation, of the way fantasies of sexual freedom turn into fantasies of sexual depredation.

Like most stories of sexual liberation, Freud and the Child Woman is mostly a story about passionate relationships between men; men who adore their own ideas rather more than they adore the women they involve in them. You would assume from this book that the story of Wittels’s life was the story of his infatuation with three powerful men: Karl Kraus, then Freud, and then the eccentric Viennese analyst Wilhelm Stekel (‘I have committed two crimes in my life,’ Freud remarked, ‘I called attention to cocaine and I introduced Stekel to psychoanalysis’). There are formulaic references to parents and siblings – psychoanalytically formulaic, ‘meaningful’ incidents and enigmas from childhood – and there is the inevitable Fin de Siècle Viennese nanny who casts her spell. The early parts of the memoir are, in fact, more evocative of Freud’s Vienna than of individual people – the pervasive influence of Nestroy’s plays and of gossip as a virtual art form. It was the ideological disarray that, in Wittels’s view, made Vienna such a fertile source of ideas. ‘From the beginning of the 19th century,’ he writes, ‘Vienna was an admixture of Catholicism, a centralised monarchy and the ideals of the French Revolution which infiltrated society against the will of both the church and the government.’ ‘The Viennese might say of themselves,’ Wittels asserts, ‘those who are not ambivalent are not Viennese.’ Freud, in that sense, had written from the heart of the city. There is barely a reference in the memoir to a wife or a child, both of which he had, or even of his wife dying; and the child-woman Irma, who gives the book its title, is a shady presence, despite Wittels’s obvious wish to bring her to a kind of novelistic life. She is given only one chapter and what he says there makes it quite clear that she was a figment, the child of a folie à deux between Kraus and Wittels; almost literally a token, sometimes merely to regulate the homosexual anxiety between the two men, as Wittels seems to acknowledge with baffled dismay. ‘Without Kraus she had no value for me, just as I had no value for Kraus without her.’ Kraus, as he says, ‘held me spellbound’, his preferred way of being held.

‘Irma was our laboratory,’ Wittels writes proudly, and then proceeds to tell us how and why they treated her as one. Irma was 17, the youngest daughter of a janitor in the suburbs of Vienna. Kraus had seen her on the street and been struck by her resemblance to a woman he had previously fallen for, and who had cured him of his natural puritanism. This woman, Annie Kalmar, who had died of pneumonia, was, in Wittels’s words, ‘promiscuous, passionate, gay, careless, a drunkard, intelligent without being educated’. She had made Kraus ‘a violent preacher of the gospel of the whore’; Kraus believed that ‘it was the duty of woman to surrender to everybody whose appeal she felt.’ Irma, despite being what Kraus called only a ‘torso’ of his ideal, became his ‘hetaera’. In other words, Kraus, who was educated, re-invented her as ‘a miracle of a Dionysian girl born several thousand years too late’. ‘According to theory,’ Wittels writes – and it does sound as though these men needed a lot of theory to get themselves going – ‘she could not be and should not be true to anyone.’ Irma had fallen among thieves. When Kraus and Wittels took her to Venice she had only been interested in their hotel. ‘Finally, when she was implored to cast at least one glance at the water glittering in the sunshine, she summarised her feelings with the question: “Any sharks in it?”’ There were.

If Irma had fallen among today’s ‘helping professions’ it would probably (and, I imagine, correctly) be assumed that she had been sexually abused as a child. But then today any ‘excessive’ interest in sexuality is likely to make people suspicious and consoling. But from a Freudian point of view people, including the young, are excessively interested in sexuality, but are persuaded, or rather coerced, into not giving it too much importance. This is one of the things education is for. We would, for example, prefer to think of sexual abuse as implanting something alien in children rather than evoking something natural. One can, and should, disapprove of the sexual abuse of children without denying that it raises some unsettling questions about sexuality; about its uncertain measure in our lives. When Wittels gave his paper ‘The Child Woman’ (which he published in Kraus’s journal, the Torch), he presented Irma herself as a kind of heroine of the polymorphously perverse, ‘sadistic, lesbian and whatnot’. She is the exemplary alternative to our modern neurasthenia. The opposite of a hysteric, she articulates her desire unambiguously and directly. Unlike her civilised contemporaries, she is not crippled by ambivalence. She is ‘a girl of great sexual attraction, which breaks out so early in her life that she is forced to begin her sex life while still, in all other respects, a child. All her life she remains what she is: oversexed and incapable of understanding the civilised world of adults. Nor does this world understand her.’ At the meeting Wittels backs up his case – ‘my flood of enthusiasm’, as he calls it – by quoting Helen of Troy, Lucretia Borgia, Manon Lescaut and Zola’s Nana: but not, of course, the uneducated Irma. Her account of herself is oddly irrelevant to Wittels (and to Kraus, who soon tired of her), despite the fact that at the time he was writing and, indeed, giving the paper, he was having an affair with her. But then, in a sense, none of it had anything to do with her.

Freud, Wittels reports, was ‘somewhat annoyed’ by his paper. Wittels’s attempt to marry Freud’s psychoanalysis with Kraus’s vicious and sentimental classicism was unpromising (later he would try, even less successfully, to get Freud and Stekel back together), but the fury of Freud’s reaction suggests that Wittels had touched Freud’s deepest fears about psychoanalysis. ‘It was not his intention, he said, to lead the world to an uninhibited frenzy. On the contrary he wished to teach men not to satisfy their instincts in a thousand more or less neurotic disguises. They should consciously decide what to do and what not to do. Instead of repressing and lying to themselves they should consciously reject what they consider evil.’ Wittels talks about ‘the child woman’ – ‘one of my more important contributions to analytical psychology’ – and Freud hears the Bacchae over his shoulder.

Freud was saying: make the unconscious conscious because only then can you make intelligent ethical decisions. Wittels, however, had already decided that polymorphous perversity, or Krausian promiscuity, was a self-evident Good. For Freud, psychoanalysis prepared one to make a morality for oneself: for Wittels it gave one a morality, ready-made. In this sense Freud, despite his caution, was the revolutionary, and Wittels the timid idolator. ‘We knew from Freud that repressed sex instincts made men neurotic to such an extent that an entire era was poisoned,’ Wittels writes ruefully. ‘What we did not know then was that former Puritans running wild would not help either.’ He is ashamed now of his naive and dangerous disregard for the necessary constraints of civilised virtue (‘love, fidelity and devotion’). And yet once again in the memoir Wittels is bowing, even bowing out. By exactly missing the point he was making another: psychoanalysis could not exempt itself from promoting its own preferred forms of life.

Freud was promoting sexual freedom but was terrified of the aggression it would bring in its wake. If it was so difficult to be sexual and kind, one could at least be truthful. For Freud honesty with oneself was the profoundest satisfaction. But as Wittels couldn’t help reminding him a little too gleefully, Freud’s theory proposed less conventional forms of satisfaction: if it was our nature to be sexual in the ways Freud described, then it was against our nature to be honest. If these are the alternatives, as Wittels can’t quite bring himself to say, then psychoanalysis is less amenable to our prejudices, radical or otherwise. Wittels may have simplified sexual pleasure, but Freud was too keen to demonise it. The real controversy was about honesty.

Wittels’s description of the child-woman was an unconscious cartoon of men’s rage about their need for women, of the impossibility of men’s demands on women: ‘impossible’, partly because they are unarticulated (out of fear), and partly because they are demands for everything (and therefore inarticulable). The child-woman’s supposed pleasure is to be endlessly desirous and available, in unconditional circulation. This is trivial and offensive as a male fantasy about women: it is far more interesting as the expression of a man’s illicit wish for himself. We always disparage, or promote, in the other sex our repressed ambitions for ourselves. Like all caricatures, Wittels’s interpretation of Freud’s work brought some of its more disturbing elements into starker relief. If Freud knew that sexuality could not be simple, he also knew that it was integral to our sexuality to wish that it was.

What Wittels doesn’t seem to have realised until too late was that his real passion was for revenge: in other words, for disappointment. Disillusioned by Kraus – ‘the man who had called me the greatest German writer’ – he wrote a satirical novel about him and Kraus took him to court. ‘For some time,’ he writes ingenuously, ‘I was tempted to write a novel in the manner of Don Quixote, whose hero was a man who read so many detective stories that he lost touch with reality.’ Wittels’s confusion of himself with Kraus in the novel – Ezekiel the Alien – is almost too obvious to be properly embarrassing. ‘The sexual philosophy’ of his novel’s hero ‘was unmasked as an over-compensation for his ugliness. Unable to conquer honest women, he debased them all to prostitutes. His name, in the novel, was Benjamin Disgusting.’ Wittels’s consistent knack of misjudging his relationship with the reader is one of the most bemusing things about his memoir; and the kind of self he wants to use it to construct often invites ridicule. He makes the reader cruel. Freud, concerned that psychoanalysis would be tainted by association with this book, tried to dissuade Wittels. ‘I shall summarise my verdict in one sentence,’ Freud told him with pragmatic good sense. ‘You lose nothing if you do not publish the book; you lose everything if you do. The novel is bad.’ Wittels as self-styled (or rather, stylised) rebel was incorrigible (‘I continued to throw my articles in the face of a bewildered bourgeoisie,’ he writes bravely in the memoir). Kraus succeeded in stopping publication of the book in Berlin, but not in Vienna. By exposing the story of Kraus and Irma, poorly disguised, and with an obvious link to the whole ethos of psychoanalysis, Wittels had brashly retaliated against both his fathers, neither of whom had sufficiently valued him. He was now so important that he had to be dropped by them. After all, he boasted, how could Freud possible tolerate ‘obnoxious theories on sexuality publicly discussed, psychoanalysis stigmatised in the person of one of its foremost exponents’? Wittels, one might say, is brilliant in this memoir about how ambivalence makes us vulnerable, because we are always on the side of the enemy. His penchant for self-destructive acts is almost poignant. But ‘The Scandal’ – one of his chapter titles – seems to have been his preferred genre, with its heady mix of shame and triumphalism.

By the end of this brief memoir Wittels is virtually reconciled with Freud; mostly, he suggests, thanks to an analysis with Freud’s arch-enemy Stekel, which consisted of bracing winter walks (‘I have kept the impression, although my memory may be wrong, that my analysis in the snow yielded better results than on the couch’). And he has, with Freud’s blessing, successfully established himself as one of the first psychoanalysts in America. His account of American antipathy to psychoanalysis is often sharp and well observed, though sanctioned, of course, by Freud’s prejudice. ‘These primitives,’ Freud writes to Wittels, ‘have little interest in science not directly convertible into practice. The worst of the American way is their so-called broad-mindedness.’ Wittels evidently thrived, and eventually died, in America, where he could finally become a pioneer. His memoir is a testament to the tyrannies of self-importance.

Edward Timms says that the Wittels archive in New York is ‘one of the richest sources’ for the study of Fin de Siècle Austrian culture, and the evolution of psychoanalysis in Vienna and America; and that ‘a systematic assessment of his life and work is long overdue.’ It is clear from this disagreeable memoir that this must be true, but that it might be a thankless task. There won’t, I imagine, be a return to Wittels. And yet the whole ethos of these early analysts is still a prolific source of ideas; their new-found excitement reminds us of what it might be like to have discovered something irresistible and transforming. They give us a sense of just how psychoanalytic ideas can inform ways of life. After all, where can we go now for versions of sexual freedom? There is still a psychoanalytic book to be written about sexual liberation. Memoirs like Wittels’s are a sobering reminder of what such a book could be like.