From Shtetl to Boulevard

Paul Keegan

  • Freud: In His Time and Ours by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Catherine Porter
    Harvard, 580 pp, £27.95, November 2016, ISBN 978 0 674 65956 8
  • Freud: An Intellectual Biography by Joel Whitebook
    Cambridge, 484 pp, £30.00, February 2017, ISBN 978 0 521 86418 3

In ‘Some Remarks on a Case of Obsessive-Compulsive Neurosis’, Freud’s case history of the Rat Man (real name: Ernst Lanzer), there is an account of Lanzer’s attempts to repay a debt, or rather his attempt to describe his attempts to do so. While a reserve officer on military exercises, he loses his pince-nez and sends a telegram to his optician in Vienna. The replacement arrives and is handed to him by a lieutenant with an order to repay the postage to another lieutenant, who has picked up the package at the wayside post office and paid the (negligible) charges. That this information happens to be wrong is almost irrelevant. Obsessive-compulsive activity is a limit case of ordinary consciousness going about its daily business. What Freud calls ‘the little comedy of repaying the money’ is like Kafka’s tiny story ‘A Common Confusion’, where A and B from different villages set out to meet but incredibly – or all too credibly – keep missing each other. Lanzer’s story involves scribbled messages, missed trains, timetables, a postmistress, a porter, a waiter, a long-suffering friend in Vienna, a series of redundant captains. Everyone along the way is recruited to play a part in the charade of his obsessive endeavour knowingly to repay the wrong person. His sense of guilt is real enough, but it belongs to ‘another content’, instigated elsewhere, on another stage. The patient’s story is all we have, and Freud’s attention may float but it never wavers. His transcript is exhaustive – it includes a map (itself confused) of the patient’s wanderings – but also constrained: the analyst must ‘suppress his curiosity’ so as to allow tale and teller to create their telltale muddle, to take control of the narrative reins.

The phrasing of the obligation (‘You must pay back Lieutenant A’) is as important for Freud as for his patient. In his ‘Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy’ (Little Hans) Freud had spoken of waiting for ‘the true wording of a compulsion’ to surface. Before anything can be interpreted, it has to be translated into words. What is being insisted on is something difficult to take seriously: that utterance has primacy, that the sequence in which things get said is the only one there is, just as the dream is the dreamer’s account of the dream. There is no other scene of telling, and although there may be gaps and hesitations there is no such thing as a digression. Freud told the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister that ‘an analysis only really gets going when the patient descends into minute particulars from the abstractions which are their surrogates.’ The important things in Freud lie close to the ground, which makes his world of particulars vulnerable in paraphrase. And this is a problem for biography.

Psychoanalysis set out to show rather than tell, and to redress the immemorial injury of speaking for the subject. Telling us what is wrong with us is merely hearsay, with as much impact on neurotic symptoms ‘as distributing menus would have on hunger in a famine’. Freud was sceptical about biography on these grounds (as well as others: its idealisation of its subject, its wish-fulfilments), infamously remarking in 1936 that biographical truth ‘is not to be had’ and – odder still – that even were it to be had it could not be used. Nor could the truth about psychoanalysis be ‘told’. When Lou Andreas-Salomé arrived in Vienna in 1912, eager to learn, Freud promised to impart ‘the little there is that can be demonstrated and shared’. The promise and the caveat were one and the same. If psychoanalysis is ‘a testimonial science’, in Frank Cioffi’s words, a world without witness, whose crucial scenes are played out in camera, then Freud’s word must be his bond. By the same token, he cannot easily be spoken for. And yet the biographers have never stopped speaking – for him, or against him. The life matters because it is the arena in which the fate of psychoanalysis is played out. The Freud wars ended in exhaustion, but both sides were agreed that a less than faultless Freud is problematic, and this shared no man’s land seems oddly larger than the territory disputed.

The opening move was Ernest Jones’s three-decker monument (1953-57), and his successors make us choose a Freud, as if to write this life without a case to prove were impossible. If we need more lives of Freud it is because there is safety in numbers, but the evidential burden tends to drain them of ordinary kinds of biographical interest, as if we are not allowed to read the novel of Freud’s life for the story alone. One consequence is that his biographers can still routinely leave a reader wondering what Freud was like (not to mention what it felt like to be Freud). Two new biographies, one French and one American, ask if we should do more than try to prove the life right or wrong. Freud’s accusers need him to keep still as an authority figure, so as to deplore his tyrannies, and their plaintiveness has an air of resentment against his refusals to do so. Joel Whitebook’s early and partly rueful admission that by now ‘we are all orphans’ refers to the distance in time but also the legacy of disenchantment left by all Freud’s abdications of authority, especially in the later writings. It is as if, with each book and paper from the First World War onwards, his withdrawals – dismantling his edifice of words even as he constructed it, introducing more and more impossibilia, less and less consolation – left his followers orphaned from his meanings. Karl Kraus was alert to this, and to Freud as unmistakably a Viennese phenomenon. Freud’s cultural outlook may or may not have been as insular as we are told, with his indifference to contemporary developments, but the air of valediction places him squarely in the picture that frames the last Habsburg generation, their endpoint Anschluss.

‘In any other scientific discipline, a preoccupation with the vulgar details of the founder’s biography would seem trivial and inappropriate,’ Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen and Sonu Shamdasani wrote in The Freud Files (2006). Elisabeth Roudinesco, on the front line of the Freud wars, is more preoccupied with vulgar details than Whitebook is in his ‘intellectual biography’. She has an eye for the stubborn fact, she rates gossip as a form of knowledge, and her book is promise-crammed with curiosities (one of its chapters is entitled ‘Families, Dogs, Objects’). France is a heated place for psychoanalysis, whose institutional entrenchment is also a state of siege, so the question of Freud’s integrity is especially vexed. Roudinesco is at war with undeclared others who occasionally surface in her intemperate endnotes but curiously not in her index. (The translation could have done with an introduction by a third party to situate the book’s parti-pris.) It is, she says, the first French biography of Freud – Gallic indifference to life-writing being what it is – but what makes it French is screened from view, ostensibly on the grounds that she has dealt with this elsewhere, in her earlier history of psychoanalysis in France. The fact is that she is holding the mic, and the hecklers in the room (a Freudian image) are both acknowledged and ejected.

By way of acknowledgment, Roudinesco introduces a series of false Freuds, to turn up the volume of her narrative and as an earnest of its credentials (‘I have undertaken to set forth in a critical manner Freud’s life’). The revised list of charges includes Freud the rapist of his niece and seducer of his sister-in-law as well as ‘Freud the organiser of a clinical gulag, the demoniacal, incestuous, lying, counterfeiting, fascist Freud’ – caricatures intended to self-destruct on being read. She lays out a stall of biographical red herrings and holds each one up for our inspection. She finds a form of life-writing a bit like wild analysis: the theories are summarily paraphrased, case histories are scrambled in the retelling, open access is provided to what Freud thought at any point. She is concerned to restore him to his contexts – ‘constructing his own era while he was being constructed by it’ – but when she summons those contexts she picks him out with a loudhailer: ‘He then founded a circle of followers modelled on Plato’s republic’ (describing the early Wednesday night gatherings, which Whitebook calls ‘a marginal and relatively depressive group’); he invented and imposed ‘a staggering mythology of origins’; the unconscious was a map ‘of which he had been dreaming since his childhood’; the relation of Freud to his patients was that of Virgil to Dante; perhaps most arresting of all, the Interpretation of Dreams is ‘a vast poem in free verse’. But without being in two minds, for she is a fervent believer, the idiom can also be troubled. ‘But this episode too ended in fiasco’ (of Freud’s self-analysis); Freud was ‘a mediocre clinician of mental illness’; ‘Freud thought of himself as the creator of a doctrine, without imagining that the doctrine could also be the product of a history that he did not control.’ She raises but cannot lay to rest illicit considerations – the suspicion that Freud was a purveyor of cures, rather than cure – because they open onto truths vital to psychoanalysis, rather than the truth about psychoanalysis.

Hence the space given over to the assorted and floridly disturbed oddities who crowd the margins of the early story, whether as colleagues or patients, for she treats them without distinction. This has its cogency, for they shaded into one another: acolytes were potential patients and patients became acolytes. Freud advised on their object-choices – Ferenczi’s love life, with its mother-daughter triangle, is the plot of a Hardy novel – and he listened carefully to the raised temperatures around him, the fever for interpretation, licensing the new candour while keeping his counsel. His own practices flowed around his precepts: he made up rules, ignored the rules established in his name, remained unanalysed, analysed close friends, their spouses, family members including his daughter Anna. Psychoanalysis had to give birth to itself, and the only means to hand were those within reach.

Whereas Whitebook has a careful story to tell about Freud’s theoretical progress, and is more interested in his idealisations, Roudinesco foregrounds the unidealised figures on the margins. She brings on the zanies and (selectively) the failed cases because they are the décor for her larger point about Freud, as dark enlightener and heir to the dynamic tradition of Mesmer: magnetism, hypnotism, suggestion, catharsis, transference. If Whitebook’s is a landscape largely empty of patients, Roudinesco’s is an emergency room. Freud ‘did not know what to do with the disciples who were mentally ill, transgressive, inventive and talented’, but Roudinesco surely knows what to do with them, making her book blaze up by throwing another handful of people on the fire (as Woolf said of Dickens). She calls them the anti-heroes of the Freudian story, throwbacks to ‘the splendid delirium of an earlier era’ – an echo of Anna Freud on the first generation of psychoanalysts as ‘the doubters … the odd ones, the dreamers, and those who knew neurotic suffering at first hand’. This was before the tedious pragmatism of Ernest Jones – for whom Roudinesco nurtures a visceral dislike – put an end to delirium.

She starts from the range of unwritten cases rather than the written case histories.This is striking because until now it has been the sceptics who have taken up the cause of Freud’s ‘other’ patients, looking to tot up the evidences. It means that she relies on a great deal of hearsay, and that she blurs the line between neuroses and psychoses, between treatable and untreatable (her point is that so did Freud). Thus she can devote eight pages to the story of wealthy Carl Liebman (relying somewhat on Borch-Jacobsen’s Les Patients de Freud), the schizophrenic fetishist who was treated by Freud over the course of five years and ended his days claiming to be his father’s penis, whereas ‘Dora’ gets just a few garbled paragraphs. Roudinesco has room for Italo Svevo’s rowdy brother-in-law, Bruno Veneziani, and for the depraved opiomane Otto Gross, gesticulating on the fringes of the early movement, passed between Freud and Jung like a hot potato and unmentionable in polite psychoanalytical society. Roudinesco proves Freud dark by association.

Both biographies share an aversion to the twice-told tale (by Ernest Jones and Peter Gay) of an Enlightenment Freud dutiful and dauntless in the stables of irrationality. The new biographers have turned away from prelapsarian universals. Rather than insulate his thought from its darker strains, they side emphatically with his fallibilistic science. Roudinesco’s Freud is in this sense a reissue of Thomas Mann’s Freud, who belonged with those 19th-century writers ‘who stand opposed to rationalism’. It is a redemptively anti-heroic project, which allows her to explore without apology the foreign bodies in Freud’s rationality and the errors of his ways. If she defends Freud by embracing the therapeutic charges against him, his occult leanings, his disreputable travelling companions, she does so in order to revalorise these as part of a new Heldenleben – a hero’s life – with an emphasis on Faustian bargains.

*

For Whitebook, a more exacting genealogist, Freud is a social theorist in the tradition of Hegel, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche, and the leading voice of Adorno’s ‘dark Enlightenment’, enlisting the arguments against progress with a view to curbing rather than repudiating its enthusiasms. Roudinesco and Whitebook both see him as an inheritor of twilight, but they differ in the extent to which they see him as having unproblematic access to his patrimony. Even so, his allegiance to his cultural inheritance was unshakeable. To this end, Whitebook is concerned to add to the interest in his early childhood. In the space of barely three generations (under one roof, so to speak), the Freud line – like so many – moved from the impoverished but mutually supportive communities of Yiddishland to the crowded anomie of Vienna’s Leopoldstadt, which from the 1860s onwards was boiling with the influx of work-hungry empire Jews. From being Ostjuden in the outlying imperial territories to secularised cosmopolitan Jews in modern Vienna, from endogamy to cosmopolitan nuclearity, from shtetl to boulevard. The materials remain scanty, and perhaps only a novelist like Joseph Roth could write inwardly of Freud’s origins and early trajectory. The drift west and south after the extension of civil rights for Austro-Hungarian Jews in the wake of 1848 is the deep time of Roth’s fictions, and is preserved by Freud in the suspended medium of Jewish or anti-Jewish humour permeating his Joke Book. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude,’ Roth wrote, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude in Vienna.’ Caught between the occasional flarings of anti-Semitism (even during the liberal mid-century) and the well-adjusted remoteness of Viennese Jews, Galicians were the last in line for acceptance and betterment in the German-speaking empire.

Freud’s father, Jacob, was a mobile self-fashioning son of the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment. As a young man he entered into partnership with his maternal grandfather, Siskind, plying their trade in wool, linen, honey, tallow, to and fro between backward Galicia and Moravia, that much closer to Vienna with its more inquisitive policies of assimilation. The two men travelled together, negotiating mysterious formalities, registering for ‘tolerance’, sleeping in Jewish inns and observing ancestral rites even as they witnessed a modernity taking shape beyond the shtetl. Jacob liked what he saw, and struck out on his own. When he married Amalia in 1855, bringing two soon-to-be adult sons from a previous marriage, they settled in Moravia and began a new life. The stage was swept clean in Freud’s third year: the death of an infant brother, maternal depression and absences, the abrupt dismissal (for petty larceny) of a loving Moravian Kinderfrau or second mother. The extended family soon unravelled: his half-brothers abruptly emigrated to Manchester with their children (including his nephew, who was also his contemporary and playmate). Freud’s immediate family left pastoral Freiberg for Leipzig, briefly, after which the ‘difficult years’ in Vienna. His early origins remained forever uncanny because inexplicable. Of what followed, ‘nothing was worth remembering.’

But the departure from Freiberg is remembered in the letters to Wilhelm Fliess – the recipient of Freud’s self-analysis – and reported obliquely in an early paper on screen memories as ‘the original catastrophe’ that ‘involved [his] whole experience’. The economic explanation offered there – Jacob’s business was failing – is seen by Whitebook (and Louis Breger before him) as covering for something else: the disappearance of his mother, taken up with mourning and thereafter with illnesses requiring spas, in between nursing a succession of younger siblings through the first decade of Freud’s life. She remains a congeries of impressions: slender, volatile, domineering, dependent, Galician, ‘not a lady’ (according to her grandson Martin). A displaced person, she never learned German but spoke Yiddish in Vienna until her death in 1930, nine years before Freud. Peter Gay already acknowledged that Freud seemed never to have addressed his mother’s hold over him. Nor could Gay, nor can his successors.

Like Breger, whose warily undeceived biography appeared in 2000, Whitebook is drawn to what might underlie Freud’s idealisation of his early experiences, in his accounts of dreams, everyday life, or the workings of memory. Freud described the mother-son relation as ‘the most free from ambivalence of all human relationships’. For the mother perhaps. (‘I am what her savage loving has made me’ would be the Beckettian version.) Freud spoke little of her, though he wrote of certain kinds of mother-love as the repetition of a long-abandoned narcissism, ascribing all perfections to the child and denying all faults. Her disappearance during his early years translated into Freud’s abiding conviction that he lacked charisma, was unable to elicit his patients’ transferences, was essentially unlovable and possessed of something ‘strange and repellent’, as he remarked to Jung. But Amalia’s lifelong ownership of her goldener Sigi is beyond doubt: he was still paying his respects to her in his seventies and her nineties, going to her apartment for lunch every Sunday – and arriving late every time.

Psychoanalysis has long been taken up with the absence of mothers from Freud’s self-analysis, from the dream book, from the case histories (where they wait in the wings), from his accounts of development, from the later writings on culture and religion. Whitebook’s distinctive turn is to see the migrant experience and the disappearing acts of Freud’s childhood in the same optic: the fast-forwarded family as a theatre of compressed historical experience, and an early childhood split off from later reflection. For Whitebook the spectral mother stands for Freud’s attempt both to fill an absence and to follow where it leads: rather than missing, she is whatever haunts ‘the margins, shadows, lacunae and interstices of Freud’s oeuvre’, while inhibiting his capacity to explore these same things. The ‘repudiation of femininity’ is made to do a lot of abstract work. The absence of an early protective environment explains Freud’s adolescent flight into adulthood and his intolerance of passivity; his logocentrism was a triumph over the unruly pre-verbal realm; his unease with undifferentiated states informed his distrust of metaphysics as a search for origins, or his suspicion of ‘omnipotent’ thinking; his aversion to music was a rejection of his mother’s voice. In a letter to his son Ernst in 1938, Freud remarked that ‘it is typically Jewish not to renounce anything and to replace what has been lost.’ His own replacements for early loss were precocity, self-sufficiency, idealisation, cognitive command and an iron work ethic. On this account, what was lost was also discarded.

As ever, Freud’s father has the walk-on part: genial, feckless, financially failing, unable to protect Freud from his mother. Observant but not religiose, he wanted his child of promise to come into his inheritance while having a modern education, enrolling him in the Jewish Volksschule and then the Gymnasium. Whitebook is particularly good on the Israelitische Bibel or Phillipson Bible, in which Freud senior instructed seven-year-old Sigmund – in effect a primer in anthropology and ancient religion, in parallel text, heavily illustrated, an object of Wissenschaft rather than devotion. Jacob’s manner of passing on the tradition to his son was simultaneously a breach. Despite the poor press he invariably gets, prompted by Freud (the story of his father’s youthful humiliation in the street by a Christian passerby), Jacob made the determining decisions, unexceptionally. Whitebook describes him as ‘this lovable but exasperating Luftmensch from Galicia’ (the term Luftmensch was introduced by Max Nordau specifically to describe the Jews of Eastern Europe, an ‘air-people’ whose only apparent means of subsistence is the element they breathe, who live by counting clouds). Whitebook’s description echoes Freud’s delicate – and delicately absentminded – posthumous tribute, addressed to Fliess: ‘I esteemed him highly, his mixture of deep wisdom and fantastic lightheartedness.’ Jacob’s death in 1896 prompted Freud’s self-analysis, or his ‘self-observation’, as he called it in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He began collecting jokes, by way of a memorial to Jacob, who liked a Jewish anecdote. He also began somatically to collect other things: statuettes and antiquities, slips, symptoms, dreams – all of which were perhaps part of his grief work, substitutes for loss.

Unlike Whitebook, Roudinesco is anodyne on the question of parents: Freud had a happy childhood, and it seems to her self-evident that ‘maternal love was self-evident.’ She is interested, rather, in psychoanalysis as a daguerreotype of the cosmopolitan family at a moment when endogamy was yielding to a more companionate model (as if the Oedipus complex could only make itself heard when patriarchy began to cede ground). Freud was the infant observer of ‘awkward genealogies’: a father who could be a grandfather, a young mother who might have married her son’s half-brother, a nephew his own age, himself in the role of a first-born without being an eldest son. For Roudinesco, his interest in enigmas derived from a childhood suspicion that the people he observed around him were substitutes. Or counterfeits. (His uncle Josef was arrested in 1865 for circulating counterfeit banknotes, and Freud suspected his half-brother Philipp’s involvement, all of which flickers in counter-transference at the edges of the Rat Man.)

Ernest Jones had remarked on Freud’s ‘special interest in people not being what they seemed’, and diagnosed the workings of the family romance. One of Freud’s daydreams was of being the son of his well-off half-brother Emanuel, who had gone to Manchester and made good (money for Freud would always be ‘laughing gas’). But the wish for a just rather than unjust heredity contains an anxiety about paternity – that we might not be who we think we are. If I am not I, then there is someone else I want to be. Freud’s interest in the rumour that the man called Shakespeare was a pretender – not the father of English literature after all – is the most culturally glamorous version of the question he addressed variously as a biographer, and which Roudinesco suggests preoccupied him throughout his life: ‘So who is it that is always concealed beneath the name of a “great man”?’ (She refers to the Shakespearean contender, Edward de Vere, as ‘the Count of Oxford’ – someone who truly never was.)

*

Peter Gay and others saw Freud’s early bafflement as instilling heroic habits of curiosity. Whitebook places more stress on the trauma rather than the Oedipal conundrum, and on the driven nature of Freud’s hunger for substitutes in the wake of the serial disappearances of his early life. Freud had a profoundly worshipful personality, a fact uncontradicted by his being a good hater, or by the ‘protective coloration’ (Auden’s words) of authority with which he invested himself, or by his fixed aversion to passivity and to the role of a protégé. And it got him into fixes, well into his fifties. His serial monogamy – the long gallery of idealisations – includes portraits of Brucke, Charcot, Breuer, Fliess and Jung, each liberating him from a predecessor. Ernest Jones dealt harshly with most of them, and the most undesirable presences (Fliess and Jung) were proof that the great man was not a ‘connoisseur’ of men. Psychoanalysis for Freud would remain a face-to-face society, in which two people in a room are driven off course by each other’s presence: a place of transference and doomed mutuality. And he was conscious of an abiding need for a significant other who could be invested with unambiguous intellectual paternity, as against the surrounding swarm of men without qualities, which included his early Viennese circle, its neediness and lack of Bildung or intellectual confidence.

Freud defended difference but was scientifically entertained by types, seeing later object-choices as reprints of the originals encountered in childhood. Aged 44 he already saw himself as a ‘shabby old Jew’ who would never reach the promised land of his ambition – not unlike his father the Luftmensch. The Luftmensch was a new and unusable social type, gliding in and out of the mass of work-hungry arrivals. As a young man Freud sometimes ran into his father on the streets of Vienna, ‘still full of projects’. The extended family secreted its unusable equivalents behind closed doors, assigning them unscripted or anomalous roles – wicked uncles, maiden aunts, companions, hysterics, neurasthenics. Like the ambiguous if permanent position of Freud’s sister-in-law Minna in Freud’s own household, which has lent itself to ripe speculation.

These superfluous figures are what interests Roudinesco, for whom the charlatan is a cultural fixture of intense relevance, part of the prehistory of her subject – liminal figures like the immigrant Jew who define the very notion of sanction. And Wilhelm Fliess was the very image of this type. Freud met the Berlin doctor within a year of his marriage, and the Fliess episode, as it used to be called, is a litmus test for darker biographical understandings of Freud. (‘Episode’ has always suggested a refusal to understand, given that the entanglement lasted from 1887 to 1904, through Freud’s thirties and much of his forties.) Jones suggested that the relationship with Fliess was ‘the only really extraordinary experience in Freud’s life’, but for Jones the connection with Fliess was dismaying – with reason, at least in the context of the latter’s notoriously bungled surgical intervention on Freud’s patient Emma Eckstein’s nose, and Freud’s sleepwalking defence of it. Roudinesco and Whitebook are undismayed, and the latter is at his best on Fliess and Jung, devoting a third of his book to these involvements.

Who was Fliess? is an abiding question, given Freud’s destruction of his half of their correspondence and the absence of Fliess from Freud’s later writings. There are hints – the sceptical Karl Abraham describing him as a ‘fascinating’ personality, successful, wealthy, magnetic … suspect. Whitebook’s answer – ‘who Fliess was mattered little’ – is the most intelligent thing that can be said. Everything about Fliess exuded certainty: his delirious biological determinism, his preoccupation with the nose as a pathogenic sexual organ hidden in full view, his theories of innate bisexuality, his tables of female and male biorhythms. Fliess was addictive because he was assigned to think Freud thoughts on Freud’s behalf, above all about sexual problems. The transference illness (as Whitebook calls it) intensified when he assumed authority over Freud as his nose doctor, and noses were themselves dangerous thoughts, a heady physiognomic amalgam of Viennese façadeism – the caryatids of the face – and Jewish identity.

Freud, on the left, and Fliess in the early 1890s
Freud, on the left, and Fliess in the early 1890s

In one choreographed photograph Freud and Fliess pose side by side, looking in the same direction, dressed the same, same beards, same expressions. They shared big ideas, clinical problems, drafts, gossip and trysts. Freud’s rejection of the seduction theory, his self-analysis, his dream work, his mourning of his father, his book on everyday life – all of these were under the sign of Fliess, who crucially helped his converging thoughts on homosexuality, paranoia, narcissism, loss and mourning. Whitebook suggests that all of the above can be described as Freud’s attempt to understand his love of Fliess, a shapeshifting composite of colleagues, friends and perhaps mother.

In which case, it turned out that they were not each other’s type after all, which is where biography might begin to have something of interest to say. Or fiction. If they started out as Bouvard and Pécuchet the ending was more like Swann and Odette, in a bonfire of jealousy, possessiveness and betrayal. Flanking Freud’s submission to Fliess were large areas of disagreement, ready to flare up and long delayed from doing so. What they certainly shared was the distance between Vienna and Berlin, and as Breger pointed out there was an undertow of reluctance in Freud’s flustered arrangements to meet Fliess, which were often arrangements to not quite meet. Whitebook writes very well about the end of the affair, the candour and ‘elegiac beauty’ of Freud’s last letters, in which the androphilic current between the two men was most urgently expressed by the one, and it seems as urgently denied by the other.

The prospect of having our minds read is fearful, not least as revealing homosexual desire. The connection between the intolerable thought and its projection as paranoia was the inadvertent legacy of Fliess, his great parting gift to Freud. In their last exchanges Fliess accused Freud of ‘reading his own thoughts into other people’, a charge rejected as ‘rendering all my efforts useless’. (Fliess would subsequently accuse Freud of plagiarism, or of reading Fliess’s thoughts aloud to other people.) ‘I remain loyal to thought-reading,’ Freud insisted. Psychoanalysis only made sense if thought-reading – as something distinct from speaking ‘on behalf of’ another – were possible, part of science rather than magic (omnipotent thinking). The distinction underpins Freud’s thoughts on biographical or psychoanalytic or scientific truth.

Roudinesco rescues a rogue detail, from long afterwards. After their short and strange joint analysis with Freud in the early 1920s, James Strachey returned to London while his wife, Alix, proceeded to Berlin to continue her analytic education with Karl Abraham. One day she encountered Fliess on the street: Freud’s compound ghost, still incorrigibly himself, ‘charming and dowdy’, famous but forgotten, with his mad questions, asked her if she had recently suffered a family loss, since this alone would explain her swollen tonsils.

To speak of Freud’s ‘credulousness’ fails to register his impassivities and matter-of-factness – an under-described hinterland. For him there could be no such thing as disgrace, because of the lowly origins of what he sought and the science with which he sought it. He described his couch (donated by Madam Benvenisti, a former patient, in 1890) as a relic and daily reminder of hypnosis, and of the birthpangs of analysis in what Whitebook refers to as ‘the history of the trance’. Freud was more candid about these things than he is usually allowed to be. The papers on technique are unashamedly séance-like in their accounts of analysis (Ferenczi described the analyst as a ‘revenant’, in whom the patient re-finds the vanished figures of childhood). In New Introductory Lectures, writing in his late seventies, Freud defends the idea of telepathy – as a door to be kept ajar – and the actuality of irrational phenomena in the analytical encounter. He cannot reject the occult out of hand, he tells his audience, for to do so would be unscientific. He defends the thinkability of thought-transference as extending science into elusive reaches – as modern and mysterious as the telephone.

Freud came to see his life in science as the story of a reluctance: ‘a lifelong détour’. Whitebook closely rehearses the steps: the choice of empirical sciences over philosophy, the two decades in a research laboratory which included six years of positivist apprenticeship in Ernst Brücke’s Physiological Institute; the move away from research and into clinical practice, general medicine, paediatric neurology. A necessary progress, since Freud preferred observation to experimenting on eels or nerve cells or children’s brains. His turn-of-the-century dream about Brücke (‘my old professor has given me some task, and strangely enough it has to do with dissecting my own lower torso’) is about his self-analysis, but it is also a dream about dissection. This was ostensibly what Freud had gone to Paris to do, in 1885-86, and the Salpêtrière was to provide the raw materials. But then he met Charcot. The new biographies eagerly reinforce Freud’s view that his brief time in Paris was the crucial break, in both senses. Roudinesco naturally sees the darkly charismatic (in other words, charlatanesque) Charcot as a character out of Victor Hugo, but he is perhaps closer to Fellini. The Salpêtrière was a Cinecittà containing five thousand inmates or extras, a select few of whom performed their symptoms for the benefit of an interested audience. If, as Christopher Bollas says, ‘the hysteric watches the effect of his or her desire upon the other,’ Charcot watched hysteria itself; using hypnotism to induce a display of symptoms rather than as a therapy, looking for clues rather than cures.

Despite the theatricality and air of legerdemain, Charcot’s approach was aristocratically non-interventionist. Rather than perform his own hypnoses on patients (though he hypnotised his public), Charcot had his assistants do it for him. Freud praised Charcot’s modesty, his least celebrated virtue, meaning that Charcot taught modesty, and that this was a heady experience, an education in looking at the overlooked. In his obituary Freud described him as an ‘artist’, a figure of fascination rather than trust. Freud would come to distrust the fin-de-siècle organic aetiology of hysteria – heredity rather than sexuality – and distrust hypnosis as too coarse for his purposes, as itself an intervention too far. But what Freud aged thirty took back with him from Paris to Vienna was a new respect for the neuroses, as princes travelling incognito, and for symptoms as stories caught in a holding pattern, as well as the suspicion of something vast and hidden on which consciousness merely perched. He arrived in Paris a neuroanatomist and research scientist, and returned to Vienna a psychopathologist, exchanging the laboratory for the clinic. A decade of slog overturned by a few months of baffled spectatorship, which led directly to his work with hysterics and the invention of psychoanalysis. This is the heroic portraiture, which elides the ensuing decade of clinical practice, in which Freud did a great deal of his looking, as perhaps too humble a setting. But it was Charcot who taught him to look down, for ‘here too are gods.’

*

Neither of these biographies brings to life the web of recalcitrances which erupt around the subject of biography itself. Freud believed there were things about him that were not the business of psychoanalysis. He would have taken less exception to Jones’s statement that ‘psychoanalysis is Freud’ than to the suggestion that Freud is psychoanalysis. It was as if what he had invented constantly threatened something he held onto about himself. Winnicott glossed this when he described the artist (and by extension everyone) as combining ‘the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found’.

What are the things that are inessential for psychoanalysis, given that nothing human is alien to its purview, or safe from its suspicion, least of all the incidental music of a life? Smoking was one of them. In 1924, after the early operations on his cancerous jaw, Freud told Ferenczi that he could now smoke his cigars only by forcing open his teeth with a clothes peg. If cigars enabled the rationality of work, the drift of smoke traced the arabesque of something resembling desire. Smoking was irrelevant to psychoanalysis, but relevant to his biography, as he pointed out to Zweig in a touching non sequitur: if we must talk about my petit-bourgeois character, let’s complicate the picture by adding that I was a passionate smoker. Freud had a lot to say about pleasure and little to say about happiness (except that America invented it, and could keep it), whereas his biographers have little to say about pleasure and too much to say about the fate of happiness in his hands. Easily accused of digression, Roudinesco nevertheless broaches these matters, and her book is a shaken kaleidoscope of things inessential.

Yet we end it famished for Freud, to read a page or two of whom is to leave behind most of the certainties uttered about him. Freud was supremely attentive to the way things get said. Paying little attention to the way things get said by Freud, Whitebook and Roudinesco forego a great deal in the way of biographical clues. His prose is praised by Roudinesco but infrequently quoted; her quotations are unidentified in the text and usually undated. His logocentrism is analysed by Whitebook, but the way it conditioned his insights is not. Freud uses images as place-markers, names for things for which he has as yet no name. ‘We can describe only with the aid of analogies … but we must keep changing them: none of them bears up for long enough.’ In his most famous analogy, the archaeology of the psyche is like a city – except that it isn’t, for the unconscious is timeless. Language is a hotel, and ‘analogies decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home’ – and the homely creates the unhomely, the unheimlich, with its further shore of understanding. His vigorous picture-making gets into the text as an intruder (telling the patient what is wrong is like handing out a menu – it is the patient who must tell us what is on the menu, tell us what he doesn’t know). Freud’s vernacular was a homemade brew, distilled in the apartment at Berggasse 19, into which he moved psychoanalysis in 1907 – where, across a narrow corridor from the Freud family, the Wolf Man sat, year after year.

Strachey’s translation is of course part of this story. It was overseen by Jones, and is forever accused of forsaking Freud’s idiom for a scientistic lexicon, which misled some Bloomsburies (as Roudinesco calls them) to deplore the materialism of psychoanalysis, as offering not an excess but a poverty of news from the nowheres of unconscious life. But behind the agenda to legitimise Freud as man of science, Strachey’s was a literary intelligence, whose rhetorical suspensions render the gothic and dreamlike atmosphere of Freudian argument, its air of lucidity under pressure. Like Joseph Roth, Freud employed a 19th-century idiom for new purposes. To have to make out Freud’s meanings inside the decorum of a Strachey sentence does not diminish their presence – and perhaps catches after all something of the Viennese original, among whose cluttered surfaces something startling presses towards clarity.

The written case histories are texts but not literary texts (the claims made for them as such are dispiriting), ‘and lack, so to speak, the serious stamp of science’, as Freud remarked. But they are the rock face, and their idioms are everywhere; even in the theoretical papers he is always talking to his patients. Whitebook has little to say about the case histories, and Roudinesco forgoes their realia for a frictionless explanatory continuum. The difficulty with précis is that Freud’s imagery cannot be redescribed, for it is already a redescription, as he was well aware (‘We could not otherwise describe the processes in question at all’). At the same time, Roudinesco’s concern to restore him to his contexts does not in any way modify the fact that her Freud is describable only in the terms he invented. His story is seen as uniquely free of contingency, though he spent his life quietly explaining that our lives are full of it, and that the only cure he has to offer might be the one we most need: to be freed of ‘the narrow human need for causal connections’. A life story is not a life, nor is a biography. It is more like a joke, in Freud’s sense of something exchangeable only under the counter of consciousness.

One of his best jokes, from a letter to Marie Bonaparte in 1937: ‘I have an advertisement floating about in my head that I consider the boldest and most successful piece of American publicity: “Why live, if you can be buried for ten dollars?”’ Did he invent it, or glimpse it somewhere on his American travels in 1909 and save it for three decades, before producing it like a card trick for Marie Bonaparte? If invented it belongs in the same realm of impossibility as biographical knowledge: jokes cannot be told, or even understood, but only transmitted. The joke was accompanied by a gloss: ‘The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence.’

But one of the things established by his later papers, and above all by ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, is that meaning and value are different things, and that the latter can survive the death of the former. If mourning represents the loss of meaning, melancholia is the refusal to mourn, and incurs a worse fate, the loss of value. The most exasperating of distinctions, it involves deciding what, in our lives, we are willing to accept as equivalent to the losses which are inflicted on us, usually by ourselves. Are we prepared to accept the loss of meaning in exchange for the survival of value – in which case we can survive our own wishes (not least for an afterlife), however archaic? Whitebook wrestles with this either/or, and cannot decide how seriously to take Freud’s wager.

Freud thought of the dilemma itself as a choice and therefore a form of freedom, but our capacity to cohabit with Freud’s freedoms, as they unfolded, has been lost and is hard to re-find. What the Freud wars proved is that we get no closer to closure. We can neither take Freud or leave Freud, nor (which is different) can we take him or leave him. It is as if we owe a debt, but like the Rat Man do not know how it might be settled. Put differently, you cannot tell Freud’s story without taking account of how Freud transformed storytellers (which includes you, dear biographer). We are inside the whale. So it is impossible to write a non-Freudian life of Freud, which is the only kind that is needed. That Freud grew up and spent half his life without psychoanalysis is not something that these new lives feel on their pulses, and it inhibits their account of the practitioner and the theorist, as well as isolating us from the clinician who, in the decade from the mid-1890s during which psychoanalysis was in gestation, lived a life rich in collaboration.

The question as to whether we can know things about one another without being told hangs in the air, and whether biography as a mode of sceptical investigation can show, rather than merely retell what it has been told. If there is such a thing as biographical truth, for Freud, it is an occult form of knowledge, and it includes all the things he insisted had validity, like information as evidentially uncertain as the details of Ernst Lanzer’s walkabout in Lower Austria in 1906. We should allow the thought that there are circumstantialities here out of which another account could be constructed, and we should keep them in view.