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.

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