Books: Cultural Amnesia — Sigmund Freud |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]


Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was first a neurologist, then a psychopathologist, in which second role, and based in Vienna, he developed the technique of conversational “free association” that we now recognize as the distinctive feature of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and counselling in whatever form we might happen to encounter them. Since at one time or another most of us will spend hours telling our troubles to somebody we hardly know, this is a very widespread influence for a single thinker to have had. On an academic level, Freud’s theories about human personality will always be argued over, as they were when they were being developed. The quarrels of his disciples with him and among themselves are interesting studies in how animus and outright hatred can arise from purely mental differences. The driving force of any ideology stands revealed: it can’t be coherent without being intolerant. What there can be no argument about is Freud’s stature as an imaginative writer. Quite a lot of it comes over into English—The Psychopathlogy of Everyday Life (1904) is a good place to start—but in the original German his body of prose is poetically charged almost without equal. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they banned psychoanalysis straight away. After they took over Austria in 1938, Freud was lucky to escape. In London he lived for a further year before succumbing to cancer. His house in Hampstead retains his wonderful collections of books and sculpture. The Freud name, through his descendants, is still prominent in British cultural life.

* * *
Finis Austriae

ALL THE ENTRIES in Freud’s diary of his last decade are short. Very few are more than one line long. On the day he began to keep the diary in 1929, he signalled his intention on the first page with the underlined heading “Kürzeste Chronik” (Shortest Chronicle). The entries are explicated ably in a Hogarth Press coffee table book, The Diary of Sigmund Freud 1929–1939, edited by Michael Molnar: a punctilious effort which can be recommended, not least for its lavish iconography. As picture books go, it’s a page-turner. But a longer and more sensitive explication of this particular entry would have been useful. Austria’s chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, had resigned, Hitler was already in Linz, and the Anschluß was inevitable. Its advent could be measured in hours. This was indeed the end of Austria. But why did the great seer say so in Latin?

One reason might have been that The Times of London had already said it in Latin. True to the paper’s appeasing form in that period, the Times leader writers had behaved despicably right up to the crucial moment, but when the catastrophe finally looked inevitable even to them, they summoned the courage to admit that the end might indeed be near. (Up until then, they had run endless assurances about Hitler’s benevolence.) Because The Times was read religiously in Vienna, and especially by the Jewish intellectuals, the imported Latin tag had been circulating for a week. But there was no reason for Freud to pick up on it. He probably did so to give the moment an automatic historical perspective, and thus claim for himself, through speech, an oracular viewpoint. Shakespeare did the same for Julius Caesar: Et tu, Brute? At the moment when all is lost, Caesar reverts out of his everyday language (which in the play, of course, is English) to the formal language of his schooldays, which for Shakespeare would have been Latin. Shakespeare, a psychologist far more intuitive that Freud himself, knew that people revert under pressure. (Even trained singers, when things are going wrong, will suddenly retreat into the shallow breathing that was once all they knew, and any professional in whatever field could tell a similar story.) In the case of Caesar, Shakespeare was probably helped to the idea by Suetonius. In Suetonius’s account of Caesar’s life, Caesar, when he receives the last blow, reverts out of Latin into Greek: kai su, teknon. The effect is not just of a retreat to youth but of a distancing, as if history has inevitably led to this, and the moment must be given its dignity as a point in the flow of time.

The irony in Freud’s case is that his tendency to an historical perspective on modern European politics was portentous for himself and potentially lethal to his family. The Nazis emerge slowly in the last years of his diary: too slowly, as it turned out. From the historical viewpoint, the diary is not a proportionate account, because the history that really mattered is barely mentioned. No doubt in his everyday conversation he said much more, but in the diary he said so little that the paucity can be assessed as a kind of inverted Sprachfehler—one of those linguistic slips in which he saw so much when they were made by other people. In the years of Austria’s final and fateful destiny, he had been working on two culminating trains of thought. One train of thought is captured in Die Zukunft einer Illusion (The Future of an Illusion), his most intense evocation of the destructive impulses in mankind. In that book, he defined civilization as the overcoming of nature, with the implication—and the implication was fully worked out—that mankind’s natural state was destructive. It was a powerful argument brilliantly articulated, and remains to this day one of the most magnificent condensations of a world view into a prose style. But there was a penalty to be paid, and he paid it. The growing threat to civilized Austria seemed nothing special. He even seems to have seen nothing special about the Nazis themselves. Did he think civilization would contain this destructive force in the same way as, recently at any rate, it had contained all the others? Or was he fatalistically resigned to the catastrophe?

If he was fatalistically resigned, his other important train of recent thought might have played a part. It was in these years that he brought to a climax his theories about the libido and its typology: erotic, narcissistic and obsessional. Everyone, he thought, shares all three departments, with an emphasis on at least one of them at the expense of the other two, and possibly on two at the expense of the third. The narcissistic-obsessional was the most creative combination. Those blessed with it, or cursed, could do great work. But beneath it all, as Philip Larkin was later to put it, desire of oblivion runs. Thanatos, the death wish, was much on Freud’s mind. It is possible to say—although it might be wiser to say something else—that he looked forward to personal extinction. He was suffering badly from his cancer by then, and might well have longed for a crisis that would release him. He could not seriously contemplate oblivion as a thing of his own will, because his mother was not yet dead. (He called that “the barrier.”) But he might have contemplated it for his country, which, if it went down to destruction, would take him with it.

What makes that line of argument seem unwise is the terrible array of facts that would have to be counted as its cost if it were true. When the reign of terror finally arrived, Freud, with help from abroad, was able to get away to England. But four of his sisters were trapped. All of them were in their eighties, but none was allowed to die of old age. (Marie and Pauline went to Treblinka, Rosa to Auschwitz and Adolfine to Theresienstadt.) In Freud’s beloved Vienna, Jewish contemporaries who almost equalled him in eminence suffered the tortures of the damned. Thanatos was no gentleman, and he came not to rescue minds from their torments, but to torment bodies until minds collapsed. Thanatos was a raving maniac, not a mental principle. How was it that Freud, of all people, could not foresee this? Hannah Arendt and E. H. Gombrich, among others, have reminded us that in the German-speaking countries the assimilated Jews thought of themselves as nationals first and foremost: that there was never really any such category as the Jews until Hitler invented it. But Hitler had already invented it. From Germany, the news had been coming in for five years at least. Everyone in Vienna who knew anything about politics was well aware of what might be in store. But to Freud, it might all have been happening to the Hittites and the Assyrians. His historical perspective was everything but actual.

He was a bit like that. There was always a naivety underlying what he knew. An unquenchable naivety is part of an artist’s power, and that Freud was an artist should never be in doubt: he was one of the great prose writers in German, which would be worth learning to read for him alone. But his naivety had a way of coming to the surface even in his most subtly elaborate formulations. He thought there was something psychologically wrong with his rich female Viennese patients who did not want to sleep with their husbands. Schnitzler’s writings would have taught him better if he had known how to read them. Schnitzler’s writings should also have told him about the potential danger to the Jews. But Freud, the master psychologist, was not equipped to receive the message. Freud took holidays at Berchtesgaden without being much troubled by the demeanour of some of its newer visitors. Stefan Zweig, who had a house in Salzburg from which the activities in Berchtesgaden could be observed, was less confident. With the top Nazis in plain sight, Zweig guessed what was coming all too well, but if he ever told Freud, Freud didn’t take it in. Freud’s sensitivity to his fellow masters of prose was at the level of the ego. When Thomas Mann published a testimonial piece about Freud’s scientific achievment, Freud was miffed to note that it was really a tribute to his literary style, with the stuff about science tacked on at the top and tail. He was sensitive enough on that level. But he was cut off from the cultural information that the writers were providing as the situation in Europe steadily deteriorated. He would have been more likely to view them as neurotic. His attention was focused on personalities and their individual neuroses, not on politics and its collective disease. The real psychodrama was too big for him to see.

He could have escaped so much sooner, and from exile he could have saved all his relatives in good time. There would have been no financial problems: from the beginning of the post-war inflation, he had always based his finances on the hard currency brought in by foreign patients. Moving to where the patients were would have boosted his income. Leaving early would have been a better way for him to love Vienna. Alas, he seems to have believed that the Nazi irrationality was just one more instance of the destructive impulse like any other, and could be contained in balance with the impulses to order, continuity and creativity. (At a meeting in his Hampstead house, I once heard a letter of his quoted in which he said, months after he had reached safety, that the Catholic Church would probably be able to sort the whole matter out.) He never grasped that Nazi destructiveness was a complete mind in itself. Surely he was the victim of his own poetry, which was so vivid that he took it to be a map of reality. From the realm of the human spirit he had banished God and the Devil, and replaced them with a family of contending deities bearing proud Greek names. They were household gods: aided by judicious therapy, they would one way or another always reach an accommodation, in a world where people like his old sisters, even if they were not happy, would die in bed. But the Devil came back. The Devil had never been away.