Sigmund Freud’s analytic couch implies a lush affair, an indulgence for the wealthy matron or nervous son of great inheritance. Over the past century, that handsome image has fueled more than a few dismissals of Freud, critical and informal. But thanks to a thorough new study, the charge that psychoanalysis was a luxury for the upper class deserves reappraisal.
Elizabeth Ann Danto’s Freud’s Free Clinics sets out to prove there was more at stake for Freud’s psychoanalytic movement than the welfare of those who could afford a costly new treatment. The author’s meticulous research and awesome grasp of the movement’s early days in Vienna and Berlin do more than simply prosecute an argument; they also give a surprisingly nimble account
of National Socialism’s stranglehold on Germany and Austria between the wars.
Curious themes emerge concerning the relation of psychoanalysis to money. Freud’s science is a fragile, cash-starved venture, and as the pauper’s tricks of a start-up grow more shrill, Freud himself is seen genuflecting for funds. A surprise? The doctors come to loathe the hands that feed them. Particular animosity is reserved for England and America, both of which were necessary for cash and notoriety, but were condemned by the doctors as wilder lands where the dark art of advertising and the caprice of wealthy gentlemen typified a crass, material desert. (One major source of funds was Eli Bernays, Freud’s brother-in-law, whose son Edward would be the world’s first PR man.) War and the gradual dismantling of Freud’s network would drive the founder and virtually all of the movement’s leading apostles to the maligned countries.
Danto pays special attention to one of the doctor’s earlier declarations: that he was “a liberal of the old school.” Fortunately, it isn’t just Freud’s personal politics that are up for exegesis. The task of indexing the science’s very real commitment to lower-class neuroses is more vital than any fuller portrait of Freud himself. But such is the trap—the urge to mythologize the man, rather than manage source material. Danto generously paints a larger portrait.
For a firsthand account of Freud’s early days, turn to Recollecting Freud, the lost memoir of the doctor’s biggest fan, Isidor Sadger. One of Freud’s early students and a neurosurgeon in his own right, Sadger attended Freud’s first lectures, having experimented separately with some of mental hygiene’s forgotten arts, such as hydrotherapy, which involves immersing the troubled patient in water.
Credited as being one of the first practicing doctors of psychoanalysis, Sadger writes with a breathless fondness that makes the science’s dawning years sound like the founding of a new religion. We almost didn’t have the book: Lost entirely to American and European libraries, the one known copy was tracked down in a rural Japanese collection.
Editor Alan Dundes, who passed away before the book’s release, notes sadly that beyond a “careful piety” observed in these pages, Sadger’s legacy is not significant. After the book’s 1930 release, one member of Freud’s inner circle, bristling at some of Sadger’s open criticism of the doctor, suggested in writing that Sadger should be sent to a concentration camp.
There’s a true sadness to the memoir. The faithful student mourns his teacher’s deteriorating health just as he confronts his own fate as a minor character in the saga. In a morbid flip of clarity, Sadger observes, “It always remained that the surest way to attract Freud’s attention was to lie down and die.”
Passing on is the central theme of Matthew von Unwerth’s Freud’s Requiem, inspired by Freud’s 1915 essay “On Transience.” The opening lines of the doctor’s short, melancholic piece recall a time in the Dolomites with Rainer Maria Rilke and polymath gadfly Lou Andreas-Salomé, at the time more famous in Germany than Freud or the poet.
On a hike, the trio pauses to admire the landscape, but Rilke admits to emotional devastation, saying that appreciation crumbled before the knowledge that beauty is fleeting. In the brief essay, Freud battles against the poet’s desolation, arguing instead that the temporary state of beauty—and life itself—is the inspiration for all that makes us human and vital.
Beautifully composed but intoxicated by its constellation of literary figures and surfeit of citations, Unwerth’s meditation on Freud and his mountain memorial becomes a toothless, quote-happy romp. It’s a challenge to shroud an entire book over the polished bones of a single essay, but when Unwerth includes the James Strachey translation of Freud’s piece, the reader will find pleasure once again in the founding psychoanalyst’s careful words.