The Housekeeper of a World-Shattering Theory: Martha Freud: A Biography by Katja Behling

Jenny Diski – The London Review of Books

trans. R.D.V. Glasgow [ Buy from the London Review Bookshop ] ∑ Polity, 206 pp, £25.00
In the membership roll of the worshipful guild of enabling wives, the name of Martha Freud ranks with the greatest: Mrs Noah, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Marx, Mrs Joyce, Mrs Nabokov, Mrs Clinton, and their honorary fellows, Mr Woolf and Mr Cookson. Wives, of either sex, are what keep the universe orderly and quiet enough for the great to think their thoughts, complete their travels, write their books and change the world. Martha Freud was a paragon among wives. There is nothing more liberating from domestic drudgery and the guilt that coes of avoiding it than having a cleaning lady who loves cleaning, a child-carer whoís content with child-care, a homebody who wants nothing more than to be at home. And Martha Freud was all those things. Quite why she was those things is something that er husband might have been the very person to investigate, but Freud was nobodyís fool and knew when to leave well alone in the murkier regions of his personal life ñ especially that dark continent in his mind concerning women. Freud mentioned in passing in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss (to whom he wrote that no woman had ever replaced the male comrade in his life), that at the age of 34, after the birth of her sixth child in eight years, Martha was suffering from writerís block. Impossible to imagine why. But like other mysteries about Marthaís life, this new biography does not (or perhaps cannot because some of the source material remains unavailable) elaborate on what she might have been trying to write. A shopping list, I expect. Unless it was that book about interesting new ways she had thought of for interpreting her dreams, which she worked on in those odd moments when the children werenít down with chickenpox or needing their stockings mended.
History tells of Mrs Freud ñ the wife ñ as a devoted domestic, and there is little in Katja Behlingís biography to suggest we adjust our view of her. The big idea seems to be that we must value her contribution to the development of psychoanalysis as the provider of a peaceful home life for its founder. The sine qua non of radical thought is someone else changing the babyís nappy. In his foreword to the book, Anto Freud, a grandson, puts it with incontestable logic:
Would he have had the time and opportunity to write this foundational work if he had had, say, to take his daughter to her dancing classes and his son to his riding lessons twice a week? . . . His youngest daughter was born in 1895. When she cried in the night, was it Sigmund who got up to comfort her? . . . If Martha had been less efficient or unwilling to devote her life to her husband in this way, the flow of Sigmundís early ideas would have dried to a trickle before they could converge into a great sea. Martha always saw to it that her husbandís energies were not squandered.
And if Freud had comforted his daughter when she cried in the night, would Anna have been so desperate for her fatherís attention as to devote her life to publishing his papers and continuing his work? Apostles need more than ordinary unhappiness to fit them for their task.
Juliet Mitchell, in praise of the new biography, berates those who dismiss Martha Freud as a stereotypical Hausfrau rather than seeing in her ëa highly ethical and decent human beingí, though it isnít at all clear to me that they are mutually exclusive descriptions. As to dismissing her, on the contrary, one wrings oneís hands and weeps over her, or would if she didnít seem to have been perfectly content with her existence. In his biography of Freud, Peter Gay quotes Marthaís reply to a letter of condolence after Freudís death that it was ëa feeble consolation that in the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us, and that I always tried as much as possible to remove the misËre of everyday life from his pathí. Like strange sex between consenting adults, thereís nothing to be said against contentment and a division of labour which both parties are happy about. We must read and wonder at the good fortune that each should have found the other. Which of us would not wish for a Martha of our own to take care of the misËre in our daily life while we sit in our study or silently at the lunch table bubbling up enlightenment for the world? Then again, who among us would wish to be Martha, no matter how essential her biographer might claim her to be in the production of the grand idea? To be a muse, an inspiration, might, I suppose, have its attractions; but to be the housekeeper of a world-shattering theory isnít quite the same.
Thereís no point in pretending in the light of 53 yearsí evidence that there was a great originator in Martha struggling to get out. But you canít help wondering how it could be that she wanted only this of herself, a woman who at her marriage was neither thoughtless nor completely self-effacin. Martha was a voracious reader of John Stuart Mill, Dickens and Cervantes, though her husband-to-be warned her against the rude bits unsuitable for a woman in Don Quixote. She was interested in music and painting, and had no shortage of suitors. When Freud became obsessively suspicious of her brother (and the husband of Freudís sister), Eli, who controlled the Bernaysís finances, he insisted, on pain of ending their relationship, that she break with him completely. She held her own, firmly reflected Freudís ultimatum back at him, and maintained her relationship with Eli. She travelled to northern Germany to holiday with only her younger sister for company and had a wonderful time in spite of her fiancÈís suspiciously heavy-handed use of ironic exclamation marks: ëFancy, L¸beck! Should that be allowed? Two single girls travelling alone in North Germany! This is a revolt against the male prerogative!í But as soon as they were married Freud forbade his devoutly Orthodox Jewish wife to light the sabbath candles. It wasnít until the first Friday after her husbandís death that she lit them again. What do women want is one thing, but the real question is what made Martha run: run the household, the children, the travel arrangements, the servants, and with never a word of complaint except a mildly expressed bafflement at her husbandís choice of profession. ëI must admit that if I did not realise how seriously my husband takes his treatments, I should think that psychoanalysis is a form of pornography.í
Marriage, they say, changes people, and it does look as if Martha Bernays might have had the makings of another woman ñ at any rate, another life ñ altogether. What this otherwise rather dutiful biography (the mirror of its subject, perhaps) does offer us is a glimpse (but sadly very little more) of the by no means uninteresting Bernays family and their oldest daughter, Martha, before she became the other Mrs Freud. Three of Marthaís six siblings died in infancy; her oldest brother, Isaac, was born with a severe hip disorder and walked on crutches; and the next brother, Eli, was not much liked by his mother. When Martha was six, her father, Berman Bernays, was imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy after some shady dealings on the stock market. Two years later, the family moved away from the public shame in Hamburg to Vienna, and Martha recalled hearing the ësizzling of her motherís tears as they landed on the hot cooking stoveí. She was teased at her new school for her German diction. Isaac died when Martha was 11, and seven years later Berman collapsed in the street, dying of ëparalysis of the heartí and leaving the family without an income. Bermanís brothers had to support them, and Eli took over his fatherís job in order to help out. Not an uneventful childhood, not lacking in trauma to be lived through. There are all sorts of pain and difficulty there, yet Martha did not take to her bed and succumb to the vapours. There is not the slightest indication that she lost the use of her legs, or found herself unable to speak. And this is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that when her father died, her mother appointed as her temporary guardian none other than the father of Bertha Pappenheim, later better known as Anna O., who might have told her a thing or two about the proper way to react to family loss. Nor is there any indication that her positively neurotic lack of neurotic symptoms (unless you count obsessive compulsive caring for her husbandís welfare) struck the father of psychoanalysis as worth a paper or two.
What Sigmund and Martha had in common were families embroiled in shadowy financial scandals. Freudís uncle was imprisoned for trading in counterfeit roubles, and persistent rumour had it that his father was implicated in the scam. The way both dealt with the discomfort of public shame and lived happily ever after together was by embacing a perfect 19th-century bourgeois existence, provided you donít include Sigmundís incessant thoughts about child sexuality, seduction theory, the Oedipus complex, penis envy and the death drive ñ or perhaps even if you do. Presumably itwas precisely that exemplary bourgeois surface, the formal suits, the heavy, glossy furniture, the rigid table manners, ordered nursery and bustling regularity, that made it possible for those deeper, hardly thinkable thoughts to be had and developed into something that looked like a scientific theory. By polishing that surface and keeping the clocks ticking in unison, Martha was as essential to the development of Freudian thought as Dora or the Rat Man. Itís just that she didnít have the time to put her feet up on the couch, and Sigmund never cared to wonder what all that polishing and timekeeping was about. Martha was not there in order to be understood; she was there so that he might learn to understand others.
Not that women werenít interesting. Anna O. and Dora were fascinating. Minna, Marthaís younger sister, who lived with them, was someone to whom, when no serious man was around, Freud could talk about intellectual things. Who could have been more stimulating than Lou Andreas-SalomÈ, Marie Bonaparte, Hilda Doolittle, Helene Deutsch or Joan Riviere? But they were none of them his wife. It is the womanís place, Freud said to his oldest daughter, Mathilde, to make manís life more pleasant. Intellectual companionship was to be found elsewhere. The more intelligent young men look for a wife with ëgentleness, cheerfulness, and the talent to make their life easier and more beautifulí. (Not Lou, then.) In 1936 he spoke to Marie Bonaparte of his married life: ëIt was really not a bad solution of the marriage problem, and she is still today tender, healthy and active.í He expressed his relief to his son-in-law Max Halberstadt, ëfor the children who have turned out so well, and for the fact that sheí ñ Martha ñ ëhas neither been very abnormal nor very often illí.
In fact, it was precisely Marthaís sturdy, if somewhat timekeeping and cleanliness-fixated nature that Freud found most attractive, according to Behling. She was the lodestone, the quintessence, the elixir to which his lifeís work was ostensibly devoted. He was the Doctor and she was what the cured would look like. She was normal. Obviously, it would have been extremely trying had Anna or Dora or the Wolf Man been like her. But in his world of psychical distortion, Martha represented what no one who takes his works seriously could ever really believe in: the ordinary, undamaged specimen. According to Ernest Jones, ëher personality was fully developed and well integrated: it would well deserve the psychoanalystsí highest compliment of being ìnormalî.í No problem for Martha coming to terms with her missing penis at the right stage of her development, no big deal about transferring her Oedipal desire for the mother to the father. She had adapte nicely to her castration, and although it meant her superego was a flimsy thing compared to that of a man (woman ëshows less sense of justice than man, less inclination to submission to the great exigencies of life, is more often led in her decisions by tender or hostile feelingsí), it served well enough for Freudís purposes. Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him? …
(For the complete article please see the link below.)
Jenny Diskiís non-fiction book, On Trying to Keep Still, will be published in April. She is the author of Only Human, about a patriarch and his wife, among other novels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *