Copyright The Wall Street Journal
May 5, 2006; Page A16
Sigmund Freud, one of the crucial authors and thinkers of the 20th century, was born in Moravia in 1856, and taken to Vienna as a child by his Jewish father and mother. Only a few professions were open to Jews in 19th-century Vienna, one of them being medicine. Freud consequently received a medical degree in 1881, and then wrote on hysteria. He would become the founder of modern psychoanalysis, among his many other achievements.
Freud died in England in 1939, after being ransomed from the Gestapo subsequent to the Nazi takeover in Austria. It is now exactly 150 years since his birth and two-thirds of a century since his death, and there is still no general agreement on the nature of his achievement. Yet 20th-century literature truly begins with Freud.
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Freud was so prolific that any choice of his most significant books is somewhat arbitrary, but certainly they would include “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900), “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” (1901) and “Three Contributions to the Theology of Sexuality” (1905), in his earlier phase. As he developed and refined his theories, Freud composed a series of “cultural” studies including “Totem and Taboo” (1912), “Civilization and Its Discontents” (1930) and “Moses and Monotheism” (1939). Though these continue to be influential, they are not as vital as what seems to me his strongest works: “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (1920), “Inhibitions, Symptoms, Anxiety” (1926), and the posthumously published, misleadingly titled “An Outline of Psychoanalysis” (1940).
Freud argued that psychoanalysis was a science, which in time would make a substantial contribution to biology. Almost no one now agrees with that hope, which was aptly dismissed by the brilliant Viennese Jewish satirist Karl Kraus, who observed that only the most fantastic elements in psychoanalysis were true. Even more memorably, Kraus wounded Freud by asserting that psychoanalysis was itself the disease of which it purported to be the cure.
Increasingly we have come to see that Freud has more in common with the moral essayist Michel de Montaigne than he does with the scientist Charles Darwin. To be, as Freud was, the Montaigne of the 20th century, was to be equal to the other major writers of that era: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, just as Montaigne himself was the peer of Cervantes and of Shakespeare. I find the phrase, “the literary Freud,” to be a redundancy, just as it would sound odd to speak of “the literary Joyce” or “the literary Proust.”
Freud maps our minds by mapping his own, which was Montaigne’s procedure. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who disliked both Freud and Shakespeare, sought to dismiss Freudian thought as “a powerful mythology,” but that was accurate discernment, and not dismissal. Montaigne’s art of telling the truth about the self is akin to Freud’s artful mythology of the self, which he intended as truth. But is it? Yes and no, no and yes. Wittgenstein emphasized the “no” while nevertheless admiring Freud as a writer who had “something to say.” One could change that to: “everything to say.” Freud is interested in virtually everything, and teaches his reader very nearly all that can be taught.
That a supposed scientist should become a universal author is a strange fate, but then Freud, writing to a friend, described himself as a conquistador. He also identified himself, rather darkly, with Macbeth, and with Hannibal of Carthage, nemesis of Rome. These are rather aggressive personae and reflect Freud’s agonistic ambitions more than his extraordinary dignity of being. For years, I have meditated upon Freud’s self-revelation in a thought he added to an interleaved copy of “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”:
“Rage, anger, and consequently a murderous impulse is the source of superstition in obsessional neurotics: a sadistic component, which is attached to love and is therefore directed against the loved person and repressed precisely because of this link and because of its intensity. — My own superstition has its roots in suppressed ambition (immortality) and in my case takes the place of that anxiety about death which springs from the normal uncertainty of life.”
The second use of “superstition” here is a complex irony. Freud insists he does not fear dying, because his quest is to become a memorial inscription never to be effaced. The undersong is Freud’s moral injunction that each of us needs to accept “reality-testing,” by making friends with the necessity of dying.
As a secular moralist, Freud rejected all transcendentalisms, but his worship of the reality principle might be interpreted as a rather skewed vestige of Platonism. Essentially, Freud’s ambition was to become a comprehensive influence upon futurity, while insisting that he himself had evaded all influence. He went so far as to deny that he ever had read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, which manifestly is unlikely. But his influence upon the 20th century was extraordinary, though it begins to wane now in the 21st, when organized superstitions are at war throughout the world.
Freud’s triumph was that millions of people who never read him nevertheless internalized his categories, a phenomenon still prevalent among us. We unthinkingly think we are governed by the psychic agencies he invented: id, ego, superego, which necessarily are merely useful fictions, and not components of the self. Again, we tend to believe we possess libido, a particular energy that fuels sexual desire, but libido is another fiction or Freudian metaphor. My favorite speculation on Freud’s influence is to wonder what would have happened had he decided we had “destrudo” as well as libido. He briefly entertained the idea of destrudo as fuel for the Death Drive, just as libido energized Eros, but then rejected the notion. Had he settled upon destrudo, would we not now go about, on our more self-destructive days, muttering that our destrudo was raging within us?
Freud was unhappy that psychoanalysis was captured by the American medical profession, since he loathed both the United States (which he visited once, briefly) and most physicians. He favored lay analysis, to be carried on by persons of profound learning and culture. In every way, Freud was an elitist, who feared the anti-Semitic violence always latent in the lower classes of Europe. A professed atheist, Freud saw himself as another Moses, one who would found a new Judaism in psychoanalysis.
Freud today seems both archaic and persistent. His art of therapy ebbs away, replaced by psychic chemistry; and psychoanalysis is a conceptual concern largely to social scientists and to whatever few humanists still huddle among us. Freud liked to joke that he had invented psychoanalysis because it had no literature, but literature itself clearly informed Freud. He owed Shakespeare so much that he fiercely adopted the lunatic thesis that the Earl of Oxford had written all of Shakespeare. Only a great nobleman could have conceived Hamlet and Macbeth, who haunt all of Freud’s work. It was unacceptable that the son of a Stratford glovemaker should have been Freud’s authentic forerunner. Prestige, both social and professional, mattered immensely to Freud.
Sigmund Freud persists today, but not as a scientist or even as a healer. The late Francis Crick observed that Freud was a Viennese physician who wrote a very good prose style, but while funny enough that is hardly adequate. Freud matters because he shares in the qualities of Proust and Joyce: cognitive insight, stylistic splendor, wisdom. That remains all on earth we can hope to study and to know.
Mr. Bloom’s most recent book is “Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine” (Riverhead, 2005).