Freudian analysis

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. He is former president of California College of the Arts and was curator of the 1998 Library of Congress exhibition "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture."

More than 150 years after his birth, Sigmund Freud still haunts us. His ideas creep into our language like a symptom, or like an unconscious desire. Sometimes it’s all in fun, as when Brian, the thoughtful canine on Fox’s “Family Guy,” wondered with the therapist if his wetting the floor was an act of aggression. Sometimes it’s to deepen our engagement with a narrative, as happened to Tony Soprano, in HBO’s “The Sopranos,” when he tried, with the help of his therapist, Dr. Melfi, to understand what it meant to be abandoned by your sister and to inherit the burdens left by your mother. Freud was declared dead in a 2005 cover story in Newsweek; the following year, the magazine ran another piece on the “debunked doctor,” declaring him an “inescapable force.” Freud just won’t disappear, and Mark Edmundson’s “The Death of Sigmund Freud” offers a compelling redescription of why the founder of psychoanalysis retains his relevance today.

Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, sees Freud’s legacy in broadly cultural (not medical) terms. But he connects these general terms with Freud’s emigration after the Nazi absorption of Austria and with the writing projects completed during the old man’s final struggle with cancer. Edmundson’s treatment of Freud’s greater significance and the particular historical conditions of his life makes this brief book an engaging read.

In the fall of 1909, Edmundson notes, Vienna was home to both Freud and Adolf Hitler. The former had just returned from a triumphant lecture tour in America, the latter was down and out in Austria’s cruel and splendid capital. Freud was about to soar, and Hitler seemed destined for permanent decline. Edmundson’s framing device allows him an effective contrast with the late 1930s, when the aged Freud faces vicious, organized anti-Semitism and the perversely energetic Hitler plans his return to Vienna to take control.

The book presents a stirring account of Freud’s final months in Vienna, and the reader gets some sense of his everyday life as he attempted to maintain his rhythm of writing and therapy with a few patients while coping with cancer and threats on the streets. When the Nazis stormed their apartment the first time, Frau Martha Freud asked whether they wouldn’t leave their rifles in the umbrella stand. The men declined and helped themselves to the household money. Daughter Anna opened the safe to distribute the family savings before Freud emerged from his office in the back of the apartment. As the story goes, Edmundson notes, the old man’s icy glare sent the Nazis scattering. The Gestapo later turned more serious and took Anna for questioning. This was too much for him, and an exit plan was put together to get much of the family (with the sad exception of his aged sisters) out of the country. On June 4, 1938, he boarded the Orient Express headed for France, eventually to settle in England. When the German authorities asked him to sign a statement that he had always been shown the utmost respect, Freud added an ironic flourish that might have aborted his departure: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”


“The Death of Sigmund Freud” also focuses on the psychoanalyst’s last major project, “Moses and Monotheism,” one of Freud’s highly speculative works. In it he offered an argument about the origins of religion (in delusion and desire), the identity of Moses (he was really an Egyptian) and the historical destiny of the Jews (how they lived with the trauma of oppression). Some complained that the psychoanalyst was depriving the Jews of images of leadership and consolation when they needed them the most. It was 1938, after all, and a pogrom of unimaginable horror was getting underway.

But Freud labored on to complete it, and in forceful and concise terms, Edmundson shows us how this project challenged what was taking place in Germany: Freud deconstructed the desire for strong leadership and the group erotics of submission -- something all too relevant in the late 1930s. Edmundson knows that the Freudian reason for analyzing desires is to provide people with new possibilities for understanding them and, perhaps, for being free of their unconscious, compulsive dimensions. By rewriting Jewish history, Freud was offering the only gift he knew how to give: increased freedom through self-awareness.

In “Moses and Monotheism,” Freud was returning to group dynamics, a subject that had stimulated his interest for decades. So much of our behavior in groups -- be they religious, political or social -- is dictated by an urge to escape conflict or uncertainty. Psychoanalysis teaches that we are ambivalent creatures, that our desires will always be in tension with one another, and that rather than try to resolve those tensions (in faith, in submission to authority), we must learn to live with them. Instead of trying to erase conflicts through violence or submission, we might learn to accept that we are imperfect creatures whose needs can’t be fully satisfied. In his study of Moses, Freud was offering a modest yet bold therapeutic intervention for his own time, a deconstruction of patriarchal authority in the ancient past that was again crucially relevant. “To Freud,” Edmundson explains, “the present is fundamentally a repetition of what has come before: in fact there is, strictly speaking, no pure present, no ‘now’ in the thought of Sigmund Freud.” Psychoanalysis provides a “history of the present,” a language for understanding our desires as they emerge and for providing us with a past with which we can live.

When Freud undertook this therapeutic intervention, he was at the very end of his own life; Europe was on the verge of a suicidal, cataclysmic war. He offered in this context not advice on how to live but a mode of thinking that might allow us to find, in Edmundson’s nice phrase, “words where before there has been only silence and compulsion.”

Finding these words means discovering the desires that make it possible for people or ideas to control us: Edmundson refers to these as “god replacements.” Such discoveries can undermine that control. This is the disruptive legacy of Freud’s last year, and Edmundson has found the words to bring it alive today.