Monday, October 15, 2012

The End of Sigmund Freud by David Cohen

The Woolfs had been publishing English translations of Freud’s works since 1924 when a discrete advertisement told the reading public they could buy the Collected Papers by Sigmund Freud, M.D., vol. 1 and vol. 2, and that the complete set including three more volumes would cost 4 guineas. The Woolfs paid Freud 50 pounds as advance on each volume, but they had never met their author before he arrived in England in late 1938.

Soon after Freud settled in Hampstead, Leonard Woolf had made “discreet inquiries as to whether he would like Virginia and me to come and see him. The answer was yes and in the afternoon of January 28, 1939, we went and had tea wit him. I feel no call to praise the famous men I have known” – and Woolf had known more than a few. His acquaintances included Bertrand Russell, the poets W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Nehru, as well as the economist-hedonist John Maynard Keynes. These celebrities had not left Woolf agog with admiration. “Nearly all famous men are disappointing or bores or both. Freud was neither; he had an aura not of fame but of greatness. The terrible cancer of the mouth . . . had already attacked him.”

Freud was, Leonard Woolf noted, not just a genius but also ‘as unlike many geniuses, an extraordinarily nice man with a civilized temperament, pleasant, and extraordinarily courteous in a formal, old-fashioned way. – for instance, he almost ceremoniously presented Virginia with a flower. There was something about him of a half-extinct volcano, something somber suppressed, reserved. He gave me a feeling only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength. Leonard also recorded that Freud appeared “as a screwed-up, shrunken very old man with a monkey’s light eyes paralysed spasmodic movements inarticulate; but alert. Difficult talk, Immense potential, an old fire now flickering.”

Despite his deteriorating condition Freud now finished An Outline of Psychoanalysis, a short book but not one for beginners because it makes many assumptions about what readers know. At the start of Chapter 5, “Explanatry Notes on The Interpretation of Dreams,” Freud wrote a sentence that reflects much of his beliefs and character: “States of conflict and turbulence alone can further our knowledge.”

Freud highlighted successes, failures, and worries about the future of the discipline he founded. He lamented that no philosopher or psychologist could begin to explain consciousness or how mind and body are linked. Nevertheless, he could provide “a first report on the facts that we have observed.” Psychoanalysis had “proved fruitful after all” because it had found that the laws by which the unconscious worked differed from those of the conscious mind. He had not wasted his time.

Freud repeated one of his long-held ambitions – to make it possible for psychoanalysis to help human beings develop more maturity or as he put it that “where the id and the superego were, the ego will be.” He hoped that psychoanalysis could transform people. If we recognize the forces in our unconscious, we are less at their mercy. If we know ourselves, we can control our chaotic, aggressive, and destructive impulses, to some extent at least. Self-knowledge is power.

Freud was sophisticated philosophically and knew that many of his arguments were circular and that his treatments often failed but he felt the future of his profession looked bright. Chemicals might one day provide cures. For now, however, Freud wrote, analysis offered the best hope for those who were in distress.

Every day now, Freud was himself in great physical distress. It was clear that his cancer was inoperable and incurable. He was dreadfully weak – and, more humiliating, he smelled disgusting. When his beloved dog Lun came out of quarantine, the dog refused to come near him because he stank so vilely. And now Freud never ate in front of other people because the last botched operation had made it impossible for him to eat without dribbling and making a mess. Paula Fichtl had to clean food off his trousers, jacket, and the floor. For a fastidious man like Freud, these were terrible humiliations. The best his doctor could do was to alleviate Freud’s pain but he had an obstinate patient because Freud hated taking anything stronger than aspirin because it made him think less clearly.

Maresfield Gardens was now a house in which a much-loved man was dying. On September 21, in severe pain, Freud asked his doctor Max Schur to fulfill his side of an old bargain. The suffering did not make sense anymore. He asked Schur to ease him out of life. Freud said goodbye to his wife, to his daughter Mathilde, to his sons, and finally to his youngest daughter, Anna, his true heir. She did not want him to take the morphine but Freud saw no point in prolonging his existence now and prepared himself lucidly. Schur gives a touching description. Taking the hand the hand of the physician Freud said “My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more.” Schur reassured his patient that he had not forgotten. “When he was again in agony, I gave him a hypodermic of two centigrams of morphine. He soon felt relief and fell into a peaceful sleep. I repeated this dose after about twelve hours."

Freud died toward Midnight on September 21, 1939 and was cremated three days later at the Golders Green Crematorium. The family asked Ernest Jones to give the funeral oration and he rose to the occasion. “It had been hard to wish him to live a day longer when he was suffering so much.” Jones paid respect to “what in others expresses itself as religious feeling’ but in Freud was expressed “as a transcendental belief in the value of life and in the value of love.” Jones recalled Freud’s vivid personality and “instinctive love of the truth.” He added that he felt no one could have ever lied to Freud.”

One should not speak ill of eulogies, but many people lied to Freud and, at times, he seems to have lied to himself.

In 1925 Edward Bernays wanted his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to write an autobiography. He had, he said, a good offer from an American publisher. “What deprives all autobiographies of value is their tissue of lies,” Freud shot back. “Let’s just say parenthetically that your publisher shows American naivety in imagining that a man, honest until now, could stoop so low for five thousand dollars. The temptation would begin at one hundred times that sum, but even then I would renounce it after half an hour.”

Twelve years later Freud’s friend Arnold Zweig, the Socialist writer, asked for his permission to write his biography. Freud was as fierce as before: “Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattering and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist and, if it did, we could not use it.” He added a reference to his beloved Hamlet, “Was the prince not right when he asks who could escape whipping were he used after his desert.”

Ernest Jones finished his eulogy in some style, however: “One can say of him that as never a man loved life more, so never a man feared death less. . . so we take our leave of a man whose like we shall not know again. From our hearts we thank him for having lived; for having done; for having loved.”

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