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5 October: The Enigma of Freud

Matthew Del Nevo

This is the third talk in the series of lectures given by Matt on the philosopher Lou Salome. 

I want to start by talking about the enigma of Freud, in order to recall us to his reality.  I started rereading Freud because of Lou Salomé.  And also because of the new Freud translations that have been done by Penguin Books, which restore the literary feel of Freud. The Standard Edition of Freud by Stratchey in English was criticised by Bruno Bettelheim in the seventies, and this put me off Freud at the time when a lot of other people in the social sciences and literary theory were reading him.   Bettelheim’s book, Freud and Man’s Soul informed me, to my surprise, that Freud never mentioned “the psyche”, but soul, or Seele in German.  Freud never mentioned the ego, he never mentioned the superego, he never mentioned the id. In fact, Freud deliberately sought to stay close to literary language. He spoke of the das Ich, the I, not the ego, and the das Es, the It, not the Id.  Well the new translations put the English closer to Freud’s marvellous prose style. And now I can better appreciate how richly Freudian some of the French post-modern philosophy is, as for instance in the writing of Jacques Derrida or Hélène Cixous, not because they follow some supposed Freudian ideology or other, they don’t; but because of the texture of their writing and thinking.  It is writing full of the ruses of the soul, the personal, of hidden nooks and crannies: sublimations, deployments, dreams, obsessions, failures, fictions, fallacies and most of all, interminable interpretations, from one undecidable matter to the next. And this is one of the reasons why the Cambridge philosophers said this is not philosophy.  But coming back to Lou Salomé, what struck me about Freud, reading her, was the greatness of Freud, and the enigma. 
Lou admired Nietzsche, but she did not fall either for him or his philosophy. Her book on him, which perhaps remains the best book there is on Nietzsche’s philosophy, shows she is the more mature spirit.  And Lou accompanied Rainer Maria Rilke on his entire poetic journey, it was she who first saw most of his works, who advised him when he was working on them, and spurred him on.  A year after his death in 1926 Salomé wrote a beautiful account of Rilke - a book which understands his work probably better than any other.  And so Lou Salomé was gifted and intuitive, even compared to the gifted and intuitive.  By the time she met Freud the list of “great names” in her life was long:  Dilthey, Wagner, Tolstoy, Buber, Hauptmann, Strindberg, Hofmannsthal, Adler, Tausk (and so on). For her books on Nietzsche and Ibsen, and her liaison with Nietzsche, Lou was widely known throughout pre-War Europe among philosophers and artists.  So what was it about Freud that stopped her in her tracks?  Lou had known his writings, everyone knew his dream book, but she first met him when she attended the Weimar Congress of 1911.  Meeting Freud was to be the turning point of her life; she would return to Vienna the next year to study with him.  This involved giving up everything else, and leaving husband and home in Göttingen. 
Lou would train properly under Freud and become a psychoanalyst and work as one from the end of the First World War until her death in 1937.  When she entitled her 1931 memoir of Freud My Thanks to Freud (Mein Dank an Freud), he asked her not to, and suggested she change the title to ‘My Thanks to Psychoanalysis’ because to name him was too personal; to which, she replied, “The work really is this one word” by which she meant him personally.  Psychoanalysis she said, “is my experience of the man so named.”(1)   What was it about Freud?  This is the enigma. 
Let us establish some salient points about Freud and let me start by quoting Mark Edmondsun, a Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
“Among his detractors, Freud is known as an erotic reductionist. He takes the worlds of love and power, with their marvellous iridiscent shades, and swabs them with his dun-coloured brush.  But perhaps Freud is not so much a reductionist as he is someone who brilliantly exposes the state of the psyche when it is at its most minimal and besieged. Maybe Freud is not, strictly speaking, a reductionist but someone who aptly describes us when we are at our most reduced.
“Happy men and women (the enchanted, mystified ones, Freud would generally say) look at the psychoanalytical account of love and sneer. It’s all too simple, too cut and dried. But in times of crisis, erotic or political, they may return to Freud’s purgatorial map for a stark overview of the terrain, and some hints about how to traverse it.” (2)
What Lou found in Freud was a new kind of humanism, which was not an Enlightenment humanism. It was a dark humanism. 
Let me make another point about Freud and give another quotation, this time from Freud himself, from his paper “On ‘Wild’ Psychoanalysis.” 
“If knowledge of the unconscious were as important as those inexperienced in psychoanalysis believe it to be, then all you would need for a cure would be for the sufferer to listen or read books.  However, that would have about as much impact on neurotic symptoms as distributing menus would have on hunger during a famine.”(3)
Freud was not just a dark humanist, but a practitioner. Until then, philosophy was of its nature theoretical, but here, with his man, it was a practice.  To make analysis practical in real time was Freud’s philosophical move. In the quote just given Freud refers to neurotics. These were his patients, but for Freud neurotic is something we all are, personally and politically to degree more or less.  Today, when we blithely say, “there is no such thing as ‘normal’” we express our preconscious Freudianism: and how our language has adapted to Freud.  The tendency to put something in inverted commas as I just did to the word ‘normal’, is the tendency to say ‘this is not what it seems’, ‘there is something behind this’, something repressed, something unfulfilled, a wish, a dream, a perversity, or something that is not right. 
Here then are two points about Freud, his dark humanism, and his praxis that mark out his enigma.
There was a third thing that marked out the enigma of Freud and stopped Lou in her tracks. Freud was both creative and scientific, something that Nietzsche failed to keep a balance between before abandoning himself completely to his thoughts; something Rilke regarded with incredulity, as he saw poetry and science as diametrically opposed.  But Lou had always had a sense of “both/and’’ where it came to being both creative and true, rather than either the one or the other.  In this respect, in Freud she met a master.
Let’s look at this point more closely. Freud’s work, The Interpretation of Dreams has been through a number of editions. The first edition was 1900, the second, 1908 and the third 1911. In the introduction to the first edition of 1900 Freud notes the difficulty of interpreting material as immaterial as a dream.  Dreams recorded in literature or dreams by people he didn’t know could hardly be of help – that is, in getting to the bottom of the matter.  Freud writes: “I had only the choice between my own dreams and that of my patients whom I was treating by psychoanalytical methods.” But the latter would never do because the neuroses of the patients would complicate the dream material.  And so, he is left with one alternative: his own dreams.  But, he writes, “if I relate my own dreams I must inevitably reveal to the gaze of strangers more of the intimacies of my psychic life than is agreeable to me, and more than seems fitting in a writer who is not a poet, but a scientific investigator.”  What he is saying is that if he uses his own dreams, he needs to be a poet as much as a cold headed analyst. What does he do?  He uses his own dreams and thus, at the inception of psychoanalysis, in the Preface to his great work, Die Traumdeutung, Freud inserts literary poetics within the science of discovery, painful though this is, he says.  Painful it may be, but Freud in the next line confesses, “I could not resist the temptation to mitigate my indiscretions by omissions and substitutions.”  That is understandable, but it means that in the first major text of what will come to be known world-wide as psycho-analysis, fiction is ratified as truth bearing.  Before a word is read, we are warned of the “temptation”, the “omissions” and “substitutions” that have come before the truth in the plain factual sense that Enlightenment science is used to, and which is paradigmatic for any notion of truth in science.  But Nietzsche, who went beyond good and evil in this respect, would have known was Freud was talking about, as would, of course, Lou Salomé.  This is the truth of the new dark humanism: in practice, if not in theory, truth is always that which is sublimated, and has more to do with sublimation than clarity, more to do with the composition of the story or the work, than with coherence in and of itself. Rilke knew this about the poetic work  and he frequently declares as much in his letters to Lou.  The poetic logic is not lateral but collateral – running alongside or underneath.  The logic is one of depth.  And so Freud introduces the poetry of depth to what otherwise purports to belong to the world of Enlightened science and healing.  
But ultimately there is no healing, Freud knows: this is what meant by “beyond” the pleasure principle.  The death drive or death instinct is not really a “drive” or an “instinct”, these words merely belong to Freud’s sublimated poetics. What Freud means by the death instinct is that deeper than any healing is our “intrinsic propensity” to “revert to the inorganic” (4).  We may be healed at one level. Say we are neurotic and are healed – or have cancer and are cured – but the truth is not this healing but that, “the organism wants only to die in its own particular way.” (5)  We may be able to distract or retract the organism with our means and our technology, but dust will become dust whether we like it or not; it is beyond the pleasure principle.  This goes to illustrate Freud’s dark humanism and truth in depth. 
People think Freud is passé.  When Freud isn’t being called a reductionist, he is very often labelled a rationalist or a dogmatist, even by those who admire his work. Certainly Freud was rational. His words were based on the observations of experience and his ideas may be traced back there too. But a “rationalist” suggests a reliance on reason, even perhaps a faith in it, that far exceeds anything Freud would have ventured.  Freud was suspicious of reason because of what it hid – his whole science is geared to this observation. His psychology, though reasoned, unravels a culture of reason, that of Enlightenment rationalism.  He didn’t think people were reasonable at all – it’s on every page he wrote, so how is it justified to call him a rationalist? 
As for his dogmatism, Lou writes, “the theory is by no means hidebound, but is adjusted to further findings, and, further, that this man [Freud] is great simply in that is the man of research advancing quietly and working tirelessly. Perhaps the dogmatism with which he is reproached derives from the necessity to establish guidelines in the course of his tireless advance, if only for the sake of his fellow workers.” (6)   As to his tirelessness, when Freud first arranged to meet Lou in 1912 he suggested 10pm at night, because every day until that hour he was uninterruptedly engaged.
Here then, we have added to Freud’s dark humanism and his praxis, and his literary  creativity, his assiduous and sacrificial research on behalf of his hermeneutics of soul.  He may have written short stories disguised as case studies and poems in prose disguised as diagnostics, and used a “voice” that was scientifically modulated in which to do it, but he was no cheat; he was a rock solid researcher in his work, and in private a man as solid and stable as his material was quite insane.  (Freud’s wife Martha Bernays, to whom he was married for over 50 years and with whom he had six children, thought her husband wrote pornography and was embarrassed by it).  But Freud’s subject was life. That is what he put into words.
Lou Salomé understood the poetics of science and life too. She had started out in fiction and as a creative writer, and used fiction to explore life-issues and ideas as they related to imaginatively realised characters.  Salomé realised that fiction was not the opposite of fact, as those trapped by rationalist frames of reference supposed, but that stories could reveal that which could not otherwise be stated – or at least, only inadequately.  She too had long been trying to put life into words – as had Nietzsche and as had Rilke.  Lou had been in Dilthey’s lectures in Berlin, the polymath hermeneutic philosopher who formulated the idea of the hermeneutical circle, which depends on an existential subject, that is, a subject embedded in life, in contrast to the theoretical subject of phenomenology. 
For Lou, and for the contemporary reader of Freud, I think, all the better if Freud is as much a hermeneutical thinker as a scientist, and if Freud is going to fabricate his dreams and then not tell us what is fabricated and what is not. As far as truth is concerned it doesn’t matter; because, we soon learn, the truth is not natural anyway.  Freud will reveal a new kind of truth.   Enlightenment truth is natural truth, but the truth Freud would reveal, if it would not be natural, would not be unnatural either. His truth would be psychological and it would defy the natural/unnatural dichotomy. The new truth would be one that is revealed and that comes from the depths, which are unconscious.  Such a truth is not revealed in the form of a proposition, or even, principally, as an idea (as in the theoretical philosophy of the Enlightenment), but as a personal event – or – by extension - as a social event; or as Freud and Salomé would see, a cultural event: the total implosion of a civilisation.
And speaking of the implosion of a civilisation…. One of the great understatements in literature must surely be the famous first line of Freud’s late work, Civilisation and its Discontents. Freud was wise when he was young, but with age his wisdom became more wizened.  Das Unbehagen in der Kultur was published in 1930 when Freud was 74.  Eight years later at the age of 82 Freud would have to flee Vienna where he had lived from the age of four, to seek refuge in London from the Nazis.  Freud had seen the total collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after Austria came out on the losing side in the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, was the last transformation of the Hapsburg dynasty, which had ruled central Europe for over a thousand years, dating right back to the Holy Roman Empire.  It was out of this enormous vacuum that the Nazis rose to power, hoping for another thousand year reign.  And so, Freud, a man with so few illusions, a man who literally spent years listening to people pour out their woes to him, while they lay on his legendary couch, opens his last work, Civilisation and its Discontents with the following sentence:
“It is impossible to resist the impression that people commonly apply false standards, seeking power, success and wealth for themselves and admiring them in others, while under-rating what is truly valuable in life.”
It is impossible to resist the impression that people commonly apply false standards… Given what Freud witnessed, the end of the Hapsburg empire, the decimation of a generation of young men (60,000 young Australian men were killed, a good proportion of the entire generation) and the rise ot power of the Nazis and anti-semitism of frightful and grotesque proportions: yes, certainly, it is impossible to resist the impression that people commonly apply false standards.   And yes, people seem to underrate what is truly valuable in life; indeed, what is truly valuable in life?  This is the question. 
And this is the question around which the relationship of Salomé and Freud revolved – indeed all the major relationships of each of them as well as their writings revolve around this one question, and moreover, they know it. They are not unconscious of it. And this is the pleasure of Lou’s relationship with Freud. Nietzsche was brilliant but tragically unwise; Rilke was highly spiritual and correspondingly self-absorbed with his work and the solitude to which it called him.  But in Freud, Lou found someone like herself, who served life.  Specifically Lou served women and particularly younger women, and specifically Freud served the neurotic people who came to his rooms: but in serving them so well, they served a wider and associated audience. 
To serve life in this way, one has to stand outside it a little – or perhaps a lot; and this is the scientific stance that Lou shared with Freud. But it is not the complacent science of progress, the Cartesian science in denial of death and aimed at the removing of ills and obstacles to the supremacy of mind over matter.  Instead, in their psychoanalytical writings Lou and Freud aim at views that (given the obstacles) are serviceable.   This is the correct word – it is Freud’s. Freud writes in Civilisation and its Discontents about his views of love and death that, “they are theoretically far more serviceable than any others one might entertain; they produce what we strive for in scientific work – a simple answer that neither neglects nor does violence to the facts.” (7) 
In 1910, the year before she first met Freud, the philosopher Martin Buber published Lou Salomé’s Die Erotik in the social science journal he edited.  We associate the name “Freud” with sex, but what sexuality has come to mean in our individualised and commodified culture is not what Freud or Salomé meant.  What Freud meant by “sexuality” is more akin to what we might mean today by “relationality” or synonymously, “spirituality”.
Sexuality in Freud has to do with ties that bind and the web of these ties into which we are born and out of which we never move – although the web changes – until we die.  By sexuality Freud was pointing to an unconscious and barely conscious quality of our lives, aligning with dream and fantasy, as much as event, which we have almost missed but which affects us all the time in every way.  It was a discovery.  But today’s notion of sexuality, where we use such expression “my sexuality” and so on, as if it is something one is in possession of, and exercises “choice” over, as in a supermarket of options, and as if sex is a matter of self-expression, all of which owes more to American behavioural science and the 1960s youth and liberation movements that swept capitalist nations, and got confused with Freud.
Freud reminds us that “the extended sexuality of psychoanalysis coincides with the Eros of the divine Plato.” (8)  But Freud is more observant than Plato of deviation, which he can see, than human deification through love, which he can’t.  The clear-cut socially endorsed  distinction between deviancy and normalcy of development collapses under Freud’s scrutiny.  Normal and deviant are no longer helpful categories, Freud finds, hence the turn to myth.  If anything, there is something mythological – that is, pertaining to the stories of old, enshrined by Greek legend – about our upbringing, when examined closely – here is where the so-called Oedipus complex fits, although Freud went off the word “complex” in 1913 because people began using it as a piece of scientific jargon.  Normalcy and deviancy prove to be chimeras of socially approved morality, but not of actual reality. This was a discovery.
Sexuality, Lou Salomé says, is a word for “that which we call ‘voluptuousness’… it envelops the entirety of life within us and around us. The wonderful vitality and fullness of life, mysteriously binding us to the universe, permeates our being without being pressed into the consciousness, so that in romantic language and in the enthusiasm of sensuality, of transcendent sensuality, it is called ‘spiritual’, simply because it would be an even narrower construction to call it ‘physical’.”(9)   Of course, in speaking of sexuality in such a seemingly rather romantic language, we must remember that this voluptuousness she speaks of is not a feeling, but something physical, bodily – oral, anal, genital – and developmental and displaced by inhibitions and developmental blocks of one or another sort.
Freud would probably agree with Lou about voluptuousness, but he would never admit it in her kind of language. In Civilisation and its Discontents Freud said, “I can discover no trace of this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.”(10)  We must hear Freud’s obstinacy here. He can’t trace any ‘oceanic’ feeling, because he won’t, he is determined not to, because he is given over to feeling something else, something more important than dissociated limpidity, what he calls, “the struggle between Eros and death”(11).   Lou would probably agree: at the bodily and developmental level, this is the struggle, which death will win. But it is Freud, not she, nor Nietzsche or Rilke either for that matter, who is the mythical trickster, the go-between or messenger, between Eros and death.  And it is in this difference between them that Lou and he met and agreed and that Lou, after her time in Vienna could rejoice, “that I had met with him on my life-journey and was permitted to experience him – as the turning point in my life.” (12)
In her youth Lou tried to shake off all inhibitions and live without them. This was something she talked about with Nietzsche.  She even treated motherhood as inhibition. But this changed.  Freud taught her about the relation of inhibition to violence. He taught her about the relation of both inhibition and violence, in turn, to guilt. In order for culture and civilisation to be built up and for people to flourish, men (principally men, Lou would say) must renounce their drives.  By renouncing our drives we internalise the authority that can say Yes and No.  We internally inhibit our aggressive impulses.  But they are there under the surface.  Also, inhibition of aggression means that we also increase the desire for the forbidden and the guilt that accompanies it. The aggression that wants to come out and can’t, seeks and finds other outlets, or seeps insidiously through our soul manifesting in symptoms and addictions, accompanied by a disguised guilt, or in other people displaced into various non-violent or merely risky activities. The higher a civilisation, Freud taught, the more guilt-racked it is bound to be, because the more inhibited it must become.  In her youth Lou thought guilt was wasted emotion, but under Freud she learnt a new respect for its power over violence. When this inhibition of violence, guarded by guilt, breaks down, and when this happens on mass scale, war is likely, and once at war, man returns to his uninhibited savagery.  Once violence gets started guilt can’t contain it, people become savage once again no matter how high was their culture.  This is what had happened in the First World War as Freud saw it.  I wonder what Freud would think of the confusion we land ourselves in today when we try to cover war as a news story?  And when we have people ostensibly “following” the war via the mass media and continually moralising about it and casting aspersions of guilt?   Do these people understand human violence and human culture at all?
Before the First World War Freud and his followers were regarded, to say the least, as a bunch of maverick eccentrics, but after the War they found themselves in high demand. Freud had hardly changed, but the world had.  The war gave birth to the psycho-analytical movement more than anything else.  In 1918, no thinker on earth was better positioned than Freud to respond with action, as he had never been one to rely on the natural goodness of human nature to see us through.  Freud didn’t believe in natural human goodness. (13)   This was very much contrary to the spirit of his time. The First World War was one in which young men shot bullets into the bodies of other young men like them, only dressed in different uniforms.  It was a war fought mainly on the land and at close quarters, so the combatants could see faces, and hear and smell the dying.  After the war traumatic mental illness was rife and Freud was overwhelmed with requests for help and he sent his disciples in place of himself. They had done the preliminary study.  He sent Lou to psychoanalyse five doctors at a mental institution in Königsberg who were not coping with the huge influx of new patients and their problems.
Her career took off from there. From 1918 Lou was a practicing analyst, taking many patients referred to her by Freud. Rilke died in 1926.  The last time she saw Freud was in 1928. She was now 69 and Freud was 72, it was a glorious autumn day in Berlin and they took a walk together in the Tegel park (now an airport).  Freud was losing the roof of his mouth to cancer and had trouble speaking, but they nevertheless reminisced.  In her memoir written in 1936, the year of her death she recalls how she and Freud spoke about the incident to do with the Prayer to Life (Lebensgebet) she  had written, which Nietzsche had loved and set to music, and which he had revised slightly as his own Hymn to Life (Hymus an das leben), indicative of the aspiration of his thinking. She and Freud recalled the time in 1912 when Nietzsche’s Hymn had fallen somehow into Freud’s hands and he had read it aloud in Lou’s presence.  She records that “he read the final stanza aloud in a merry voice, filled with good natured friendliness”. (14)
Centuries in which to think and live,
Let all your content be their gain!
If you have no more joy to give,
At least you still have their pain.

Freud had folded the poem and tapped it on the arm of his chair and snorted: “Pah! who’d believe that! A bout of the common cold would suffice to cure a man of such cheap sentiment!”  They recalled this awkward moment again sixteen years later, the demolition of Europe lying between their present and their past. “And then something occurred which I didn’t understand myself,” Lou writes, “something I was powerless to hold back, that crossed my trembling lips in rebellion against his destiny and his martyrdom:
‘That nonsense I wrote back then out of high spirits: you lived it!’ 
Upon which, shocked by the openness of my words, I broke into loud and uncontrollable weeping. Freud didn’t reply. I simply felt his arm around me.”
1.  James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, (New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), 235 n. 37.
2.  Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, transl. John Reddick (London: Penguin, 2003), viii.
3.  Sigmund Freud, Wild Analysis, transl. Alan Bance (London: Penguin, 2002), 7
4.  Freud. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 78.
5.  Freud. Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 79.
6.  Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Freud Journal, transl. Stanley A. Leavy (New York: Basic Books, 1964), 37.
7.  Freud. Civilisation and its Discontents, transl. David McLintock (London: Penguin, 2002), 56.
8.  Freud, The Psychology of Love, transl. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin, 2006), 117.
9.  Andreas-Salomé. Freud Journal, 186.
10.  Freud. Civilisation and its Discontents, 4.
11.  Freud. Civilisation and its Discontents, 58
12.  Salomé. Freud Journal, 131
13.  Freud. On the Question of Weltanschaung in An Outline of Psychoanalysis, transl. Helena Ragg-Kirkby (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 160.
14.  Lou Andreas-Salomé, Looking Back. Ed. Ernst Pfeiffer, transl. Breon Mitchell (New York: Marlowe, 1995), 105.


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