May 062018

Today is the birthday (1856) of Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud. I was rather surprised to discover that I had not commemorated Freud in a post previously, even though I have posted numerous things about him and his (erstwhile) followers. Freud is rather like Marx in my mind in that (a) he was not a Freudian (any more than Marx was a Marxist), (b) his ideas were complex and changeable over his lifetime, and (c) he was and is misunderstood by the general public. I lectured on Freud for decades, and I always prefaced my lectures with: “You probably all think that Freud was all wrong and his theories are outdated. Well, think again. He was wrong about a lot of things, but he was also right about a lot of things, and I expect that many of his theories that were new in his day, you take for granted as obvious without attributing them to Freud.” Many of his theories, such as the psychosexual stages of development, are patently the result of his own self analysis and are rooted in his culture, and are, therefore, not generalizable to all cultures. Anthropologists were on that path of criticism early on while Freud was still alive, and, one way or another, put serious dents in his theory. But we use the term “Freudian slip” as a matter of course, perhaps not as trenchantly as Freud, but still with a sense that a slip of the tongue is revealing. More to the point, we accept the existence of thoughts and motivations that lie below the surface of what is conscious to us. The common term is “subconscious” although Freud used the term “unconscious.” Before Freud such an idea did not exist. He saw dreams and slips as avenues into the unconscious, which is not a normal part of modern therapies, but it is not a trivial insight. He pioneered the “talking cure” – using various methods, such as free association, to get patients to talk through their issues (under guidance from a trained therapist). Unfortunately, the question that has never fully been answered is whether the talking cure actually works.

Freud was born to Jewish parents in the Moravian town of Freiberg, in the Austrian Empire (later Příbor, Czech Republic), the first of eight children. Both of his parents were from Galicia, in modern-day Ukraine. His father, Jakob Freud (1815–1896), a wool merchant, had two sons, Emanuel (1833–1914) and Philipp (1836–1911), by his first marriage. Jakob’s family were Hasidic Jews, and although Jakob himself had moved away from the tradition, he came to be known for his Torah study. He and Freud’s mother, Amalia Nathansohn, who was 20 years younger and his third wife, were struggling financially and living in a rented room, in a locksmith’s house at Schlossergasse 117 when their son Sigmund was born.

In 1859, the Freud family left Freiberg. Freud’s half brothers emigrated to Manchester in England, parting him from the “inseparable” playmate of his early childhood, Emanuel’s son, John. Jakob Freud took his wife and two children (Freud’s sister, Anna, was born in 1858; a brother, Julius born in 1857, had died in infancy) first to Leipzig and then in 1860 to Vienna where four sisters and a brother were born. In 1865, the 9-year-old Freud entered the Leopoldstädter Kommunal-Realgymnasium, a prominent high school. He proved an outstanding pupil and graduated from the Matura in 1873 with honors. He loved literature and was proficient in German, French, Italian, Spanish, English, Hebrew, Latin and Greek. Freud entered the University of Vienna at age 17. He had planned to study law, but entered the medical department at the university, where his studies included philosophy under Franz Brentano, physiology under Ernst Brücke, and zoology under Darwinist professor Carl Claus. He graduated with a medical degree in 1881.

In 1882, Freud began his medical career at the Vienna General Hospital. His research work in cerebral anatomy led to the publication of an influential paper on the palliative effects of cocaine in 1884 and his work on aphasia would form the basis of his first book On the Aphasias: a Critical Study, published in 1891. Over a 3-year period, Freud worked in various departments of the hospital. His time spent in Theodor Meynert’s psychiatric clinic and as a locum in a local asylum led to an increased interest in clinical work. His substantial body of published research led to his appointment as a university lecturer or docent in neuropathology in 1885, a non-salaried post but one which entitled him to give lectures at the University of Vienna. In 1886, Freud resigned his hospital post and entered private practice specializing in “nervous disorders”. The same year he married Martha Bernays, the granddaughter of Isaac Bernays, a chief rabbi in Hamburg. The couple had six children: Mathilde (b. 1887), Jean-Martin (b. 1889), Oliver (b. 1891), Ernst (b. 1892), Sophie (b. 1893), and Anna (b. 1895). From 1891 until they left Vienna in 1938, Freud and his family lived in an apartment at Berggasse 19, near Innere Stadt, a historical district of Vienna.

Freud had greatly admired his philosophy tutor, Brentano, who was known for his theories of perception and introspection, as well as Theodor Lipps who was one of the main contemporary theorists of the concepts of the unconscious and empathy. Brentano discussed the possible existence of the unconscious mind in his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint (1874). Although Brentano denied its existence, his discussion of the unconscious probably helped introduce Freud to the concept. Freud owned and made use of Charles Darwin’s major evolutionary writings, and was also influenced by Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869).

Though Freud denied having read Friedrich Nietzsche until late in life, analogies between his work and that of Nietzsche were pointed out almost as soon as he developed a following. One historian concluded, based on Freud’s correspondence with his adolescent friend Eduard Silberstein, that Freud read The Birth of Tragedy and the first two of the Untimely Meditations when he was 17. In 1900, the year of Nietzsche’s death, Freud bought his collected works. He told his friend, Fliess, that he hoped to find in Nietzsche’s works “the words for much that remains mute in me.” Later, he said he had not yet opened them. Freud came to treat Nietzsche’s writings “as texts to be resisted far more than to be studied.” His interest in philosophy declined after he had decided on a career in neurology.

In October 1885, Freud went to Paris on a fellowship to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, who was conducting scientific research into hypnosis. He was later to recall the experience of this stay as catalytic in turning him toward the practice of medical psychopathology and away from a less financially promising career in neurology research. Charcot specialized in the study of hysteria and susceptibility to hypnosis, which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience. Once he had set up in private practice in 1886, Freud began using hypnosis in his clinical work. He adopted the approach of his friend and collaborator, Josef Breuer, in a use of hypnosis which was different from the French methods he had studied in that it did not use suggestion. The treatment of one particular patient of Breuer’s proved to be transformative for Freud’s clinical practice. Described as Anna O., she was invited to talk about her symptoms while under hypnosis (she coined the phrase “talking cure” for her treatment). In the course of talking in this way these symptoms became reduced in severity as she retrieved memories of traumatic incidents associated with their onset.

Anna O.

Freud’s clinical work eventually led him to the conclusion that more consistent and effective symptom relief, compared to that achieved by using hypnosis, could be obtained by encouraging patients to talk freely, without censorship or inhibition, about whatever ideas or memories occurred to them. In conjunction with this procedure, which he called “free association”, Freud found that patients’ dreams could be fruitfully analyzed to reveal the complex structuring of unconscious material and to demonstrate the psychic action of repression which underlay symptom formation. By 1896, Freud had abandoned hypnosis and was using the term “psychoanalysis” to refer to his new clinical method and the theories on which it was based.

Freud’s development of these new theories took place during a period in which he experienced heart irregularities, disturbing dreams and periods of depression, a “neurasthenia” which he linked to the death of his father in 1896 and which prompted a “self-analysis” of his own dreams and memories of childhood. His explorations of his feelings of hostility to his father and rivalrous jealousy over his mother’s affections led him to fundamentally revise his theory of the origin of the neuroses. On the basis of his early clinical work, Freud had postulated that unconscious memories of sexual molestation in early childhood were a necessary precondition for the psychoneuroses (hysteria and obsessional neurosis), a formulation now known as Freud’s seduction theory. In the light of his self-analysis, Freud abandoned the theory that every neurosis can be traced back to the effects of infantile sexual abuse, now arguing that infantile sexual scenarios still had a causative function, but it did not matter whether they were real or imagined and that in either case they became pathogenic only when acting as repressed memories.

This transition from the theory of infantile sexual trauma as a general explanation of how all neuroses originate to one that presupposes an autonomous infantile sexuality provided the basis for Freud’s subsequent formulation of the theory of the Oedipus complex and the development of the superego. Freud described the evolution of his clinical method and set out his theory of the psychogenetic origins of hysteria, demonstrated in a number of case histories, in Studies on Hysteria published in 1895 (co-authored with Josef Breuer). In 1899 he published The Interpretation of Dreams in which, following a critical review of existing theory, Freud gives detailed interpretations of his own and his patients’ dreams in terms of wish-fulfillments made subject to the repression and censorship of the “dream work”. He then sets out the theoretical model of mental structure (the unconscious, pre-conscious and conscious) on which this account is based. An abridged version, On Dreams, was published in 1901. In works which would win him a more general readership, Freud applied his theories outside the clinical setting in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) and Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905).[42] In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, published in 1905, Freud elaborates his theory of infantile sexuality, describing its “polymorphous perverse” forms and the functioning of the “drives”, to which it gives rise, in the formation of sexual identity. The same year he published ‘Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (Dora)’ which became one of his more famous and controversial case studies.

There is much more, but I will stop there. I taught Freudian theory in anthropology classes related to psychology and anthropology, and I usually used Totem and Taboo (1913) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930), although I ranged much farther afield than these texts in my lectures, and did occasionally assign other readings. One great difficulty with Totem and Taboo is that Freud was using anthropological texts that nowadays have zero value because they were not based on actual fieldwork, but focused on the idea that all cultures evolve in the same ways over time. By this theory, modern cultures that are more primitive than Western civilization are at an earlier stage of cultural evolution. Therefore, they can be studied to investigate how we behaved in past millennia. This theory has been completely debunked, so Freud’s theories are based on worthless conjectures, and therefore are equally worthless. Totem and Taboo is completely mistaken when it comes to understanding what totemism is all about.

In the strict realm of psychoanalysis, Freud started a movement that is now a gigantic business. Freud had 2 principal concepts that he adhered to strictly: (1) Therapy is only for people with serious problems that they wish to be rid of. As far as Freud was concerned, if a person had a condition that he deemed clinical, but that person was coping with it, there was no point in therapy; (2) Therapy should be intensive and finite. Freud saw his patients every day and expected the therapy to result in a cure in a limited period of time. Thus, Freud treated psychoanalysis like physicians in other specialties treated illnesses within their realms. Freud’s ideas have fallen by the wayside completely in this regard. Many people start seeing therapists as teenagers or young adults, and continue their entire lives. Furthermore, therapy has shifted from medical practitioners to a host of allied professionals, including psychologists with M.A.s or Ph.D.s, and social workers. Psychiatrists with M.D.s spend most of their time dispensing medications rather than working in therapy. Approaches to therapy have also diversified enormously, starting with Freud’s own students who diverged from him in different ways almost as soon as they had qualified.

Wolf Man

This state of affairs has caused a great many critics to wonder (out loud) whether therapy actually works. Freud’s own patients could be critical of the efficacy of Freud’s work with them. The Wolf Man (Sergei Pankejeff), for example, ended up in analysis for 6 decades (including with Freud’s students) even though Freud pronounced him cured. It is also the case that many psychological disorders, such as schizophrenia, cannot be cured by psychoanalysis because they do not stem from childhood (or other) traumas (conscious or unconscious), but from biophysical/neurological problems. Freud, like many pioneers, was making up psychoanalysis from scratch, so it is unfair to dwell too long on his shortcomings. He made many missteps, but that is no reason to diminish his stature as an original thinker of great insight.

Freud wrote a fair bit about his home life in private notes as well as publications, and there is a 2000 book Zu Tisch bei Sigmund Freud (At table with Sigmund Freud) that discusses his eating habits. Even though he was married to the granddaughter of a famous rabbi he not only did not keep kosher, he actually believed the diet was harmful to one’s health. Being the (amateur) Freudian for a moment, I suspect that this attitude had a lot to do with his vehement rejection of God and Judaism which in turn stemmed from his conflicts with his father. He also had some seemingly irrational food aversions, the two most well known being chicken and cauliflower. According to his son, Martin, he had an aphorism, “One shouldn’t kill any chickens; let them live and lay eggs.”

You should not be surprised to learn that Freud saw asparagus as an obvious phallic symbol and that eating asparagus (which was conventionally done with the fingers in the late 19th century), was a substitute for masturbation. It may cause you to smile, therefore, to know that he was fond of asparagus. He was also fond of picking wild mushrooms to eat instead of store bought mushrooms. His wife apparently disapproved of this habit, although it is not clear whether she did not trust Freud to distinguish edible from poisonous fungi or whether she thought they were unclean (in the Judaic sense).

My suggestion for today’s recipe, therefore, is to make a wild mushroom omelet with a side dish of asparagus. You can follow this with homemade vanilla ice cream which was Freud’s favorite dessert.

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