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decades, and I always prefaced my lectures with: “You probably all think that Freud was all wrong and his theories are outdated.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 philosoph