Wisdom, beyond Consolation
Freud: An Intellectual Biography, Joel Whitebook, Cambridge University Press, 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
Professor Whitebook believes that Freud’s theories were profoundly shaped by certain emotional experiences, notably by his traumatic early years with his mother Amalie, then later by his insensate hero worship of Dr Wilhelm Fliess. Concerning the former, Amalie was evidently a depressive person lacking warmth. Contrary to the myth that she unreservedly worshipped her “golden Sigi”, her love was contingent on his success. She regularly retreated to the spa town of Roznau. According to the author, after the death of Sigmund’s younger brother Julius, she became “a dead mother”.[i] He attributes Freud’s recurrent mental difficulties to his anxiety and helplessness as an infant.
In 1886, Freud married Martha Bernays after a protracted engagement. In the following year, he met Wilhelm Fliess. The attempts by Freud’s epigones, including his daughter Anna, to suppress key aspects of this pivotal relationship, notably his infatuation for Fliess and his use of cocaine, persisted until 1986, when Jeffrey Masson edited the first complete and unexpurgated version of Freud’s letters to Fliess.
As Professor Whitebook makes clear, psycho-analysis owes an inestimable debt to Fliess, his “cockamame” ideas, notably the “nasal-reflex neurosis”, notwithstanding. He not only encouraged his fellow physician to explore sexuality qua theory and to think big, he was also “a quality critic and reader” of Freud’s work. Fliess was probably the first person to be told by Freud that he had abandoned the seduction theory of hysteria and that he now believed that hysterics suffer from unconscious sexual fantasies (see Freud to Fliess, 21 September, 1897). But perhaps more importantly, Freud’s relationship to Fliess entailed transference, so that his understanding of what drove this relationship constituted a vital part of Freud’s self-analysis, after his father Jacob’s death in 1896.
Freud’s ambivalent attitude towards philosophical speculation is one of Joel Whitebook’s major themes. At the University of Vienna in the 1870’s, he attended lectures by Franz Brentano. He greatly admired Ludwig Feurbach. He even considered pursuing a double doctorate in zoology and philosophy. However, in 1875, after a visit to relatives in England, he dramatically changed direction and espoused the persona of the empirical scientist. In due course, he worked for seven years as a research student in physiologist Ernst Brücke’s laboratory, where he did histology, the microscopic study of anatomy. For the time being, he suppressed his penchant for philosophical speculation. His heroes at this juncture were English scientists such as “Tyndall, Huxley, Lyell, Darwin…et al”.[ii]
During the First World War, after initially supporting Austria, Freud soon became disillusioned with militarism and increasingly preoccupied with loss. The latter topic, as Whitebook perceptively observes, “is more closely related to the pre-Oedipal theme of separation than to the topoi of “the father complex””.[iii] Apropos the war’s carnage, Freud told his colleague Lou Andreas-Salomé that “the world will never again be a happy place. It is too hideous”. His three sons, Martin, Oliver and Ernst, had all enlisted and their safety was a constant source of anxiety.
In “Thoughts for the time on war and death” (1915), “On Transience” (1916) and “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917), Freud anticipated his subsequent daring reflections on the significance of thanatos (the death instinct), elaborated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In the author’s estimation, these wartime works “represent the first stirrings of Freud’s speculative demon”[iv], hitherto repressed. The realities of war, it seems, had shattered his remaining illusions about human nature. Death, in Professor Whitebook’s eloquent words, “moved to the centre of Freud’s conception of human reality”[v] and he increasingly emphasised the unremitting harshness of existence. For Freud, wisdom henceforth consisted of what Paul Ricoeur called “resignation to the inexorable order of nature”, an order centred on transience and loss. Human beings, for Freud, are incorrigibly narcissistic, but clearly “the workings of the rest of the universe are not aligned with the wishes arising from human nature…”.[vi]
After the Great War, Freud completely “removed the shackles that he had placed on his speculative demon and allowed it to soar”.[vii] Death continued to dominate his existence. In January 1920, his beloved daughter Sophie died of influenza. And in 1923, his favourite grandson Heinerle succumbed to military tuberculosis. “I have hardly ever loved a human being… so much as him”, Freud confided to a colleague.[viii] In the same year, his doctor Felix Deutsch detected an advanced cancer of the jaw, although the diagnosis, to Freud’s chagrin, was not immediately conveyed to him. The author contends that Freud’s major theoretical revisions of the 1920’s, notably in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), are inextricably connected to this life threatening illness and to the searing loss of his daughter and grandson.
In the latter work, Freud identified certain phenomena that arguably contradict the ubiquity of the pleasure principle, to wit, the war neuroses, some of children’s play and the resistance of certain patients to therapy. Professor Whitebook, formerly a practising psycho-analyst, is highly critical of these post-war, theoretical revisions or “metabiological theorising”[ix] as he calls it, and he claims that the death instinct and its corollary, the compulsion to repeat, “contradict[s] the basic principles of biological theory”.[x]
Yet according to Freud’s concept of primary narcissism, infants in utero “experience a state of perfection consisting in an absence of tension, privation and otherness…”[xi], a condition reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of nirvana. Contra Whitebook, might death not therefore be “an object of desire that beckons us”[xii] since it can restore this earlier state of perfection?
This reservation aside, Professor Whitebook is an insightful scholar and a remarkably readable writer who has skilfully steered his way between the hagiographers and the “Freud bashers”. [xiii] He always has an eye for the telling detail – we learn, for example, that Amalie Freud never mastered German, invariably conversing in Yiddish and that Dr Max Schur gave Freud a fatal dose of 21 millilitres of morphine. We commend Dr Whitebook’s labours.
DR LESLIE JONES is the Editor of QR
[i] Whitebook, page 37
[ii] Freud, Letters to Silberstein, p128, cited Whitebrook, page 103
[iii] Whitebook, page 313
[iv] Ibid., page 327
[v] Ibid., page 328
[vi] Ibid., page 333
[vii] Ibid., page 362
[viii]Ibid., page 347
[ix] Ibid., page 362
[x] Ibid., page 365
[xi] Ibid., page 368
[xii] Laplanche & Pontalis, cited Whitebook, page 369
[xiii] For an example of the latter, see my review of Michel Onfray’s, Le crépuscule d’une idol, QR, Autumn 2010