A Dream Gone Wrong

Vienna, March 22, 1938 – Anna, an Austrian Jewess, is arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters at the Hotel Metropole. Left waiting in a corridor, she fears that the day may end without questioning and that she will be swept out in the evening to await deportation or execution.

Her elderly parents wait anxiously at home, her father pacing the floor, smoking his trademark cigars incessantly. The family doctor, Max Schur, is in attendance and later records that Anna’s father has had his worst day ever.

To the relief of the family, Anna returns home to explain that the Nazi interrogators wanted to make sure that her father’s international society was indeed a scientific body and not a political organization.

Fame in Exile

The events of that day were being carefully watched from a distance by the American ambassador to France, William Bullitt. He and Anna’s father, Sigmund Freud, had coauthored a psychological study of President Woodrow Wilson (unpublished until 1967). One of Bullitt’s protégés was the American consul general in Vienna, and together they were working to get the psychoanalyst and his family free from the increasing dangers to the Jewish community. Soon the U.S. secretary of state, Cordell Hull, was involved, along with the German ambassador in Paris and the American ambassador in Berlin. After many visits to lawyers and the Nazi authorities in Vienna, permission to leave Austria was granted for Freud, his wife, Martha, and Anna. They boarded trains for Paris and then London, arriving there June 6.

At 82, exiled and suffering from cancer of the jaw, Sigmund Freud made his final home in England. There the famous and not so famous would seek him out as they had in Vienna: H.G. Wells, Salvador Dali, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Blanche Knopf (wife of American publisher Alfred Knopf), among many others. He spoke of “the horde of autograph hunters, fools, madmen, and the pious who send tracts and gospels, want to save my soul, show the way to Christ, and enlighten me about the future of Israel. . . . In short, for the first time and late in life I have experienced what fame means.”

If he were alive today, Freud would surely see that his fame has spread into many walks of life and that his concepts have become a part of the language and mental framework of everyone, whether they have read his works or not. Who has not wondered about the meaning of dreams, the impact their parents had on them as children, the father figure, emotional blockages, the ego, the Freudian slip, and the power of the “Unconscious”? How many movies, plays and novels have taken up the themes of repressed memory, the Oedipus complex, sublimated aggression, mother love and the death wish?

On November 10, 1938, Freud recorded in his diary, “Pogroms in Germany.” The previous night, the Nazis had engaged in violence and destruction of Jewish property across Germany. Vienna was not spared Kristallnacht —the night of shattered windows. Freud was afraid for his four elderly sisters, who had remained in Vienna. He enlisted the help of his friend and financial supporter, Marie Bonaparte, but to no avail. It was already too late for many of those left behind. One sister subsequently died of starvation at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, while the other three were killed at one of the Nazi death camps.

Freud never knew what happened to his sisters, and he would never return to Austria. He died in London at his home near Regent’s Park on September 23, 1939. In an agreement with his doctor 10 years earlier, Freud had resolved that he would not have to suffer beyond a certain point. When he realized that the end was near, he reminded his physician of his promise. Schur carried out his patient’s wishes, hastening Freud’s death with three above-average injections of morphine over two days. As biographer Peter Gay concludes, Freud “had seen to it that his secret entreaty would be fulfilled. The old stoic had kept control of his life to the end.”

Freud’s understanding of the working of the human mind has influenced many walks of life, some of them in ways that are little recognized. 

The final events of Freud’s life were in many ways the tragic capstone to a life lived amid great controversy. As the father of psychoanalysis, he was worshiped and vilified at the same time. He remains a giant figure decades after his death. His understanding of the working of the human mind has influenced many walks of life, some of them in ways that are little recognized.

Science of the Mind

In this series on the six dominant ideas of modern culture, we have examined the work of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx. Just as they are thought to have uncovered the workings of biology and society, so Sigmund Freud is their equal in the study of what he believed were the mechanics of the human mind. He saw himself in the role of his idols, Darwin and astronomer Johannes Kepler, who he said had “turned the world upside down.” Aspiring to do the same, Freud thought of himself as a scientist-hero.

Soon after his arrival in London, three secretaries of the Royal Society visited the famous psycho-analyst. They brought with them the charter book of members for him to sign, and they left him a copy. With great pride Freud wrote to a friend, “If you were with me, I could show you the signatures from I. Newton to Charles Darwin. Good company!”

Darwin, Marx, and Freud each adopted what they thought were scientific models for their theories. All three led lives filled with paradox. 

Darwin, Marx and Freud each adopted what they thought were scientific models for their theories. All three led lives filled with paradox, and all three had distinct ideas about human behavior, including religion.

The Freudian explanation of human mental life says that we are all the result of the dark stirrings of an unconscious mind. That mind is formed in earliest childhood and adolescence and is sexual in nature, a reservoir of unfulfilled incest wishes. Freud sought to discover and expound the universal laws of the mind—based on a few cases in early-20th-century Vienna, and on his own self-analyzed dreams and experiences.

Childhood Losses

Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born of Jewish parents in 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, in what is today the Czech Republic. He was the first child of Kallamon Jacob Freud, a wool salesman, and Amalia Nathanson Freud. From a first marriage Jacob had two adult sons, both of whom worked with their father as the young Sigmund grew up. Freiberg was a small town about 150 miles north of Vienna and then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Only about three percent of Freiberg was Jewish, the town being predominantly Czech Catholic.

Freud was brought up in an atmosphere of growing tolerance toward Jews. Though his parents were not religiously inclined, they did observe Purim and Passover as social occasions. Some anti-Semitism was still evident, though Freud’s childhood insecurities and fears of loss came from a different source. Another child, Julius, soon came along, and the four lived together in cramped quarters. This meant that all aspects of family life—birth, conjugal relations, illness and death—were very close at hand.

Because of the family business, three women took care of Freud as a child—his mother, his half brother’s wife and a Czech nanny—all of whom appear in his major psychoanalytic work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, 1913).

When he was not yet two, Freud suffered the loss of his younger brother, who died at the age of about six or eight months from an intestinal infection. The child probably died at home and Freud was likely present. Julius was named after Amalia’s 20-year-old brother, who died of tuberculosis around the time the new baby was born.

In a short time, then, Freud had experienced the rivalry of a new sibling competing for his mother’s attention, and now the loss of the child. His mother was no doubt depressed following her double loss, and the young boy would have suffered from the withdrawal of her attention. His mother had six more children before Freud was 10. Perhaps this accounts for the anxiety and fear of losing the mother figure that often appears in his written work.

At about two and a half, he lost another of his mother figures, the Czech nursemaid. She was allegedly caught stealing, and was arrested and imprisoned. She had regularly taken Freud with her to Catholic mass, where he watched the priest and the rituals with great interest. As he later recalled, the nurse taught him about hell and, more positively, helped the young boy have a sense of his own capabilities. Late in life he still recalled her powerful influence.

When he was three and a half, more losses were imposed by the collapse of his father’s business, the breakup of the extended family, and the disruption of moving home twice in a short time to two different cities: first Leipzig, then Vienna. He lived in Austria’s capital city for the next 78 years.

It seems that Freud found compensation for these difficult childhood conditions by escaping into heroic literature, reading about Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Hannibal. The Greek Oedipus, who outshone his father and solved the Riddle of the Sphinx, fascinated him. Much of Freud’s subsequent writing is connected with these themes and characters. His published work fills 24 volumes; his extant letters number more than 20,000.

The Dark Side

Freud eventually became a medical doctor, specializing in neuro-pathology, psychiatry and the pharmaceutical benefits of cocaine. (This latter interest would cast a long shadow over his career once one of his colleagues became severely addicted as a result of Freud’s recommendations.) During a brief period in Paris, he also became interested in hypnosis and the possibility that there was a psychological explanation for certain illnesses.

While in Paris, Freud conducted research on cocaine and indulged in the drug himself to the point of frequent sinus problems. At the time it was believed that cocaine enhanced brain function, physical strength and sexual potency.

Freud apparently took cocaine for the first time on April 30, 1884, the annual celebration of Walpurgisnacht. According to legend, the eve of May Day was the time when witches would rally one last time before the light of summer finally overcame the darkness of winter. Paul Vitz remarks in his 1988 book, Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious, that the event is, “according to European tradition, a gathering of witches from all over Europe . . . for a celebration of evil, sex with the Devil, and a general orgy.”

Vitz notes that Freud was subject to frequent bouts of depression, especially after working hard on a project. He quotes a letter the psychologist wrote to his fiancée shortly after Walpurgisnacht in 1884: “In my last severe depression I took coca again and a small dose lifted me to heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance.”

At this point an interesting possibility presents itself. Freud identified strongly with Goethe’s Faust, wherein Faust, having made a pact with the devil, accompanied the evil being to a Walpurgisnacht celebration. Some have felt that Freud himself made a similar pact early in his career.

The devil is certainly a significant theme in Freud’s writings. Later in life, during an especially difficult period of depression following a great deal of research, he wrote, “The big problems are still unsettled. It is an intellectual hell, layer upon layer of it, with everything fitfully gleaming and pulsating; and the outline of Lucifer-Amor coming into sight at the darkest centre.” He also said: “Do you not know that I am the Devil? All my life I have had to play the Devil, in order that others would be able to build the most beautiful cathedral with the materials that I produced.”

Opposing His Roots

Freud married Martha Bernays on his return from Paris in 1886. She was a descendant of a well-known Jewish rabbi from Hamburg as well as of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine. Together they had six children, including Freud’s favorite, Anna, who also became a leading psychoanalyst.

Freud was convinced that the great religions had nothing to offer the scientific world. If science was to prosper, he believed it was necessary to overthrow the credibility of religion. 

Despite this connection to a religious Jewish lineage, Freud was convinced that the great religions had nothing to offer the scientific world. They were either outdated longings for a protective father figure or for the safety and comfort of the nurturing mother. If science was to prosper, he believed it was necessary to overthrow the credibility of religion. He wrote, “Of the three powers [art, philosophy and religion] that may contest the very soil of science, religion alone is the serious enemy.”

In The Future of an Illusion (1927, 1928), he said faith was a kind of mental disorder, a “universal obsessional neurosis.” He concluded that religion is an illusion, or even a delusion, that we must overcome by recognizing that God is simply an invented father figure.

Not only did Freud posit God as an imaginary father figure, he went further to conflate God and the devil as two sides of the same coin. He wrote, “It requires no great analytic insight to divine that God and the Devil were originally one and the same, a single figure which was later split into two bearing opposite characteristics. . . . The father is thus the individual prototype of both God and the Devil. The fact that the figure of the primal father was that of a being with unlimited potentialities of evil, bearing much more resemblance to the Devil than to God, must have left an indelible stamp on all religions.”

At the end of his life, Freud found time to write a book in which he addressed once more his religious background. He had been influenced by what he knew of his Jewish ancestors’ beliefs. David Bakan’s Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (1958), spells out some of that influence. He had also been impressed at a very young age by his early contact with the Roman Catholic Church through his favorite nanny. Vitz makes this connection in Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious. By the time of his exile in London, Freud was ready to publish Moses and Monotheism, basing it on papers he had already written.

Colleagues were worried that he would meet with great opposition from the Jewish and Christian communities for his contention that Moses was in fact not an Israelite but an Egyptian who had taken over a Semitic tribe and forced monotheism on them. According to Freud’s version of the story, not only was the religion something the Egyptian Moses had learned from the pharaoh Akhenaten, but Moses was later killed by the Israelites.

The figure of Moses held a fascination for Freud throughout most of his adult life. He evidently desired to rid himself of the dominant figure in Jewish life and all that he stood for. According to Bakan, “In Freud’s avowal and acceptance of the Oedipus complex he attempted to rewrite the Law of Moses in a way which would be more compatible with the prevailing spirit of liberty. He was trying to remake and rework our conceptions of morality in a way which would make it possible for the individual to live a richer and less hampered existence, freed from the taboos which Judaism had imposed upon itself for its survival and which had been accepted by the Christian world as a way of life.”

Knowing that his ideas were iconoclastic did not prevent Freud from publishing what he believed was necessary in the search for truth. He became quite stubborn about its publication. But he also said that his ideas were unlikely to have much influence anyway. Perhaps this was a way of guarding himself against failure. He wrote to a friend in 1939, “No one who seeks consolation in the holy Bible or in the prayers of the synagogue is in danger of loosing [sic] his faith by my preachings. I even think he will not come to learn, whatever it is I believe and defend in my books. Faith cannot be shaken by such means. I do not write for the people or the mass of believers. I just produce scientific stuff for the interest of a minority which has no faith to loose [sic].”

What is interesting about this statement is that the Moses material had already been given in a couple of technical papers to the psychoanalytic community, but now Freud was insistent that it become available to the public. This was a great pity, for as Bakan says, “Moses and Monotheism is indeed one of the grossest distortions of the Biblical text committed in modern times by a reputable scholar.”

Flawed Concepts

In his book Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision (2000), Louis Breger, professor emeritus of psychoanalytic studies at the California Institute of Technology, acknowledges the significance of Freud’s contributions. At the same time he admits that many of the master’s concepts were seriously flawed, simply because Freud misinterpreted his own early childhood experiences.

Breger writes that during his extensive involvement with the teaching and practice of psychoanalysis, he became “familiar with the existing biographies and more or less accepted their versions of [Freud’s] life.” But as he explains, he simply had to reverse many of his views about Freud and the profession as time went by.

Several influences converged in the last few years,” he writes, “that led me to radically change these views. Direct experience at the upper levels of the psychoanalytic world put me in contact with the men and women who represented the best the field has to offer: senior training analysts, directors of institutes, writers of influential papers, and leaders of the American Psychoanalytic Association. . . . This exposure to the actual practice of a large number of psychoanalysts, the long-term effects of psychoanalytic treatment, and psychoanalytic politics was, all in all, a sobering experience. . . . The personal or training analyses were variable—some beneficial, some useless, and others harmful; the teaching was rigid and largely out of date; and the politics no more enlightened than elsewhere. All these experiences played a part in moving me to a new vision of Freud.”

Specifically Breger rejects Freud’s central idea of the universal Oedipus complex—that all boys desire their mothers sexually and thus come into conflict with their fathers, producing guilt, anxiety and even neurosis throughout life. He concludes that two of Freud’s central ideas—that women desire the maleness they lack (“penis envy”), and that men’s greatest fear is their inner femininity (unconscious homosexuality)—are unfounded. In other words, Breger disagrees with the very fundamental Freudian principle that infantile sexuality is the underlying engine for all human action.

The Bible, of course, nowhere defines human beings as under the control of subterranean sexual impulses derived from childhood fantasies. It does have much to say about learning to control the “works of the flesh.” It does speak to the need to come to terms with our own impulses. And it does not excuse our behavior as the result of someone else’s imagined or real treatment of us. We are nowhere victims without help. In fact, we are taught to overcome, to work to defeat whatever aspects of our nature trouble us.

The apostle Paul had this to say: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:8–11).

Freud relegated God and His Word to the realm of ancient myth and superstition, claiming that his own approach was scientific. Yet the scientific method he relied upon demanded objectivity. This was the one aspect his theories could not deliver. As Breger says, “[The] sweeping generalizations and imperial theories were fueled by Freud’s desire for greatness; they were his attempt to be a powerful scientist-hero. There was never any convincing evidence for these ideas; they arose primarily from his needs and personal blindspots.”

Though many of Freud’s theories have been discredited due to a lack of the very scientific evidence he espoused, his concepts have passed over into the thinking of most people.

Still, Freud had a profound impact on the way people thought about themselves in the 20th century. Though many of his theories have been discredited due to a lack of the very scientific evidence he espoused, his concepts have passed over into the thinking of most people. We routinely use “Freudspeak” without proof of the underlying ideas. We conceptualize aspects of human behavior in Freudian terms, telling ourselves, for example, that our dreams must “mean” this or that. We “repress” unpleasant events in our lives. We explain criminal behavior in terms of early life experiences. Sinners are victims, God is an imaginary father figure, and religion is a bad habit. The 19th century of Freud’s simple “scientific models” has passed. The 20th century of Freud’s social impact lives on in our midst. Another dominant idea without provable foundations.

In the next issue we take up the final two dominant ideas in this series, relativism and positivism.