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Freudian analysis

The Death of Sigmund Freud The Legacy of His Last Days; Mark Edmundson; Bloomsbury: 288 pp., $25.95

September 23, 2007|Michael S. Roth | Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. He is former president of California College of the Arts and was curator of the 1998 Library of Congress exhibition "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture."

More than 150 years after his birth, Sigmund Freud still haunts us. His ideas creep into our language like a symptom, or like an unconscious desire. Sometimes it's all in fun, as when Brian, the thoughtful canine on Fox's "Family Guy," wondered with the therapist if his wetting the floor was an act of aggression. Sometimes it's to deepen our engagement with a narrative, as happened to Tony Soprano, in HBO's "The Sopranos," when he tried, with the help of his therapist, Dr. Melfi, to understand what it meant to be abandoned by your sister and to inherit the burdens left by your mother. Freud was declared dead in a 2005 cover story in Newsweek; the following year, the magazine ran another piece on the "debunked doctor," declaring him an "inescapable force." Freud just won't disappear, and Mark Edmundson's "The Death of Sigmund Freud" offers a compelling redescription of why the founder of psychoanalysis retains his relevance today.

Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, sees Freud's legacy in broadly cultural (not medical) terms. But he connects these general terms with Freud's emigration after the Nazi absorption of Austria and with the writing projects completed during the old man's final struggle with cancer. Edmundson's treatment of Freud's greater significance and the particular historical conditions of his life makes this brief book an engaging read.

In the fall of 1909, Edmundson notes, Vienna was home to both Freud and Adolf Hitler. The former had just returned from a triumphant lecture tour in America, the latter was down and out in Austria's cruel and splendid capital. Freud was about to soar, and Hitler seemed destined for permanent decline. Edmundson's framing device allows him an effective contrast with the late 1930s, when the aged Freud faces vicious, organized anti-Semitism and the perversely energetic Hitler plans his return to Vienna to take control.

The book presents a stirring account of Freud's final months in Vienna, and the reader gets some sense of his everyday life as he attempted to maintain his rhythm of writing and therapy with a few patients while coping with cancer and threats on the streets. When the Nazis stormed their apartment the first time, Frau Martha Freud asked whether they wouldn't leave their rifles in the umbrella stand. The men declined and helped themselves to the household money. Daughter Anna opened the safe to distribute the family savings before Freud emerged from his office in the back of the apartment. As the story goes, Edmundson notes, the old man's icy glare sent the Nazis scattering. The Gestapo later turned more serious and took Anna for questioning. This was too much for him, and an exit plan was put together to get much of the family (with the sad exception of his aged sisters) out of the country. On June 4, 1938, he boarded the Orient Express headed for France, eventually to settle in England. When the German authorities asked him to sign a statement that he had always been shown the utmost respect, Freud added an ironic flourish that might have aborted his departure: "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

"The Death of Sigmund Freud" also focuses on the psychoanalyst's last major project, "Moses and Monotheism," one of Freud's highly speculative works. In it he offered an argument about the origins of religion (in delusion and desire), the identity of Moses (he was really an Egyptian) and the historical destiny of the Jews (how they lived with the trauma of oppression). Some complained that the psychoanalyst was depriving the Jews of images of leadership and consolation when they needed them the most. It was 1938, after all, and a pogrom of unimaginable horror was getting underway.

But Freud labored on to complete it, and in forceful and concise terms, Edmundson shows us how this project challenged what was taking place in Germany: Freud deconstructed the desire for strong leadership and the group erotics of submission -- something all too relevant in the late 1930s. Edmundson knows that the Freudian reason for analyzing desires is to provide people with new possibilities for understanding them and, perhaps, for being free of their unconscious, compulsive dimensions. By rewriting Jewish history, Freud was offering the only gift he knew how to give: increased freedom through self-awareness.

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