Dr. Freud at 150
“Why,” Sigmund Freud once asked rhetorically, “did it [psychoanalysis] have to wait for an absolutely irreligious Jew?”
Freud was born in Freiberg, in the Austrian empire, on May 6, 1856, 150 years ago this weekend. Three years after his birth, his family moved to Vienna. There, the reaction of Freud’s personality to the mix of cultural, political and scientific forces was such that — we may state in hindsight — psychoanalysis could not have been created by anyone else in any other time or place.
Already for 1,000 years, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, medicine had been a Jewish profession par excellence. In late 19th century Vienna, as well, a vastly disproportionate number of doctors were Jews, and they were contributing mightily to the explosive development of modern medical science.
But the Austrian political climate was souring. A few decades of liberalism (in the European sense of individual freedom) were followed by a reactionary wave of Austro-Germanic nationalism and anti-Jewish politicking.
In the new age of medical specializations, the prejudiced academic powers that be were channeling Jewish medical students away from the prestigious mainstream fields, like internal medicine and surgery, into marginalized specialities: dermatology, ophthalmology — and psychiatry.
Yet if some Jewish doctors were being pushed into psychiatry, many others were voluntarily drawn to it. For the Jews of late 19th century Vienna were facing mental pressures different from any in past Jewish history.
For centuries, Diaspora Jewish physicians and philosophers, such as Maimonides, had written on the means of attaining spiritual well-being, often in a sea of hostile humanity. Their compass was the age-old Jewish religious and cultural values.
Now, however, Jews were being set adrift in an era of modernity that they themselves were doing so much to create. Nowhere more so than in Vienna, as the 20th century approached — where Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Ludwig Wittgenstein were developing their radical philosophies of science and technology, and Arnold Schoenberg would soon experiment with daringly atonal music.
Little wonder that the pioneering psychiatrist-anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, author of “Man of Genius,” attributed the apparently high rates of insanity among his fellow Jews to “intellectual overactivity.”
Such was the atmosphere in which Freud found himself. No longer a Jew in the religious sense but of the rationalist tradition of Judaism (“free from many prejudices which restrict others in the use of their intellect,” as he put it), Freud first made important, if unrevolutionary, contributions to our understanding of aphasia (major speech impairment due to physical trauma or stroke).
By the 1890s, however, Freud became intrigued by more cryptic language disturbances as signs of neurotic conflicts caused by hypothesized unconscious forces: slips of the tongue in wakefulness, and the largely imagistic and apparently nonsensical — but in fact symbol-laden — “language” of dreams at night.
Freud famously called dreams “the royal road to knowledge of the unconscious.” And his own dreams and their analysis revealed to him a whirl of conflicts around his Jewish identity.
Thus to cite just one of many examples, Freud dreamt that he sat almost in tears beside a fountain at the Porta Romana in Italy. The children had to be moved to safety, and a boy who was but wasn’t Freud’s son said to him in farewell the nonsensical “auf ungeseres,” instead of the usual “auf wiedersehen.”
Among a labyrinth of free-associations the next morning, Freud recalled his actual viewing of the Porta Romana (the gateway to Rome and, by implication, the Roman Catholic Church) during a recent visit to Siena, where the Jewish director of a mental hospital had been forced to resign. Returning to Vienna, Freud had attended a play on the Jewish question called, “The New Ghetto.”
Freud linked the dream fountain to the refrain, “By the waters of Babylon … yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” The seemingly nonsensical farewell, “auf ungeseres,” derived from the German word for unleavened bread and a Hebrew word for imposed suffering. Clearly, the life as a Jew in fin-de-si?cle Vienna was one of exile, with professional barriers and social burdens imposed on him and his children.
Such encumbrances could be relieved in a day with a splash of baptismal water and assimilation into Austria’s Roman Catholic majority. But Freud would have none of that.
“I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitism. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew,” he defiantly declared. “A Jew ought not to get himself baptized — it is essentially dishonest.”
If Freud’s view of dreams had been limited to analyzing them for various personal and cultural conflicts — some of which are lurking below the level of consciousness — it would have been a significant but unrevolutionary contribution to psychology.
But to repeat Lombroso’s term, the “intellectual overactivity” characteristic of so many modern Jews was part and parcel of Freud’s genius. Thus he went on to develop his psychoanalytic model with its Oedipus and Electra sexual complexes, supposedly laid down in early childhood, and continuing to dominate the unconscious id of the adult mind.
The libido, Freud theorized, ultimately supplies the driving force behind all dreams. A task of civilization was to channel such forces to higher goals. This, too, was part of the millennia of Jewish tradition.
“In his inner being, the Jew, the true Jew, feels only one eternal guide, one lawgiver, one law,” Freud proudly declared. “That is morality.”
Such radical theories faced a long uphill battle against the conservative medical establishment. But, as Freud told his B’nai B’rith lodge brothers, “As a Jew, I was prepared to join the opposition and to do without agreement with the ‘compact majority.'”
The psychoanalytic theory ultimately did gain much acceptance. It was Freud’s international reputation that allowed him to flee Vienna after the genocidal Nazis took control of Austria in 1938.
When Freud died in London two years later, he was more of an exile than even he would ever have dreamt when first developing his model of the mind. But disciples of his were in the Land of Zion — pursuing a Jewish dream that would become reality.
Dr. Frank Heynick’s most recent book is “Jews and Medicine: An Epic Saga” (KTAV, 2002), in which Sigmund Freud plays a prominent role.