Monday, March 31, 2008

That Fellow Freud 1

We have all heard of Freud no matter what subjects we have studied or no matter what professions we have pursued.  Quite simply he has influenced contemporary culture - not just psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis - to such a large degree that most scholars recognise that he has been as influential as Albert Einstein has on modern civilization.  Freud certainly built up a deliberate movement about him - he realised early that he was going to leave his mark on the world.  Like Jacques Lacan, a major twentieth-century interpreter, I feel he built up a mystique about his very person.  One thing that Freud shares with his unique, if not peculiar, interpreter is that they both destroyed their more private notes before their deaths in an effort to make any biographer's task difficult.  This action does, of course, leave us wondering why - was there anything untoward in either's private life?  If both were sincere and "congruent" (to use modern parlance from Rogerian therapy) psychoanalysts why all this desire for secrecy?

Anyway, our man Freud was born on the 6th of May, 1856, in a small town called Freiberg in what was then called Moravia, but the family moved to Vienna when he was four or five years old.  His father was a successful wool merchant in his second marriage to a woman 20 years his junior.  At 21 years of age this woman gave birth to her first-born son Sigmund.  Freud had two older half-brothers by his father's first wife and  six younger siblings by the second. 

Freud was a brilliant scholar both at school where he excelled at the classics and at university where he topped his class in medicine.  It is interesting to note that Sigmund was gifted at languages: Greek, Latin, German , Hebrew (he was an atheistic Jew), French, English and he possessed the rudiments of Spanish and Italian.  Shakespeare and Goethe were his favourite authors.  While at university he fell early under the influence of the brilliant physiology professor Ernst Brucke.  Brucke believed quite simply that nothing other than "physical-chemical forces" were at work in the human organism.  In other words this professor of physiology was a man of his era - a positivist scientist influenced by Enlightenment thinking.  A modern way of describing this is to say that our man Brucke was a reductionist: "No other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism."  Storr describes Freud as "determinist" throughout his long life, that is, he believed "that all vital phenomena like thoughts, feelings, phantasies are rigidly determined by cause and effect."

In 1882, at 26, Sigmund fell in love and became engaged to Martha Bernays and he married her in April 1886.  Martha and he had six children, the last being Anna Freud, the only one of them to become a psychoanalyst.

Freud consequently saw himself as a hard-headed scientist in the positivism tradition early in his career who continually sought to attempt to "reduce" personality to neurology.  He later gave up in this quest, though he always thought of himself as a scientist and of psychoanalysis as a science.  I agree with Anthony Storr that Freud was definitely over-stating things with regards to this contention.

As only limited places were available in neurology or neuro-physiology as it was then called, Freud continued with his research in Paris under the great psychiatrist and neurologist Charcot (at the Salpetriere Hospital) and then with another medical scholar called Bernheim in Nancy.  Both these psychiatrists were experimenting with hypnosis as a therapy for the mental disorder known then as hysteria.  From Charcot Freud developed an interest in the problems of of neuroses as opposed to organic diseases of the nervous system.  A colleague called Josef Breuer helped Freud set up a practice in neuropsychiatry.

Anthony Storr points out that our man Freud was obsessional by nature - he actually admitted this to his one-time disciple and later renegade psychoanalyst Carl Gustave Jung.  Being obsessional he was meticulous, scrupulous, accurate, reliable, honest, and much concerned with cleanliness, control and order.  No wonder he had a penchant for  rejecting people who did not totally agree with him as Dr. C. George Boeree underlines.  I'd go further and claim that our man was a "control freak" as we say in clichés these days.  It is interesting and amusing to note also that a barber attended Freud on a daily basis.  However, his English disciple and biographer, Ernest Jones was to recall that Freud never owned more than three suits, three pairs of shoes and three sets of underclothes.  According to Storr, Freud was also generous to less fortunate relatives, patients and poverty-stricken students.  He was also a compulsive smoker of cigars who continued despite having many operations on his jawbone for cancer of the mouth from which he suffered for the last twenty years of his life.  Also with respect to his obsessional character we can say that Sigmund Freud  was an important collector of antiques and ancient statuettes.  Storr states succinctly that he was "not a connoisseur collector but an obsessional collector."

Freud emigrated to England just before World War 2 when Vienna became an increasingly dangerous place for Jews, especially ones as famous as Freud.  Not long afterwards, the great man died of the cancer of the jaw to which I have just previously alluded.  The year was 1939.

Above an early picture of the young Freud

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