By Sebastian Hicks
Surely the nomenclature Sigmund is synonymous with only one man, Freud. I know what you’re thinking: but what about Sigmund Jahn, the first German astronaut? Or Ben Sigmund, the renowned New Zealand central defender? But even Jahn must step aside and accept that Freud has a special place amongst the Sigmunds and charting his rise to the stardom is a story of love, Judaism and a casual stroll into the deepest darkest places of the world.
My understanding of psychoanalysis from school was a dichotomy between Oedipus jokes and something something dreams are important. We can attribute some classic lines to Freud such as “all complicated machines and appliances are very probably the genitals” and not just any kind of genitals – “as a rule the male genitals.” Indeed, though given much less credit these days, his theories permeate our livelihoods; Freudian slips, our relationships with our parents and thinking about who we really are all started with Freud’s musings. But the fad of Freud evaporated almost as quickly as it developed, with only a handful of institutions actually teaching psychoanalysis as an academic subject today. One question about Freud’s theories in the 21st century is whether they were necessarily true or just clever. Yet truth is an uncomfortable word and perhaps Freud’s theories are better described as highly original, personal and creative ideas that have limited scientific basis. Who was the man behind these theories and how did he come to broach the aberrant peculiarities of the subconscious?
It was his inquisitive tendencies that drove him into ever more ethereal topics and his febrile interest in asking about where the secrets of the mind truly reside. But one might struggle to lead a normal life with these notions weighing heavy on your mind. I always found myself wondering what Sigmund may have got up to on a typical Wednesday morning. As a Jewish academic living in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Freud lived in turbulent times, one of the topics often preoccupied him was his cultural and religious affiliations that beset his psychological explorations and academic work. The majority of his psychoanalytic inner circle were Jewish, his wife was an orthodox Jew and Freud’s death, by morphine injection, fell on Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish festival. A self-proclaimed “Godless Jew”, Freud’s prolific writings and a phenomenal amount of supporting literature make it possible to ascertain a clearer picture of a person’s faith than would normally be possible -this being after all, a highly subjective area of the human condition. We will not just be following in Freud’s footsteps, but practically trying on his slippers and reflecting on how we all approach ourselves.
Freud’s attitude towards the Jewish religion appears dismissive at best. Freud made his feelings very clear; he claimed that, “I have always been an unbeliever and was brought up without any religion”. And his friends seemed to agree with him; his biographer Ernest Jones, a member of Freud’s inner circle of psychoanalysts/drinking buddies, said Freud grew up “devoid of any belief.” The descriptions of Freud’s relationship with religion are definitive; almost suspiciously so. His own story-telling seems to exemplify a man with much to hide:
“When I was six years old and was given my first lessons by my mother, I was expected to believe that we were all made of earth and must therefore return to earth. This did not suit me, and I expressed doubts of the doctrine.”
Undoubtedly he was one prodigiously intelligent six year old. But Freud draws a careful distinction between Judaism and other religions; he highlights Judaism as a more flexible religion, a “triumph of intellectuality over spirituality”. At the same time he denigrates Christianity as the jealous younger sibling of Judaism. He compliments Judaism and its adherents, meets Rabbis and has a lifelong fascination with the prophet Moses, a central figure in Jewish faith.
Initially his relationship with Judaism seemed clear enough: Freud forbade his wife, Martha, to light the Sabbath candles, none of his three sons, Martin, Oliver and Ernst was circumcised and he deliberately violated the rules for kosher meals. Freud also declares that he is unable to speak Hebrew. To walk a mile in Freud’s shoes might appear initially as a straightforward path of empirically denying religious affiliation and boycotting cultural integration.
And yet, there he is, one summer writing a letter to his Martha, then his fiancee, claiming “life-affirming Judaism will not be absent from our home.” He speaks confidently about Jewish New Year and other Jewish festivals. One of the few things he took with him when abandoning Vienna for the last time in 1939 was a Yarhzeit booklet, containing Hebrew and German prayers. His father gave him a Bible inscribed in Hebrew for his 35th Birthday: ‘here you go son, a bible you do not want in a language you cannot read.’ Freud’s excellent results in school in both Yiddish and Hebrew as well as his brother being fluent in the language suggest Freud may be have been tinkering with the truth. Or perhaps he just forgot? It might be a little too ironic to suggest he repressed it.
When Freud was not discussing psychoanalytic theories, he was often addressing personal concerns and his religious surroundings. Freud once described a Jewish wedding he attended as a “malign mockery” and then proceeds to have a Jewish wedding with Martha several years later, even wearing traditional Jewish dress! Indubitably, yes, that’s right, indubitably, Freud’s Jewish identity recedes and expands in different areas and deriving a Jewish faith out of this is difficult, but to discount Freud’s comments would be to dismiss a personal awareness and fondness of his heritage.
So we know what Freud was often in two minds on a typical Wednesday morning, but what about a particularly anti-Semitic Wednesday morning? Violent anti-Semitism in Freud’s Vienna might have caused him to choke on his morning croissant, and this is the final stone to be overturned. Freud was unafraid: he chased a group of chanting anti-Semitics in Bavaria, castigated anti-Semites on a train in Saxony and refused to give up his Jewish identity for promotion at the University of Vienna. He felt he had “inherited all the defiance and all the passions with which our ancestors defended the temple” and tacitly accepted his Jewish heritage as a source of strength and intellectual independence. The threats to his livelihood empowered him and strengthened him. It brought him out of subjective debate and into active duty. Freud often saw his intellectual independence and academic integrity as a derivative of the perennial Jewish character.
His unorthodox approach towards traditional Judaism morphed into a new kind of understanding of his Jewishness which Freud never managed to fully explore. Indeed, perhaps his dissatisfaction with his own conclusions led him, towards the end of his life, to be more confident in his opinions of Judaism. I am inclined to agree that Freud was constantly moving “between belonging and not belonging as a Jew.” Throughout his life, Freud battled anti-Semitism in his own way, but neither condemned nor embraced the Zionist solution over Israel. He was comfortable around Jews and was constantly mingling with the Jewish milieu in his personal and professional life.
The way Freud’s life plays out seems more indicative of the human condition than his actual work on psychoanalysis. People tend to feel as if no two layers within themselves are alike, certainly the person from yesterday is not the same as the one today – and who knows what tomorrow will bring. The evidence presented here about Freud transcends time, moving freely along his timeline and shows the sometimes paradoxical way we think but it also reveals an inharmonious process of mental growth, from young atheist to Jewish ambassador and back again. Something about Freud’s intelligent and informed discussions were surprisingly normal, even familiar and he had the courage to explore these flaws and paradoxes. Freudian thinking often seems quite close to home, exploring the machinations of the mind, and that, whilst scary, is no bad thing. We can host completely opposing ideas in our minds simultaneously and perhaps we should take pleasure in this rather than let the frustration of uncertainty take hold. Resolutions to internal struggles do not necessarily conclude with the total dispensing of one idea over another. Critiquing Freud’s theories is one thing, but we should not leave his methodology by the wayside – we can adopt it for ourselves and try on a pair of Freudian slippers for a while.
Featured Image Credit: David Webb, CC Flickr. License can be found here.