Susan Austin, ‘Freud, Sigmund (1856–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/55514, accessed 6 May 2006]Freud, Sigmund
(1856–1939), founder of psychoanalysis, was born on 6 May 1856 at Freiberg, Moravia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire (later Príbor, Czech republic), the first of the seven surviving children of Jacob Freud (1815–1896), wool trader, and his second wife, Amalie (1835–1931), daughter of Jacob Nathansohn and his wife, Sara. His parents were both Jewish and Freud himself went to London as a refugee in 1938.
Childhood and adolescence
The Freud family occupied one large room on the first floor of a house owned by a blacksmith. His father, at one point registered as a wool merchant, made what must have been a somewhat precarious living through trade of various kinds. His mother was an attractive and strong-minded woman and by all accounts her love for Sigmund, the first-born of her eight children, was boundless. There followed two more boys, one of whom died at six months, and five girls, whose arrival stirred up intense jealousy in Freud. Freud's position in the family was unusual in that he also had two grown-up half-brothers from his father's first marriage, one of whom had a young son, so that Freud was born an uncle. This nephew, John, was Freud's closest child companion and rival. Freud remarked, in The Interpretation of Dreams, that his characteristic warm friendships as well as his enmities with contemporaries went back to this early relationship (Freud, Interpretation, 483). The two half-brothers and the young boy emigrated to Manchester at the end of Freud's third year, stimulating in him early thoughts of moving to England himself, which he was eventually to do some eighty years later.
Meanwhile, in 1860, when Freud was four, in common with many other Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time the family moved to Vienna in the wake of a recent liberalization of policy which gave Jews equal political rights and abolished ghettos. Although the family were largely non-observing Jews, ready to assimilate into Viennese society, and all his life Freud was himself an atheist, Jewishness in its religious, cultural, and political aspects was a lifelong preoccupation of his and very much a part of his identity.
The family settled in Leopoldstadt, a mainly Jewish part of the city, where they lived in straitened conditions. Little is known of these first years in Vienna and Freud's early schooling. Although it is unclear quite how Jacob Freud earned a living once there, the family seems to have been able to make ends meet. Freud's education at the excellent local Gymnasium, which he entered in 1865, proceeded without interruption and he received a classical education. He was consistently head of the class. He and his schoolfriend Eduard Silberstein, who remained a lifelong friend, formed their own ‘Spanish Academy’ with an exclusive membership of two, which involved corresponding in self-taught Spanish through which they divulged to each other their thoughts, fantasies, and preoccupations and developed a sort of private mythology. Their correspondence continued from Freud's mid-teens to his mid-twenties, stopping about the time that he met his future wife.
Freud's early biography is of fundamental significance to the history of psychoanalysis, as, through his own rigorous self-analysis—which he was to conduct from the mid-1890s—he effectively made himself the subject of the first psychoanalytic case-history. Freud makes thinly disguised references to his personal experience throughout his psychoanalytical writings, most notably in Die Traumdeutung (1900), published in English as The Interpretation of Dreams. A less intimately personal account is his Selbstdarstellung (‘Autobiographical study’, 1925), which was commissioned as part of a series of self-portraits by men of science, and focuses on his professional development. In a postscript of 1935 he writes: ‘The story of my life and the history of psychoanalysis … are intimately interwoven … no personal experiences of mine are of any interest in comparison to my relations with that science’ (p. 71). In fact Freud's most personal experience was inevitably bound up with psychoanalysis, while it is true that outwardly his private life, typical of a bourgeois doctor, appears unremarkable.
Studies in medicine, neurology, and psychiatry
In spite of the family's financial situation Freud was left by his father to make his own choice of career. He began his medical studies at Vienna University in 1873, availing himself of the considerable degree of academic freedom afforded by the curriculum to explore a variety of areas. His interest gravitated towards scientific research at the outset. He chose to supplement his studies with research in the laboratories of faculty members, undertaking such research for Ernst Brücke, a congenial teacher of physiology and histology, and he remained at Brücke's laboratory for six years. Beginning with studies of nerve cell structure in the Petromyzon, a primitive species of fish, and progressing to human anatomy and a minute study of the medulla oblongata, he established a solid reputation as a specialist in brain anatomy and pathology. In addition to Brücke himself, who was for Freud something of a father figure, Brücke's laboratory brought the young Freud into contact with distinguished colleagues. It was at Brücke's that Freud made the acquaintance of Dr Josef Breuer, another father figure whose personal support and professional collaboration he later acknowledged as crucial to the foundation of psychoanalysis.
It was during this period that Freud made his first long-awaited journey to England in 1875 to visit his half-brothers in Manchester, and which he acknowledged, seven years later, in a letter to his fiancée, as a decisive influence. He had dreamed of England since boyhood and had acquired an insatiable appetite for English literature, especially Shakespeare and Dickens. The trip stimulated renewed yearnings to settle there himself. Jacob Freud had hoped this stay with cousins more successful in business than himself would stimulate in Freud some enthusiasm in that line, but Freud was nurturing fantasies of pursuing a scientific career in England, for all its ‘fog and rain, drunkenness and conservatism’ (Letters to … Silberstein, 127). As a result of the excursion and his encounter with the consistent empiricism in the English scientific writings of the likes of John Tyndall, Thomas Huxley, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin, his own interests became more sharply focused. Correspondingly he declared himself increasingly wary of metaphysics and philosophy (ibid., 128).
Freud's studies were interrupted by military service in 1879–80, during which he translated four essays by John Stuart Mill for the German edition of the collected works. After receiving his medical qualification in 1881 he pursued his research at Brücke's laboratory, having been given a temporary post. In 1882 Freud suddenly left Brücke's laboratory and began to set himself up to pursue a clinical career, which afforded the eventual prospect of financial security by going into private practice. Significantly, the change of direction coincided with Freud's falling in love with Martha Bernays (b. 1861), his future wife, the daughter of an observing Jewish family well known in Hamburg. There followed a four-year engagement, during which he wrote his fiancée 900 letters while struggling to establish himself financially in keeping with conventional expectation.
In the meantime Freud somewhat belatedly began a three-year residency at the Viennese General Hospital, an internationally renowned teaching centre where the heads of department were almost invariably pre-eminent in their fields. Although Freud's career was full of promise during this period, the prospect of becoming materially secure remained remote and he was searching for new discoveries so as to make his name. One such project was concerned with the applications of cocaine, then new and relatively unknown. In 1884 Freud published an enthusiastic paper based on his experiments on himself and others. Unfortunately it was left to a contemporary, Koller, whose attention Freud had drawn to cocaine's anaesthetic qualities, to complete an investigation into such use in eye surgery and so to claim the considerable credit for the discovery.
In July 1885, a month after being appointed to the academic post of privat-docent, Freud left for Paris on a travelling scholarship to study at the Salpêtrière Hospital under the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. In contrast to the Viennese psychiatric approach Freud had so far encountered, which was concerned with physical symptoms and family pathology with little attempt to identify causes, Charcot was developing bold concepts for understanding neurosis through observing patients, in particular hysterics, with a view to characterizing disorders and establishing their aetiology. The trip to Paris was of fundamental significance to Freud's intellectual and professional development. Having arrived there primarily preoccupied with his anatomical researches, by the time of his return to Vienna his interest had turned, through Charcot's influence, to psychopathology and the applications of hypnosis.
In the wake of his formative experience in Paris, Freud gave addresses to the Vienna Medical Society championing Charcot's views on hysteria and hypnosis. These presentations met with cool receptions, to Freud's great disappointment. There was widespread scepticism concerning hypnosis and it is quite possible that Freud's youthful idealization of his French master may have rankled with his senior colleagues, reinforcing Freud's consistently held view of himself as an outsider embattled with the medical establishment.
Marriage and early career
Soon after his return from Paris, Freud set himself up in private practice as a consultant in nervous diseases, of which hysteria was one of the most important. Referrals came in particular from his older friend and benefactor Breuer, with whom he was later to collaborate. After years of relative poverty, Freud had generated enough income to marry Martha Bernays on 13 September 1886 at Wandsbeck, just outside Hamburg. The couple settled down to a domestic regime typical of a Viennese doctor's family and Martha had six children, three boys and three girls, within eight years. The household also included Martha's unmarried sister, Minna, who was able to provide Freud with intellectual companionship through the initial years of relative isolation.
During the first years of married life in addition to his private practice Freud was director of neurology at the Institute for Children's Diseases, where he continued his work on brain neurology in addition to clinical duties with neurological patients, enabling him to support his young family while he pursued his greater interest in clinical psychopathology through his private practice of neurotic patients. Of the neurological papers he published as a result of the neurological post one in particular foreshadows his later work. ‘Zur Auffassung der Aphasien: eine kritische Studie’ (‘On aphasia’, 1891) reviewed the existing literature, criticizing its mechanical approach and reliance on brain mythology, which attributed mental functioning to particular parts of the brain, proposing instead a subtle relationship between anatomy and psychology.
The talking cure
Freud's treatment of patients by hypnosis continued for a decade after his visit to Paris, although he became increasingly aware of its limitations. A fundamental shift in his thinking evolved following his re-encounter with a case history which his older friend Breuer had related to him as early as 1882. Breuer had been treating an intelligent and lively minded young woman, known as Anna O., whose severely debilitating symptoms included paralysis, loss of speech, and a nervous cough. Taking his lead from the patient Breuer developed a cathartic method, which the patient herself called a ‘talking cure’. Freud managed to persuade Breuer to revive the method, by which the doctor–patient relationship had effectively been transformed from one of passivity on the part of the hypnotized patient receiving suggestions from the doctor aimed at ridding the patient of the symptom, to that of a patient actively talking in a self-induced trance to a doctor who received information while the patient simultaneously relieved herself of the symptom, which emerged as the product of some early trauma which had not been resolved.
Implicit in the cathartic method which Freud adopted to treat his own patients were several concepts which were to be at the heart of psychoanalytic thinking: namely, that patients were suffering from ‘reminiscences’—there was a causal link between hysterical symptoms and psychological trauma; that the traumatic experience had been rendered unconscious through repression, yet continued to make its presence felt; and that the unconscious experience could be made conscious, bringing relief to the patient.
An account of the case of Anna O. was eventually published by Freud and Breuer in Studien über Hysterie (‘Studies on hysteria’, 1895). Breuer had been consistently reticent about the Anna O. case, which contained elements which he found personally embarrassing, and it was left to the intrepid younger man to explore the implications of the new method which had presented itself as a viable alternative to hypnosis. It was not until 1896 that Freud used the term ‘psychoanalysis’.
Freud widened the scope of the treatment by taking an interest in anything a patient might have to say, rather than inviting an account of the symptoms. Freud named this process free association and its encouragement was the object of the enduring fundamental rule of psychoanalysis, whereby a patient is asked to say whatever comes to mind. With the advent of free association came the demise of the last vestige of the hypnotic method, as Freud now refrained from applying gentle pressure to the patient's head during treatment. The setting for psychoanalysis later recommended by Freud, where the patient reclines comfortably while the analyst sits out of sight, was designed to facilitate free association. The request to patients to associate freely threw into relief resistance, a term which Freud used interchangeably with defence at that time. Listening to patients' accounts Freud became convinced that the traumas which lay behind hysterical symptoms had their origins in infancy and he was struck by their sexual content.
Family, friends, and colleagues
Freud's last daughter, Anna Freud, was born in 1895, the year of the publication with Breuer of Studien über Hysterie. His father died in the following year. Although he found pleasure in fatherhood and in the family home created by Martha Freud, there was no real intellectual outlet for Freud as he struggled to develop a theoretical framework for psychoanalysis and subjected himself to the emotional strain of a lengthy self-analysis. Freud's friendship with Breuer had been faltering since the late 1880s and eventually broke down, largely because Breuer was unwilling to concur with Freud's firm conviction about the sexual aetiology of hysteria. It was Wilhelm Fliess, a talented but ultimately discredited Berlin general practitioner, who fulfilled Freud's need for a friend, confidant, and critic. Fliess was closer in age to Freud and unlike Breuer could not be shocked by Freud's more audacious speculations. The relationship quickly developed a great intensity and the two kept up an intimate correspondence for fifteen years from 1887 to 1902 which sheds light on the otherwise obscure evolution of Freud's thinking at that time and on his concurrent self-analysis. It was in a long letter to Fliess written in 1895 that Freud set out his portentous ‘Project for a scientific psychology’ with a view to integrating mental and physical phenomena within a single theoretical schema. Freud began work on the ‘Project’ in the late summer of 1895 in a rush of creativity following one of his ‘congresses’ with Fliess. His ambition was to set out a psychology firmly grounded in neurology and biology, which he referred to as his ‘Psychology for neurologists’. Freud likened the task to an exhausting but exhilarating mountain climb, during which more peaks to be conquered kept appearing. Exhilaration soon gave way to frustration and dejection however, and by November he wrote to Fliess that he could ‘no longer understand the mental state in which I hatched the Psychology’ (Freud, ‘Project for a scientific psychology’, 1895, 152). The undeniably abstruse draft survives only among Fliess's papers, and Freud makes no mention of this momentous effort in his autobiographical accounts. It was published posthumously in English in 1954, four years after publication in German, having been rescued from Fliess's papers by Marie Bonaparte following his death in 1931, and edited by James Strachey (Standard Edition, vol. 1). As Strachey points out in his editor's introduction Freud clearly regarded this ostensibly neurological work as a failure. Although it cannot be said to constitute the foundation of psychoanalytic theory as such, it contained the seeds of many ideas elaborated in his later psychological writings, for example drive theory, repression, and an economy of mind based on mental conflict.
Freud's friendship with Fliess was destined to collapse amid recriminations, with Fliess alleging that Freud had appropriated his ideas on inherent bisexuality without acknowledgement. Ten years later Freud's friendship with Jung was also to end acrimoniously, with Jung's questioning of the sexual origins of neurosis at the centre of the dispute. Long before the split with Jung, and in the period preceding his violent quarrel with Fliess in 1900, Freud reflected on the nature of his relationships to contemporaries, which he linked to his intensely ambivalent attachment to his nephew John, who had moved to England when Freud was three.
My emotional life has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy. I have always been able to provide myself afresh with both, and it has not infrequently happened that the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual—though not, of course, both at once or with constant oscillations, as may have been the case in my early childhood. (Freud, Interpretation, 483)
Fortunately for Freud this easily discernible pattern of turbulent relationships prone to eventual breakdown was restricted to close male colleagues. His family relationships and other friendships were contrastingly consistent and loyal. It was no coincidence that the professional disagreements which caused these intimate friendships to break down were concerned with Freud's insistence on the centrality of sexuality. Sexuality represented to Freud the direct and essential instinctual link between psychology and biology, without which he would find himself caught up in the dichotomy of mind and body which he was desperate to avoid.
Establishment of psychoanalysis
Later in his career Freud recalled the 1890s as years in an intellectual wilderness. His papers on hysteria had not won the respect of the medical establishment and he was aware of his Jewishness in that largely Catholic milieu. In addition Freud had confessed his own surprise that ‘the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science’ (Standard Edition, 2.160).
Until the late 1890s Freud's observations of the infantile and sexual origins of hysteria had led him to believe, through listening to his patients' accounts, that his patients had fallen ill as a result of childhood sexual abuse by adults. In 1897 he modified this theory of actual childhood seduction and proposed instead that these accounts were often derived from infantile sexual fantasies and therefore belonged in the realm of the patient's own psychic reality and were not, as he had previously thought, necessarily objective facts. To Freud children were no longer assumed to be innocents in a world of adult sexuality: they possessed sexual feelings and wishes of their own which were liable to repression, elaboration, and distortion during development. This shift in Freud's thinking has proved enduringly controversial. Critics have argued that patients' experiences have been denied through their reassignment by Freud to subjective reality and that he changed tack in this way only because he shied away from alienating bourgeois Vienna by reporting widespread sexual abuse in its families. In fact, Freud never denied the reality of child sexual abuse, and it was his attribution of sexual feelings to children which most shocked his contemporaries. Freud was not to be deterred from his line of enquiry. Indeed the cynicism of his medical contemporaries and outrage from members of the wider public seem to have acted as a spur to new vistas opening up. In addition to setting the scene for the detailed exposition of human development, for example in the later Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (‘Three essays on the theory of sexuality’, 1905), the recasting of the aetiology of hysteria in the light of childhood sexuality paved the way to a more general understanding of the role of impulse and desire in the human mind, rendered unconscious through repression.
With the publication of Die Traumdeutung in 1900 Freud decisively challenged the accepted limits of scientific psychology, by bringing mental phenomena generally considered beyond the pale, such as dreams, imagination, and fantasy, into the fold. The leitmotif which runs throughout the book is that dreams represent the disguised fulfilment of repressed infantile wishes and that as such ‘the interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind’ (Freud, Interpretation, 608).
Freud stated at the outset that his theory of dreams was generally applicable and not restricted to neurotic patients. Indeed, his curiosity about the nature of dreams had been aroused during his self-analysis and the bulk of the illustrative material was trawled from his own dreams and autobiographical material, along with dreams of friends and children. It was in The Interpretation of Dreams that Freud, drawing characteristically on his classical schooling, introduced the Oedipus complex, which asserts the universal desire of a child for the parent of the opposite sex and consequent hatred of the parent of the same sex, which must be resolved through repression in order for normal development to proceed. Although sales were slow and a second edition was not needed until 1909, Freud's explorations of normal psychological functioning did stimulate interest in a wider public.
At the time of writing his dream book Freud was planning other studies of normal psychological processes which would none the less plumb the depths of the psyche, namely Zur Psychopathologie des Alltagslebens (‘The psychopathology of everyday life’, 1901), which explored the unconscious meaning of everyday slips of the tongue and bungled actions, and Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten (‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’, 1905) for which he drew on his repertoire of ‘profound Jewish stories’.
The early years of the century also saw the publication of the first of five substantial case histories which read rather like novellas, the case of Dora, under the title Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905 ). The most important insight from the analysis of Dora, which broke down when the young woman left, came to Freud with hindsight. In a postscript, Freud reviews the analysis in the light of transference. The phenomenon of transference, whereby any individual's experience of early relationships is the blueprint for later relationships, had already been discussed in the Studies on Hysteria (1895) in terms of an unconscious false connection on the part of the patient between the physician and some earlier figure. Now, reflecting on Dora's inability to continue with her analysis, Freud became aware of the implications of the understanding of transference as a key factor in the therapeutic process of psychoanalysis: ‘Transference, which seems ordained to be the greatest obstacle to psychoanalysis, becomes its most powerful ally, if its presence can be detected each time and explained to the patient’ (Standard Edition, 7.117).
During this period Freud's home life remained settled. As his financial situation improved he was able to indulge his two great interests: Mediterranean travel and collecting antiquities, another natural consequence of a youth steeped in the classics. He also found time to follow the exciting archaeological discoveries being made at the time, and often cited archaeological excavation as a metaphor for psychoanalytic work, with its interest in painstakingly uncovering hidden layers and origins. In 1907 Freud made the first trip to England since his inspirational visit aged nineteen. He spent a fortnight visiting Manchester relatives who showed him Blackpool and Southport before he departed for London. He returned full of praise for the architecture and people, having seen the Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum. It was not until the hasty move to London in 1938 that Freud once again found himself in his childhood dreamland.
Freud's interests beyond the consulting room and the application of psychoanalytic theory to new areas became increasingly apparent in his writings in the years preceding the First World War. Greek literature had already yielded the Oedipus story and there followed other forays into literature and art history, with Der Wahn und die Träume in W. Jensen's ‘Gradiva’ (‘Delusions and dreams in Jensen's “Gradiva”’, 1907) and Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci (‘Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood’, 1910). In Totem und Tabu (‘Totem and taboo’, 1913), Freud applied psychoanalysis to anthropological material for the first time.
The psychoanalytic movement
As a privat-docent and from 1902 a professor extraordinarius Freud was entitled to lecture at Vienna University. These lectures attracted a small group of followers composed of both laymen and doctors. From 1902 onwards they met as the Wednesday Psychological Society, which evolved into the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society in 1908. In the meantime, to his great satisfaction, Freud's reputation began to spread beyond Vienna and he began to attract interest from foreigners, among them the well-known psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler and his young assistant Carl Jung. Others included Karl Abraham and Max Eitington, also from the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland, who unlike Jung were to remain loyal disciples, the Hungarian Sándor Ferenczi, and the Welshman (Alfred) Ernest Jones, Freud's future biographer and the founder of the British Psycho-Analytical Society.
The year after the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society was founded Freud made his only trip to the United States to give a series of well-received lectures (Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, in Standard Edition, vol. 11) at the invitation of Clark University, Massachusetts, accompanied by Jung, Ferenczi, and Jones. The spread of psychoanalysis gained momentum and new societies were formed on the model of the Viennese. An international association was established in 1908, uniting the various groups and promising a structure which Freud hoped would facilitate the perpetuation of psychoanalysis through training. Inevitably psychoanalytic politics were in the air and Freud found himself at the centre of rivalries, jealousies, and dissenting views between individuals and groupings, notably his original Viennese colleagues and the Zürich analysts, whom he was felt to favour. Disagreements led to defection by some members, most significantly by Alfred Adler and Jung, whom Freud had thought of as his successor. In an attempt to protect the essence of psychoanalysis from distortion a ‘secret committee’ was formed, at the suggestion of Ernest Jones, which was intended to provide a secure setting within which theory and technique could be discussed among an inner circle of loyal colleagues which consisted of Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi, Karl Abraham, Hanns Sachs, Otto Rank, and, later, Max Eitington. Although the committee met into the 1920s, its conspiratorial air set an unfortunate tone for the future functioning and reputation of the profession.
Inevitably the First World War interrupted Freud's well-established working routine. His three sons, Martin, Ernst (father of the writer and broadcaster Clement Freud and the painter Lucian Freud), and Oliver were all in active service and the real possibility of losses within the family had to be faced. Patients stopped coming, and the international psychoanalytical movement's activities came to a halt. Freud was left more time for private study, which proved very productive. There were papers which resulted from reflections on the war itself, for example ‘Zeitgemässes über Krieg und Tod’ (‘Thought for the times on war and death’). The Vienna University lectures delivered during the war were published as the Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse (‘Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis’, 1916–17); of particular significance were his Papers on Metapsychology (Standard Edition, vol. 14), of which only five of an original twelve have survived. Dealing with five fundamental themes of psychoanalysis they are ‘On narcissism’, ‘Instincts and their vicissitudes’, ‘Repression’ (all 1915), ‘The unconscious’, and ‘Mourning and melancholia’ (both 1917). Freud went far beyond summing up his theories as they stood in these highly technical papers. In addition to containing new ideas they also hint at numerous revisions which would preoccupy him during the last phase of his career.
By the end of the First World War, Vienna—no longer at the centre of an empire—had become merely the capital of a small, impoverished country. After resuming his private practice Freud took on several British and American patients who proved a useful source of hard currency as a safeguard against soaring inflation. The most serious British interest in Freud came from the members of the Bloomsbury group, in keeping with their characteristic receptiveness to progressive European ideas. Frances Partridge, who lodged with the Stracheys in Gordon Square during their early years as practising analysts, recalled how psychoanalysis was very much part of the Bloomsbury scene, and that she would often recognize patients as they arrived at the house for their sessions. Among the British were the Bloomsbury couple, James Strachey and Alix Strachey [see under Strachey, James]. Introductions, through Ernest Jones, were eased by the fact that Freud admired the work of James's older brother, Lytton Strachey. Freud took James Strachey into analysis on condition that he begin translating his writings into English. Translating Freud, culminating with the publication of the complete works in twenty-four volumes by Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press, was to occupy Strachey for the rest of his life, and remains the standard text for the extensive scholarship on Freud in English, and for psychoanalysts without German. The Strachey translation has been criticized for its recourse to dry scientific neologisms where Freud made use of plain German. For example, Strachey's term ‘cathexis’, now well established as a psychoanalytic term, takes the place of Freud's ‘Besetzung’, a common German word with rich nuances of meaning.
The first international congress following the war was held at The Hague in 1920, which Freud attended in the company of his youngest daughter, Anna, the only one of his children to take an active interest in psychoanalysis, who was now training as an analyst herself and in analysis with her own father. Freud's three sons had survived the war, and the two elder girls, Mathilde and Sophie, were by now married. Disaster struck, though, in 1920, when Sophie, Freud's ‘Sunday Child’, died suddenly leaving a husband and two small boys. Three years later one of Sophie's children died of tuberculosis in the family's care in Vienna, aged four. Freud took the loss very hard—perhaps, as he reflected in a letter to his writer friend Romain Rolland, because it came soon after the shock of discovering that he was suffering from cancer of the jaw, from which he died some sixteen years later. The cancer, brought about by years of heavy cigar smoking, necessitated thirty-three operations and constant nursing attention from his daughter Anna in an attempt to contain it, and the fitting of an awkward oral prosthesis. Freud was not deterred from smoking cigars, however, and indeed remained convinced of their therapeutic qualities: ‘I believe I owe to the cigar a great intensification of my capacity to work and a facilitation of my self control’ (Ward, 14). The great majority of photographs of Freud show him holding a cigar. Always the perfect bourgeois, impeccably groomed throughout his life, his once well-filled features lost their softness in later years, probably as much from the illness as ageing. This has no doubt contributed to the popular image of Freud as a stern and distant figure. Less formal photographs and home movies taken on family occasions and holidays, however, convey a more relaxed and accessible family man, although his smile was rarely captured on camera.
During the 1920s Freud expanded his metapsychological theories. Two key strands can be identified in his thinking from this period onwards: a systematic study of the ego and a preoccupation with cultural and social issues in response to the crisis of humanity during the recent war. At its more speculative, psychoanalytic theory now resembled the philosophical enquiry Freud had eschewed early in his career in favour of scientific methods.
In Jenseits des Lustprinzips (‘Beyond the pleasure principle’, 1920), Freud revised his theory of the instincts by positing a death instinct. Psychic conflict could now be construed in terms of the opposing forces of love and death, as could human behaviour and interaction at large. Broadly speaking the emphasis in his thinking had shifted from the unconscious itself to the phenomenon of resistance, which he understood to exert constant pressure to keep unacceptable desires from surfacing. Freud's interest turned to the ego, the agent of this defensive activity, and to the classification of the defences at the ego's disposal. It no longer made sense to think purely in terms of conscious and unconscious, because in any case the mechanisms of defence employed by the ego were themselves unconscious. This new phase of work on the ego was initiated in Massenpsychologie und Ich-analyse (‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’, 1921). Freud then set out an extensively revised tripartite model of the structure and functions of the mind, in Das Ich und das Es (‘The ego and the id’, 1923). The third agency, which he termed the super-ego, was conceived to take into account the crucial internalization of parental authority and prohibition which came about with the dissolution of the Oedipus complex.
Once again new avenues had opened up to Freud as the result of an innovation, for example the possibility of classifying mental illness in terms of its origins in a conflict between parts of the personality. In a brief paper entitled ‘Neurosis and psychosis’ (1923), Freud offered new clarity with the following formulation: ‘Transference neuroses correspond to a conflict between the ego and the id; narcissistic neuroses, to a conflict between the ego and the superego; and psychoses, to a conflict between the ego and the external world’ (Standard Edition, 19.152). Other rewards reaped by Freud from the new structural theory were the linking of particular defences to specific mental illnesses and new insights into the nature of anxiety (Hemmung, Symptom und Angst (‘Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety’), 1926).
Freud continued working in great pain after an initial operation for the cancer in 1923. The international psychoanalytic movement had re-established itself, with important centres elsewhere, for example in Berlin, which was presided over by Freud's disciple, Abraham. Ernest Jones had founded the London Psycho-Analytical Society in 1913, which became the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1919. The London Institute of Psycho-Analysis was formally founded by Jones in late 1924. An international structure for training was now in place, with a training analysis as its cornerstone, conducted by Freud and a growing number of senior analysts. Among the patients to consult Freud in the mid-1920s was Princess Marie Bonaparte, wife of Prince George of Greece, a woman endowed with a lively intelligence, tremendous energy, and great material wealth. She soon began training as an analyst and went on to become a leading figure in the international movement, a patron of psychoanalysis, and a close friend of the Freud family, who secured their safe passage from Vienna in 1938.
Another woman important to Freud was his youngest child, Anna, who was by now making her name as an analyst and who increasingly acted internationally as her father's ambassador as his illness rendered him more immobile. She represented her father at the 1929 International Congress in Oxford, in difficult circumstances following a dispute with the New York analysts about whether non-medical individuals should be allowed to become analysts. Freud was exasperated, and his deep-seated antagonism to all things American was fuelled. Freud stood firm: he had already tackled this problem in 1926 in response to allegations of quackery made to a lay colleague, arguing that psychoanalysis was more than a mere offshoot of medicine and that its practice should therefore not be restricted in this way (Die Frage der Laienanalyse; ‘The question of lay analysis’, 1926; in Freud, Standard Edition, vol. 20).
From the publication of Die Zukunft einer Illusion (‘The future of an illusion’, 1927), which dissected religious belief, Freud's other great bête noire, the majority of Freud's writing dealt with cultural and wider social issues. In 1930 came Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (‘Civilisation and its discontents’), in which he subjected civilization itself to scrutiny, asking, in the light of his experience with neurotics in clinical practice, whether instincts were unduly repressed by society. For Freud these works represented a return to his intellectual beginnings: ‘My interest, after making a lifelong détour through the natural sciences, medicine and psychotherapy, returned to cultural problems which had fascinated me long before when I was a youth scarcely old enough for thinking’ (Standard Edition, 20.72).
In the coming years Freud's consistent refusal to adopt an irrationally optimistic outlook on humanity was justified by the rise to power of Hitler in 1933. Freud's works were among thousands of books ritually burnt in Berlin that year. Freud's terse entry for 12 March 1938 in his Brief Chronicle, a diary of events he kept for the final decade of his life, reads: ‘Finis Austriae’ (Gay, 229). Despite Chancellor von Schuschnigg's attempt to stave off Hitler through much of the 1930s Austria had been absorbed into the German Reich which in any case was congenial to popular Austrian opinion. Freud, in his eighties and too unwell even to make trips to a summer house in the Vienna suburbs, was now trapped and in fact remained adamant about not leaving. It was only when Anna Freud was briefly arrested by the Gestapo and interrogated that he agreed that the time had come for the family to flee. In a flurry of crisis diplomacy Freud's well-connected friends, Princess Marie Bonaparte, Ernest Jones, and William Bullitt, the American ambassador to Paris, began diplomatic negotiations on his behalf. Three months later bureaucratic obstacles were finally overcome and Freud was able to leave Vienna in the company of Martha, Anna, the housekeeper, a young physician, and his pet chow. Thanks to the princess an extortionate tax raised by the Nazis on Jews' possessions leaving the country could be paid, and all the apartment's contents followed on, including Freud's library and collection of antiquities, which now numbered more than two thousand objects.
Freud in England
Freud arrived in London by train on 6 June 1938. His reputation had preceded him to the extent that the train had to be re-routed to another platform at Victoria, so as to avoid the enthusiastic attentions of the press. Freud was greatly heartened by the cordial welcome he received, although he wrote to friends of his sense of alienation resulting from the move and his concern over the worsening state of affairs in Europe. He was particularly anxious about four of his elderly sisters who remained in Vienna, for whom visas were being sought without success. Freud did not live long enough to know that they all perished in the camps.
Although Freud was separated from his sisters the move to London occasioned family reunions. He was now living in the same neighbourhood as his youngest son, Ernst, already well-established in London as an architect, having left Berlin in the early thirties. Sam Freud, his Manchester nephew, was among the first visitors. Before moving to 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead (later the Freud Museum), the family lived temporarily nearby at 39 Elsworthy Road, backing on to the north side of Primrose Hill. In addition to being deluged with letters from friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers simply wishing to express their support, Freud received a stream of visitors at both addresses, regulated by his wife and daughter, Anna, with his declining health in mind. Although England had brought him respite from external persecution, the cancer was unrelenting and no longer operable by early 1939. Freud was gradually forced to withdraw from his work routine, although he continued to see a small number of patients, and to write.
Many visitors were listed by Freud in a small notebook, others in his Brief Chronicle. They reflect all aspects of his personal and professional life and interests as well as his preoccupations of that time, and testify to the wide variety of individuals prominent in their own fields whose work had felt the impact of psychoanalysis. In addition to visits from psychoanalysts who had been colleagues and loyal friends in Vienna, numerous members of the British Psycho-Analytical Society came, among them Melanie Klein, whose views on child analysis were at odds with the work of Anna Freud. (Melanie Klein had arrived in Britain in 1927 and had received enthusiastic support from James and Alix Strachey in particular.) A visit which gave particular pleasure was that of the president and two officials of the Royal Society, which had honoured him with membership by correspondence in 1936. Breaking with tradition the charter book was brought to Freud for signing, a privilege previously reserved for the king.
Several visitors outside the immediate psychoanalytic circles were writers, for example Stefan Zweig, who brought along Salvador Dalí, who sketched his hero, and H. G. Wells, one of the few British writers Freud had met personally in Vienna. Wells had proposed having immediate British citizenship conferred on Freud by act of parliament. Freud was interested in the idea and wrote to Wells in July 1939, with only three months to live:
You cannot have known that since I first came over to England as a boy of eighteen years, it became an intense wish phantasy of mine to settle in this country and become an Englishman. Two of my half brothers had done so fifteen years before. But an infantile fantasy needs a bit of examination before it can be admitted to reality. (Letters of Sigmund Freud, 459)
Given their shared interest in cultural matters it is likely that they would also have discussed Freud's Der Mann Moses und die monotheistische Religion (‘Moses and monotheism’, 1939), Freud's phylogenetic attempt to link the phenomenon of antisemitism to ancient inconsistencies around the identity of Moses, which was begun in 1934 soon after the rise of Hitler, and completed in London in 1938. The forthcoming publication brought Freud a number of visitors, including several from Jews urging him not to publish a work they felt would undermine the faith in their hour of need, but Freud was undeterred and pressed on with publication.
There were meetings at Maresfield Gardens with several publishers, including Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Leonard Woolf commented in his autobiography that it was
not an easy interview. He was extraordinarily courteous in a formal, old-fashioned way—for instance, almost ceremoniously he presented Virginia with a flower. There was something about him as of a half-extinct volcano, something sombre, repressed, reserved. He gave me the feeling … of great gentleness, but behind that, great strength. (Gay, 640)
A final paper was in hand during Freud's time in London: ‘Abriss der Psychoanalyse’ (‘An outline of psychoanalysis’, c.1940), an ambitious overview of his work, which he did not complete. Clinical work also continued in London for four hours a day, until Freud finally closed his practice seven weeks before the end of his life and some fifty-seven years since setting up in private practice.
Freud held Max Schur, his personal physician of many years, to a promise he had managed to extract years previously, that he should not let him go on living when there was no longer any point. Schur duly administered a lethal injection of morphine on 23 September 1939 in Freud's study at 20 Maresfield Gardens. Freud was cremated three days later with a fittingly simple memorial service at which Ernest Jones and Stefan Zweig gave addresses, at Golders Green crematorium, Middlesex. His remains are there, inside one of a favourite pair of Greek urns from his collection.
The Freudian legacy
In an obituary poem for Freud, W. H. Auden wrote: ‘Freud is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion’ (Auden, 153). It is easy to identify Freud's language and ideas in everyday talk: human feelings and behaviour might be deemed repressed, narcissistic, or denied, whether or not an individual has read any Freud or even has any regard for his theories. Furthermore there is chronic confusion, usually unacknowledged, over what really comes from Freud. Given that people seldom react with bland indifference to his name, presumably because they feel in some way implicated by the findings of psychoanalysis, it is hardly surprising that Freud is more often than not misrepresented and misunderstood. It cannot be said that the British have responded to Freud with the same enthusiasm, regard, and affection which Freud maintained for Britain throughout his life. Psychoanalysis has never captured the imagination of the British to the extent that it did the North Americans in the post-war years, or the South Americans much later: the highest percentage of a population receiving psychoanalysis is in Argentina. British psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy remain largely based in London, and north London at that, although the British Psycho-Analytical Society has consistently retained its position as an innovative and influential body within the international psychoanalytic community. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis continues to be published in London.
Freud's impact also continues to be felt in the academic and cultural spheres, with a proliferation of postgraduate non-clinical courses in psychoanalytic studies and the widespread but often superficial application of aspects of psychoanalytic theory to academic fields such as literary and film criticism, gender studies, and politics. The death knell is regularly sounded for psychoanalysis. A frequent criticism of Freud is that he was a man of his time and psychoanalysis is therefore no longer relevant. His views on women are often cited in this connection. Indeed there are aspects of his thinking which few psychoanalysts would espouse nowadays, for example some of his ideas on female sexuality. Theoretical innovations have taken the place of those which have not stood the test of time. There has also been a deepened understanding of aspects of human experience which Freud did not fully explore—for example the complexity of the very early mother–infant relationship and its fundamental part in personality development. Yet while psychoanalysis has continued to evolve, the basic principles elaborated by Freud, such as the concept of mind going beyond mere conscious experience, the highly dynamic nature of mental processes, and the possibility of finding psychological meaning underlying apparently meaningless symptoms or states of mind, have held good, and indeed have underpinned subsequent developments.
The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey, A. Freud, and others, 24 vols. (1953–74) · Letters of Sigmund Freud, ed. E. L. Freud (1975) · E. Jones, Sigmund Freud: life and work, 3 vols. (1953–7) · R. Wollheim, Freud (1991) · P. Gay, Freud: a life for our time (1988) [incl. bibliographical essay] · H. J. Ellenberger, The discovery of the unconscious: history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry (1970) · P. Gay, A Freud reader (1989) · The diary of Sigmund Freud, 1929–39: a record of the final decade, ed. and trans. M. Molnar (1992) [known as the Brief chronicle] · I. Ward, Freud in England (1992) · The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887–1904, ed. J. Masson (1985) · The letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein, 1871–1881, ed. W. Boehlich (1990) · H. Lange, Freud family tree, Freud Museum, 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, London [unpublished document, unpaginated] · W. H. Auden, ‘Sigmund Freud’, Horizon (1940), 151–4 · S. Freud, Die Traumdeutung (Vienna, 1900)
Freud Museum, London, family and personal corresp. and papers · L. Cong. · Sigmund Freud Gesellschaft, Vienna | JRL, corresp., mostly with his nephew, Sam Freud
BFI NFTVA, documentary footage · Freud Museum, London, home footage
BL NSA, recorded talk; performance recording
photographs, 1860–1939, Freud Museum, London · M. Pollock, drypoint etching, 1914, Freud Museum, London · M. Halberstadt, photograph, 1921, Mary Evans Picture Library [see illus.] · F. Schmutzer, chalk and mixed media, 1926, Freud Museum, London · L. Willinger, photograph, 1930–39, Wellcome L. · S. Dalí, pen-and-ink drawing on blotting paper, 1938, Freud Museum, London · O. Nemon, bronze statue, c.1970, corner of Fitzjohn's Avenue and Belsize Lane, London; maquette at Freud Museum, London
Wealth at death
£22,850 3s. 2d.: probate, 1 Dec 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
© Oxford University Press 2004–6
All rights reserved: see legal notice
Susan Austin, ‘Freud, Sigmund (1856–1939)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/55514, accessed 6 May 2006]
Sigmund Freud: doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/55514
[Previous version of this biography available here: September 2004]