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J Lacan
J Lacan

Well Known Figures in Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis Ireland


Well Known Figures in Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Some years ago, reviewing a new English translation of Sigmund Freud's major opus, The Interpretation of Dreams, John Banville wrote in The Irish Times that, whether we know it or not, now we are all Freudians. It's a measure of the enormity of the impact of Freud's discoveries and writings that his psychodynamic view of mind has been taken up at so many levels of our culture that it is the bedrock of our understanding of ourselves - our lives, our loves, our creative productions and our symptoms - in short our relations with ourselves, the world, and others. And this in spite of the fact that there are many who do not know what psychoanalysis is, nor would claim any understanding of Freud's theories, nor indeed familiarity with the man himself. We hope that our work will go some way towards contributing to a greater understanding of his life's work, and perhaps set the reader off on his or her own discovery of the man who was the founder of psychoanalysis and arguably the most influential theorist of mind of the 20th century. One could well imagine that Freud would have said of our project that we only aim to show the reader what he already knows, even if all the while he appears to know nothing about it. This, in a nutshell, is the Freudian discovery; the kernel of our being, the driving force, is what is unconscious; we don't have to know something consciously for it to have all its effect in our lives.

So who is the 'Freud' of the 'Freudian'?
Writing to someone who proposed writing the story of his life, Freud declared 'Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it'. We have taken courage from his view (indeed as psychoanalysts we have staked our position in our work to it), and so the brevity of the following biographical note could be read as endorsement of Freud's view, rather than a lack of care. There is a truly vast quantity of material written on Freud and he has been examined from any and all angles, from all viewpoints and 'persuasions'. The Freud one will find in each resultant work is not always the same one. Our opinion would be that if you want to know Freud then one ought to read his work. And there's no shortage of it. Over a long life he wrote constantly and, in our opinion, courageously, in an attempt to yield up a general psychology of man which would be applicable to all of us, himself included. Because he takes this position, he is very present in his writings, sometimes openly, sometimes covertly. What is overriding throughout is that he is not driven by an attempt to write a treatise on 'mental illness' but aims rather to demedicalise the view of psychopathology. In other words, even though he does at times write on particular psychopathologies, his aim is still always to describe both the psychopathology of everyday life and the discontent which is inherent to civilisation, that is, the dis-ease which is the essence of our social being. So he hoped to provide a new general psychology, which both 'normalised' the psychopathologies and 'psychopathologised' what passes for normality.
Sigismund Schlomo Freud was born on 6th May 1856 into a Jewish family in the city of Freiburg in what is known today as the Czech Republic. His father, Jakob Freud, was a moderately successsful wool merchant and Freud's mother, Amalia Nathansohn, was in fact his third wife and twenty years his junior. He already had children by his first wife and with Amalia had seven more. Sigmund seems to have had a very happy early life, in the bossom of this large and loving family, the apple of his youthful mother's eye. When he was four years old the family moved to Vienna to enjoy the benefits of that city's revocation of laws discriminating against Jews. Freud remained there throughout the best part of his life, only leaving with great reluctance in 1938 when the spectre of Naziism had rendered the city dangerous to Jews. He and his family only managed to escape through the help of influential friends. The family then settled in London where Freud lived out the last days of his long and fruitful life in a house on Marsfield Gardens, now the Freud Museum, just off the Finchley Road.

As a young man Freud studied medicine at the University of Vienna which allowed him to exercise what was a truly voracious interest in virtually all of the branches of science, although he would become particularly attracted to researches in neurology, a science really only in its infancy at the time. (For example, the work of isolating and staining the basis unit, the neuron, was still not fully achieved. Freud worked on this in the famous laboratory of Ernst Brucke, 'cutting edge' for its time). His 1893 work Project for a Scientific Psychology shows ample evidence of this lingering interest. His broad and compelling interests in the sciences meant that the work of getting a medicaldegree was largely seen by him as a bit of a nuissance, because of the distraction it caused him. Eventually graduating in 1881,  he became interested, together with his tutor, Josef Breuer, in the treatment of hysteria by the 'cathartic method'. Breuer had found that he
could achieve some measure of success by getting patients to talk out their past under hypnosis. Freud formulated and developed the idea that many neuroses (phobias, hys terical paralyses and pains, some forms of paranoia, etc.) had their origins in deeply traumatic experiences which had occurred in the past life of the patient but which were now forgotten, hidden from consciousness; the treatment was to enable the patient to recall the experience to consciousness, to confront it in a deep way both intellectually and emotionally, and in thus discharging it, to remove the underlying psychological causes of the neurotic symptoms. The pair produced a book on their findings in 1895, called the Studies in Hysteria. Whereas Breuer chose not to further develop the work he had in fact innovated, Freud took it on wholeheartedly and from this point on the psychical root of symptoms and sufferings became his life's work. He had already further consolidated this interest while studying in Paris under the great French psychiatrist Charcot, who presided over the hysterics of the Salpetriere.
In 1886, shortly after his return to Vienna from this study period in Paris, Freud married Martha Bernays, his fiancee of four years, and set about the ordinary stuff of life; setting up a home, producing and caring for children - he had six - and working away to earn enough to support them all. He worked firstly at the hospital and began to go about setting up his private practice in a room adjoining their living quarters at Bergasse 19. The famous analytic couch which is largely seen as synonymous with psychoanalysis was part of the furniture from the start, a present to him from a grateful patient Madame Benvenisti in 1890. Over the course of treating patients he began to modify the 'cathartic method', dropping the use of hypnosis altogether (according to himself, he was no good at it anyway) and developed instead the method of 'free association'. Psychoanalysis was beginning to emerge as a new method of treatment, and over the years, as his work became known, Freud would gain a reputation, firstly in Vienna and eventually further afield, as the man to consult for psychological matters.
The death of his father was to have a deep effect on Freud. The ensuing period of mourning the loss of his father set him off on a deeply personal interrogation of his own self which, alongside his inexhaustible curiousity about the hitherto unplumbable reaches in the mental life of Man, culminated in 1899 in his greatest work, The Interpretation of Dreams. This was to be his opus major, and he returned to it at every stage in the development of his theories over his lifetime, adding whole sections to it and inserting copious quantities of wonderful material into the footnotes. After an initial few years when the publication was hardly selling at all, there followed an upsurge in interest, since when the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into all the major languages, with varying degrees of care. The English reader of Freud is perhaps the most blessed in this regard since the entirety of his work has been translated and appears as the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. James Strachey alongside Anna Freud produced this remarkable collection for the Hogarth Press in the early 50's, an invaluable research tool for the Freud scholar, since it is replete with notes about Freud's ammendments to the text, and also notes on the contexts for each work included. It is a mark of the calibre of Freud's writing that, although he was never publicly recogised by the wider community for his researches in July 1930 he would be awarded the Goethe prize for litterature for his work.
As Freud's writings came to be known about in Vienna, a group of adherents formed. These began to meet regularly with him to discuss psychoanalysis. Known as the Wednesday Society, it would form the basis for what would later emerge as the Viennna Psychoanalytic Society, (the very first of the many psychoanalytic associations which would emerge later), which began to grow in numbers and began to hold an annual congress. Psychoanalytic theory began to capture the attention of the international community and in 1908 the first International Psychoanalytical Congress was held at Salzburg. Interest began to spread from Europe to The United States of America. In consequence, Freud was invited to the U.S.in 1909 to give a series of Lectures and to meet with interested and influential Americans. He travelled there with a group which included Carl Jung who Freud was greatly taken by, seeing him as the future of psychoanalysis. Their relationship was not to last though and what was for a time a fruitful collaboration would end with the publication of Jung's Symbols of Transformation. The break would be insurmountable. Jung would go on to develop his own distinctive theory, known as Analytic Psychology.
Freud continued to work in Vienna for virtually all of his working life, seeing patients at his practice rooms daily and writing prolifically. When the Nazis took hold of Austria, Freud's books where burned and it became clear that the 'Jewish' treatment would not be long tolerated.  International congresses had already ceased. Yet it was only reluctantly that Freid left in 1938. A year later, the cancer of the palate which he had been living with since 1923, and which had greatly interfered with his ability to speak and to eat, necessitating many operations and the wearing of a prosthesis, got the better of him. He died in London three weeks after the outbreak of the second World War in 1939. His death at three in the morning of September 23rd 1939 was eased by his physician and friend Max Schur who, at Freud's request, upped the dose of morphine, so that he lapsed into a sleep from which he didn't waken. He wrote virtually to the last , Moses and Monotheism being just completed before his demise.

Selected Works:
The Interpretation of Dreams; The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; Civilisation and its Discontents. All of which are to be found in: The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey (in collaboration with Anna Freud and with the help of Alix Strachey), 24 volumes, London: Hogarth Press, (1953-1964). Alternatively, the works can be bought individually in penguin paperback.
Further Reading:
Peter Gay's 'Freud: a Life for our Time'. Macmillan (1998). This is a very readable biography to start one off, of as much interest to the amateur as to the scholar. One drawback is the lack of alphabetically ordered bibliography. However, the 45 page long 'Bibliographical Essay' is a definite plus and will be an invaluable tool in planning your own further researches into the life of Freud and his works. Ernest Jones's 'Sigmund Freud: The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud' (3 Volumes), Basic Books, (1953-57). This is by far the most detailed biography. It presents all the usual advantages and some of the disadvantages of a biography written by one in a close circle around a great man.
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