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Freud and Work

I have spent my whole life standing up for.....scientific truth, even when it was uncomfortable and unpleasant for my fellow men". Letter to Charles Singer, Oct. 31, 1938

Work was fundamental to life in Freud's view, and the concept of 'work' is itself a central one for the practice and theory of psychoanalysis (psychical work, dream-work, working through, and so on). Freud worked from home for as long as he was able to; still seeing patients until a few weeks before his death, and also writing, reading, and thinking.

His writing during the time in England was wide ranging. The most important pieces are Moses and Monotheism, a speculative work about cultural history and the origins of Jewish religion; An Outline of Psychoanalysis, Freud's 'primer for advanced students' as Freud's translator James Strachey called it; and "Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis", a didactic fragment that shows Freud at his most brilliantly dialectical.

The figure of Moses had preoccupied Freud for much of his adult life. Somehow many questions about his own identity and his relationships to others were bound up in the figure. Directly after the Munich congress in 1913, which marked the final separation from Carl Jung, Freud spent three weeks studying Michelangelo's massive statue of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, which forms part of the mausoleum of Pope Julius II. He later wrote a paper about the sculpture. Freud imagines Moses coming upon the children of Israel worshipping the golden calf. But instead of rising to his feet and smashing the tablets of stone in his wrath, the physical impulse is transformed into an intellectual achievement, and he controls himself. The fact that this contradicted the biblical account did not appear to trouble Freud.

Similarly, he wrote to Stefan Zweig that Moses and Monotheism was 'a kind of historical novel'. In some ways that is precisely what it is. It is a treatise on how history is written and etched in the hearts and minds of men; with dangerous wishes hidden in self-protective fictions, condensations of disparate figures over time, displacements of threatening ideas to more comfortable ones, 'secondary revision' and so on. What we call 'history' is written, for Freud, like a dream!

But Freud's hypothesis that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian aristocrat - following a long line of eminent scholarship and popular doubts about the Bible story - and his radical concepts of the 'real event', and the 'return of the repressed', infuriated Jews and Christians alike. Many implored Freud not to publish. The Jewish critics called it anti-Jewish and thought it would deprive them of a source of strength against the current wave of barbarism and persecutions. In a sense they were right. Moses is 'anti-Jewish' to the extent that our identities, as Jews or anything else, are bound up with the maintenance of certain cultural illusions which have become internalized. When somebody comes along and threatens these illusions we feel it as a personal attack. In fact Moses can be thought of as an attempt to free the Jew from illusions which Freud feels have imprisoned him, and which deprive him of the capacity both to understand the hostility towards him and to fight back effectively in the process.

Cultural identity is not a sacred cow for Freud. When he was asked to support a Zionist cause after Arab riots in 1929 he wrote a polite refusal, and added: "It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically burdened land. But I know that such a rational viewpoint would never have gained the enthusiasm of the masses and the financial support of the wealthy....I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of an Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives."

Far from enriching the individual, cultural identity may be felt as an historical burden which limits the imagination and encourages 'baseless fanaticism'. We might suppose that freedom from cultural identity is nearer to Freud's ideal. Yet Freud had created his own culture and his own tradition of psychoanalysis. And he wanted that tradition preserved after his death. Is there a connection between this expansive study in cultural history and those small, unfinished, 'introductory' essays on psychoanalytic theory? In both cases he is concerned with the origin, maintenance, and structural implications of tradition. Freud himself was confronted with the central dilemma; how to adhere to basic principles on the one hand - to preserve the identity of the subject; and yet encourage flexibility and growth on the other - to preserve its dynamic. So he wrote An Outline of Psychoanalysis and "Some Elementary Lessons in Psychoanalysis" in order to restate some of the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory:

  • Consciousness is not co-terminus with the psychical. That is to say, the unconscious is also psychical. It is not some mystical, transcendent or occult phenomenon, but is simply a part of the psychical.
  • Secondly, "the complete truth of the assertion" as Freud says in the Outline of Psychoanalysis, "that the child is psychologically father to the adult".
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, the primacy and inevitability of psychic conflict.
  • Fourthly, the insistence that the equation perception = reality does not hold; our desires and fears distort our perception of the world; and
  • Fifthly, the insistence that the basis of this conflict is 'instinctual life' in its widest sense and its indissoluble link to anxiety.

To stress these basic tenets of psychoanalysis Freud felt obliged to introduce, at the age of 82, some entirely new concepts - especially the idea of the splitting of the ego in development (which became fundamental to the Kleinian school). So at the moment Freud restates his basic principles he is introducing fresh concepts and new avenues of research! This is Freud's answer to the problem of tradition - he demonstrates that creativity in science can only be fruitful on the basis of fundamental principles.

Psychoanalysis is not a philosophy. It does not advance through speculation of the individual ego, with its illusion of free will and its tendency to think whatever pleases it or brings solace in the trials of life. Psychoanalysis is constrained by its connection to experience, to a social practice, and through a submission - being accountable one might say - to basic tenets. When anything is possible, then nothing scientific can really develop. This was Freud's answer, and this was Freud's work at Maresfield Gardens. Important work, he might have thought, for the future of psychoanalysis.




Freud at his desk, Summer 1938



Moses throwing the Tablets of the Law to the Ground Engraving by Kruger (1770) after an original painting by Rembrandt (1659)


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