The Freud Museum


Illness and Death

"I am only waiting for 'Moses', which is due to appear in March, and then I need not be interested in any book of mine again until my next reincarnation.... There is no longer any doubt that we are dealing with a new outbreak of my dear old carcinoma with which I have shared my existence for the past 16 years. Who would turn out to be the stronger could not, of course, have been predicted." Letter to Arnold Zweig, March 1939

"I believe I owe to the cigar a great intensification of my capacity to work and a facilitation of my self control. My model in this was my father, who was a heavy smoker and remained one for his entire life."

The last 16 years of Freud's life were spent in continual pain, irritation and physical discomfort. He had cancer of the mouth diagnosed in 1923 and was operated on in the same year. Over thirty more operations were to follow, to remove the cancer itself and other pre-cancerous growths, as well as radiation treatment and the fitting of an artificial palate and jaw. The prosthesis was a source of misery for Freud. It not only affected his speech and was impossible to fit comfortably, it also prevented scar tissue and ulcers from healing. The operations also caused deafness in his right ear through an infection of the Eustacian tubes, while adrenaline used to facilitate the anaesthetics began to affect his heart.

Throughout this time Freud continued to smoke. He knew it was killing him but he carried on regardless, despite the exhortations and advice of family, doctors, and friends.

If we were to look at Freud's addiction from a Freudian point of view we would notice that something almost uncanny was playing itself out which seemed beyond the reach of any interpretation, or indeed any influence from another human being. The repetition of this stimulation of the oral cavity - connected to 'pleasure', but somehow also beyond it - was more important than 'life itself'. It was as if Freud enacted within himself the inevitable conflict between pleasure and mastery which he later explored in his hypothesis of the death drive; clinging to a self-destructive behaviour as if his life depended on it.

In this respect Freud's illness and death - his body even - should not be thought of as something outside the realm of psychological enquiry. Such a limitation would certainly not do justice to the spirit of Freud's endeavour. The self analysis which forged his psychoanalytic revolution was more than self contemplation. It was more like self-dissection; and one of his dreams threw out the image of the man dissecting his own body as a graphic testament to this.

"Old Brücke must have set me some task; STRANGELY ENOUGH, it related to a dissection of the lower part of my own body, my pelvis and legs, which I saw before me as though in the dissecting-room, but without noticing their absence in myself and also without a trace of any gruesome feeling."

The body was in question right from the start as one of the functions in the process of analytic discovery. The therapist is aware of the patient's bodily presentation of his distress and of his own bodily feelings which he uses as data in the analysis. In psychoanalytic ideas of early life, body and mind are as one. And how could it be otherwise, when Freud on one level saw his discoveries as an integrative solution to the mind/ body dichotomy that had befuddled Western thought for thousands of years?

In June 1939 Freud wrote to Marie Bonaparte to inform her of the latest treatment he was undergoing:

"..the radium has once again begun to eat away at something...and my world is what it was previously, a small island of pain floating on an ocean of indifference."

It has often been stated that Freud displayed enormous stoicism in the face of his painful condition. Yet we need not imagine that his resignation and forbearance was the result of a passive acceptance of Fate. It was the result of an active relationship to his own condition. Freud did not just 'have' cancer, he formed a relationship with it which echoed the structure of numerous others in his life - from childhood playmates to later friends and colleagues.

'The dear old carcinoma' he called it. Friendship and rivalry, fear and admiration, were playing out an elaborate ritual of dependence, fusion, and separation. In one sense Freud internalized an external rival. In another sense we might argue that he found something 'alien' within his body, but instead of trying to disown it and expel it from his mind, he acknowledged it as a part of himself. He took an analytic attitude to the illness.

He also used the cancer as a stimulus to thought. In one example, from Civilization and its Discontents, Freud looks at the relationship between the body, technology, and the 'fairy tale wishes of childhood'. He begins by recognizing technology as one of the achievements of civilization. With each tool man perfects his own organs, or removes the limits of their functioning. Each tool is the 'materialization' of some human function, or a substitute for something lost. But for Freud, man will never really be at one with his culture. Technology, consumption, and the symbolic productions of culture will never fill the void of our 'feeble animal organism'.

And the metaphor Freud uses to describe this relation of man to his technology is the metaphor of the prosthesis:

"These things that, by his science and technology, man has brought about on this earth, on which he first appeared as a feeble animal organism and on which each individual of his species must once more make its entry as a helpless suckling - these things do not only sound like a fairy tale, they are an actual fulfilment of every - or of almost every - fairy tale wish... Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times..."

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