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Brief Lives: Sigmund Freud

Brief Lives: Sigmund Freud

by David Carter

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Born to Jewish parents in mid-19th-century Austria, Sigmund Freud is a controversial figure needing no introduction, yet his reputation owes as much to myth as to the facts of his life and his work. Here, David Carter uncovers the man buried beneath the mythology, tracing the life of this inimitable figure from his origins as the gifted first born of eight


Born to Jewish parents in mid-19th-century Austria, Sigmund Freud is a controversial figure needing no introduction, yet his reputation owes as much to myth as to the facts of his life and his work. Here, David Carter uncovers the man buried beneath the mythology, tracing the life of this inimitable figure from his origins as the gifted first born of eight children, through his stellar academic career and his relationships and rifts with famous figures such as Josef Breuer. Also explored is why, despite his groundbreaking work on psychoanalytic theories—including the functioning of the subconscious, the repression of trauma, and the psychological import of dreams—Freud has frequently been the subject of derision and ridicule.

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Hesperus Press
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Brief Lives Series
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4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.50(d)

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Brief Lives Sigmund Freud

By David Carter

Hesperus Press Limited

Copyright © 2011 David Carter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84391-922-3


Childhood and Adolescence (1856–73)

Freud's biographer Ernest Jones has stated unequivocally that Freud's father, Jakob, had two wives, but Peter Gay has stated just as unequivocally that he had three. Whatever the truth of the matter, Sigmund was the son of the last of them, born Amalie Nathansohn (the most commonly accepted spellings for both names). Jakob was a wool merchant, though not very well off. His mother came from the north-eastern part of Galicia near the Russian frontier. They were married in 1855, when Jakob was already forty. She was only twenty-one when she had her first child, whose name was registered in the family Bible as Sigismund Schlomo', the latter after his paternal grandfather. By the time he entered the University of Vienna in 1873, Freud had developed a firm preference for the form 'Sigmund'. When Jakob married Amalie in 1855, he had two sons from his first marriage: Emanuel, already married with children; and the younger one, Philipp, unmarried. Emanuel's son, John, was a year older than his uncle Sigismund Schlomo, who for the sake of simplicity will be henceforth referred to only as Sigmund. Sigmund and John became firm friends and Freud later admitted that this relationship had conditioned the way he was to conduct many of his friendships in later life.

Amalie was to bear seven more children: Julius, who only survived for eight months; Anna, in December 1858, when Sigmund was in his third year; Rosa; Marie (known as Mitzi); Adolfine (known as Dolfi); Paula; and Alexander. In later correspondence Freud was to admit that the death of young Julius had undoubtedly affected him deeply. He believed that the advent of the young child, depriving him of his mother's full attention, had awoken death wishes against his young brother, and when the child eventually died he developed a sense of guilt for having had such thoughts that was to stay with him for a long time.

Most influential on his psychological development seems to have been not his relationship with his siblings but that with his nephew John. His feelings for John were alternately affectionate and hostile. Freud commented in later years that this combination of contrasting feelings was to have a determining effect on how he developed all of his later friendships with people of the same age. He felt that an intimate friend and a hated enemy had always been indispensable to his emotional life, and sometimes they had coincided in the same person, albeit not at the same time as in his childhood relationship with John. Freud was later to recall an adventure he shared with John when he was about three years old, and involving John's sister Pauline. In this memory Sigmund and John had been collecting flowers in a meadow in the company of Pauline. They suddenly turned on the girl, attacking her physically, and possibly sexually, taking away her bunch of flowers.

Another person who featured prominently in Freud's early life and later in his self-analysis was his nanny, a devout Roman Catholic, who was apparently old and ugly and often dragged young Sigmund off to church with her. He seems to have loved her though, and may even have learned about sexual matters from her (another one of those plausible but unverified facts). Round about the time when his mother was giving birth to his sister Anna, the nanny suddenly disappeared. Freud later discovered that she had been caught stealing and that his half-brother Philipp had insisted on her being arrested. The upshot was that she was sent to prison for ten months. Freud retained an odd memory of this incident, in which he clearly associated his mother's 'absence' with the disappearance of the nanny The significance of the memory he only unravelled in the course of his self-analysis about forty years later In the memory he saw himself standing in front of a chest, which Philipp was holding half-open The young Sigmund, in tears, was asking him something Finally, his mother, looking slim and not pregnant, came into the room. Freud recalled also that when the nanny had disappeared, he had suspected Philipp of somehow being the cause of this and had asked his half-brother what had happened to her. Philipp had replied 'Sie ist eingekastelt.' This means literally 'She has been put in a chest,' but it was a current idiom meaning 'She has been put in prison.' Freud could thus construe his memory as a child's literal interpretation of Philipp's words. As Philipp and his mother were of a similar age, Freud believed that the memory indicated a childish fear that Philipp might also be responsible for his mother's 'absence'; in other words, that Philipp was the father of the new baby. Remembering the opening of an empty chest and the appearance of a slim mother were thus ways of reassuring himself that this was not the case.

Some writers have accused Freud of being excessively concerned with financial matters. Money did concern him, but no more than his circumstances merited, as will be explained in due course. Undoubtedly the economic hardship of his parents during his childhood made him conscious of the need to acquire a measure of financial security. When Freud was born, his parents were living in one rented room in a small house owned by the local blacksmith. His father had seen better days, but in the previous twenty years there had been a steady decline in the textile trade. With Czech nationalism on the rise there was much antipathy towards the German-speaking Austrians and the Jews. Even in the small town of Freiberg the Jewish merchants were seen to be the cause of the decline in the textile industry. Gradually Jakob Freud came to realise that there was no future for him and his family in the area, and in 1859, when Sigmund was three years old, they moved to Leipzig. But, finding few business opportunities there, they moved one year later to Vienna.

The Freuds' first home in Vienna was in the Pfeffergasse in the mainly Jewish quarter of Leopoldstadt, not far from the famous recreational area known as the Prater. At the age of nine, in 1865, Sigmund passed the entrance examination one year earlier than was usual, enabling him to attend secondary school. The one he attended was known as the 'Leopoldstädter Kommunalreal- und Obergymnasium'. After it expanded into the Sperlgasse in 1870 it was known as the 'Sperlgymnasium'. Here he was an exceptionally good student, coming top of his class for the last six of his eight years there (Freud would later remember this to be the last seven years). In 1865, however, the family was to suffer the disgrace of having one of its members accused of criminal activity. Jakob's brother Joseph was eventually found guilty of and imprisoned for dealing in counterfeit roubles.

Freud had various interesting memories of events in his childhood which are difficult to date precisely One, which he believed happened when he was ten or twelve years old, concerned his father, who often used to take his son with him on walks. During such walks his father would talk about his experiences and past events. On one occasion his father wanted to impress upon him how much the situation of the Jews in Austria had improved since he was young. He told of a Saturday evening in Freiberg when he was taking a walk with a new fur cap on, with which he was obviously very pleased. Suddenly a passing Christian knocked his brand new cap off and told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of Jews getting in his way. Obviously expecting that his father would have made some protest, Sigmund asked him how he responded, to which his father replied that he just stepped into the road and picked up his cap. Freud was clearly ashamed and hurt by his father's demeaning behaviour and never forgot it. As though in compensation for his disappointment, he cultivated an interest in famous heroic individuals such as Hannibal and Alexander the Great.

It should also be noted that from childhood Freud was a voracious reader. He admitted that he had been greatly influenced by his early reading of the Bible, but it is likely to have been the dramatic events and moral tales that impressed him more than the specifically Christian message. By his own admission it seems that he did not read his first modern novel until he was about thirteen, though he knew already many works by classic German authors. In a letter to his future wife Martha Bernays on 14 January 1884, he claimed to have started reading Shakespeare at the age of eight, though how much he read in the original English is unclear. He was, however, developing some facility in several languages: Latin, Greek and Hebrew, English and French, and had taught himself some Italian and Spanish. Ernest Jones claims that Freud had once told him he was especially fond of English and that at one period of his life he had spent ten years reading nothing but English books.

In 1872, when he was sixteen, there occurred Freud's first recorded experience of love. Details of this are to be found in the correspondence between Freud and his bosom friend of those years, Eduard Silberstein. Silberstein had stayed in Freiberg, but they maintained their friendship through frequent letters. While at school together in Freiberg they had learned Spanish and developed their own private mythology and language, speaking and writing in a mixture of German and Spanish. They formed their own secret society which was called the Academia Cartellana, and they addressed each other by the names of two dogs in a philosophical dialogue by Cervantes: Freud was Cipion and Silberstein was Berganza. It was on a return visit to Freiberg to see Silberstein, other old friends and the countryside he loved that Freud was smitten.

During his visit to Freiberg Sigmund stayed with the Fluss family who were old friends of his parents, the fathers being in the same business of textiles. He had known their daughter, Gisela, when they were both small children, but now, with her just a year or so younger than him, he was bowled over by her charms. He did not have the chance to communicate his feelings to her, due partly to his own shyness but also because she went off to school only a few days after his arrival. On his return to Vienna, however, Sigmund poured his heart out in his letters to Silberstein. It remained very much a one-sided love and nothing ever came of it. Yet a close study of the correspondence with Silberstein reveals some interesting aspects of the whole affair, providing insight into his preferences in matters of the heart which the older Freud might have described as Oedipal in origin. While writing ostensibly about Gisela, Freud praised at great length the charms, intelligence and sensitivity of Gisela's mother, Frau Fluss. From the letters it is clear that he was quite aware of what he was doing: transferring respect and affection for the mother to the daughter.

The obsession with Gisela did not last long because Freud soon had to turn his attention to deciding what he was going to study at university In 1773, at the age of seventeen, he graduated from the Sperlgymnasium with the highest distinction possible. The results of the final examinations confirm his linguistic abilities. Noteworthy and of some relevance to the development of his ideas is the fact that in the Greek exam he had to translate twenty-three verses of Sophocles' Oedipus from Greek into German. His father's reward was to promise him a trip to England, which was eventually to be realised when he was nineteen. (Sigmund's half-brother Emanuel, together with his wife and two children, and his brother Philipp had already moved to Manchester.)

Sigmund took some time considering the field of study he would enter at university At first, it seems, under the influence of his friendship with an older boy at the Sperlgymnasium, a certain Heinrich Braun, who would later become a prominent Social Democratic politician in Austria, he considered studying law and involving himself in social issues But something in him was seeking an understanding of the world at a deeper level than politics, and he recalled later that the ideas of Darwin, then becoming widely known, were starting to have a powerful influence on him. One experience seems to have tipped the balance in favour of natural science, though it could have only been the culmination of a long-gestating process. Freud attended a popular lecture by the professor of zootomy and comparative anatomist Carl Brühl, who was apparently a powerful and compelling speaker. Brühl included in his lecture a reading of an essay which was then considered to be by Goethe but has since been identified as the work of the Swiss writer Christoph Tobler, an acquaintance of Goethe. The essay is essentially a prose hymn of praise to Mother Nature, written in very emotive tones. It could hardly have persuaded Freud in any logical sense, but perhaps it gave him the confidence of his conviction that the study of nature was his true calling. For several months in early 1873 he wrote teasing letters to his old friend Emil Fluss, the brother of that very Gisela, indicating that he had come to a momentous decision about his future. Finally he wrote to him on 1 May revealing his decision to become a natural scientist.

What Freud understood by natural science and hoped to gain from the study of nature was clearly not, however, mere dry academic knowledge. The field of natural science he finally opted for was medicine, but in his 'Autobiographical Study' of 1925 he stressed that he had felt no special desire to become a medical practitioner at that time and had been obsessed rather by a powerful desire for knowledge. In his correspondence to friends such as Fluss, even before he made known his firm decision of 1873, he stressed that this powerful desire for knowledge was focused not so much on the natural world as on human nature.


The Student Years: Cocaine and Courtship (1873–85)

Much has been made of the effect of anti-Semitism on Freud's career, and he emphasised it in his Autobiographical Study'. As a student at the University of Vienna it was frequently made clear to him by gentile students he encountered that he was not truly Austrian and that he should recognise his inferiority to them. His response was a firm refusal to accept such a status as second-class citizen. If anything he seems to have drawn some satisfaction from the feeling of being different. Being an outsider only strengthened him in his belief in the need for independence of judgement.

From the start Sigmund was determined not to follow blindly the prescribed courses for medical students but to take the opportunity to broaden his knowledge and interests. He wrote at that time to his friend Silberstein that he planned to spend the first year at university studying many subjects in the field of the humanities, which would probably not be useful to him at all in his future profession. Research has yielded a complete list of the courses he followed, revealing that he nevertheless fulfilled the requirements of his chosen area. In addition he took a course on Darwin's ideas and one by Ernst Brücke, who was to play an influential role in his development later, on the physiology of voice and speech. In the winter semester of 1874 to 1875 he also attended a reading seminar on philosophy with the famous Franz Brentano. In the summer semester of 1875 he added a special course of Brentano's on Aristotle's logic. It is interesting to note too that the philosopher he admired most at this time, according to a letter during that year to Silberstein, was Ludwig Feuerbach. Freud would undoubtedly have been attracted to Feuerbach's critique of theology.

It was in the early summer of 1875 that Freud made his first visit to England, the fulfilment of the promise made to him by his father. He was warmly received by his relatives in Manchester, so much so that he started to wonder, in his correspondence with Silberstein for example, whether it might be a good idea to move to that country. To Silberstein he also confessed his preference for the English mode of scientific thought, citing the empiricism of Huxley, Darwin and others. He was learning to distrust all metaphysics and philosophy in general. Later correspondence with Martha Bernays reveals that the influence England had on Freud was to be long-lasting.


Excerpted from Brief Lives Sigmund Freud by David Carter. Copyright © 2011 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Hesperus Press Limited.
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Meet the Author

David Carter is a writer, translator, and freelance journalist and the author of Georges Simenon, Honoré de Balzac, Literary Theory, and Marquis de Sade.

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