Sigmund Freud and the Daimon of Literature
by Robert Fulford

(Queen's Quarterly, Fall, 2014)

Lionel Trilling, a great literary critic, dreamt of becoming an equally eminent writer of fiction. In middle age, however, he admitted to his journal that he lacked two necessary qualities. He defined them in Yiddish terms -- chutzpah (nerve) and meshugas (craziness), attributes that he envied when he noted their appearance in such famous contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Trilling, mired in a straitlaced corner of academe, needed an explosive charge to crack open his secret self.

Sigmund Freud, whom Trilling studied and wrote about, began with a similar problem but solved it -- or, rather, had it solved by accident. As Freud acknowledged, he acquired a "daimon," a wild force, a creature who (like the daimons inhabiting ancient literature) inspired him to dare, to step boldly outside prescribed thinking, and to admit that he possessed certain impulses that no truly respectable nineteenth-century citizen of Vienna should for a moment entertain. Freud's daimon helped give him the courage of his own originality.

By tradition daimons appear in unexpected forms, and that was certainly true of Freud's. His friend Wilhelm Fliess was a Berlin nose-and-throat specialist who believed he could diagnose emotional disturbances by examining nasal passages. He believed men and women had monthly sexual cycles, 23 days for men, 28 for women. His conversation was so free-floating and unconsidered that he's sometimes called "a wild man."

In Freud biographies he's usually dismissed as a crackpot. But apparently it was his wildness and his eccentricities that Freud valued.

Fliess's chutzpah and meshugas were infectious. After they had been close for years, Freud wrote to him that "You have taught me that a bit of truth lurks behind every popular lunacy."

At one point Freud wrote: "My dear Wilhelm: You will not have any objection to my calling my next son Wilhelm! If he turns out to be a girl, she will be called Anna." At another he wrote, "Many thanks for your beautiful picture! It will get the place of honor on my desk, the place you hold in my friendship."

Fliess was just distant enough, and just unorthodox enough, to inspire confessions. Freud tells him his reaction to his father's recent death ("I now feel quite uprooted") and describes a breakthrough in his theory ("The barriers suddenly lifted, the veils dropped. Everything seemed to fall into place, the cogs meshed").

More often he confesses failure. Even as Freud enters his most productive years, he feels neglected and underrated. "I am isolated," he writes in 1896. He felt his reputation was such that people were avoiding him. "This year for the first time my consulting room is empty, for weeks on end I see no new faces." And then, "Today I learned that a colleague at the university declined to have me as a consultant, with the explanation that I could not be taken seriously." In 1900 The Interpretation of Dreams appears: "The reception of the book and the ensuing silence have again destroyed any budding relationship with my milieu."

As their friendship grew, Fliess's unhinged quality opened Freud's literary side. He saw something larger, something beyond medicine. Freud slowly turned himself into a storyteller as well as a doctor. Their friendship ended, apparently over a misunderstanding, but it left Freud with a larger vision of personal freedom.

More than a few readers of Freud's books have noticed that he was a writer of exceptional talent. Karl Popper and many other eminent commentators derided Freud's theories (they cannot be tested, therefore they are not science), and in recent years that opinion has gathered strength. Now it seems possible that the future will know him principally as a major figure in the history of literature.

J.G. Ballard has written, rightly, that "Freud was a born storyteller ... with a great imaginative writer's ability to explore the human heart through the unfolding drama of a strong confrontational narrative." He invented a master narrative and argued that we should understand that it applies to the whole human race, a magnificent example of literary chutzpah. Those who believed him, and even those who half-believed, learned from him to see their own inner lives as contested territory.

He would not have been altogether disappointed if posterity placed him permanently among respected authors. He often said that writers of fiction had taught him a great deal. He wrote to a fellow Viennese, Arthur Schnitzler, a brilliant playwright: "The impression has been borne in on me that you know through intuition -- really from a delicate self-observation -- everything that I have discovered in other people by laborious work." Occasionally he went so far as to analyze dreams found in a work of fiction, explaining: "Story-tellers are valuable allies, for they usually know many things that our academic wisdom does not even dream of.... they draw from sources we have not yet made accessible."

At certain points a reader senses that Freud is stepping outside the medical tradition and creating his own style through an unspoken alliance with literature.

He thinks in metaphors coloured by his sense of history, and he often draws images from warfare and politics. If a patient's development stalls, Freud compares it to an army held up for weeks by enemy resistance on a road that could be crossed swiftly in peacetime. He says the unconscious operates as a spy who infiltrates the "land." To do so, it must acquire a false passport, disguising its true identity. Dreams operate as "invading conquerors." Freud describes how the birth of a sibling leaves the elder child "dethroned."

How to define the id? Freud finds the ideal method, personalizing this force as he did so many others. He tells us the id can be rebuked, can be put in its place, but it will have its revenge. It's "the non-commissioned officer who accepts a reprimand from his superior in silence but vents his anger upon the first innocent private he happens to meet." This hard-to-forget parade-ground image brings the concept to life in all its rage and wayward retribution. His metaphors deepen and enrich the idea that every personality wars with itself. Has anyone else, acting in the name of science, made more inventive use of metaphor?

Freud's case histories are constructed according to a template familiar to readers of short fiction -- especially Sherlock Holmes stories. Playfully, Freud likes to delay gratification, holding back the solution until the moment when its revelation will have the greatest impact.

One characteristic Freud shares with many fiction writers and poets is his ability to come down firmly and even vehemently (sometimes even unreasonably) on more than one side of the same question. He differs from almost all scientists in this sense; scientists can change their minds, but when they do they usually explain themselves, often in great detail, keeping in mind their reputations for consistency. Freud, on the other hand, was never afraid of self-contradiction and rarely seemed even to notice it. There's little in his body of work that he doesn't contradict somewhere else.

On one specific issue, the art and practice of biography, his attitude resembled the famous dictum of a famous admirer of Freud, W. H. Auden. Over many years Auden said that he hoped no one would ever write his biography; he urged all of his friends to burn any letters of his that they had kept. (So far as we know, none did.) Auden said that a writer's life is in his work; everything else that could be told was extraneous. Yet he frequently reviewed biographies of other writers and apparently found them not only instructive but enjoyable. In 1969 he reviewed J. R. Ackerley's autobiography, My Father and Myself, with such engagement and brio that I recall key passages to this day.

When I asked Auden about this apparent conflict he replied that others could take it or leave it, but that was how he felt on the subject -- a masterful poet's typically whimsical, and understandable, justification.

Freud found biographies so untrustworthy that he viewed the very process with profound scepticism. In his practice he learned that the intimate stories told about individuals, like the stories they tell themselves (and then tell biographers), hide the truth. He distrusted coherent, confident narrative. He argued that biographical truth is not to be had. "To be a biographer you must tie yourself up in lies, concealments, hypocrisies."

Even so, he included biographical data in his case histories and wrote books on Moses, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, all of them highly speculative. In the case of Leonardo, Freud was preposterously reckless: he wrote a psychoanalytic study based on his paintings. Today it is read for what it says about Freud, not for any truths about Leonardo. A quarter-century after his death, Freud appeared as co-author, with Ambassador William C. Bullitt, of a Woodrow Wilson biography, described by almost everyone who read it as a failure. These are relatively easygoing books, containing none of the self-conscious solemnity Freud affected when addressing the reader (and his fellow analysts) on points of psychoanalytic principle; perhaps they are late echoes of his free-ranging conversations with Fliess.

Biographers typically write as if delivering to readers a final and (they hope) irrefutable judgement on the book's subject; but of course no such judgement is available. Adam Phillips, the author of a brilliant new study, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, reminds us that Freud (aside from creating a story in which the author, while treating patients, realizes that he is a patient himself) worked a fundamental change in biography. He accomplished that because his theories were so persuasive that he made the discussion of any personality vastly more complicated than it had been. Freud licensed everyone, biographers and readers, to imagine complexities that would rarely have occurred to anyone before his time.

He taught us to raise painful and sometimes shameful issues that were traditionally ignored or neglected in biographies, above all issues grounded in family and sexuality. A biography of the late John Cheever, for instance, must now deal at length with his lethal alcoholism, his homosexuality, and his fractured family life, issues that would, in pre-Freudian days, be handled euphemistically if at all.

Today, after four or five generations of authors have absorbed Freudian theory, all biography is in a sense Freudian, even if the biographer affects to disdain his theories. This must be one reason biography (including film and TV versions) is more popular today than at any time in the past. It's commonplace for someone to say that we live in the age of biography and autobiography.

Among the many other accidental effects of Freud's writing is the steadily increasing popularity of paranoid belief in conspiracy. Freud taught us, as much as he taught us anything, that nothing on the surface is to be believed -- there is usually a potentially discoverable lie at the heart of all human activity, especially family life. Many among us have transferred this into public life and drawn up largely imaginary tales of conspiracies that explain everything from Pearl Harbor to John Kennedy's death to the 9/11 massacre.

His imagination was so crowded with those battles, enchantments, adventures, amorous thoughts, and other whimsies which he had read of in romances that his fancy changed everything he saw into what he desired to see; and he could not conceive that the dust was only raised by two large flocks of sheep. He was positive that they were two armies ...

Don Quixote, the greatest book-length fantasy in Western literature, was, all his life, Freud's favourite book. As a schoolboy he taught himself Spanish so that he could read it as Cervantes wrote it. He and a friend who shared the book's attraction invented Spanish names for themselves and for a while exchanged letters commenting, Cervantes-style, on their activities.

Open Don Quixote at random and you discover that it's one of those rare masterpieces that discloses its meaning on any page. Of course it is a comedy of self-delusion and a satire on the foolishness that an excessive conscience can engender. In the passage quoted, Don Quixote goes on to say that he and Sancho Panza must choose between the two armies: "What shall we do but assist the weak and the injured side?"

While knowing nothing, he remains confident that as a good knight, whose heart is pure, he will prove his virtue and also emerge triumphant, as in so many novels he's read. In other words, the Don is fiction's victim. At its core Don Quixote is a book about books; its persistent theme is the self-righteousness peddled by hack literature.

Adam Phillips explains that Freud liked to think of himself as the solid, faithful but honest Sancho Panza rather than the addled Don Quixote. But, Phillips goes on, they were inextricable. They act out a story of two men and what they do together, "one of them dominated to the point of madness by a fictional past."

Auden's memorial poem on Freud says that he taught the world to look back with no false regrets.

He wasn't clever at all: he merely told
the unhappy Present to recite the Past.

And in the process told humanity a new story.

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