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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Freud in Rome (II) : The Psychoanalyst Engages the Eternal City

                            Part II of "Freud in Rome."  [Part I was published March 13]

After years of doubts, fears, anguish, and excuses--money and Rome's unhealthful climate among them--Sigmund Freud finally made it to Rome in the late summer of 1901, accompanied by his brother, Alexander.  He was 45 years old.  Adapting Freud's story of Hannibal--told in a March 13, 2015 post on this blog--the analyst's biographers, as historian Adam Phillips notes, perhaps too readily bought into the image of Freud's entry into Rome as a military-style "conquest," a triumphant "conquering" not only of his own neuroses, but of the Eternal City itself. 

It was not that.  Surprisingly, there isn't much information on this, the first of a number of Freud Rome sojourns.  What we do have suggests something less than "conquest." Writing from Rome to an
At work in his Vienna study
old friend (about to be a non-friend) Wilhelm Fliess, Freud characterized his experience as "over-whelming"--hardly the way to express a conquest.  Indeed, it was "slightly disappointing," Freud wrote, "as all such fulfillments are when one has waited for them too long," athough still "a high-spot in my life...."

Inevitably, he did the things most first-time tourists do.  He tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain, stuck a hand in the Bocca della Veritá, stood in awe before the Pantheon, and marveled at Michelangelo's Moses
But having brought himself with him, as cultural critic Alain de Botton would put it, he could not help but interject and interpret his own, more complex, feelings.  Dividing the city into "three Romes," he found only two of them pleasurable.  One was the "Italian" Rome, undefined, but the late-19th- century city presumably, which he found "hopeful and likable."  The other site of pleasure was the ancient city--he mentions the Temple of Minerva, "humble and mutilated."  What he could not abide was medieval Rome, a reminder of "my own misery" (as a Jew, that is, victimized by Christians).  "I found almost intolerable," Freud wrote, "the lie of the salvation of mankind which rears its head so proudly to heaven."  One can imagine that he loathed St. Peter's--if, indeed, he ever saw it.

A conquest, no.  A Jew in the heart of Catholicism and Christianity, yes.  Picking and choosing his pleasures, Freud survived.

Although Freud had not conquered Rome--and who does?--he had triumphed over powerful anxieties and inhibitions that had heretofore kept him out of the city (explored at length in that earlier post). The 1901 visit would be the first of many.  If not a catalyst for personal change, it was surely a sign of an emerging "new" Freud, more self-confident, more independent, more willing to share ideas in group settings.  Not long after returning from Rome he secured a university promotion to professor, disengaged from an increasingly unproductive and irritating relationship with Fliess, and founded a discussion group for psychoanalytic ideas.  He had emerged from what one scholar has labeled a "mid-life crisis," entering into "full maturity."

The more "mature" Freud would experience Rome in new, if not necessarily more mature ways.  His next trip, in 1907, is by far the best documented, richly described--and, of course, as one would expect from Freud, analyzed--in a series of letters to family, friends, and colleagues, including Carl Jung.

To be sure, Freud remained to some extent a tourist, visiting the Baths of Diocletian, the Vatican Museum--again, no mention of St. Peter's--the Villa Borghese and its museum (admiring the "loveliest of all Titians," Sacred and Profane Love, and Canova's Pauline), Christian and Jewish catacombs, and doing some shopping, which he had always found a burden.
Titian, Sacred and Profane Love, 1514
Canova's "Pauline"
For Freud, unfortunately restored
He bought marble bowls.  In a long letter to "the family," he reveals a craving for authenticity: the bowl marble is "genuine and not painted"; the Borghese Gallery's collection of sculpture is "restored, which makes it difficult to form an opinion"; the gardens contain "artificial ruins and reproductions of temples."  To Jung, a work companion of sorts, he reveals a concern that his contributions to "science" may have run their course, but that he is making an effort to "produce something out of myself.  This incomparable city," he writes, "is the perfect place for just that."
Perhaps. But to his family he confesses that "in Rome one is continually oppressed by self-imposed tasks and one doesn't get around to anything." In short, Freud wasn't sure that Rome was a good place to accomplish things.

Piazza Colonna, 19th-century print

Freud's letters from this 1907 trip contain three rather lengthy analytic descriptions, in the vein of cultural anthropology, a calling that was just then in the throes of being born.  One is of the Borghese Gardens: "barren ground," "noble trees," "stone tables and benches," peacocks and monkeys, and a citizenry both "comfortable" and not very law-abiding. 

Another describes an evening in Piazza Colonna, not far from his Hotel Miliani (probably the correct spelling): "awful advertisements"; a boring yet compelling program of slide entertainment; an easy mixing of "foreigners and natives"; the "townspeople sitting around the monument--Freud's effort to conjure a community; "breathless" newspaper boys; beautiful Roman women ("even when they are ugly"); observations on Roman drivers. The third, and in most respects the least interesting, is an account of an evening at the Teatro Quirino for the opera Carmen: a very late start; amateurish, disorganized musicians; the curtain covered with ads; smoking everywhere; the observation "very fat people usually have little snub noses." 
Teatro Quirino

What comes  through in each of these accounts is Freud's desire to apply his analytic abilities to Roman culture, to penetrate Rome as he would the mind of a patient in Vienna. To listen, to observe, to record, to analyze.  At one point, in a bit of meta-analysis, Freud returns to the scene to check an earlier observation--trolleys passing by Piazza Colonna--only to find his memory was flawed (they were horse-drawn buses).  "This shows how difficult it is," Freud writes, "to observe correctly." Better take notes.  One of Freud's life lessons, playing out in Rome.

Freud had spent his adult life pretty much chained to a desk--reading, thinking, and writing--and all gladly.  Hence traveling posed a challenge, or a series of challenges: what to see?  what to observe? what to report? how to behave?  Something of what was going on inside him on these trips is revealed in an October 1910 letter to Sándor Ferenczi, a distinguished Hungarian psychoanalyst who had been his traveling companion on several occasions, including a recent trip to Italy that apparently included Rome. The letter begins with Freud recalling several very different travel experiences, including picking papyrus in Syracuse (Sicily), confronting the railway staff in Naples, and purchasing antiques in Rome.

While some would celebrate the variety of these experiences, for Freud they produce an uncomfortable state, akin to dissembling.  "The identity has been reestablished," he was pleased to write to Ferenczi. "It is strange how easily one gives in to the tendency to isolate parts of one's personality."  There is tension here--Freud's fear that his self may be less than coherent--and more to come.  Clearly Freud was angry with Ferenczi for the expectations placed upon him during the recent trip.  "You were disappointed because you probably expected to swim in constant intellectual stimulation, whereas I hate nothing more than striking up attitudes and out of contrariness frequently let myself go.  As a result I was probably most of the time a quite ordinary elderly gentleman, and you in astonishment kept measuring the distance between me and your fantasy ideal.  On the other hand I often wished that you would pull yourself out of the infantile  role and place yourself beside me as a companion on an equal footing, something you were unable to were inhibited and dreamy."  One of Freud's nastier letters, and not simply because his friend had failed to take sufficient responsibility for the itinerary.  At bottom, Freud was using travel to experiment with his personality--to be something other than the brilliant, in-depth analyst--and it caught Ferenczi by surprise.

Despite the talk about letting go, Freud found it hard--nay, impossible--to relax in Rome, to be anything other than the driven analyst.  He wanted to be something else but couldn't.  During his 1913 trip he had found a way to get real work done in Rome, using his "free hours" to draft an introduction to a book about totem and taboo, to correct proofs for an essay, and to draft an essay on narcissism. Rome, as a consequence, was now at arm's length.

Michelangelo's Moses (1513-1515)
He had experimented with this new approach to the city the previous year. Years earlier he had admired Michelangelo's Moses and now, in the fall of 1912, it became his obsession. For what he described as "three lonely weeks," Freud spent a portion of every day in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, studying, measuring, and drawing the statue, which featured Judaism's seminal prophet holding the tablets of the law--the 10 commandments handed down by God. He would often refer to the art work as a "love child"--and, in 1933, with some unintended irony, as a "nonanalytical child."  His non-analysis would be published, anonymously, in 1914 in the journal Imago.

To be sure, the statue was an breathtaking piece of work, and Freud was not the first to examine it closely.  What interested him, according to his biographer Peter Gay, was the precise point at which the artist had captured Moses.  "Had Michelangelo portrayed Moses the eternal emblem of the lawgiver who has seen God," asks Gay, "or was this Moses in a moment of rage at his people, ready to break the tablets he has brought from Mount Sinai?"

After much internal conflict and debate, Freud concluded that the statue was about self control, about "Moses subduing his inner tempest" (in Gay's words)--and, ultimately, about Freud's struggle for self-discipline, for control of his anger at those--among them Fliess, Jung, and Ferenczi--who had disappointed him or failed to follow his lead. There's much truth in that view of Freud's obsession with the statue, but it fails to account for Freud's deep interest in Judaism and, more importantly, his discovery that the central principles of psychoanalysis could be read into artifacts found in Rome.  "I was astounded," he wrote in 1937, recalling his days with Moses, "to find that already the first so to speak embryonic experience of the race, the influence of the man Moses and the exodus from Egypt, conditioned the entire further development up to the present day--like a regular trauma of early childhood in the case history of a neurotic individual."
Rome artist Dana Prescott captures the
city's layered complexity. 
Indeed, Freud had been aware of the analogous relationship between antiquity and psychoanalysis long before he got to Rome.  In an exuberant early letter to Fliess, he noted with joy his success with a patient, having covered "a scene from his primal period (before 22 months)....I still scarcely dared to believe  it properly.  It is as if Schliemann had dug up Troy, considered legendary, once again."  Freud concluded that the ancient world, whether Troy or Rome, flourished in a state of naturalness and freedom, before the repressions of western civilization were imposed.  Rome was the infant.  Modern civilization the (repressed) adult. The psychoanalysis/antiquity "analogy," then, is at the core of Freud's experience with Rome, both his fears of it and then, a few years after the first visit in 1901, his embrace.

Freud knew, as most everyone understands intuitively, that Rome was an enormously complex, layered city, one era buried beneath the next.  It was, Freud could see, a puzzle as intricate, fascinating, and compelling in its way as the human mind. While some tourist destinations beckon with repose and relaxation, Rome, especially, speaks to those with the courage and intellect to interrogate Rome's layers, to peel the onion, to engage with something nearly unmanageable.

Not everyone can handle that aspect of Rome, and Freud was no exception.  Freud detested biography and, as his biographer Adam Phillips suggests, he suffered from a "sense of being buried, of being suffocated by the past."  Rome was nothing if not a massive urban biography, a suffocating past waiting to envelop Freud.

Was there a solution?  In 1901 he did the tourist thing, and found it less than fully satisfying.  In 1907 he toyed with Rome's outer layer, playing the cultural anthropologist.  And in 1912 he gave in, though rather narrowly, to Rome's essential temptation, compulsively studying Michelangelo's Moses to reveal the history of Judaism, the shadows of psychoanalysis, and his own anxieties and desires.


The Complete Letters of Sigmund Feud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, translated and edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), contains numerous references to Freud's Rome fears.  The Interpretation of Dreams, parts I and II (volumes IV and V in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmumd Freud, James Strachey, ed. and translator, 1900, 1901, (London: the Hogarth Press, 1953, 1954) are valuable.  Also important are Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988); Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Ernst L. Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960); Peter M. Newton, Freud: from Youthful Dream to Mid-Life Crisis (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995); Ellen Oliensis, Freud's Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry (NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Jonathan Siegel, Haunted Museum: Longing, Travel, and the Art-Romance Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), a fascinating, readable book that got me started on this topic.


Freud said...

Hello, Do you have a source for the following statement as I am interested in following it up:

" Freud concluded that the ancient world, whether Troy or Rome, flourished in a state of naturalness and freedom, before the repressions of western civilization were imposed."

J. Henning said...

Thanks for these entries (re: Freud and Rome). I recently visited Rome and found myself thinking about Freud, about whose writings on Judaism I had written my college thesis many years ago. When I found out that Peter Gay was writing more or less on the same subject at the time, I contacted him and asked whether we could have a conversation. No dice. Anyway, it was great fun and interesting to read your posts.