Freud: In His Time and Ours, by Élisabeth Roudinesco

Book of the week: New sources yield fresh insights and oversights by the father of psychoanalysis, says Janet Sayers

November 10, 2016
Sigmund Freud sitting among some of his pupils, Vienna, 1922
Source: Getty
Father figure: Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis who garnered a host of patients from the English-speaking world, is pictured with some of his pupils in Vienna in 1922

A revolution has taken place in psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud focused on the individual psyche as plaything of its own repressed and unconscious sexual and destructive drives. Now, psychoanalysts often focus more on the ways our psychology – conscious and unconscious – is shaped by interaction with others and, more generally, by the world around us.

This is the perspective adopted by Élisabeth Roudinesco in Freud: In His Time and Ours, a work that garnered two of France’s most important literary prizes upon its publication there in 2014. Unlike Freud’s previous biographer, Peter Gay, who in Freud: A Life For Our Time (1988) depicted his subject as an individual greedy for knowledge, not least about the unconscious and infantile sexuality, Roudinesco is committed to showing that “what Freud thought he was discovering was at bottom nothing but the product of a society, a familial environment and a political situation”.

True to this commitment, she begins with the familial environment created by Freud’s father, Jacob, who worked as a wool merchant in Freiberg (in what is now the Czech Republic) before moving to Vienna. She also notes the political revolutions of 1848 that led to the granting of civil and political rights to Jews, such as the Freud family, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, thereby enabling Freud to dream as a young man of achieving fame through science.

Thwarted initially in this quest by failing to be the first to publish his observations about the medical uses of cocaine, Freud took advantage of the popularity accorded in the 1880s to Jean-Martin Charcot’s demonstration of the traumatic cause of hysteria. Adopting this perspective, Freud also followed what was then the prevalent practice of recounting case histories as “literary vignettes”.

This went down well, it seems, with his contemporaries in Vienna. Not so his 1896 theory that hysteria results from sexual abuse in early childhood. This theory was dismissed at the time as a “scientific fairy tale”. It was also almost immediately dismissed by Freud himself in favour of the claim that children have sexual feelings akin to those of Oedipus wanting to kill his father and marry his mother.

It was, however, with his interpretation of dreams as a means of discovering the repressed unconscious that Freud made his name. Publication of this theory led to his almost immediately being honoured as “extraordinary professor” in a document signed by Austria’s emperor, Franz Joseph.

In explaining this discovery, Freud drew on his dream about two of his patients – Emma Eckstein and Anna Lichtheim – whom Roudinesco dubs “the quintessence of the Viennese Jewish woman at the turn of the century”. Something similar could be said of Freud’s patient Ida Bauer, known as “Dora”, whose case history Roudinesco likens to novels of the time by Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler.

She goes on to focus on the “bourgeois nobility” of belle époque Vienna, where Freud’s art-world patients included Gustav Mahler, the composer. But it was a milieu that would be dealt a death blow by the outbreak of the First World War. This was the context, Roudinesco points out, in which Freud wrote in late 1914, about his “depressive” and “ambivalent” Russian patient Sergei Pankejeff; and in which Freud devoted time to developing his theory of instincts and their vicissitudes, the unconscious, and his 1917 account of mourning and melancholia.

The war’s immediate aftermath shaped Freud’s writings in other ways. It led him, Roudinesco argues, to be “haunted” by the occult and the uncanny. It also contributed to his developing a psychoanalytic account of the death instinct and of group psychology. Meanwhile, the family background of his work included the death of his daughter, Sophie, during the 1920 flu epidemic, and his psychoanalysis of Sophie’s sister, Anna, falsely characterised as lesbian, says Roudinesco, who parallels Anna’s story with the lesbianism of Margarethe Csonka, one of Freud’s post-war patients.

During the 1920s, Freud also reaped the benefit of his wartime introductory lectures on psychoanalysis, winning him “overwhelming worldwide success” and a host of patients from the English-speaking world. This leads Roudinesco to dwell on the culture of Bloomsbury in London as a prelude to describing Freud’s surprising “dual analysis” of the Bloomsbury couple James and Alix Strachey. It also leads her to write about post-war enthusiasm for psychoanalysis in the US, and about the New York psychoanalyst Horace Frink, who, on account of pressure from his mistress to divorce his wife, went into psychoanalytic treatment with Freud in Vienna.

More useful for those concerned with understanding psychoanalysis is Roudinesco’s fleshing-out of Freud’s 1927 castration complex theory of fetishism with the case of Carl Liebman, a Yale University student. She shows how Freud arrived at this theory on the basis of Liebman’s use of a jockstrap as a fetish after being told by his nursemaid, when he was five, that if he continued to complain as she dried him after his bath she would “cut off his penis” as “she had done to his sister”.

Liebman’s treatment by Freud coincided with the rise to power of Hitler in Germany. Roudinesco links this with Freud’s completion of his 1930 book, Civilization and its Discontents, and with his subsequently published essays questioning war and the wisdom of upholding a worldview or Weltanschauung.

She criticises Freud, however, for failing to see that psychoanalysis is a political movement geared to “emancipation”. She also objects to the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones’ failure to support Freudians on the Left in Russia and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time, Carl Jung was busy supporting the politics of Nazi anti-Semitism by describing Jews as parasitic on the “civilized nation” in which they live.

What a time to choose to forge the theory, as Freud then did, that Moses was not Jewish but Egyptian. Roudinesco attributes the genesis of this absurd claim to Freud’s enthusiasm for Joseph and His Brothers, Thomas Mann’s novel based on the Old Testament story about the Jewish hero, Joseph, elected to high office in Egypt. She also depicts Freud, despite the burning of his books on political grounds by the Nazis, as being almost unaware of the threat the German regime posed to both psychoanalysis and Vienna as he collaborated with journalist William Bullitt on a biography of Woodrow Wilson.

It was a time in which the persecution of Freud’s followers by the Nazis was forcing many of them into exile. In June 1938, Freud, then very ill with cancer, joined their ranks. Together with his wife Martha, their daughter Anna, their maid, his dog and his doctor, he left Vienna via Paris for London. Here, shortly before his death on 23 September 1939, he declared in a speech on BBC Radio, “I hope to end my life in freedom”. But, as Roudinesco determinedly and effectively conveys in this account of his patients’ lives, his own life and achievement in founding and consolidating psychoanalysis, he and many around him had all been constrained by the dark times in which they lived.

Roudinesco’s account draws on many sources, including material not available to Freud’s previous biographers from the recently opened Freud archive in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. If Freud: In His Time and Ours can be faulted, it is for not adequately defending Freud against his detractors today, so much does Roudinesco focus on the social, familial and political background of his theories to the neglect of sufficiently explaining and justifying them. Nevertheless, through seamlessly and eloquently weaving together details from Freud’s time and our own, she provides a refreshingly new and welcome account – warts and all – of the man celebrated in a BBC Four television programme earlier this year as a “genius of the modern world”.

Janet Sayers is emeritus professor of psychoanalytic psychology, University of Kent.


Freud: In His Time and Ours
By Élisabeth Roudinesco
Translated by Catherine Porter
Harvard University Press, 592pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780674659568
Published 24 November 2016


Author Elisabeth Roudinesco

The author

Eminent scholar, author, journalist and psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco is an affiliated researcher in history at Paris Diderot University – Paris 7, and also conducts a seminar on the history of psychoanalysis at the École Normale Supérieure.

She was born in a newly liberated Paris in September 1944, and grew up there. Then, as now, she says, she was “surrounded by books”.

“My parents were doctors and my mother, Jenny Aubry, who came from the Judeo-Protestant bourgeoisie, was a renowned psychoanalyst and hospital doctor who spent her whole life looking after suffering children: abandoned, ill and in difficulty. She was an anglophile who, in the 1950s, introduced to France John Bowlby’s theories on the importance of maternal care, and she worked in collaboration with the Tavistock Clinic in London. She was a friend of Jacques Lacan, whom I knew well. She was a member of the French Resistance, as was my father. She divorced him in 1953 to marry an academic. I had a very happy childhood with an erudite father – who was like my grandfather, as he was 60 when I was born, and he had fought in the 1914-18 war – and a younger stepfather and an exceptional mother.”

Her father had “a passion for history and a phenomenal library. He was born in Bucharest in a Jewish and francophile milieu, and his father had been an editor. I spent my childhood reading books, and I always wanted to write them. Between 1975 and 1979, I founded a bookstore, La Répétition, with an inheritance from my father. For the past 30 years I have been married to one of France’s greatest editors, Olivier Bétourné. I spend my time writing books (which have been translated into 25 languages) and I am a book reviewer for Le Monde. I am completely surrounded by books.”

Of the archives that informed her books, Roudinesco observes, “In my research into the history of psychoanalysis in France, I personally created archives by interviewing the surviving witnesses to its development, and they passed on to me all the documents they had. I am the first and the only person to have carried out such a monumental piece of work. For the biography of Freud, however, it was the opposite. I arrived last on the scene, you might say, after the publication of a multitude of histories and several biographies.

“Of course I went to the manuscript department of the Library of Congress in Washington, where the Freud Archives are held. They have already been extensively used by researchers other than myself – anglophone scholars in the main. It is magnificent; one really has the sense of entering into a palace of memory. I made use of a lot of resources, notably the interviews done by Kurt Eissler with all of Freud’s heirs, as well as many testimonies of anonymous people and patients of Freud’s.” 

What would she say to someone considering entering psychoanalysis?

“I never push anyone to enter into analysis. I am the daughter of a psychoanalyst; I have been analysed myself; I practiced psychoanalysis; and I was analysed by Octave Mannoni, a member of the Freudian school of Paris founded by Jacques Lacan. To enter into analysis is a personal journey to be able to know oneself better, but it is also to participate in a passionate adventure.”

Is France a uniquely Freudian country? “There is, in effect, a ‘French exception’, because France is the only country where all spheres of society were so influenced by Freud and psychoanalysis for 100 years: the literary world (the Surrealists), philosophers (from Sartre to Derrida), psychiatrists, psychologists and educators. It is the only country where Freud was considered a revolutionary, and where his work is taught in the final year of high school. In consequence, it is also a country where the hatred of Freud has always been very pronounced. That is indeed why, in writing history, one makes the choice not to hate, but neither to adulate. I have never shifted from that line.”

What would Roudinesco alter about France’s higher education system if she could?

“There is much to change, but it is not as disastrous as is often said. France is one of the countries in the world where we live the best, and yet complain the most about living badly,” she observes. “It is the French paradox: nostalgia and melancholy.”

What gives her hope?

“Everything gives me hope.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: The visionary with blind spots

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