Sigmund Freud – a biography

With my continuing interest in early 20th-century art and in particular abstract expressionism, it became clear that I need to have a better understanding of psychoanalysis and in particular the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.  To get started a friend and analyst suggested this book.  It was not an easy read.  The vocabulary and structure is sometimes dense.  It also felt like having already read some of Freud’s writings would have been helpful.  It has taken several months to read through this.  I marked certain passages as being particularly interesting at the moment they were read and they are quoted below.

I did gain an overall view on the many works written by Freud.  The next step is to read some of those works within the historical context provided by this biography.

Freud – A Life for Our Time By Peter Guy
W. W. Norton & Company 1988

Page 165; “Open to beauty or not, by and large Freud’s tastes ran to conventional.  The things he chose to live with were uncompromising in their conservatism, their celebration of well-established traditions.  He like the kind of mementos most nineteenth-century bourgeois thought so indispensable to their well-being; photographs of family members and close friends, souvenirs of places visited and gladly remembered, etchings and pieces of sculpture that were, so to speak, legacies of the Old Regime in the arts — academic, unadventurous, all of them.  The revolution in painting, poetry, and music exploding all around him left Freud untouched; when they obtruded themselves on his notice, which was rarely, he energetically disapproved. … Face to face with expressionism, Freud frankly admitted to Oskar Pfister, he was a philistine.”

Page 167-8;  “… in his paper on Michelangelo’s Moses, ‘I have often noticed that the subject matter of a work of art attracts me more strongly than its formal and technical properties, which, after all, the artist principally values.  Indeed, I lack a proper understanding of many of the methods and some of the effects of art.’  Freud recognized the distinction between purely formal, aesthetic pleasure and the pleasure that the subject matter of art or literature can supply.  But there he stopped, in part because he thought the ways of artists beyond comprehension.  ‘Meaning is but little with these men, all they care about is line, shape, agreement or contours.  They are given up to the Lustprinzip.’ <pleasure principal>  In Freud, in sharp contrast, the reality principle asserted its predominance over the pleasure principal.”

Page 183; a footnote that quotes Ernest Jones’ introduction to his book, ‘The Elements of Figure Skating’ – 1931; “All art, however refined, disguised and elaborated its technique, takes its ultimate source in love for the human body and the desire to command it” (p. 15)

Page 318;  “While the analyst observes the unconscious of his patients, the writer observes his own unconscious and shapes his discoveries into expressive utterance.  Thus the novelist and the poet are amateur psychoanalysts, at their best no less penetrating than any professional.  Praise from Freud could hardly have been more heartfelt, but it was praise of the artist as analyst. … Fragmentary as Freud’s analytic researches into high culture remain, they touch upon the three principal dimensions of aesthetic experience: the psychology of the protagonists, the psychology of the audience, and the psychology of the maker.  These dimensions necessarily implicate and illuminate one another.”

Page 319-320; “To draw from a work facile inferences about its creator was, therefore, a standing temptation for psychoanalytic critics. Their analyses of the maker of, and the audiences for, art and literature threatened to become, even in skillful and delicate hands, exercises in reductionism.  A Freudian may find it perfectly obvious that Shakespeare must have undergone the oedipal experience that he so absorbingly dramatized.  Was he not human?  When he was cut, did he not bleed?  But the truth is that the playwright need not have fully shared the emotions he so grippingly portrays.  Nor must these emotions, whether hidden or overt, necessarily awaken the same emotions in the audience. … In general, what made Freud’s readers uneasy was less his ambivalence about the artist than his certainties about art.  Probably the most controversial of his suggestions was that literary characters can be analyzed as though they were real persons.  Most students of literature have been wary of such attempts: a personage in a novel or a drama, they have argued, is not a real human being with a real mind, but an animated puppet lent counterfeit life by its inventor.”

Page 323:  “… the creative artist, that most cherished of human creatures, appeared in some psychoanalytic treatments as nothing better than an adroit and articulate neurotic duping a gullible world with his clever inventions.  Freud’s own analyses, though very ambitious, are scarcely appreciative.  Freud did not merely dispute the ‘creativeness’ of creative artists, he also circumscribed their cultural role.  Shouting out society’s secrets, they are little better than necessary licensed gossips, fit only to reduce the tensions that have accumulated in the public’s mind.  Freud saw the making of art and literature, as well as their consumption, as human pursuits much like others, enjoying no special status.  It is no accident that Freud should have called the reward one obtains from looking or reading or listening by name — forepleasure — he borrowed from the most earthly of gratifications.  To his mind, aesthetic work, much like the making of love or war, of laws or constitutions, is a way of mastering the world, or of disguising one’s failure to master it.  The difference is that novels and paintings veil their ultimately utilitarian purposes behind skillfully crated, often irresistible decorations.

Page 339-340; “Freud had observed in ‘Totem and Taboo’ that the narcissistic stage is never wholly overcome and that it appears to be a very general phenomenon.  Now he spelled out the implications of his fragmentary thoughts.  Originally the name “narcissism;’ was applied to a perversion: narcissists are deviants who can secure sexual satisfaction only be treating their own bodies as erotic objects.  But, Freud observed, these perverts have no monopoly on this kin of erotic self-centeredness.  After all, schizophrenics too withdraw their libido from the outside world and do not extinguish it; rather, Freud argued, they invest it in their own self.  This was not all: psychoanalytic observers had also discovered massive evidence of narcissistic traits among neurotics, children, and primitive tribes.  In ‘Totem and Taboo’ Freud had already added lovers to this growing list.  He could not evade the conclusion that in this more comprehensive sense, narcissism is ‘not a perversion, but the libidinal complement to the egotism of the self–preservation drive.’  The word gained a rapidly enlarging sphere of signification, fist at Freud’s hands and then far more irresponsibly in general usage, much to tits damage as a diagnostic term.  When ‘narcissism’ entered educated discourse in the 1920s and after, it came to be casually employed not just as a label for a sexual perversion or a developmental stage but also for a symptom in psychosis and for a variety of object relations.  Some in fact exploited it as a handy term of abuse for modern culture or as a loose synonym for a bloated self-esteem.”

Page 531: “To unmask religious ideas as illusions is not necessarily to deny them all validity.  Freud emphatically disguised between illusion and delusion; the former is defined not by its content but by its sources. ‘What remains characteristic of illusions is their derivation from human wishes.’  They may even come true; Freud adduced the pleasing instance of a bourgeois girl dreaming that she will meet a prince and marry him.  It may happen and has happened.  But religious illusions, such as the belief that the Messiah will come to found a golden age, are far less probable and approach delusive thinking.  One might comment that Freud’s own theories suggest that all thinking, including the most abstract and objective, can be shown to have nonrational sources; he himself, after all, had discovered the roots of scientific investigation in children’s sexual curiosity.  … The rule that the origins of an idea is no way determined its value — or lack of value — remains intact; certainly nothing Freud said in his papers on religion was designed to shake it.  But what mattered to Freud was just how much influence these origins could retain.  …  All thinking, including the most scientific variety, may be born as wishful thinking, but science is wishing disciplined — indeed, overcome — by the need for dependable verification and the kind of open atmosphere that alone permits convictions and beliefs to be refined, modified, and if necessary abandoned.”

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