Prescient Recollection:
Freud's Freiberg Memories in Epigenetic Perspective

Doug Davis
Haverford College

[W]e think only of a face transfigured by a change of expression
(Freud, 1899, pp. 308-309).

March 16, 1991: This paper, in which I attempt an epigenetic analysis of Freud's signature writing and interpretive style from his most creative adult years in light of the self-presentations of his youth, is occasioned in part by the recent publication of his adolescent correspondence with Eduard Silberstein, his close companion and confidant for a decade beginning in 1871, when Freud was 15. These letters have been briefly quoted before (Eissler, 1978); and they were available to William McGrath, whose important Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis: The politics of hysteria (McGrath, 1986) I will follow in several of my arguments about the personality of the youthful Freud. Our other major source of information about the youthful Freud in high school and early in his university career is his correspndence with Emil Fluss of Freiberg, older brother of Gisela, published by Ernst Freud (1969).

The Adolescent Freud

Freiberg, September 4, 1872

Queridisimo Berganza!

It is only with reluctance that I forgive you for writing me so little about yourself, but a touching resignation reflected in every line of your letter makes me refrain from asking more of you than you can accomplish. Perhaps things are much the same with you as they are with me. You feel suddenly torn out of your familiar and beloved circle, and no doubt are not busy enough in Braila for the pain of your loss to be dulled.

You do me an injustice when you call my mood gloomy and sad--blame it upon my nonsensical style, which, if that indeed is the impression my last letter conveyed, never allows me to say what I mean. I am more lighthearted than ever and only in unguarded moments am I seized by that forlorn mood. I have spared no means to keep you informed of my life in Freiberg. You will find me an informative oral source and my notebook and diary a written source, and these will relate the events of this month more than amply. [I] expect the same from you by word of mouth, and hope to meet you in Vienna before October first, I myself shall be leaving on the fifteenth, so please send your next letter to Vienna and let me know the precise day of your arrival. Then we shall continue our secret studies with renewed strength and forge a new bond. I am weary of all those evenings spent strolling around the town in the company of others, as long as I have time to spare, I should prefer to spend it with you alone. I suspect we have enough to tell each other to dispense with a third for an audience. These days, I get hardly any Spanish practice. You write your nocturnes to me in German and I myself have long since written the last Spanish word in my diary. I felt the urge to speak my mind fully and that I could only do in the mother tongue.

A strange letter, you will exclaim, not a word about what has been occupying me most of the time, not a mention of the ideas that above all I associate with thoughts of him. Let me tell you everything straightaway. On Wednesday, after I had written to you, she departed, not without playing me a trick that annoyed me for some time. I said good-bye sadly and walked to Hochwald, my little paradise, where I spent a most pleasant hour. I have soothed all my turbulent thoughts and only flinch slightly when her mother mentions Gisela's name at table. The affection appeared like a beautiful spring day, and only the nonsensical Hamlet in me, my diffidence, stood in the way of my finding it a refreshing pleasure to converse with the half-naive, half-cultured young lady.

One day I shall explain to you the difference between my affection and another passion at some length; for the moment let me just add that I did not suffer any conflict between ideal and reality, and that I am incapable of making fun of Gisela. So please avoid all allusions to her in the presence of Rosanes or others. His wit is like a distorting mirror; he must ridicule everything in order to render it ridiculous; he has no feeling for frankness or purity; where others find children lovable, he invariably finds them ridiculous; he has no aspirations, but is a coarse egoist; his ideal would be to live well, to be held in high regard, and to mock at the unfamiliar. I must add, however, that he is quick to respect that which is beyond his understanding, or at least that it is easy to instill respect in him. He could never feel passionate, has never fathomed our friendship, and if he ever discovered our hearts' affections his first reaction would be to laugh and his second to be astonished. I get along with him quite well, but we are never really close. I have put you in his place a thousand times, thinking how differently you would have behaved toward the others. But I have strayed from the subject dear to me; it would seem that I have transferred my esteem for the mother to friendship for the daughter. I am, or consider myself to be, a keen observer; my life in a large family circle, in which so many characters develop, has sharpened my eye, and I am full of admiration for this woman whom none of her children can fully match.

Would you believe that this woman from a middle-class background, who once lived in fairly straitened circumstances, has acquired an education of which a nineteen-year-old salon-bred young thing need not be ashamed? She has read a great deal, including the classics, and what she has not read she is conversant with. Hardly a branch of knowledge not too remote from the middle classes is foreign to her, and though she cannot, of course, have a solid grounding in everything, she has sound judgment. Yet she frankly admits that in Freiberg one can unlearn everything and learn nothing new. She is even knowledgeable about politics, participates fully in the affairs of the little town, and, I think, it is she above all who is guiding the household into the modern mainstream. But don't therefore take her for a frustrated bluestocking. I have seen for myself that she plays as large a part in running the business as Herr Fluss, and I am fully convinced that all the factory workers obey her as they do him and that she can give orders equally well and even more decisively. And you should see how she has brought up and continues to bring up her seven children, how they, the older more so than the younger, obey her, how no concern of any of them ceases to be hers. None of the children has a horizon beyond her own. I have never seen such superiority before. Other mothers--and why disguise the fact that our own are among them? We shan't love them the less for it--care only for the physical well-being of their sons; when it comes to their intellectual development the control is out of their hands. Frau Fluss knows no sphere that is beyond her influence. And you should see the love of the children for their parents and the eagerness with which the servants do her bidding. I cannot blame her for liking Gisela best; she is the first of the daughters to enjoy a broader education and was, so to speak, a guest in the house. I have never seen her in a bad mood, or rather, vent her mood on the innocent. She punishes the children with looks and by withholding little favors, working on their sense of honor and not on ther behinds, the youngest alone occasionally enjoying the benefit of the maternal hand; she herself is the first to admit that this is not the way to keep the child under control, and that besides she never strikes her on the right place. She keeps a house that is hospitable beyond all measure, and is so kind a hostess that she has drawn us into her most intimate family circle. After supper we always stay on upstairs, until everyone sinks into the arms of sleep. A few days ago I had a terrible attack of toothache. I was raving the whole day, and having tried every remedy in vain, I took some pure alcohol to deaden the pain. This occurred downstairs in Emil's dye shop; she knew little of my indisposition. I soon fell asleep, or rather, passed out. Emil had me taken upstairs, the severe shock on an empty stomach did the rest; I vomited violently but lost the toothache as I'd wanted. Not that the hangover or the vomiting had been deliberate, but once it had happened she cared for me as for her own child. The doctor was called, I slept upstairs that night, and got up the next morning well and without toothache. She asked me how I had slept. Badly, I replied, I didn't sleep a wink. Or so it had seemed to me. Smiling, she said, I came to see you twice during the night, and you never noticed. I felt ashamed. I cannot possibly deserve all the kindness and goodness she has been showing me. She fully appreciates that I need encouragement before I speak or bestir myself, and she never fails to give it. That's how her superiority shows itself: as she directs so I speak and come out of my shell. I shall carry away an insight [?] and memories of a good and noble person, and show my gratitude, in my way, by making you privy to the high regard in which I hold her.

She can never have been beautiful, but a witty, jaunty fire must always have sparkled in her eyes, as it does now. Gisela's beauty, too, is wild, I might say Thracian: the aquiline nose, the long black hair, and the firm lips come from the mother, the dark complexion and the sometimes indifferent expression from the father.

But enough, you can see how the words pour from my heart and the letters from my pen. Let me say a word about the history of the SSS [?]. That Iguanodon dined with us you know from my last letter, it merely increased my desire to come to Roznau but my lazy traveling companions postponed the outing from one day to the next. When I arrived there last Sunday, I was greeted with much the same news as Ritter Toggenburg. they left this morning. You may imagine my irritation. I have long since consigned the contentious articles to maldiccion [malediction], and went there with the intention of feeding my aversion. Gisela's image refused to budge from my mind. Caramba!

I could tell you infinitely more, but Rosanes assures me that they would not accept the letter and that you would have to pay excess postage, and so I conclude in haste. As I look over what I have written, I cannot but beg your forbearance for half of it. One thing I hope is that your next letter will make up for the sparseness of your last and that you will reply at once, while still under the influence of these lines. In that case your obdurate heart and indurate mouth might open up to let me know that you are not yet dead to me.

Your Cipion
Kindest regards to your parents.

P.S. G. had long since left when I fell ill. If you ever get to Breslau, look up Tauenziengasse and if you should come across the nameplate of an institute, greet it for me.

Sigmund Freud

No mano otra toque esa carta. [Let no other hand touch this letter.]

"The Matura is dead, long live the Matura!"

The first letter included among Freud's published correspondence with his friend Emil Fluss of Freiberg -- Gisela's older brother -- is marvelously revealing of the adolescent Freud's character: high ambition, a brilliant ironic ('idiotic') style of writing, pride in his prior knowledge of Virgil and Sophocles (though his preconceptions about the former cost him his excellent).

The most important features of Freud's adolescent personality, if we are to read his adult work in light of them, would seem to be:

When the adolescent Freud's writing is juxtaposed with with that of 20 years later, in his 1890s correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, each of the first three themes is prominent. The breadth of Freud's familiarity with the classics is of course striking to a modern American reader, and his ability to reach out to Oedipus Rex and Hamlet [in the original languages] at a key juncture in his self-analysis reveals that for him these literary texts were richly laden with personal meaning. The petulent tone with which the adult Freud chastens Fliess for his silence and speculates as to the reasons for delayed letters has found similar expression in the adolescent correspondence. Both the adolescent and the mature Freud are at pains to underscore the uniqueness of their rapport with the correspondent; and each comments frequently on the strangeness of his own discourse.

One adolescent theme that does not seem manifest in the adult letters is that of love. And yet it is here that the unconscious material is most strikingly resonant with the themes of youth. In dream after dream the middle-aged Freud will express the tension between love and work, between his professional relationship with a young woman patient and his ambivalent concern for the maternal Martha. Indeed, it is conflicted wishes for wife and daughter, patient and friend, colleague and friend, that Freud will give pride of place in his dream book, as they find expression in the Dream of Irma's Injection. That these issues not only hark back to adolescent memories of Gisela and her mother, but are explicitly entwined with Freud's own childhood with its split female objects, is made clear in the crucial "Screen Memories" paper of 1899.

[Screen] Memories

Sigmund Freud was clearly obsessed with -- haunted by -- memories of his own early childhood, and the retrieval and analysis of autobiographical memories forms the core problem both of his clinical writing and of The Interpretation of Dreams. In the period during which the "Dream" finally came together for him (1898-1899) he brought these memories into a new relationship to his emerging psychology of the unconscious. The dream-mediated re-constructions confront him -- and us -- with John and Pauline, with his literary fantasies from secondary school and with his competetive ones in Brücke's lab; with glimpses of the youthful passion he had shaped for Marty Bernays in all those courtship letters, and with his congresses with dearest Wilhelm, whom he courted with theory in midlife.

In his 1899 paper on Screen Memories Freud will show that one of the most poignant and persistent memories of his childhood is a sham, a "screen" for the real psychodynamics -- and perhaps for the real events -- of the first several years of his life, but given meaning by an adolescent experience of falling in love.

Freud's "calf love" for the pubescent daughter of his hosts in Freiberg is most fully detailed in the recently published letters to Eduard Silberstein. Gisela Fluss was just shy of 12 years of age when Freud met her, and she is first mentioned in a letter to stein six months later (Boehlich, 1990, pp. xvii-xviii), by which time she has already become "Ich.," for Ichthyosaura, a fossil reptile to which it apparently amused Freud to compare the object of his fantasies because it was river-dwelling (fluss-wesen; cf. McGrath).

There are several reasons for finding the Screen Memories" paper both suspect as a deductive exercise and crucially important in the reconstruction of Freud's theorizing. Freud has taken credit for psychotherapeutic perspicacity regarding what is really a piece of self-analysis; and he offers an interpretation that makes us suspect another, infantile, meaning hidden behind the late adolescent one(s) he adduces for the memory analyzed. The screen recollection/construction of three children playing among the dandelions of Freiberg, evoked by adolescent emotions and inserted into Freud's crucial rethinking of the psychodynamics of memory in the transition from the seduction theory to psychoanalysis proper, seems to me a microcosm of the anamnestic process as actually developed by Freud.

The theme of inter-connected memories, whose shared emotional charge testifies to the epigenetic character of personality, is, in my view, the single most fertile idea in the work of the early Freud, connecting the brilliant if overly tendentious logico-deductive structure of the "seduction theory" with the core notion of The Interpretation of Dreams -- that it is in the link between the contemporary unconscious "wish" and its precursors from earlier developmental epochs in which both the central hermeneutic challenge and the clinical relevance of the dream or memory lie.

A coherent theory of psychological development is barely glimpsed in the Freud of the late 90s, but the implications of his changed thinking about traumatic etiology point him toward a recurrent issue in the dream book: personality structure is not so much discovered as created by 'analysis. The creation, if is it is to serve its subject in the subsequent vicissitudes of life, must be grounded in the individual's past and present circumstances, must meet reality half-way. We might say that the newly-authored novella of the self produced by analysis must be read against the other texts of its subjects life authored both by prior selves and by each ego's alters. But there is no single reading of any life-text, and the detective work of analysis is a search for motive and oportunity rather than for the corpus delicti. The adolescent letters to Eduard Silberstein and to Emil Fluss, like those 20 years later to Wilhelm Fliess, reveal much about the emotional needs and the expressive talents Freud brought to his own self-creation.

Freud had several models for the rhetorical gifts he displayed in the service of his art. He fought and argued as a boy with his half-brother John. As an adolescent he showed off his precoscious individual style in letters for Eduard Silberstein and Emil Fluss, and then for Martha Bernays. As a young man he charmed Breuer, Charcot, Meynert, and Brücke. In the crucial 1890s he courted Fliess, theoretically. And in-between he reasoned all the time with himself: about his puzzling family, his many "academic" interests, his big dreams. Finally, the dream itself becomes the paradigmatic vehicle for interpretation, as each image leads to others, stratified by epoches of emotional growth.


Boehlich, W. (Ed.) (1990). The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein, 1871-1881. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Translated by Arnold Pomeranz)

Eissler, K.R. (1978). Creativity and adolescence. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 33, 470-.

Freud, Ernst. (1969). Some early unpublished letters of Freud. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50, 419-427.

Freud, S. (1899). Screen memories. S.E. 3, 303-322.

Freud, S. (1900). The Interpretation of Dreams. S.E. 4-5.

Freud, S. (1931). Letter to the Burgomeister of Pribor. S.E. 21, 259.

Freud, S. (1940). The splitting of the ego in the process of defense. S.E. 23, 275-278.

Jones, E. (1953-57). The life and work of Sigmund Freud. 3 vols. New York: Basic Books.

McGrath, W.J. (1986). Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis: The politics of hysteria. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.