Accounting Freud:

Review of "The Diary of Sigmund Freud: A Record of the Final Decade"

Michael Molnar (translator and annotator)
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.
326 pp. ISBN 0-684-13929-9. $50.00; $65.00 (Canada)
Review by
Douglas A. Davis1

In Vienna, an old man opens a new loose-leaf, leather-bound notebook, and writes:

1929 Kürzeste chronik
31 Okt. im Nobelpreis übergaugen

Thus Sigmund Freud begins his "Shortest Chronicle," the terse daily account of the last ten years of his life: "Passed over for the Nobel prize." Over the course of the coming month he will enter less than sixty words, noting in addition to the non-receipt of the Nobel (a preoccupation since at least 1915) a card (tarok) party, several visits from colleagues, publication of a short paper, the purchase of additions to his collection of antiquities, a variety of symptoms of his failing heart and the progression of cancer in his jaw, attendance at two concerts, the death of an acquaintance, the birthdays of two of his children, and anti-Semitic disturbances in Vienna. So he continued throughout the ensuing decade—recording in phrases of less than half a dozen words the last years of a brilliant career, the inevitable sequence of pain and remission in a failing body, the collapse of European civilization.

From these curt entries Michael Molnar—research director at the Freud Museum in London, where this diary and thousands of other documents reside among Freud’s art collection—has constructed an attractive coffee-table volume that introduces the elderly Freud and presents each diary entry with a paragraph or two of gloss, so we know something of what Freud might have been thinking each day. To this augmented diary Molnar appends photos of persons mentioned, places visited, and art works acquired, using material from the museum and the Freud family collection.

The task Molnar was set was daunting: to create a context of plausible inference around the roughly 800 entries so that historians, students of psychoanalysis, and the public that has absorbed so many books on Freud over the fifty years since his death could place the great man among the tumultuous social and the largely banal personal events of his last years. Molnar has succeeded in offering a volume that nicely complements the Engelman photographs of the Freud apartment at Bergasse 19 shortly before the Freuds fled to England (Engelman, 1976), the more comprehensive Freud family album published by two of his grandchildren (Freud, Freud, & Grubrich-Simitis, 1976), and major new biographies by Peter Gay (1988) and by Ronald Clark (1980). The result is an attractive book for Freud hobbyists, and a useful one for Freud scholars.

We keep seeking, and finding, Freud in his words, even in telegraphic utterances like these. As the old man disappears into abrupt entries in the diary, we recall a man who could write florid and evocative prose about the most mundane events, and whose fifty years of correspondence with fiancée, friends, and colleagues (E. Freud, 1960) forms such a rich background for the 23 volumes of his collected psychological works (Strachey, 1953-74). The major publications from the Freud archive in the past decade have been his complete letters to Wilhelm Fliess during the formative decade of the 1890s (Masson, 1985) and his precocious adolescent correspondence with Eduard Silberstein (Boehlich, 1990). The major treasures still awaited from the archive are the rest of Freud’s letters, especially the 900 to Martha Bernays Freud.

After suggesting that the laconic quality of Freud's diary may be due to his closeness to death, Molnar concludes that "the entries themselves point toward an engrossing and engaged life, [but] must be read as signposts directing our attention elsewhere, toward other evidence" (p. xiv). Indeed, the individual items are so short and often cryptic as to constitute "a skeletal grid of isolated words" (p. xvii). The task of the editor is thus rather like that of the analyst or dream interpreter working back from a few associations to the psychodynamically charged latent content (Freud, 1900), and this book recounts a beginning attempt to restore some flesh to the skeleton.

One can only speculate about the possible resonances of these evening moments in Freud's life with other days whose significance he has helped us to understand. Freud affixes a cross (+) and the name to mark deaths. Read from + to + the diary is a predictable sequence of losses for a 73-year-old. Yet each of these invites speculation about the old Freud's thoughts and feelings as he recalls briefly the moments at which each associate had touched his life. What did Freud think as he noted the passing in September of 1931 of his old friend Oscar Rie—the less gifted classmate, the family doctor, the tarok partner, the imagined bungler behind "Irma's" displaced and overdetermined abdominal pains in Freud's famous specimen dream of 1895 (Freud, 1900)? We can only guess—but it is Freud who taught us how to educate such guesses, and it is in such speculative elaborations that some of the most brilliant work on Freud has been done.

The most influential of Freud’s later works, “Civilization and its Discontents,” was composed at the beginning of this final decade (Freud, 1930), and it reads now as a troubling meditation on the forces still working against culture. A month before Freud’s death in London in 1939, the diary is complete. The old man notes his granddaughter Eva’s departure for France, and Dorothy Burlingham’s for New York, thinks of the new German demands on Poland, writes “Kriegspanik” (war panic), and closes the book.


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

Clark, R. (1980). Freud: The man and the cause. New York: Random House.

Engelman, E. (1976). Berggasse 19: Sigmund Freud's home and offices, Vienna, 1938. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, E. (Ed.) (1960). Letters of Sigmund Freud. New York: Basic Books.

Freud, L., Freud, E., & Grubrich-Simitis, I. (Eds.) (1978). Sigmund Freud : his life in pictures and words . New York: Norton.

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. S.E., 4-5.

Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. S.E. 21, 59-145.

Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. New York: Norton.

Masson, J.M. (1985) (Ed.) The complete letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Strachey, J. (Ed.) (1953-74). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Vols. 1-24). London: Hogarth. [S.E.]

Note: A version of this paper appeared as
Davis, D.A. (1993). Accounting Freud: Review of The Diary of Sigmund Freud: A Record of the Final Decade. Contemporary Psychology, 38, 1315-1316.
Copywrite (C) Douglas A. Davis, 1993. All rights reserved.