Writing Freud

Doug Davis1
Haverford College

Youth, thou bear'st thy father's face;
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well compos'd thee.
Thy father's moral parts
Mayst thou inherit too! Welcome to Paris.

Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well. Act 1, Scene 2.


The "Freud, writing" with which I am concerned is that by which he articulates a novel view of neurotic development in the early 1890s, then radically modifies that view so that it becomes universal rather than particularistic, hermeneutic and open rather than positivist/reductive, and thereby distinctively Freudian. My particular interest is with the psychiatric thought of Sigmund Freud just prior to the emergence of a recognizable and distinctive thinker by that name, and with his private as well as his public writing as providing privileged access to Freud's act of self-creation. Further, this Freud-writing is my response to my own Freud-reading, and I have come to realize that my title points to a wish to write Freud my own way, to clarify and set him on his feet at a time when he is buffeted about by so much tendentious rereading. I want to offer you a fairly close examination of the public and private Freud in the period roughly 1892 to 1900, during which he formulated, publicly defended, then seemingly rejected and finally recast a treatment of the problems of individual psychology unlike any that had come before. At the beginning of this eight-year period Freud was preoccupied with what he called the "Actual Neuroses," and this proto-Freudian work, typically ignored, forms an appropriate backdrop to the grander clinical and interpretive scenario Freud was about to construct. Then I want to lead you through a period in which Freud develops a novel and very distinctive and very tightly argued formulation which leads him into the problems of childhood sexuality- which is still in my reading pre-Freudian, pre-psychoanalytic- his articulation of the so-called "Seduction Theory." I want to talk about that theory, about the circumstances for its articulation. I want to situate it both in Freud's time and in our own, and then I want to talk about the process by which he appears to turn from it and come to something else. At which point I think we'll be forced to acknowledge that we are finally in the company of Freud, himself. So I'm going to offer you several thinker-writers, who all happen to go by the same name: a conventional psychiatrist concerned with what we now would call "post-traumatic stress disorders," consequences of real events in adulthood that produce anxiety which then becomes neurotic; and then a highly unconventional thinker insisting on an elaborate traumatic etiology for the neuroses. By "etiology" I mean the process of distinctive development of a condition -in this case a set of pathological mental states or neuroses. Finally, as he gets down seriously to work on The Interpretation of Dreams we meet a third figure who develops a remarkably subtle and powerful hermeneutic argument that is the quintessential Freudian achievement.

Young Dr. Freud

First a little character development. Freud was a small-town boy who moved to the big city. He spent the first three years of his life, in the late 1850s, in the town of Freiberg, which later became Pribor and was absorbed into the modern state of Czechoslovakia. A downturn in family fortunes forced the family to relocate. They moved briefly to Leipsig and then to Vienna, where Freud grew up as an impoverished Jewish kid on the Ringstrasse, proved to be a precocious character in high school, got the idea of being a scientist by hearing a lecture delivered about Goethe, went off to the University, was inspired in his first year in the 1870sby the philosophical idealism of Franz Brentano and simultaneously by the neurological positivism of Ernst Brόcke to do a double Ph.D. in physiology and philosophy. A kind of splitting of his intellectual goals which – I wish I could take credit for this one – William McGrath suggested a few years ago, beautifully resurfaces to explain the polarities of Freud's thinking 20 years later in the 1890s, the period with which I'm going to be concerned. He does an adequate medical degree, does some modestly original work in histology and neural pathology, develops a new gold stain for the cells of the central nervous system and begins to hope that he might find a place in Brόcke's lab. Despite the timely demise of someone who holds the position that Freud wants he doesn't get that job, and after completing his medical training he gets a kind of equivalent of a Fulbright grant and goes off and spends a part of a year in Paris with Charcot where he becomes aware of hypnotism as something other than mesmerism and as having a claim on modern psychiatric technique – a visit from which he returns to Vienna to try to tell his colleagues about some of the novelties of Charcot's hysterical treatment.

I'm glossing over this period, because in fact I want to join Freud at a point in his career where, although he's written about hysteria, he's already interested in something quite different, the so-called "actual neuroses." His early writings on clinical phenomena make a fundamental distinction between the psycho-neuroses, or as he calls them the "neuro-psychoses of defense," including hysteria and obsession compulsion, in which the central factor in the disease is alleged to be a pathological turning away from some emotionally charged memory in one's past – a fundamental distinction between those psychoneuroses with which we normally associate the work of Freud and the actual neuroses, of which Freud distinguishes two types: "anxiety neurosis," which seems more or less to have been his own creation, and "neurasthenia," a kind of nervous exhaustion with which Freud was quite preoccupied during the last couple of years of the 1880s in fact, and during the early years of the1890s. Freud defines anxiety neurosis finally in an 1895 paper, although one can detect in his private correspondence a treatment of people who suffered from these conditions going back to 1888. And he describes the stressors that characteristically produced neurotic anxiety, the presumption being that – perhaps because of a hereditary weakness of the nervous system but in any case largely explainable in terms of the contemporaneous quantity of stress – some people develop levels of anxiety which become toxic and with which they cannot deal. These stressors, at least the ones that interested Freud, in that he describes them in relationship to his clinical practice, are primarily in the realm of sexuality, and they include a variety of sources of sexual frustration: coitus interruptus, impotence, anxiety over a pregnancy. In fact, any emotional or physical interference with the full cycle of sexual arousal and orgiastic satisfaction could serve as a cause of anxiety neurosis or as a contributing factor in psycho-neurosis; and since, in his view, female sexual gratification in intercourse depended on the male's completion of adequate foreplay and intromission, Freud says, "It is positively a matter of public interest that men should enter upon sexual relations with full potency"(emphasis in original). Ah, now we understand what the man is up to!

Both his published clinical examples and the materials summarized for Fliess during the 1890s provide abundant evidence that Freud assiduously collected examples of psychopathology resulting from sexual frustration, from attempts at birth control or unwanted pregnancies. In fact, his very first psychological writing, a decade before he began to use anything recognizable as psychoanalytic concepts, reveals his concerns with sexuality and child-bearing as causal factors in neurosis. His earliest letters to Fliess, beginning in November, 1887, report on a Mrs. A whose seemingly organic complaints he's been treating with hydrotherapy and muscle exercises in the convention of his time, but by February, 1888,Freud had concluded that hers was a case of cerebral neurasthenia, that is to say an actual neurosis which he was inclined to attribute to unfulfilled sexual desires and which he seems to have linked to the anxiety coming from a concern over a pregnancy, because he writes to Fliess somewhat later that the patient had improved greatly after becoming pregnant and, Freud suggests, "It may be that I am in part responsible for this new citizen. I once spoke very strongly and not unintentionally about the harmfulness of coitus reservatis." Now this is a Freud, I would argue, who is already interested in sex, which becomes his signature concerns, and who is prepared to talk over matters of a risquι sort with his patients – but his concern with neurotic etiology, although it holds out for the possibility of an hereditary disposition, focuses on contemporaneous events and not yet in any consistent way on childhood. In fact, many of the draft manuscripts and notes sent by Freud to Fliess in the early1890s concern the psychopathological effects of sexuality. Freud goes on to argue, in 1893, that neurasthenia "can only be a sexual neurosis." Freud was concerned about the possibility of a spread, a kind of contagion, of the actual neurosis from one marriage partner to another; and he suggests that whereas a male's neurasthenia typically begins after puberty and expresses itself clearly in the patient's twenties, female neurasthenia in married women is often derived from neurasthenia in a man. "In that case," Freud says, "there is almost always an added mixture of hysteria and we have the common mixed neurosis of women." Why? Because Freud assumed that female sexual gratification occurred only in the context of heterosexual coitus and that if the male was in any way prevented from carrying intercourse to its conclusion the female would be unlikely to reach orgasm. The result would be unfulfilled sexual desire which would leave a state of tension, which could then become toxic and give rise to anxiety neurosis.

So to summarize: Freud's early theorizing about the causes of adult psychopathology assumed that adult stresses could cause neurosis of this special kind in a sort of additive fashion. By a few years later, however, Freud was increasingly concerned about the possibility that in the distinctive psychoneuroses, such as hysteria and obsession compulsion, there was a childhood precursor to the adult event. That is to say, there was a disposition which would cause a person bearing the disposition to respond not simply to abnormal levels of stress in adulthood, but even to normal stressors – such as the assumption of regular sexual relationships after marriage – with a neurotic disorder.

We turn now to the period of the so-called "Seduction Theory." Freud borrowed the form of his argument from disorders such as syphilis, in which it was recognized that a primary infection could be sub-clinical, could produce no clear manifestations that would draw the patient to a doctor, could – even if clinically diagnosed – be apparently satisfactorily resolved (this was, of course, before the days of effective antibiotic treatment for syphilis), but which would lay down a disposition which decades later could eventuate in disorder. And so to answer the question why some individuals became neurotic in response to seemingly common levels of adult stress, Freud suggested that it was the childhood disposition, perhaps in company again with a hereditary weakness of some sort, that constituted the specific dispositional agent in neurosis, and that the adult stressors in the case of psychoneurosis were – he borrowed the term from Charcot – mere agents provocateurs, incapable of producing psychopathology except where a disposition existed.

The Seduction Theory

In 1896 Freud delivered a series of three papers, all of which he published locally, which identified the conditions to which he believed his argument applied and which cited empirical evidence in support of his conclusions. He went on to argue in these papers that not only had, in the first instance, all of 13 patients whom he claimed to have analyzed adequately to have reliable information about their childhood (this had become 18 patients by the time of the third paper in 1896), not only had all of these patients produced what Freud took to be credible evidence of significant childhood stress, but all of those stresses had been in the sexual realm. All of these children had years before puberty experienced a significant sexual event, to which Freud assumed they could not – and his argument here seems to be largely physiological and developmental – to which they could not have responded in a normal fashion. This is not a moral argument that Freud is making, it's a physiological one. Since the pre-pubescent individual is incapable of experiencing the full cycle of sexual arousal and satisfaction, it is impossible for a person who finds himself in a sexual situation in childhood to experience anything like the kind of satisfaction that could allow the tension of sexual activity to be adequately dissipated. Therefore the sexual experience led to anxiety, and it was the anxiety that laid down the disposition to the neurosis. More correctly – and this turns out to be an important point, if you read the many accounts of Freud's reasons for abandoning the seduction theory -it wasn't the event per se, it was the fact that the event caused anxiety which produced a defense. The event laid down a traumatically charged memory which somehow had to be kept from consciousness, and Freud thought he could distinguish between the two major types of neurosis on the basis of the type of defense. He goes on to argue in these early papers (and the argument is much more fully elaborated in some of his unpublished letters to Fliess) that if the sexual abuse had occurred very early -perhaps to a child during the first two or three years of life- it would almost certainly be accompanied by pain. It could not be adequately represented cognitively, and insofar as the child could deal with it at all psychologically it would meet with repression. Such children, Freud said, were almost always the passive victims of sexual assault by an older person -often a family member or a care-giver – to which abuse they had responded with a readiness to block the entire event from consciousness, which readiness then laid down the disposition(decades later) for hysterical illness. If, however, the sexual assault happened somewhat later, perhaps to a child around the ages of entering school (Freud in my reading is not particularly consistent about the ages involved here), the child's increased cognitive capacity made it possible that there was memory for the event and some active reworking of it in consciousness. And because the child was somewhat older physically, it was at least possible that the experience involved some sexual pleasure, although something very different from full adult orgiastic satisfaction, according to Freud. In the latter case, however, the word "seduction" seems less inappropriate than it does for the first case. Freud goes on to argue that if the abuse was early and passively experienced it was likely to produce repression as a defensive mechanism, and hysteria as an eventual adult outcome, in the presence of adequate precipitating causes in adulthood. If the abuse occurred relatively later and the child had experienced some pleasure or some active seduction into sexual activity the result was likely at a defensive level to be, not simply repression, but some sort of more active defense of undoing or reaction-formation, and the disposition was to obsession as an adult disorder rather than to hysteria. Freud by this time had a distinctive etiological theory, that is he was able to say that there was something specific in the background of these two classes of patients that is different. And clearly he believed that if he could adequately make the differential diagnosis between hysteria and obsession he could make a prediction which kind of childhood trauma he was likely to unearth when the analysis was adequately completed.

There is in Freud's writings to Wilhelm Fliess, as I've suggested, an increasing preoccupation with these matters; and there are some marvelously detailed examples of etiological argument, along with some very vivid clinical illustrations. None of these clinical data found their way into Freud's first major psychiatric publication, the "Studies on Hysteria" which he co-authored with Breuer (in 1895), with the exception of the case of Katerina, but some of the unpublished material is vivid indeed, and it seems to have moved at least Jeffrey Mason to an argument about the extent to which Freud was prepared to become a crusader on the issue of child abuse.

My own major concern, however, is with what happens to this theory- and what happens to Sigmund Freud – in the very year of its articulation. In the fall of 1896 Freud's father, Jacob Freud, a man in his sixties, dies as a result of a lingering illness. Freud has nursed him in his last days and has been close to his father's physical decline, and he writes to Fliess in October of 1896, "Yesterday, we buried the old man," who died during the night of October 23. There are some details of his final symptoms. "The attack," Freud writes, "was followed by pulmonary edema and quite an easy death. All of it happened during my critical period [this is a bit of Fliessian magic that you might draw me out about during the question period],and I'm really quite down because of it."

The Old Man's Death

A week later, on the second of November (Freud acknowledges a letter of condolences from Fliess received in the meantime, then says:

By one of those dark pathways behind the official consciousness, the old man's death has affected me deeply. I valued him highly, understood him very well and with his peculiar mixture of deep wisdom and fantastic lightheartedness he had a significant effect on my life. By the time he died his life had long been over, but in my inner self whole the past has been reawakened by this event. I now feel quite uprooted.

Why was Freud so moved by his father's death? Well perhaps it doesn't seem to be an emotion that needs an explanation, but in the previous spring, as Freud has been preparing to go public with his seduction theory, he has written to Wilhelm Fliess some of the findings of his own increasing preoccupation with his own dreams and memories of childhood.

We find a letter in the spring of 1896 in which he says to Fliess that he is increasingly convinced that there is a great deal of perverse activity involving children, much of it concerned with fathers. And then Freud goes on to say, "My own father unfortunately was one of these perverts, and is responsible for the neurosis of my brother and that of several of my sisters." There's nothing else about this during the course of the summer, but all of a sudden in the fall Freud announces the extent to which he is "uprooted" by his father's death. During the course of the next year Freud becomes increasingly preoccupied with what has become conventional to call his self-analysis, and we get tidbits in the letters to Fliess of increasingly vivid and troubled dreams. In fact, many of the dreams which form the basis of The Interpretation of Dreams stem from this period. As spring gives way to summer in 1897 Freud increasingly complains of writer's block, and of an inhibition in his work. He clearly seems during this period to have intended to produce a major work on the psychoneuroses in which, freed from the need to be collaborative with Joseph Breuer (who Freud thought overly timid about his ideas concerning sexuality), he would articulate and support with clinical evidence his seduction theory. It's also clear from the evidence that this intensely ambitious man of 40 believed that this, finally, was the distinctive psychiatric work that would make his reputation. But we get no evidence that such a work in fact is being produced.

Seduction Becomes Oedipal

What we get instead, in September 1897, eleven months after the death of old Jacob, is the following letter:

... I want to confide in you immediately the great secret that has been slowly dawning on me in the last few months. I no longer believe in my neurotica [Freud's code term for his specific etiological theory]. This is probably not intelligible without an explanation; after all, you yourself found credible what I was able to tell you. So I will begin historically [and tell you] where the reasons for disbelief came from. The continual disappointment in my efforts to bring a single analysis to a real conclusion; the running away of people who for a period of time had been most gripped [by analysis]; the absence of the complete successes on which I had counted; the possibility of explaining to myself the partial successes in other ways, in the usual fashion- this was the first group.

What do we have here? We have in part a reverse causal argument: if childhood trauma causes pathological defense, which analysis can rediscover and make conscious, then it should be the case that making the evidence of childhood abuse conscious produces cure. In fact, no one seems to be cured, people seem to flee the insights that I am offering them and so on. To continue with Freud:

Then the surprise that in every case, the father ... had to be accused of being perverse – the realization of the unexpected frequency of hysteria, with precisely the same conditions prevailing in each, whereas surely such widespread perversions against children are not very probable. The [incidence] of perversion would have to be immeasurably more frequent than the [resulting] hysteria because the illness, after all, occurs only where there has been an accumulation of events and there is a contributory factor that weakens the defense.

And here? An argument which sounds, and which in major part is, epidemiological. If behind every psychoneurosis there is a case of abuse – Freud said at one point that every neurosis conceals an act of perversion, from which it is separated by a generation; then for every neurotic there must be an abusive act. But in fact there must be more abusive acts than there are neurotics, because it still requires some contributory stressors in adulthood to produce the neurosis. And if, indeed, the abusers are fathers, then we are forced to painful conclusions about the society in which we dwell.

Now, as some of you may realize, I haven't quite read the sentence as Freud wrote it, because in 1950 when his daughter Anna and Marie Bonaparte – who had procured these letters to Fliess that Freud would have destroyed had he been able to, and published them in collaboration with Ernst Kris – they made a variety of emendations. They removed all direct references to patients that might identify them, they removed all detailed discussions of Fliess's theory of biorhythms, they removed a great deal of personal information that they thought relatively trivial, and in a few cases they removed phrases that might have been embarrassing to Freud, had he been around in 1950. In the sentence I read you then "in all cases the father, not excluding my own, had to be accused of being perverse."

Freud goes on:

Then, third, the certain insight that there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between truth and fiction that has been cathected with affect. (Accordingly, there would remain the solution that the sexual fantasy invariably seizes upon the theme of the parents.) Fourth, the consideration that in the most deep-reaching psychosis the unconscious memory does not break through, so that the secret of childhood experiences is not disclosed even in the most confused delirium. If one thus sees that the unconscious never overcomes the resistance of the conscious, the expectation that in treatment the opposite is bound to happen, to the point where the unconscious is completely tamed by the conscious, also diminishes.

Again, let me gloss this last pair of sentences. The argument that Freud designates third is crucial. The possibility that we cannot distinguish clinically between an accurate memory of a fact and a memory of an emotion, a memory charged with affect, a memory which may have seized on the persons of the parents for its object. Here in the letter in which Freud announces that he no longer believes his neurotica, we have the kernel of a new theory which is going to take shape gradually and which is going to become, of course, psychoanalysis. But I want to read you a little bit more of this letter, because it helps me make the bridge into the second Freud I want to tell you about.

I was so far influenced [by this] that I was ready to give up two things: the complete resolution of a neurosis and the certain knowledge of its etiology in childhood. Now I have no idea of where I stand because I have not succeeded in gaining a theoretical understanding of repression and its interplay of forces. It seems once again arguable that only later experiences give the impetus to fantasies, which [then] hark back to childhood, and with this the factor of a hereditary disposition regains a sphere of influence from which I had made it my task to dislodge it – in the interest of illuminating neurosis.

If I were depressed, confused, exhausted, such doubts would surely have to be interpreted as signs of weakness. Since I am in an opposite state, I must recognize them as the result of honest and vigorous intellectual work and must be proud that after going so deep I am still capable of such criticism. Can it be that this doubt merely represents an episode in the advance toward further insight?

It is strange, too, that no feeling of shame appeared [He has after all, gone public with an argument that rampant sexual abuse is causing neurosis in citizens of Vienna] – for which, after all, there could well be occasion. Of course I shall not tell it in Dan, or speak of in Askelon, in the land of the Philistines, but in your eyes and my own, I have more the feeling of a victory than defeat (which is surely not right).

And to continue a bit further on:

Now to continue my letter. I vary Hamlet's saying, "To be in readiness": to be cheerful is everything! I could indeed feel quite discontent. The expectation of eternal fame was so beautiful, as was that of certain wealth, complete independence, travels, and lifting the children above the severe worries that robbed me of my youth. Everything depended upon whether or not hysteria would come out right. Now I can once again remain quiet and modest, go on worrying and saving. A little story from my collection occurs to me: "Rebecca, take off your gown; you are no longer a bride." In spite of all this, I am in very good spirits and content that you feel a need to see me again similar to mine to see you.

All of Freud's convictions that he's about to write his great work on the neuroses have collapsed. He provides convincing evidence for their doing so, he links this evidence to the circumstances of his own life, and then he muses, I should feel terrible, and yet I am elated. And we see very clearly the evidence of that elation, because in the very next letter Freud reports that he's had new dreams and new memories about his own early childhood that point him to the nursemaid who cared for him during the first several years of his life as in some way significant in the awakening of his childhood erotic feelings.

And then, two weeks later, middle of October, this letter....

My self-analysis is in fact the most essential thing I have at present and promises to become of the greatest value to me if it reaches its end. In the middle of it, it suddenly ceased for three days, during which I had the feeling of being tied up inside(which patients complain of so much), and I was really disconsolate.... I asked my mother whether she still remembered the nurse. "Of course," she said, "an elderly person, very clever, she was always carrying you off to some church; when you returned home you preached and told us all about God Almighty. During my confinement with Anna (two and a half years younger),it was discovered that she was a thief, and all the shiny new kreuzers and zehners and all the toys that had been given to you were found in her possession. Your brother Philipp himself fetched the policeman; she then was given ten months in prison." Now look at how this confirms the conclusions of my dream interpretation. It was easy for me to explain the only possible mistake. I wrote to you that she induced me to steal zehners and give them to her. In truth, the dream meant that she stole them herself. For the dream picture was a memory of my taking money from the mother of a doctor – that is, wrongfully. The correct interpretation is: I = she, and the mother of the doctor equals my mother. So far was I from knowing she was a thief that I made a wrong interpretation.

This may be a little puzzling, but we do at least see that Freud is entertaining the possibility that subject and object are interchangeable, and that the direction of influence may be different than what he had previously suspected. And a little later we have this:

Being totally honest with oneself is a good exercise. A single idea of general value dawned on me. I have found, in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood, even if not so early as in children who have been made hysterical. (Similar to the invention of parentage [family romance]in paranoia – heroes, founders of religion). If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the objections that reason raises against the presupposition of fate; and we can understand why the later "drama of fate" was bound to fail so miserably. Our feelings rise against any arbitrary individual compulsion [and Freud criticizes a contemporary play by Grillparzer] but the Greek legend seizes upon a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he senses its existence within himself. Everyone in the audience was once a budding Oedipus in fantasy and each recoils in horror from the dream fulfillment here transplanted into reality, with the full quantity of repression which separates his infantile state from his present one.

Fleetingly the thought passed through my head that the same thing might be at the bottom of Hamlet as well. I am not thinking of Shakespeare's conscious intention, but believe, rather, that a real event stimulated the poet to his representation, in that his unconscious understood the unconscious of his hero. How does Hamlet the hysteric justify his words, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all"? How does he explain his irresolution in avenging his father by the murder of his uncle – the same man who sends his courtiers to their death without a scruple and who is positively precipitate in murdering Laertes [an apparent Freudian slip for Polonius]? How better than through the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had contemplated the same deed against his father out of passion for his mother, and – "use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt. And is not his sexual alienation in his conversation with Ophelia typically hysterical? And his rejection of the instinct that seeks to beget children? And, finally, his transferral of the deed from his own father to Ophelia's? And does he not in the end, in the same marvelous way as my hysterical patients, bring down punishment on himself by suffering the same fate as his father of being poisoned by the same rival?

Well, friends, what's happened? Freud has recognized in himself a wish which precedes the deed and having recognized it in himself, he considers it a universal event of childhood and suddenly in two weeks he is on the trail of a theory that we would all recognize as quintessentially Freudian. He will elaborate somewhat on his theory of both Oedipus and Hamlet as unconscious participants in what he was to call the "Oedipus complex" in The Interpretation of Dreams two years later.

The Dream Book

During this period Freud will go on to dream some of the most profound and revealing of the dreams that will be presented two years later in The Interpretation of Dreams; By the end of the year we find him declaring, "Since I have proceeded with my self analysis I have become so interesting to myself," and that is perhaps the first conclusion of this enterprise. Because I'm trying to build for you a tension between a scientific thinker about complicated problems in psychological development in psychiatry, and a humanist thinker involved with typically" Freudian" interpretation. The early theorist is in fact surprisingly sharp at articulating arguments about psychopathological conditions, arguments that sound strikingly topical in the 1990s,in view of our increased interest in child abuse, but which for Freud proved to be profoundly unsatisfying.

Now as those of you who are deeply involved in Freud no doubt know, I am not alone in emphasizing the significance of the letter of September 21, 1897: It is the most quoted of the Fliess correspondence. But it was with the publication of the complete correspondence to Fliess, the complete and unexpurgated correspondence, that I noted in these letters spanning the period from 1895 to 1900- Freud wrote to Fliess from 1888 to 1902, and the most intense period of the correspondence is that period from 1895 when he publishes the studies on hysteria with Josef Breuer to 1900 when he publishes solely authored The Interpretation of Dreams his magnum opus – I noticed a couple of references, among many that he makes to patients, to a patient identified, as is often the case in this correspondence by a letter. In this case the letter "E." I was fascinated to discover that these references are sprinkled across a period of five years. I didn't remember mention of such a patient in Freud's writings. Later I discovered that in The Interpretation of Dreams there is in fact a dream by this patient, a dream I remembered having read in the Fliess correspondence. As an example of Freud's method of working in the period after the epochal events of later1897, I want now to report to you this dream and a dream of Freud's own that quotes it. Let's start with Freud's dream:

I received a communication from the town council of my birthplace concerning the fees due for someone's maintenance in the hospital in the year 1851, which had been necessitated by an attack he had had in my house. I was amused by this since, in the first place, I was not yet alive in 1851 and, in the second place, my father, to whom it might have related, was already dead. I went to him in the next room, where he was lying in his bed, and told him about it. To my surprise, he recollected that in 1851 he had once got drunk and had had to be locked up or detained. It was at a time at which he had been working for the firm of T____.' So you used to drink as well?' I asked; 'did you get married soon after that?' I calculated that, of course, I was born in1856, which seemed to be the year which immediately followed the year in question. (Freud, 1900, 436).

Now this dream appears in chapter 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams; where it is a part of a collection of dreams that Freud labels "absurd" dreams – dreams that negate fact – in this case the possibility of carrying on a conversation with one's deceased male parent. A set of dreams that, as I believe is often true of the sets of dreams that Freud presents in that book, need to be read as a whole. They all concern fathers and the issue of a father's death, and there's at least a strong possibility that one of the other dreams which is not presented as a dream Freud's own, may in fact be so.

Freud offers here a dream in which a ghost speaks, a type of dream he cites repeatedly. These dreams – all concerned with murderous sibling rivalry and/or the father's downfall – share unconscious contents making their interpretations mutually relevant. Curiously enough, given this rich body of content and its reference to fathers and so on, the place at which Freud decides to take up the meaning of this dream is the number "five." The exciting cause of the dream, Freud said – the "day-residue," in his jargon – was his reaction to having heard the night before he had the dream that "a senior colleague of mine whose judgment was regarded as beyond criticism had given voice to disapproval and surprise that the fact that the psychoanalytic treatment of one of my patients had already entered its fifth year." Because Freud went on to comment that this colleague had taken over paternal financial duties, that they had later quarreled, and that he had enjoyed the man's support for five years, it is clear that the ambivalent figure in question is none other than Josef Breuer. Freud then went on to discuss five years – obscured in the interpretation that it might really be four years, four or five years – as the difference between 1851 and 1856, the year of his own birth. Finally he turned to the number 51, this number is significant, Freud says, as the year 1851 – the relatively superficial referent to the dream – and as a dangerous age for men, because he thinks of several friends and teachers that have died at around the age of 51 – 51 being(for the insiders among you) the sum of the Fiessian periods of28 and 23, translated into years. And finally Freud suggests that the communication that he utters to his father:

... was clothed in the form of a set of logical conclusions. My father had married in 1851, immediately after his attack; I, of course, was the eldest of the family and had been born in 1856;Q.E.D. (Freud, 1900, 449-459)

"Q.E.D."? I didn't see what the argument was; but as I read on in the associations that Freud presented, I found the following clue.

Four or five years was the length of time during which I enjoyed the support of [Josef Breuer]; but it was also the length of time during which I made my fiancιe [Martha Bernays]wait for our marriage; and it was also, by a chance coincidence which was eagerly exploited by the dream-thoughts, the length of time during which I made my patient of longest standing ["E."]wait for a complete recovery (Freud, 1900, 438).

Patient "E."

In the Fliess correspondence we find a comment to Fliess, "You remember my dream which promises an end to 'E.''s treatment -among the absurd dreams...," from which I infer that we are talking about the same dream. Interestingly, Freud presents in The Interpretation of Dreams a dream by this patient that is half identical with the one that he had reported to Fliess two years before. I say half identical – and it's significant that the dream as it appears in The Interpretation of Dreams is in fact longer and more detailed than the dream as reported in the letter to Fliess two years before, when presumably Freud was working from his immediate memory of having actually heard the dream.

I began to suspect I was on the trail of a significant piece of early Freudian clinical history, a piece of history not the less interesting for not having been published – and indeed my paper on this patient is titled "Freud's Unwritten Case." I think that the persona with which we are now confronted is one that you have to read in a Freudian fashion. We have to read him not so much for what he says but for what he doesn't say. We have to note his pauses and his lapses. I want to give you just a couple of other examples on his treatment of this remarkable male analysand. The first mention of the patient – which is not crystal clear as a reference to E, but which fits in terms of the amount of time that Freud treated him – is in 1895,in which Freud says that his case is a relatively straightforward one and he expects he'll have him cured in a few months. Now remember, this is the Freud of the seduction theory period. A few months later there's a reference unmistakably to this patient in which Freud says he's getting extremely interesting material from the earliest period of childhood. Something he was motivated to look for by his theory. Then there's a period in which Freud remarks that several of his patients have at least temporarily broken off treatment – it's not quite clear whether it is this patient or not – and then another reference to the patient's elaborate verbal play around a childhood fantasy that his mother might well have married someone else. A fantasy that in the context Freud seems to have related to a fantasy of his own about his own mother. And, finally in 1899 a statement to the effect that the patient is getting near resolution of his symptoms. I want to read this passage to you

I am not without one happy prospect. You are familiar with my dream which obstinately promises the end of E.'s treatment[among the absurd dreams], and you can well imagine how important this one persistent patient has become to me. It now appears that this dream will be fulfilled. I cautiously say "appears," but I am really quite certain. Buried deep beneath all his fantasies, we found a scene from his primal period [before twenty-two months]which meets all the requirements and in which all the remaining puzzles converge. It is everything at the same time – sexual, innocent, natural, and the rest. I scarcely dare believe it yet. It is as if Schliemann had once more excavated Troy, which had hitherto been deemed a fable. At the same time the fellow is doing outrageously well. He demonstrated the reality of my theory in my own case, providing me in a surprising reversal with the solution, which I had overlooked, to my former railroad phobia. For this piece of work I even made him the present of a picture of Oedipus and the Sphinx. My phobia, then, was a fantasy of impoverishment, or rather a hunger phobia, determined by my infantile greediness and evoked by my wife's lack of a dowry (of which I am so proud).You will hear more about this at our next congress (Masson, 1985,391-392).

From a stance in which a concerned doctor helps a disturbed patient to reach a troubling repressed memory so that it can be detoxified and cured, we have a remarkable blurring of doctor and patient. So remarkable that we find the doctor, in essence, signifying their psychodynamic unity by inviting the patient into charter membership in the Club of Oedipus. A few months later Freud says E still isn't quite cured, and then finally, "E at last concluded his career as a patient by coming to dinner at my house."

This is now early 1900.

His riddle is almost completely solved; he is in excellent shape, his personality entirely changed. At present a remnant of the symptoms is left. I am beginning to understand that the apparent endlessness of the treatment is something that occurs regularly and is connected with the transference. I hope that this remnant will not detract from the practical success. I could have continued the treatment, but I had the feeling that such a prolongation is a compromise between illness and health that patients themselves desire, and the physician must therefore not accede to it. The asymptotic conclusion of the treatment basically makes no difference to me, but is yet one more disappointment to outsiders. In any case I shall keep an eye on the man. Since he had to suffer through all my technical and theoretical errors, I actually think that a future case could be solved in half the time. May the Lord now send this next one. ...
Occasionally something stirs toward a synthesis, but I am holding it down.
Otherwise Vienna is Vienna, that is, extremely disgusting. If I closed with "Next Easter in Rome," I would feel like a pious Jew. So I say rather, "Until we meet in the summer or fall in Berlin or where you will." (Masson, 1985, 408-409).

The author of this last statement, I would argue, is indeed the Sigmund Freud we recognize. He still has some twenty odd volumes of psychological works to author, but he's moved a great distance from the unconventional psychiatrist of just a few years previously. I'd like to suggest that while Freud's strange elation at discovering a theoretical position that does not require him to charge his father with child abuse can indeed, as so many others have read it, be seen as one of the motivations for his turn from the seduction theory, we can detect even in the few passages I've read to you, something else. Freud is finding his voice. He's finding a distinctively "Freudian" style in which he can operate.

It is especially striking, in light of this reading of Freud's mid-life self-transformation, to read his man's adolescent letters, as a schoolboy, on returning at the age of 16 to Freiburg and corresponding with Emil Fluss, the older brother of the girl with whom he fell in love during his brief time there, and with Eduard Silberstein, his best friend. How proud young Freud is of his rhetorical skills, his gift with words! Map that against his growing frustration in his 30s with a profession that required him to be good at laboratory procedure and the detailed diagnostic grouping of cases, and I think you see the other determinant of this elation that sets in once he has a universal, and not a just specific, theory of neurosis. He is off and running in the direction of Oedipus and Hamlet and the interpretation of art and literature. He is now less caught up in narrow, crass desires like solving the patient's problems in a systematic manner, and instead he opens up the exploration of a new kind of relationship. I believe that "transference," which becomes so central to Freud's concept of clinical communication, is used first in its fully psychoanalytic sense in that letter that I read you (although it occurs in the 1895 "Studies on Hysteria"); and it occurs first in connection with this patient.

Why didn't Freud publish this patient? There may be practical reasons, such as that the patient's identity may have been hard to conceal in the relatively small town that Vienna then was, but I think it's also clear on inter-personal grounds, because where the patient stops and Freud starts has become somewhat blurred here. I submit to you in fact, and I guess I'm getting now closer to where I start planting ideas that we might discuss in the following moments, I suggest to you that none of Freud's cases are complete. In fact they betray their incompleteness by their titles, "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (Dora), "Notes Upon an Obsessional Neurosis" (The Rat Man), "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" (The Wolf Man). This man must have treated hundreds of people but he published very few. I think we have to recognize that there is a striking disfit between what he learned from his patients and what he published in his case histories, and I think that it is again striking that the product of this insight that comes to Freud in the period of eleven months of mourning for old Jacob, the insight that psychic reality is a great deal more complicated than he had assumed it to be the year before, and which he finds so liberating, produces finally, the great Freudian opus, which turns out not to be a book about neurosis, but a book about interpretation. And not a book about particular sufferers, but a book about a universal technique, but a universal technique that is individual in its application.

I regard The Interpretation of Dreams as the first modern autobiography, and I confess to you that I'm at a loss how orthodox psychoanalytic handling of Freud can offer it to us as a "scientific" document. There is in the entire opus not a single fully interpreted dream. All the interesting interpretations break off when they're starting to get good, only to emerge a hundred pages later to be cross-referenced with another dream. I've been exploring this tangled text for years with my students at Haverford – I think to our mutual benefit – but it has never fallen into place as a systematic treatise in "dream meanings." Rather I think the book is the recounting of the process by which Freud achieves his uniqueness as Freud, a process that has something to do with his own neurosis – of which there's ample evidence in the Fliess years. Furthermore, the dream work allows him to recapture powerful memories of his own past and to do something with them that, aside from rendering them less troubling, makes literature of them, allows him to speak in a powerful way of the things that really concern him: family romance, mythic history, erotic fantasy.


So to conclude: a combination of spotty evidence and his own ambivalence overcame Freud's seduction theory; and the successor theory, psychoanalysis, has, I think it's clear, done more for psychology than the specific theory ever could have. We're still in doubt about whether the products of Freud's mature genius belong with Science or with Art, but the subtle reading of psychodynamics which begins with The Interpretation of Dreams continues to provide the hermeneutic ground for much of modern thought. A coherent theory of psychological development is barely glimpsed by Freud of the 1890s – most of his Freudian works are ahead, as I've mentioned. But the implications of his changed thinking about traumatic etiology point toward a recurrent issue in the dream book – personality structure is not so much discovered as created by analysis. And the prototypical analysis is of the self. Looking back at his own history, we learn that Freud had several models for the rhetorical gifts he displayed in the service of his new art. He argued with his half-brother John in early childhood in Freiburg, he showed off in letters for Emil Fluss as an adolescent, courted Marty Bernays in 900love letters, charmed Breuer and Charcot and Meinert during his student years, and finally wooed Wilhelm Fliess with theory over the ten-year period from which I've been quoting. In between, he talked all the time to himself about his crazy family, his many interests, his big dreams. Finally the dream becomes the paradigmatic vehicle for interpretation, as each image leads to others, stratified by epochal moments of emotional growth. The thinking Freud does in the last years of the 90s about dream meanings will suffuse all aspects of his subsequent theorizing about psychosexual development, psychohistory and culture, the grand Freudian themes. "Insight such as this," as Freud said in his preface to the third English edition in 1931, "falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime."

Epigenetic Epilogue

A short epilogue. Finally it is the infantile memory that Freud discovers, and on whose importance he insists: so deeply repressed, so often transformed, so reworked that it is impossible to reduce to facticity. It is his own treasured early memory Freud evokes as – dying of cancer in the early 1930s – he sends his heir, daughter Anna, off to his hometown to thank them for their recognition of his having been born there, on the occasion of the dedication of a plaque on the old Freud house. And here is what Anna said on Sigmund's behalf:

I offer my thanks to the Burgomeister of the town of Pribor-Freiberg, to the organizers of this celebration and to all those who are attending it, for the honor they have done me in marking the house of my birth with this commemorative tablet from an artist's hand- and this during my lifetime and while the world around us is not yet agreed in its estimate of my work.

I left Freiberg at the age of three and visited it when I was sixteen, during my school holidays, as a guest of the Fluss family, and I have never returned to it again. Since that time much has befallen me; my labors have been many, I have experienced some suffering and happiness as well, and I have had a share of success- the common medley of human life. At seventy-five it is not easy for me to put myself back into those early times; of their rich experiences but few relics remain in my memory. But of one thing I can feel sure: deeply buried within me there still lives the happy child of Freiberg, the first-born son of a youthful mother, who received his first indelible impressions from this air, from this soil. (Freud, 1931, p. 259)

And that's essentially the story I came to tell. Freud haunts us after all these years, not merely because he became one of the 3 or 4 thinkers without whom modernity is unthinkable, but because he packaged his vision in writing of such seductive and transference-compelling subtlety, ambiguity, and power. Thanks.


Davis, D.A. (1990). Freud's unwritten case. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 7, 185-209.

Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. On-line version of A. A. Brill (1911) translation [Psych Web].

Freud, S. (1931). Letter to the burgomeister of Pribor. Standard Edition, 3, 259.

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

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

Addendum: Responses to questions from the audience

This text is based on transcribed remarks delivered as a Faculty Research Talk at Haverford College on November 29, 1990. Copyright ©1995, Douglas A. Davis. All rights reserved. Do not quote without permission.