Peter Gay

Freud, Part I

VTR Date: April 3, 1988

Guest: Gay, Peter


VTR: 4/3/88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. It’s not only because I’ve been married for nearly 40 years to a psychotherapist that I’m not at all likely to begin a program with the observation some would make today that “Freud is dead.” And, because she is also a religious person, I’m not likely to observe that “God is dead,” as others would. Not even that “Marx is dead,” as many more claim. Whatever, one would be foolish to deny that man’s fate is tied inextricably to his faith in such constructs. And the role these ideas – the real weapons of history – have played in our lives has always delighted my guest today … as he in turn has delighted and enlightened us all with his many brilliant, insightful and frequently controversial volumes that together form such a tribute to the historian as intellectual.

Peter Gay is Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, particularly renowned for his books on the Enlightenment and on Victorianism. But he also trained as a psychoanalyst, and it is his new W.W. Norton volume: Freud: A Life for Our Time that occasions his visit to The Open Mind. Mr. Gay and I were graduate students at Columbia at the same time … he, obviously, to much greater avail. But I did learn from the late great historian, Charles A. Beard, that all written history is pre-eminently “an act of faith.” And I want to begin The Open Mind today by asking Peter Gay – in just that context – what his faith is. Fair question?

GAY: Well, for half our program … maybe not a fair question, let’s see. Only in trying to get things right – that would be as far as I would go. Oh, you mean a religious faith?


GAY: Would be zero, very much like Freud’s. I think that’s what first attracted me to him was The Future of an Illusion, which I thought was a very telling book and spoke to me. But what else my faith is? Well, as I say, trying, as an historian, to get things as right as I can. I happen to believe that this is possible, at least to approximate it, and that is probably as far as I would go.

HEFFNER: Is that a Freudian insight, that it is right to approximate truth?

GAY: Well, without wanting to excessively praise the man about whom I’ve just written a big biography, I think that’s what he was after – that’s what he thought was possible. And also, I would say, that some of the emphasis on those things which are not in our control – the unconscious – would be an attempt on his part to find out just what it is that we do not know when we pursue things, thereby to help us to know better how to pursue them. In that sense I regard psychoanalysis as a weapon for this historian in more ways than one.

HEFFNER: You say ‘a weapon.’ I gather though that you yourself feel that at times that weapon has been misused.

GAY: Oh, sure, much of the time. I think … it’s much easier to write bad psychoanalytic history than it would be to write bad economic history, let’s say – or military history. The risks are much greater, obviously. You are dealing with material that is very elusive, you make interpretations that others may argue about with much greater ease than they would be, say, on the nature of a given battle or something of that sort. Of course it’s been done badly, but it’s also been done quite well.

HEFFNER: You say it’s been done quite well, too. My impression had been that usually one reads reviews about psychobabble and about the misuse of psychiatric or psychological insights. Half and half?

GAY: Well, look … I think there we also have to look at the reviewers. I think my profession, the historical profession, is really in many ways very conservative, and psychoanalysis is, if you don’t like the word ‘weapon’, then let’s say an instrument that is regarded as a very dangerous one, a very slippery one. And it’s always much easier to say that this is babble. And very often people who say that have not bothered to read their Freud, to begin with, as you can tell from their so-called “detailed refutations.” I’m not terribly impressed with the notion that it’s in itself an instrument that ought not to be used at all because it’s not secure or there is so much argument within the psychoanalytic profession, all of which, of course, is true. But that’s true of all professions – that all disciplined historians like to borrow from, as we do all the time, you know – whether it’s anthropology or sociology or political science. There are arguments there too – economics. No discipline to which the historian turns is completely, you know, a gift – that says ‘Here we are, everything is clear, we agree on everything, go right ahead and use us.’ This is not the way in which any historian will feel once he gets into, say, anthropology and looks at the controversies, or economics.

HEFFNER: Was it in the service of Cleo, or of something else, that you trained or studied as a psychoanalyst, or psychoanalytic theory, at least?

GAY: Well, you know, there is a joke that young psychiatrists who are getting ready to train for psychoanalysis like to tell one another, which is that they’ll go to the analyst and say, ‘Look, I want to be an analyst. Do I really have to be analyzed? I’m really perfectly all right; I have no problems.’ And the answer always is, ‘Don’t worry, the problems will come.’ Well, similarly, I think my principal reason for analysis was that I was very interested – had been reading Freud since my graduate-school days at Columbia, way back in 1950. At one point, when I was still a graduate student, I wanted to write a book. It was going to be called Love, Work, and Politics – I still remember, I never drafted it – I had no idea what I had in mind, but he’s an old interest of mine. And in the mid ’70’s, I had been at Yale for about five or six years, I became real tired of being a pretty well informed amateur and a good friend of mine, herself studying and not doing analysis, a candidate in the local institute, one day said to me,‘Why not? Why not become a professional?’ And I was convinced, and I’m not sorry. Cost a lot of energy, a lot of time, a lot of money. They were tough years, but I hope I think they’re worth it – it’s hard to know.

HEFFNER: Do you think that you are substantially, or have been substantially different as a historian than you would have been if you had not had this psychoanalytic training?

GAY: Well, substantially is difficult to answer. I would say probably not. I mean, I think I was too old in many ways after I began the analysis when I was already in my 50’s – which is probably a little old to make major changes. I never had a tremendous conversion experience. I’d already used psychoanalysis in my historical work in the ’60’s, or even before that, maybe more amateurishly in the ’50’s. So it was really knowing better, being more at home in it, using it more naturally – maybe that would be it.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s interesting – in the title of your book Freud: A Life for Our Time, I began, as I did … and I wasn’t going to say, Freud is dead, or God is dead, or Marx is dead, but I remember visiting Freud’s home outside of London just, I guess, last year. There was a young man there, an archivist, who said, ‘You know, people ask me, when I tell them where I work, why are you doing this? Freud isn’t a significant figure any longer.’ And when I saw your subtitle, A Life for Our Time, I wondered about it. Is it so much a life for our time?

GAY: Well, look … obviously the subtitle is a pun. I came upon this very, very early. I meant, for one thing, it’s a biography that I hope will speak to our time, but I also meant that his life is in fact relevant to our time as well. You know, I think one thing that has to be said about the famous ‘Freud is dead’ argument, we all speak psychoanalysis now – whether we do it well or ill, consciously or unconsciously – we misuse language: we use subconscious when Freud doesn’t like to use that word. We all talk about siblings and sibling rivalry. We talk about the ages of narcissism, and so on. I can go down a long catalogue. And what you get again and again is that we’ve adopted, often on a very superficial level, what we think Freud had said. And often we don’t even attribute it, you know. Look, in the middle of the 18th Century Delambre, who was one of the first Newtonians in France … there was this big debate in France whether Descartes was right or Newton was right. And among the first to adopt the English set of ideas that revolve around … Delambre once said, ‘You know, 50 years ago everybody said, why do you worry about Newton, it’s all nonsense. And now they’re saying, why do you worry about Newton, what’s new?’ Well, in that sense, I think Freud has … whether you like him or not, simply it’s a matter of intellectual history, or even our self awareness – there he is. In that sense, I think, a lot of people have been writing his obituary without really knowing how alive he still is.

HEFFNER: Even in reality? Or in terms of Freud’s own ideas, or in terms of what we have made into Freud’s ideas? Have we correctly enough, as we’ve adapted, been informed by Freud’s ideas?

GAY: Well, I think some … A certain amount of well-reasoned and … a number of people do know what they’re talking about when they take Freud’s name. They don’t always take it in vain. In general, I think not. I think it’s been trivialized, it’s been made into a kind of cocktail party – form of aggressiveness or … you analyze someone where superficially you can thereby discredit him. This is a very familiar thing that Freud was not completely immune to himself, but warned against. No, I don’t think so. I think the really tough message, then, isn’t that Freud has not really been completely absorbed. Namely, that serenity is, on the whole, only to be purchased in artificial
ways – drink, drugs, being madly in love for a while – or something of that sort. But that otherwise, our mental organization is one of strife and conflict and we do the best we can. He was not an optimist about the human animal, including himself, particularly. And I think it happens to be correct, but no, I think the heritage, on the whole, has been trivialized for the most part.

HEFFNER: You know, that’s really what I meant when I started off by asking what informs your own writing, your own thinking, what faith … to what degree the faith that is yours informs your history writing. You say you accept this … shall we call it pessimism of Freud’s?

GAY: Cheerful enough, but it is pessimistic nonetheless.

HEFFNER: What do you mean, ‘cheerful enough’?

GAY: Well, I mean, at least we have some sense of not falling much further, not expecting too much. I think this is one of the points that Freud makes about illusions – that people … which is not the same thing as a delusion, it’s not madness. But it’s an unwarranted belief in a variety of things, particularly about the purity and goodness of human nature which he thought was, on the whole, not realistic. And once we take that point of view, you may be acting cheerful enough about the world in which you live and try to do the best you can within the context of flawed human nature, which I do think is quite correct. Let me say one other thing about dead or not … I’m really … this is an 800 page monster and I did not write this as a polemic, I hope. I did not try to clear his reputation – that’s only incidental. I think there are certain slanders about him, which I try to deal with in passing, but he’s a historic figure and I’m very critical of him, by the way. This is not a work of adoration. And as you know, since you’ve read it, I have lots of things to say about him, which his admirers will have trouble with, I think. But coming back to this very simple notion of trying to get him straight, since he is a major figure – as a historian, I thought this was worth doing.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that you need to, not in terms of what you think or what you’ve written, but perhaps in terms of what others perceive, need to defend yourself in terms of not being idolatrous here?
GAY: No, I hope not. I don’t mean to sound defensive. I mean, you know, once a book is out, it’s out of your hands anyway. You may have fantasies about great reviews by major figures and all that sort of thing – movie contracts and so forth – but in fact, the child is out of the house. What other people will make of it, I do not know. It’s a little early for the reviews and we’ll have to see. No, I don’t think I feel defensive. In a way I’m trying to characterize the book, which might have sounded, from what I’ve been saying, excessively admiring. That is the only reason why I brought that up.

HEFFNER: Certainly, as one who has read it, I know it’s not … well, I don’t know what “excessively” means. I know that it’s not exclusively admiring.

GAY: Right.

HEFFNER: One of the things I’ve wanted to ask you about as I read this … we talked about the uses, by the historian, of Freudian insights, of what some consider to be Freudianism and may be mistaken about … I was so taken with the business with Bullitt and the collaboration on a psychobiography or psychohistory of Woodrow Wilson. I never quite got from Freud: A Life for Our Time you own innermost reaction to that venture.

GAY: Well, I thought I referred to it as “the calamity.” I hope I did, because I think of it as a calamity.

HEFFNER: On Bullitt’s part, mostly.

GAY: Well, you see, we have a problem here, and I spent a lot of time on this – you need an hour program just to follow this up. The story very briefly is this: Bullitt, who was in Europe writing novels, being on his own, being well-to-do, came to Freud in the late ’20’s as a patient. No details are known, or at least I could never find out what it was, but he had some clinical conversations with Freud at least – I don’t think he had an analysis. In 1930 or so … about … but probably 1930 … he suggested to Freud that they might do a book together on Wilson. Now, the thing that we know is that both of them worked on it. Bullitt lived in Vienna for a while in the year 1930 or early ’31. They corresponded and there was a good deal of work being done. But what is missing, to find out who wrote what, is the manuscript. The manuscript is in the hands of Bullitt’s daughter who will not let anybody see them. I tried all kinds of things to get to her, get to the manuscript. I even talked to a former husband of hers, as a matter of fact, to try to find out some way of seeing this. Because there are two conflicting claims – one, that Freud wrote a good deal of it, and that Bullitt and he collaborated very well, and they then signed each chapter as a sign that they had now agreed on a text. The other view is, and it is my view, on the basis only of internal evidence and a lot of correspondence I’ve read, not … well, Bullitt, Ernest Jones, Freud’s great biographer, Bullitt, Anna Freud, and many other things that I’ve read on this, intrigued me greatly … is that Freud really wrote the introduction, only, and that he gave Bullitt ideas on how to deal with Wilson, whom they both cordially detested, by the way. Of course, that’s what bound them together. But that the book was really essentially written by Bullitt. Now, this cannot be proved at this point, but this is the opinion of those who in the mid ’60’s … the book came out in ’66 … in the mid ’60’s, corresponded with the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, it was the opinion of Anna Freud, who knew her father’s work extremely well, though she had not read that … it is the one manuscript of her father’s that she never read. And then you may recall that The New York Review of Books had a very imaginative idea – they had the book reviewed by two different people: Erik Erikson and Richard Hofstadter, and they were not supposed to talk to each other, and they both came to the same conclusion independently. Namely, that Freud had written the characteristically witty, terse introduction – and it is very mechanical Freudianism – in quotation marks here – that the repetitions, the simplicity, the accusatory tone that marks the whole book would not be Freud’s.

HEFFNER: Why did these men share this extraordinary antipathy toward Woodrow Wilson?

GAY: Well, they came at it from different points of view, of course. Bullitt had been to Versailles and quit, very much the way Keynes did, and then did something very impermissible – he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Lansing, the Secretary of State, did not like the Versailles Treaty either. Whereupon, he virtually went into exile because … nowadays, things have changed, but in those days you didn’t talk about private conversations this way. He felt that Wilson had totally betrayed ideals, that the Fourteen Points were kind of advertisement, when you look back on it now, and that Wilson, had, on top of it all, not only authored a terrible piece, or was largely responsible for it, the Versailles Treaty, but then had done nothing even to defend it in America. So he had a very direct feeling of antipathy. By the way, Wilson has a long history, had a long history, of having close friends, including Col. House, with whom he then very brusquely broke. He did this virtually all his life. There are other examples of that. Freud came upon this for various reasons which are somewhat related but also somewhat independent. For one thing, he regarded him as one of the worst political types you could imagine – the prophet. He felt that Wilson was claiming some semi-divine status and he couldn’t stand people like that to begin with. Also what plays into that … so this is Central European disappointment … disillusionment … with a man who brought Europe these great speeches in the fall of 1928, and before then had proclaimed the Fourteen Points and was not going to stand up for them. But there was another thing which is not Bullitt’s problem, maybe Freud’s … I mean, Freud was thoroughly anti-American, and one of his big … it was really bigotry, to the extent that he was a bigot, was the Americans, whom he could, on a whole, not bear, and whom about he writes quite embarrassing stuff, embarrassing for him. The fact that Wilson was an American, I think helped kindle the antipathy.

HEFFNER: That’s what I wanted to get to and I’m so glad you’ve mentioned that … that it’s … you talk about his dislike for prophets. One might say that Freud willingly or otherwise was put in that position himself, but to have singled out Woodrow Wilson … yes, surely there was that disappointment. Was it Clemenceau who said, ‘One Wilson, that God almighty, only had 10 points, and here Wilson had 14 and look what we had done to the 10? Buy why was Freud so basically anti-American? You document that so beautifully in Freud.

GAY: Yeah. It gave me a lot of trouble because … not because I didn’t work to bring up the criticism – there was no problem for me there – but to motivate it, to get at the bottom of it. Actually, he owed America a great deal. When he came to Clark University in 1909, he got an Honorary Degree of Laws. It is the first time he’d ever had this – the Europeans had never paid that kind of attention to him, only the opposite. And there were certain Americans, like William James, whom he much admired, or Mark Twain – but they may have been the only two whom he did admire. First of all, I think, even though he was a great revolutionary in many ways – very independent of the culture around him – he was also soaked in his own culture. One reason I write so much about Vienna and his own time and psychiatry of a non-Freudian sort, and so on – I tried to locate him where he was. And he was, like other human beings, not wholly independent. And for civilized, or cultivated if you wish, Europeans, especially central Europeans, anti-Americanism is a great cliché that goes back … well, I document it all the way back to Stendahl – Americans are materialists, all they care about is the dollar, they have no culture, etc., etc. We’ve all heard it ad nauseam. And I think you can really show that Freud copies, imitates, talks like everybody else in his circle, which is disappointing because you expect this great bourgeois, who is also a revolutionary to be a little freer, you know, from the current prejudices of his time. That would be one thing. He was simply, in some ways like everybody else, in his own circle. And I show this by not only quoting Stendahl and Dickens and travelers of a more recent sort who came to America and said the same thing – all we care about is dollars and so on. And so it seemed to me that here is one reason: he’s like so many other people. Another thing was this: Freud came quite early to hate the feeling of dependence. It is interesting that when he needed help, financial help, as he did as a young man, he tried to repay it, and when he couldn’t he would break with the people to whom he owed money, not in order to get out of it, but quite the contrary, he could not stand this relationship. The relationship with his fatherly friend, Joseph Breuer, to whom he owed so much, is very characteristic of that. After the war, after the First World War, Central Europe was, of course, devastated. Vienna … Austria was worse off than Germany: high inflation, there was no coal in the winter, there was very little food, clothing was shoddy, if you could get it at all. And for years, Freud mobilized his friends and family … he had some in England, he had some in the United States … to send him things, and as soon as he could he paid them back. He was insistent on this all the time. There is a letter to a nephew of his, Samuel in Manchester, who kept sending him … as by request … food and shoes and other things. At one point there is a letter dated 1921, I think, Freud writes to him and says, ‘If you will not tell me how much this costs so I can pay you back, I’ll have to stop asking you because I can’t stand this.’ He had some money abroad … hard currency … and he would use that. Now the Americans come in here because they, in the early ’20’s, flocked to Vienna to be analyzed. There were his pupils, as he called them, not his patients. And they would be analyzed by him and come back to America to become analysts themselves, and they brought him what he most wanted – hard currency, American dollars. And he could not shake himself loose. When he really … he did highly esteem most of these Americans, in any case, and he needed them and so he stayed with them. And I think he admired that in particular. So I think his virulence, which gets worse, I think, after World War I about these damn Americans, is, I think, in part, based on this inability to cut himself loose from people to whom he owed so much.

HEFFNER: And his analysis of Americans as – what – anal retentive, so much involved in collecting and gathering money … he talked about their aggressiveness and positiveness.

GAY: And, of course, quite illogically, that’s what he was doing himself. Although his own gathering of money … again, here I’m defending him again … but I think these are the facts … is that … was disinterested. He was worrying about his kids, he had six. And when his daughter died in 1920 in the flu epidemic, there were still five. Times were very hard … he was always very concerned with having money enough for them, and the number of people including analysands, Europeans particularly, who were analyzed for nothing, or virtually nothing, the people whom he supported financially through the years is very large in number … and very surprising to me when I began to work. I had no idea this was so because he didn’t trumpet this. You get this in private correspondence. But he wanted money, he wanted to be secure, and he wanted his children to be secure. On the other hand, he was steering it in a manner that was unworthy if the Americans were doing it. So in that sense this contradiction was there.

HEFFNER: Did the Americans prove to be very helpful to him, materially at least?

GAY: Well, they were there and they paid. They paid in dollars. That was the critical thing. There are some examples of Americans running out of money and he said, ‘All right, let’s go on where we were without it.’ But they didn’t support him beyond simply paying their fees, which were high enough. He charged $20, and in the late 1920’s $25 an hour, which was a lot of money. And he got it in cash, especially as long as the Western inflation was rampant. Right down to about 1924, he insisted on cash because turning it over to a bank would mean getting paid back in devalued Kronen which he didn’t want. He also liked English, Swiss and French patients for the same reason. But the Americans were really a little crowd by about 1920.

HEFFNER: And they kept coming. Was this because Freud loomed so large here in this country, perhaps larger than in other countries?

GAY: Well, you know, in the early ’20’s there were very, very few people who might be called training analysts. There were some. And some, by the way, went to Berlin. Berlin was an important center, and Karl Abraham was better … a keener analyst than Freud himself. So there was a kind of division of labor. But the situation that we now have, where anyone who wishes to be trained as an analyst, goes to a training analyst who is a somewhat exalted person at any given institute, there is always enough room and time. But in the early ’20’s there were not very many people around. If you were French and you wanted to be analyzed, there was no French analyst in the early 1920’s to whom you could go to be trained. In fact, the very idea of training was formalized only in the early ’20’s. So there weren’t many like Freud about.

HEFFNER: You know, I do want to pursue this matter, though, of the impact of Freud upon America and the degree to which Americans accepted Freud … or at least what they thought was Freudianism, but our time has run out. So I’ll ask you if you will stay right where you are … we’ll end this program … we’ll come back and do another one and people can watch next week. Okay?

GAY: Okay.

HEFFNER: Peter Gay, thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and The New York Times Company Foundation.