Peter Gay

Freud, Part II

VTR Date: April 3, 1988

Guest: Gay, Peter


VTR: 4/3/88

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And today’s program is a continuation of my earlier discussion with Peter Gay, Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, who is particularly renowned for his books on the Enlightenment and on Victorianism, but who is also a trained psychoanalyst, and whose new W.W. Norton volume, Freud: A Life for Our Time, occasioned his visit here to THE OPEN MIND. I pointed out that Mr. Gay and I were graduate students at Columbia at the same time…though he, obviously, to much greater avail. But I mentioned, also, that I had learned from the late, great historian, Charles A. Beard, that all written history is pre-eminently ‘an act of faith.’ And I asked Peter Gay, in that context, what his faith is. And we went on from there. And Professor Gay, having gone on from there, we did get to Freud in America, and I wonder, if we could just for a moment return to that…I’m so fascinated by the degree to which Freud was accepted, or Freudianism was accepted in this country. And I wanted to pursue just a bit more. Why? What were the dynamics at work?

GAY: Well, it’s a long story, but putting it briefly…I think Freud conquered this country twice – with sort of two waves of invasion – the first was around the time of the First world War, when you get people like Walter Lippman picking up Freud at Harvard and shortly after, when you read about people in…say in Greenwich Village reading him, and some, like Lippman, taking him very seriously. But on the whole, it’s a fashionable, not terribly influential kind of group of readers. And it may very well be that ‘conquest’ here is a little too strong. But then there is a kind of waning through the ‘20s. And then in the ‘30s, with the coming of the refugees from Germany, from Austria, there was a real explosion of interest in psychoanalysis, and very widespread acceptance. Much of that acceptance, incidentally, worried Freud, who thought the Americans would overwhelm the message in some way, would take it over and trivialize it and he was never persuaded that the Americans would really do very much good. But what happened, with the ‘30s, and these innumerable cartoons…you know, the bearded professor speaking with a very heavy Austrian accent, sitting behind the patient with a notebook on his lap…this, by the way, this famous signature that you see in I don’t know how many cartoons even today, is one central mistake because psychoanalysts do not have notebooks by their side and don’t take notes. But in any event, the analyst became both a figure of fun and also a figure of great authority, I think, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Now, this is very great over-estimation, as I see it, of what psychoanalysis could do, not only for individual neurotics, but for everything – a sick society. You know, this became a kind of slogan. So political scientists and sociologists and others were really persuaded that the Freudian message would somehow not only clarify many theoretical issues, which was one thing, but also help in social work and understanding irrational politics and whatever else. And this kind of love affair, which also of course was fueled by the fact that America was very prosperous after the war with the great prosperity of the mid late ‘50s and after, so that a lot of people could even fashionably go into analysis and not be ashamed of it – far from it, boast about it. This love affair then waned, the way love affairs will, and I think what we’re now in is a kind of trough. We’re now…from over-estimation, which was quite unjustified, and which I think psychoanalysts on the whole did not have a lot to do with, correctly…we’ve now, I think, reached the stage of very considerable skepticism and under-estimation. Now one talks endlessly about drugs as the great solution for mental problems, and so on. And psychoanalysis is now regarded as passé and out-of-it, and so on.

HEFFNER: but you say, ‘under-estimation,’ and you use drugs as an example…wasn’t Freud himself very much involved in the biological basis for disturbance that was mental? And wouldn’t he have himself, in this era of the chemical and the endocrine, have made use of these discoveries?

GAY: Absolutely. There is a very good piece of evidence for this…he always thought that psychoanalysis…I mean, the visit to the couch five times a week and perhaps five, six, seven years of that, eleven months during the year…was clumsy, slow and could not guarantee results, and so on. In the last book which he did not finish…it’s The Outline of Psychoanalysis, which he wrote when he was 82, finally safe in London after having left Austria after the Nazi Anschluss, he wrote what sounds like an elementary textbook, which it was not, but a very brief, very highly compressed text, which he wrote about 60, 65 pages and then stopped because he was simply getting too ill to concentrate and he abandoned it. But in that torso, in that fragment, is a very interesting passage which confirms what you’ve just said. He said that he thought the time would come when chemistry would, in fact, take over from this kind of clumsy instrument, this kind of lengthy, expensive, uncertain analysis. He thought…he did not mean drugs in the sense of drugging you to pain, which alcohol, let’s say, can do, or cocaine for that matter or heroin, but he meant drugs which would in some genuine way shift balances within the mind. And if this could be done, he thought, then this could take the place of what I just said, of this, what he called, this clumsy instrument. However, there is one thing that he did believe in, that other analysts after him have continued to believe, is that as a research instrument, this kind of clumsy old instrument works still quite well. Ways of finding out how people, in fact, function…I mean, after all, the …from the beginning, when I used to keep in mind that psychoanalysis was not only a therapy, it was also an attempt to be a science, the science of the mind. Freud really aimed at a general theory of the mind – sick and well, both. You know, it’s not an accident that Freud should have written his first major book, The Interpretation of Dreams, about an experience that every human being has. That was on purpose. But I wouldn’t expect it…since in the 1890s, when he was developing psychoanalysis, that he would write a big book on the neuroses. This, in fact, he planned to do. Then he shifted and he did this book about what? About a kind of every day, common experience that every human being, one way of the other, has gone through and goes through very frequently. I mean, I think that was done deliberately. He was interested, very early on, to develop a theory of the human mind – a psychology. He felt psychoanalysis is a branch of a kind of psychology – not simply a therapy. So I think, from this point of view, psychoanalysis he regarded as a research instrument, as well as an instrument for betterment, for cure.

HEFFNER: someone has raised the question as to whether Freud’s own neuroses would have permitted him to be accepted today in a psychoanalytic institute.

GAY: Well, hard to say. He might have been regarded as perhaps rather promising even so. I mean, he himself believed, I think wrongly, that the neuroses that were visible to him…for example, a travel anxiety – the need to get to a train station well over an hour before departure, the curious inability…much as he loved Italy and he would go on vacations from Austria to Italy every summer, his inability to go to Rome – something was somehow keeping him from it. That his self-analysis, this very strange and rather magnificent way of making up the rules of analysis as he went, since he had no models, no teachers, no nothing, just himself, that this analysis helped him. So it is possible that one could argue that his neuroses were not that severe. Of course there are those who, when they hear me say that, will not agree, will regard…I mean, there is a recent book, for example, on Freud and cocaine, which argues that Freud developed psychoanalysis in the ‘90s when he was high on cocaine and, in fact, suffering.

HEFFNER: Is that true?

GAY: No, no, it’s not true. He was not addicted to cocaine.

HEFFNER: He used it?

GAY: Fair to sparingly. The evidence for this is fragmentary, but he also published it – it was not a secret. Ina very famous passage in The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he describes a dream…first it gives you the dream that he dreamt in 1895, in July, and then analyzes it in great detail. And he is very pleased with this particular dream – it is called the model or the specimen dream of psychoanalysis because it is the first one he ever analyzed through. And it gives you…then the dream…it is a very long, complex dream…and then he gives the associations and then its interpretations. All this in a book that he published at the end of 1899, or usually called 1900. Anyway, in that…in describing the realistic situation in which he dreams this dream, he talks about the fact that he’s had a nasal infection and he’s been giving himself some cocaine –obviously inhaling a little bit, or sniffing it – in order to clear his passages. So we know from him that he used cocaine, though I don’t believe that there is any reliable evidence that he used a great deal, that he was addicted to it. He used it the way in which when I was an undergraduate, and had to go to a party and would be nervous and shy, get a quick drink – to feel a little better. So he describes, when he’s in Paris, in 1885-86…he writes to his fiance…he’s nervous about his French. His English is excellent, his reading French is very good, but his spoken French is not as good as he would like it to be. So he’s tense about the big evening party at his teacher Charcot’s house. So then he sniffs a little cocaine to feel a little easier. And that’s what he advises his fiancé to do, to whom he sends little vials of cocaine for the same reason.

HEFFNER: And through the rest of his life?

GAY: There’s no evidence at all that I know of that he took any after a while. Even the one…the reference that I mentioned, 1895, seems rather unusual for him. In the…well, this may be related to this…in the late ‘90s, this appeared in letters that he…very confidential letters that he wrote to his best friend, a man called Wilhelm Fliess in Berlin. In the late ‘90s he took to drinking an occasional glass of wine, which he did, on the whole, not do, because he had a poor head for alcohol. But he did when he was really working day and night on The Interpretation of Dreams. It was a long, difficult, difficult book to write. And he sometimes talks about taking a…’resorting to friend Marsala,’ or something like that. He takes an occasional glass. But he was not, in my judgment, a person addicted to anything.

HEFFNER: When you say, ‘not addicted to anything,’ when I read Freud: A life for Our Time, I couldn’t help but be impressed, again and again and again, with the reference to that favorite instrument of his – the cigar…

GAY: …Oh yes.

HEFFNER: And to realize what he suffered in his last years because of his cancer, and yet the cigar was ever present.

GAY: Fair enough. The cigar…all right, you can…well, as a matter of fact, now as I think of it, it is quite true – you can call that an…he called it an addiction, yes. He felt, on the basis of his own experience, that he worked better with it than without it. That he had to have it. There is some…all right, that’s fair enough to call that an addiction. I mean, he smoked even after he got his cancer, although cautiously and followed the doctors. He knew that he was sick when he didn’t want a cigar. That was, for him, a sign that he was really in trouble. I mean, once in a while he would say, “I have no appetite for the thing.” And then he knew that there was something really wrong.

HEFFNER: Professor Gay, there is something in Freud: A life for Our Time that interested me so and it had to do with, again, the reception of Freud in this country. Was he enormously concerned about the medicalization of his theories? Was he terribly concerned that there would be, in this country of all countries, a push for the medical people to dominate it?

GAY: Oh yes. This was a big cause for him from the beginning. In a way he felt he was in a good position to talk because he was a doctor himself, had gotten his medical degree at the University of Vienna, had done a great deal of medical research, very meritorious stuff, had done remarkable research into neurology, stuff that is still very little known, but that current neurology does not look down upon at all. So he had a good base on which to stand. He believed that to make psychoanalysis a part of psychiatry, as against psychology, was a mistake. And there was a big debate over that in the ‘20s, and in 1926 he published a polemic, called The Question of Lay Analysis, where he came out, once again, in favor of non-M.D.s, non-doctors being able to be trained as analysts. He argued, as he put it very pungently, the worse quack is an M.D. who practices psychoanalysis without being trained in psychoanalysis. And he was particular…this…we’ve talked about his before – about his highly critical, excessively critical attitude towards America – he believed that the Americans were very unreasonable about this because the Americans resisted lay analysis more strongly than any other place anywhere.

HEFFNER: why was that true? Why did the medical model dominate? Why does it dominate today in this country?

GAY: Well, it dominates less today, of course, because there are…I know several Masters of Social Work and several Ph.D.s who are full fledged analysts, completely accepted members of the Association, and so on. It is still a controversial issue how many there should be and that’s another matter. I think that the reason…well, let’s put it this way – psychoanalysis was started in this country, officially, around 1911, when two – both The New York and the American Psychoanalytic Associations – were founded all by doctors. So they began as doctors. Then, as it began to gain recruits and become more popular, say in the early 1920s – the kind of post World War I…The Lippman era that I mentioned earlier – it became very clear that this was an ideal place for quacks and charlatans to hook in, and advertise, you know: ‘Be psychoanalyzed by me – 10 sessions and do fine,’ and so on. And the doctors who had, after all, paid their dues, as it were – gone to medical school, done psychiatry, gone to Vienna to be analyzed by Freud and had the training analysis – after all this time being such responsible people – not presumably mistaking, let’s say a physical ailment for a mental problem, which is always the great risk for the non-doctor, right? They felt…and I think, by the way, with some justice, as I said, that they wanted to ward off the charlatans. And one way of being respectable, rather than merely being some sort of unauthorized self-professed faith healer, of whom there were too many, and I suppose there still are today…that the only insurance was to say: ‘M.D.’ and then ‘psychoanalyst.’ And this is not completely irrational at all, because if you look at the history of charlatanry in this field, it was a menace.

HEFFNER: Okay. That has to do then with the motivation of the medical profession. If I understand correctly what you’ve just said, and what I read in Freud, then there was also some subjective necessity on Freud’s part to make certain that this was not a medical matter. Is that fair, or is that putting it too strongly?

GAY: Well, he had…well, you see, if he had begun to talk this way in the 1920s, you could have said, ‘Well, aha, I have a motive for it.’ Right? His daughter Anna, who was his favorite person in the whole world, I believe, and who was not an M.D. a matter of fact, the story which I tell and it’s a true story, is that Anna Freud wanted to go to medical school to become an analyst like her father and her father talked her out of it. Now this was around 1917. As he had talked out of going to medical school several other people – his friend Oskar Pfister, who was a Protestant clergyman in Zurich, who also had wanted to do this and Freud said, ‘Don’t bother, you can be trained as an analyst without it.’ And there are several other examples. If it had begun in the ‘20s then to defend lay analysis, as it was then or is still called, you would have said ‘Well, there is his daughter and he’s got some other very admiring people who are not M.D.s whom he regards as perfectly good analysts and has taken kind of a personal interest in this.’ But the fact is that he talked this way before the First World War, when he was completely uninvolved with anyone who was at that point not a doctor. But it became then very clear to him by 1910-1911 that there was a kind of danger here. Now I can see what he…that he…why he regarded this as a danger. Various reasons. One of them, maybe the most important one – he was thoroughly trained in the medical psychology of the 19th century, which was heavily physiological. I mean, normally, all the way down to the 1890s, the great experts like Krafft-Ebbing, and so on, will say that if someone has a mental problem it may be a birth…a defect…a hereditary taint, a birth defect, or an injury – a trauma – that is – something like being hit over the head, or a railway spike; the famous example of being shaken up too much by railroads and then having mental problems. Nearly all these people believed that virtually everything was either heredity or physical. So Freud broke with that, very slowly, and you could follow him through the ‘90s to see him riding, what he called eventually…what I would call for him, really, ‘a psychology for psychologists.’ He was working in 1895 on a major document which he never finished which he called A Psychology for Neurologists. He shifted, and what he thought all the way through was that doctors were inclined to look at the medical…the physiological side too much. Now, this is not the only reason why he stayed with the lay analysis argument, but I think it was the first. So the subjective reason, namely h is affection for his daughter, well, it strengthened it. He thought of her as a remarkable child analyst and…but I think this came much later.

HEFFNER: Professor Gay, there have been a number of studies of Freud, but in your massive new book I suppose the fair question to ask is what’s new?

GAY: Well, I asked myself that question a number of times as I was working on it. In fact, I had the great Freud biography, the Ernest Jones three volume biography, on my desk all the time. It is very hard…I mean, to say, one would really have to be specific. Number one, to begin with, a …some statistic: I haven’t counted this, but I would guess that in this very big book there must be about 2,000 or so passages, long or short, large or small, that derive from unpublished material, or material that’s been incompletely published, or wrongly published. Let me give you an example of what I mean by wrongly published. It is not a big thing, but it is characteristic of at least some of the adjustments I could make in writing this biography. Freud was very friendly, became very close to his favorite English disciple, Ernest Jones. The two men knew one another for about thirty years, went through many battles, some with one another, but mostly with the outside world. Jones was really the figure who was to establish psychoanalysis in England and the two men had a lot of correspondence. Now Freud’s English was very good and very fluent and Freud wrote to Jones in English, in part, because Jones could not read…Jones’ journals became very good, but he couldn’t read Freud’s handwriting – this Gothic German handwriting. So Freud said ‘All right, I will write you in English and then you will be able to understand me.’ During World War I, by the way, when the two men still corresponded via Holland or via Switzerland, Freud lapsed into German. The first letter after the war was then again in English. Now, in these letters, Freud made some quite charming small mistakes, or invented words. Jones, however, in his biography, who depended copiously on this correspondence, which he had right to hand, of course, Jones corrected Freud’s English. Now I know, because there is an unpublished letter from Anna Freud to Ernest Jones. It was at the request of Anna Freud that he did this because he wanted to follow her strong urging. And she said, ‘My father loved English so much’…it was, in many ways his favorite language, and he read it all the time and he spoke it and he wrote it…he analyzed in it a great deal, you know. After World War I he analyzed more in English than in German, for example, with all the American and English analysands. Anyway, she felt that her father would have been horrified at seeing these mistakes. I’ve now corrected these corrections – taken them all out. So that, for example, would be a small example. Another example is that I’ve been able to get hold of a good deal of correspondence that other people either have never been able to use – no other biographers – or used with enormous care and caution. Freud wrote very frankly to a number of people, including for example his favorite Hungarian disciple, Sandor Ferenczi from Budapest, and I read the whole correspondence. Jones read a lot of it, but I read all of it and I used a lot of this stuff, which is quite unpublished. He was also involved in larger issues. For example, the relation of father to daughter. I’m the first one to have read the correspondence between Freud and Anna Freud and I have a large section devoted to that very complicated relation – very affectionate, and yet at the same time very difficult, between father and daughter. Beyond that, I think…beyond all this material that is new in the sense that it has not been used at all, or has been used with excessive caution…beyond that I think what is new in the book is that I have tried to integrate life and work. That is to say, I’ve tried to write a biography in which his home life, his marriage, his relations with his children – what I call psychoanalytic politics, his way of dealing with his disciples and friends, his quarrels with Jung or with Adler, and these other things – are related to what he was doing at the time. And so that I do not simply have a chapter in which I only deal let’s say with the papers on technique and forget about the life. I don’t want to be…I hope I was not…I was trying not to be a reductionist in saying, well, he only wrote this paper because he was thinking of something else, and so on. But in many ways it becomes extremely important to find out when he wrote something because it will come out again and again that he is particularly passionately interested in something in, say, his private life or in his inner life which pushes him in a certain direction. And if you look at Ernest Jones, which still remains a great piece of work. I mean, it’s been much maligned, I think, and rather unjustly so…these three volumes still remain, after all, unduplicable because there is a lot of personal stuff in there. I mean, conversations between the two men. And so I’ve used Jones as a source, not as my model but as a source. But Jones separates life and work completely. He’ll have a chronology – March 1910, April 1910, or he’ll say ‘In 1913 these things happen,’ and then there will be a footnote saying, ‘See page so and so,’ fifty or three hundred pages later, for the paper that is being written at that point. So that the living unity of the way in which this…I mean, Freud was deeply involved, after all, in himself, as we all are, and he used himself very freely as a resource.

HEFFNER: Professor Gay, in terms of what you’ve just said about new letters available to you or materials that you went through completely…we have a minute and a half left…do you anticipate in the next millennium…do you anticipate that there are still papers, that there are still letters that may show Freud in a somewhat different light?

GAY: Look, as an historian I’ve learned never to say “never.” I do know myself, in fact it’s been very frustrating. There are certain correspondences between, for example, Freud and his sister-in-law, his wife’s sister Minna, which I saw physically but was not allowed to read. There are other documents which will become open. I will continue to argue, and I have in my file cabinet a file folder that says, ‘Freud: Second Edition,’ and I hope to drop things in there as we go. Frankly I doubt that there will be a major change, but of course the picture…it’s a mosaic, and some of the pieces are missing. I managed to find a lot of them, but some more would be well to have.

HEFFNER: One last question and one last minute…do you anticipate that our evaluation of Freud will change? A life for our time? What about the next century?

GAY: Well, there are so many appraisals now, some of which are extremely hostile, some of which are extremely admiring. My own view, as you know, is very positive. I would hope that this new book may contribute somewhat to readjusting our feelings even now. That he remains a figure for the ages, I think seems quite clear, at least to me.

HEFFNER: Professor Gay, I’m really enormously grateful to you for having joined us on THE OPEN MIND, for this program and for the previous one. I’ve read you so often, your books on the Enlightenment, on the Victorian period as well as on Freud. I hope you will join us again some other time. Thank you so much for joining me today. And thanks, too, 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 to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 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.