CRITICISM - FREUD and THE ARTS
and the arts
Hours August 1994, pp. 68-71
Freud was a
storyteller, one of the greatest of short-story writers. The
Interpretation of Dreams is a contemporary counterpart to A
Thousand and One Nights with Sigmund as Scheherazade. He recognised
that because his case histories “read like novellas they, so to speak,
lack the serious stamp of scientific method.” A recent biographer,
Peter Gay, has observed that Dora, the Wolf Man and the Rat Man are
entering Western culture alongside characters from novels such as the
protagonist of David Copperfield,
which was Freud’s favourite Dickens.
Freud saw himself as
continuing the work of creative writers. His debt to the Oedipus
of Sophocles is notorious, if misunderstood, because the original is no
longer common intellectual property. Freud located his account of
incest-driven patricide within the imaginative continuities of the
Greeks, Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. “Turn to the poets”, Freud
advised disciples who wanted to know more about female sexuality than
could be read in his fragmentary comments. The citation for his 1930
Goethe Prize praised him for “boldly interpreting the similes coined
by imaginative writers.” Much as he valued that award, he had hoped to
receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.
skills were superb, knowing how much to hold back without making the
reader feel cheated, judging the moment to introduce information,
varying the pace by switching from scholarship to speculation and, like
Beethoven, knowing how to close, if not always when.
Freud’s longest piece
on the arts was also the earliest, and is among the less popularly
known: an 85-page analysis of a 1903 novella, Gradiva,
by the German writer Wilhelm Jensen.
The story is set in Pompeii, itself a favourite of Freud’s, who was
fond of comparing his method with archaeology where what had been long
buried – that is to say repressed – would be dug up by analysis from
the “rubbish heap … of our observations.” Another value of the Gradiva
essay is Freud’s approachable defence of his thinking about dreams
against those rationalists who wanted to attribute dreaming to some
external stimulus, such as an open window or a passing train. Freud
proposed to arrive at their latent meaning via “antiquity and
Freud’s prose, salted
with sagacious ironies, is distinguished by its conversational intimacy
and enriched through his readers’ appreciation of confidences being
shared. He preferred the plain style and disliked the neologisms –
such as “cathexis” for “interest” and “id” for “it” –
that others brought to psychoanalysis.
Einstein loved Freud’s prose for its “clarity and beauty”, finding
his style almost without peer. Perhaps because he ranged so freely in
his essays on the arts, his epigrammatic precision was often deployed to
bring straying thoughts under control: the adult “would rather confess
his misdeeds than tell anyone his phantasies.” Freud’s wit is
exemplified in his description of Dostoevsky’s veneration of God, the
Czar and Mother Russia, as a “position which lesser minds have reached
with smaller effort.”
On occasion, Freud’s
irony became so subtle that it appeared to be false modesty. Freud
comments more than once that he is sure his discoveries will be
commonplace to aestheticians. That claim was not true when he wrote, as
he well knew, and it is only marginally truer today. He had no doubts
about his own worth and was not embarrassed to observe that “the
conflict in Hamlet is so
effectively concealed that it was left to me to unearth it.”
neglected one artist who anticipated the voyage into our passionate
unconsciousness. Wagner’s poetry and more, his orchestral chromaticism,
prepared Europe’s intelligentsia for an articulation of their desires.
Following Schopenhauer, Wagner sought to make audiences conscious of
their unconscious, with characters and leading motifs expressing
instincts. Audiences experience Das
Ring as a dream and Wagner
claimed to have dreamed its extended, soft E-flat opening bars.
Also pertinent to Freud
is that Wagner’s cycle shadowed the Oresteian trilogy by Aeschylus.
Wagner rewrote the Nibelung saga to make Siegfried the child of an
incestuous union enacted on stage in Die
Walkure. He compounded that shock by having Wotan refuse to punish
the parents, Sieglinde and Siegmund:
The Patrice Chereau
centennial production of Das Ring
realised that the Valkyrie are the embodiment of Wotan’s desires,
close to Freud’s explanation of dreams as wish fulfillments. Yet,
despite, his own delight in Der
Meistersingers vom Nuremburg, Freud did no join the parade of
critics, from Nietzsche to Thomas Mann, who responded to Wagner’s
plots, characters or compositions by writing at least one essay about
that rival Master.
Freud could not avoid
patients who had incorporated their experiences of Wagnerian
performances into the manifest content of their dreams. An unmarried
woman friend, not a patient, dreamed of attending a Wagner music-drama
conducted from the top of a high tower in the middle of the stalls, That
the performance continued until a quarter to eight in the morning either
challenges Freud’s notion that dreams were unfulfilled wishes or
proves that the woman was the perfect Wagnerite. The dreamer’s sister
kept offering her a piece of coal to keep her warm. Freud interpreted
this dream as revealing “a topsy-turvy world” in which the deserving
dreamer missed out on her due worth just as her real-life friend, Hugo
Wolf, was in an asylum, instead of on the conductor’s podium
In other cases,
Freud’s silence could be attributed to envy. A more honourable if no
less complex explanation applies in the realm of music. Freud confessed
himself almost incapable of obtaining pleasure form any material that
produced effects he could not analyse. Unlike certain of today’s
critics of pleasure, he did not wish to interpret those emotional
effects out of existence. Rather, he needed to dispel his bewilderment
when faced with what he thought should have been no more than another
Like other unmusical
folk, Freud found opera more satisfying than instrumental performances,
since verbal conflicts reached emotional crescendos while good and evil
struggled for control over exaggerated characters. Like dreams, arias
gave voice to suppressed thoughts.
Two of Frued’s
favourite operas – Carmen and Don Giovanni
– do not end with a reconciliation of moral dilemmas. He delighted in
the woman who refuses to be owned by any man as well as in the man who
rejects every social restraint and defies damnation. These preferences
are revealing because Freud believed that audiences identify with
characters as a way of fulfilling desires that they dare neither express
nor enact. Much as Freud praised self-control, these operas indicate his
openness to irreconcilable “teachers”. As he noted, “the struggle
between ‘love and duty’, which is so familiar to us in opera, [is]
… just as endless, in fact, as the erotic day-dreams of men.”
Whatever we now mean by
responding to art works or criticism with the comment, “That’s very
Freudian”, we cannot mean that the item conforms to Freud’s own
quite conservative aesthetic preferences. Most often, the remark signals
that the artists or critic has strayed into territories that Freudians
have helped to map.
claimed that Freud had little to offer on aesthetics, and art historian E
H Gombrich argued that what Freud did say was old-fashioned because it
emphasised the artistic intention.
The element of truth in both these judgements neither exhausts the
topics that Freud explored nor the insights he offered. His brief
discussion of “Psychopathic Stage Characters” went beyond conscious
creation to the interplay between authorial purpose and audience
response. One-sidedness was alien to this thinking.
Freud knew what he
liked, and he liked the conventional. His greatest delight came from
antiquities. As a young man, he described the “statues, gravestones,
inscriptions and debris” in the Louvre as “a world as in a dream”,
recognising that his pleasure was “more historical than aesthetic”.
This addiction to antiquities remained throughout his life until his
consulting room and study became a museum as he sacrificed other
enjoyments to purchase Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts. The pleasure
he obtained from handling them paralleled the oral gratification of his
Regular pilgrimages to Rome allowed him to enjoy the larger pieces and,
like Goethe and Wagner, he was drawn across the Alps to the warmth and
less inhibited cultures along the Mediterranean.
Goethe was the fount of
Freud’s aesthetics, as well as being the most cited author in his
collected works. Freud’s Oedipal interpretation of Hamlet
extended the reinterpretation impressed upon the prince’s character by
Goethe’s Romanticism through his The
Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
Typical of Freud’s
traditional aesthetics was his concern in studying Leonardo to
reconsider the dichotomy expressed by Goethe as fate versus chance, or
constitution against experience. Freud rejected the either/or
explanation in favour of a “polymorphous” disposition, an approach
he developed for his comments on Shakespeare.
acknowledge that such pioneering fragments as “The Theme of the Three
Caskets” exalt the dramatist’s creativity by considering authorial
slips as a sign of complex characterisation.
In the words of the editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, Gary Taylor:
“His characters are assumed to have a three-dimensional psyche; all
defects are deliberate and symptomatic; all defects of detail serve a
larger psychological perfection.”
Freud discussed how
Shakespeare “often splits a character up into personages which, taken
separately, are not completely understandable and do not become so until
they are brought together once more into a unity.” This doubling
occurs with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth: “what he feared in his pangs of
conscience is fulfilled in her … Together they exhaust the
possibilities of reaction to the crime.”
As an otherwise
respectable 19th-century bourgeois, Freud sought two kinds of
meaning in art: narrative and morality. The problem he tried to solve
regarding Michelangelo’s Moses was in direct line from the German Enlightenment: what has
happened to make Moses sit as he does? Moreover, as Gombrich pointed
out, Freud’s fascination with Moses repeated a common preference among
Despite the sexual
concerns in his writing, Freud’s manner of expression remained free of
prurience without becoming clinical. He appreciated the bawdy in
Rabelais and shocked his fiancée recommending the humour and fantasy in
Cervantes, though shock might have been his intention. No novel made him
laugh as much as Don Quixote
which, forty years on, remained an “Immortal prototype”.
Freud was as much a man
of his class as of his time. In an 1883 letter to his fiancée, he
explained that the “mob” can never acquire finer feelings in art or
love because they could not afford to deprive their appetites. In
contrast, their own sort of people were constantly suppressing
“natural instincts” and hence acquiring the habits that nourished
“the quality of refinement”. Freud also accepted the claim that the
Earl of Oxford had written Shakespeare’s plays. Was this nonsense
another mark of his class prejudice, or, as his biographer Ernest Jones
believed, a further product of a mind reluctant to accept that life is
what it seems?
The lack of
self-control in modern art explains why Freud rejected the Expressionist
in the 1900s as well as the Surrealists thirty years later. Presented
with a colleague’s1920 pamphlet sympathetic to Expressionist painting,
Freud declared that “in private life I have no patience at all with
lunatics/cranks.” In the face of contemporary paintings, he sided with
the “philistines and stick-in-the-muds” who refused to apply the
title “artists” to technical incompetents. Freud rejected the belief
that un-sublimated symptoms were creative acts.
Not until 1938 did
Freud agree to meet Salvador Dali. Before then, he had declined to
accept canonisation by any of the Surrealist popes. In addition, he had
doubted whether the unconscious could produce art, because of the
absence of self-control through techniques. Art, in his view, came not
from instinctual gratification but by finding some way back to reality
by moulding “phantasies into truths of a new kind.” In his emphasis
upon the necessity for technique, Freud was at one with the early
Surrealist poets who had excluded painting because it could not be
automatic, a failing Max Ernst sought to overcome by frottage. To the
disgust of the complete Surrealists, Dali stepped around the difficulty
by illustrating dreams with the same degree in detail as any
anti-modernist taste was another instance of the disjuncture of
modernisation from modernity, apparent in both Hitler and Stalin. Among
the dictators, only Mussolini combined modernism in the arts, in the
form of Futurism, with modernisation of the economy and society.
Freud did not write
about art and literature so much examine specific artists and particular
works. He came to accept how little the biography of an artist could achieve.
In 1913, he had expected to divine, with a high degree of accuracy, the
intimate personality of artists from their works. By 1930, he confessed
psycho-biography became equally limited: “
supply some information which cannot be arrived at by other means, and
can thus demonstrate new connecting threads in the ‘weaver’s
masterpiece’ spread between the instinctual endowments, the
experiences and the works of an artist.
Freud suspected that
biographies retained their popularity – despite their inability to
tell us what we most wish to know – because of our
This search for models
is telling, since Freud saw himself as sage, a Moses for our time.
The best known fact
about Freud on art is his mistake about Leonardo. By following
mistranslations into German, Freud thought that Leonardo had claimed to
have been visited in his cradle by a vulture. Freud rested part of his
argument on the etymological and mythological links to the vulture. In
fact, the bird was a kite – the bird most mentioned in Leonardo’s
writings and the one he studied for flight, during which its tail acts
as a rudder. The kite, Leonardo recalled, had “opened my mouth with
its tail and struck me many times with its tail inside my lips.”
Irrespective of the species, a homosexual significance remained
possible. Freud had not intended art criticism when he wrote Leonardo,
but was expanding on his analysis of a patient whose fantasies had
linked fellatio with suckling.
After Freud’s mistake
was pointed out in 1923, he never revised the text, just as he refused
to undergo analysis for fear of jeopardising his authority over others.
Despite that silence, his private view was more chastened. He defended
the other half of his essay, which dealt with the St Anne painting.
Freud continued to find Leonardo’s prose beautiful than any of his
other works but acknowledged that it was a “half-fictional
production” as well as “an especially crass example of the impact of
accidental family constellations.” His aim had been to reveal, not
demonstrate, an interdependence of childhood experience with adult
behaviour. His real failure, according to,one of the century’s finest
art scholars, Meyer Shapiro, was not to provide a bridge between them.
dismiss Freud seize on his vulture/kite mistake and his refusal to admit
his error in order to ridicule any kind of psychoanalytic
interpretation. Shapiro, however, provided a more seminal critique.
Describing Freud’s essay as being marked by “beautiful simplicity
and vigour”, Shapiro could appreciate how ingenious Freud had been
“in probing hitherto unnoticed avowals of the artist.”
For Shapiro, the fault
in Freud’s account of Leonardo derived from its lack of context – no
history of religion, society, art of culture. By supplying those
aspects, Shapiro undermined Freud’s conclusions, but enriched the
psychoanalytical approach. Shapiro endorsed Freud’s claim that the St
Anne painting “would not be comprehensible without Leonardo’s
peculiar childhood history.” For history and psychology not to be in
opposition, the commentators’ historical knowledge had to be sound and
the object of inquiry extended to an entire oeuvre.
To interpret any particular dream, Freud believed it was essential to
know as much as possible about the dreamer, including her or his distant
post. He had failed to apply this rule to artworks.
Goethe provided the
occasion for three of Freud’s comments on the arts. When Frankfurt
awarded him its Goethe Prize in 1930, he was too ill to attend, but
wrote an address of acceptance which began with a perplexing summary of
his own life’s work which, he said, had been directed towards the
single aim of observing “the more subtle disturbances of mental
function in healthy and sick people” in order “
Although chance played
its part in human events, Freud argued that there was
On the surface, those
sentences support Frank J Sulloway, who reminded us in 1979 that Freud
had started as a neurobiologist.
Before concluding that Freud was a mechanistic materialist, we need to
consider what kind of “apparatus” he had in mind. Was that system
one of electrochemical impulses, or a structure for organising thoughts,
that is, a product of those impulses, without itself being one of them.
My guess is that Freud
intended some concept more like the latter, since his style/temper was
dialectical: “when what has been repressed returns, to emerge from the
repressing force itself”, he wrote of an image by Felicion Rops in
which the crucified figure of Christ becomes the embodiment of sin. When
discussing Goethe’s childish pranks, Freud noted that more than one
cause can contribute to a particular action, in this case the smashing
of plates. Against Adler’s equation of masculine protest with a revolt
against castration, Freud argued that “a neurosis can only arise from
a conflict between two trends”, and thus required the feminine element
as a constituent part. He reinterpreted Michelangelo’s Moses as a successful struggle against “an inward passion for the
sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself.” And elsewhere he
observed that, “Where a compromise comes about it must have been
preceded by a struggle …. In the formation of a delusion, this
struggle is in fact unending.”
Freud’s belief that
happiness had to be achieved through self-control also informed his
first piece occasioned by Goethe. In that 1915 address, he identified
transience as “scarcity value in time.” The temper of this wartime
speech was far from bellicose. He explained the rise in jingoism as
flowing from the loss of country-sides and artworks, and, above all,
from a shattering of civilisation and the tarnishing of science. Freud
denied that “the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss of
its worth.” He allowed himself the affirmation – a giving into hope?
– that “once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high
opinion of the riches of civilisation has lost nothing from our
discovery of their fragility.” Freud did not value transience for its
own sake. That shift had begun among the modernists, but its acceptance
did not become widespread until the 1980s with Post-Modernity.
After he wrote in
defence of culture, despite its transience, that war dragged through
three more years. Since his death, a second world war has ended with the
threat of nuclear war settling over humankind for four decades. Now that
the immediate danger of complete annihilation has lifted, environmental
hazards insist upon the fragility of not only our culture but also of
our planet. Not surprisingly, the riches of civilisation no longer
appear to be a high as they did to a prosperous Viennese in 1915.
Nonetheless, the prospect of their total loss should intensify our
attachment to even the most fleeting expressions of human creativity.
Peter Gay, Freud, A Life for
Our Time, Norton, New York, 1988.
 E. H. Gombrich.
“Freud’s Aesthetics”, Encounter,
XXVI (1), January 1966, pp. 30-40.
 Meyer Shapiro,
“Leonardo and Freud: An Art-Historical Study”, Journal of the History of Ideas, XVII (2), April 1956, pp. 147-78;
cf P. G. Aaron and Robert G. Clouse, “Freud’s Psychohistory of
Leonardo de Vinci: A Matter of Being Right or Left”, Journal
of Interdisciplinary History, XIII (1), Summer 1982, pp. 1-16.