Freud and the arts

24 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.[1]

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.

Freud’s narrative 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.[2] 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 superstition”.

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.[3] 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.”

Freud nonetheless 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.[4] 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:

… where forces bravely stir
there I openly counsel war.

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 mental fact.

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.

Richard Wollheim claimed that Freud had little to offer on aesthetics,[5] and art historian E H Gombrich argued that what Freud did say was old-fashioned because it emphasised the artistic intention.[6] 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 cigar-smoking.[7] 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.

Shakespearean scholars 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.[8] 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.”[9]

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 assimilated Jews.

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?[10]

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 Academician.

Freud’s 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 that:

[e]ven the best and fullest of [biographies] could not answer the two questions that alone seem worth knowing about. It would not throw any light on the riddle of he miraculous gift that makes an artist, and it could not help us to comprehend any better the value and the effect of his works.

Claims for psycho-biography became equally limited: “

Psychoanalysis can 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

need to acquire affective relations with such men, to add them to the fathers, teachers, exemplars whom we have known or whose influence we have already experienced, in the expectation that their personalities will be just as fine and admirable as those works of art of their which we posses.”

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.[11]

Commentators who 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 “ to infer – or, if you prefer it, to guess – from signs of this kind how the apparatus that serves these functions is constructed and what concurrent and mutually opposing forces are at work in it.

Although chance played its part in human events, Freud argued that there was

far less freedom and arbitrariness in mental life, however, than we are inclined to assume – there may even be none at all.

On the surface, those sentences support Frank J Sulloway, who reminded us in 1979 that Freud had started as a neurobiologist.[12] 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.

[1] Peter Gay, Freud, A Life for Our Time, Norton, New York, 1988.
[2] Sigmund Freud, Art and Literature, Pelican Freud Library, volume 14, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985.
[3] Darius Gray Ornston (ed.), Translating Freud, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1992.
[4] Michael Evans, Wagner and Aeschylus, The Ring and the Oresteia, Faber and Faber, London, 1982.
[5] Richard Wollheim, “Freud and the Understanding of Art”, Art and its objects, pp. 211-24.

[6] E. H. Gombrich. “Freud’s Aesthetics”, Encounter, XXVI (1), January 1966, pp. 30-40.
[7] Janine Burke, The Gods of Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Art Collection, Knopf, Melbourne, 2006.
[8] For a dissection of Freud’s own slips on verbal slips because of his ignorance of philology, see Sebastiano Timpanaro, The Freudian Slip, Psychoanalysis and Textual Criticism, NLB, London, 1976.
[9] Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare, A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, Hogarth Press, London, 1990.
[10] Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Hogarth Press, London, 1961 abridgement.

[11] 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.
[12] Frank J. Sulloway, Freud, Biologist of the Mind, Fontana, London, 1980.