THE DEATH OF SIGMUND FREUD: THE LEGACY OF HIS LAST DAYS
By Mark Edmundson
Bloomsbury, 276 pages, $25.95
“Vienna,” the first of the two narrative essays that make up Marc Edmundson’s meditation on the late life and thought of Sigmund Freud, is a tale worthy of a libretto. On March 11, 1938, Neville Chamberlain informed the Austrian chancellor that the British would not intercede on Austria’s behalf to halt the invasion of Hitler’s army. Soon after the German army entered Austria unopposed the next morning, Sigmund Freud’s son Martin was at work destroying documentation of his father’s foreign financial holdings. The Nazis had declared it illegal for Jews to hold assets in foreign accounts—and with anti-Semitic violence already unleashed in the streets of Vienna, Martin knew better than to waste time.
If you want to know exactly how the drama plays out, read Mr. Edmundson’s book. (Here’s a preview: Nazi thugs bust in as if on cue, and Martin attempts to wriggle free by playing on the greed, stupidity and resentment appropriate to Nazi thugs.)
Cut to 11 days later. On the pretext of investigating the International Psychoanalytic Association for antifascist political activity, Gestapo officers arrive at the Freuds’ Vienna residence. They arrest Anna, Freud’s daughter and closest confidante, taking her into custody for interrogation. She returns home safely several days later; no one, including Anna, knows why the Gestapo released her unharmed. Mr. Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is eager to speculate: Anna Freud, he writes, “was no doubt telling the most blandly respectable story she could about her father. … But she might also have been thinking more candidly about the bearing her father’s work actually had on the Nazis.”
She might have, of course. Mr. Edmundson’s narrative stands or falls on just this sort of imaginative leap: “My father, [Anna] might have thought … knows you far better than you know yourself. … He knows why you need the leader the way you do. He sees the God-shaped hole in your heart.”
In “Vienna,” forays like this into historical fiction, while sometimes melodramatic, complement the plot-driven narrative of Freud’s escape to England after the Anschluss. But once we reach “London,” the second half of The Death of Sigmund Freud, something goes wrong. Freud spends his last days in comparative tranquility, but Mr. Edmundson’s imagination continues to roam.
ON HIS ARRIVAL IN LONDON, THE 83-year-old Freud completed his last essay, Moses and Monotheism, in which he offered a psychoanalytic interpretation of the biblical story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Moses, Freud suggested, was not a Jew but a member of the Egyptian aristocracy who followed the monotheistic cult of Aton. The Egyptians found the stringency and abstraction of monotheism insupportable, so Moses turned his religion on the enslaved Jews, leading them from Egypt into the desert. Like the Egyptians, the Jews found the strictures of monotheism unbearable, so rebelled by killing Moses and returning to polytheism. Finally, the Jews, sorry for having killed their leader, came to hold Moses’ memory sacred while gradually reverting to monotheism.
As Mr. Edmundson convincingly argues, Moses and Monotheism represented a new development in Freud’s thought about religion. In 1927 Freud had come out squarely against the value of religious belief in The Future of an Illusion, claiming that belief in an omnipotent God was a vestige of the infantile yearning for an omnipotent father. In Moses Freud appears to view monotheism as a step toward atheism—the gods became God, who himself, given the momentum of civilization, would dissolve into nature.
Freud’s Moses thesis—unorthodox, to say the least—had little evidence to support it, and reviewers dismissed it as an aberration. But Mr. Edmundson uses the issues of belief it raises as a way into the public discussion led by Christopher Hitchens, Mark Lilla and others over the fate of secular humanism. Like Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Edmundson views fundamentalism as a subset of totalitarianism; but unlike Mr. Hitchens, he doesn’t have the stomach to address the Big Issue head-on.
Enter Freud the surrogate: Explicating The Future of Illusion, Freud’s definitive rejection of religious belief, Mr. Edmundson writes that “religion [has not] become more comprehensively enlightened over time. In the twenty-first century a stranglingly intolerant version of faith is abroad not only throughout the Islamic world, but in the United States of America. Fundamentalist faiths have a number of identifying dimensions. … But most saliently, for Freud, there is the presence of the patriarchal god, looking down on his worshippers, issuing his harsh but luminous commands, and blessing his chosen ones above others.”
Here, as elsewhere in “London,” Mr. Edmundson’s ideas mingle unchastely with those of his subject. “London” could almost have done without Freud—but what would have been left?
Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer.