Freud and the Poet's Eye: His Ambivalence Toward the Artist
by Norman N. Holland
April 30, 1998
Read psychoanalytically, Freud's remarks about writers and artists reveal a deep ambivalence. He admired their powers as seers, their ability to see quickly and intuitively human psychology that he had to work laboriously toward. Yet he compared them unfavorably to scientists like himself, because they were given over, not to reality, but to the pleasure principle. They were venally motivated, oversexed, and analogous to daydreaming children, primitives, and madmen. His attitude toward Shakespeare, making him into either a degraded or a superhuman figure, serves as a paradigm for his admiration and jealousy. Freud's many references to eyes demonstrate both how his own need to see was sexualized and how he felt artists--see- ers--were sexually powerful like fathers while he was baffled like a child. Freud envied writers and artists because of his need to know; his driving curiosity about sex; his need to feel that mental powers could alter the physical world; his need to outdo fathers; and his need to see, sight being identified in his mind with mental and sexual power. These were the very traits that helped him develop psychoanalysis and create himself as the artist-scientist.
While a number of psychoanalytic scholars have summarized Freud's aesthetic ideas,
I have to confess, though, that in exploring Freud's ambivalence toward writers and artists, I am expressing my own ambivalence toward Freud himself. It is the ambivalence that, as he himself pointed out in his Goethe- Preis essay, most writers about writers feel toward their subjects. When he was shown a hostile book which purported to discover his own complexes, Freud replied with (curiously!) Caliban's words:
You taught me language; and my profit on'tNevertheless, I cannot forego pointing out that this remark applies equally well to Freud himself. Freud said he learned his language from the poets ("Not I, but the poets discovered the unconscious").
Is, I know how to curse.
My own ambivalence and Freud's aside, many people have remarked how literature played an important part in all of Freud's discoveries and all of his life. In later life, his friends noted "his astonishing knowledge of literature" and "his memory, especially for Shakespeare."
At least three of his biographers have insisted that, had he not turned to psychology, he would have become a writer.
Nowadays, it is commonplace to regard Freud himself as primarily a writer, but when Freud saw an article by Havelock Ellis calling him an artist and not a scientist, he objected. This was, he said, "a highly sublimated form of resistance," "the most refined and amiable form of resistance."
For all his interest and skill in things literary, however, Freud showed a curious reticence toward artists and writers, "uneasiness," Spector calls it.
Perhaps not, but analysts--and Freud himself--seem to have done quite a bit to break the taboo. Freud's reluctance to probe the writer's "gift" is part of a more general pattern of ambivalence. That is, he admires writers and artists greatly, but he also compares them invidiously to scientists, calls them unrealistic and childish, likens their creations to daydreams, and assigns them venal motives and, I think, unconsciously, fears that they have greater sexuality.
What Freud admires in writers are their powers as seers, their ability to grasp intuitively truths the psychologist can get at only by hard work. As early as 1895, he wrote, "Local diagnosis and electrical reactions lead nowhere in the study of hysteria, whereas a detailed description of mental processes such as we are accustomed to find in the works of imaginative writers enables me, with the use of a few psychological formulas, to obtain at least some kind of insight."
Equally, however, he says over and over again (devoting an entire essay, "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," to the idea) that art and literature are like a child's play, a glorified daydream, a mild narcotic, or an illusion offering an escape from reality into fantasy.
It is to this point that critics such as Roger Fry, Lionel Trilling, and Jack Spector have objected most strenuously. Fry demands that the "pure" appreciation of aesthetic form, not the fantasy of "literary content" be the prime motive behind art.
Trilling has pointed out that writers are preoccupied with reality,
Yet Freud also felt that artists had a special insight into psychic truth. Freud, Jones says, "seemed to take the romantic view of [artists] as mysterious beings with a superhuman, almost divine, afflatus." "This was occasionally tinged with a trace of envy for their superior gifts."
Curiosity was the most basic motive in his character. "His insatiable desire," wrote Helen Walker Puner, "was the desire for knowledge."
I would like to explore some symbols and examples of this inquiring and "mentalizing" aspect of his nature, because they seem to me to connect his ambivalence toward artists to his discovery of psychoanalysis. In particular, I'd like to detour through Freud's interest in "looking into" things, the symbolism of what he looked into, and his belief in the power of thought. We can begin with a hypothesis of Ernest Jones'.
Freud's passion [writes Jones] to get at the truth with the maximum of certainty, was, I again suggest, the deepest and strongest motive in his nature and the one that impelled him toward his pioneering achievements. What truth? And why was the desire so overwhelming? In his study of Leonardo, Freud maintained that the child's desire to know is fed by powerful motives arising in his infantile curiosity about the primary facts of life, the meaning of birth and what has brought it about. It is commonly animated by the appearance of a rival child who displaces him in his mother's attention and to some extent in her love.Jones points out that there was such a figure in Freud's life, his sister Anna, and he goes on to suggest that knowing the truth meant security to the boy, the security of absolute possession of the mother.
Crucial in this search was Freud's half-brother Philipp, much given to jokes, toying with the boy's curiosity, as in the screen-memory of the cupboard,
which in the course of twenty-five years has occasionally emerged in my conscious memory without my understanding it. My mother was nowhere to be found; I was crying in despair. My brother Philipp (twenty years older than I) opened a cupboard [Kasten] for me, and when I did not find my mother inside it either, I cried even more, until, slender and beautiful, she came through the door. What can this mean?Symbolically, the cupboard meant pregnancy,
I think it is of interest that Freud was later drawn to write about die Kästchenwahl in The Merchant of Venice and that this screen-memory turns up in the very letter in which Freud penetrated the secret of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, his first psychoanalytic foray into literature. I think his infantile curiosity as to where babies came from was closely related to his curiosity about writers, just as giving birth is a common metaphor for creativity.
In any case, curiosity dominated the man, and vision would satisfy curiosity. Eyes and other images of looking run like a leitmotiv through Freud's life and works.
Visual metaphors abound in his writings. For example, he described his self-analysis as watching out a train window, like Goethe's description of passing through early memories, and as having "days when a flash of lightning illuminates [erhelt] the interrelations."
At the beginning the dark forest of authors (who do not see the trees), hopelessly lost on wrong tracks. Then a concealed pass through which I lead the reader--my specimen dream with its peculiarities, details, indiscretions, bad jokes--and then suddenly the high ground and the view and the question: which way to do you wish to go now?As he might have pointed out for someone else, his description of his researches as a wooded landscape with a concealed pass symbolizes the same infantile peering into female anatomy as the screen-memory of the cupboard.
Much of his eye imagery associates sight with knowing the secrets of life and death. In analyzing one of his dreams (the "Three Fates"), he associated with the third Fate his mother's rubbing skin off her hands to give an "ocular demonstration" that we are all made of earth.
In all these examples, Freud links eyes to scientific research and the satisfaction of his driving, sexually rooted curiosity. Further, eyes commonly stand for the aggressive, forcing, masculine way (as opposed, perhaps, to the intuitive knowledge of the poet). For Freud especially, eyes seem to have had this symbolic value. Indeed, in the New Introductory Lectures, the mind itself seems to become ocular; Freud's diagram of the hypothetical topology of id, ego, and superego looks much like the cross- section of an eye.
To do research is to look into; to be a poet, on the other hand, is to be looked at. Thus, in the Preface to the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud reluctantly agreed to "reveal to the public gaze more of the intimacies of my mental life . . . than is normally necessary for any writer who is a man of science and not a poet." In his letter to Fliess of May 31, 1897, he pointed out the similarity of creative writing to hysterical fantasizing, using the rather Oedipal situation of young Werther as an example. He headed the paragraph, "Dichtung und Fine Frenzy," and remarked at the end, "So Shakespeare was right in juxtaposing fiction and madness (fine frenzy)." This is a curious failure to quote. Much closer to Freud's meaning would be other phrases from the same passage like "such seething brains, such shaping fantasies" or the famous,
And as imagination bodies forthInstead, he recalled the phrase "fine frenzy" which does not refer to "madness" as such, but to "The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling." Again, I am struck by the contrast between rational Freud and crazy poet.
The forms of things unknown.
Just as this passage links the lover's sight and the poet's, so for Freud seeing (either in a physical sense or in the metaphorical sense of understanding) is associated with his libidinal drives. He recalled during his self-analysis a journey at two-and-a-half with his mother "during which we must have spent the night together and there must have been an opportunity of seeing her nudam."
Freud did say, on intellectual grounds, that the artist had an especially strong sexual drive: he found "one of the origins of artistic activity" to be the sublimation of "excessively strong excitations."
Freud's feeling that the ordinary intellectual is subordinate sexually to the artist may have caused what Jones calls "the immense capacity for jealousy he manifested during his engagement." For example, when he was tormented by jealousy on account of one Fritz Wahle (an artist), he wrote:
I think there is a general enmity between artists and those engaged in the details of scientific work. We know that they possess in their art a master key to open with ease all female hearts, whereas we stand helpless at the strange design of the lock and have first to torment ourselves to discover a suitable key to it.The image of lock and key (aside from its suggestion of phallus and vagina) makes the artist, like the scientist, a discoverer. He is a "psychological explorer of depths,"
Freud's mingling of admiration and envy for the artist is only one instance of Freud's general ambivalence. "My emotional life," he pointed out in his analysis of the "non vixit" dream (in which eyes became weapons), "has always insisted that I should have an intimate friend and a hated enemy . . . and it not infrequently happened that the ideal situation of childhood has been so completely reproduced that friend and enemy have come together in a single individual." This childhood situation was "his relations in childhood with a nephew who was a year my senior . . . my superior . . . I early learned to defend myself against him." Freud played Brutus to his senior's Caesar in what Jones calls a "pronouncedly parricidal" duologue of Schiller's. In analyzing the "non vixit" dream, Freud hypothesized a scene in which "the two children had a dispute about some object . . . . Each of them claimed to have got there before the other."
As this dream and the other quotations suggest, behind Freud's ambivalence toward artists lies his own drive toward the potency of discovery. Discovery in childhood seemed to promise complete possession of the mother; for the adult it held "honor, power, and the love of women." Freud described himself as a "not a thinker. I am by temperament a conquistador, an adventurer . . . with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort,"
Yet, both emotionally and intellectually, Freud's discoveries led him to the dispiriting conclusion that artists saw intuitively, easily, what he as scientist had to grope for. "It becomes inevitable," he noted, "that science should concern herself with the same materials [Materien] whose treatment by artists has given enjoyment to mankind for thousands of years, though her touch must be clumsier and the yield of pleasure less."
As many have noted, Freud stood for the values of rationalism, the Enlightenment, the anticlerical philosophes and their descendant Feuerbach, in short, for reason and science and progress.
In Freud's psyche, the artist embodied childishness in an adult form, but the the artist also "got there before the other." For ordinary men, Freud reflected in analyzing the "non vixit" dream, isn't "having children our only path to immortality"? In the Leonardo essay, however, he noted, "The creative artist feels towards his work like a father," and "What an artist creates provides at the same time an outlet for his sexual desire."
Ultimately, then, the artist has it both ways in Freud's oedipal fantasy. The artist is the child who wins the mother and all women. The artist is also a kind of hero-king-creator who achieves immortality through his artistic progeny and his discoveries. He is the "great man," more powerfully endowed sexually, who "got there before the other," who "has the master key to open with ease all female hearts, whereas we stand helpless at the strange design of the lock," who "with hardly an effort" gets at "the deepest truths, to which we others have to force our way, ceaselessly groping amid torturing uncertainties." The artist, in short, is not only the child but the father in the most primal, terrible sense of all. Furthermore, even if scientists learn the secrets known to the artist, they still cannot become this artist-child-father: our interest in a writer is not weakened by "our knowledge that not even the clearest insight into the determinants of his choice of material and into the nature of the art of creating imaginative form will ever help make writers of us."
Freud's ambivalence toward the artist is thus partly the rivalry of one child for a sib, partly the ambivalence of the son for the father. As he himself said in his Goethe-Preis essay of 1930, we have a need to establish affective relations with great men, a need to link them with the fathers, teachers, and others whose influence we have felt. Our relation to such fathers and teachers, however, is ambivalent; we admire, but we also resent them.
Freud's attitude toward his favorite writer, Shakespeare, serves as a paradigm for this ambivalence toward the artist as child-father. It also suggests the importance of Freud's ambivalence toward artists in the discovery of psychoanalysis.
Freud vastly admired Shakespeare's plays. He first began to read them at the age of eight, read them over and over again, and could always come up with an apt quotation or illustration from Shakespeare. His famous analysis of Hamlet occurs in the very same letter (October 15, 1897) as his discovery of the Oedipus complex and his commentary on Oedipus Rex, as though he had been expecting Sophocles and Shakespeare to guide him in his self-analysis.
The hostile component of his attitude toward Shakespeare took the form of irrationally denying Shakespeare his identity, symbolically "killing" him: "The name William Shakespeare is very probably a pseudonym, behind which a great unknown [ein grosser Unbekannter: the father?] lies concealed."
The first form of attack was to make the bard into a Frenchman. "He insisted," Jones reports, "that his countenance could not be that of an Anglo-Saxon but must be French, and he suggested that the name was a corruption of Jacques Pierre." Shakespeare's name is fairly phallic, and Freud might well have pointed out (were he analyzing someone else) that the name was now, in effect, gelded; he did, of course, point out that destroying a man's name symbolizes destroying the man himself. Also, since he greatly admired the English, and rather disliked the French, making Shakespeare French would at least covertly degrade him.
In his sixties, Freud rejected the Baconian hypothesis but attached himself instead to J. T. Looney's idea that Shakespeare was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, a man whom (Jones reports) Freud described as "passionately disordered," "somewhat déclassé," "an inadequate father who never did his duty by his children," a "squanderer of his inheritance and a miserable manager of his affairs, oppressed by debts," and a cuckold. Again, he denigrated the writer he so admired.
Doubting that Shakespeare was Shakespeare, however, was no isolated aberration or special by-product of Freud's ambivalence toward artists, according to Jones. On the contrary, Jones says, Freud's Oxfordian, Baconian, and Jacques-Pierrian vagaries represent a basic pattern in his thinking, one similar to his ambivalence toward artists. Jones points out that "Something in Freud's mentality led him to take a special interest in people not being what they seemed to be," and Jones lists, as related eccentricities, Freud's suspicions that people were not what they seemed to be (Moses and Leonardo's mother and stepmother) and his beliefs in Lamarckian evolution, telepathy, and the occult.
Jones suggests that these aberrations are possibly all aspects of a single feeling that "things are not what they seem to be" behind which lies a wish that "a certain part of reality could be changed," presumably by just thinking it changed." Freud is thinking, like the infant, the deluded, or the superstitious, that wishes can directly change reality.
A less friendly analyst of Freud's personality than Jones, Erich Fromm, points to other elements.
Fromm's analysis thus suggests another reason why Freud was especially resentful of artists. The artist is a man who most notably does not curb his instincts, but wins the mother-woman anyway--and becomes the father-authority anyway.
Since the early memoirists, who knew Freud personally, I've not found that his sympathetic biographers try to produce an overall account of Freud's personality--although critics like Fromm do. Peter Gay's monumental biography, for example, gives asides about Freud's courage or perseverance but not, I think, an overall, unified analysis of his character.
An exception is Anthony Storr in his compact introduction to psychoanalytic thought. Storr shrewdly picks up a description by Breuer: "Freud is a man given to absolute and exclusive formulations: this is a psychical need which, in my opinion, leads to excessive generalization." Storr also points out that Freud identified himself (in a letter to Jung) as an obsessional. Storr concludes that his obsessional need to order and control led him to over- generalize psychoanalysis as a comprehensive system of thought that would explain much, if not all, of human existence. Understanding would enable him to master himself and reality. Storr also notes that others described Freud as having an "inhibited, controlled nature," so concentrated on his inquiry as to seem detached and impersonal to patients and those not his intimates.
I sense a similarity in these three views of Freud's personality, Jones' and Fromm's and Storr's: wishes can change reality; controlling instincts can win woman; control leads to immense generalizations. All assign great power both to wishes and to control. Recall that Freud associated insight, thought, and discovery with power and control, particularly the sexual power of the father, and that he regarded this power as peculiarly the possession of the artist or writer. In artistic fantasies, Freud's version of the writer "actually becomes the hero, the king, the creator, the favorite, he desired to be without following [like the scientist] the long roundabout path of making real alterations in the external world."
In other words, where scientists laboriously achieve their ends by changes in the real world, writers merely fantasize a changed world into being. Telepathy, the occult, and a Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics bridge this dualism of body and mind. All three occupy a sort of middle ground between the scientist who changes reality by knowing about it and the artist who "knows" a reality into being. All three make wishes more than artistic fantasies: wishes directly affect the material world of the scientist.
In this context, Freud's reason for rejecting Bacon as the author of Shakespeare's plays is suggestive: "Then Bacon would have been the most powerful brain the world has ever produced, whereas it seems to me that there is more need to share Shakespeare's achievement among several rivals than to burden another important man with it."
In creating psychoanalysis, Freud behaved both as the scientist who really changes the world through knowledge and as the artist who fantasizes a changed world into being. The rejection of the "seduction hypothesis" marks the point where Freud's relation to the real becomes problematic. At first, Freud thought neuroses came from actual sexual experiences in childhood. Then various factors ruled this explanation out: "Analysis had led back to these infantile sexual traumas by the right path, and yet they were not true. The firm ground of reality was gone."
Thus, Freud's emotional make-up combined the wish to dominate, the somewhat resentful imitation of writers, and the development of psychoanalysis. In his History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, he used the metaphor of a knife for psychoanalysis and noted that analysis presupposes "a situation in which there is a superior and a subordinate."
Börne had been a favorite of Freud's when he was fourteen, and other essays by Börne "kept on recurring to his mind for no obvious reason over a long period of years." Yet Freud had forgotten this one. "It seems not impossible," he wrote, "that this hint [that such an essay existed] may have brought to light the fragment of cryptomnesia which in so many cases may be suspected to lie behind apparent originality."
In saying that psychoanalysis may have had the emotional value of an art for Freud, I do not, of course, mean to imply (as experimental psychologists secure in laboratories of amazed rats and pigeonholed pigeons sometimes do) that psychoanalysis is "unscientific," "merely" an art. Nor do I mean to adopt the view currently popular that psychoanalysis is simply a hermeneutic, a method of interpretation. Nor, in showing that Freud felt about Shakespeare or any other artists as about a father-figure, have I touched in the slightest the validity of his conclusions. "Explaining" Freud's psyche does not explain away Freud's ideas; it only gives reasons why he said what he said. As Freud said about psychoanalytic probings of poets, "Investigations of this kind are not intended to explain an author's genius, but they show what motive forces aroused it and what material was offered to him by destiny."
In the movement of Freud's intelligence toward his discoveries, three themes mingled. First, there was the driving curiosity, the unrelenting search for the secrets of life, death, and the human mind. Second, he was preoccupied (in all his thinking, not just in such eccentricities as his odd views on Shakespearean authorship) with the omnipotence of thoughts, the feeling that thinking can affect the material world, as in a dream. Third, he identified sight with mind and both with procreative, sexual power, with discovering sexual secrets, with eyes and sight. These three themes all merged in the figure of the artist, who knew, who created, who saw. The artist became for Freud a kind of spiritual and intellectual totem, a child-father, both resented and emulated.
Perhaps psychoanalysis could not have come into being in the heavily physiological atmosphere of medical science at the turn of the century, had it not been for a particular scientist with a particular need to create intuitively and associatively like an artist and through his intellectual offspring win the immortality that few but artists win. In a very real sense, by discovering psychoanalysis, Freud joined to the probing eye of the scientist the creating eye of the poet. Freud's own vision bodied forth the forms of things unknown and gave them a local habitation and a name.
In the notes, I have given the English titles of Freud's works as they appear in the Standard Edition. The following abbreviations are used:
GW = Sigmund Freud, Gesammelte Werke, 18 vols. (London: Imago; Frankfurt-am-Main: Fischer Verlag, 1940-1968).
SE = The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974).
Fliess = Sigmund Freud, The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, ed. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Cambridge: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1985).
Gay = Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: Norton, 1988).
Jones = Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, 3 vols. (New York: 1953-1957).
1. See James Strachey, "List of Writings by Freud Dealing Mainly or Largely with Art, Literature or the Theory of Aesthetics," SE 21: 213-14. Ernst H. Gombrich, "Freud's Aesthetics," Encounter 26. 1 (1966): 30-40. Norman N. Holland, Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966; Octagon Books, 1976), chs. 1-4. Jack J. Spector, The Aesthetics of Freud: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Praeger, 1973); "The State of Psychoanalytic Research in Art History," Art Bulletin 70 (1988), 49-76, esp. 49-56. Meredith Anne Skura, The Literary Use of the Psychoanalytic Process (New Haven and London: Yale, 1981), passim. Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice (London: Methuen, 1984), 26- 36. Gay, 306-23.
4. Psychoanalytic scholars have long repeated this dictum of Freud's, referencing it to Lionel Trilling, who gave it without source. To his great credit, Jeffrey Berman has found the elusive source: a conversation of Freud's reported by Phillip R. Lehrman in the Hebrew journal, Harofe Haivri 1 (1940): 161-76. See Berman, The Talking Cure: Literary Representations of Psychoanalysis (New York: New York U P, 1987), 304 n. 40.
6. Jones 3: 418. Helen Walker Puner, Freud: His Life and Mind (New York: Howell, Soskin, 1947), 57-58. Theodor Reik, "Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life, Literature, and Music," in The Search Within (New York: Grove, 1956), 387-388, quoting Wilhelm Stekel.
8. Jones 3: 427. Fritz Wittels, Sigmund Freud, His Personality, His Teaching, and His School, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. , 1924), 19-20, quoting Wilhelm Stekel. Jones 2: 256. Reik (n. 5), 387- 388, quoting Stekel.
22. Autobiographical Study (n. 13), SE 20: 64. "Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911), sec. 6; GW 7: 236-237; SE 12: 224. Introductory Lectures (n. 17), Lecture 23, GW 11: 391; SE 16: 376-77. Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1909-1910), Fifth Lecture; GW 8: 52; SE 11: 50.
Received: March 31, 1998, Published: April 30, 1998. Copyright © 1998 Norman N. Holland