- The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days
Sigmund Freud has been on Mark Edmundson's mind at least since his 1990 book, Towards Reading Freud: Self-Creation in Milton, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Sigmund Freud. In that book, Edmundson uncovers a tension between two sides of Freud: the normative Freud committed to a rigid understanding of human behavior, and the romantic Freud whose restlessness with all given conventions inspired endless self-reinvention in his own writing. This side of Freud shows his kinship to Wordsworth, Emerson, and other writers and provides grounds of resistance to what is most stultifying in his own work. In Edmundson's view, we need the imaginative energies released by these writers because many of Freud's basic ideas have by now acquired the status of accepted truths. In fact, [End Page 401] Edmundson goes so far as to say that today we are "commonsense Freudians" in much the same way that Chaucer's contemporaries were commonsense Christians.
In this cultural climate, even contemporary literary critics who distance themselves from Freud end up manifesting his pervasive influence, or so Edmundson goes on to argue in Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defence of Poetry (1995). In Edmundson's view, the therapist arriving at insights repressed by the deluded patient becomes a model for critics as otherwise different as Paul de Man and Stephen Greenblatt, who decode what a text or author unknowingly betrays. The special knowledge available through criticism justifies its place as a university discipline accessible only to highly trained insiders, like the institution of psychoanalysis. Edmundson defends literature against its domination by criticism, once again playing off writers like Wordsworth and Emerson against the critical formulas that would constrain them.
The Death of Sigmund Freud backs up from contemporary culture and takes a much more personal look at Freud in his final months, a sick man in his eighties, uncertain of his future, not to mention his legacy. In almost cinematic fashion, Edmundson juxtaposes Freud's physical decline in 1938 as a cancer-ridden 81-year-old man in Vienna with Hitler's political ascendancy at the same time. Their two stories intersect when Germany's annexation of Austria begins and Hitler triumphantly returns to Vienna on March 14, 1938. On March 22 the Gestapo interrogate Freud's daughter, Anna, convinced that psychoanalysis is a dangerous Jewish science. She survives this ordeal, and over the next few months Freud's supporters negotiate his emigration to London, where he arrives June 6, 1938, with his health continuing to deteriorate until his death September 23, 1939.
Edmundson vividly describes Freud's losses during this tortuous time: his home, many of his possessions, his friends, his beloved cigar smoking, his clinical practice, and toward the very end his ability to read and write. Edmundson notes how loss is central to Freud's thinking about human development, especially in such classic papers as "Mourning and Melancholia." In "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego" and other works, Freud also astutely analyzed the attraction to tyranny that Hitler was capitalizing on, the deeply ingrained wish to submit to leaders with ironclad convictions and convenient enemies.
It is an interesting but finally unanswerable question whether Freud's understanding of the forces arrayed against him made them any easier for him to bear. Although Edmundson acknowledges that Freud never directly applied his insights to contemporary political occurrences, he feels that Freud "must have taken some dark, quiet satisfaction in having anticipated the terrible events at hand so well" (p. 97). This is one of many places where Edmundson is willing to speculate on matters where the evidence is far from clear. Although some of his conjectures are more thought-provoking than others, they all speak to Edmundson's willingness to emulate the side of Freud that he continues to find [End Page 402] so appealing: Freud the daring imaginative writer who chafed at the limits of empirical thinking even as he sought the respectability of science.