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Observations from the Refuse-Heap: Freud, Michelangelo's Moses, and Psychoanalysis

From: American Imago
Volume 60, Number 1, Spring 2003
pp. 41-104 | 10.1353/aim.2003.0003

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Observations from the Refuse-Heap:
Freud, Michelangelo's Moses, and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud's 1914 essay on Michelangelo's statue of Moses is unique in having been the only one of his works whose authorship he sought to conceal-that is, until 1924, when he consented to have it included in volume ten of his Gesammelte Schriften.1 Although the essay bears no relation to psychoanalytic theory as such-lacking reference to such central concepts as the unconscious, repression, or compromise formation-Freud characterized the method of inquiry that he employed therein as one that has "in point of fact a certain resemblance to the methodology of psychoanalysis" (1914, 211n1), and a number of authors have since insisted on this resemblance even to the point of proclaiming the essay to be paradigmatic of Freudian interpretive methods.

Freud's avowed purpose was to discover Michelangelo's intention in creating the statue: What was the mental constellation or emotional attitude that the artist had aimed to awaken in the viewer? Answering that question required finding the meaning and content of Michelangelo's representation, that is, interpreting it (1914, 212). Of direct consequence to Freud's decision to write anonymously, the method of inquiry "closely related to the technique of psychoanalysis" (222) on which he said he would draw was that pioneered by Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891), the founder of connoisseurship in art, who, in disputing, revising, and resolving accepted attributions of numerous artistic works, was, Freud also claimed, "accustomed to divine the secret and the concealed from little appreciated or unnoticed peculiarities, from the rubbish-heap-the 'refuse'-of observation" (222; our translation; Freud uses the [End Page 41] English word "refuse"). In what follows we consider some of the observations Freud left on the refuse-heap, observations that his followers have not, for the most part, even picked up to sniff.

Our contention is that a very strong case can be made from these leftovers for Freud's apparently plausible interpretation being completely wrong. Following Rudy Bremer's 1976 paper, we shall argue that the main thing Freud overlooked was not a small piece of smelly discarded paper blowing about on the far side of the tip, but a chapter in a quite wholesome-indeed, sacred-book lying right under his nose. We shall further contend that the problems arising from Freud's valuing plausibility over correctness in psychoanalytic interpretation can be evaluated in the light of his essay on Moses. From the time of the so-called seduction theory, Freud judged the value of what he could infer from the fragmentary recollections of his patients more through how well he could make the elements cohere than from any evidence of whether the event he reconstructed had really occurred. We shall show that this criterion, one that Freud saw as analogous to solving a jigsaw puzzle, lies at the heart of his faulty study of Moses, and we do this by concentrating on the scraps left over from the rubbish heap.

Our thesis falls into three parts. In the first, we are concerned with Freud's argument and interpretation and an important alternative to it; in the second, we consider various evaluations of the statue, paying particular attention to how Michelangelo planned it to be viewed; and in the third, we compare Freud's interpretation with what the biblical text tells us, and then conclude with an analysis of what psychoanalytic authors have had to say about Freud's essay.

Part One begins by considering Freud's interpretation of Moses and how he arrived at it. We show that it is based on his selective use of the opinions from the one main source on which he relied, and then contrast his with other contemporaneous interpretations as well as with some of the changes in understanding that have taken place historically. Part Two outlines the chronology of Freud's essay in order to show that those who trace the genesis of Freud's view of the statue to the year 1901 do so in error based on a misreading of an item of his correspondence. A similar misreading, although less serious, is responsible...