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Reading Freud's Life

From: American Imago
Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1995
pp. 9-54 | 10.1353/aim.1995.0011

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American Imago, 52.1 (1995) 9-54

Naturally the writer's life will be seen as irrelevant to his works if you reduce biography to the level of gossip. But if you respect the biographer's art, a better alternative presents itself. Rather than maintain that a philosopher's moral character has no bearing on his thinking, wouldn't it make more sense to suppose that the life and thought of a philosopher, a writer, or a literary theorist must interact in numerous complex and significant ways?

David Lehman, Signs of the Times

In a series of essays on the life and death of Sylvia Plath, Janet Malcolm (1993) draws the following distinction between fiction and non-fiction. "The facts of imaginative literature," she writes, "are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist's and the playwright's and the poet's word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer's or the historian's or the journalist's" (138). The shock value of this statement derives from its reversal of the usual alignment of poetry, drama, and fiction with the realm of illusion, non-fiction with fact. "In imaginative literature," she continues, "we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios -- there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open" (138). The point she is making is that biography is a matter of interpretation, a particular construction of the available evidence, from a special angle of vision. This should not be news to a contemporary practitioner, yet the striking thing to me about Freudian biography is precisely its consistency, its failure to present competing perspectives on the same (and gradually expanding) body of materials.

Freud himself, I believe, is largely responsible for this phenomenon, having first created, then promulgated a construction of his life which continues to circulate in the work of his major biographers. The effect of such unanimity not only sustains Freud's own self-image, but also implies a homologous relationship between his theory, insofar as it derives from his labor of self-analysis, and his life. Should Freud prove to be a fallible narrator/interpreter of his own life, certain aspects of his theory might also come into question.

In my own practice of reading Freud's life, I wish first to disrupt the canonical version of his biography by demonstrating the way it derives from and legitimizes Freud's own heavily invested self-construction, and then to offer an alternative and competing version of two episodes of Freud's life based on existing evidence. I hope to make clear how much is at stake not only in the interpretation of Freud's life, but also in the construction of biography generally.

Freud's Self-Fashioning

Writing to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, in the spring of 1885, Freud declares that he has nearly completed a purge of his personal papers, having destroyed "all my notes of the past fourteen years, as well as letters, scientific excerpts, and the manuscripts of my papers," an action "which a number of as yet unborn and unfortunate people will one day resent" (E. Freud 1975, 140). That Freud had in mind his future biographers becomes evident in the following comment:

I couldn't have matured or died without worrying about who would get hold of those old papers. Everything, moreover, that lies beyond the great turning point in my life, beyond our love and my choice of a profession, died long ago and must not be deprived of a worthy funeral. As for the biographers, let them worry, we have no desire to make it too easy for them. Each of them will be right in his opinion of "The Development of the Hero," and I am already looking forward to seeing them go astray. (141)

According to Ernest Jones (1953), Freud conducted a similar purge in 1907 (I, xii) on the occasion of his making some changes in his living arrangements, while his departure from Vienna offered Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte the opportunity (presumably at his direction) to sift...

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