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Reviewed by:
  • Freud's Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk
  • Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Freud's Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk. Matthew von Unwerth. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. x + 244 pp. $23.95.

There are several reasons why it would be difficult to find a book that deserves a review in American Imago more than Matthew von Unwerth's. Not only is the book about Freud, but it is largely devoted to his complex attitudes toward art and artists. In the main supporting role, von Unwerth has cast Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the first writers to express ambivalence toward psychoanalytic treatment and, in the eight decades since his death, the subject of numerous psychoanalytic studies. A shadowy backdrop is provided by Lou Andreas-Salomé, who introduced Rilke to Freud's works and then to him personally, and became a channel of communication between the two men after their second and final meeting at Berggasse 19 in 1915.

Matthew von Unwerth, director of the Abraham A. Brill Library of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and Society, proves himself an excellent disciple of the aforementioned trio. In the best tradition of Freud's writing, which he has studied in the German original, he exemplifies how psychoanalysis is not only a scientific but also an artistic discipline both by his subject matter and by his style. Were it not for a few unnecessary repetitions, von Unwerth could be hailed as a virtuoso already for his first book.

The book's ostensible topic is Freud's paper "On Transience," written in 1915 for a collection of essays devoted to Goethe and reproduced as an appendix to Freud's Requiem. However, although interesting in itself, this lyrical essay of approximately 1,000 words, an announcement of Freud's later works that study the topic of mourning more thoroughly, serves von Unwerth mostly as an excuse to weave a Borges-like story about everything that might have preceded and followed the writing of the essay, as well as a small number of events that really did take place. Above all, the book is devoted to elucidating Freud's strong interest in, and almost equally powerful ambivalence toward, the world of arts: Goethe, Shakespeare, music, Michelangelo, sublimation . . . Here, von Unwerth is at his best. He offers an elegant introduction to "Freudian humanities," [End Page 513] discussing almost every important facet in a very approachable and intriguing manner for a lay audience.

The opening line of "On Transience" reads: "Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet." Since Herbert Lehmann's 1966 paper, it has been generally accepted that it was a conversation with Rilke and Andreas-Salomé that inspired Freud's paper. This belief, however, contains too many reconstructions and assumptions, so von Unwerth's title phrase "invisible history" is excellently chosen. One possibility he does not consider is that Jung may have been connected not only to the circumstances of the inception of the essay but also to its contents. The conversation with Rilke and Lou took place in Munich during the 1913 congress that completed Freud's rupture with Jung. Freud could well have remembered that he had met Lou through Jung and perceived the similarity in age between Rilke and Jung, both of whom were born in 1875. (Why else insist more than once that the poet was young, if in fact he was 38?) Freud could also have used an alleged dialogue, or fragments of a dialogue, with Rilke to portray an internal dialogue in which Rilke personified the part of Freud that suffered the separation from Jung more acutely, while he himself took the more resilient part—rational and optimistic, maybe even prone to a denial of painful emotions. I wonder whether the essay's final sentence can also be understood in this way: "We shall build up again all that war [i.e., the war with Jung over psychoanalysis] has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before." As von Unwerth does usefully point out, "On Transience...


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pp. 513-519
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