It’s the birthday of Sigmund Freud (books by this author), born in Freiburg, Moravia (now part of the Czech Republic), in 1856. He’s usually associated with Vienna, where he lived from the age of four until the Germans occupied it in 1938. He then moved to London, where he died of throat cancer in 1939. Freud wrote several books, including The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930).
Freud started his professional life as a medical doctor, but as a Jew, he knew his prospects in medicine were probably limited. He became interested in psychology, especially in a mental illness called hysteria, which caused patients to suffer from tics, tremors, convulsions, paralysis, and hallucinations. Freud learned that some doctors were using hypnosis to treat hysteria, and he went to France to observe the use of hypnosis firsthand. Seeing that a patient could be talked out of his or her symptoms gave Freud the idea that the symptoms were a product of the mind and not the body. He learned the method of hypnosis himself and began to treat patients, but he had little success. Then one of Freud’s colleagues told him about a patient named Anna O., whose hysterical symptoms had improved when she told stories about her life. The woman herself named this process of storytelling “the talking cure.”
Over the next few years, he developed the idea that his patients were not conscious of all their desires and fears, that many of their own thoughts were hidden from them in their unconscious mind. He believed that their unconscious mind would reveal itself in various ways, through slips of the tongue, jokes, and especially dreams. What made his ideas so revolutionary and controversial was that he didn’t just apply them to mentally ill patients, but to all human beings, even himself.
People tend to hold very strong opinions about Freud, pro or con. He had many pupils in the early 20th century; notable among them were Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, but both of them eventually broke with Freud. Though some versions of talk therapy are still used, most psychologists and psychiatrists have rejected his theories: only about 1 per cent of people in therapy are being treated using Freudian methods. Though he’s fallen out of favor in the scientific community, many of his revolutionary concepts — like the idea of the unconscious, the interpretation of dreams, and the idea of repressed feelings causing harm — have entered our culture and our literature. And even though they haven’t read his books, most people are still familiar with his concepts, like the Oedipus complex, the ego, the phallic symbol, and the Freudian slip.
W.H. Auden wrote a long poem called “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” which captures how deeply Freud and his ideas have permeated culture. He wrote:
If some traces of the autocratic pose, the paternal strictness he distrusted, still clung to his utterance and features, it was a protective coloration for one who’d lived among enemies so long: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a personnow but a whole climate