It's not hard to imagine Sigmund Freud as the consummate egghead/intellectual, toiling away year after year in his Viennese study, reading and writing, analyzing patients. That's all true. But Freud's self-image was strikingly different. "One would hardly know to look at me," he wrote in an early letter to his fiancée, but already in school I was always a bold man of the opposition, was always where one could avow an extreme and, as a rule, had to atone for it." A close friend and colleague once told him, Freud wrote, that "he had found out that there was hidden in me, beneath the cover of shyness, an immoderately bold and fearless person. I have always believed this, and simply never dared to tell anyone."
Bold and fearless? In some ways, yes. After all, he had invented a new and controversial discipline, psychoanalysis, and spent much of his life laboring to convince unbelievers of its truth and value. He had done so, moreover, as a Jew. It was a troubled identity to carry in the era of the Dreyfus Affair, and he had carried it forthrightly and proudly. At age 80, he confirmed a life of defiance in a note to a colleague: "I have always held faithfully to our people, and never pretended to be anything but what I am: A Jew from Moravia whose parents come from Austrian Galicia." Even the Nazis didn't scare him--though he was naïve in the matter; in 1937, when a French analyst suggested he leave Vienna, Freud was cavalier: "The Nazis? I'm not afraid of them. Help me rather to combat my true enemy." (More below on the "true enemy".)
Bold, fearless, courageous. Yet there was one thing, one place really, that Freud feared: Rome. On its face the fear seems absurd, and it takes on additional resonance when considered in the context of Freud's hobbies (the word doesn't do justice) and interests.
Psychology, of course, absorbed the great
share of his time and energies, but beyond his life work he was not without other pursuits. As a youth, Freud studied Latin and Greek and read extensively in the literature of antiquity, reveling in the civilizations of ancient Egypt, Greece, and, yes, Rome. Over a lifetime he accumulated a substantial collection of objects from antiquity, statuettes and fragments, that he kept in his office and on his desk. He had, he wrote the novelist Stefan Zweig late in life, made many sacrifices in assembling his collection, adding, with more than a little exaggeration, that he had "actually...read more archaeology than psychology."
It is all the more remarkable, then, that he did not set foot in Rome until 1901, when he was 45 years old. He got to Italy before then, more than once--Vienna was not that far away, after all, and he loved Italy--but none of the itineraries took him to Rome. He toured Venice, Pisa, Livorno, Siena, Rapallo, Gorizia, Florence, Verona, Ravenna, and other cities--he even made plans to visit Naples while bypassing Rome--and at one point reached Lake Trasimeno, only 50 miles from Rome, only to turn back. During all this he regularly fantasized about meeting his dear friend and correspondent Wilhelm Fliess in Rome--at Easter, for a conference, on a trip together. In 1898 he revealed to Fliess that he was studying the typography of Rome, adding that "the yearning [for Rome] becomes ever more tormenting."
He even dreamed about Rome (convenient, as he had begun to write a book about dreams). Indeed, when the "dream book" was published in 1900 and 1901 as The Interpretation of Dreams, it contained accounts of five Freud dreams, all "based on a longing to visit Rome." In one, he was looking out the window of a train at the Tiber and Ponte Sant'Angelo, only to have the train pull away before he could set foot on Roman soil. In another, he actually got to Rome but was "disappointed to find that the scenery was far from being of an urban character." In still another, also set in Rome, he discovered that Rome was full of German posters, a sign, he thought, that it might be uncomfortable to be a German speaker in Rome.
Freud was very much self-aware: "Since I have been studying the unconscious," he wrote
|Freud (l) and Fliess (r)|
What was going on? Why was Freud so fearful of entering Rome? One avenue to answering that question lies in the full story, as interpreted by Freud, of that bizarre turnaround at Lake Trasimeno, with Rome just hours away. As Freud knew well, the lake was the scene of a great battle in the Punic Wars, in which Hannibal's troops annihilated a substantial segment of the Roman army. Then, and later, it seemed as if Hannibal would enter and take Rome, but--like the younger Freud--he did not. "I had actually been following in Hannibal's footsteps," Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams. "Like him, I had been fated not to see Rome; and he too had moved into the Campagna when everyone had expected him in Rome." But there was more to Freud's interpretation than a simple comparison. As Freud revealed, more than once, Hannibal had been a boyhood hero of the analyst--and he remained a hero in eyes of the older man--for three reasons.
First, Hannibal was a Semite, not quite the same as a Jew, but a status that linked him in
Freud's eyes with the ancient Hebrews and, through them, with modern Jewry--and we have seen how important this identification was for Freud. Becoming conscious as a youth of "what it meant to belong to an alien race," "the figure of the semitic general rose still higher in my esteem."
Second, the Catholic connection. Of course, there were no Catholics, and no Catholic Church, when Hannibal defeated the Romans in 217 BC. But for Freud's "youthful mind," Rome was synonymous with the Catholic Church. Hence "Hannibal and Rome symbolized the conflict between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic Church." For Freud the man, the Catholic Church remained the enemy. When Freud dismissed the Nazi threat and sought help with "my true enemy," he was referring to the Catholic Church.
The third reason for Hannibal's importance, and for Freud's reluctance to visit Rome, also involves religion, but it also involves Freud's father. As a youth of 10 or 12, as Freud tells the story, his father had told him of an event that had occurred when he--his father--was a young man. While walking on the street with a new fur cap, a "Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap into the mud and shouted: Jew! get off the pavement." When the younger Freud asked his father what he had done, his father had replied: "I went into the roadway and picked up my cap." It was a traumatic moment for the boy. "This struck me," Freud wrote, "as unheroic conduct on the part of the big, strong man who was holding the little boy [Sigmund] by the hand. I contrasted this situation with another which fitted my feelings better: the scene in which Hannibal's father, Hamilcar Barca, made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans. Ever since that time Hannibal had had a place in my fantasies."
It seems clear then, that Freud identified powerfully with Hannibal. To deepen and fulfill that identification, Freud could appreciate Hannibal's victory but was also obliged, for a time at least, to replicate and share the general's failure to breach and conquer Rome.
In the next installment: what Freud found in Rome, and some thoughts about his fraught relationship to the Eternal City.
The Complete Letters of Sigmund Feud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904, translated and edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), contains numerous references to Freud's Rome fears. The Interpretation of Dreams, parts I and II (volumes IV and V in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmumd Freud, James Strachey, ed. and translator, 1900, 1901 (London: the Hogarth Press, 1953, 1954) are very valuable. Also important are Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988); Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Ernst L. Freud (New York: Basic Books, 1960); Peter M. Newton, Freud: from Youthful Dream to Mid-Life Crisis (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995); Ellen Oliensis, Freud's Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin Poetry (NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Jonathan Siegel, Haunted Museum: Longing, Travel, and the Art-Romance Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Adam Phillips, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), a fascinating, readable book that got me started on this topic.