Ambition and ambivalence

Further contributing to Freud’s charm is his candor about his ambition, which is associated in his mind—or perhaps one should say, in his case—with bedwetting, a confession that can’t help but win him powerful allies, since all the most interesting people wet their beds until an advanced age. Freud reports that when reproached for the offense at age two, “I consoled my father by promising to buy him a nice new red bed in N., the nearest town of any size.” At age seven or eight, upon urinating in his parents’ bedroom, Freud was dismayed to hear his father say, “The boy will come to nothing.” The verdict was to haunt Freud’s dreams into adulthood, when his dreams would still be endeavoring to disprove it.

In the promise to buy his father a bed, Freud sees “all the megalomania of childhood,” and his manner of confession lets the reader know that he is alert to the humor of the megalomania. He recounts that at his birth, an “old peasant-woman” prophesied to his mother that “she had brought a great man into the world”—a prophesy he deprecates by noting that the world is full of “mothers filled with happy expectations” and of old peasant-women eager for a chance to please someone. In boyhood, he confesses, he dreamed of visiting Rome in emulation of no less than Hannibal, “the favorite hero of my later school days.” Freud saw Hannibal as a fellow outsider. “To my youthful mind, Hannibal and Rome symbolized the conflict between the tenacity of Jewry and the organization of the Catholic church.” Hannibal, moreover, took arms against his sea of troubles, whereas, in the Moravian town where Freud was born, Freud’s father had had his cap knocked off by a Christian who shouted, “Jew! get off the pavement!” and had done no more than pick up his cap and walk on. “Hannibal’s father,” Freud recollected, pointing the contrast, “made his boy swear before the household altar to take vengeance on the Romans.” The child Freud aspired, in other words, to vanquish Christendom and rule the world. Indeed, when pealing bells nearly awoke the adult Freud, one morning during a vacation in the Tyrol, he revenged himself on the Tyroleans’ piety by rolling over and dreaming that “the Pope was dead.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud was to famously describe the mind as resembling Rome in its juxtaposition of ancient and modern structures, but even in the Interpretation there are already hints that Freud sees psychoanalysis as his Roman campaign. In my favorite passage, Freud adds a footnoted postscript to his regret that scheduling conflicts kept him from visiting Rome before 1899: “I discovered long since that it only needs a little courage to fulfil wishes which till then have been regarded as unattainable; and thereafter became a constant pilgrim to Rome.”

Ambition isn’t all that unflattering a thing to confess. But as he did in the dream of Irma’s injection, Freud continues in the middle chapters of the Interpretation to make somewhat more imprudent confessions as well, whose effect on readers he seems less aware of or in control of. He repeatedly announces that he’s not revealing everything:

For reasons with which we are not concerned, I shall not pursue the interpretation of this dream any further.

I can assure my readers that the ultimate meaning of the dream, which I have not disclosed, is intimately related to the subject of the childhood scene.

I must desist at this point because the personal sacrifice demanded would be too great.

Nonetheless he repeatedly reveals far more than is necessary to demonstrate his ostensible point. Of his dream about a botanical monograph, for example, Freud writes that “my only purpose in reporting it was to illustrate by an example the relation between the content of a dream and the experience of the previous day which provoked it.” But it sheds light on a great deal more. It links Freud’s pride in having aided in the discovery of cocaine as an anaesthetic to his chronic self-indulgence as a bookworm and to the triumph he felt when his father—the one who didn’t think Freud would ever amount to anything—was given cocaine anaesthesia by one of Freud’s friends while another of Freud’s friends operated on his glaucoma. Freud’s feeling of triumph or perhaps defiance returns in a long dream of his with a “Revolutionary year 1848” coloring, which ends with Freud presenting a “male glass urinal” to a one-eyed man—again a reference to Freud’s ambition and to his father’s glaucoma, which blinded his father in one eye. “What [the dream of the botanical monograph] meant was: ‘After all, I’m the man who wrote the valuable and memorable paper (on cocaine)’ . . . [and] ‘I may allow myself to do this.'” The feelings of pride and entitlement are understandable, maybe even excusable, but the triumph over his father raises questions. Was it to vindicate the father whose hat was knocked off that Freud vowed to conquer Rome? Or was it to replace him? Rome, after all, is a type of power and authority. If the discoverer of the Oedipal complex did set out to seize the paternal authority, didn’t he feel a little, well, guilty about it?

In the preface to the second edition of the Interpretation, Freud writes that he came to understand later that the book constituted “a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death.” I wondered in my earlier post if Freud’s revelations in the book could be read as an invitation, but I began to wonder, while considering the middle chapters, whether this invitation might not have been an altogether conscious one—whether in communicating more than he needed to about his dreams Freud might have been acting on a wish of which he was not fully aware. In that light, consider the most disquieting revelation in Freud’s account of the dream of the botanical monograph, a daydream that he had the morning after:

If ever I got glaucoma, I . . . thought, I should travel to Berlin and get myself operated on, incognito, in my friend’s [Fliess’s] house, by a surgeon recommended by him. The operating surgeon, who would have no idea of my identity, would boast once again of how easily such operations could be performed since the introduction of cocaine; and I should not give the slightest hint that I myself had had a share in the discovery.

Like a hysteric, Freud is imagining a connection through a bodily ailment. In the dream of Irma’s injection, he had imagined a link (pain in the left shoulder) between himself and a young female patient whom he had turned over to Fliess for an operation. Now he is imagining a link (glaucoma) between himself and his father, and wishing that he could turn himself over to Fliess for an operation. The operation is to be in a strangely impersonal way a triumph for Freud, as a co-discoverer of cocaine anaesthesia, but it is impossible to keep from noticing that it would also put Freud in the position of the triumphed-upon—of the father whom he has shown up. The most disturbing element of the fantasy is the role assigned to Fliess: the man with the knife. Like the real-life Emma Eckstein who lay behind Irma, Freud is not suffering from an illness that justifies a wish to have Fliess cut him open. Perhaps he wishes to submit to punishment by Fliess as a compensation for what he feels that by writing the Interpretation he is doing to his father. Fliess, however, is proving unsatisfactory as a father substitute, because the confidence he offers—the confidence that shores up Freud’s—has little to do with evidence. Just a few pages prior, in fact, Freud in a very lengthy and rather boring footnote, added in 1911, shows that he can’t find any grounds for agreeing with Fliess that men’s dreams follow a 23-day cycle or women’s a 28-day one. It is dawning on Freud that Fliess’s confidence may be arbitrary and that he may therefore be dangerous. If, because you feel guilty about your own assault on authority, you go searching for it in others, you may make yourself vulnerable to punishments you don’t in fact deserve.

Perhaps Freud’s oversharing could be thought of as his search, after the loss of his father, for someone to submit to who isn’t Fliess. Perhaps he was redirecting his wish for submission toward an ideal. As an intentional act, The Interpretation of Dreams represents an enormous assumption of authority—the establishment of no less than a new understanding of the human mind. To compensate for the authority that he was establishing over his reader, perhaps Freud felt compelled to submit himself for analysis to that same reader—to the reader whom the book itself was calling into existence.