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The International Writers Magazine - Our 24th Year: On Psychoanalysis

Sessions with Sigmund
James Morford

Two prominent tourist attractions in London and Vienna are the two last residences of Sigmund Freud. The founder of psychoanalysis spent the last year before he died in a house at 20 Marerfield in London, now a museum. For five and half years before that he had lived at Berggasse 19, in Vienna, also now a museum.

It was to Freud’s Vienna home/office that in October of l934, a 28 year old American psychiatrist, Doctor Joseph Wortis, came to begin a 4 month "didactic psychoanalysis" (teaching analysis) with the 77 year old Freud. Following each session (one hour five times a week), Doctor Wortis would journey to a nearby coffee house and write on 4X6 note cards the results of the session, as well as his impressions of the founder of psychoanalysis. Doctor Wortis waited until l954 to put the note cards into book form, "Fragments of an Analysis with Freud," published by Simon and Schuster. At time of publication the legendary doctor’s reputation is probably what prevented the book from being much discussed. It was critical of both Freud’s persona and his theories, something not usually done in the 1950’s when Freud was riding high in intellectual circles.

It should be mentioned, however, that during this didactic analysis with Wortis, Freud was a sick old man, suffering from the jaw cancer that eventually killed him. He had undergone two operations that resulted in the need for an uncomfortable jaw prosthesis that must have exacerbated his pain. Such circumstances surely had something to do why the man arising from the pages of Wortis’ short book is so disagreeable and cantankerous.

It is well known that Freudian psychoanalysis, as well as Freud the man, are not held In the awe they once were. Personally, Freud has been described by contemporaries as an authoritarian and intolerant personality, and in most psychology quarters his theories are now, when not ridiculed, safely ignored. Reasons for this dismissal are numerous, varied, documented, and by this date, almost cliché. The brilliant philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, among other thinkers, have charged that Freud’s theories as not scientific, a damaging assertion in this day and age. On the personal level, Freud’s infamous 1890’s association with Berlin eye, ear and throat doctor, Wilhelm Fleiss, stand as just one of the significant marks against Freud as well as his theories. Freud, at the time in his 40’s, had agreed with Fleiss that a woman’s sexuality might center to a great degree inside her nose. This whacky idea (and so regarded by their contemporaries) led Freud to refer a woman named Emma Epstein to Doctor Fleiss for a nose operation to ease her sexual problems. The poor woman nearly bled to death on the operating table. To make it all the more horrible, not to mention ridiculous, following the operation Freud claimed the hemorrhaging was caused by Emma Epstein’s repressed love of him (Freud). Even though this incident occurred early in Freud’s career, the bizarre nature of the diagnosis and Freud’s reasoning must be considered.

The chronological nature of Worst’s book makes it read as a diary, and from the first days he and Freud are shown at odds over just about everything. That psychoanalytic shibboleth "resistance" often entered their heated discussions. As early as October 10, l934, barely a week into the analysis, a practical problem emerged that illustrated Freud’s awareness of Wortis’ resistance, as well as Freud’s famous wariness of anything American. Hard of hearing, Freud accused Worstis of mumbling, telling the young American that mumbling was: ". . . an expression of the general American laxity in social intercourse, sometimes used as resistance."

As the diary continues it is difficult not to laugh out loud at Freud’s utterances, a laughter that even the reader familiar with such exaggerations cannot hide. For example, Freud states that when someone dreams of attending the theatre he is unconsciously dreaming of vicarious sex because ". . . sitting in a theatre always means watching coitus." An obvious barbed reply would be to ask if such dreams didn’t depend on the type of theatre one attended. Wortis foregoes the opportunity.

Sexual perversion does not go unmentioned. During the December 11, 1934 session, Freud , as he often did, condemned homosexuality as a perversion, coupling it, without irony, with the socially impractical: "How could we run an army if the officers kept falling in love with the enlisted men?" And in that same December 11, l934 session, Doctor Freud, in what now days could be regarded as a confused "instrumentalism," this time turned his psychoanalytic artillery on American women: "American women are an anti-cultural phenomenon. They have nothing but their pride in their sense of uselessness. That is why marriages are so unsuccessful in America, that is why your divorce rate is so high. American men don’t know how to make love. You couldn’t expect to step up to an orchestra to play first fiddle without some training, but American men step into marriage without the least experience for so complicated a business. In Europe, things are different, men take the lead and that is as it should be."

Sex never leaves the scene for long in this didactic analysis. A November 21, l934, session has Wortis relating a dream regarding a fish chopping machine and his own wife. Freud was delighted. "That’s what I call a real dream!" he said, and then related that a fish was a well known penis symbol, and because Wortis had previously told Freud he felt hostile to psychoanalysis, the fish chopping machine meant Wortis was being put through the works.

By December 28, l934, Wortis became bolder in his arguments against psychoanalysis, saying he thought Freud over-emphasized sex. Wortis objected to Freud interpretating a dream where Wortis had changed his shirt four times, a symbol to Freud of Wortis’ incestual desire for his siblings. Worst argued the change of shirts could just as well mean he desired to have 4 children. This argument ended with Freud quite pleasant, and a bit condescending, saying: "When you learn more you will be better able to interpret."

If Freud had any doubts about anything, personal or professional, he didn’t share them with his analysand. Wortis, who knew and was quite friendly with famed sexologist Havelock Ellis, on December 6, l934 told Freud that Ellis once mentioned that the older, he Ellis, became, the less sure he was about anything. "I am older than Ellis," said Freud, with emphasis, "and I can say that the older I get the more sure I grow of everything,"

Such dogmatism unsurprisingly led to Freud’s dislike of being corrected. During their December 11, l934, session, Wortis had interpreted a dream to mean he didn’t like being told unpleasant things in analysis, and that he now wanted to go his own way. Freud grew indignant, and at the same time strangely illogical: "An attitude of that sort makes further analysis impossible. It is purely emotional."

Freud then quieted down, but he remained irritated. At the beginning of the new year, January 3, 1935, Freud summed up the whole analysis with disgust : "If anybody asked me about a certain talented Wortis who came to study with me I will say he learned nothing from me, and I will disclaim all responsibility. I have told you the truth to point of rudeness. It is people like you who are responsible for all the theories floating around, and confusing the scientific world. It is not the stupid people who cause trouble. Stupid people ruin themselves . . . It is the people with talent that cause trouble. Either you are so conceited that my remarks do not bother you and you run me down in return, so that I have another enemy . . ." (Notice the use of "another.")

Freud was not tolerant of criticism by his psychology peers, or for that matter, anyone else. Even to personal praise Freud attached ulterior motives: Here, in one of their last sessions, January 16, l935, Freud complained: "Calling me a genius is the latest way people have of starting a criticism of me.; that is the sort of thing that has been happening the past five years or so. First they call me a genius and then they proceed to reject all my views. If they thought I was a genius, one should think they would not question my authority."

On January 23, 1935, Havelock Ellis again entered their discussion. Wortis had become irritated over Freud’s remarks that Freud had interpreted him as saying Ellis’s wife was homosexual. He also didn’t care for Freud claiming Ellis was indecisive in judgment because he was sexually impotent. Shakespeare, Wortis told Freud, would never make such judgments because Shakespeare saw too many sides to an argument. This made Freud madder than Wortis had ever seen him. Freud said: "Do you know Shakespeare, then, as well as you do Ellis? Anyway, he was a poet and not a scientist." Freud ranted on and wound up warning Worst to be more careful in his statements.

But if all’s well that ends well, the analysis was a success. Wortis told Freud that he had learned a great deal, and Freud gave Wortis some autographed books he had authored. Wortis never changed his suspicions of psychoanalysis as being basically narrow minded and lacking in social content (and yes, as Freud had said other critics were prone to do, called him a genius). Wortis went on to a long and successful career in psychiatry, and died in l994 at age 88. Over four years following their didactic analysis, Freud died in London at age 83.

One comes away from Wortis diary a tad puzzled. Was Sigmund Freud a genius? Despite the infirmities of old age and ill-health, he seemed too much of a shaman to deserve the appellation "genius." Yet the way he changed the world in so many ways is incalculable and needs no superfluous comments. His originality, although not unquestioned (Schopenhauer use of the unconscious immediately coming to mind), can also to a degree be acknowledged. And there is no doubt his expository prose rose to the level of genius, the best and most lucid writer on Freud is Freud himself. Yet, "Fragments of an Analysis with Freud" is an empirical work that leaves the reader thinking psychoanalytic theory might be some kind of gigantic hoax created by a charlatan, a magician that by sleight of hand for decades fooled the world.

Regardless, for good or bad Freud, was a towering figure of 20th century thought, and one is, if not persuaded, at least prone at times to regard the jottings of Joseph Wortis as mere trifles notable only due to their famous subject. But the jottings remain, and if nothing else stand as factual props to some of the parodies written about the "Viennese Master." In his famous novel, Lolita, Nabokov describes a psychoanalyst who is such a charlatan he preached if patients concentrated very hard they could remember their own conceptions. After reading Wortis book it sounds like something that might have been uttered behind that closed door at Berggasse 19, Vienna, not all that many years ago.

© James Morford May 4th 2009
jamesmorford at hotmail.com

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