There is a curious passage in a recent book by Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” in which Sacks discusses whether Sigmund Freud liked music.
There are contemporary accounts of Freud that mention he rarely listened to music, and only permitted himself to be “dragged” to opera on rare occasion – and then only if it was Mozart. And there is a quote from a not-terribly-reliable memoir by Freud’s nephew, Harry, in which he claimed Freud “despised” music.
Freud wrote about his own response to music in the introduction to “The Moses of Michelangelo”:
I am no connoisseur in art…nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting…[I] spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.
This is a fascinating observation. Freud is essentially saying that, because music is such an abstract art form and he cannot analyze the source of music’s effects upon his emotions, he doesn’t trust those effects and so avoids music as an art form. That might explain why Freud wrote so seldom about music, although he wrote at length about works of fiction or theatre or painting or sculpture.
It is not the last word, however, on whether Freud actually enjoyed music. His friend, Theodor Reik, wrote that he’d gone out to hear music on at least two occasions with Freud, and that it wasn’t only the mystery of music’s effects on the emotions that troubled Freud, but a fear of actually giving himself over to those mysterious effects. Reik felt that Freud’s resistance to music amounted to:
[a] turning-away…[an] act of will in the interest of self-defense…[and the] more energetic and violent, the more the emotional effects of music appeared undesirable to him. He became more and more convinced that he had to keep his reason unclouded and his emotions in abeyance. He developed an increasing reluctance to surrendering to the dark power of music. Such an avoidance of the emotional effect of melodies can sometimes be seen in people who feel endangered by the intensity of their feelings.
What draws me to this discussion in Sacks’ book is that it reveals the “hidden” Freud, the struggle between the serious, scholarly author of countless books, the “father of psychoanalysis” – and the man who, like everyone else, was filled with secret, overwhelming emotions – perhaps triggered by something as innocent as a beautiful work of music – that he could only struggle to comprehend.
Every therapist contains this dichotomy, at some level. We are all therapists – and also people.
Freud had immense pressures placed upon him to be “serious” and “scholarly” and “reputable.” After all, he was trying to create a new science. He had to attract patients and earn a living to feed his family – and recruit proteges and followers who could be trained and then relied upon to practice this new science in a way that did him credit and perpetuated his work after his death.
Keep in mind, too, that the new science Freud was founding didn’t look terribly reputable on the surface – he was working with people suffering from mental illness, including women with the mysterious malady of “hysteria” and he was writing about dark emotions, dreams and sexuality – provocative subjects that could easily have gotten him into trouble if he didn’t present himself with the utmost seriousness.
Freud had to learn to disguise his very humanness, all while studying and writing about the emotions that make us human.
I’ve always been fascinated by Freud’s final days, in England, where he fled to escape persecution by the Nazis. Among a stream of celebrity visitors who made the pilgrimage to see him, there were two in particular during that time who caught my attention, both for the odd responses that they had to Freud, and he had to them.
On July 19, 1938, Salvador Dali was brought to visit. The Surrealist painter was excited to meet the great psychoanalyst, whose theories were – at least in Dali’s view – the basis for much of his Surrealist vision. Dali did his thing – his “schtick” you might say, and Freud – a skeptic of the Surrealist movement – commented afterward that Dali was a bit of a caricature: “I have never seen a more complete example of a Spaniard. What a fanatic!” Dali, apparently, was simply flattered by the attention.
In January, 1939, Virginia Woolf accompanied her husband, Leonard Woolf, to visit Freud. Leonard Woolf was impressed by Freud, but found him “not an easy interview. He was extraordinarily courteous in a formal, old-fashioned way – for instance, almost ceremoniously he presented Virginia with a flower. There was something about him as of a half-extinct volcano, something sombre, suppressed, reserved. He gave me the feeling which only a very few people whom I have met gave me, a feeling of great gentleness, but behind the gentleness, great strength.”
Virginia Woolf’s opinion was much more curt, and rather unpleasant: “a screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes.”
The reality, of course, was that there was another Freud, whom none of these famous visitors recognized – a human being dying in great pain from cancer of the mouth and jaw. For some time, Freud had worn an awkward prosthesis to replace his upper palate, which had been surgically removed due to the spreading cancer, and it was fatiguing and uncomfortable for him to greet any visitor for more than a short time.
The fact that he had the fortitude to greet visitors at all, let alone pay them courtesies and attempt to converse, was a testimony to his enormous strength, and perhaps an ability to hide his own struggles and concentrate on the concerns of others, at least for the short duration of their visit.
In September, 1939, a few months after his meeting with the Woolfs, Freud asked that his own life be ended through a physician-assisted suicide via morphine injections. That wish was granted on September 23, when he finally died from an overdose of the drug. He was 83 years old.
Beneath his scrupulous courtesy and scholarly gentleman exterior, the Freud whom Dali and the Woolfs visited in England was a man staring into the void, preparing for his own death. No one knows exactly what went through his mind during those final days.
Whenever we speak of Freud, and our impressions of the man he was, we must consider how much we cannot know about any other person – especially someone so complicated, and multi-faceted. We must keep in mind that there were at least two sides to Freud – a man who probed his own psyche unrelentingly in order to explain all of human emotion, and another, secret man who lived his life, and faced his death, alone, tossed and turned by feelings he might never have fully comprehended any more than any of us can fully comprehend ourselves. There are always surprises.
Sometimes a clue can stare at us and we don’t see it. The word “freude” in German means “joy.” The word “dream” comes from the Middle English word dreme, which means, “joy” and “music.” Perhaps Dr. Freud was filled with hidden joy. This man who did so much to explore and explain the nature of dreams may also have permitted himself to drift at night into secret places filled with joy and music.
The paperback version of my first book – Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy – which discusses Freud, psychotherapy and other issues of a philosophical nature – is now available on Amazon.com.
Please take a look at my second book, Way Worse Than Being a Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning, too, which is a bit different.