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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.

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