Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk
By Matthew von Unwerth
Riverhead, 256 pages, $23.95.
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‘Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk” by Matthew von Unwerth is a meditation, a fugue — conceivably a psychoanalytic novella –– that has at its nexus Freud’s brief essay “On Transience,” written in 1915 for a commemorative volume in tribute to Goethe. In the essay, Freud described a “summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet.” The poet and friend cannot be reconciled with the simultaneous awareness of transience and mortality that is aroused by their perception of the natural beauty around them. The “revolt in their minds against mourning,” Freud explains, is a repudiation of the inescapable transience of life, encompassing time in its passage and limits, mortality, aging and decay, and historical, cultural and intellectual vicissitudes. Von Unwerth then infuses these themes with life, as he imaginatively connects them to real people and events in Freud’s life and to the questions that engaged him.
With this scaffolding in place, the author posits the identities of Freud’s companions: The unnamed poet, he offers, is Rainer Maria Rilke and the taciturn friend Lou Andreas-Salome, a writer, psychoanalyst, close friend and correspondent of Freud. He is also Rilke’s onetime lover and his life-long mentor. In reality, Andreas-Salome introduced Rilke to Freud in Munich at the Fourth International Psychoanalytical Congress in 1913, after which Rilke visited the Freud family in Vienna in 1915. But, as Freud later wrote, “no lasting bond” could be forged between them, and the two men never met again. The fragmentary contact between Freud and Rilke is linked to the poet’s rejection of psychoanalysis as treatment for his creative impasses, which then leads von Unwerth to consider creativity and Freud’s concept of sublimation as the process that underlies it. Is sublimation, in its alchemical transformations, closer to the base metal of the raw instincts, to the primeval sludge of the “oceanic feeling” that Freud personally disavowed, or is it an independent, higher form — the pure metal of transcendence?
Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of psychoanalysis is its establishment of the binary nature of our psychic lives: gender divisions, our propulsion by hate as well as love and our confinement by the mortal shackles that we tirelessly resist. Seemingly irreconcilable opposites constitute the psychodynamic suspension of our mental lives, but they also breed strange hybrids and intriguing paradoxes. One of the conflicts brought to life is the imaginative reconstruction of the making of Freud the Scientist, as opposed to Freud the Artist. Although Freud was awarded the celebrated Goethe Prize in 1930 for his literary achievement, he retained an uneasy truce with the artist in himself and consistently refuted suggestions of an artistic sensibility. Psychoanalysis is itself, after all, a great hybrid: part science, reflecting its foundation in classification and observation; part art, in its dependence on intuition to elucidate the imperceptible and intangible, and with its roots in the underworld of the unconscious; part philosophy, in its quest for meaning.
“Freud’s Requiem,” a slight volume, seems in danger at times of toppling under the weight and number of its themes. And yet, despite of or perhaps because of this, it succeeds in conveying the essence of the psychoanalytic state of mind, multisectioned and multilayered, in which fantasy and reality, ideas and their opposites, and past, present and future coexist. Von Unwerth’s style is arboreal — branching out in approximation of the free association recommended by Freud; no unitary thesis is pursued in linear fashion, but rather one idea sets off another by association, until an intricate web is formed. The aftereffect of “Freud’s Requiem” is a shimmering facsimile of psychoanalytic creation. In its accretion and intersection of themes and characters — transience, mourning, creativity, the classics, German Romantic writers, Gisela Fluss (Freud’s first love), Andreas-Salome, Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Jung — we glimpse the emotional and intellectual backdrop of Freud’s life and work.
The tone of “Freud’s Requiem” is, as its title suggests, elegiac; an aging Freud contemplates his own death; the loss of relatives and friends through death and estrangement; the threat to physical and cultural life posed by World War I, with its foreshadowing of the greater devastation of World War II. But as Freud enlightened us, mourning has a paradoxical outcome. Although renunciation in external reality is required, the lost object — beloved person, experience or ideal — is not really lost or annihilated but incorporated and memorialized in the psychic world of the mourner, becoming an inextricable part of our “heart’s histories.” Sic transit gloria mundi, including the history of psychoanalysis.
Dinah M. Mendes is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City.