Life & Culture

‘If Freud was alive today he would rage against all this cancel culture’

The author of a new book discusses the antisemitism that followed Freud throughout his life, and why his critics have always downplayed it


Anatomy of a genius: Oscar Nemon creating his sculpture of Freud in Vienna, in 1931

Like Sigmund Freud – the subject of his latest book, Mortal Secrets: Freud, Vienna and the Discovery of the Modern Mind – Frank Tallis loves Jewish humour. “I think it’s the acknowledgement that there is an unfairness, a negativity in the world, a kind of Freudian pessimism, that I share. There’s the self-deprecation and the struggling to fit in, and somehow making that funny. It is almost magical.”

Tallis, the child of Catholic Italian immigrants, may not be Jewish himself, but throughout his career — first as a clinical psychologist, then as a psychoanalyst and now as an author of both fiction and non-fiction — he has found himself surrounded by Jews and immersed in Jewish learning and literature. The hero of his crime novels, Liebermann Papers (adapted as BBC TV series Vienna Blood), is, like Freud, a Viennese Jew. “I’ve ended up almost specialising in writing about Jewish characters and Jewish culture, which is bizarre.”

Why the fascination with Jews? “It’s interesting,” he says. “I suppose I could put myself on the psychoanalyst couch and unpack it. The simplest answer is that all of my heroes are Jewish: Freud, of course, Gustav Mahler and Stanley Kubrick. They all had an uneasy relationship with being Jewish, a kind of ambivalence. That appeals to my own identity. My Italian parents made enormous efforts to fit in but, at the end of the day, they would always be outsiders. And when I was researching Freud’s Vienna, lots of the writing of the so-called assimilated Jews reflected that they were never going to be quite accepted.”

Mortal Secrets is, Tallis proposes, “a rehabilitation of Freud through fairness”: “What I’m seeking to do is to say, let’s just put aside the biases and write a measured account of his work. He divides opinion, and those opinions are often very extreme — the bashers and the hagiographers. So let’s look at Freud again, let’s put him into the context of what’s happening in the modern world, and evaluate him.”

He acknowledges that Freud was a very flawed man and that some aspects of his theories are weak or unconvincing. He notes, however, that Freud has recently been quietly readmitted into the scientific fold, recognised for his extraordinary contributions, particularly in the fields of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience: “Eric Kandel, the Nobel Laureate, says Freud’s structural theory of the mind is perhaps he best we have. His essay Civilization and its Discontents is an extraordinary analysis of why we’re unhappy in the modern world. He liberalised attitudes to sex. He placed child development at the centre of things. And he was an extraordinary prophet. His idea of the death instinct is beginning to be seen as, if not a tenable psychological theory, then a prophetic observation.

“I’ve always found it quite tiresome how Freud is rejected and dismissed because of prejudices, one of which, I’m sure, is antisemitism.”

In Tallis’s view, Freud’s critics haven’t just downplayed his intellectual achievements, but also the antisemitism he faced. Although he rejected all religion, which, as a man of science, he considered superstitious, infantile and irrational (he even forbade his wife, Martha, to light Sabbath candles), antisemitism forced him into identifying strongly as a Jew.

“In a rare 1926 interview, Freud explained that he’d always considered himself German, but antisemitism had forced him into a change of identity. That’s the great tragedy of the Holocaust — the Jews had made such an extraordinary contribution to German culture. It annoys me when his critics have said Freud overstressed antisemitism to promote a self-serving story of himself as a lone hero, struggling against enemies. He certainly announced his own legend, but he didn’t use antisemitism. The idea is just laughable.

 “Vienna was extremely antisemitic. Karl Lueger, the mayor of Vienna, was famously antisemitic and there were proto-Nazi secret societies, and writers such as Guido von List, who provided Hitler with all the major Nazi tropes — the swastika, the idea of blond, Aryan superheroes, the master race… It was where Hitler did his dictator’s apprenticeship. Freud’s books were burned by the Nazis. He narrowly escaped being murdered in a concentration camp, and four of his sisters died in death camps.”

Tallis pauses. “Doesn’t it make you wonder why?” he asks. “You’ve got the evidence — massive, overwhelming evidence —and yet writers still say he over-exaggerated antisemitism. To analyse it in a Freudian way, it’s a kind of a denial, isn’t it? A denial of a reality that’s so blindingly obvious, it’s absurd to challenge it.”

He recounts a famous anecdote from Freud’s childhood — memorably used by Tom Stoppard in his play Leopoldstadt — when his father told him his cap had been knocked off by an antisemite, landing in the dirt. Young Freud asked his father, ‘What did you do?’ And Jacob Freud said, ‘I stepped into the road and I picked up my cap.’

“Freud was disappointed,” Tallis says. “He wanted his father to have done something heroic.”

Antisemitism followed Freud through his life. The reading society he joined after enrolling at university dissolved because of tensions between the Jews and nationalists, who didn’t think Jews could be regarded as real Germans. And after his second year at university, Freud changed his name from Sigismund to Sigmund because Sigismund was the name of the Jewish dupe in Viennese antisemitic jokes.

In 1901, as recounted in Freud’s son Martin’s autobiography, the Freud family were on holiday, when a revealing incident occurred. As Martin and his brother fished, a group of men on the shore started yelling at them that they were “Israelites” and “stealing the fish”. They ran home and told their father. Freud was philosophical. He said, “Yes, that’s what happens. You’re likely to encounter it again, and you should be prepared for it.” Later that day, Freud and his boys rowed across the same lake, and the men were still there. They were armed with sticks and had blocked the road. Freud jumped out of the boat, Martin followed, and Freud commanded him to stay back. Martin said it was the only time he could ever recall his father talking to him sharply. And then Freud started swinging his cane and walked straight through the crowd. He dispersed the thugs and got on with his business.

“Freud never mentioned the incident,” says Tallis. “He just accepted it. It was a central part of his world view. If you were Jewish, you would encounter antisemitism, and you dealt with it. He could have made a big thing of it, if he’d wanted to enhance his own legend, but he just wanted to be seen as a great scientist and a great contributor to human knowledge. Curiously, things like that act of courage, he never made a big thing of at all.”

Despite Freud’s distaste for religion, he was in many ways, very Jewish — or, as one scholar described it, he had “Jewish attachments”. He moved in Jewish circles and was joined to a Jewish lodge. Tallis says there’s even some evidence to suggest he was a closet student of Kabbalah: “There’s a massive overlap between Kabbalah and psychoanalysis: dream interpretation, the emphasis on symbols, the conceptualisation of sexual desire as energy.”

Did antisemitism influence the formation of psychoanalysis? Tallis believes it created ideal conditions for it to develop and grow into a global intellectual movement. “Had there not been so much antisemitism, it might not have concentrated Freud’s thinking in a group of like-minded individuals, who were accepting of it. And it might not have allowed the consolidation of psychoanalysis as readily.”

For Freud, antisemitism stems from envy because Jews are seen as the “chosen people”: “He likened society to a psychodynamic family. If the first born is favoured, the siblings are jealous. But, actually, I think we can learn more about antisemitism from looking at psychoanalysis itself – the idea of the ‘id’, of powerful emotions and aggressive emotions rising from the unconscious of a primitive aspect of being. Freud wrote some interesting things about crowd behaviour, the mob, and how there’s a diffusion of responsibility and the release of aggression under those circumstances, which isn’t a million miles away from some of the things we’ve seen recently. There’s also the psychoanalytic idea of projection as a defence – people defend against what’s unacceptable in themselves by projecting it onto others.”

Tallis is deeply concerned about the resurgence of antisemitism. When he first started writing his Liebermann novels, in 2003, he viewed antisemitism as very much in the past – a historical interest, not something current or relevant. “It’s extraordinary to be here today,” he says. “What worries me is that the internet creates crowds of millions of people. It releases the irrational.”

Freud perceived humour as one form of defence against antisemitism. He collected jokes, particularly Jewish jokes, and wrote a book about them. “Jewish jokes of the time often featured Jewish grotesques, and they’re defensive in the sense that they’re anticipating mockery,” Tallis explains. “This then diminishes its emotional impact when it’s encountered in reality.

“If Freud were alive today, he would be against cancel culture. He would want full engagement with reality, and I don’t think he would have been politically correct. He’d say you need to come to terms with how the world is portraying you, because that prepares you. Freud was a really strong atheist, but recognised that in the face of antisemitism one needed to protect the Jewish identity. And if you didn’t do that, survival would become problematic. Freud is such a good model, I think, for secular Jews. He embodies a strategy for coping. Keep the jokes coming, that’s the important thing.”

In a week in which the Freud Museum, the former Hampstead home of the Jewish father of psychoanalysis, hosted the controversial pro-Palestine academic Lara Sheehi who has branded Israel an “apartheid​​” state and co-a​uthor​ed​ ​the book ​Psych​oanaly​sis ​Under O​cc​upation​, those jokes ​are ar​guably as im​portant as ever​.​

Mortal Secrets: Freud, Vienna and The Discovery of the Modern Mind (Little, Brown) is out now

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive