The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism

First posted February 01, 2019

The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism: by Mark Edmundson

Reviewed by  Jonathan Derbyshire

What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books. Sigmund Freud, on the burning of his books by the Nazis in 1933

In 1914, Sigmund Freud published a short essay about Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. Freud had seen the sculpture, which shows the prophet holding tightly on to the tablets of the law, in the church of St Peter in Chains in Rome, and had been mesmerised by it. What was most arresting, he wrote, was that Michelangelo depicted Moses not in a transport of fury at the misdeeds of the Israelites but rather in the process of containing his anger. Michelangelo had recognised, in other words, that “Moses is flesh of sublimation” (sublimation, for Freud, being the means by which base instincts are renounced).

According to Mark Edmundson, the article on Michelangelo’s Moses marked a decisive shift in the focus of Freud’s work. Where previously he had been concerned with what is repressed and therefore unconscious in the human mind, now he was interested in what it is that does the repressing. The concept of the superego, “the centre of authority in the human psyche”, enters Freud’s thinking at this point as a solution to the question of how the ego structures repression.

In fact, Freud says that the ego, the “poor creature”, is at the beck and call of three masters, not one: as well as the superego, it is beholden to the id, the seat of instinctual desire, and to the external world. Human mental life is the conflict between these contending authorities. Freud’s greatness, Edmundson argues, lies in his recognition that psychic wellbeing consists in tolerating, if not actively cultivating, this conflict. A healthy psyche, therefore, is not always a “serene” one.Freud’s fascination with Moses was so intense that he would confess to a friend many years later that the prophet wouldn’t “let go of [his] imagination”. Michelangelo, says Freud, shows Moses wrestling successfully with an “inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself.” Consequently, inner struggle is the source of Moses’ authority as a leader. This paradox of an authoritative leader who is nevertheless able to “dramatise his self-division” is at the heart of Edmundson’s book. On his account, the origins of authority, especially political authority, obsessed Freud until he died in 1939.

Sigmund Freud: Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915)

The death of Sigmund Freud was a drawn-out affair – a protracted battle, on the one hand, with the oral cancer that he had lived with since 1923 and a struggle, on the other, to finish his final book, Moses and Monotheism, before the Nazis overran Vienna, where he had lived since he was a child. Edmundson deftly entwines the gripping story of the dying Freud’s flight to England after the Anschluss in 1938 with a persuasive case for his standing as a political thinker.

Freud, it turns out, had anticipated in his own work the political whirlwind that now threatened to consume him. As the Nazis harassed his family (his daughter Anna was arrested by the Gestapo) and seized his assets, Freud was irritated and bemused but, says Edmundson, not “surprised”. This was because he did not see Hitlerism as a distinctively German phenomenon at all; rather, Hitler was the personification of an all too human need to escape the predicament that Freud had seen embodied in Michelangelo’s Moses. Charismatic leaders such as Hitler – or, for that matter, Stalin or Mussolini – promise eternal peace in place of conflict, plenitude in place of lack. That promise is, of course, illusory (disastrously so), but no less powerful or alluring for that. The absolute leader “satisfies the human hunger to rise above time and chance and join with something more powerful and more enduring than merely transient, mortal enterprise”.

This analysis of leader-love offers no explanation of why the lust for transcendence tends to fixate on a single person, rather than, say, on an idea. Nor is it clear, in Freud’s account, why some historical moments are more prone to such intoxications than others. Edmundson acknowledges these shortcomings – Freud, he admits, is no historicist. However, it is one thing to say fascism and assorted fundamentalisms answer to existing human temptations, and quite another to say that the adulation of the tyrannised for their tyrants is somehow inevitable. Rather, fascism and fundamentalism are where “humanity will go without potent efforts of resistance”. The moral of Moses and Monotheism, which was finally published just a few months before Freud died in London in September 1939, is that such resistance is possible: it is what we call “civilisation”. Moses, the “hero of civilisation”, renounces pleasure and desire in the name of something greater and teaches others to do the same.

Edmundson ends this riveting book on an appropriately ambivalent note, suggesting that Freud saw in Moses a model of self-divided, sublimating authority that he was unable to properly emulate himself. Psychoanalysis, in its very nature and practice (in its therapeutic commitment to the method of free association, for example), undermines authority. Yet at the time of his death, Freud’s reputation and standing had never been higher (he even received an unprecedented house visit from representatives of the Royal Society shortly after emigrating to London). He “died as an authority”, yet in his writing “asked humanity to turn away from all large-scale coercive powers”….