The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904

by Sigmund Freud

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The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2804

This volume, apparently the first of a series of Sigmund Freud’s complete correspondence to be published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, is more than an addition to the vast Freud bibliography, and there is more than meets the eye in editor Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s assertion that the letters constitute “the single most important group of documents in the history of psychoanalysis.” This impressive collection is the result of exhaustive detective work in the Freud Archives of the Library of Congress, in Freud’s home in London, and with fellow Freud scholars who helped to turn up some of these letters. The book also stands as a major achievement of translation and editing. Certainly it must be welcomed by all students of Freud and the psychoanalytic tradition he inaugurated. The book’s true raison d’être, however, is to provide a strong vindication of Masson, the storm center of a controversy raging in the international psychoanalytic community over what Masson claims these letters reveal about Freud and the very foundations of psychoanalysis itself. To understand this, some words about Masson’s spectacular yet abortive career in psychoanalysis are in order.

Having abandoned his first career as a Sanskrit scholar (hence, his considerable linguistic skills), Masson took the psychoanalytic community by storm from his days (1970-1978) at the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute, where even as a student he began to present significant papers at professional meetings, to his attainment in 1978 of the coveted position of director of the Freud Archives in the Library of Congress. There, Masson had access to letters and documents previously unexamined by scholars. Furthermore, he won the respect and trust of the late Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter and herself an authoritative figure in psychoanalytic circles. She opened the Freud home at Maresfield Gardens, London, to Masson, who found there many previously undiscovered letters from Freud to his great friend, the physician Wilhelm Fliess. Masson believed that these unpublished letters created impressions of Freud that differed significantly from what one learns from the letters and drafts edited by Ernst Kris, Anna Freud, and Marie Bonaparte, published in 1954 as Sigmund Freud, Aus den Anfängen der Psychanalyse: Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess, Abhandlungen und Notizen aus den Jahren 1887-1902 (1950; Origins of Psychoanalysis: The Letters to Wilhelm Fliess, Drafts and Notes, 1887-1902, by Sigmund Freud).

Eventually, Masson began to suspect that these letters had been deliberately excluded from the Freud canon because they reveal intellectual dishonesty on Freud’s part, and because they suggest that psychoanalysis is founded upon a calculated suppression of the truth. The discovery of passages in the original documents, which were deleted in the 1954 collection, added to his suspicions. In 1981, Masson began to present his radical new interpretation and, in the ensuing controversy, was fired from his position as director of the Freud Archives. An account of the professional-political intrigues that brought about this chain of events may be found in Janet Malcolm’s gossipy In the Freud Archives (1984), in which Masson comes across, perhaps unfairly, as a publicity-seeking, overly ambitious young professional on the make. Masson responded to this summary dismissal by the old guard of psychoanalysis with The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory (1984), a book that can only be regarded as a full frontal assault on psychoanalysis.

In it, Masson argued that the significant transition through which Freud’s researches and ideas passed during the period of the friendship with Fliess was this: that Freud originally understood that the reason for the sexual basis (aetiology is Freud’s term) for his and Josef Breuer’s patients’ hysteria was the grim reality of childhood seduction and molestation by adults, especially parents (and, usually, fathers with their daughters), but that Freud willfully abandoned this thesis, abhorrent to the male-dominated psychiatric profession, in favor of the view that children merely fantasize union with the opposite-sex parent. Thus, as Masson would characterize Freud’s newer formulation: The analyst must look past his patients’ reports about childhood sexual encounters to the psychosexual implications of what may as well have been only fantasy. Most important, Masson implies that this detour was conscious on Freud’s part and that all of psychoanalysis is thus founded on a lie. The avalanche of condemnation by fellow psychoanalysts that fell on Masson in 1981 is thus scarcely surprising.

How is it that Freud’s letters to Fliess figure so prominently in this dispute? Wilhelm Fliess, a Berlin ear, nose, and throat specialist, was, throughout the crucial (for Freud) decade of the 1890’s, virtually the only sounding board for his ideas—seemingly the only medical colleague who took his ideas seriously. Freud was exceedingly grateful for this sympathetic attention and responded with generous attention to and encouragement of Fliess’s bizarre ideas and clinical methods, all of which strike the modern reader as sheer quackery.

Only Freud’s letters to Fliess survive, Freud himself having destroyed the letters he received. Before Masson’s efforts, it was thought that the letters to Fliess were limited to the packet which Marie Bonaparte purchased and smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Austria. Previously, Ida Fliess had sold her husband’s letters to a dealer named Stahl, from whom Bonaparte bought them in 1938. She discussed their contents with Freud, who was grateful to her for having ensured that they would not fall into the wrong hands. Freud was anxious that no details of his friendship with Fliess should ever come to light. The memory of those years, including the definitive break with Fliess, was still painful to him in the last year of his life.

The great regret he felt can no doubt be related to the intensity of the friendship at its peak, roughly 1895-1897, the period of Freud’s publication with Breuer of Studien über Hysterie (1895; Studies in Hysteria, 1950), of his first efforts on the books that would become Die Traumdeutung (1899; The Interpretation of Dreams, 1913) and Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905; Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1920), and of the icy reception with which his 1896 paper “On the Aetiology of Hysteria” was met. Freud poured his heart out to Fliess during those years and shared many intimate details of his personal and family life. The two exchanged notes and drafts of essays later to be published, and Masson includes an abundance of such material from Freud, including bits of the material Freud was working up for The Interpretation of Dreams. Presumably, in the personal as well as the professional sphere, Fliess responded in kind, judging from the tone of Freud’s letters. Robert Fliess wrote of the frankness with which both his father and Freud spoke of their erstwhile friendship, many years after the fact. Masson also tells the reader, in his informative notes, that Ida Fliess resented and feared the intensity of the friendship between the two men. There is at least a degree of implication that she worked actively to undermine the friendship.

Particularly in the last years of their correspondence, Freud emerges as the more intellectually generous, tolerant both of Fliess’s strange projects and of the latter’s increasing silence with regard to work Freud submitted for comments. Once they grew sufficiently apart, Freud would come to recognize the great divergences between his intellectual world and that of Fliess. After all, Fliess, by the time of the dissolution of the friendship, had arrived at the view that all illness, including mental disorders, resulted from changing biological periods (male and female). The reader of Freud’s letters is left with the feeling that theirs was one of those temporarily useful professional relationships, which Freud mistook for deep friendship and which Fliess exploited more cynically than did Freud. Yet it must be pointed out that after 1900, Freud’s professional fortunes increasingly meant that he no longer needed to rely on Fliess as his sole confidant.

The most peculiar incident in the history of the friendship, one to which Masson returned repeatedly in The Assault on Truth, combines a disastrous example of the radical medical procedures of Fliess with Freud’s pathetic blindness to his friend’s shortcomings converging at an apparent turning point in Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory. Freud entrusted one of his patients, an intelligent and very unfortunate woman named Emma Eckstein, to Fliess. Because she exhibited a variety of distressing physical symptoms, along with a form of hysteria that Freud considered, at least partly, aggravated by masturbation, Freud believed that she would provide an excellent case through which Fliess could demonstrate his eccentric theories on the connections between the nose and the female genitals, on which he had published a book much praised by Freud and roundly condemned by others. Fliess recommended nasal surgery for female patients suffering from sexual disorders, and Freud produced in Emma Eckstein a guinea pig for this unorthodox procedure. Having Fliess come to Vienna for the treatment would also give the two friends an opportunity to be together. These events were to take place in late February and early March, 1895.

Fliess botched the already unnecessary operation and departed for Berlin, leaving Freud with the recuperating patient. Eckstein nearly died from loss of blood, for Fliess, working hastily, had allowed some iodoform gauze to remain in the butchered nasal cavity. This gauze produced a dangerous infection, and the miserable patient hemorrhaged repeatedly. Freud was forced to call upon Viennese surgeons, who were appalled at what Fliess had done and, by extension, what Freud had encouraged him to do. Yet the reader can only marvel at Freud’s letters congratulating Fliess for his triumph and scoffing at the “narrow-minded” Viennese doctors who must balk at innovative techniques. Was Freud merely defensive about his own role in this debacle, or was his need to hold on to his friend and “audience of one” so great that he, consciously or not, refused to face the cruel facts? For example, Freud assures Fliess, in one letter, that Eckstein would recover completely and had suffered no lasting disfigurement. Yet Eckstein’s son recounted, in later years, that his mother had been permanently disfigured by the operation.

This outrage is less important to Masson than Freud’s denial of the physical causes of her symptoms. To quote from Freud’s letter of May 17, 1896, to Fliess:As for Ecksteinso far I know only that she bled out of longing. She had always been a bleeder.She described a scene from the age of fifteen, in which she suddenly began to bleed from the nose when she had the wish to be treated by a certain young doctor who was present (and who also appeared in the dream).

This letter is one of those produced in full for the first time in this collection, and Masson obviously believes that the full text presents Freud in a very bad light. As Masson makes especially clear in The Assault on Truth, he finds this to be one of the first instances in which Freud chose not to believe his patients. For Masson, this means that Freud developed a need, related to his chilly reception by the Viennese medical community and his attachment to Fliess, to turn a deaf ear to women patients when, on the psychoanalytic couch, they remembered episodes of childhood molestation. Hysteria would thus increasingly be seen as rooted in the sexual fantasy lives of repressed women, rather than the result of actual physical abuse. In The Assault on Truth, Masson wrote approvingly of Sándor Ferenczi, once, like Carl Gustav Jung, Freud’s most beloved disciple, but whose later work, according to Masson, was a sharp response to Freud’s abandonment of the seduction theory. Ferenczi believed his patients’ atrocity stories, whereas Freud, Masson asks the reader to believe, routinely did not after 1896. In Masson’s view, Freud, who had attended autopsies performed on children who were victims of parental sadism, certainly knew better. Yet the Eckstein case, the basis for many of the previously unpublished letters, is presented as pivotal in Freud’s “betrayal” of this hideous truth. In order to see how Masson marshals his evidence, the reader is strongly advised to pay careful attention to Masson’s editorial notes, especially for the letters from this period of 1895-1896.

Given the sweeping nature of the accusations Masson has aimed at psychoanalysis, that is, that it is rotten at its core, founded on a denial of the truth, and so on, Masson’s evidence is paltry. His argument depends on the reader’s acceptance of his interpretation of a few key letters in the midst of a voluminous compilation. Remember, the reader does not have the other side of this correspondence, and it may not be right, as many have assumed, to see Fliess merely as a screen onto which Freud’s professional ambitions and identity are projected. Linguists tell us that communication is dialogic, which means that one person’s statements are framed and shaped by what the “sender” believes the “receiver” is prepared to understand. If this book could make a sound, it might well be the sound of one hand clapping.

True, the Eckstein episode is indeed frightful, but Masson fails to establish, either in his previous book or in the context of this annotated volume of letters, that this infamous case became the detour that led to a permanent denial of the reality of childhood seduction. Masson himself provides comments on subsequent letters, which make the point that Freud, long after 1896, was still willing to accept this reality. Presumably, Masson wishes at those later points to reveal the difficulty even Freud had in being consistent in his denial of actual seduction. Yet, Masson cannot have it both ways: showing Freud reversing his own direction at times, yet claiming categorically that psychoanalysis takes the absolute denial of childhood seduction as its very foundation. For that matter, is it demonstrated that the seduction theory and Freud’s later formulations are necessarily mutually exclusive in all cases?

Masson does raise important questions about the Kris, Bonaparte, and Anna Freud censorship, partial or in toto of certain letters, but he himself implies the answer. The answer is not necessarily that these keepers of the psychoanalytic flame conspired to delete evidence that showed willful intellectual dishonesty. Most of the letters and previously “censored” passages of letters supplied in Masson’s volume show something else that must have pained them: the unnerving spectacle of Freud working energetically to flatter, cajole, and humor a man much his intellectual inferior in exchange for a deceptively sympathetic hearing of Freud’s own views. Could it not be that they were embarrassed by the great man’s blindness toward the glaring examples of medical malpractice Fliess provided and by the obvious ways in which Fliess was only too willing to manipulate Freud? Still, this need not be the only explanation, for much of this correspondence can safely be eliminated on grounds of insufficient interest. More space than one might like to imagine is taken up with trivial, mundane matters, even if this allows the reader to gain a sense of the everyday family atmosphere chez Freud.

In interviews, Masson has justifiably commented on Freud’s and the psychoanalytic profession’s own sexism, and Masson has presented himself as one who was punished for encouraging a feminist critique. Yet feminists have been doing this very forcefully without Masson’s or any man’s help. Moreover, feminist theorists in the psychoanalytic tradition, most notably Juliet Mitchell, have stressed the psychosexual dimension of human experience. An example here would be the notorious phrase “penis envy,” where Mitchell’s emphasis is not on the literal longing to possess the organ but the psychological understanding of the cultural advantage and power associated with it. As for the seduction theory, Mitchell’s critique in Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) and other books would allow one to say that it does indeed matter what actually happens to a person, particularly where sex is concerned, but that what Freud demonstrated was the tremendous hold that unconscious interpretation of such experiences has on us.

If it is true that Freud was led to emphasize family life and the degree to which this can crowd out real experience, this was not necessarily a denial of the reality of human experiences and encounters. Masson has not, in this reviewer’s judgment, demonstrated Freud’s unequivocal opposition to the reality of childhood seduction. He has certainly demonstrated Freud’s often condescending, paternalistic manner with his female patients. The contemporary European feminist “reinvention” of psychoanalysis shows that Freud developed a tradition that can evolve in ways he, as a fin de siècle Viennese, might never have foreseen. Masson has produced an important volume, but whether its appearance constitutes a major challenge to the survival of psychoanalysis, as both he and his more hysterical detractors seem to believe, remains to be seen.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 15, 1985, p. 171.

Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 68.

The London Review of Books. VII, June 20, 1985, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 14, 1985, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXII, May 30, 1985, p. 7.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, April 28, 1985, p. 7.

The Observer. May 19, 1985, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, February 22, 1985, p. 150.

Washington Post Book World. XV, May 19, 1985, p. 6.

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