The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, 1887-1904
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 Masson believed that these unpublished letters created impressions of Freud that differed significantly from what one learns from the letters and drafts edited by Ernst Kris, Anna Freud, and Marie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 entire section is 2804 words.)