Discovering Buried Secrets and Treasures
THE OBSESSIONS OF SIGMUND FREUD
By Stephen Beiner
My psychologist friend calls it "positive confirmation." It occurs when a person of considerable note or esteem does something or takes a position similar to one you have taken. By "transference," your undertaking is validated by that of the celebrity. So you can imagine my elation when I learned that my "addiction" was shared by none other than Sigmund Freud.
Fascinated by archaeology, Freud collected Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Near Eastern and Chinese artifacts that he kept piled on shelves and tabletops in his office. In May 1938 before the Freud family fled to London to escape Hitler, his study and consulting room contained more than 2000 antiquities. Even his orderly desk was crowded with figurines that he absent-mindedly caressed as he wrote. Freud described his collecting as "an addiction second in intensity only to (his) nicotine addiction." He was so profoundly influenced by antiquity that he used classical terms to express his most original and controversial works - such as the Oedipus complex and the instinctual conflict between Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death).
In an 1896 lecture on the causes of hysteria, Freud illustrated his theory using an elaborate archaeological analogy: an explorer discovering an expanse of ruins may not content himself with inspecting what lies exposed to view or simply noting what the local inhabitants tell him. He may instead set the inhabitants to work with him, using picks, shovels and spades, to clear away the rubble and uncover what is buried there. If his work is successful, he may uncover the ruined walls of a treasure house or palace or temple; he may discover inscriptions which, when deciphered and translated, yield undreamed of information about events of the remote past. Saxa loquuntur! (The stones speak!) Just like the archeologist who deciphers the ancient stones which are made to tell their story, Freud suggested the psychoanalyst probes the details of memory, dream images, hysterical symptoms, inexplicable aversions and phobias, which must be ďtranslatedĒ and understood with reference to their causes. In Freudís psycho-archeological terms: the symptoms speak!
As the founder of a new "science," Freud needed to describe his new methodology based on free association. In the act of excavation, he found a compelling paradigm: just as
archaeologists dug into the earth to reveal what is hidden below the surface, he dug into the mind to reveal its secrets.
Freud was introduced to the classical world while still a student. While studying at the University of Vienna, he formed a friendship with Emanuel Lowy, who like Freud was the son of a Jewish businessman of modest means. In 1882, a year after Freud finished his medical studies, Lowy joined the Austrian expedition to Turkey and Greece. Decades later, as Freud was developing his pioneering psychoanalytic technique, Lowy became the first full professor of archaeology at the University of Rome, a remarkable achievement for a Jewish scholar, given the prejudices of university politics of the time. Through Lowy, Freud had a unique view of the archaeologistís world. Lowy visited Freud at least once a year in Vienna regaling his host into the wee hours of the morning with his tales about ancient Rome and his archaeological endeavors. Freud would have Lowy examine and authenticate the artifacts he was constantly acquiring.
Heinrich Schlieimannís excavations at Troy in the 1870ís also fascinated the young Freud. While he was writing The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud was reading Schliemannís Ilios, written in 1881. In a letter written in 1889 to his friend and colleague Wilhelm Fliess, Freud excitedly described a success he experienced with a patient during the early stages of his development of psychoanalysis:
Buried deep beneath his fantasies, we found a scene from his primal period (before twenty-two months)... in which all the remaining puzzles converge. It is everything at the same time- sexual, innocent, natural, and the rest. I scarcely dare to believe it yet. It is as if Schliemann had once more excavated Troy, which had hitherto been deemed a fable.
Freud concluded his letter to Fliess, "I am finishing the dream work in a large, quiet, ground floor room with a view of the mountains. My old and dirty gods (referring to his antiquities)....are collaborating in the work as paper weights."
After the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Freud and his family fled to England, where they took up residence at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London, which now houses the Freud Museum. Freud died a year later surrounded by his "gods," his beloved collection of antiquities. Museum visitors can still sense Freudís presence in the antiquities that fill his study. His writing desk is crowded with rows of figurines which faced him as he worked: Tíang Dynasty standing female figures, an Indian ivory seated Vishnu, Egyptian bronze gods, Roman statuettes, and a Chinese scholarsí screen.
Freudís antiquities collection has no single unifying theme; rather it is the culmination of a wide-ranging curiosity and an omnivorous mind. He owned Greek vessels and funerary reliefs, fragments of Pompeian wall paintings, Egyptian sarcophagus lids and engraved stelae, and Burmese Buddhas. A fifth century BCE South Italian winged Sphinx sat in a cabinet behind Freudís desk; unlike Egyptian sphinxes, which are usually depicted as males, this sphinx is depicted as a female, because the sphinx in the Greek myth of Oedipus is female. Freudís collection was the spoils of an armchair traveler, obtained from archeologists and antiquity dealers as he continued his lifelong expedition into the human psyche and manís ancient past. As Freudís patients relaxed on his famous couch, freely associating, they were watched over by exotic remnants of lost worlds. A plaster cast of a Roman bas relief known as the Gravdiva (the original now hangs in the Vatican) depicting the daughter of the mythical king of Attica as a young woman forever caught in mid-stride, hung over Freudís couch, together with a 19th century colored print depicting the Egyptian temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel. One patient remarked that ďthere was always a feeling of sacred peace and quietĒ in Freudís consulting room.
Freud liked to give his friends Roman oil lamps and ancient intaglio rings as special gifts. Freudís colleagues and patients also knew that the way to his heart was through antiquities. Marie Bonaparte (the granddaughter of Napoleonís brother) became an adherent of psychoanalysis and regularly brought Freud antiquities from Athens and Paris. She was later instrumental in securing the Freud familyís safe relocation to London in 1938 after Hitlerís annexation of Austria. Bonaparte personally smuggled out Freudís favorite antiquity, a bronze statuette of Athena, which she returned to him as he traveled to London. She later gave to him the red-figured Greek krater in which his ashes now rest in a grave outside London.
"I have read as much archaeology as psychology," Freud told the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. Freud, like the early archaeologists, was an intellectual adventurer, who resolutely followed his own hunches, continually unearthing new connections between the past and the present. To Freud, antiquities were similar to the images in his patientís minds: bits of congealed meaning that could not be understood until their larger contexts were revealed. He believed that both the archeologist and the psychologist seek to unravel these contexts, whether in a Bronze Age citadel or an infant trauma. Like the archaeologist, Freud believed he could reveal layers of human experience with which men and women were no longer in touch, recovering these lost worlds.
Stephen Beiner practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton, Florida. Together with his wife, Judith, he owns the Griffin Gallery of Ancient Art, located at 5501 North Federal Hwy., #4, Boca Raton, Florida.