Blogs > HNN > Leslie Kitchen: Review of Matthew von Unwerth's Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk (Riverside/Putnam, 2005)

Oct 7, 2005 10:57 am

Leslie Kitchen: Review of Matthew von Unwerth's Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk (Riverside/Putnam, 2005)

Sigmund Freud, a child of the nineteenth century, and a giant of the twentieth, continues to discomfit us. Although his bits and pieces, such as the unconscious, repression, resistance, projection, and sublimation have become part of the cultural armamentarium of nearly every educated person, the value of the body of his work is more deeply contested now than it was at the time of his death in 1939. Although warmly defended by loyalists of psychoanalysis, Freud has become a punching bag for critics. Some of the objections have been acute and penetrating, concentrating on the cultural blinders imposed by his time and place, his overheated bent for speculation, his unyielding claims for the scientific nature of his discoveries, and the shortcomings and quirks of his character. Other criticism, however, has been of a much lower order, with even his name becoming a cultural hot-button. Everyone feels entitled to join the fray, holding forth with imagined authority without the requirement of having ever read more than a few pages of psychology, much less a single page of Freud.

Matthew von Unwerth, with his recent Freud’s Requiem: Mourning, Memory, and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk, falls clearly within the camp of the loyalists. Freud’s Requiem is a brief, maddeningly dreamlike examination of some crucial aspects of Freud’s life and thought. Since it is written by a practititioner of psychoanalysis, it carries both the virtues and flaws of that discipline, flying by in a methodological blur, sometimes almost surrendering to formlessness, and flitting among the techniques of history, depth psychology, art, and science. The end result is its saving grace, however--a prolonged essay that is warmly humanistic, lyrical, elegiac, and profound--a haunting examination of what Freud and psychoanalysis can teach us about death, mourning, memory, love, and creativity.

Von Unwerth centers his discussion on an exegesis of a little-known essay by Freud, “On Transience,” written in the midst of WWI as a contribution to Das Land Goethes, a lavishly produced volume intended to raise money for German libraries while simultaneously refuting Allied arguments that Germany was a sink of barbarism. Other contributors included such luminaries as Arthur Schnitzler, Gerhardt Hauptmann, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Albert Einstein, and Richard Strauss.

Although Freud was one of the most widely recognized German thinkers on the international scene, a master stylist, and a patriot, he was not an ideal selection for such a volume. He was too honest and too independent to fall prey to the mindless simplicities of chauvinism. He knew, too, that his nation bore its share of guilt for the war, a blood-drenched struggle that he viewed as a nervous breakdown of civilization, a descent into barbarism by all involved. In addition, Freud’s approach was always universal, for both good and ill. He was bound to take a broad view of the matter rather than merely a German one. As recounted by von Unwerth, Freud capitalized on his opportunity by turning his essay into a piece of psychoanalytic pedagogy, a meditation on death, mourning, and the nature of beauty.

Making use of a literary conceit, Freud’s “On Transience” tells of a recent and troublesome conversation the author had recently had during a walk through the countryside in the company of a famous young poet and the young poet’s taciturn friend. Von Unwerth believes the young man to have been Rainer Maria Rilke, perhaps the greatest German poet of the twentieth century. If von Unwerth’s supposition is correct, it is highly likely that the “taciturn friend” was Rilke’s lover, Lou Andreas-Salome, “Frau Lou” to her friends, a psychoanalyst, daughter figure to Freud, and infamous femme fatale. The subject of the conversation was the value of art and natural beauty in the face of the inevitability of death. Rilke acknowledged the surrounding beauty and his admiration for the creations of mankind, but he maintained that he could take no joy from any of it because of the fleeting nature of life. That all living things and all of man’s creations are doomed to pass away filled the young poet with despondency. Freud countered by arguing that transience was a limitation that actually increased the value of all that we survey. He argued that limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment actually serves to heighten its value. That all of creation will someday die enables us to enjoy it and value it all the more.

Freud’s protestations made little impact on the brooding young poet. Brooding young poets are seldom impressed by the arguments of elderly bourgeois gentlemen. Freud then appealed to the taciturn friend, but again to no avail. The taciturn friend, middle-aged, was inclined to side with her lover, who was some fifteen years her junior. No mystery there.

It was a fault with Freud, sometimes comical, sometimes tragic, that he viewed those brave enough to disagree with him as creatures not sufficiently evolved, from a psychoanalytic point of view, to think rightly. It is to his credit that he sometimes, though not always, resolved such disagreements by privately submitting them to the rigors of his unrelenting intellect, ultimately arriving at penetrating and controversial insights into the human condition.

“On Transience” is an instructive example of this phenomenon. According to von Unwerth, Freud concluded that his companions were in a pain-filled rebellion against mourning and that their natural recoil from the pain was robbing their lives of the capacity for deep appreciation and enjoyment of all that surrounded them.

As was his habit, Freud then delved deeper, hoping to discover the mechanics governing the connection between mourning and love. Freud believed that we have a certain capacity for the latter, which he called libido. Very early in life, the libido is directed towards our own ego and the pleasures of our own bodies. Down the road of development, the libido is directed outward, attaching itself to objects, which are then drawn into the ego. If an object dies, or if it is lost to us, our libido may become liberated to attach itself to other, more available objects. More likely, however, the detachment of the libido from its object will be slow and painful. Withdrawing love from the missing object and drawing it back into us, surrendering the object, is a source of pain and guilt, and constitutes the process of mourning. The refusal to love more available objects is equivalent to Rilke’s and Frau Lou’s refusal to take enjoyment from the beauties of nature, to fixate on what has passed at the expense of what is left to us. According to Freud’s scheme, detachment from the beloved is a dark and dramatic exercise that all mourners must perform, and it is fraught with psychological peril.

Freud’s Requiem recounts the development and relationships of these ideas from the great man’s first disappointment in love, to the failure of his friendships with Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Jung, and on to his grief at the deaths of his father, Jacob, and his daughter, Sophie. Although Freud was famous for his disillusioned hardheadedness and unflinching honesty, von Unwerth shows us another Freud, tracing the fits and starts of a man whose life was rife with conflicts, foibles, and sentimentality. The result is the story of how this flawed man, filled with his own lifelong frustrations and experiences of loss, struggled to arrive at his powerful insights into the experience of mourning and then was able to express them in “On Transience” with such beauty, maturity, and economy. It is to Matthew von Unwerth’s everlasting credit that his book about Freud’s strange, eloquent little essay has managed to take on the qualities of its subject while remaining a significant contribution to the history of ideas.

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