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‘Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst,’ by Adam Phillips

An excerpt from a new biography of young Sigmund Freud explores how the Dreyfus Affair affected the thinker

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
June 06, 2014

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

In 1894 the Jewish French soldier Alfred Dreyfus—who had graduated ninth out of a class of eighty-two from the Ecole supérieure de guerre and was a member of the general staff of the French army—was falsely accused of treason, and spent five years in solitary confinement on Devil’s Island before being finally pardoned in 1899 by the French government. Dreyfus was accused, on the basis of spurious written evidence, of spying for Germany; he was supposed to have betrayed his country from a position of influence. The case divided France, raising many ghosts of the past, not least of which was the fundamental cultural divide in French society between a patriotic, hierarchic Catholic and military elitism and the more liberal, democratic universalism that was the Enlightenment legacy of the revolution. Dreyfus’s Jewishness was at the very heart of the ferocious battle between the Dreyfusards and the anti-Dreyfusards, which unleashed the virulent anti-Semitism that seemed to be endemic in Catholic France. “Two Frances … fought for the nation’s soul,” the historian Ruth Harris wrote, “the Dreyfusards or revisionists, defended Truth and Justice … the anti-Dreyfusards championed Tradition and Honour.” The many Jewish Dreyfusards had to be particularly careful, Harris writes, to isolate their “Jewish rationality from the mysticism and obscurantism of the ‘oriental’ current.” The Jews who defended Dreyfus, Harris writes, used “their religious inheritance as a justification for their ethical position, but mistrusted spiritual musings and religious enthusiasm, which they thought promoted an irrational and dangerous obscurantism.” The Dreyfus case sent shock waves through the Jewish communities of western Europe; and made French Jews attentive once again, as Harris makes clear, to the ways they represented themselves.

In the period between the Studies on Hysteria and the writing of Interpreting Dreams—in the years, that is to say, that were the prelude and the preparation for Freud’s great turn of the century writings—the Dreyfus case was of great interest in much of western Europe, and not only for the Jews. Freud, who was always so wary of psychoanalysis being considered a “Jewish science,” of its seeming mystical, obscurantist (“oriental”) or indeed irrational—it was supposed to be a science, a rational account of irrationality—refers to Dreyfus three times in his published writing, first in Interpreting Dreams and then twice in the Joke book, the last book written in this decisive period of his life. In a section entitled “Recent and Indifferent Material in Dreams” Freud “begins with an assertion that in every dream it is possible to find a point of contact with the experiences of the previous day.” On occasion, he writes, that he begins “a dream’s interpretation by looking for the event of the previous day that set it in motion.” He calls the day “immediately preceding the dream,” in a wonderful phrase, the “dream-day.” He then lists a series of his own dream images of which the final one is: “A man standing on a cliff in the middle of the sea, in the style of Bocklin. Source: Dreyfus on the Ile du Diable; I had news at the same time from my relatives in England, etc.” Here we have, at its most minimal, Freud identifying, at least in the manifest content of his dream, with something about the falsely accused, exiled, isolated and imprisoned Dreyfus. A cliff in the middle of the sea is not a reassuring image (perhaps an image of how Freud was feeling professionally, or in the family?). Like the Dreyfusards Freud, we might say, was in his own way, in psychoanalysis, championing truth and justice against tradition and honour (psychoanalysis strips people of a certain dignity to restore them to some kind of just truth, or another kind of truth, about themselves). Dreyfus believed that being a Jew was not a way of not being a Frenchman, much as Freud felt he could be both a Jew and an Austrian. And there is in this, perhaps, a guilty Freud who wants to believe that, like Dreyfus, he has really done nothing wrong (in inventing psychoanalysis he was just doing his job properly, he was just a Jew, like any immigrant, trying to get on in unsympathetic circumstances). In Freud’s sense of things though, these are unbounded “irrational” speculations without in this case Freud, as the dreamer, being able to speak for himself (it would be “obscurantist” in Freud’s terms to propose without his associations, the links in Freud’s mind, say, between Bocklin, the English relatives, Dreyfus, and himself; though Freud would assume there were links). And we should notice, alerted by Freud’s ear for censorship, that this reference to Dreyfus is in a section of his book entitled “Recent and Indifferent Material in Dreams.” There may have been a part of Freud that would have preferred to be indifferent to the Dreyfus case.

The second reference to Dreyfus, which is in the Joke book, is used twice to illustrate the workings—the “play upon words,” the “double-meanings”—of a certain kind of joke. As often in the joke book the joke is not very funny, and is anti-Semitic (as John Carey has written, “Jokes about Jews were, in a sense, the origin of Freud’s book”). A “joking medical colleague,” Freud tells us, was responsible for this joke at the time of the Dreyfus case: “This girl reminds me of Dreyfus. The army doesn’t believe in her innocence.” In Freud’s view the working of this so-called joke hangs on the word “innocence.” “The word ‘innocence,’” Freud writes, “on the double meaning of which the joke is constructed, has in the one context its usual meaning, with ‘fault’ or ‘crime’ as its opposite; but in the other context it has a sexual meaning, of which the opposite is ‘sexual experience.’”

The joke, like the dream, encodes (i.e., reveals by concealing) repressed, forbidden thoughts. And once again it is a question of what the innocent might be guilty of (and of the Jews, like sexuality itself, representing unacceptable sociability; promiscuous pleasure-and-power-seeking). It seemed clear at least to the Dreyfusards, that the only thing Dreyfus was guilty of was being a Jew; and being a Jew meant being, essentially, a saboteur of the nation-state, a person whose allegiances could not, by definition, be patriotic (and a person whose writing couldn’t be trusted; who, perhaps by the same token, associated with others in unpredictable ways); and could only, by definition, be nefarious, and unfathomable to the non-Jews. We will find, perhaps unsurprisingly in Freud’s work this nexus of associations of guilt, betrayal, sexuality, and Judaism; each of these having to be concealed or disguised or disowned. And each associated with dangerously unknowable affinities and allegiances (the modern question is always, who do people want to be with, and what do they want to do together?). The dream, like the joke, reveals people, from a psychoanalytic point of view, to be in hiding; consciously in hiding from the disapproving others, but unconsciously in hiding from themselves. Or rather, in hiding from the part of themselves that has wanted to fully identify with the hostile, oppressing voices in their culture (Freud was beginning to describe how our cultures live inside us more than we live in our cultures). This too Freud was beginning to discover: how thorough and destructive socialization can be, as was clear from the casualties of the particular forms of socialization that consulted him for treatment. The double meaning of innocence, Freud intimates, shows us that there is no such thing as innocence. We are always being accused, or accusing ourselves, of something. We are always guilty, which means we are perpetually self-hating.

What the Dreyfus case had made all too vivid was the precariousness of democratic liberalism; of its being haunted by its past illiberalism (by what Freud was beginning to refer to as “the return of the repressed”). And, of course, the precariousness of the modern Jews whose very assimilation was evidence, to their enemies, of their duplicity, their cunning. The Jews, like any previously excluded minority, were vulnerable to a false sense of security, out of dread and wishfulness. What Freud’s writing in these years exposed was the ways in which modern people created a false sense of security for themselves. Something Freud was to do himself towards the end of his life (like the Dreyfusards he saw the Catholics as his real enemy, rather than the Nazis). In our dreams, in our jokes, in our sexuality, in our slips—and especially in our so-called symptoms— our real insecurities are exposed. Psychoanalysis was becoming in Freud’s writing in these years the artful science of our false senses of security. Freud was discovering how modern people endangered themselves by the ways in which they protected themselves. Each of the so-called mechanisms of defense was an unconscious form of self-blinding; ways of occluding a piece of reality. It was this that Freud was describing in a book about dreams, a book about mistakes, a book about sexuality, a book about jokes, and a book about a psychoanalytic treatment. Five books that in a real sense make up one book, albeit an often repetitive one. If Freud had died, at the age of forty-nine, having completed these five books, psychoanalysis would have been very different, but it would have been sufficiently complete.

Excerpted from Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalystby Adam Phillips, published by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2014 by Adam Phillips. Published by Permission.


Adam Phillips, the former Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London, and a psycholanalyst in private practice, is the author of, most recently, Missing Out and One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays.