Jewish Journal

Analyzing Freud

An exhibit at the Skirball examines Sigmund Freud's Jewish heritage

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Mar. 30, 2000 at 7:00 pm

As you walk through the "Sigmund Freud: Conflict and Culture" exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center, a scratchy BBC recording of Freud speaking in heavily accented English wafts through the space like an unintelligible message from the unconscious. It is only when you stand directly in front of the speaker at the end of the exhibition that his words become clear: "I discovered some new and important facts of the unconscious in psychic life. ... I had to pay heavily for this bit of good luck. ... Resistance was strong and unrelenting ... the struggle is not yet over."

The year was 1938, not long after the Jewish doctor, then 82, fled Nazi-occupied Vienna while suffering from incurable jaw cancer. But Freud remains as controversial today as he was in the year before his death in September 1939.

Some view him as the genius who almost single-handedly invented psychoanalysis with his theories about the unconscious, the id, the ego and the superego, and the idea that the problems of the present are rooted in the hidden traumas of the past. Others view him as a charlatan, a quack, a misogynist, outdated, a purveyor of shaky science.

But love him or hate him, Freud has become ubiquitous in the popular culture, as demonstrated by the TV monitors playing clips from works as different as Hitchcock's "Spellbound" and an epi-sode of "The Simpsons" in "Conflict and Culture."

The show is organized by the Library of Congress in cooperation with the Freud Museums in London and Vienna; it depicts the life and times of the father of psychoanalysis through more than 130 photographs, home movies, manuscripts, artifacts and letters in spiky German script. The goal is not to determine whether his conclusions were correct, but to highlight how his ideas influenced the 20th century. "The questions Freud asked turn our attention to problems that remain important for us," curator Michael S. Roth told Newsweek. "I'm not one of those who think we should forget about Freud entirely."

The Journal recently caught up with Roth, 42, in his sunny office at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, where he serves as associate director. The cultural historian said he has been fascinated by Freud since he was 16, when he first encountered the work of the Viennese doctor on the occasion of his confirmation at a Reform synagogue near his childhood neighborhood of Massapequa, Long Island. In honor of the event, his uncle, a psychologist, took him to a bookstore in Greenwich Village and picked out a dozen books for his perusal. Roth fell in love with Freud's "Introductory Lectures in Psychology," perhaps because of his budding interest in "the ways in which one's past could make one sick or could provide one with the capacities for change," he wrote in an essay.

The Princeton-trained scholar eventually wrote a book, "Psycho-Analysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud." But he was surprised when the call came from the organizers of "Conflict and Culture" about five years ago. He wasn't expecting that they would offer him the position of curator; after all, they had raised eyebrows during a previous brainstorming session when Roth had breezily suggested that the exhibit space could be sprinkled with dirt to represent the unconscious.

There were more raised eyebrows among members of the psychoanalytic old-guard about the selection of Roth as curator. He was then a pro-fessor at Scripps College in Claremont; a cultural historian, not an analyst. "His good looks and charm, and the fact that he was from California, didn't help his cause," The New Yorker noted in a 1998 article on the exhibit.

"I was not part of the Freud industry," Roth told The Journal. "So it was like, 'Who the hell are you?'"

Then came the "nerve-wracking" controversy that threatened to nix the exhibition permanently. A virulent, media-savvy anti-Freudian, Peter Swales, assuming the show would be a whitewash, circulated a petition objecting to the dearth of Freud critics among the exhibit's planners. Fifty writers and academics, including feminist Gloria Steinem, signed on. Officials of the Library of Congress, stunned and dismayed by the ensuing media attention, postponed the exhibit for three years, and Roth's modest office in a large, old house on College Avenue in Claremont turned into a media circus.

Ultimately, the curator flew to Washington with an ultimatum: If officials did not immediately set an opening date for the exhibition, he was going to resign and publicly denounce the Library. He never got the chance to make his demands. Dr. James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, had already decided not to allow his institution to "cower in this kind of self-righteous protection of the American people from free speech," Roth told The Journal.

The concessions to the Freud-bashers were minimal, Roth says. A couple of Freud's critics were added to the advisory panel; some essays were included in the book that accompanies the exhibit, and quotes by anti-Freudians are posted on cases throughout the show. A 1926 remark, by J.M. Cattell, posits that "psychoanalysis is not so much a question of science as matter of taste, Dr. Freud being an artist who lives in the fairyland of dreams among the ogres of perverted sex."

One observer insisted that the exhibition must not include aspects of Freud's Jewishness, because the doctor was an avowed atheist. The organizers didn't listen. The first item in the show is a holographic copy of a Hebrew-language inscription that Freud's father, Jacob, wrote in the family Bible, affectionately addressing his adult son. The document reminds viewers "that Freud was a Jew living in an anti-Semitic country," Roth says, and that his intellectual work, in a way, was a continuation of the spiritual tradition.

Born Sigismund Schlomo Freud in 1856 in what is now the Czech Republic, Freud was raised in a semitraditional home but by adulthood had become rigorously unobservant; in his own words, a "completely Godless Jew."

Early on, he trained as a neurologist; the exhibit includes striking photographs of hysterical patients he encountered at the Salpetriere hospital in Paris while studying with the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, the impetus for his early work in hypnosis.

Stroll through the exhibit, and you encounter the green velvet chair in which the doctor sat during psychoanalytic sessions; a doorplate showing his office hours; letters to a Berlin physician outlining his self-analysis; a watercolor that the subject of one of his most famous case studies, the "Wolf Man" (actually a Russian aristocrat named Sergei Pankejeff) exchanged for treatment; an envelope that once contained the cocaine Freud experimented with.

There is a holographic manuscript on the Oedipus complex and a photograph of the house where he first dreamed the dream at the core of his crucial 1900 work, "The Interpretation of Dreams," which marked the beginning of modern psychoanalysis. In the final section of the exhibit, there is a sign-in book used by the group of doctors and writers who began meeting on Wednesday evenings in Freud's home, the beginning of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

Much has been written about the relationship of psychoanalysis to Judaism and of Freud's complicated relationship with his heritage. On the one hand, he was a resolute secularist, but he did not convert to Christianity, like many of his middle-class peers, and he was a lifelong member of B'nai B'rith as well as an avid collector of Jewish jokes, which he explored in a book. Ironically, he was involved in psychoanalytic work that was almost Talmudic in its emphasis on interpretation, of finding meaning in what is hidden.

He embarked upon his final work, "Moses and Monotheism," at a time when he was elderly and encountering anti-Semitism in Vienna. He fled Austria after an interview with Gestapo officials, who forced Freud to sign a statement saying that he had not been mistreated; the 82-year-old doctor then sarcastically asked if he could add, "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

A friend lent him the money to pay the "refugee" tax demanded by the Nazis before Jews could remove their belongings from the Reich; four of his five sisters, depicted in a small snapshot toward the end of the exhibit, were not so lucky. After efforts to secure visas for them failed, they died in the death camps of the Holocaust.

So it is perhaps no coincidence that, at the end of his life, Freud shifted his attention from individual to group trauma. "He turns to the question, 'How do the traumas visited on a people affect their capacity to live in the world?'" Roth says. "He was, in essence, writing about how the Jews became the Jews."

The Freud exhibit at the Skirball will open April 4 and will run through July 25. The Skirball and the Getty Center will host a variety of programs in conjunction with the Freud exhibition, including lectures, films, concerts and family events. Visitors can combine a trip to the Freud show and the Getty by taking a free shuttle between the two museums that will run on Saturdays and Sundays April 8-July 23. For hours, tickets and information, call (310) 440-4500. Tracker Pixel for Entry


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