Pride of Place
At Home With The Freuds: Entertaining Illusions
Sigmund Freud was not a man to entertain illusions. But he liked to amuse the Bernays sisters, Mina and Martha. I wonder did he know himself which was his fiancée? He wrote them letters from Paris in 1883, making light of a gross anti-semitic gibe when he attempted to open a carriage window so he could smoke a cigar. But he had strange ideas about Parisians. ‘They are a different species possessed of a thousand daemons. No shame, no fear. The women as well as the men crowd round the public nudities as much as they do the corpses in the morgue’. He had, I think, been reading too much Baudelaire.
In later years he would not have allowed himself to be less than even-handed with humanity. ‘You have your ideas and others their illusions’, a disaffected disciple said. ‘It could just as well be the other way around’, Freud replied, ‘if you are right.’ But his experience in opening minds taught him that it was only too easy to meddle with the brain and impose your own ideas on other people, which, not being adequately sieved, became their illusions. He always refused, despite tempting offers, to work with Hollywood.
Freud never lost the autonomy of his mind, except perhaps in his marriage. If what’s called love is mutual dependency that sustains a shared illusion, his was more unilateral. He chose Martha rather than Mini, who wifed and mothered for him and protected him from wasting his time on anything domestic for fifty years, without knowing much about his work except the price of his consultations (‘You’d be amazed what this child analysis costs’). Yet her pre-marital letters were livelier than his.
Freud had spotted the martyr in Martha when she stopped reading Don Quixote after he had warned her it contained rude bits unsuitable for a woman, and latched on to this, preparing her for what he would expect in a wife by giving her a small silver snake to wear rather than a gold one, and remarking her nose and mouth were ‘more characteristic than beautiful, having an almost masculine decisiveness about them’.
One letter explained why he chain smoked cigars. ‘They are indispensable if you have nobody to kiss.’ Freud puffed cigars for the first forty years of his marriage (until he contracted mouth cancer). Still they managed to have six children. I presume he didn’t kiss.
Oscar Pfister said Martha ‘stood apart for Freud from what he was learning about humankind in general from his patients’ and that prevented him from becoming too depressed by the nature of the human condition. The ‘normality’ he found in her, though, did not interest him enough to put on the couch and investigate scientifically. It was not in his interests to look too deeply into her companionable self-effacement and possible cocaine habit. He put her on to the ‘naughty salt’ during their engagement to use when under ‘emotional strain’. His research into the substance was remarkable for missing its potential as an anaesthetic, and therefore making his fortune before he was thirty.
Freud forfeited his sexual autonomy to Martha. Despite the opportunities the intimacies of his clinical work undoubtedly offered, he was faithful to her. A clear mind was more important to him than anything else. So his virtue wasn’t pure love and responsibility. Confusions of the heart would disturb his work. His affection for Martha was staunch for half a century. He smiled on her, my Martha, without taking her too seriously. The quality of the affection was more rough and ready than refined by any romantic poetry between them. Martha was never a muse. She didn’t inspire Freud’s work, but made it practically possible, the next best thing. ‘The next best thing’ was what Martha probably was until her Siggie died and she came into her own, annoying her clever daughter Anne, who took over the practice, by being nosey about the patients, and expressing opinions about the relation between schadenfreude and her husband.
Martha would have felt taken for granted, and grateful, and indeed flattered for that. Not that he didn’t sometimes give her a second thought. But exclusion from the great work was another matter. She had reason to be jealous of it. He was more faithful to ‘the autonomy of his mind’ than to her. Reading his writings, she must have asked herself the question, who is this man I am married to? Her attempts to answer it by putting Siggie on a posthumous couch were not encouraged by those like Anne ‘who knew’. Who knew what? The risks? The limitations of poor Martha?
I don’t think Martha had any illusions. Other than childhood ones. She stopped lighting Sabbath candles on Friday evenings when she married Siggie and started again the week after he died. He did not need to be pleased any more.