In honor of the endings and beginnings at this time of the year and the personal and professional resolutions that each of us aspire to for the future, it is fascinating to look to the life of the founder of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud. A recent entry in "The People’s Therapist," a blog by a former S&C associate, Will Meyerhofer, who is now a therapist to lawyers, recounts some interesting information on Freud’s relationship to strong emotions, which is summarized below.
Oliver Sacks notes in his book "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" that Freud was known to not like music, quoting his nephew, Harry, who claimed Freud "despised" music.
Freud himself wrote about his reaction to music in the introduction to "The Moses of Michelangelo":
"I am no connoisseur in art…nevertheless, works of art do exercise a powerful effect on me, especially those of literature and sculpture, less often of painting…[I] spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Wherever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me."
His friend, Theodor Reik, wrote that Freud feared giving himself over to the mysterious effects of music on his emotions. Reik felt that Freud’s resistance to music amounted to:
"[a] turning-away…[an] act of will in the interest of self-defense…[and the] more energetic and violent, the more the emotional effects of music appeared undesirable to him. He became more and more convinced that he had to keep his reason unclouded and his emotions in abeyance."
Let’s see. Super-analytic type who is uncomfortable with strong emotions determines to not let himself "give in" to those emotions, but to remain as fiercely rational as possible. Sound like anyone you know?
While it is reassuring to know that even the grand man of psychology struggled with understanding emotions that overwhelmed him, his strategy of dealing with them is less than heartening. It is no wonder that when Leonard Woolf, along with his wife Virginia, visited Freud in London late in his life, Woolf described Freud as "a half-extinct volcano… sombre, suppressed, reserved."
Only a few months later, at the age of 83, Freud arranged for a morphine overdose to end his life.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the challenge that yawns most scarily right in front of us, the one we least understand and most want to avoid.
Meyerhofer points out that "the word ‘freude’ in German means ‘joy.’ The word ‘dream’ comes from the Middle English word ‘dreme,’ which means ‘joy’ and ‘music.’" He suggests that Freud may have retreated into joyful musical dreams at night, even if he wasn’t able to embrace them during the day.
Perhaps there is a hint in this etymology as to why Freud was so driven by his fascination with deconstructing dreams, dreams which like music reflect abstractions of emotions that he personally couldn’t fully understand or give himself up to. If only analysis and rationality could provide all the answers.
Another rift on the etymology is that Freud possibly never truly lived up to his name because he wasn’t open to the full panoply of emotion, wasn’t able to experience the roller coaster that both plummets us into the depths but also raises us up to the highest heights–a mysterious and sometimes painful ride that nonetheless informs every aspect of our feelings and ultimately our intelligence.