Freud's Requiem Matthew Von Unwerth

‘Freud’s Requiem’ Staggers Beneath the Weight of Idolatry

Freud’s Requiem is at first buried beneath hero-worship before it resurrects to the occasion of a proper requiem.

Freud's Requiem: Mourning, Memory and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk
Matthew von Unwerth
July 2005

Matthew von Unwerth’s book on Sigmund Freud and poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke is a 214-page discussion of a five-page essay. This means that Freud’s Requiem is not so much a study of Freud as a kind of literary parlor trick – a frustrating, aimless book, occasionally tantalizing, more often flat. Its chief preoccupation, as its subtitle “Mourning, Memory and the Invisible History of a Summer Walk” suggests, is the creation of a “sense of mystery” around its subject. This is a shameas Freud’s Requiem achieves a real profundity when it chooses to be definite, tangible, and close to the ground.

The profundity is partly thanks to the essay around which Freud’s Requiem is structured. In the 1915 essay “On Transience“, Freud recalls an innocuous nature walk he took with two friends, Rilke and psychoanylist Lou Andreas-Salomé, before the arrival of WWII. While Freud is enraptured by his surroundings, Rainer and Andreas-Salomé are glum – it seems to them that there is no joy in beauty since beauty must fade. Freud argues that this is an “incomprehensible” response. Beauty is beautiful, he says, precisely because it is temporary; beautiful things, he writes, have “transience value”. Von Unwerth structures Freud’s Requiem around this disagreement: does transience make or unmake beauty?

There is, of course, a classically Freudian kind of perversity to “On Transience”. For Freud, to value the transient beauty of things, we have to get over the fact of their transience. “The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives,” Freud writes, for example, but, once we learn to accept this grisly fact, “their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm.” (For a sense of his perversity, try thinking this way while picturing the face of a lover, a parent, or a sibling.) Freud connects Rilke and Andreas-Salomé inability to ‘get over’ transience to a kind of anticipatory mourning. In mourning, the libido, the psyche’s fund of erotic energy, clings to a lost object, stubbornly refusing to give it up. Mourning persists until, for some reason, it ends spontaneously. This is not, generally, something we necessarily look forward to; as Emerson wrote bitterly after the death of his wife, “I shall stoop again to little hopes & little fears & forget the graveyard. But will the dead be restored to me?”

Of Rilke and Andreas-Salomé, Freud writes that there was “a revolt in their minds against mourning” – a resistance to the process by which we get over loss and go on to enjoy life. For Freud, clinging to the lost or disappearing objects of one’s desire is an error with wider significance. He writes:

A year later the war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties … [I]t also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization … When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from the discovery of their fragility. We shall build up all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.

Freud’s Requiem

“On Transience” is a kind of Freudian b-side; it was commissioned to be part of a memorial volume honoring Goethe, which was, in turn, produced by the German government to raise money for libraries. It is not a major statement of Freud’s thought. It is, however, certainly arresting, and it lays out the big ideas – about death, beauty, memory, and mourning – with which von Unwerth is concerned. The essay raises worthy questions. Can the fact of beauty make up for the fact of death? What is the relationship between death and creativity? If we hold Freud’s convictions, how do they hold up as we approach our deaths? What is “mourning” anyway – is it a memorial act or, strangely, a creative one?

These questions are so good that it is genuinely disappointing that Freud’s Requiem never pursues them tenaciously; instead, it tends simply to ask them over and over. To some extent, this is because of von Unwerth’s choice of method. He is a trained psychoanalyst, and Freud’s Requiem is put together in an associative, meditative fashion that is meant to evoke psychoanalysis. Without question, there is something beautiful about the psychoanalytic way of thinking, which takes small chunks of thought or memory and cuts and polishes them so that, like jewels, they sparkle from every angle.

However, Freud’s Requiem never achieves that kind of coherent effect. Its haziness is aggravated by a prose style that is strangely leaden and threadbare. For example, Freud “learned the languages and works above all of Greek and Latin writers … Freud admired these classical ancestors throughout his life, and within his head dwelt the worlds of their literatures.” This kind of writing is a rude shock in a book so invested in its meditative atmosphere.

Even more problematic is the unabashed idolatry with which von Unwerth writes about his heroes. So we read, for example, that Freud, who died of mouth cancer, refused to quit smoking his 20 cigars a day because “[he] was resolved to live to the fullest of his capacities – no matter the cost.” The same handful of passages from Freud, Rilke, and Andreas-Salomé seem to bob up over and over; they are never deeply discussed but simply offered to us for awed contemplation. As a result, don’t get the sense that von Unwerth’s heroes are real people with intense emotions and, importantly, powerful intellects. They seem inert – loose confederations of opinions about abstract ideas. Of course, von Unwerth’s whole approach is abstract, and the book sinks under the weight of that abstraction.

The truth is that there is a certain faddishness to Freud’s Requiem, a privileging of style over substance. It is, in fact, a book in which two recent literary trends converge. First, there is the revival of interest in Freud as a humanist, even as a literary figure. The year 2003 saw the new Penguin translations of Freud edited by Adam Philips, a British psychoanalyst and essayist. These use exclusively ‘literary’ translators to reveal what Phillips calls “a secular, literary Freud who is seen to be like every other writer: endlessly re-describable and re-translatable.”

Then there is the trend typified by recent, often exceptional books like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and Rachel Cohen’s more low-key A Chance Meeting. These books track several great thinkers through history as they meet, converse, and define themselves against one another. Eli Zaretsky’s social history of psychoanalysis, Secrets of the Soul, is probably the best book to result from this confluence; and like all these books, Freud’s Requiem is subtly but importantly concerned with the increasingly strange, remote world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Part of what it seeks to do is illuminate that world.

It is in its last chapters, which narrate the death of Freud that Freud’s Requiem rises above hero-worship and aimless meditation and succeeds in portraying a human Freud alive in that strange, remote world. This is a world in which Freud, dying of cancer, is forced into exile by the Nazis; in which he writes solemn, spare letters about anti-Semitism to British newspapers; in which death is not an abstraction, but a protracted escalation of suffering, marked out by Freud’s endless surgeries and his final renunciation of work before death. Here, von Unwerth writes movingly and subtly, showing us a Freud who is, fundamentally, an orchestrator of mourning – a collector of memories and a writer of stories about memory. This is truly the “literary Freud”. In these painful, ashen, earthy final chapters, which are a requiem for Freud, von Unwerth’s themes acquire the specificity and heft they properly deserve.