No Freudian slip this! The psychoanalyst’s literary forays (Column: Bookends)

It is debatable but any list of influential thinkers must include these five men whose contributions to the study of mankind, and the world they live in, came in a century spanning the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries. Right or wrong, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Gregor Mendel, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein had enormous impact, and some of them have become representations of their field of knowledge across popular culture. Especially the Viennese explorer of the human mind.

Save Darwin, the others, strangely all of Germanic backgrounds, also influence perceptions (largely Western) of a revolutionary (a bearded man with a messianic gaze), a psychologist (a middle-aged, bespectacled man with an European accent), or a scientist (untamed/unkempt hair). But as far as literary representations go, Herr Doktor Freud is far ahead of the others, be it in dark mysteries or mythology retold. Even in movies, where he has nearly a dozen appearances.

For Freud (1856-1939), whose 160th birth anniversary was May 6 (Marx’s 198th birth anniversary was a day earlier), this may be because he dealt with people, not the laws of the natural world, and that too as individuals, not as economic classes.

This also ensures that his writings make for engrossing as well as educative reading, even if you don’t agree with him. “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900), “Totem and Taboo” (1913) and others are classics of literature too, not only psychology, as are case studies like “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy” dealing with “Little Hans” (1909) or “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” on the “Wolfman” (1918).

If you are interested in his theories, then it will be more feasible to begin with an introductory text like fellow psychologist Anthony Storr’s “Freud: A Very Short Introduction” (2001) in the masterly OUP series, or Richard Appignanesi and Oscar Zarate’s (illustrator) “Introducing Freud: A Graphic Guide” (2007). To understand the storm his work evoked, there is Stephen Wilson and Zarate’s “Introducing the Freud Wars” (1999) in the latter series.

For an overall look on the man himself, the best is “The Passions of the Mind” (1971) by American author Irving Stone, who is also famous for his novelised biographies of Michaelangelo (“The Agony and the Ecstasy”) and Vincent Van Gogh (“Lust for Life”).

English novelist Anthony Burgess’ “The End of the World News: An Entertainment” (1982) presents a view of Freud’s life as its second tale while an alternative course unrolls, parallel to the main story, in Evan Mandery’s “Q: A Love Story” (2012).

There are many more depictions too.

As one of the most famous inhabitants of fin-de-siecle Vienna, which also hosted music composers Gustav Mahler and “Waltz King” Johann Strauss, painter Gustav Klimt and many more, Freud figures in quite a few works set in the period, such as English psychologist-cum-author Frank Tallis’ six Max Lieberman mysteries (from “Mortal Mischief”, 2005, to “Death And The Maiden”, 2011).

Liebermann, a young disciple of Freud, uses psychoanalysis to solve a string of puzzling mysteries in turn-of-the-century Vienna, at the behest of his friend, Detective Inspector Oscar Reinhardt. And it is Freud who counsels our hero, who goes to him with his doubts.

Another cameo is in William Boyd’s “Waiting for Sunrise” (2012), where protagonist, in 1913 Vienna for treatment, runs into him in a cafe. “…but then his eye was caught by a man a few tables away, wearing a tweed suit and an old-fashioned cravat tie, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar. He was in his late fifties, Lysander guessed, and had fine greying hair combed flat against his head; his beard was completely white and trimmed with finical neatness.” He goes to present his compliments but Freud engages him in conversation about his background and course of treatment.

Yale law professor Jed Rubenfeld’s debut novel, “The Interpretation of Murder” (2006), sees Freud help his American disciple Stratham Younger solve some fiendish murders during a visit to New York. It also recounts his falling out with Carl Gustav Jung.

Stanford University psychiatry professor Irvin D. Yalom’s “When Nietzsche Wept” (1992) offers a plausible look at psychoanalysis’ origin, while novelist and scriptwriter Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” tweaks a bit of the Sherlock Holmes canon to explain what actually happened during the “great hiatus” and how Freud cured Holmes of his cocaine addiction and helped him with quite a few other things too.

More fantastic depictions include D. M. Thomas’ erotically-tinged “The White Hotel” (1981), and especially Salley Vickers “Where Three Roads Meet” (2005) where Freud, in his last year, has a strange visitor who offers a variant perspective of the Greek myth the psychoanalyst made famous.

None of these seek to persuade you Freud was right but show his pioneering efforts to understand the human mind. That is his real legacy.

(08.05.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at



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