C.E.Robins : Trauma: The Shattered Soul For Freud (L’âme fracassée)

Committee Freud, Colloque de Tel Aviv, on the 29/02/2016

In his recent work On Being Normal and Other Disorders, Paul Verhaeghe states that because of the prevalence today of trauma-induced PTSD, “the clinic has returned to its original starting point with Freud and Breuer.” I want us to return to Freud’s original starting point, his early clinic, and make as clear as possible what, for Freud, happens when humans are traumatized: all his life he would never change his mind on “what happens to the human soul”: the psyche, the soul, in trauma, shatters.

First, let us look to his beloved “Dora”: Freud describes her in the scene by the lake when Herr K. approaches her sexually, saying “I get nothing from my wife.” The scene had aroused in her, Freud writes, “violent feelings of opposition” which became “so distressing to her,” Freud claims, “that I gained an insight into a conflict which was well calculated to unhinge the girl’s mind.”  That’s how Strachey translates Freud’s original sentence, which in German reads, Dann bekam ich auch Einsicht in einen Konflikt, der geeignet war, dass Seelenleben des Mädchens zu zerrütten, which more accurately is translated “Then I had insight into the conflict, that which was really happening, that the “soul-life,” “the “psychic life of the soul” the Seelenleben of this young woman was being “completely destroyed, broken up, shattered.”

Strachey, the English positivist, insists on translating anything to do with Freud’s deliberately chosen humanistic term “soul” into mechanistic, mechanical terms, as if the soul were a physical hinge that could become “unhinged,” as if it were even visible. “Mental apparatus” is how Strachey usually translates Freud’s humanistically-laden word “soul.” Please, this is no small matter: it is the bitter contest between the positivist-empiricist English “scientific” view versus the humanistic persuasion of Freud. Bettelheim points to the difference in German between Naturwissenschaft (natural science) and Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities); of course, he situates Freud in the humanities and Strachey in natural science.(In the United States, just last week the New York Times featured a front-page story on the “underlying mechanism” of schizophrenia: excessive synaptic pruning in the pre-frontal cortex—Prof. McCarroll’s work at Harvard. Is the psyche physical? Is psychopathology neurological? These are extremely important questions, affecting the work all of us do every day.)

My first point, then, is that psychic trauma, for Freud, has to do with the soul, the soul of man, “psyche” in Greek. As we know, Freud referred to himself as a “psychologist,” as one who studies the soul; not a “psychiatrist,” not a “neurologist,” “neuropsychologist,” not a “neuropsychiatrist.” (And it was the traditional Greek word psyche that he was insisting on; we wonder what would have happened had he been following the Hebrew nephesh.)

“Psyche” in Greek means soul, especially in the Aristotelian scientific sense, that immaterial part of us that has to do with sensation, perception, intellection, abstraction, willing, loving; this is NOT the Platonic soul, which was an early Greek import from Hinduism through Pythagoras. Plato’s soul pre- existed the body and will post-exist the body. For Aristotle, on the other hand, the soul can never be understood without the body it informs : this is known as his hylomorphic theory: matter and form, the soul is the form of the body; they are inseparable. The Platonic soul is the opposite: those of you who have seen the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo in Rome will recall The Divinity stretching out his right index finger to give life to Adam, reserving in the crook of his left elbow the gorgeous young Eve, waiting to be sent down to become Adam’s wife. For Plato, the soul pre-existed the body and will post-exist the body. “The body and soul are like horse and rider; when the horse—the body—is shot out from under the rider, the rider—the soul—can run free.” Not so for Aristotle! The soul is unintelligible without the body—and perishes along with the living body. So the soul is not physical, it is not neurological; neither is it immortal; but it is vulnerable; it can be shattered.

Now, what about Freud’s own soul? Was his soul too, “shattered”? We read from his Second Introduction to The Interpretation of Dreams (1906): “For this book has a further subjective significance for me personally—a significance which I only grasped after I had completed it. It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death—that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life. Having discovered that this was so, I felt unable to obliterate the traces of the experience.”  Now Freud’s original: Für mich hat dieses Buch nämlich noch eine andere subjective Bedeutung, die ich erst nach seiner Beendigung verstehen konnte. Es erwies sich mir als ein Stück meiner Selbstanalyse, als meine Reaktion auf den Tod meines Vaters, also auf das bedeutsamste Ereignis, den einschneidendsten Verlust im Leben eines Mannes.  Strachey translates einschneidendsten as “most poignant,” echoing the derivation of the word “trauma” in Greek (), from the verb “titrosko,” to pierce, as with a sword or a knife.  (“Most incisive,” or “most decisive” would also fit, each one including the root “to cut” cis, “the most decisive cut in one’s life.” The English equivalent of Verlust directly indicates “bereavement,” “heavy loss of life.”  Here I agree totally with Strachey’s translation.)

In 1936 Freud writes up an experience he had back in 1904, eight years after his father’s death, and titled it “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis” (Eine Erinnerungsstörung auf der Akropolis).  Freud tells us, as he stands there with his brother and beholds the Acropolis, “a surprising thought enters my soul: so all this really does exist, just as we learned in school! Now, in his text, Freud “excuses himself” to allow for this “following exaggeration”: an image has just entered his soul, that of a huge monster’s dead body washed ashore on the beach! A dead body, a monster’s body, like the Loch Ness Monster’s body (aus Land gespülten Leib des vielberedeten Ungeheuers). (At that time, the very next month will be the eighth anniversary of his father’s death; now there is a dead body; so he really did exist! This monster that terrified me—or that he died terrified me?)

As he is still gazing at the Acropolis, next in Freud’s soul enter the words “What I see here is not real”—what Freud calls Entfremdigungsgefühl—in English, the feeling of derealization.  “Something here is so foreign it is not real.” Denial? Dissociation?

Then Freud’ soul brings up the case of King Boabdil, the show-off ruler with absolute power who kills the messenger with the bad news that Alhama has fallen. The king, like the father, has power over life and death, but the king, blinded by power, has lost the dearest thing to his heart.

We remember, back in Freud’s early youth, after he urinated in his parents’ chamber pot under the parental bed, his father cursed that this young Sigismund “would never go far.” But now, in 1904, here he was in Athens, and turning to his younger brother, exclaimed: “Here we are, standing on the Acropolis! We really have come far!” And now Freud reveals even more of his unconscious to us as he tells the story of Napoleon speaking to his own brother.

“Napoleon, during his coronation as Emperor in Notre Dame, turned to one his brothers and remarked: What would Monsieur notre Père have said to this, if he could have been here to-day?”

The image of his father enters Freud’s soul: what would he say, seeing his two sons here today? Jakob Shlomo Freud never even went to high school, he could never have understood the importance of the Acropolis. Here Sigmund, the son, who, in his phantasy image becomes Napoleon, is superior to his father. And in this text Freud makes a lapsus—his coronation, he writes, is “in Notre Dame”; Freud is being crowned in “Our Lady,” “Our Mother”: has he won her from his undeserving father? (Napoleon’s coronation actually took place in the cathedral in Milan.)

But “our father” is not here today...

“Only I, now old myself,” Freud concludes, “am alone and ill, and troubled by my experience on the Acropolis...”

Ill, yes, severely. Why? Jones tells us Freud smoked at least 20 cigars every day!  Freud endured cancer of the palate, first diagnosed in April 1923, when he was 67; his surgeries numbered 33, which included a totally prosthetic jaw and a full prosthetic palate. He nicknamed the prosthesis that replaced his palate “the Monster” because it gave him so much pain. “I am still out of work and cannot swallow,” he wrote shortly after his first operation. “Smoking is accused as the etiology of this tissue rebellion.” Yet he continued to smoke. He suffered severely for sixteen years—still smoking every day!—before asking his personal physician Max Schur to euthanize him with morphine. He was in constant severe pain: often he could not speak (his high-pitched voice piped and squeaked) and sometimes he could not chew or swallow (because food would enter up into his nasal cavity). You can imagine the odor. Yet at 81 he was still smoking what Jones calls “an endless series of cigars.”

How could it be that Freud could not have recognized that his addiction was killing him and done something about it? Analyzed why he was killing himself? Some recognized it, some ordered him to stop smoking: Drs. Steiner, Fliess, Jones, Abraham, and finally there was Felix Deutsch, who said he withheld the news from Freud that it was cancer because he thought Freud would certainly suicide.

Back in 1894, when Freud was thirty-eight, Ernest Jones reports that Freud’s best friend, Wilhelm Fleiss, informed Freud that his heart arrhythmia was due to smoking, and ordered him to stop. Freud tried to stop, or to cut down his cigar ration, but failed. "He was always a heavy smoker––– twenty cigars a day were his usual allowance," Jones writes. "In the correspondence between Freud and Fleiss there are many references to this attempt to diminish or even abolish the habit, mainly on Fliess's advice. But it was one respect in which even Fliess's influence was ineffective."

Freud did stop for a time at one point, but his subsequent depression and other withdrawal symptoms proved unbearable. He described these symptoms vividly:

“Soon after giving up smoking there were tolerable days. Then there came suddenly a severe affection of the heart, worse than I ever had when smoking. ... And with it an oppression of mood in––– which images of dying and farewell scenes replaced the more usual fantasies. . . . The organic disturbances have lessened in the last couple of days; the hypo-manic mood continues. . . . It is annoying for a doctor who has to be concerned all day long with neurosis not to know whether he is suffering from a justifiable or a hypochondriacal depression” (emphasis added). What were the images of dying? Why did he not elaborate on them?

"The torture of quitting,” Freud told Jones, “was beyond human power to bear."

Did Freud—like Bettelheim (after his suicide)—suffer from what Harry Golden would call “an essentially Jewish phenomenon... self-hatred”?I would call it “an essentially human phenomenon.”

Or was Freud’s addiction a case of “actualpathology” that could never be processed in language, in signifiers from the Other? Because, at this linguistic point, Freud’s eloquent soul was shattered? Does that mean he had a neurotic structure with perverse traits, or an underlying perverse structure—which means he really did kill off the monster father, and broke the triangulation with his mother?

Had Freud been able to “let it speak,” what would the Monster have screamed? Cancer was continuously re-traumatizing him as he soldiered on through the shattered shards of his soul, chomping, biting, sucking on another cigar: exquisite self-torture.

Sein Mund bekam son monde”—his mouth became his world, the battleground between pleasure and death. We remember that at age 16 Freud shortened his name to “Sigmund”—Sieg Mund!—Victory to the Mouth! Victory? Some. But also the locus of death. His oral fixation, his addiction, termed by Karl Abraham “sadistic,” is without signifiers, without speaking more about the “unbearable torture” it would be for him to stop smoking. Is not Freud here acting out an “early structural trauma”—the nameless Real of his body without signifiers from the Other, what condition Freud himself referred to as “Anxiety Neurosis” (Angstneurose)?

To conclude, Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, frustrated trying to find a cure for alcoholic addiction, wrote to Carl Jung and asked what it would take to help people stop their addiction. Jung responded in a letter of 1961: addictions are so powerful you need nothing short of a religion: with creeds, dogmas, a belief system with a lot of words, a lot of speaking up, “the protective wall of human community.”

For us, doesn’t that indicate the re-constitution of a now permanent primal Other? This time in a cultural-social context? Would not this imply, at least for Lacan, analysis that would never stop?