An Enlightened Investigation of Freud’s Intellectual Life

Nathan M. Szajnberg
Arlene Kramer Richards and Arnold Richards, Book Review Editors

Nathan Szajnberg, M.D., former Sigmund Freud Professor at Hebrew University and Wallerstein Research Fellow in Psychoanalysis at SFCP; training analyst in Israel and international psychoanalytic societies; authored Sheba and Solomon’s Return: Ethiopian Children in Israel and Jerusaland: An Insignificant Death.


Nathan M. Szajnberg

This book is a supernova: a brilliant star in our firmament created by the collision of two bright stars. But, unlike a supernova, which fades with time, this book will enlighten us, at least as long as there is hunger for wisdom and thirst for knowledge.

What are these two bright colliding stars? The vibrancy of Freud’s intellectual life and the respectful, yet persistent scholarship of Joel Whitebook, the psychoanalyst/philosopher/investigator. Whitebook is a psychoanalytic scholar (a rare breed). He pursues truth with dedication, sensitivity, compassion, and persistence.

Whitebook asks, “Does the world need another biography of Sigmund Freud?” When I lived in New York, Whitebook mentioned to me, all too casually, that he was being pressed by Cambridge Press to complete a book he had been promising and working on for too many years. He seemed not too pressed by them. Had I really known what was gestating, I too might have joined Cambridge’s “pressing.” Or, had I the wisdom and belief in Whitebook, I would have simply encouraged and waited for the time needed to age a fine book, like a fine Napa Cabernet.

Whitebook answers with a disarming modesty, that this book will examine the spectral mother (not entirely absent, but haunting his work) in Freud’s thinking. First, he examines the implications of the (almost) “missing mother” for Freud’s life and psychoanalytic development. But this modest proposal is belied by the prodigious extent of scholarship that scours many associated regions of intellectual development of Freud, his agonists and antagonists.

… Whitebook connects these two themes—the missing mother, the dark enlightener—to show that to the degree that Freud could not engage as fully the maternal dimension. he was “unable to explore the irrational….”

Second, Whitebook critically examines Freud’s break with tradition among the major theorists of modernity. Whitebook shows Freud is not simply a member of the Enlightenment—those Renaissance-born celebrators of reason’s unfettering of human thought—but also and maybe particularly so, a member of the Dark Enlightenment, joining Machiavelli, Hobbes, Spinoza, Darwin, and Nietzsche, who woke us from “religious and metaphysical illusions, including pain and conflict in its wake …” Then, Whitebook connects these two themes—the missing mother, the dark enlightener—to show that to the degree that Freud could not engage as fully the maternal dimension in (his) psychic life, he was “unable to explore the irrational and fulfill his theoretical program.”


Freud: An Intellectual Biography

  By Joel Whitebook

  494 pages
  Cambridge University Press, 2017

A review can only give some appetizing bits of this work.

To perform his task, Whitebook must expose the personal, as much as can be learned, in Freud’s life. This is a difficult, even treacherous task. When Erik Erikson (analyzed by Anna Freud, having asked for Sigmund instead) tried to publish his groundbreaking re-analysis of Freud’s Irma dream, Anna Freud blocked its publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis. We had to wait several years until JAPA published this groundbreaking work that explored the manifest as well as the latent, the spatial as well as the verbal, and the sociohistorical context of the middle-aged Freud in order to explain why this dream was dreamt and why it was reported by Freud.

Whitebook sets his task by saying he will puncture or deflate three myths about Freud:

  1. Idealization of his mother (or at least why she gave good reasons not to be idealized);
  2. His denial of his Jewish education (which Arnold Richards and others have now documented);
  3. His anti-philosophical stance.

But, Whitebook points out a general theme in Freud’s life: He had prodigious speculative drive harnessed with stratagems to manage, test, and challenge his speculations in a methodology that Paul Ricoeur articulates in The Question of Proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic Writings (1977). The book contains nuggets of knowledge that will help guide any teacher or student of psychoanalysis toward the veins of knowledge embedded in the dross of writings surrounding analysis and Freud. For instance, citing Ricoeur, Whitebook agrees that Freud’s wartime triptych—Mourning and Melancholia, Transience, and Thoughts for Times in War and Death—demonstrated Freud’s resignation to atropos, that sense of the inexorable, the ineluctable (death). Ricoeur then demonstrates this recognition of the inevitability of our end created an affective task we apply to narcissism. That is, our self-love, including any grandiosity, is brought down to earth (and below mother earth) by our affective sense of atropos, what Freud develops into the death drive.

Turning to Mourning and Melancholia, Freud argues mourning is a process that emancipates us ultimately, particularly if we have developed a solid ego ideal (Peter Blos, 1985). Melancholia does not liberate us: It refuses to accept the loss; it refuses to accept external reality, one of the main objectives of psychoanalysis.

And, to continue Freud’s postwar exploration of the death drive, he recognizes impulses are counterbalanced by social conditions. That is, rather than think in moralistic terms of “evil,” Freud suggests we recognize we all have impulses, for good and bad, but these are counterbalanced by both social conditions and our internalization of these (as a superego). This argument, so radical for that time, particularly for the orthodox Freudians (Freud was both orthodox and heterodox, (Elio J. Frattaroli, 1991), was elaborated empirically by Bruno Bettelheim and Morris Janowitz in their book on prejudice among returning American G.I.’s and theoretically by Peter Fonagy, who distinguishes between more benign prejudice and malignant prejudice. The latter impulse will more likely be acted upon if and when there is a faltering in social constraints, such as when the Czar looked aside for a few days during pogroms.

Whitebook adds newly found information about Freud’s personal life and ideas. For instance, when we learn it was his deceased daughter Sophie’s son who played the “fort-da” game—that touching spool game in which he “made” his mother disappear and reappear—we are touched poignantly and powerfully by how Freud can create something innovative and constructive from one of the most painful episodes of his life, the death of his beloved daughter.

Then, Whitebook lists areas of Freud’s conclusions that were taken up as challenges by his dedicated analytic offspring. I give three instances here.

First, Freud’s late clinical impression that penis envy/castration anxiety are inevitable in women/men and cannot be overcome in analysis (in his response to optimistic Sándor Ferenczi’s paper on termination, 1927/1955). Peter Blos, Sr. took this as a challenge and particularly in his last book, Son and Father (1985), argued that with the achievement of the ego ideal, the heir of successful adolescence, not only can one overcome penis envy/castration anxiety, but also the ego ideal becomes the platform for successful mourning, addressing Freud’s other challenge in Mourning and Melancholia.

Second, Freud was pessimistic about the repetition compulsion, yet Peter Giovacchini (2000) and others have shown the repetition compulsion is necessary for the transference neurosis—that it can contain the hope this time things will be different.

Third, Freud argues persuasively that the pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother for both boy and girl must perish painfully. Yet, as I noted, we now know John Bowlby reconfigured attachment as an inevitable outcome of early infancy, and that attachment is caregiver-specific (possibly secure towards one and insecure to the other) offering the possibility of greater robustness (2010).

These give a flavor, a vorspeise of the banquet offered by Whitebook. Rather than try to summarize the entire book, I will touch on Freud’s engagement with two interlocutors: Fliess in the 1890s and Jung in the 1910s. For both, Whitebook argues Freud’s unresolved or unexplored early maternal issues and homoerotism charged these two pas de deux, which became fencing matches.

Fliess-Freud is perhaps better known. Freud used his initially idealized relationship with Wilhelm Fliess to develop his own ideas. Whitebook recounts what happened when the two men orbited Emma Eckstein, the model for Irma’s dream. At its apex, Freud arranges for Fliess to come from Berlin to Vienna to perform surgery on both Emma and Freud. Fortunately for Freud, Fliess only does a preliminary procedure on Freud, planning to return later that year to perform more surgery on Freud. But, Fliess performed his botched procedure on Emma Ekstein, “unwittingly” leaving surgical packing in her wound, which resulted in horrifying purulence and hemorrhaging when she was later treated by a proper ENT surgeon. Whitebook then lays out a complex, well-thought out argument for both homoerotic and heteroerotic scenarios for the Freud-Fliess imbroglio around Emma Ekstein. The more obvious homoerotic frame is the two men were connected and treated the woman horrendously. The hetererotic frame is Freud, like this woman, were both placing their lives in jeopardy of this all-powerful Fliess. Whitebook wisely suggests both scenarios may be correct.

Whitebook teaches us that from the Freud-Fliess conflict and later interactions with adversaries such as Adler and Jung, Freud had a capacity to create something productive from his battles. Freud challenged not only his challengers, but also himself to come up with something more convincing.

With Jung, we have a more sophisticated Freud, who still was humanly vulnerable to his unresolved issues. We know much more about the Jung imbroglios not only from all the research done in the decades since, but also from Jung’s own Red Book (2012), which recounts the details of Jung’s profound descent into psychosis for at least two years, a psychosis for which his mother offered a model. While Whitebook comprehensively covers the “intellectual” differences that increasingly separated Freud and Jung (particularly Jung downplaying sex, at least in his writings, certainly not in his personal and professional life). According to Whitebook, “… Jung had little mastery over his own sexuality, and it wreaked havoc on his personal life.” Whitebook, introduces Sabina Spielrein as Jung’s “patient, student and lover.”

Spielrein was a psychotic adolescent sent by her family from Russia to Switzerland and put in treatment with Jung. There may be some debate about whether Jung sexually penetrated Spielrein. Zvi Lothane (1987) argues against this. But, while no one has held up the bloodstained sheets, the correspondence is damning to Jung: Spielrein’s distraught mother to Jung (who responded if she didn’t like what he was doing, she should pay his fee), from Jung to Freud, from Spielrein to Freud and so on.

Aldo Carotenuto (1982) covers this (or uncovers is more fitting) comprehensively, although he adds that whatever happened, Spielrein recovered from her psychosis, completed medical school, and became a psychoanalyst. She also returned to Russia and was murdered with her family by the Nazis. Whether Jung “penetrated” his psychotic patient or not, he was a blackguard.

Karl Abraham had warned Freud about Jung’s character. What Whitebook doesn’t emphasize is what Bettelheim recounted as his explanation for Freud’s fainting upon meeting Jung prior to their ocean voyage to the U.S. Bettelheim believed Freud was conflicted between hoping for a non-Jewish leader for his too-Jewish discipline, versus his knowledge of Jung’s completely wrong, harmful sexual trespasses against Spielrein and possibly others (Bettelheim, personal communication, 1971).

Whitebook establishes Freud’s incomplete resolution of his early maternal issues inhibited even the late Freud’s attempt to resolve fundamental issues of humanity, Whitebook acquaints us with a remarkable, fervid intellect. One recurrent feature Whitebook notes of Freud as a scientist: When opponents attacked his thinking, Freud set to work, resulting in productive books that often thoughtfully eviscerated his critics (Fliess and Jung, for instance). Whitebook characterizes the leitmotif of Freud’s life as prodigious speculative drive annealed to stratagems to uncover the veiled secrecy of mother nature.

Whitebook chracterizes the leitmotif of Freud’s life as prodigious speculative drive annealed to stratagems to uncover the veiled secrecy of mother nature.

On his last page, Whitebook writes, “psychoanalysis (is)…one of the great cultural movements of modernity.” Whitebook offers that Freud left us resources to criticize patriarchy; he hopes his book demonstrates Freud’s struggle with the deficits and injuries of his own early maternal universe. Whitebook wishes to use the resources of Freud’s intellectual contribution to overcome the struggle against misogyny, men’s repudiation of what is considered feminine: “the tender, dependent, vulnerable receptive and nurturing parts of themselves.” This is very optimistic. It goes against Freud’s more pessimistic view of humankind. Let us hope Whitebook’s work at least charts a route to achieve such ideals.

Editor’s Note: For more information on the references in this article, please contact the author at