Sunday, September 23, 2007

September 23

Like all good neurotics, Sigmund Freud spent much of his waking life -- and, of course, his non-waking life -- gripped by anxiety. Fitting for a man who pondered the centrality of the “death instinct” to human experience, Freud was especially preoccupied on his own mortality.

His own physician described Freud’s disposition toward death as “superstitious and obsessive,” a conclusion that probably understated the matter by several degrees. In a 1914 essay written on the subject of war and death, Freud famously observed that the unconscious
does not believe in its own death. It behaves as if it were immortal. We cannot imagine our own death and when we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still spectators, hence, no one believes in his own death.
Unconscious denials aside, Freud certainly appeared to “believe in his own death.” He once described his work as a “carcinoma,” and when bidding farewell to friends and colleagues, he would sometimes note that “you may never see me again.” Using numerology, he tried to calculate the age at which he would pass away; he made similar guesses based on hotel room numbers.

The death of his daughter Sophie in 1920 created what Freud described as an “irreparable narcissistic wound” -- a sorrow that would be intensified three years later when Sophie’s young son Heinele succumbed to tuberculosis. “For me,” he told a friend three years later,
that child took the place of all my children and other grandchildren, and since then, since Heinele's death, I have no longer cared for my grandchildren, but find no enjoyment in life either. This is also the secret of my indifference -- it has been called courage -- towards the threat to my own life.

The final years of Sigmund Freud’s life must have been unendurable. In 1938, as he struggled to complete his final book, Moses and Monotheism, the Nazis overtook Vienna, driving “the father of psychoanalysis” to London, where he soon lost his 16-year struggle with oral cancer, an affliction brought on by the thousands of cigars he smoked in his lifetime. He had already endured more than thirty dates with a surgeon, and by the end his mouth was little more than a jigsaw puzzle of crude prostheses; by Freud’s own account, eating and drinking unpleasant acts to behold.

In his biography of Freud, Max Schur -- Freud’s own physician -- described how his ailing patient begged for death at the end of his last, awful days:
"My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more."

When he was again in agony, I gave him a hypodermic of two centigrams of morphine. He soon felt relief and fell into a peaceful sleep. I repeated this dose after about twelve hours. He lapsed into a coma and did not wake up again.
On September 23, 1939, less than a month after World War II began, Sigmund Freud died at the age of 83.