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Freud's mother

Freud’s actual mother is shrouded in mystery and silence, but if we hold the myths of Oedipus and Narcissus in the back of our minds, and then look at scant clues, we can get at least a sense of Freud’s feelings for his mother and his relationship with her. A good lead is provided in a letter dated November 2, 1896 that Freud is writing to his good friend Wilhelm Fliess after his father’s death on October 23rd. He says:

By one of those dark pathways behind the official consciousness the old man’s death affected me deeply . . . he had a significant effect on my life. By the time he died, his life had long been over, but in [my] inner self the whole past has been reawakened by this event. I now feel as if I had been torn up by the roots.

(Masson, 1985b: 170)

“Torn up by the roots” sounds as desperate an upheaval as “literally smashed to pieces,” the image used to describe the resolution of the Oedipus Complex. It is a metaphor that reveals an experience of a shattered part of his self that went deep underground and out of sight (the place of shame) being suddenly and abruptly exposed. This exposure sets everything he had experienced in the last 40 years in motion, including memories buried long ago. “Freud’s past, even the past he tried to obliterate eleven years earlier by burning letters, notebooks, diaries, and other writings, had been roused from inactivity to a state of ferment” (Salyard, 1988: 404). The word “roots” implies that something of the early mother-infant relationship has become visible, but tearing up by the roots causes dissociation and detachment, significant derailments in developmental processes. Freud has lost his grounding, has been torn away from reality much as maternal absence can create psychotic anxieties for an infant. Freud moves from petrifaction, to movement, to exposure, to shame.

Then Freud goes on in the letter to relate a “pretty little dream” he had the night of his father’s funeral. It is a dream that came to mark a turning point in Freud’s inner life which was, in turn, to have important repercussions on his work:

I found myself in a shop where there was a notice up saying:

You are requested To close the eyes.

(Masson, 1985b: 171)

Freud recognized the setting as the barber shop he went to every day, and says that “on the day of the funeral I was kept waiting, and therefore arrived at the house of mourning rather late.” From this reference he proceeds to interpret the dream as “an outlet for the feeling of self-reproach” (p. 171), and feelings of reproach incite shame. A barber shop is a place where a man goes to get his hair cut, a clear reference to castration, for the male removal of hair is an ancient, deeply held idea that is symbolic of emasculation. For example, when a messenger exposes the Egyptian queen Cleopatra to feelings of shame and humiliation by informing her that her lover, Antony, has married another woman, Cleopatra threatens to destroy the messenger’s eyes and hair:

What say you? Hence,

Horrible villain! or I’ll spurn [“kick”] thine eyes

Like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head . . .

(Wright, 1940: Act II, 63-64)

Further back in time, however, the shaving of the head played an official part in cults of the Great Mother, and barbers were amongst the Goddess’s attendants (Neumann/Mainheim, 1974: 59).

In the dream, eyes are objectified and held at a distance with the noun “the” instead of the pronoun “your.” “Close the eyes” carries an injunction that nothing should be seen and could mean any number of things: it was the first instruction Freud would give his patients when commencing treatment, or is what a mother tells her infant as she cradles him to sleep, or is what Jocasta told Oedipus to do upon the opening of his eyes and the dawning realizations. “Close the eyes” could be his father’s prohibition (the first form of castration anxiety), when Freud may rather fulfill his wishes for his mother, which are made all the more tempting and seductive by the fact that a dead father is less of a threat than a living one. Patricide is the central event of the Oedipal and his mother is now available, but alas, part of his aggressive wish is foiled by his father’s natural death. Maybe what is stirred is his still strong infantile wish to omnipotently kill his father, but then that would also mean his own insignificance as a creature and ultimate death. Perhaps “close the eyes” is a less brutal form of Oedipus’ own blinding, for the dream (as well as the “Rome” dreams that follow) anticipate Freud’s discovery of the Oedipus Complex.

It is especially significant given our focus on the eyes of shame that upon Freud’s father’s death eyes move into a prominent position. In fact, Anzieu points out that in all the dreams reported by Freud following the loss of his father, the sense that is given the greatest importance is sight (1986: 207). All in all, his stirred up infantile, narcissistic feelings of shame, connected to the loss of his omnipotence, coincides with his scientific finding called the Oedipus Complex. Freud would come to consider it the central and universal conflict in the human psyche, and pivotal to the most basic structuring of the personality.

Ann Salyard (1988) closely examines a single line that appears later in the letter to Fliess mentioning his eye dream that helps amplify what Freud may have shut his eyes so as not to see on a personal level - his unresolved Oedipus Complex which would be unconsciously relived and repeated. Freud quotes a line from Schiller’s poem, “Pegasus yoked to the plough,” to describe his experience of himself at that moment. It is, of course, hard to know exactly what this sentence meant to Freud, but as Salyard rightly points out, an elaboration of the meanings of its varied elements can provide a sense of the thoughts and feelings associated with it. After a thorough analysis, she contends that the Pegasus line relates directly to the “whole reawakened past that stirs” and has been “torn up by the roots.” Embedded in the phrase is Freud’s experience of himself, his father, and his mother - the primal scene. More specifically, it reflects his negative maternal experience and his lack of internal separation from his mother upon his father’s death. The way she details her argument will be summarized and integrated with an analysis of Freud’s infantile shame constellated by the Oedipus Complex.

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