Commentary Magazine

Freud and Boas: Secular Rabbis?
Vienna Gaon; Tsaddik of Morningside Heights

Two eminent Jews, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and Franz Boas, the great anthropologist, are the subjects of two recently published biographies which Stanley Edgar Hyman considers here. In both men Mr. Hyman discerns, under their surface of modernity, secularism, and science, the ancient lineaments of the Jewish rabbi (in a secular revision), dispensing wisdom to disciples and calling down anathema on rebels: Freud “the Vienna Gaon,” and Boas “the Tsaddik of Morningside Heights.” 



We are too enlightened these days to admit that we want a picture or a poem (or even a novel) to tell us a story, but non-fiction remains an enclave where the reader is still Caliph. The biographer in particular is greeted with a brusque “None of your fancy art or style, now, don’t bother placing the subject or discussing his ideas, just tell me what sort of man he was. Was he like me?”

Here are recent biographies1 of two men who have substantially reshaped our world, and the degree to which they are personal is exactly defined by their subtitles: the Freud, “The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries,” about half; the Boas, “The Science of Man in the Making,” not at all. Ernest Jones, the dean of living Freudian analysts, has written what appears from this first volume to be one of the great biographies, a perfect blend of devotion and objectivity, with a dash of suppressed hostility to give it tartness. Jones is the only person outside the family who has seen Freud’s love letters, which he uses richly but with basic good taste; he knows how the historic case of “Miss Anna O” came out because Breuer told Freud and Freud told him (she worked up a false pregnancy by Breuer, causing treatment to be abruptly terminated, and ended as a social worker); he is not beyond a few sly psychoanalytic interpretations of his own.

Melville Herskovits, a student of Boas who has become one of the foremost American anthropologists, gives us a brief study that, within the impersonal confines of Scribner’s Twentieth Century Library series, is a model of intelligent popularization. We learn such personal reactions as Boas’s reservations about Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture and his resolute failure to appreciate Freud (whom he had known at Clark University on Freud’s only trip to America), but these are handled as scientific evaluations rather than private biases. Even where later American anthropology has repudiated Boas (on his classification of American Indian languages, for example) we are given this, not in such terms as “error” and “repudiation,” but as the inevitable progress of scientific knowledge. Herskovits omits any mention of Boas’s entanglement with the “left” in the last decade of his life.



The overwhelming first impression we get from The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud is of familiarity, of knowing the story so well. Here is the boy growing up in a middle-class Jewish family with a fable of descent from famous scholars and a legendary family history going back to the destruction of the Temple. He was his mother’s first-born and darling, his father’s spoiled “scholar” and pride, the pet of his teachers. We know that he will be a little radical as a young man but will settle down, and that he will become a good husband and a loving and indulgent father, a passionate card-player, a great talker among his cronies. He is ambivalent about his Jewishness like a hundred semi-intellectuals we know: he dislikes Christianity without any corresponding Jewish faith, his friends are almost entirely Jewish, he is fascinated by Jewish ritual but mocks it all as superstition, he toys with conversion but is never serious, he has a burning ambition for success and fame and a corresponding contempt for ambitionless goyim, he is incredulous that any Gentile author (in this case George Eliot) could write about Jews and know those things “we speak of only among ourselves,” he suffers from “schnorrer fantasies” (Freud’s own term) about inheriting undeserved wealth, he identifies himself with Jewish heroism in history and legend (“I have often felt as if I had inherited all the passion of our ancestors when they defended their Temple”). We can be sure that this fellow will end up in B’nai B’rith, and he does. If we had been told that this Doctor Freud made a good living as a genera] practitioner, provided a first-class education for his children, and was never heard of outside the neighborhood, we would not have been surprised.

Jones has spared us few of Freud’s failings and weaknesses. We see him twice nervously destroying all his papers, learn of his horror of blood and his curious resentment of music (entering a restaurant that had a band, he would cover his ears). His lifelong ambition (ungratified) was to have enough money to buy his wife a gold snake bangle. The story of Freud’s misguided propagation of the use of cocaine (he thought it harmless) furnishes an incredible comic chapter (his later psychoanalytic discoveries could be discounted in Vienna as the latest nonsense from crazy Dr. Freud, the cocaine-pusher). Full use is made of the correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess, which has not yet appeared in English. Fliess was a smalltime German physician full of crazy theories about the periodicity of life; for half a dozen years just before the turn of the century Freud had toward Fliess what Jones calls a “really passionate relationship of dependence.” So sentimental was Freud about this that he arranged for International Psychoanalytic Congresses many years afterwards to be held in one town after another where he had spent time with Fliess. Freud had migraine attacks and what he called “neurasthenia” for most of his life, he was childishly superstitious, and for at least the decade of the 1890’s his psychological ailments were serious enough for Jones to describe them as “a very considerable psycho-neurosis” and “anxiety hysteria.”

What is remarkable about this good Jewish bourgeois with his card games and his B’nai B’rith, this ambitious and erratic doctor with a horror of blood, what distinguishes him from the hundreds we know just like him, is the strength that came out of his weaknesses. If Freud foolishly identified himself with the Maccabees, he nevertheless showed himself fearless in every encounter with the anti-Semites. The card-playing somehow left him enough time to master Latin and Greek, French and English, Italian and Spanish, besides Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. Of a thoroughly pugnacious and dogmatic bent, he resolutely avoided controversy (even eliminating discussion of the papers delivered at psychoanalytic congresses). If his methods were naturally intuitive, he nevertheless made himself an expert technician, and did his own scientific drawings. For the man who opened up the Great Cloaca, he was personally reserved and rather puritanical, and in his own life quite prudish about sexual matters.

With all his psychic ailments, Freud met the severe physical pain of the jaw cancer that ended his life with absolute stoicism; “Most uncalled-for” was the one complaint Jones heard him utter in three decades of close association. Out of the absurd Fliess relationship came unsparing self-awareness (“There is some piece of unruly homosexual feeling at the root of the matter,” Freud told Jones) and the first self-analysis in history, beginning in 1897 and continuing for half an hour a day all of Freud’s life, which produced not only “the serene and benign Freud” of later years but a therapeutic method of general application. Most of the great discoveries came out of Freud’s suffering and failures: he deduced the Oedipus Complex from his own feelings; wrote The Interpretation of Dreams as a reaction to “the most poignant loss in a man’s life,” his father’s death; developed analytic techniques from difficulties with his patients; and inaugurated free association out of his humility about interrupting a patient and breaking her flow of thought.



Franz Boas is more of a problem for us. He appears in the first paragraph of Herskovits’s book as an unidentified “young physicist-geographer” on shipboard, and he remains similarly remote throughout the book. Boas must have been rather a cold fish. He was a Jew by ancestry, but his culture and loyalties were German, and he seems to have put his faith entirely in assimilation. The rise of Hitler apparently reminded Boas forcibly (as it did others similarly assimilated) of his Jewish identity: “as one of Jewish origin,” Herskovits writes with more delicacy than grammar, “his many relatives in Germany were among the proscribed.” Long before that, however, Boas had revealed one curious race prejudice, according to one of his most famous students (Herskovits nowhere mentions it), the belief that only Jews have a capacity for languages, and this prejudice seems to have confined his favorite students, who became the leaders of American anthropology, almost entirely to Jews.

A few personal characteristics appear in the book, most of them unattractive: a prudishness at least equal to Freud’s (one of the theses Boas chose to defend for his degree was that “modern operetta is reprehensible from the standpoint of art and morality”); an extreme quarrelsomeness and a ferocious addiction to polemic; a general crustiness in all personal relations except those with devoted students, where he was fatherly, and with primitive peoples in the field, where he was genuinely humble. Like Freud, Boas seems to have been remarkably stoical about his facial cancer, and Goldenweiser reports visiting Boas in the hospital after an operation and finding him practicing Kwakiutl phonetics with the half of his mouth he was able to move.

Franz Boas gives no sense of Boas’s discoveries and contributions as rooted in any personal needs or weakness, but the correlations are not hard to work out. The famous 1910 study of the changes in bodily form of the children of immigrants, showing how they became physically assimilated to the dominant population, was the work of a German Jewish immigrant who believed in assimilation and had children. As the founder of comparative linguistics, the originator of the concept of the “culture area” (although the term seems to belong to his student Clark Wissler), our most influential voice for cultural pluralism with its vision of “different ultimate and coexisting types of civilization” living in peace and mutual appreciation, one of the first students of acculturation, a lifelong warrior against any form of racism, Boas is clearly the exiled Jew writ large, but this is easy to overlook in the cold tonality of statistical method, anthropometry, and experimental verification.

Boas himself deliberately obscured it every chance he got, as when he explained his delight in Indian myths and tales, which he collected and translated with rare sensitivity, as a desire for “the best linguistic data,” or “objective material which will stand the scrutiny of painstaking investigation.” The pattern is one of extreme repression, and only on rare occasions, as in the public letter he wrote in 1924 protesting the suppression of the potlatch among the Kwakiutl as a step that would demoralize them culturally, did he put on record the passionate appreciation of the lifeways of primitive peoples that underlay his neutral concern with “cultural dynamics” and his statistical interest in “acculturation.” Yet this passion shines through all his work I have read, and it makes The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians one of the imaginative triumphs of our century.



Actually, of course, it is an illusion that biography “gives us the person”; to learn that, we have only to read two biographies of the same man. The subject patterns himself one way in his work, the biographer patterns him another way in writing about him, we pattern him in our own fashion at every stage of the process. For many of us, the shape the lives of both Freud and Boas took is one it would be hard to deduce from either biography—that of the secular rabbi, the figure of moral authority filling the gap left in our private culture by the retreat of the religious leader. Being nasty to his bride about her family, Freud wrote, “They would have preferred you to marry an old Rabbi or Schochet,” but Freud himself became more than that, really, before his death. He became a great wonder-working rabbi after the ancient fashion, perhaps the Vienna Gaon himself. Most of this transformation occurs after 1900, when the sacred texts and commentaries appeared, and is not covered in this first volume of the Jones biography, but we can see the pattern taking shape: the followers beginning to gather around, addressing him simply as “Herr Professor”; the religious concern with the physical spot (the table in the northeast corner of the terrace of the Bellevue restaurant) where the Master analyzed his first dream; the early splits and schisms that mark rebellious disciples going off to found rival centers of learning, or, as in the case of Breuer, the supplanted and rejected older leader. And if Freud is the great Gaon of Vienna, Boas is surely the Tsaddik of Morningside Heights, the “Papa Franz” who used to strike his students, leading his Talmudic disputations on one topic a year at the graduate seminars, preserving in perpetuity the roles of master and disciple (for someone who apparently chafed under this, Herskovits describes the problem with great tact and fairness: “It is difficult to know whether he ever fully granted, in his unconscious reactions, that an associate who had once been a student no longer held this relationship to him”).

Milton Himmelfarb wrote in last August’s COMMENTARY: “In classical Jewish tradition a rabbi’s authority is personal, in proportion to his reputation for learning and piety. Maimonides and Elijah Gaon of Vilna were not appointed to their authority; it grew out of a general recognition of their moral and intellectual eminence.” In our day, this is precisely the process that has produced the figure of the secular rabbi. It is a characteristically Jewish process—we think of Freud and Boas, Einstein, even Marx—but not exclusively so: Emerson, Dewey, Burke, have all been American secular rabbis in this sense, expounding varieties of scripture to rapt disciples. In any earlier culture, these would be the tribe’s Holy Men, its priests and saints; we may be the first civilization to have divorced wisdom from piety. And what is it that turns an ambitious young Austrian doctor or an arrogant young German geographer into this saintly figure, transforms all his flaws and weaknesses into blessings, makes him the repository for all the tribal wisdom and, ultimately, so unlike the rest of us? On this point, neither biographer has much to enlighten us. Perhaps, as Ernest Jones says with unconscious humor, “The answer to this question we must leave to the psychoanalysts.”




1 The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud: Volume I, by Ernest Jones (Basic Books, 427 pp., $6.75); and Franz Boas, by Melville J. Herskovits (Scribner’s, 131 pp., $2.50).

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