Commentary Magazine

Freud: Living and Dying, by Max Schur

Freud: Living and Dying.
by Max Schur.
International Universities Press. 587 pp. $20.00.

In a remarkably prescient essay, “Freud and the Crisis of our Culture”—first delivered as a Freud Anniversary Lecture at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute in 1955—Lionel Trilling warned of a growing encroachment by the culture upon the individual’s separate sense of self. In the two decades that have elapsed since then, the crisis of which Trilling spoke has, if anything, deepened; the very notion of a gradual development of character, of the achievement of selfhood as a painful, prolonged process, is scarcely acknowledged any longer as a worthwhile ideal. In its place our culture lends support to every manifestation of the impulse to submerge, if not completely obliterate, the self. Indeed, the very idea of character seems quaintly old-fashioned today, something left over from a Jane Austen novel.

Prescient though it was, however, even Trilling’s essay did not go so far as to predict that psychiatric thinking itself would join in this assault upon individual identity. Increasingly, in the years since Trilling wrote, classical psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on character change through gradual, hard-won increments of self-knowledge, has yielded place to a variety of modish psychological theories—Esalen, R. D. Laing, behavior therapy, primal therapy—all of which exalt the primacy of immediate experience and cater in one degree or another to the demand for instant emotional catharsis. Nor is this demand limited to patients only. Young psychiatric residents are themselves reluctant to face the grind of actually sitting and listening to patients, not to mention the grueling task of mastering the 24-volume corpus of Freud’s work.

Curiously enough, however, Freud’s life continues to exert an immense fascination even in the present cultural climate, perhaps out of nostalgia for a vanished intellectual age, perhaps out of yearning for the very ideal of character we are in the process of abandoning. As the present biography by his personal doctor demonstrates once again, Freud’s life was in fact something like a quintessential definition of that ideal.



Max Schur’s book views Freud’s life from the perspective of his terminal illness, documenting at first hand Freud’s struggle against, and eventual accommodation to, the fatal cancer of the jaw which claimed his life at the age of eighty-three. In the course of the book Schur manages, among other things, to tell us more about death and dying than all the currently fashionable books, articles, and TV shows could ever hope to do. Beyond that, he adds a dimension to Freud that Ernest Jones, for all his devotion and magisterial attention to detail, could not provide. If Jones’s Freud was always a bit the Welshman, like Jones himself, Schur’s Freud is unmistakably an Austrian Jew, formed by a particular cultural context which Schur takes great pains to document. Where Jones tended always to see Freud’s Jewishness as a kind of appendage, for Schur it is an essential, perhaps the essential, element in Freud’s character, expressed, among other ways, in such curious personal traits as his early identification with Joseph, the biblical interpreter of dreams, and his lifelong kabbalistic superstition about numbers.

The association of the two men began when Schur was thirty-one and continued for the next eleven years. Schur served Freud not only as a doctor, but as an ally in the struggle against the disease, and a companion in the journey to its inevitable end. Schur describes this relationship in infinitely affecting detail, painting an unforgettable picture of Freud’s struggles to maintain his dignity and clarity of thought in the face of constant, excruciating pain and the debilitating local infections which marked the progress of the cancer. Throughout this period, Freud insisted on being told the truth at all times—he had discharged Schur’s predecessor for misleading him about the seriousness of his illness.

Almost to the last, Freud refused sedation, in order to keep his mind clear for his analytic work, and continued to see patients regularly until a month before his death. His heroism did not come easily. As Schur makes clear, he was not a stoic by nature, but repeatedly deplored “the gruesome business of growing old,” and never really resigned himself to suffering. In a letter to Lou Salome he wrote, “I have stood the foul realities pretty well but I can’t bear well the thought of the possibilities before me and I cannot get used to the idea of a life under sentence.” Freud’s heroism was thus of a particularly difficult kind, involving as it did the taming and sublimation of enormous passion which threatened to erupt in rages against fate.



Schur’s fascination with his patient continued even after Freud’s death; he eventually gave up internal medicine to become a psychoanalyst himself, and a gifted one, to judge by the fascinating light he throws on Freud’s most mysterious achievement, his own self-analysis. This achievement, which culminated in The Interpretation of Dreams, indisputably Freud’s greatest work, and which at the same time unleashed a burst of creativity that continued with only minor interruptions for the next forty years, has always been honored, but never really understood, by the analytic profession. Jones, like most analysts, claimed that Freud’s genius was such as to exempt him from the usual stipulation that an analysand cannot be his own analyst. Yet this explanation raises more questions than it answers. The psychoanalytic situation is by definition—Freud’s own definition, in fact—a two-person situation, the analyst providing the mirror wherein the analysand can observe himself. What Schur discovered in the course of going through Freud’s voluminous correspondence is that there was in fact such a “mirror” in the person of Wilhelm Fliess, Freud’s closest friend during the period of the self-analysis.

Following the self-analysis, Freud gained the confidence to revise radically some of his most cherished earlier theories, thereby freeing himself for further discoveries of inestimable importance. Thus, it was in the course of shedding his early theory about the causes of hysteria in women that Freud came to discover the central importance of fantasy in mental life and symptom formation, a discovery crucial to present psychoanalytic theory. Here we see how character and intellect interact—an example of courage making possible the free use of intellectual powers in the service of scientific discovery.

Schur is at his best as a sympathetic and perceptive chronicler of Freud, the man; when he attempts to extend his observations into the more theoretical realm, he is somewhat less successful, as in his explanation of how the death-instinct theory was a product of Freud’s effort to come to terms with his own fear of death. One rebels against this sort of “explanation” not only because it is reductive, but because it quite simply does not accord with one’s sense of the man as Schur himself has portrayed him. Reading Schur’s book one is struck over and over again by how remarkably unafraid of death Freud showed himself to be; concerned with it, to be sure, respectful of it, but not afraid. Indeed, drawing on Schur’s account of Freud’s early childhood one could argue in psychoanalytic terms that Freud’s spiritual strength in this area was directly traceable to his relationship with his mother, by whom the young Freud was first introduced to the mystery of death. Whatever its source, however, of Freud’s ultimate bravery in the face of death there can be no doubt. What else could have enabled him, when the time came, to turn to Schur in all calmness and ask that the fatal dose of morphine on which they had both agreed be administered? Faithful to the end, Schur complied.

As is usually the case with the great innovators, Freud’s life and work are difficult to separate; his personal heroism permeates both. Freud himself believed, as he wrote with a curious modesty to Stefan Zweig, an early biographer, “. . . that insofar as achievement is concerned it was less the result of intellect than of character.” The simple virtue of courage that marked his character grew out of a deep-rooted sense of self, and expressed itself not only in his attitude to death and dying, but also, as we learn from Schur’s biography, in a remarkably intense capacity for savoring the pleasures of life.


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