The Death of Sigmund Freud: The Legacy of His Last Days
A dramatic revisiting of Freud's escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna, his final days on earth, and his most controversial work―Moses and Monotheism.
When Hitler invaded Vienna in March of 1938, Sigmund Freud, old and desperately ill, was among the city's 175,000 Jews dreading Nazi occupation. The Nazis hated Sigmund Freud with a particular vehemence: they detested his "soul-destroying glorification of the instinctual life." Here Mark Edmundson traces Hitler and Freud's oddly converging lives, then zeroes in on Freud's last two years, during which, with the help of Marie Bonaparte, he was at last rescued from Vienna and brought safely to London. There he was honored as he never had been during his long, controversial life. At the same time he endured the last of more than thirty operations for cancer of the jaw. Confronting certain death, Freud, in typical fashion, did not let fame make him complacent, but instead wrote his most provocative book, Moses and Monotheism, in which he questioned the legacy of the greatest Jewish leader. Focusing on Freud's last two years, Edmundson is able to probe Freud's ideas about death, and also about the human proclivity to embrace fascism in politics and fundamentalism in religion. Edmundson suggests new and important ways to view Freud's legacy, at a time when these forces are once again shaping world events.
Expanding on his 2006 New York Times Magazine article, Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge, Edmundson develops his thesis about the lure of powerful, authoritarian leaders. He begins in 1938 Vienna on the eve of Hitler's invasion and ends less than two years later, when Freud died in London. The crux of the book comes at its very end, where Edmundson, a contributing editor at Harper's, discusses Moses and Monotheism (published in 1939), arguing for Freud's profound insights into the rise of a totalitarian, paternalistic leader like Hitler. In fact, Edmundson's aim seems even grander: to revive Freud's legacy as a sage of human nature in an intellectual climate that has moved beyond many of his ideas. But the earlier parts of the volume are thin. Edmundson adds nothing in recounting the details of Freud's life, and those facts are repeated over and over. There are some moments of sharp insight when Edmundson veers away from the biographical and delves into his own critical ideas, but these would have been better served in an article rather than incorporated into a narrative of danger, escape, illness and death. (Sept.) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Freud's last bookMoses and Monotheismhas counted for little with critics, inclined to dismiss it as a product of his dotage. Edmundson, however, makes large claims for the psychologist's final work. Indeed, he interprets it as central to the dying revolutionary's bold strategy for endowing his psychoanalytic movementdeeply subversive of religion and patriarchal authoritywith a quasi-religious permanence that ensured his own immortality as modernity's prophetic father. Despite his antipathy to religious faith, Freud devoted his last two years to a text reappropriating his own Jewish tradition as the wellspring of higher intellectual achievements. In rejecting the social solidity of pagan spectacles, the Hebrewsin Freud's theoryopened the door to honest exploration of the elusive individual psyche. Edmundson underscores the historical significance of Freud's paradigm by identifying its antithesis in Hitler's stunningly effective use of neopagan pageantry to incite a mass hysteria that made Vienna so politically hostile that the aging therapist had to flee. An insightful gloss on a generally neglected episode of Freud's life. Christensen, Bryce
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