Letter from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess of 14th November 1897 : known as Letter 75

by Julia Evans on November 14, 1897

Translated by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson

p278 to 282 of ‘The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904′ : Translated and Edited by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: 1985

Available here

James Strachey’s footnotes

From p230, Footnote 4 of The origins of psychoanalysis : Sigmund Freud’s Letters : Letters, Drafts and Notes to Wilhelm Fliess (1887 – 1902) , Edited by Marie Bonaparte, Anna Freud, Ernst Kris, Translated by Eric Mosbacher and James Strachey, Basic Books 1954

Quote from 278 to 279 of Masson’s translation : Not entirely new, to tell the truth; it had repeatedly shown itself and withdrawn again; but this time it stayed and looked upon the light of day. :

[4] The dates at the beginning of this letter refer to Fliess’s period theory. The introductory sentences are, presumably, a parody of Vasari’s life of Michelangelo; Freud was familiar with Vasari’s ‘Lives’ of the Italian painters. The “discovery” which freud introduces in this way was that of the development of the libido. In talking of his “advance knowledge” of his discoveries Freud in fact describes his own method of work. In the language of psycho-analysis his preconscious worked over scientific connections before they became conscious. Hence the sudden advances in theory-making of the kind described in this letter. The ideas here expressed where in part taken over unaltered into the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality : 1905d. Others were developed only in later years. For instance, the idea of the meaning of the transition from walking on four legs to walking on two and the role of the upright stance (first touched on above on p186 of Letter 55 : 11th January 1897) were carried further only in 1928 in Civilisation and its Discontents and also discussed in the case history of the “Rat Man” (1909d). In this letter, Freud does not yet distinguish clearly between the three meaning of the work “repression”; (i) the psychological mechanism of repression; (ii) those processes which take place in the course of the child’s development towards maturity by means of which cathexis is withdrawn from certain zones of the body; and (iii) alterations in the apparatus which takes place in the course of the development of the species and correspond to Freud’s later conception of “organic repression”. The picture of the development of moral attitudes given in the letter was later fundamentally altered. What Freud here describes is on the whole still at the level of what he later (in Three Essays) regarded as reaction-formation. The influence of environment is only partially recognized, and no attention is paid to the influence of object-relationship on development (identification).

In this letter Freud for the first time puts the mechanism of regression in the centre of his dynamic explanation of the neuroses; previously it had been mentioned only incidentally. The subsequent differentiation between topographical and historical regression is not yet attempted.

On the other hand Freud develops in this letter a point of view to which he held fast in all his later works, though due attention has not always been paid to it in psycho-analytical literature. This is the idea that the effect of specific experiences on the child’s development is dependent on the stage of maturity it has reached. He seems to state this idea clearly in the sentence: “The choice of neurosis probably depends on the nature of the step in development which enables repression to occur”. (p281 of Masson’s translation)

In the last part of the letter Freud rejects a number of false hypotheses; that of the close connection between libido and anxiety, a problem with which he dealt afresh in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety in 1926; and the proposition, developed in connection with Fliess’s period theory, of explaining libido as the masculine factor and repression as the feminine one. See also Introduction p39

p39 of Ernst Kriss’s Introduction : 1954 : The Origins of Psychoanalysis op. cit. : Quote from p38 – Not till his self-analysis taught him to realize the full significance of the past history of the individual did he become aware that Fliess’s attempt to explain neurotic conflict by “periodicity” meant shackling the dynamic thinking of psycho-analysis, enriched as it had been by the introduction of the genetic aspect.

Moreover, the conflict was not confined to this one question. Freud’s advance from the study of dreams and parapraxes to the further development of his sexual theory was facilitated by an idea that he took over from Fliess. This was the significance of bisexuality. In the introduction to his 1897 monograph Fliess, after proclaiming the existence of both male and female periods, went on to develop the theme of constitutional bisexuality. This problem played an important role in the exchange of ideas between the two men. Freud was fascinated by it, and quickly adopted Fliess’s idea and that the theory of bisexuality was capable of making an important contribution to the understanding of the neuroses. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life he described as an example of motivated forgetfulness how the fact that he owed the idea to Fliess faded completely from his memory and only gradually re-emerged. When it came to developing the idea, however, differences arose which [p39] brought to the surface the whole latent conflict between the two men. It involved a problem with which Freud was concerned for decades. Twenty years later he stated and discussed it with unsurpassed clarity. [A Child is being Beaten : 1919e : Sigmund Freud] He described Fliess’s theory as “attractive”, and praised its “magnificent simplicity”. According to Fliess, he said, “the dominant sex of the person, that which is the more strongly developed, has repressed the mental representation of the subordinated sex into the unconscious. Therefore the nucleus of the unconscious (that is to say, the repressed) is in each human being that side of him which belongs to the opposite sex”. Freud’s attitude to this idea, which he himself considered for a moment even before Fliess (Letter 52, 6th December 1896 – See Letter from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess: 6th December 1896 : Known as Letter 52 or here, Letter 63, 25th May 1897 – Includes Draft M Notes (II) Architecture of Hysteria ) was at first hesitant (Letter 75 sqq.) but he ended by allowing the counter-arguments to prevail. “Such a theory as this can only have an intelligible meaning if we assume that a person’s sex is to be determined by his genitals.” (A Child is being Beaten : 1919e : Sigmund Freud) Freud rejected, not the validity of bisexuality as the explanation of many traits of human behaviour, but the claim that biological conditions excluded psychological explanations.

This question of bisexuality had a decisive effect on his relationship with Fliess. In 1901, when the friendship was fading, Freud tried to revive it by once more suggesting that the problem of bisexuality was one which lent itself to harmonious co-operation between them. The effort was vain, however; the gulf could no longer be bridged. Their last meeting at Achensee in 1900 showed that understanding between them was impossible. Something of what took place can be reconstructed from Fliess’s subsequent account and from what Freud says in his letters. Fliess seems to [p40] have asked Freud to accept the validity of his attempt to explain the specific nature of neurotic illnesses by periodic variations resulting from the twenty-eight and twenty-three day cycles. Freud obviously replied that such an assumption excluded the whole psychical dynamism which he was struggling to explain, and that in all the evidence at his disposal he could find nothing to justify it. Fliess thereupon attacked the methods by which Freud’s insight into the dynamics of the mind had been obtained and accused Freud of projecting his own ideas into the minds of his patients.

P231 of Eric Mosbacher’s translation, Footnote 1 : The Origins of Psychoanalysis op. cit :

Quote from p279 of Masson’s translation : Before the vacation trip I told you that the most important patient for me was myself ; and then, after I came back from vacation, my self-analysis, of which there was at the time no sign, suddenly started. : Footnote [1] See, however Introduction : 1954 : Ernst Kris : p30 of The Origins of Psychoanalysis op. cit. : Quote p29 : In the spring of 1897, in spite of accumulating insight into the nature of infantile wish-phantasies, Freud could not make up his mind to take the decisive step demanded by his observations and abandon the idea of the traumatic role of seduction in favour of insight into the normal and necessary conditions of childish development and childish phantasy life. He reports his new impressions in his letters, but does not mention the conflict between them and the seduction hypothesis until one day, in his letter of September 21st, 1897 (Letter 69 – See Letter to Wilhelm Fliess of 21st September 1897 : known as Letter 69 : Sigmund Freud or here), he describes how he realized his error. The description of how this came about, and the consequences of the abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, tallies with that given in his published works.

“When this aetiology broke down under its own improbability and under contradiction in definitely ascertainable circumstances, the result at first was helpless bewilderment”, he states in ‘On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement’. “Analysis had led by the right paths back to these sexual traumas, and yet they were not true. Reality was lost from under one’s feet. At that time I would gladly have given up the whole thing. Perhaps I persevered only because [p30] I had no choice and could not then begin again at anything else.”

Nearly thirty years later, in his ‘Autobiographical Study’, Freud pointed to what seems another psychologically important explanation of his mistake. “I had in fact stumbled for the first time upon the Oedipus complex”, he wrote. We see from the letters that insight into the structure of the Oedipus complex, and thus into the central problem of psycho-analysis, was made possible by Freud’s self-analysis, which he started in the summer of 1897 during his stay at Aussee. (This is stated in Letter 75 – See Letter from Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess of 14th November 1897 : known as Letter 75 or here and contradicted in Letter 65)

The reader of Freud’s works is already familiar with some of the stages of his self-analysis. In his pre-analytic period he had several times conducted experiments on himself , and had quoted the results of self-observations. (For example, “Über Coca” (1884e, page 84); “Zur Auffassung der Aphsien” 1891b, page 63 (a Passage to which Otto Iskower drew attention in the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, vol XX, 1939, page 340); Über die Bernhardt’sche Sensibilitässtörung am oberschenkel 1895e, page 491. See also Bernfeld (1946) –   An unknown autobiographical fragment by Freud : 1946 : Siegfried Bernfeld or here) With his self-analysis, taken I conjunction with his psychological writings, this practice, taken in conjunction with his psychological writings, this practice now assumes a new significance. We can regard as the first evidence of this his paper on “Screen Memories”, (1899a : Sigmund Freud) which has been identified by Bernfeld as being essentially autobiographical. (See An unknown autobiographical fragment by Freud : 1946 : Siegfried Bernfeld or here) After the appearance of The Interpretation of Dreams (See The Interpretation of Dreams: 1st November 1899 (published as 1900): Sigmund Freud or here) examples multiplied, and they played a notable role in later editions of that work and in the various editions of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. In Freud’s later works, published after 1902, autobiographical examples are rarer, but an instance occurs in one of the last things he wrote, the letter to Romain Rolland on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. In this, under the title of “A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis (1936a)”, he describes the feeling of de-realization that came over him during a visit to Athens in 1904 which he explained as having “Something to do with a child’s criticism of his father, with the under-valuation which took the place of the over-valuation of earlier childhood”. In his introduction to this piece of writing Freud pointed out to Romain Rolland that when he had set out “to throw light upon unusual, abnormal or pathological manifestations of the mind….I began by attempting this upon myself”. His letters to Fliess permit us to date his first efforts at this more exactly, and actually enable us to see him at grips with the Oedipus complex. That this was the central theme of his self-analysis is not merely the impression one receives from the letters; it is confirmed by Freud himself when he says in his introduction to the second edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (See The Interpretation of Dreams: 1st November 1899 (published as 1900): Sigmund Freud or here) that “the book was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death – that is to say, to the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life”.

The gist of what Freud reports of his self-analysis in his letters to Fliess is concerned with the reconstruction of important events in his childhood, chiefly with the period before he was three. External circumstances caused this period to be sharply marked off from his later life, because when he was three his parents were forced by economic difficulties to leave the small Moravian town of Freiburg. The prosperity of the Freiburg period was followed by the privations of Freud’s childhood and youth. [end quote from Introduction : 1954 : Ernst Kris]

 

Julia Evans

Practicing Lacanian Psychoanalyst, Earl’s Court, London

 

Further texts

By Sigmund Freud here

Notes on texts by Sigmund Freud : here

By Jacques Lacan here

Notes on texts by Jacques Lacan here

Of the clinic : here

 

Lacanian Transmission : here

 

Some Lacanian History : here

Topology : here

From LW working groups : here