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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

“My old and dirty Gods”

Author: Pamela Cooper-White


Freud’s consulting room has become a familiar historic image with its carpet-draped couch, and as is well known, every surface was laden with ancient archaeological figurines.  With affectionate irony, he called them “meine…alten und dreckigen Götter[1].” These figures represented to Freud a metaphor for psychoanalysis itself – digging for long-buried evidence of powerful but often unacknowledged truths.  That they were gods presents an even deeper mystery, never plumbed directly by Freud himself, but suggesting the simultaneous fascination and aversion characteristic of a neurotic symptom.

Freud’s insistent atheism (he described himself as a “ganz gottloser Jude[2]”) and his paradoxical, obsessional return to the topic of religion throughout his cultural writings are both well-documented.  Less well known, however, are the attitudes toward religion among the men – and eventually women – who joined him once a week to reflect on a wide range of implications of psychoanalysis.  Historian Peter Gay tersely noted that “Freud’s view of religion as the enemy was wholly shared by the first generation of psychoanalysts.”[3] This statement struck me as a likely over-generalization, given the enthusiasm of the first analysts for complex and wide-ranging discussions about nearly every possible topic (history, biography, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, religion across time and culture, and even the paranormal), documented in the minutes of the Wednesday Night Psychological Society,[4] as well as in published writings and correspondence – most notably by Oskar Pfister, Theodor Reik, Otto Rank, and Sabina Spielrein[5].

Complexity in the Viennese Analysts’ Views on Religion

My initial research question was: What religious themes appear in the discussions and writings of Freud’s Wednesday Night Psychological Society, and how? The primary sources confirmed a rich and often more complex view of the attitudes toward religion among Freud’s early followers than was previously recognized[6]. To summarize very briefly, the members not only followed Freud’s psychoanalytic-anthropological method of applying oedipal interpretations to ancient ritual practices (as in Totem and Taboo), and critiquing the repressive moralistic teachings of the Austrian Catholic Church, but they also expressed original thoughts about religion’s positive role in advancing the sublimations and compromise formations necessary for civilization. They believed that religious faith could be protective against neurosis and even suicidality. Their frequent correspondent, the Swiss pastor Oskar Pfister, even argued strenuously for psychoanalysis as the best method for Seelsorge, promoting a liberal and non-repressive version of religion freed from the constraints of moralizing dogma.

Antisemitism and the Return of the Repressed

These findings would have been more than enough to validate my initial research hypothesis. A second, unanticipated thesis emerged, however, that I believe proves even more significant:  that the surrounding atmosphere of antisemitism, even before the official rise of Nazism in Austria, stands at the fons et origo of psychoanalysis. Obviously, to claim antisemitism as a singular root cause would be reductionistic. Yet, with its curling tentacles, it is one of the most pervasive – as well as often denied – social forces in 20th century Vienna, and could not have failed to suffuse the thinking of Freud’s circle in some ways, both consciously and unconsciously.  Interestingly, whether because of denial or a calculated desire to suppress dangerous speech, there is virtually no discussion of antisemitism as a social problem recorded in the minutes of the Wednesday Night Society; at times the members seem to uncritically accept (perhaps even as internalized racism[7]) certain pathologizing stereotypes about Eastern European Jews – from whom they had descended in just one or two generations, but vigorously sought to differentiate themselves.  Yet, antisemitism constituted an ancient ocean of hatred, in which the first psychoanalysts, almost all of whom were Jewish,[8] had to swim throughout their entire lives. It took constant vigilance to survive, much less succeed, in its dangerous waters. 

Above and beyond all the other themes discovered in the Wednesday Night Society’s discussions of religion, then, antisemitism must be recognized as a “total context,”[9] an ineradicable, overarching reality that could not have failed to influence these firsts’ analysts discoveries and explorations – and without which their ideas, especially concerning religion itself, cannot be fully understood. The first analysts’ experience as the perennial “Other” of Austrian culture could not have failed to infuse their theorizing with a desire to analyze – from the underside – what lay beneath every surface of human psyche and society. It should come as no surprise then, that their theorizing about repression would focus on the twin drives of sex and aggression. These not only emerged as the underlying causes behind clinical cases of neurosis; both were hallmarks of the dominant Viennese culture. Sex and aggression continually appeared as a cultural “return of the repressed” (which subversive expressionist artists depicted so frankly) – a miasma of decay emanating from behind the grand pseudo-historic facades of the Ringstrasse. As I wrote in Old and Dirty Gods,

The Unheimliche appeared everywhere and nowhere in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Young girls, dressed in virginal white, made their society debuts at the vertiginous January waltzes while Schnitzler’s süsse Mädeln[10] survived by entertaining the same girls’ fathers in back street apartments. Government positions and aristocratic titles were bestowed in back room deals. Sex and power, exploitation and violence, were denied and hidden, like the nude bodies Gustav Klimt painted and then covered with ornate geometric designs. The repressed in Vienna was an open secret. And beneath the mannered Gemütlichkeit that made everyone appear to be an aristocrat, Jews became the repository for Gentile Austrians’ projections of their own envy, greed, and sexual hunger. Vienna was burning from the inside with the fever of its own hysterical contradictions[11].

Freud’s Jewishness has already been well examined as a dynamic factor in the development of psychoanalysis[12]. Yet, Jewishness in itself is not identical with antisemitism.  The very long shadow of antisemitism itself, as a continual environment of subjugation, must also be located as a catalyst at the very origins of psychoanalytic theory and practice—both in terms of what the first analysts saw (that no one else was seeing), and what they failed to see (or at least preferred not to record in writing).  Their core realization – that there is always more beneath the surface appearances of reality, and that this “more” is among other things affective, memory-laden and psychological – cannot fail to have had something to do with the experiences of the first Jewish analysts in their position of marginality and chronic persecution.

As postcolonial theory has taught us,[13] the view from the margins is often more acute and penetrating than from the mountaintop of privilege[14]. The Jews of Austria could speak and understand the language and culture of both oppressed and oppressor, and they also could not fail to view and judge themselves through the lens of the dominant culture. In his culture shock during his first visit to the Wednesday Night Society, the famous Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung viewed the Viennese analysts as sophisticated and even “cynical,”[15] but in their own context that was simply what came of being alert to the societal dynamics into which they were born. It was part and parcel of surviving in a hostile climate.  The total context of antisemitism, and the first analysts’ efforts to resist its penetrating logic of denigration, informed and shaped their ethical sensibilities, and also gave rise to a vision of social justice that blossomed most fully during the 1920’s when many in the younger second generation of Viennese analysts joined in the social reforms of “Red Vienna” – including Anna Freud herself[16]

Yearning for acceptance and assimilation was one psychic force, which sometimes engendered both denial and hope.  Realism and the knowledge of danger was a countervailing force. The former – the assimilationist story that psychoanalysis is a Western science – is the narrative told most often.  The latter, as Freud wrote in his essay “Das Unheimliche”[17] is the uncanny truth of trauma – or, to put it another way, the subversive knowledge of the oppressed – which returns again and again in disguised form, but can never remain entirely repressed. Thus, antisemitism had to have had an indelible impact, not only on their personal and professional lives and aspirations, but on the very formation of psychoanalytic theory.

[1] Letter of Freud to Wilhelm Fließ, 1 August 1889 (Masson 1985:363), For an overview of the collection, see Lynn Gamwell and Richard Wells, Sigmund Freud and Art: His Personal Collection of Antiquities (Binghamton, NY: SUNY Press/London: Freud Museum).  In his introduction to the volume, Peter Gay cautions, “We have not yet penetrated the full meaning of Freud’s antiquities for him, although this assembly of objects helps us to make significant strides toward such an understanding…These small objects meant much to him….  Although sometimes, as we dissect Freud, using his antiquities as so many surgical knives to probe his mysteries, we might remember the sheer pleasure he took in those pieces. Sometimes a statue is just a statue.” (Ibid., p. 19) Cf., Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), pp. 170-173: “his antiquities seemed reminders of a lost world to which he and his people, the Jews, could trace their remote roots.” (Ibid., p. 172) Freud reportedly told the Wolf Man that they also represented to him the whole process of psychoanalysis as an archaeological excavation of each patient’s psychic depths. (Ibid., p. 171)
[2] Letter of Freud to Oskar Pfister, 9 October 1918, in Isabelle Noth (Ed.), Sigmund Freud – Oskar Pfister Briefwechsel 1909-1939 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 2014), p. 105.
[3] Gay, 2006: 533.
[4] Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn (Eds.), Protokolle der Wiener Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung, Bd. I-IV (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1976-1981; Neuausgabe: Gießen: Psychosozial-Verlag, 2007).
[5] Detailed in Pamela Cooper-White, Old and Dirty Gods: Religion, Antisemitism, and the Origins of Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 2017), Chapters 3-6, pp. 91-214.
[6] Details in ibid., Chapter 2, pp. 56-89.
[7] For a discussion of this question, see ibid., 69-81.
[8] Elke Mühlleitner and Johannes Reichmayr, “Following Freud in Vienna,” International Forum of Psychoanalysis 6 (1997):85-88.
[9] Term from sociolinguistics and anthropology, as the encompassing surround of a culture, its practices and language(s), which may appear only partially in the subjective consciousness of individuals.
[10] A term most often associated with the plays of Arthur Schnitzler, to refer to young women who provided wealthy urban men with sexual entertainment in exchange for economic support.  This arrangement was tacitly tolerated in fin-de-siècle Vienna.
[11] Cooper-White, 2017, p. 219.
[12] For a review of literature on the influence of Judaism on psychoanalysis, see ibid., pp. 235-238; re: the early analysts’ attitudes toward Judaism and Jewish identity, see also pp. 68-81.
[13] The postcolonial literature is vast, and still expanding. A classic text is Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).  See also Edward Said, Freud and the Non-European (London: Verso/Freud Museum, 2003).  Said reads Freud’s Moses and Monotheism through a postcolonial lens in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
[14] Contra Gay, A Godless Jew: Freud, Atheism and the Making of Psychoanalysis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987):146-147. Contemporary historians of psychoanalysis have used the term “optimal marginality” to describe the acuity and creative genius from a marginal status, which has arisen within psychoanalysis from Freud to the present – summarized in Lewis Aron and Karen Starr, A Psychotherapy for the People: Toward a Progressive Psychoanalysis (New York: Routledge, 2013):8-9, 29 et passim.
[15] Deirdre Bair, Jung: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 2003), p. 118.
[16] For more on the early psychoanalysts and “Red Vienna,” see Cooper-White, 2017, pp. 240-243; Eli Zaretsky, Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (New York: Knopf, 2004), pp. 220-225.
[17] Sigmund Freud, “Das Unheimliche” (1919), Gesammelte Werke XII, (London: Imago Publ., 2005), pp. 229-268.