down among the lost people like Dante, down
to the stinking fosse where the injured
lead the ugly life of the rejected,
and showed us what evil is, not, as we thought,
deeds that must be punished, but our lack of faith,
our dishonest mood of denial,
the concupiscence of the oppressor.”— W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” from Another Time (1940)
The death of Sigmund Freud in London occurred 75 years ago this week against the dark background of what he had called Civilization and Its Discontents: a war breaking out in Europe that would unleash the darkest impulses that human beings were capable of. It also came as a time of particular anguish for the pioneer of psychoanalysis: having left his beloved Vienna only when the Nazis who had thuggishly absorbed his country began to burn his books, he had been living in exile in London, suffering as mightily now in mind as much as in body.
Frequently, researchers will find on the Web articles that say that Freud died of cancer. This leaves out half of what happened—the more important part, even. To say that Freud was suffering from cancer doesn’t convey half of the horror he endured. As far back as 1923, he had been diagnosed with malignant oral epithelioma. The problem was that Freud could never bear to give up his cigars, which he thought made him more creative. By 1939, he was reduced to using prostheses to talk and eat, enduring repeated primitive X-rays and radium therapy, not to mention the post-op complications from 30 medical procedures.
No matter what one’s feelings about assisted suicide, it is difficult to accept the irony of a man who tried to help his patients cope with their psychic pain now battered by remorseless pain of his own—until, in a last stab of control of his life, Freud requested that his physician give him 21 milligrams of morphine. The request, fulfilled, ended his life.
The death of Freud also provided the occasion for another magnificent work, written in what might have been his annus mirabilus, by W.H. Auden. In 1939, a year of profound political and personal dislocation, Auden was inspired to write several of the poems that would be on the short list of his finest works: “September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “To an Unknown Citizen,” and this.
For most of the prior two decades, Auden had substituted Freudian psychology and sociology for the High Anglican faith in which he had been raised. By the end of the “low, dishonest decade” of the 1930s, he was questioning whether these were sufficient for understanding a suddenly darker world. (There is a hint of this in his elegy for Freud, with the line, “Only Hate was happy,” and there seems an uncanny premonition about the Final Solution in the phrase “covering the garden with ashes.”
The following year, Auden had returned to his former religious practice.
Yet, a dozen years after his return to religion, Auden had not so much rejected Freudianism as subordinated. In a 1952 New Republic essay, he posited that, even “if every one of his theories should turn out to be false, Freud would still tower up as the genius who perceived that psychological events are not natural events but historical and that, therefore, psychology, as distinct from neurology, must be based on the pre-suppositions and methodology, not of the biologist but of the historian.”
Extraordinarily, in a way that even the man Auden called “The Master” might not have anticipated, Auden laid out the case for Freud as a figure of moral agency: “In the long run, however, the welcome given to psychoanalysis by the public is based on a sound intuition that it stands for treating everyone as a unique and morally responsible person, not as a keyboard--it speaks of the narcissism of the Ego, but it believes in the existence of that Ego and its capacity to recognize its own limitations--and that in these days is a great deal.”