The Couch and the Confessional

By Joseph J. Siev
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sigmund Freud's last book, Moses and Monotheism, was published in 1939, a year after  he fled, mortally ill with cancer of the jaw, from Nazi-occupied Vienna to London.  The book is famous for its speculations that Moses was not Jewish and that the people he led out of Egyptian slavery murdered him, perhaps in rebellion against his authoritarian demand that all men be circumcised.  These theories are generally seen as consistent with Freud's denigration of religion as a neurotic, childish longing for a benevolent father figure, a view clearly articulated in The Future of an Illusion. 

Yet Moses and Monotheism presents a more nuanced view of religion than that found in Freud's earlier work. The "Mosaic religion," he writes, "forced upon the people a progress in spirituality" that "opened the way to respect for intellectual work and to further instinctual renunciations."  With this observation, in the view of critic Mark Edmundson, Freud acknowledges, perhaps for the first time, that Judaism's belief in an internal, invisible God "helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world" so that it could realize its capacity for the abstractions of the intellect.  In other words, intellectual clarity, the human achievement Freud most revered, is indebted to—indeed, might be impossible without—what he regarded as a pernicious illusion.

Since Moses and Monotheism appeared just months before Freud died, he must have spent the last years of his life trying to make sense of this profound dissonance.  Freud's Last Session, an off-Broadway hit play by Mark St. Germain, re-imagines Freud's internal tension as an external one—that is, as a fictional dialogue between Freud, dying in London, and the atheist-turned-Christian theologian C.S. Lewis.  In the play, a discussion of the most elevated subjects—God and morality, suffering and evil, love and intimacy, poetry and reason—becomes accessible, and at times riotously funny, to a broad audience.

The book on which the play is based, by Armand Nicholi, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, attempts to place Freud's and Lewis' diametrically opposed worldviews in dialogue with one another.  The play's premise is that Freud and Lewis actually met in the flesh—that Freud has invited Lewis to visit him in order to learn how a man of Lewis' intellect, who shared Freud's convictions, "could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie."

It is easy to imagine Freud's irritation upon listening to Lewis and observing firsthand the profound temperamental change that followed his conversion to faith: the introverted despondency of Lewis' youth, reportedly a response to the premature death of his mother and his subsequent abandonment by his father, metamorphosed into a cheerful affection for his fellows (shortly after embracing the Gospel he co-founded the Inklings, the famed literary group that also included J.R.R. Tolkien); his professional aimlessness and intellectual itinerancy transformed, in astonishing totality, into to a sense of purpose that he would channel toward a remarkably productive career as a literary historian, social critic, belletrist, and Christian apologist. 

But the real subject of Freud's Last Session, unlike those of sessions prior, is the doctor himself. And the examination lamp under which the play puts him illuminates much: his resentment of his Orthodox Jewish father, his "mania" for collecting ancient religious artifacts, his curious habit of invoking God in casual conversation, his relish at playing the gadfly, his tone-deafness to humor and resistance to being "manipulated" by music.  As with all effective performance art, Freud's Last Session enables us to see its protagonist in life, rather than as a rigid polemical instrument, non-responsive and too easily dismissed or deployed in support of the ideas of others.  Books, after all, don't seek the affection of pet dogs, they don't develop extreme dependencies on their daughters, they don't become frightened at the sound of bomb sirens, and they don't get cancer.

Confronting the brilliant, bloodied fact of Freud's humanity allows us to pose to him those questions to which he never would have submitted—the very questions he made his name asking others.  Most consequential among them is whether he was persuaded by his own theories.  By Freud's own account, of course, he was.  "I have no fear of death," he insists to Lewis, "and no patience for propaganda."  Indeed, the vast majority of his life's work supports this claim.  Nevertheless, there is reason for skepticism.

Given the context provided by Moses and Monotheism, what might have otherwise appeared to be a disingenuous attempt to discern the neurotic genesis of Lewis' conversion takes on the tenor of a good-faith effort to reckon with what Freud has begun to recognize as the limits of his own worldview.  As Lewis tells his story, Freud's snide repartee and terse skepticism seem to succumb gradually to Lewis' relentless, earnest reasonableness—until, suddenly and jarringly, Freud becomes incensed.  Struggling to rise from his chair, he embarks on a diatribe against the "foolish impossibility" of following Christ's teachings in a cruel world.   

As he rages, Freud begins to hunch toward his desk and, speech slurring, brings a handkerchief to his mouth to absorb the blood beginning to flow from his surgically-cleft palate.  Far from being silenced by the pain, however, he only becomes more irate and, apparently stripped of the force of reason, attempts to salvage the integrity of his position by brute strength of conviction: "Do you think it coincidence Jesus demands his followers must be like children to enter Heaven?  It's because man has never matured to face that he is alone in the universe and religion makes the world his nursery!  I have two words for you: Grow up!"

The tense silence that follows, broken only by Freud's apology for his irritability—"Forgive me; my mood these days is ruled by my body"—is loaded with the recognition of a theme that would inform every genre of Lewis' writings: that adults, in spite of their conceit to the contrary, in important ways actually see far less than children, and with considerably more effort.  Whether Freud had faced this truth by the time of his death is between him and his God.

Joseph J. Siev is a program officer with the Tikvah Fund in New York and the editor of The Acoustic Version.


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