Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom
by Andrew Nagorski
Although he lived more than a century ago, Sigmund Freud abides. Despite the magazine features and nonfiction bestsellers that regularly proclaim him a charlatan, a reactionary, an intellectual dead end, or simply “dead,” we live in a world fundamentally shaped by his legacy. We accuse one another of “projecting”; we laugh—uncomfortably or with knowing glee—when someone else’s speech slips; we read novels and speculate about the author’s childhood, love life, and traumas; and we struggle not to think too hard about our more embarrassing dreams. If anything, the anxious protests (“I don’t believe in Freud, but …”), like the apparently inexhaustible need to ritually slay Freud the Bad Intellectual Patriarch in print, reflect his durability, and our anxieties, in a quintessentially Freudian way. Why would people feel so compelled to disavow him, after all, if Freud, like the repressed, didn’t always return?
Freud is dead, as more than a few have quipped, because Freud is everywhere. Or as W.H. Auden put it, in an obituary poem, “to us he is no more a person / now but a whole climate of opinion.” As a stand-in for a body of work (the English Standard Edition of his writings—which doesn’t include his letters—runs 24 volumes), as the Father of Psychoanalysis, and as a metonymy for a suite of still-disquieting claims about aggression, sexuality, and the unconscious dimensions of human behavior in general, “Freud” endures, overdetermined, signifying far more than just a name.
But Sigmund Freud was an actual flesh-and-blood human being all the same. He loved dogs (more on this later), regularly took his six children to forage mushrooms (blowing a little whistle to summon them to inspect handsome specimens), and burned through a truly prodigious quantity of cigars (more on this, too). As both a physician and a pioneering scientist, he worked tirelessly, published his failed cases (a practice rare among researchers today), and repeatedly revised his most foundational theories from the ground up, no matter the controversies and professional schisms that ensued. He was also self-contradictory, eminently capable of error, and could be by turns grandiose and petty, as quite a few would-be disciples learned to their dismay. But more than that: Freud, whom the philosopher Paul Ricoeur dubbed a “Master of Suspicion” for his ruthless skepticism toward Enlightenment rationality and Victorian taboos, was also prone to misapprehension and self-delusion even as he laid bare the willful illusions of others.
Never was this more the case than during the last years of his life, when Freud seemingly dithered in Nazi Austria, even as others fled and encouraged him to do likewise. “Freud should have been uniquely qualified to understand the dark forces propelling his world to mass murder and destruction,” observes veteran journalist Andrew Nagorski. “Why had Freud allowed himself to be trapped in this extremely perilous situation? Why had he failed to leave Vienna earlier when it would have been relatively easy for him to do so?” Nagorski’s excellent new book, Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, tackles precisely this question, offering partly a narrative of Freud’s last years; partly a group biography of the patients, colleagues, and collaborators who served as his “rescue squad” in 1938; and partly a portrait of a city and a world on the brink of disaster.
A former bureau chief for Newsweek and the author of numerous popular books on World War II, Nagorski mixes the pacing of a historical thriller (think Alan Furst, but nonfiction, and starring therapists instead of spies) with a meditation on the limits of insight and what it means to be attached to a specific place and to live in a given moment in time. He shows Freud—and, more crucially, those around him—navigating the gaps between abstract awareness of danger and personal decisiveness, against the backdrop of historical events unfolding in real time. The result is hard to put down, poignant, and distressingly timely. Because if Freud himself, so attuned to the dark undercurrents of human behavior and so critical of the false security offered by our wishful illusions, proved unable to think clearly even as his country became unrecognizable around him and as nightmare after nightmare became real, what are our chances now?