The father of psychotherapy

A Freudian slip

Was Golden Age Vienna the birthplace of the modern mind?


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mortal Secrets: Freud, Vienna, and the Discovery of the Modern Mind, Frank Tallis
(Abacus, £25)

When was the last time you described someone as “anal”? Denoting a fastidious individual, the adjective relates to terms such as the unconscious, the Oedipus complex and the Freudian slip. The last reveals the source who unites them, the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Frank Tallis’ Mortal Secrets: Freud, Vienna, and the Discovery of the Modern Mind provides insight into the fascinating theories and life of this ubiquitous figure.

Tallis seeks to prove beyond all doubt both that Freud is a cultural icon and that Golden Age Vienna (1900–18) was the birthplace of modernity and the modern mind. Mammoth in scope, Mortal Secrets fuses art, culture, psychology and biography to present a multifaceted view of Freud in his own era and of his posthumous reception.

Mythic self-presentation from an early age underpins the enigmatic figure of Freud. When he was a young boy, his mother received a prophecy about his future “greatness” from a mysterious old woman. The enchanting atmosphere of Vienna, with its heady mix of delicate pastries, bustling coffee houses and sexual sin, serves as the logical backdrop for his subsequent theories about the subconscious.

The individual genius of Freud is contextualised in relation to his contemporaries. Eccentric lecturers such as Jean-Martin Charcot — a theatrical “prince of science” — loomed large in the medical imagination, providing fertile conditions for the emergence of Freud as a charismatic leader. At the same time, he brushed shoulders with artistic greats and infused his mind with the writings of Shakespeare, Dante and Dickens.

Slipperiness between “disciplines” suggests the applicability of psychoanalysis to many areas of life. Tallis navigates various fields to paint his mosaic profile, but his explanation of psychoanalytical theories are his greatest strength. This comes as no surprise given Tallis’ own profession as a clinical psychologist. Psychosexual development, dream theory and personality structure are succinctly explained, whilst Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) is summarised in a single sleek passage.

Is it a biography, a love letter to Vienna or an opinion piece?

Sexual desire is no longer taboo in the discussion of psychopathologies. Unimaginable at the time, its normalisation in wider culture is largely attributable to Freud and Golden Age Vienna. The languid eroticism and nervous tension of Gustav Klimt’s portraits tell of a gossip society where sex could finally be discussed in a clinical setting. Images provide useful illustration; clothes that seem ascetic today — baggy and shapeless — are contextualised as historically scandalous and neatly indicate our shifted perspectives.

Unfortunately, as the book progresses, the cultural contextualisation of these various theories becomes increasingly directionless and the initial structure less coherent. Nazism, Jung, feminism, Romanticism, nationalism, Buddhism, Shakespeare, Greek myth and climate change all pile up. At several points Freud emerges as a catch-all explanation for the whole history of humankind. Untitled images occasionally mismatch the neighbouring text, leaving the reader to guess their relevance.

The most troublesome links are those frequently drawn between Vienna and contemporary society. Some are vaguely interesting: the likening of portraits by Egon Schiele to modern magazine imagery is understandable. But the subsequent link to Grayson Perry’s cross-dressing seems random and unsubstantiated. The resultant book is difficult to categorise — is it a biography, a love letter to Vienna or an opinion piece?

Tallis’ assertions of Freud’s relevance are insistent. He criticises “Freud-bashers” who cannot distinguish ideas from character flaws, yet his own account of Freud is a passionate defence. His repeated return to the age-old debate about whether we can separate work from the life of its author becomes tiresome.

The most convincing links drawn between Freud and society today are implicit. It is easy to infer parallels between his cult-like following and that of current public intellectuals. The ubiquity of Freud speaks to the unfalsifiable nature of his theories: they are both compelling and impossible to prove or disprove. For his critics, Freud’s explanations seem rather too compelling, which may explain why he is admired as a genius by some and as a danger by others.

Like a Viennese cream cake, the book is rich in content but difficult to digest. Specificity is sometimes lost in order to cover excessive ground, to the point that links drawn between Golden Age Vienna and modern life are increasingly dubious.

In true Freudian fashion, then, we cannot falsify the claims made by Tallis, but they provide tasty thoughts worth chewing.

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