August 22, 2017

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Freud's reactions to Italian paintings parsed

Psychoanalyzing Sigmund Freud is a bit like plotting a murder with Alfred Hitchcock — a guiltily delectable experience.

Nicholas Fox Weber’s latest book is a delving exploration into Freud’s perplexing response to a series of frescoes he viewed in Orvieto, Italy, shortly after the death of his father.

The frescoes, whose theme is the Last Judgment, depict a frenzy of naked, athletic men in various forms of physical combat. Freud described them as "the greatest I have seen so far." While commending the work to his travelling companion, he suddenly found himself unable to recall the name of the artist who created these frescoes that had impressed him so forcefully. Later, when informed of the name of the artist, he immediately became unable to recall any details of the paintings themselves.

This odd case of amnesia has been the subject of psychoanalytic investigation by both Freud and his descendants. It is assumed to be a case of "parapraxis" or memory repression resulting from a thought or desire one cannot face. Weber, like others before him, pursues answers to the following questions: "Why did Freud forget these details? In this particular order? What was it about the frescoes that was too unsettling to face?"

Freud’s own explanation is that he was trying to avoid upsetting his sensitive travelling companion and had therefore repressed any subject matter dealing with sex and death. The price of this repression, in his view, was that the name of the painter went into that psychic receptacle for refuse known as the subconscious. But what about the details of the paintings themselves? Here our story begins.

Weber, a respected American writer, art historian and psychoanalytic patient himself, captivates the reader with this wonderful psychological mystery, assigning himself the role of Freudian detective. He revisits earlier attempts to explain the memory loss, delving into Freud’s early life and hangups (yes, of course, Freud had hangups — even total blind spots), and goes so far as to visit the frescoes in Italy to determine what clues, if any, might be held therein.

A variety of fascinating explanations emerge out of this subterranean investigation — explanations which lead us into a deeper understanding of Freud’s ambivalence about being Jewish, his conflicted feelings toward his father and his surprising views on homosexuality. Weber offers us his own experience growing up in a Jewish intellectual family in an attempt to provide a view of the particular lens through which Freud viewed the world. However, Weber grew up in such a luxurious life of privilege that, at times, he has trouble bringing the less-privileged, non-truffle-eating reader alongside him. A tone of false humility and self-congratulation is sometimes evident, and readers will vary in their tolerance to this lightly pretentious narrative voice.

To spend such time and effort unearthing reasons for a simple case of forgetting may strike one as utterly pointless — psychoanalysts, perhaps, love to make mountains out of molehills. Sometimes a molehill is just a molehill, but the process of making it into a mountain is both enthralling and illuminating in Weber’s hands.

Jennifer Robinson is a Winnipeg psychotherapist.

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