The pioneering psychoanalyst suffered so greatly in his last years that his death comes as a great relief to his friends
At midnight, September 23-24, 1939, Sigmund Freud died in London in his eighty-fourth year.
His death came as a great relief to those who knew how the cancer which had afflicted him for sixteen years and which had necessitated operation after operation and caused him constant unalleviated pain had within recent months extended beyond the reach of surgical or radiological relief. It is an eloquent, though incidental, testimony to the heroic qualities of the man that during all this period his only medication was an occasional tablet of aspirin. Only within the last few hours of his life was any morphine administered, and despite incredible suffering, to which was added the sorrow of exile and the loss of many friends, he had continued to see his patients and to work on his manuscripts until a few weeks before his death.
The solemn magnificence of this brave and losing battle of an indomitable spirit with an inexorable physical process reflects at the same time the theme and the vitality of his lifework. His greatest concept was that of the instinctual conflict between the will to live and the wish to die, the life forces and the death forces. In his early years he passed productively and brilliantly through the phase of laboratory interests and then through that of clinical medicine (neurology), and made great and lasting discoveries in each of these fields. But he was not satisfied with these; he became interested in the more fundamental factors that served to determine not only disease but health, not only symptoms but behavior, not only pain but sorrow. And for the next three decades of his life he studied the phenomena of what he later called the life instinct, which shows itself most directly in the impulse to love and to reproduce. For this he was reproached and ridiculed by those many for whom the conventional attitudes of hypocrisy, prudery, and salaciousness impelled the relegation of sexuality to the role of a dirty and inconsequential incident of unfortunate biological necessity. When as the result of indefatigable patience and unflinching courage he had gained for his views the recognition and acceptance of scientific leaders, he turned to the consideration of the malignant force which battles against this life instinct. Man, he said, is his own worst enemy; warring constantly against the instinct to live and to let live, to love and to create, is an instinct which has as its object the return to inorganic insensibility; it is this instinct in the direction of death from which arise our hates, our bitterness, our suffering, our sicknesses, and our demise. This concept of hate aroused the same resistances and refutations as had his earlier concept of love, despite such frightful confirmations of it as the activities of the Third Reich.
It is a presumptuous thing to comment on the life of a genius upon the occasion of his death. Freud is not a man about whom one can write a few casual words, a few comments of praise, a few notes of criticism and feel that an appropriate gesture has been made to his passing. For Freud was not an ordinary man; he was not an ordinary scientist. He was so nearly unique an individual that it is difficult to find anyone with whom to compare him. No one in the field of psychology ever attained to a fraction of his stature. Among medical scientists almost none can be said to have approached him in brilliancy, originality, or influence upon medical practice. Perhaps no other one individual in the field of science, lived to see the thinking of the entire world so profoundly modified by his discoveries within his lifetime as did Freud. Galileo, Dalton, Lavoisier, Darwin, these and others contributed discoveries which greatly modified our thinking and our ways of living, but the effect was more gradual in its permeation. For not only medical science and psychological science and sociological science, but literature, art, anthropology, pedagogy, and even popular speech show the influence of Freud’s discoveries and show them in unmistakable terms.
All that Freud did stems from one simple discovery, a discovery based on knowledge which many had possessed before him. This was the knowledge that beneath the surface manifestations of human life there are deeper motives and feelings and purposes which the individual conceals not only from others but even from himself. Freud discovered a method for ascertaining and eliciting this hidden material; he called this method psychoanalysis. By means of it he and many others working with him gradually accumulated a considerable body of systematic knowledge about the unconscious processes of the human personality; this body of knowledge is also called psychoanalysis. It is psychoanalysis in the former sense which trained physicians use for the relief of suffering and maladaptation in their patients, and for further research in the study of personality. It is psychoanalysis in the latter sense which has come to modify the trends of literature, science, and philosophy.
It was from the fruit of his methodological discovery that Freud learned to understand technically, and hence usefully, the concept of ambivalence–although as a matter of fact this particular word was not coined by him. He became able to understand and to help others to understand that just as back of life there is always death, so back of professed love there is always some hate and back of professed hate always some love. More clearly than anyone else he saw how stalwartly the human mind defends itself against the acceptance of unpleasant truth. This helped him to be tolerant in the face of the ridicule, the misrepresentation, the slander and calumny, the bitter and unscientific refutation of his theories which they initially aroused throughout the world. He reminded himself and his students that all scientific discoveries which diminish the feeling of self-importance in mankind stimulate resentment and incredulity. And so, were he alive, he would not be dismayed by the astounding ambivalence revealed in some of the contemporary comments upon his life. It would neither surprise nor disturb him that a great newspaper (the New York Times) should have published–on September 25, 1939–an editorial ostensibly commemorating his death but actually vilifying him, misrepresenting him, speaking of “his colossal self-satisfaction and his natural intellectual arrogance,” declaring with pompous inaccuracy “that psychiatrists still dismiss him as unscientific,” flagrantly misrepresenting the fads about his last published book, and ending with the awkward and dubious compliment that he “was the most effective disturber of complacency in our time.” (If the ability to disturb complacency is a virtue we should give some credit to Mr. Hitler.)
It is true that Freud was never happy in his feeling toward America, and even his best friends, many of whom were Americans, were never able fully to understand it or to alter it. He felt that we were characterized by an “unthinking optimism and a shallow activity.” He was always suspicious of the popularity his theories and techniques acquired in this country. It is an ironic paradox that America should today be the country in which his theories are best known and most widely accepted. This is true not only of the general public but, of medical scientists.
Sigmund Freud finally succumbed to death after many years spent in deflecting it from others. He was subject to prejudices and complexes although he spent his life in eliminating them from others. But these things do not detract from his greatness; indeed, it can be fairly said that he gave evidence of fewer prejudices and fewer complexes than most men, just as he retained his grasp on life longer than most men. What cannot be conveyed in words is Freud’s ineffable modesty and gentleness and essential sweetness of character, for he had the qualities of the true scientist, and he never for one moment forgot that he was only a passing observer. To the eternal blessing of the human race, his sharp eyes and his great mind made his observations uniquely effulgent.