Thursday, August 5, 2010

Chagrin: Freud's final reading

He always loved to read, and is steeped in literature, philosophy and archaeology. Now this last joy is to be taken from him.
    He has lost the city that was his home for 78 years, his clients, his power to write, even the love of his dog, who recoils from the stink of the rotting bone in his face. It is agony for him to eat and hard for him to speak. Even to smoke another of his beloved cigars - the source of the oral cancer that is killing him, but also his solace and (he has always insisted) the companions of his thought process - he sometimes has to hold his jaws open with a clothespeg. His devoted daughter helps him from time to time to remove the "monster", the huge metal prosthesis that has replaced a great chunk of his jaw and palate on the right side; it can take thirty minutes to re-insert it. They have found yet another malignant tumor inside his face and it is eating a hole through the flesh. It's too close to the eye and the brain for further surgery.
   In the world beyond the house in London where he knows he has come to die, a nightmare has spilled out of the darkest basements of the collective psyche and threatens to consume the world. For decades he has worked to diagnose the human craving for authority. He saw the logic of a Hitler arising as an externalized superego, and even described the phenomenon as "inevitable" given the condition of men's self-understanding. Nonetheless, he was stunned by the fierce joy with which his fellow-Austrians fell at the feet of the man-beast with the funny moustache who removes the agony of choice from all who will obey him, while licensing their blackest instincts.
    Around him in London, the English he so greatly admires are jittery as they pass out gas masks and dig trenches in the parks, talking of how Hitler's bombers will turn the world's greatest city into a mega-Guernica. And he is losing the strength and the vision even to keep turning the pages of a book. He chooses, as the last book he will ever read, La peau de chagrin, the novel that made Balzac famous. The title has been translated as "The Magic Skin" or "The Wild Ass's Skin." It has a double meaning in French that escapes these clumsy translations. Chagrin (as in English) means sorrow or disappointment, often resulting from failure; it also means the rough, untanned hide from the rump of a horse or wild ass once often used for binding books. In English, this kind of leather is called "shagreen".
    Anyway, the hero of Balzac's tale - a character named Raphael - is a penurious scribbler who has decided to kill himself after losing his last money, when he stumbles into a curiosity shop that seems to contain the emblems of a whole world, like a kind of 3-dimensional Tarot deck. The owner shows Raphael a piece of shagreen with magic properties. The young writer can have this for nothing and the skin - covered with indistinct Eastern spells - will grant his every wish. But he would be well-advised not to use it.
    The skeptical writer decides to give it a try. What does he have to lose? He's already bent on death. He rubs the skin and wishes for a revel worthy of a dissolute king. Instantly we are transported by Balzac's muscular prose into a scene of wild orgy and banqueting. The catch (and there has to be a catch in wishcraft involving lower powers) is that every time Raphael makes a wish, the skin shrinks and when it does so, he loses some of his own life-force. Eventually, having wished himself wealth and fame, he is desperately using his money to try to obtain a medical treatment that will reverse the process that is turning him into a shrunken, grotesque little old man.
    He tries to stop wishing for everything, ordering his servants to provide him with everything he thinks he could desire at appointed times. The plan is overthrown in a scene with a beautiful woman for whom he feels passionate love. She flees from him, bent on killing herself to stop him destroying himself by wishing for her. Exactly the opposite is accomplishes. As Raphael pursues her and flings himself on her, the last scrap of shagreen vanishes and he dies.
    The summary brings out the fantastical elements in Balzac's story, but anyone who has read Balzac will know that its great success lies in what was more fantastic than fantasy in all his writing: his power of vividly realistic description. The reader is spared no detail of Raphael's decline into an ugly, shriveled wreck. 
    It is impossible not to be moved by the picture of Freud, himself now a shriveled invalid, following this page by page. When he finished, he told his doctor, Max Schur, that it was the right book for him, because it was about "shrinkage and starvation", his lot. That same day, he gave his doctor the nod to give him huge doses of morphine that hastened his death. This non-religious Jew whose last work, Moses and Monotheism, boasted that it wss going to deprive the Jews of their defining hero (and this at a moment when the swastikas shadowed all of Europe) died on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 1939.
    He wanted to "die in harness, like King Macbeth", and very nearly succeeded. I respect his stoicism and absolute dedication to his life's work. I am also curious to know whether, looking back from the Other Side, Freud has experienced chagrin for his persistent denial, through his long career, of the reality of spirit and its survival of physical death. And whether he has made up with Jung now that certain essential things are much clearer.

Source: I have drawn some of my facts from an excellent recent study of Freud's last years by Mark Edmundson, The Death of Sigmund Freud (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007)

Statue of Freud in front of the Tavistock Clinic, near his last home in London. Photo by Mike Peel


Carol Davis said...

What a powerful story! I awakened this morning with thoughts of the reality of spirit beyond death. Last night I talked with my sister-in-law who told me that the family's oldest dog is dying. In another conversation, I received word about a long-time friend who is in the dying process.

In a dream last night my nephews told me that the dog, Cody, had died. I look at them and laugh saying, "Not really". Cody is beyond his old skin and in his new life. He is bounding across the living room looking like his young dog self. He's barking and wagging his tail.

I'm going to bring this dream to my family when I see them today.

In the dreaming certain realities can come clear.

Robert Moss said...

Carol - That's a lovely dream vision to bring to Cody's family. You saw him - in his future life - very much as I saw my beloved black dog after he was killed on the road.

Freud adored dogs, and actually devoted time during his last years of pain and illness to translating a simple story about a friend's dog called Topsy. I don't know whether he dreamed of his favorite chow after her death, but if he did he failed to learn from those dreams. I like to think that she became part of his re-education on the Other Side.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Do you think Wilhelm Reich might have joined the pyschotherapeutic circle on the other side? He is another who had to split with Freud.

Arias said...

Knowing what we are wishing for and the power wishing can have over our lives is something to take seriously. Getting caught in the 'wishing for' loop is not a life path to be chosen lightly or at all. Thank you for this reminder Robert.

KMG said...

Thanks, Robert. I knew nothing about Freud's final days, and you painted a moving picture (no pun intended!) of them.

Gary Freedman said...

Great blog post. Today is 9/23, the anniversary of Freud's death. My blog post today features a documentary about him.