Alice C. Linsley
"Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis." --Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1927
In Moses and Monotheism, Freud wrote: “Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. [...] If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man's evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.”
Essentially, Freud argued that religion gives expression to psychological neuroses, is an attempt to control the Oedipal complex, a means of wish fulfillment, an infantile delusion, and an attempt to control events in one’s life. All these aspects appear to be true of Freud himself. He wrote: "Look into the depths of your own soul and learn first to know yourself, then you will understand why this illness was bound to come upon you and perhaps you will thenceforth avoid falling ill." While Freud doubtless explored his own depths, the great psychoanalyst never underwent formal therapy.
When it comes to religion, Freud most reveals his inner self not in his books on religion, but in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fliess and in his attempt to psychoanalyze Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings of the Virgin Mary and her mother Anne (Anna). Freud expressed his interest in Leonardo’s passion for pioneering and research in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1898. In the third chapter of Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood Freud lays groundwork for the concept of self-love and narcissistic choice, the very aspect of Freud that emerges when we examine his relationship with the person closest to him, his younger daughter, Anna.
In 1899, Freud wrote to Fliess concerning his daughter saying, "Anna has become downright beautiful through naughtiness... ". He praises Anna as one who didn’t conform to behavioral expectations and social norms, the quality that he praises in Leonardo and hopes to demonstrate in his own work, as revealed in this 1900 letter to Fliess: “I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, not an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador--an adventurer….”
Anna was born after Freud wrote Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, what he believed to be “the only beautiful thing” he had ever written. In the book Freud attempts to explain Leonardo da Vinci’s fondness for the subject of the Virgin Mary and her mother, Anne. Leonardo’s Anne never looks older than her daughter. Leonardo immortalizes the mother of the mother of Christ.
It appears that Freud’s analysis of Leonardo’s fondness for Mary and Anne speaks more of Freud’s relationship with his daughter who he named for the grandmother of God. At a 1990 conference in Toronto, Patrick Mahoney spoke of Freud’s four-year “treatment” of Anna as a hedge against mortality. Anna Freud entered the profession her father pioneered, never marrying. She remained devoted to her father, caring for him as he suffered and eventually died from cancer of the jaw. She became the Virgin Mary to Freud’s Anne, remaining a strict-constructionist of her father’s theories throughout her lifetime. While she certainly didn’t conform to the norms of young women of her day, Anna was known to have lived a chaste life according to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, who wrote Anna Freud: A Biography (Yale University Press, 2008). Ann’s offering to the world was not of flesh and blood, but of paper and ink.
Was Freud an agnostic Jew who believed in the Virgin May? This is likely, and further evidence of the complexity of Freud’s personality. He appears to have accepted at least on the level of myth the idea of Mary as the Bearer of God. Perhaps this Christian view of Mary became embedded through his early exposure to the veneration of the Virgin by the Catholic population of Freiburg, his hometown. Exploration of Freud’s obsession with Anne and the Virgin Mary suggests that he put more stock in the Christian view of Mary than in the Talmudic view which circulated through the synagogues of Europe. Sanhedrin 106a says Jesus' mother was a whore: “She who was the descendant of princes and governors played the harlot with carpenters.” I wonder what Freud would uncover through psychoanalysis of the rabbi who first wrote that?
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