Thursday, August 26, 2010

Freud and the Virgin Mary

Alice C. Linsley

"Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis." --Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, 1927

Sigmund Freud was a complex person who was profoundly interested in religion. He wrote four books in which he presented his ideas on religion: Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), and Moses and Monotheism (1938).

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.

Is it possible that Freud identified with Anne, seeing her as the figure behind the singular event of the Incarnation? This certainly fits Freud’s understanding of religion as wish fulfillment. The “conquistador” wished to become immortal through Ana’s continuation of his work. In this sense, St. Anne becomes the progenitor of Freud as deity and Anna, Freud's daughter plays the Virgin Mary to Freud's Anne.

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?

Related reading: The Virgin Mary's Ancestry; Joseph's Relationship to Mary; Was the Virgin Mary a Dedicated Royal Woman?


Georgia said...

Reading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, M.D. has given me a negative view of Freud and his followers. Freud could not accept that the reason for the symptoms his clients displayed(Freud's term for their 'neurosis' was 'hysteria')was because they were or had beey sexually abused by close family members. Instead of publishing his scandalous findings (these were German society's leaders), Freud disbelieved his clients and betrayed them by concocting and publishing his notions that little girls seduce their fathers. This, along with the portions of his letters you quoted in your article casts an unflattering light on his relationship with his daughter.

Georgia said...

that's been not beey in the second sentence.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Georgia, it you follow the Patrick Mahoney link, you will find this:

Mahoney, P. (1992). Freud as family therapist: Reflections. In T. Gelfand & J. Kerr (Eds.) Freud and the history of psychoanalysis. Hilldale, NJ: The Analytic Press. (streamed audio download)

Freud established himself -- or disestablished himself -- as a family therapist in that unique act of wild analysis when he took his own daughter into an impossible and incestuous treatment.

It was in 1919, when Anna's year-old analysis was fully underway, that Freud wrote "A Child is Being Beaten." The grammatically present progressive in the title, I propose, also reflects Freud's concurrent clinical activity with Anna. He was in the process of beating her. In a homegrown version of the return of the repressed, and in a fatherly professional twist of the seduction theory, Freud was carrying out an iatrogenic seduction and abuse of his daughter. Her beating fantasies were doubled.
(Mahoney, 1992, pp. 307-308)

Gene B said...

What do you think of the views on Freud expressed here at the link below? It seems to make sense.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Gene, I believe that Freud's obsession with sex was unhealthy and that much of what he declared was to exonerate himself. I don't think that there was a lot of truth in him and that made him susceptible to Satan's direction. There is a reason Satan is called the "father of lies."

That said, Freud was closer to the truth about Moses than the Rabbi. Moses' father, Amram, had 2 wives. One was a half-sister and the other was either a patrilineal cousin or niece. Amram's 2 first-born sons were priests: Korah (meaning shaved one, which indicates a priest) and Aaron. This is the pattern of Horite rulers. The Horites were a ruler-priest caste of Egypt.