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August 16, 2007

spongebob's freud

warhol_freud.jpg The densely-forested mountains outside Truckee are glowing a kind of gilded green in this morning's sunlight. Occasionally, you see the trees skirt round a heavy, vertical brown strip, like a scar, incised through the thick integument of pines somewhere near a summit. It's a ski-run healing in the peace of summertime.

While the others were still asleep earlier today, I lay in one of our king-size beds thinking, without knowing particularly why, about Andy Warhol's silkscreened quadruple Sigmund Freud. Warhol overlaid Max Halberstadt's famous black-and-white photograph of the austere, patriarchal Freud of 1922 with the psychedelic candy colours of consumerist, egocentonic America.

[Interruption in writing this up: the boys are watching SpongeBob on their already well-beloved Samsung™. I had to stop typing and chuckle with them over SpongeBob's squelchy-voiced request to a night-school teacher: "Mrs. Pop, can I be excused for the rest of my life?" Siri lies on the striped bedcovers crocheting a chic, downtown-type scarf. She looks up occasionally with a sceptical squint at the preoccupied male inhabitants of this room. I imagine she is thinking "What have I wrought?" The phrase "kicking your butt" reverberates four times from the TV set. Siri sighs; the boys are legless; I sit in my chair laughing.]

I have also been looking again at a battered copy of The Interpretation of Dreams. The "Chelsea" edition of the book, edited in the 1950s by Erikson, contains some interesting appendices. These appendices print material — especially notes of, and examples from, case-studies — which Freud omitted from his published work. I had never seen any of this writing before. It is very fragmentary, but some of the passages, though elliptical, are nonetheless fascinating.

In particular, I was struck by notes which Freud made in the last years of the 19th century about the dreams of a patient who worked in Vienna as a lawyer and who briefly consulted Freud. This man, whom Freud refers to in his notes only as "A", was extremely anxious. Of middling age (no more details on that), "A" worked at a large firm in the city, dealing mainly with contract law. He was of an invariably pleasant and well-educated demeanour, though he seems sometimes to have struck a few acquaintances as subtly unctuous, or alternatively almost mocking in his attitude to other people. This odd manner was repeated in his dealings with Freud. There were also underlying hints in "A"'s self-presentation of aggression and of strong ambivalence about the emotional compromises entailed by the highly formalized and protocol-laden type of work which he had chosen as a career. He consulted Freud because he was uncertain, or, better, "ambivalent", about his professional future. He was considered very promising by the law firm's senior partners but there were also various doubts about him. These doubts were coming to a head when "A" was seeing Freud because the firm's senior lawyers were then considering whether to make "A" a partner ("ein Mitglied") in their business.

Freud notes the details of a dream recounted to him by "A". In the dream "A", after various struggles and compromises between the law firm's senior partners (many of these disputes concerned matters far beyond those immediately at hand in the case of "A"), "A" has recently been promoted to partner-level. (It bears repeating that at the time of the dream "A" had in fact not yet been promoted. We do not know if in real life he ever was.) In a bohemian café much frequented by Viennese writers, including the well-known playwright and art critic Hermann Bahr, the dreamer was sipping coffee and writing a few meagre sentences in a notebook. By chance another partner from his law firm was also in the café. The person in question was an elderly male had been a brilliant success in his chosen field, tort law, and was highly regarded. In his notes Freud calls this man "B". "B" had at one time been very supportive of "A" and had treated him kindly, cultivating him as a protégé. But lately "B" had become frustrated by "A"'s multiple failings (which "A" had been free and eager, perhaps too free and eager, to confess both to "B" and to Freud).

In the dream, the older lawyer approached "A"'s table. He was alone. "B", from whose finely-tailored sleeves "A" noticed a pair of manicured, distinctly feminine-looking hands protrude, did not sit down but instead stood lowering over him. "Look at you!" "B" suddenly screamed. "You do nothing! You should be erased! I have created a monster!" There were murmurs, and many of the café's other, variously distinguished or talented patrons turned their heads to observe this surprising confrontation.

"A" was transfixed by this public and all-too-searching accusation from the older lawyer. He was unable to speak for several moments and remained sitting, looking up agog at "B". But finally he responded, panicked, plaintive, but not without a strain of anger as well: "No, no. Not a 'monster'! A friend!" As he blurted out the word "friend" with great emphasis, "A" awoke, experiencing a great surge of tearful emotion subtly tinged with currents of a petulant ressentiment.

Freud's remarks on the dream were brief and mainly technical. At the end of his notes, though, he wrote: "Wrecked by the prospect of success". In the margins of the second-hand copy of The Interpretation of Dreams which I own, a former reader of these pages has written in the margin next to Freud's enigmatic phrase about "the prospect of success": "Oedipus? Pygmalion? Bartleby?" These seem to me characteristically fashionable 1950s or 1960s questions, though not without continuing relevance. Then, underneath on the same page, in another script, there is the further question, rather sophomorically phrased perhaps, but again relevant: "The changing relations between the generations at the time?" I suppose these two sets of comments mean that my book must in fact be at least "third-hand".

Anyway, these relatively intense and numerous notations in the margins of this particular page of the book suggest either that many readers across time have responded unusually strongly to something in "A"'s dream or that they have felt unease or scorn over Freud's own epitaphic summation of "A"'s problems. Indeed, shortly after having this dream and recounting it to Freud, "A" disappeared from view. There was not even a formal note explaining why he was discontinuing the analysis. An appointment was cancelled. Thereafter, the analyst simply never saw "A" or heard from him. As far as I know, Freud correspondingly ceased immediately to ponder the case and never referred to it again. It is only thanks to Erikson's excavations that we know about "A", his encounters with Freud, and his "café dream" at all.

I am not sure what I myself feel about "A"'s dream. But I admit that it does stay with me. What to say that is germane? Perhaps, before I leave the book somewhere for its next owner to find, I should merely write in the margin, SpongeBob's "Can I be excused for the rest of my life?"? But, no, that would be dumb. I think again of Warhol's silkscreen. Seen through the lens of knowledge about "A"'s suffering, the reds, pinks and yellows of the "Freud" in the lower right quadrant of the picture seem to cast an icily contemptuous aura over this great doctor, and the cigar which he is holding in his right hand no longer seems just like a cigar but also, as if in a dream, like a pistol whose hammer Freud has just cocked with his right thumb. Anyway, enough — it is time for us to head out for coffee.

Posted by njenkins at August 16, 2007 09:59 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins