The Spirit Incarnate: Andreas Mayer & John Forrester at the Freud Museum

‘Don’t sit here. Don’t lie here. Don’t die here.’

Perhaps we need a little sign like this, smiles John Forrester, of Cambridge University, as he shifts around in his creaky wooden high-chair to glance at the faded green upholstery of a couch just behind him.

Is there a hint of nervousness in that smile?

After all, though this isn’t the couch – on which a patient would lie down and start to talk, Freud concealed behind her head in his little tub chair – up here on the first floor of Freud’s final home we’re in the presence of a very special couch nonetheless: the one on which Freud himself lay down, one day in September 1939, and died.

The analytic couch and tub chair are on the ground floor of the museum

It feels like just the right place to talk ‘sites of power’ with the historian and sociologist Andreas Mayer, whose aim is to move beyond psychoanalysis as ‘great man’ history. He wants us to shift our gaze to the places, the physical contexts – the ‘sites’ – that have helped to ‘make the unconscious speak’.

And yet for some reason – maybe it’s the backdrop this week of Halloween, All Saints, and All Souls – the more we speak of places and contexts, the more those places and contexts themselves start to speak: a name, that of Freud.

So real is the sense of the man’s presence here – that green couch thrumming with life behind Mayer and Forrester, and all the lights down low – you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into a seance. Any minute, from off that couch the spectre of Sigmund himself might slowly rise, to sit silently with pen and pad in hand; as Mayer and Forrester continue to talk, he starts to scribble notes on one or both of them.

Andreas Mayer, Sites of the Unconscious: Hypnotism and the Emergence of the Psychoanalytic Setting (2013)

Almost as though he’s aware of something behind him, Mayer comments – in the context of a remark about the Vienna and London Freud museums – that  ‘the spirit of Freud is here in London’.

Take this alongside his desire to understand psychoanalysis as something ‘incarnate’, bound up with physical environments, and you get the powerful tension in which we’re held tonight: between the physical forms of science labs and couches, on the one hand, and their animating spirits on the other.

Where better to begin our discussion of Mayer’s work, Sites of the Unconscious, than that classic mixed space of earnest research and outrageous showmanship: the late nineteenth-century lecture theatre.

This was a time when the best experiments were not merely replicable, but entertainingly replicable – the audience’s oohs and aahs critical to the forming of a scientific consensus that something important was being shown, was being demonstrated to be true.

Welcome, then, to the Parisian lecture theatre of the pioneering French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Highly respected for his work on what we now know as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, Charcot’s big idea – and one rich in theatrical possibility – was that ‘hysteria’ was both real (not merely the female flakiness and fakery that many claimed) and treatable through hypnosis.

'The Lesson of Dr Charcot' - featuring the mandatory wilting hysteric

His claim was based on a simple discovery. Wisdom had it that causation in psychology ran from the physical – the body, the nerves – to the mental. It couldn’t run the other way. But Charcot discovered that in fact it could. He was able to deaden limbs by telling people their limbs were dead.

The young Freud, studying with Charcot, was impressed by the very drama of proof here – by the authority of the lab, the lecture theatre, and the wilting figure of the hypnotized hysteric.

And he remained determined to experiment with all this in treating his own patients, even after Charcot’s reputation was shredded by his rival showman Hippolyte Bernheim.

Bernheim pointed out that susceptibility to hypnotism is so common that it can’t be a useful diagnostic criteria for anything, and that ‘suggestion’ isn’t some special thing conjured by scientists in lecture theatres – it’s a natural feature of everyday human interaction.

Hippolyte Bernheim

As Freud – who later mined the possibilities of the everyday to entertaining as well as instructive effect (who doesn’t enjoy a good Freudian slip?) – returns from Paris to Vienna, our hushed discussion in his London home turns to what psychoanalysis might owe to hypnotism.

The big theme carried over into Freud’s work was that words can elicit physical effects and psychophysical cures. But more than that, though the laboratory model was dropped as treatment moved to the couch – towards, as Mayer puts it, ‘words, dreams, slips of the tongue’ – the laboratory as an idea, as a mental image imposed on other environments, remained hugely potent.

Perhaps we’re so dominated now by a much later ideal of the therapeutic encounter – two equals on comfy chairs, sympathy, a box of tissues – that we don’t appreciate this: just how close to a laboratory a Freudian encounter really was; that early analysts were, quite self-consciously, researchers as much as they were healers.

Freud himself often played this to political advantage. When India’s first psychoanalyst, Girindrasekhar Bose, threatened to undermine the Oedipus theory, Freud chided him for being ‘too philosophical’. Don’t let the soft fabrics fool you, he was saying: psychoanalysis is fundamentally about ‘clinical’ research.

Girindrasekhar Bose: no stranger to a Freudian put-down

If the rhetoric of surrender to experimentation and results became a powerful way for Freud to assert his own authority, he was astute too at using the analyst-patient relationship to his advantage. It’s pointed out tonight, in Mayer’s discussion with Forrester, that hypnotism eventually lost popularity because its reliance on elite masculine medical authority fell out of fashion – not least with women and the working-classes. But a heavy asymmetry carried over into early psychoanalysis.

Freud proved this, indirectly, when he dealt with critics or scientific opponents by putting them on the couch: it was a site of submission, where objections could be attributed to some personal psychological shortcoming – which Freud would generously analyze for them.

All of which makes Freud a difficult, even frightening, figure to try to sideline; to discuss, as it were, behind his back – or indeed in his posthumous presence, as we are tonight. Necessary though it is to look beyond great men and women in our reading of history, Freud had a knack – which he somehow retains – of mastering his physical environment, more than being shaped by it. And his ‘physical environment’ often included other people.

We file slowly down the stairs after the talk, and I can’t help but poke my head around the door of Freud’s study before I leave. ‘We’ve been talking about you’, I whisper, half apologetic.

And then I notice Freud’s glasses lying at rest on the desk, some notes alongside them.

His handwriting is hard to read at a distance, but surely there, amidst the scribbles, you can just about make it out:  ‘…Mayer…’, ‘…Forrester…’.

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