What is now the Freud Museum at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London’s Hampstead was the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s home for just under a year. Freud died in 1939, just before the outbreak of world war two, having fled to London to die in freedom and escape the persecution of the Nazis. After the war, it was the home of his daughter, the renowned child psychotherapist and analyst Anna Freud, and since the 1980s has been the public point of access for anyone interested in Freud and the legacy of psychoanalysis. The Museum contains Freud’s personal effects – most especially his collection of over 2000 antiquities of various kinds from ancient Greece, Egypt, Rome and the Middle East.
The Festival of the Unconscious is intended to mark one hundred years since Freud published his seminal paper The Unconscious. The long essay was one of a raft of key papers from 1915, most of which are now referred to by historians of psychoanalysis as Freud’s ‘metapsychology’. The essays of the metapsychology are highly speculative, theoretical, and non-empirical: they represent Freud working at the very limits of his own understanding, and the limits of human knowledge about the psyche. For this reason, his ideas are not just highly ambiguous, but also much harder for readers to relate to. Freud’s earlier and perhaps better known writings – on jokes, slips of the tongues, and the interpreting of dreams – are stitched out of the fabric of everyday life and have an anecdotal quality that can delight and enthral even non-expert readers of psychoanalysis. But despite the difficulty of the metapsychological papers, many of the terms associated with them have now passed into the shared language of the self: terms such as ‘the unconscious’, ‘drive’, and ‘repression’.
The challenge for the museum and the curators was to find a way of illustrating some of the most abstruse concepts in the history of ideas – concepts that even Freud himself did not fully grasp. The Museum called upon artists, designers and students to put together a range of works that respond in quite visceral and experiential ways to these ideas, along with a number of related events. Newly commissioned films by animators from Kingston University are woven through the house; sound and video installations by London-based art project Disinformation occupy the dining room, and an installation by stage designers from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, inspired by the work of cosmologist Carlos Frenk, have spectacularly transformed Freud’s study.
How would I contribute as the researcher-in-residence? The original brief suggested that we draw on the archive, collection and library of the museum in some way, much of which is now easily searchable and digitised. As a researcher, I try and stick to what I know can produce interesting ideas. My PhD research was on the Anglo-Pakistani psychoanalyst Masud Khan, who led rather a colourful life in postwar Britain. Much of my work on him tried to use his personal library and the artworks he owned to try and tell his story, and to explore the intellectual and cultural background to his thinking. As someone with a background in literary studies, I’m fascinated by the lives of books and the traces of reading that are left behind: dog-eared pages, an inscription in the front cover, a marginal note, or an underlined sentence. These tangible objects allow visitors to get some purchase on the highly abstract and speculative ideas the exhibition explores. So this seemed to me the obvious way to proceed.
Freud’s books then offered us a window into his thought processes, at the time of his writing these key papers, a part of the exhibition we would come to call ‘Reading the Unconscious’. The idea was to supplement the artworks and the more experiential aspects of the exhibition with something drawn from the archives of the museum itself, and to show the historical and cultural background to Freud’s innovative writing in this period.
Take Freud’s copy of French essayist Michel de Montaigne’s Selected Essays, published in French in 1910 and edited by René Radouant. One of the selected essays from Montaigne’s output is To Philosophise is to learn to Die. In Radouant’s introduction to the essay, Freud underlines a key idea: “Montaigne refused to admit to himself that virtue could be separable from suffering.” ‘Our Attitude Towards Death’ closes with Freud’s admonishing instruction that we must “give death the place to which it is entitled both in reality and in our thoughts and to reveal a little more of our unconscious attitude towards death which up to now we have so carefully suppressed”.
In his 1915 essay Thoughts for the Time on War and Death Freud’s initial enthusiasm for the war has clearly waned, making way for a cultural and political pessimism that will be highly characteristic of his later writing. More particularly, the essay not only indicts the hypocrisy of European civilisations when at war with each other, but also examines ‘Our Attitude towards Death’. The war has made it impossible for modern people to maintain a stance towards death which utterly refuses to accept its reality and inevitability. We may speak about death euphemistically, but we are utterly intransigent when it comes to acknowledging the prospect of our own. The war has deprived us of this illusion, Freud argues, because states can no longer be relied on as moral arbiters, and the barbarism beneath the superficial veneer of culture has been unleashed.
Montaigne’s essay also encourages this stance, suggesting that we must always keep death at the forefront of our minds: death will come for you, and probably sooner than you think. At the end of his essay, Freud suggests a new maxim for the times: “If you wish for life, prepare for death.” Striking, then, that we can see another related trace of Freud’s reading. Freud underlines, “the value of life is not to be found in its length, but rather its employment.” Acceptance of the place of death in life – and its constant proximity – is vital for Freud in our attempts to, as he puts it, “bear life”. We should strive to take “the truth into account a little more and of making life more bearable again.”
But our unwillingness to truly believe in the prospect of our own deaths – indeed to refuse it utterly, as Montaigne points out – is an exemplary instance of how the unconscious works: that it has a ferocious capacity to deny and refuse even when the external world piles on the pressure. “The man of prehistoric times lives on, unchanged…Our unconscious therefore does not believe in its own death; it acts as though it were immortal.” It is this belief in our indestructibility that is so pernicious, especially in a time of war, and especially when Freud’s own sons are involved. Montaigne gives Freud a language for discussing the attitude towards death in his time.
Much of this content is showcased in the museum, through the books and letters themselves, and through a booklet accompanying the exhibition which is now for sale in the Museum shop (where you can also pick up a ‘Freudian Sips’ mug or some Freudian Slippers, should you so desire). As someone whose background is in literary studies I’m much more accustomed to sitting in the library and toiling away on my own. Something, in fact, I take a slightly irascible pleasure in. However, working with designers, curators, archivists was a hugely enriching experience: it not only allows you to develop ideas in a totally different way (more experimental and less precious), but also draws out a different kind of writing voice (more direct and robust). Such an experience will pay, I am certain, huge dividends in my research and teaching in the future.
Benjamin Poore is Researcher-in-Residence at the Freud Museum London, the residency was funded by Creativeworks London Researcher-in-Residence scheme. He also teaches at Queen Mary University of London. His writing has appeared in The Independent, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Times Higher Education Supplement.
The Festival of the Unconscious runs until October 4th at the Freud Museum London.