WE MUST REACH beyond English to name the essential traits any biographer of Freud must have: chutzpah and cojones. This is because of two things. First, the very nature of traditional biography is called radically into question by the tenets of psychoanalysis; and second, the field of Freudian biography has already been occupied by hefty players who did their homework. Ernest Jones, the Welsh shabbes goy of the Psychoanalytic Movement, set a standard of intensity in his three-volume work, built up out of a long personal relationship with Freud and access to thousands of then-unpublished letters. Peter Gay, a formidable historian of the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, claimed to have read every one of those letters. He wove that mass of evidence together with his extraordinary narrative skills in Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), which in its first edition came to 810 pages. Even Louis Breger’s comparatively slim Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision (2001) still weighs in at 480 pages.

And yet here is Adam Phillips’s slender volume, Becoming Freud: The Making of A Psychoanalyst, which gleefully pilfers from the above-mentioned biographies, yet even with index cannot reach 200 pages. The reader immediately discovers the reason: this isn’t so much a biography of Freud as an essay on Freud and biography, thus returning us to the crux of the very possibility of biography in the age of analysis. Phillips addressed this crux quite well 15 years ago in an essay in Darwin’s Worms (1999), but he now takes on the tricky task of setting his doubting mind to work in telling Freud’s life. The book stops in at the usual stations of Freud’s life, but only in brief, without pretense to new disclosures. So we get the standard trip back to Przibor, the Moravian town where he was born; we wend our way to Vienna to squat for a while in the cramped apartment in Leopoldstadt; we briefly glimpse the Sperl Gymnasium, where diligent Sigi was at the head of his class. Then there’s the University of Vienna and its medical school, and the Parisian interlude with Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière, the long epistolary romance with fiancée Martha Bernays, the fervent exchanges with alter ego Wilhelm Fliess. The book’s trajectory runs up through the anni mirabiles of 1899–1906 when, as the book’s title suggests, Freud at long last became “Freud” as we know him, founder of the peculiar would-be science of subjectivity that is psychoanalysis. The combative later Freud and his psychoanalytic “metapsychology” — with its death drive and superego — are not a stated part of the itinerary, though as we’ll see, they make untimely interventions.

These familiar biographical way stations are, however, largely points to riff on, and Phillips’s book should really be seen as just that: a bio-riff. This approach can partly be explained by its gestation as the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, and by the series where it ultimately parked itself: Yale University’s “Jewish Lives,” which promotes brief, “interpretive” biographies of figures from David and Solomon to Kafka, Groucho Marx, and Ben-Gurion. This explains the trim nature of the book, along with the lecturish remnants of oral style — mainly cascades of sentence fragments — which you might savor as essayistic features, unless you are a stickler for finite verbs. But sometimes it’s too much. Thoughts not quite finished. Semicolons needlessly spared. Verbs AWOL.

Stylistic matters aside, the big question raises its head right away: what does bio-riffing do that simple narrative biography does not? Presumably bio-riffing puts the bare facts of life into a larger context, so “the man” and “his work” are read in the light of each other, sparing us some of the tedium of life’s extraneous detail. This clearly is Phillips’s game here. We jump, for instance, from a brief account of Freud’s childhood in a Jewish family to the riff:

In his work Freud would describe the past as largely unrecoverable from — and give us a picture of the mind as a tyranny — endemically authoritarian and hierarchical in its judgments; in which feudal and fascist states of mind struggled to be more democratic; in which there was a hatred for conflict and a terror of freedom.

This seems a lot of homework for a boy not yet in school, but it certainly redeems his early childhood from provincial mediocrity. It seems as though Phillips is struggling to avoid the novelistic clichés of childhood narrative by throwing in the red meat of intellectual challenge — a few decades in advance.

At times the riffing is more like Hendrix, frenetically running the full range of Freud’s works with dizzying speed. For example, an account of his university years exposes a particular quality in the young Freud:

a need to keep his distance, a fear of overidentifying with people, of being seduced, of being taken in; the kind of fear that Freud as a psychoanalyst would also see as a wish (and would later see as a version of the incest taboo, the lure and allure of the mother).

From there we launch into a valid if compressed analysis of his later male relationships, then swing by Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) and comments to Oscar Pfister from 1930, and finally, the riff comes home on Civilization and Its Discontents (1929). So many of the verbs are inflected with modal would’s and was to’s that it feels as though we are reading a history of Freud’s futures. The Once and Future Shrink might well have been a better title, since the later Freud seems always on hand, providing a running commentary on the case of his younger self.

The methodology of bio-riffing puts pith over narrative detail — it’s not so much about telling the life as selling its significance. The jump cut to the selling tends to pull up short on plot, leaving a reader unfamiliar with Freud’s life a bit confused. But one familiar with the facts will find good pith in abundance, and can enjoy moments of deep satisfaction. A random example:

In our dreams, Freud proposed, we are the historians — if not the archivists — of our own desire, making something to look forward to, something to want, out of the desires of the past. Reminding ourselves of what we might want from what we once wanted.

As a procedure for intellectual biography, the bio-riff has its advantages, since thinking through the life in the light of the work can yield interesting results. However, it’s a clear derogation of the historian’s vocational requirement not to see the past as a mechanism with forgone conclusions. Like Freud’s Ananke (Necessity), Teleology reigns relentlessly here, obscuring the finer details of Freud’s past in a mist of inevitability. Connoisseurs of Freudian biography and the history of psychoanalysis will see just where Phillips carefully steps around the controversies, jumping ahead to spin out a flurry of aphorisms.

But the real pleasure of this text — which, in being about Freud, is essentially an essay on pleasure — lies in savoring the frothy reflections; the book is filled with paradoxical and startling formulations.

Everything that disrupted the culture — sexuality, violence, and the symptoms they became — psychoanalysis would at once reincorporate through coherent narrative, and describe as the necessary saboteurs of coherence and narrative.

Of hysterical patients, Phillips observes:

The first psychoanalytic patients were people who, by definition, did not fit in, people speaking the wrong language, a language of bizarre physical symptoms; a language very unlike the language of science, and for which science suggested itself as the great explainer.

That is a fair estimation of what Charcot, then Freud, were up to. And it is certainly piquant to say these people suffered from “the ordeals of intimacy.”

But Phillips tends so strongly toward those startling formulations that we sense a loss of the historical object. Recent work shows the extraordinary role the hysteric had in the evolution of pathological psychology at the fin de siècle — see, for instance, Asti Hustvedt’s Medical Muses (Norton, 2011), something freely admitted by Freud’s contemporary Pierre Janet. Hysterics loved attention, after all, and were compliant and non-dangerous patients. While Phillips acknowledges the collaborative nature of Freud’s method, the book still fixates relentlessly on Freud as telos, and the patients seem far from view. Though he is eloquently critical of the Freudian “isolated genius” myth, the stylistic drift of bio-riffing always threatens to bring in the Great Man through the back door, since every little thing — like his reading of Don Quixote — presages the later achievements. The downside of bio-riffing is quite simply overselling. Not everything a person does echoes into eternity. Sometimes smoking a cigar is just smoking a cigar.

And here we return once again to the problem about biographical writing vis-à-vis psychoanalysis. If psychoanalysis celebrates “overdeterminacy” — rich, messy, multiple causation in human life — and thinks of the self as an open site, then it might well make us allergic to teleological narratives. Unifying the self through narrative can just be another defense mechanism — and organizing Freud’s first decades of life by seeing them through the looking glass of his entire oeuvre, even when such a project is deeply self-aware, might just be the long way around to reductiveness. There are, after all, missing persons in one’s life history, selves at odds with what we become more generally or claim ourselves to be. The more leisurely narrative biography, which has room to be episodic or even picaresque, has at least the luxury of sufficient space to bring these out.

One such missing person would be Freud the German Nationalist. When he first matriculated at the University of Vienna, he was a member of the Reading Union of the German Students of Vienna, a radical German-nationalist group. A letter to his childhood friend Eduard Silberstein reveals he is in their library, reading Gustav Freytag’s nationalistic works The Ancestors and Pictures from the German Past (letter of March 27, 1875). It’s painful to think that Freud, as an Austrian German Nationalist, was ever on the same political side as Hitler, even for a moment. This nationalist interlude may fit into a general pattern of idealizing acts of manly self-assertion, as echoed in his childhood fascination with martial figures like Alexander the Great and Hannibal. Perhaps this episode is not so much a contradiction of Freud’s personality as of his era, since the movement would soon be taken over by political anti-Semites under the leadership of Georg von Schönerer, a change that stranded many a Jewish German nationalist and forever changed our perspective on German nationalism.

For Freud, the phantom limb of nationalism remained a haunting appendage. As he notes to his fiancée Martha while in Paris (where German-French relations were still tense well over a decade after the Franco-Prussian War), he had identified himself during a political discussion as only a Jew, but felt stirring within him “something German which I long ago decided to suppress” (letter of February 2, 1886). He had a surprising outburst of nationalism at the outbreak of World War I, for which he later repented — like most Europeans — once the true nature of the conflict became evident. This truncated nationalism almost certainly caused him to be wary of Zionism, even though he adored any Jew who would stand up to goyish aggression. Instead of a Jewish nationalist, he was to remain suspicious of all nationalist impulses, though deeply rooted in German culture and, ironically or tragically, a 20th-century master of German prose. In fact, his longtime associate Isidor Sadger, another Viennese Jew, was adamant about where Freud wished to place his identity:

He would have liked best to have been a German and was only condemned to go back to despised Judaism very much against his will. He was, unfortunately, not able, despite all his efforts, to shed his Judaism and simply be a German. So finally he remained a Jew, though not out of loyalty to his hereditary people. (Recollecting Freud [University of Wisconsin Press, 2005]).

Someone wishing to pursue Sadger’s train of thought might speculate as to why Freud chose, in his last full-length work, to prove Moses was an Egyptian, not a Hebrew at all.

Phillips does discuss one of Freud’s quirkier interests in an epilogue on telepathy, for which Freud retained a fascination that somewhat embarrassed his biographer, Ernest Jones. This helps Phillips to make a good point that every biographer should be asked, “what does he want to guarantee that his subject is not?” Clearly Jones did not want to leave the impression Freud was an eccentric parapsychological enthusiast, and Phillips is right to show how here, as on other occasions, Jones dutifully steers the reader toward seeing Freud in a better light. But Freud himself felt telepathy was “inessential for psychoanalysis,” so this seems a smaller point to stress when compared to other things that caused Jones further tidying up in the biography, like Freud’s dogged insistence on the inheritance of ancestral memories, so crucial to the social psychology of the later work (from Totem and Taboo all the way to Moses and Monotheism). In some ways, one begins to feel that stopping the narrative at 1906 is a way of avoiding some of the larger questions a complete biography of Freud might have caused Phillips to face.

Like all Freudian biographers, Phillips has mulled over Freud’s vehement denunciation of biography, which he wrote to his friend, the novelist Arnold Zweig in 1936 when the latter hinted at writing a biography of him. “Anyone turning biographer,” Freud replied, “commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and even if it were it couldn’t be used” (letter of May 31, 1936). Strong words from a man whose Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910) was an extraordinary first effort at psychoanalytic biography, which attempted to unravel the complex personality of a genius based on a single childhood memory. However, Freud was himself and in his own lifetime among the first victims of psychoanalytic biography, which doubtless influenced his later feelings about the genre’s shortcomings as well as the ambivalent relationship any subject would have toward his own biography. So while Phillips is certainly right to point out the inherent challenge to biographical narrative that psychoanalysis represents, there is a further historical dimension to consider.

In sum, while the book is not the best introduction to Freud’s life for the novice, the reader should know it is quite serious, often ludic but never ludicrous, a meditation articulated as subtle Gemara on the Mishnah of Freudian chronology. These are, after all, the musings of a man who has dedicated his life to helping others, a man who writes from a deeply personal perspective on the shrink trade, and for whom the urgent questions that psychoanalysis rose to address remain open, enduring, and compelling. The tortuous syntax of the book lays bare the fact that there is at heart, as we roll through the whole of Freud’s early life, an intense intellectual struggle here: What does it mean to “tell” a life? Why are we not just reading the works?

Becoming Freud should therefore be read, I think, as a propaedeutic to Freudian biography, since biographies will continue to be written. The melting glacier of restricted and unedited documents will spill more material into the public domain in coming years, like the recently published volumes of the complete correspondence of Martha and Sigi from their lengthy engagement. There you can see our hero wax quite conventionally sentimental about his dear, sweet princess. Freud may well have wanted to frustrate his biographers, but the fact is, willingly or not, he set them up in business pretty well.

¤

Richard H. Armstrong is author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell UP, 2005) and the forthcoming Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria (Oxford UP).