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Thank you, Mr. Freud

July 2006

2006 just happened to be the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Freud is one of those guys that everybody has heard of, even though few of us have ever read any of his works. Phrases like "Freudian slip," and one other one having to do with envy and the male anatomy that I won't name so your internet protector doesn't bounce me like a bad check, are standard conversation--mostly joke fodder, actually. It's been awhile since many professionals took him seriously, and the honor was probably never given up by the general populace.

You can kind of see why. I read some Freud back in college, not because it was required of music majors, but mostly because I get these weird cravings once in a while, like for potato chips at midnight, to get to know the actual written words of the famous figures in history who have left them behind, instead of simply accepting how the late night talk show hosts characterize them in their monologues. I go to the source. And what I read from that source was, well, pretty interesting. Mr. Freud seemed to feel that men had earned their superiority in the battle of the sexes because of their ability to pee on fire, and that mankind as a whole was beset by an eradicable sense of guilt as the result of standing upright--thereby exposing the genitals to harm. He was, I recall, a bit overeager to discuss genitalia in general. And, in an era which boasted no shortage of Germanic male academics who were sure of their superiority and the superiority of their ideas (as well as their sex), Freud was both. With lots to spare.

But it is one of the strange trademarks of history that founders are often radical in the extreme and that, after they have outraged the establishment, stunned their envious colleges with their success, and ultimately embarrassed themselves for posterity with some of their virtuoso thinking--the kind that once seemed a product of rapier wit and now looks like it was done with a rusty scalpel--that many come after them who do what one man could never do alone anyway. They engage the ideas, refine the methods, and in Freud's case, found an entire branch of human inquiry.

The very idea that the way the human mind works in tandem with its emotions and influences could be studied, and that the results might not be what we assumed we knew we owe largely to Freud, although, admittedly, some of the best parts of psychoanalysis seem to owe less about peeing on fire and more to common sense. The thought that the kid bullying you at school might be acting out of insecurity and trying instead to make a friend (very ineptly) was an insight I gained from my mom. I don't think she ever read Freud. Still, with so many of his maxims now in the drinking water, you never know if she would have read the situation the same way if we had lived in the 1870s. Now we not only punish criminals, we try to figure out ways we could stop them from committing crimes in the first place. Salesmen try to put potential customers at ease and employers who bother to make employees happy so that they will be productive. All of that can probably be traced back in some way to the idea that the state of a person's pysche made a difference in their interactions with the world, that it was to some extent knowable, and maybe its workings at times less than obvious. Freud shouldn't get complete credit for this, but he did have a talent many of his colleagues lacked, which was getting the most attention for it.

This is a bit more sophisticated than the blame-your-mother-for-everything approach that Freud is saddlebagged with in the popular media these days. But it is that very idea that one's drives and fears could be shaped in the early years that brings me to why I wanted to write about Freud.

Freud popped up in my reading material last week. At least, I'm pretty sure he was responsible. The book was a biography of the composer Felix Mendelssohn. I'm working on a piece of his and my knowledge of him is scant, so I picked up a short biography called The Life of Mendelssohn by Peter Mercer-Taylor. It dates from 2000 and not only does it reflect pretty recent research, the author theorizes that Mendelssohn may have had a problem with his parents.

Mendelssohn only lived to be 38 years old, which is pretty sobering if you are about to turn 35. He outlived Mozart by a year, but unlike Mozart, Mendelssohn wasn't killed by a disease in combination with alcoholism and mercury poisoning (that's the theory on Mozart, anyhow). Basically, Mendelssohn just worked himself to death. He had a pretty weak constitution. His father died young and was subject to the same sorts of attacks that plagued Felix. Evidently that didn't set off alarm bells in the medical establishment in those days.

What also doesn't seem to have occurred to Mendelssohn is what the author theorized about him near the end of the book. The composer basically lived like a whirlwind, taking all manner of conducting engagements all over Europe, traveling constantly, and getting more and more depressed over the fact that he had so little time for composition, which is what he felt was his true calling. Eventually, an exhausted Mendelssohn just wanted to cut back on his engagements so he could rest and recuperate. But, like some people I knew at the conservatory, he kept saying he would do it, but he never actually did. Instead, he kept traveling, kept on conducting, until he killed himself.

Now the reason for this constant overwork is not documented. But Mr. Mercer-Taylor believes it might have something to do with the fact that his father was never all that keen on having Felix become a musician. Born into a rich family, with private tutors in every subject and a wealth of opportunities to be a success in any number of chosen fields, his son chose one which has always been financially precarious, and not particularly respected in many instances. But some years later Abraham was truly proud of his son. It was when he saw him conducting, commanding the respect and even the very movements of a hundred men. Holding together a large force by the strength of his own vision, his own interpretation of the great musical classics, responsible for such a mass of collaborative sound. Abraham was never that wild about any of the music his son wrote. But to conduct? Now that was something to be proud of.

Mendelssohn kept believing that he needed to compose more. But he kept leaving himself little time, and when he did compose, his later works were often hackneyed repetitions of what he had written while younger, probably because of haste and lack of sustained effort. So why deny himself the very thing he claimed to want most?

The author's reason is simple: he wanted his father's respect--even well after his father died in 1835. Consciously or subconsciously (another concept we owe to Freud) he needed to please his father worse than he needed to please himself. It elicited a high price.

If someone had been able to figure this out in the 1840s, and tell Felix Mendelssohn, would it have changed things? It is all speculation. Not that Freud would have been afraid of that. But we live in a more careful time. Still, it is not unreasonable to consider how our basic psychological needs are shaped, and how they can sometimes be a trap from which we can't seem to escape. It is said that knowledge can set you free. It is too late for Mendelssohn. After all the speculation we are left with history as it happened. But for the rest of us, who knows?


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