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The Freudian romance

The "bridal letters" of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays: now published after being kept under lock and key until the early 2000s..

Sigmund Freud and his bride Martha Bernays, 1885. Photo: Sigmund Freud MuseumSigmund Freud and his bride Martha Bernays, 1885. Photo: Sigmund Freud Museum
The correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancee Martha Bernays stretched over 52 months, from June 1882 until their marriage in September 1886. When Freud met the 20-year-old Martha, a friend of his sisters, in the spring of 1882, he had just finished studying medicine. And since external circumstances made it impossible for him to continue his university career, he was now aspiring to become an established neurologist at the Viennese General Hospital. Soon after their engagement, which was initially kept secret, Martha's widowed mother decided to move with her two daughters to Wandsbek near Hamburg. During what was to be almost four years of separation the engaged couple wrote letters to each other on an almost daily basis, a vast bundle of correspondence.

At the time, 1882, no one was happier than he. This is his underlying tone. Freud does not write to convince himself; there is no need of that. From the outset their relationship had been affirmed as leading to the union of marriage, a bond based on rationality. The becoming of the romantic relationship was in and of itself as problematic as it is for every other person. But Freud had solved the problem on two fronts. He was able to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his further scientific and medical education and find himself at the same time. Without having to roam afar. There was a social relationship between the two Jewish families, the Freuds and the Bernays, during his period of emancipation. The couple also took on the role of matchmaker. Anna, one of Freud's five sisters, became engaged a year later to Martha's brother Eli.

Freud was much taken with Martha and accurately gauged her abilities. For her part, everything about him was significant, not only as the persona of the "man" as the girl calls him, but also the position in society that awaited her and the role that she would thereby play. The existence of countless engagement letters written throughout the years before their marriage can be explained by the dictates of convention, which Sigmund Freud generally respected. These were the usual obligations; and good middle class families kept a close watch that they were observed. The aim of love was marriage and this was fulfilled by the birth of children, which required a regular income. Freud was still unable to provide this, which prescribed the duration of their correspondence. However, this period can be interpreted very differently from the perspective of the aspiring mate. Convention acquires its true meaning somewhere else.

Within this context, there is constant reflection as to the prerequisites – particularly in the early stage – which become the main topic of discussion. It determines the rhythm, according to which intellectual drive, the pure fact of intensity, is constantly and repeatedly brought into questioning every consequence of the relationship. Even if a definitive decision had been made, it was still necessary to examine their feelings themselves. Freud had recognised Martha Bernays for the unusual personality that she indeed was, but this did not mean that he did not remonstrate with her from another perspective. As if everything might be different, and she might be another, more mature, more radical person – that she wasn't is something he subsequently regularly regretted. The course of the exchange matches the dynamic of Freudian speculative thought. Mistrust was inherent to the method. However, the rash decision to become engaged, which was put into action on June 17, 1882, was something final. It was in Martha's nature to be unusual, as Freud himself was and recognized himself to be early on. This provided the initial basis for the joint exploration of their relationship.

In Freud's biographies – and not only in the major, almost official work by Ernest Jones (1953/57) – one reads how Freud likely had few personal erotic experiences. It is a major event, when he himself at one point refers to such an experience. All things cultural had priority over the sexual, which is often misunderstood. Against this puritanical backdrop, the love to which he has decided to commit himself at twenty-six has something of a preconceived decision about it, as if he foresaw his later life and epoch-making discoveries. His marriage also belongs within this horizon. Inasmuch one must view these long (and for the period not unusual) years of waiting as the true experience of fulfilled-unfulfilled love, despite the abstinence and all the complaining about the restraints.

A small number of these letters had already been made public. But now we can read the beginning of a great, or even giant undertaking, and encountering Freud in an anything but familiar world, we see him as free and unattached, even if at times unsure, as if he had already surpassed himself early on, before he had even found himself.

Martha was forced to withstand a great deal of dark and hard things (these are her words) from the "tyrant". She honestly tried to meet his expectations, but was often close to desperation. As his companion and thus belonging to him in every sense, Freud required Martha to give up her accustomed daily habits, which was barely practicable. Had the period of engagement turned into a lesson? Was there anything she did not have to learn? She gave in to his wishes as well as she was able. The relationship was a lasting one because Martha had won. Freud had decided on her. They had an agreement, according to which every problem was to be solved in joint deliberation. Thus he also had to restrain himself in his remonstrance, and she had to rescind hers, when she went as far as to express them. To them, love itself was not hard; it was the basis, the solid foundation.

He is the "man" and, for this reason alone, superior. Not only she, but he also must come to terms with this. As generally believed at the time, these were nature's differences. Further adding to this situation is that the man (whether "great" or "small", she tries out various attributes) is in this case inarguably superior, in the truth and distance, with which the dear woman must necessarily view his persona and his self-portrayal. She is required to admire him for this, as she does indeed do. The girl, the beloved, must pay a price for placing him on a pedestal; the difference in sex was the underpinning of his social advantage. One cannot really speak of equality. But here precisely the superior of the two attempts to equal things out. Is this not a privilege of Eros, the surmounter of all obstacles? Freud calls on love, and having summoned love as his release and his salvation, he must remain true. However, he insists on a form of intellectual and physiological equality, which no one else is capable of achieving.
He wishes to be hers alone. Everyone else in his bride's circle stands in his way. And so he justifies his jealousy. The exclusion of others is viewed by the beloved as a strange, necessary demand. He is her chosen one. For Freud the equality of the sexes is indebted to the unique quality of a match based on unlimited mutual good will. His constant self-analysis is rooted in a quest for knowledge, which despite everything must still be shared by both, so he postulates. His superior position leads, in the act of subjugation, to a counter tendency, which Freud tries regularly to rely on. He is able to do this, because both impulses are equally part of life and the perception thereof.

Martha Bernays writes in what she understands to be an informal style. She would really prefer to let herself go, but to do justice to the expectations of her counterpart, she restrains herself. She sometimes asks herself how it can be that love, and in her position that means her future as the mother of an ensuing family, can demand such intensity of free will and social compulsion. But things go from bad to worse when the other, her beloved, characterizes her personal position, that is, also that of her family home, whereupon she, who has shown herself fit for this unique love, is forced to defend herself once again. Sometimes she refused to do so, out of weakness and inability, but also out of sullen resistance. Why should this declaration of mutual feeling force her beneath this yoke? Freud's duality is mirrored in her own contrary reactions. He demands this of her, and then regrets having demanded it. He loves her in part for what she is and in part for what she is not and, in his opinion, should be.

He is concerned about the constitution of her self. He understands her as a consequence of "tenderness" (a word that is endlessly repeated), which he feels for her. As much as he would admire it, the transformation of her being proves to be an obligatory counter-offering to his own feelings, almost requiring a recreation of her persona. Were not psychology able to tap this demiurgic power. The true reality of the simplicity of her person, to which he is joined and bound, cannot be reconciled with this demand. There is a dual persona at work on the part of Freud. This contradiction ultimately characterizes the lovers' relationship. An ideal and exaggerated expectations oscillate with the inevitable acceptance of the given reality. One of the two individuals is no less lucid than the other; but one judges, while the other forgives and offers recognition.

The dear girl defends herself and resists, because she knows that the bond is strong and that her beloved now and again goes too far. Martha clearly understands that she must subjugate herself to him on the whole, but not in every instance of his will. This clear understanding dictates her own back and forth, which in their closeness and separation is nothing more than a response to Freud's methodological and also wonderful contradictions. This lends her a counter-superiority of her own.

Martha Bernays lived in a law-abiding family. The Jewish religion is mentioned in the letters, although it is not a major topic of discussion. Martha does not write on the Sabbath. For Freud, the Jewish tradition was outdated in regard to their love. "On this point, he is unamenable," writes Freud about her brother, "we recently read together the famous passage in Isaiah, in which the prophet puts in the mouth of his god the most outright contempt of any purely formal observances. If he only knew, what a heroine Martha shall become!" Their union of marriage was another solemn promise, which according to Freud had brought her into the realm of the spirit. This is no avowal of assimilation and by no means one of proselytism, as with her uncle Michael. For Freud, the Jewish faith had opened up a positive means an objective investigation of reality. Judaism did not need to dissociate itself from Christianity.

The scholar Jacob Bernays, another uncle of Martha's, had died just a year before the two met. He had never married. Today, his homosexual orientation is known; the recently published letters that he wrote to the poet Paul Heyse are eloquent testimony to this. At the same time, he remained a law abiding Jew and read the Talmud every day. His brother Michael Bernays, arguably the most famous scholar of German literature at the time and an expert on the youth of Goethe, had distanced himself from Judaism due to his career and influence. The union was confronted with both standpoints. Martha's parents lived in the tradition of Jacob, the classical philologist, and his father Isaac, an enlightened rabbi. Freud was no less a Jew than his bride, even if he had dissociated himself from the religion. He was no less subjected to anti-Semitism (in fact perhaps even more) than pious Jews. He viewed his Jewishness as an advantage in the fields of the humanities and sciences; it allowed him to overcome false assumptions.

For a long time the letters were kept under lock and key by the executors of Freud's estate. They did not seem to belong to the psychoanalyist’s body of work. The current publication puts these reservations in perspective. A year before she died (in 1982) Anna Freud released the letters for publication at beginning of the third millennium. The extraordinarily painstaking work of the profoundly knowledgeable Freud expert Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, to whom we owe this edition, could finally begin at this time after more than a half century; she was able to enlist the help of two equally thorough researchers, Gerhard Fichtner and Albrecht Hirschmüller. No less important is the fact that Ernst, Freud's youngest son and an architect by profession, voiced a different opinion within the family council from early on. Fifty years ago he oversaw the publication of a volume of Freud's letters ("Briefe 1873-1939"), in which a good deal of space was dedicated to the correspondence with Martha, and he also brought a selection of these letters to the attention of a broader public ("Sigmund Freud, Brautbriefe" Fischer-Bücherei 1968). In the introduction he adds: "Freud wrote some 1,500 letters to his bride, which could hardly be more illumination in terms of his autobiography." But this comment was still too restrictive. However, it does refer to the sixty or more years during which the entire collection remained unpublished.

Perhaps even today there is still no lack of psychoanalysts who take a negative stance on the publication of the letters. The material seems to lie beyond the psychoanalytical domain—and for this very reason it sheds new light on it. As an open minded executor, Ernst Freud felt obligated to explain the extended period of engagement to the readers: "We ultimately owe the existence of the 'bridal letters' to the energetic intervention of Martha's mother. (...) Despite all the resistance of the engaged couple, she insisted on moving her family back to Wandsbek, in order to wait there for the groom to achieve the academic status of the Habilitation and become economically independent."

Ernest Jones had free access to all the letters and made ample use of them in his biography. He wrote that beyond any documentary purpose the correspondence could be seen as a valuable contribution on the topic of love to the literature of all times and all worlds. At the same time, he ascertained that it all belonged to Freud and thus also to psychoanalysis, the beginnings of which he was writing about. At the time it was not possible to consider publishing the letters. And yet it was known that Freud had destroyed his early manuscripts, with the exception of these letters, which the couple saved. After his death Martha considered destroying them but allowed her daughter to talk her out of it. Now it is evident that the letters only reveal what they really contain and mean as a whole, in sequence, with all their repetitions and reprises—a disclosure coming not from the subject of love but from the two partners, who emerge as individuals within a uniquely taut dialogue. The edition is exemplary in every regard, particularly in terms of the comments and supplementary material.

A confidential, intimate situation, repeated in endless variation apparently did not meet the reputation of the author, the founder of dream interpretation; one sought to avoid destroying his powerful stature and influence, especially given that this was no longer the preliminary period of the 1890s. Now the author of the letters was already Sigmund Freud. However, the correspondence must be read from a perspective different from the psychoanalysis that was to emerge. The love letters originated within the turbulence of the post-Victorian era. For us, one hundred and thirty years later, they serve as imposing testimony to a complex society organised by strict rules, which opened itself and yet remained closed.

This is the first volume of an intended five. The reader is finally admitted and is quickly carried away as if reading a novel. The relationship of  "Sigi" to "Marthachen" and that of hers to him have their own dramatic and dramatising story. The epistolary novel has existed since Rousseau's "Julie ou la nouvelle Heloise" of 1761. The "bridal letters" are to a certain extent a realistic inversion thereof. They consist of lighter and darker scenarios revolving around everyday life. They follow a longing for immediate reality, which in turn complies with a many-faceted context and a unique spiritual unity.

Certainly, the letters are written in close succession, once the correspondence has started. It remains the same story as the one initiated by the engagement at the very beginning. This story created a separate space for emotional and intellectual exchange, where its real dynamic could unfold – the constant "for" and repeated "against".  Their freely chosen bond was "eternal" and thus irrefutable and nevertheless still inseparably linked with constant challenge. Oriented towards the future, instead of eternity, the relationship is overtaken by the psychological analysis of the events.

This discussion between playmates evinces a method on both sides; this is good Freud, from our contemporary perspective. In the early letters we encounter him as someone we do not know, and simultaneously as a different Freud, who is perhaps more easily grasped as searching for, finding, and planning himself, questioning himself as his partner and persisting in his questions. Reading the letters acquaints us with the strength of his character, his mastering of difficult situations, people, and psychoanalysis. Was it not always equally a matter of trust and mistrust, even in the sphere of intimacy?

Over the course of this sometimes dramatic story "trust" emerges as a central motif; something is established that enables the union and solidarity. The latter calls for a thorough analysis of the surrounding circumstances, also those of the family. Here, Henrik Ibsen could have served as inspiration, for example in the Bernays house for defiant conflicts with the mother (the father was deceased) and the brother, the male family member, all in cramped quarters and with its respective dose of neuroses.

Freud describes such things like the episodes of a novel, and he writes as if he were merely the author and not the central character. One could also easily descript this as the making of an epic. A conquest was made, lines were drawn. Then problems are raised: battle may commence.

The writer puts himself to the test, as in a literary work. In this correspondence, his representations are brilliantly elaborated in spurts. Freud knows how to tell stories and is a match for every situation in terms of style and composition. He is concerned with the single truth and thus with its respective anomalities and nuances; this requires the greatest possible clarity of expression. The close connection between his linguistic capacities and his natural and emerging talent in the still to be developed science of psychology is evident here.

Freud often writes the letters from his worktable at the laboratory, thereby interrupting his zoological or medical experiments. An ideal correlation develops between the precision of scientific discourse focused on an object of study and his artistic talent apart from his professional work. Sigmund Freud also writes the letters for himself. The bold, free, penetrating eye of the scientist is joined with his broad knowledge of cultural tradition, if not multiple traditions as the basis for real assimilation. What we have before us is a moving, highly revealing document, which is also magnificent prose.


Sigmund Freud , Martha Bernays: "Sei mein, wie ich mir's denke. Die Brautbriefe". Unabridged edition in five volumes, vol. 1. Edited by Gerhard Fichtner, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis and Albrecht Hirschmüller. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2011. 625 pages, 48 euro.

The reviewer Jean Bollack is a philologist and philospher. Among his numerous works are a three-volume edition of the works of Empedokles (1965-69) and "Paul Celan. Poetik der Fremdheit" (2000). He is also the author of the biography "Jacob Bernays: un homme entre deux mondes" (1998), which was published in German in 2009.

The article was originally published on 9 April 2011 in the
Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Translation: ls

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