It has been a good year for books about the final years of great thinkers. I've already reviewed and recommended Emily Wilson's excellent The Death of Socrates (you can read my review here). Mark Edmundson's book about Freud's last few years, The Death of Sigmund Freud, is very different in approach, but equally absorbing.
For quite large parts this is a double biography, the subjects being Hitler and Freud. Hitler was the immediate cause of Freud's reluctant decamping from Vienna to Hampstead as an old and very ill man (he was dying of cancer of the mouth, though that didn't stop him forcing what was left of his jaw open to insert a cigar whenever he could). Edmundson demonstrates how Freud's ideas explain the German and particularly the Austrian sympathy for Hitler's ideas in the late 1930s. Freud recognised that 'even the most apparently civilized people nurse fantasies of violence, rape and plunder', and Edmundson summarises themes from Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) in which Freud presciently explains the particular allure of the powerful and uncompromising leader.
Emondson, a literature professor, has a light touch. This book is fascinating, well-plotted, and includes superb summaries of key works by Freud, neatly contextualised. There are also several well-described encounters, such as Salvador Dali's visit where the Surrealist is surprised to be put down with Freud's:
'In classic paintings I look for the subconscious - in surrealist painting for the conscious.'
a neat epigram, this, which pinpoints a problem at the heart of Freudian-influenced surrealism namely that deliberately attempting to represent ideas from the unconscious is self-defeating.
My only reservation about the book is its ending: the slightly melodramatic treatment of Freud's final hours and words.
Freud emerges here as a dog-loving, cigar-chewing, stubborn, witty genius, a kind of sage, as much a philosopher as a psychologist in his final years,and a patriarch who wanted to undermine all patriarchy. His best line was perhaps the bravest that he wrote. Before being allowed to board the train leaving Vienna the Gestapo insisted that he sign a document that he had been well treated by the Nazis and that he had no ground for complaint. He signed this, adding the brilliantly ironic comment (a comment that on a bad day, read by a less gullible officer, could have seen him put on a train to Auschwitz rather than freedom):
'I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.'
Two more reviews of this book: