Review of Paul Schimmel's "Sigmund Freud's Discovery of Psychoanalysis: Conquistador and Thinker"

It is 100 years since the first book on psychoanalysis in English was published. So, when your subject has libraries overflowing with books staying fresh is challenging. In Sigmund Freud’s Discovery of Psychoanalysis: Conquistador and Thinker, Paul Schimmel has succeeded in this. He succeeds because he finds a way into Freud that interests him and which he makes interesting for the reader. On the opening page he declares his intent: “This study attempts to explore links between Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis and his lifelong emotional journey, in particular his struggle towards integration within himself; that is integration between different parts of his mind. In Freud’s thinking the parts of his mind most in opposition, and which call loudest attention to themselves, he characterised as ‘conquistador’ on the one hand, and the ‘thinker’ and ‘man of science’ on the other.”

Schimmel selects portions of Freud’s life and work to peruse and examine. His chapter headings include: Freud’s hypnotic trance; through suggestion to free association; Freud’s brain and Freud’s mind; the dream of Irma’s injection; seduction or self-analysis; from melancholia to mourning. He draws attention to the fact that instead of the five years normally taken to complete medical training, Freud spent eight, giving himself a broad education in the humanities. But he was also flexing his mental muscles, developing a particular type of mind. As Freud pushed up against established ways of thinking, there emerged in him ‘the presence of a new kind of “thinker”, one capable of a creative imaginative leap, while at the same time maintaining conceptual coherence.’

Freud learned not be afraid of failure. This is an essential characteristic of anyone who invents. Schimmel quotes from Freud’s letter to his (future) wife Martha: ‘failure makes one inventive, creates a free flow of associations, brings idea after idea, whereas once success is there a certain narrow-mindedness or thick-headedness sets in so that one always keeps coming back to what has been already established and can make no new combinations.’

Freud was an ambitious man intent on making his mark in the world. The emergence of his ambition and its search for a means of expression and realisation is presented. Two fundamental things became clear to Freud. The first: if he was to make his mark new ideas were not enough. As a physician he had to invent a method. Schimmel describes well Freud’s search for a method, his experimenting with hypnosis, his laying on of hands, and his establishment of the setting and free association.

The second thing Freud understood was this: when you meet another human being who is in emotional pain, who asks for your help, there’s no use pontificating; there’s nothing lasting to be gained by dispensing ideas and instructions. Your capacity to identify with the other, your compassion, draws you to them. If you have not attended to your own pain, if you don’t know your own mind, you cannot help them. Schimmel beautifully describes Freud wrestling with both of these issues. This task is not only necessary to get you started; it is a lifelong requirement.  

That Schimmel’s text is book-ended by two poems, and prominence given to the lines from W.B. Yeats, ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence,’ should alert the reader as to how to approach this book. Recognising and using the conquistador within yourself will be a valuable asset as you turn the pages of what is a relatively short book.

Schimmel’s examination, where it occurs is thorough; while perusing he can allow himself to move like the long-legged fly, or like a Sancho enjoying Don Freud’s tilting at windmills, one of the most notable the use of cocaine.  Whatever the means employed, the intention to enable the reader to get into the workings of the mind of the man who was not only the first psychoanalyst, but one of the towering figures of the 20th century is successful.

History is defined in many ways by many people. In 1906 William Osler said, “History is simply the biography of the mind of man”. The mind of man was deepened and we were given new ways to explore it by Freud. Keeping alive the spirit of open enquiry into the mind of man enriches all our lives. Paul Schimmel’s book makes a valuable contribution towards that ongoing study and I recommend this enjoyable and readable book.

January 2014