“My first audience.” Freud and the genesis of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (2021)

“An audience that had greeted, debated, and discussed Freud’s theoretical construction of psychoanalytic psychology, often before he published the results”

by Federico Soldani – 21st Dec 2021

On the 7th and 14th of December 1897, Sigmund Freud delivered his first two lectures to the B’nai B’rith in Vienna entitled ‘Traumdeutung’ (‘Interpretation of Dreams’). Two years later, in 1899, Freud published what became one of the most important books of the twentieth century, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’.

As Freud remarked, “The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.” The book frontispiece famously reported Virgil’s quote from the Aeneid (SE 5: 608): “Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo” (“If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions” – or more colloquially, “I will raise Hell,” as reported for instance in Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics, opened with a reference to this very quote as used by Freud).

As reported in a journal of the B’nai B’rith in February of 1898 (emphasis added in the following quotes as well): “Two lectures by Brother Dozent Dr. Freud about the interpretation of dreams. The lecturer, beginning with the familiar physiological causes of dreams, discussed the psychology of dream life and established the principles of a self-contained theory. In the conclusion of his ingenious interpretation, he characterized the great significance of his scientific theory; he said: Whoever is occupied with the dreams of man and understands their true meaning peers into the secrets of the human soul and into a crater imbedded within the earth’s dark interior.”

These two were the first of twenty one lectures delivered to the B’nai B’rith from 1897, the year he joined the society, to 1917.

Other interesting lectures among these included one about “Hammurabi” in 1904, around the time a team of French archaeologists uncovered a large stone in the acropolis of Susa containing inscriptions of a codex dictated in the eighteen century B.C. by a “sun god” to the Babylonian King Hammurabi. This was the first collection of laws known at the time to antedate the Bible. Parallels were noted with the book of Exodus. Four centuries later than the Hammurabi’s codex, Moses gave his code of laws. Freud later touched upon similar themes in his last book ‘Moses and Monotheism’ when he was, as scholars noted, “writing from his death-bed.”

Another lecture on the 19th of March 1907 was on “Psychology in the Service of the Administration of Justice”, which was about a topic he already discussed in front of an audience of young lawyers about using psychoanalysis to determine whether statements made in court were true and on ascertaining the innocence or guilt of someone who is accused in court.

As discussed by Dennis B. Klein in his ‘The Jewish Origins of the Psychoanalytic Movement’ (Preager, New York 1981; The University of Chicago Press, 1985), “Freud joined the Viennese lodge of the International Order of the B’nai B’rith on September 29, 1897. As he expressed to the B’nai B’rith members years later, his hostile professional reception and general sense of isolation “aroused in me the longing for a circle of excellent men with high ideals who would accept me in friendship despite my temerity. Your lodge was described to me as a place where I could find such men.” In both of his extant letters to the lodge, called Wien (Vienna), Freud stressed the need for relieving the burden of ostracism. “I felt as though outlawed, shunned by all,” he wrote in 1926. Nine years later, he added, “I soon became one of you, enjoyed your sympathy, and almost never neglected to go to the place, surrounded by extreme hostility, where I was certain to find friends.” Freud longed not just for friends, but by joining the B’nai B’rith, for Jewish friends. His reference to the “extreme hostility” suggests one reason for this: He had sought refuge specifically from anti-Semitic ostracism.”

“The significance of the B’nai B’rith for Freud” – Klein continued – “went beyond consolation. Had he merely been a participating member, the society might have been nothing more to him than a retreat from social and professional hostility – a circle of friends. But, as in the Karlsbad dream and in his association with Fliess, his association with Jews in the society became an integral part of the search for his destination, the “new psychology” of psychoanalysis. Only a month after his November letter of complaint to Fliess, Freud presented the first of two lectures to the B’nai B’rith, on the results of his work on dream interpretation. The occasion marked one of his earlier efforts at communicating his burgeoning views on dreams. Only Fliess and another Jewish society (Jüdische akademische Lesehalle) which he had addressed once in 1896 and again the following year, had heard his views on the subject before. The response of the B’nai B’rith and Freud reaction to its reception, launched a new, triangular relationship among the Jewish society, Freud, and psychoanalysis. One member acclaimed the “principles of self-contained theory” presented by Freud and the “ingenious [geistvollen] interpretation.” Another vividly recalled the impact Freud made on the brotherhood. “From beginning to end, everyone present listened with rapt attention to Freud’s words. He made the results of his recent studies clear to us not only in the cogency of his ideas but in his overall lucidity.” Still another commended his “masterful art of delivery,” remarking that his talk on dreams before the brotherhood made for “one of the most enjoyable evenings. The audience expressed their gratitude and approval with unrestrained applause.”

“Freud was jubilant about the lecture’s enthusiastic reception, and proclaimed, “I shall continue it next Tuesday.” Indeed, he continued to address the Jewish society many times after presenting the material on dreams. At the time he published the article on forgetfulness, Freud lectured to the B’nai B’rith on the same subject. Again he succeeded in provoking his attentive audience, which in turn inspired subsequent lectures given to the society. The following year (1900) he delivered two papers, “The Psychic Life of the Child” and “Chance and Superstition.” Here was an audience that had greeted, debated, and discussed Freud’s theoretical construction of psychoanalytic psychology, often before he published the results. Having abandoned the academic circles for the time being, Freud filled, through the B’nai B’rith, the professional as well as the social vacuum in his life. The Jewish society became an active intellectual forum for his metapsychological views during the productive five-year period 1897-1902, and, in this respect, was a precursor of the movement of psychoanalysis (Freud convened the first study session in October 1902). As Freud later said to the brotherhood, “At a time when no one in Europe would listen to me and I had no pupils in Vienna, you offered me your sympathetic attention. You were my first audience.”

Klein concluded in his 1981 book that “By regarding the brotherhood as his only audience for his scientific investigations prior to the organization of his own study group, the society assumes an additional significance as a complement to the theory and the movement of psychoanalysis.”

The relationship between psychoanalysis and mysticism is further explored in works such as David Bakan‘s “Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition” (D Van Nostrand, Princeton 1958).


[In the photo at the top, Sigmund Freud in 1891]

Cite this article as: Federico Soldani, "“My first audience.” Freud and the genesis of ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (2021)," in PsyPolitics, December 21, 2021, https://psypolitics.org/2021/12/21/my-first-audience-freud-and-the-genesis-of-the-interpretation-of-dreams-2021/.

Last Updated on December 24, 2021 by Federico Soldani

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