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The Freud Museum, London

Updated: Dec 5, 2018

Sigmund Freud's famous couch

When the psychiatrist Sigmund Freud left Austria in 1938 he set up his family home and practice in Maresfield Gardens, near Finchley Road. His chosen haven from Nazi persecution is now a museum which includes details of his family history, letters, books and the famous study, complete with couch. At the time of writing there is also an exhibition concerning a meeting between surrealist painter Salvadore Dali and Freud. Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ painting and accompanying poem provide a key feature of the exhibition, along with details which suggest that Freud was frustrated by Dali’s work in which he bemoaned the psychoanalytic interpretation had been included in the work.

The image above shows Freud’s study and includes his famous couch. It was on this couch that his patients, who visited for psychoanalysis, were asked to lie as Freud began his length, detailed, talk-based treatment. The study is also noticeable for the many artefacts (statues, artwork and figurines) from around the world. Freud took great interest in different cultures and communities, including those from ancient civilisations. Whilst often being criticised for ideas that were not scientifically falsifiable it is still important to acknowledge that Freud had a grand narrative which was based on painstaking research and study. He had found truth as he believed it: that is, he believed in truth.

Freud’s writings and ideas cover a wide range of human behaviours, but the core of his thinking is that human behaviour is motivated by the ‘unconscious’, an extensive, latent part of the mind. It is both latent and influential, dominant yet intangible, primitive but integrated into man, the social animal. Lurking in the unconscious is the primitive id, the pleasure principle. The id’s wishes are contrasted by the superego, the moral conscience, which instigates feelings of guilt and fear of punishment. Somehow human beings must negotiate their place in the world; to this end, a strong part of the mind is required, which Freud called the ego.

The ego mediates the id and the superego by appeasing these two forces at once. If the id seeks incestuous desire, the superego will experience guilt and fear of humiliation: a strong ego prepares the individual for marriage, the legal avenue for familial relationships. The id seeks aggressive catharsis through violence, whilst the superego is aware of the effect it may have on others and the punitive outcomes: a strong ego finds this catharsis in, for example, a military career, a contact sport or perhaps a game of ‘Fortnite’.

Another way in which the id may represent its primitive desire is through artistic expression. Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ depicts individuals in the background, thought to be potential suitors, that Narcissus has spurned. In the foreground he kneels by the water, having seen his reflection; along side him, a stone statue shows Narcissus’ change using a hand holding an egg from which a flower begins to grow. Perhaps Narcissus’ fascination with his own reflection, having spurned other lovers, reveals something of his sexuality. The reflection seems to show something of Narcissus unconscious.

The Freud Museum is a fine venue for a school trip, especially for those colleagues who teach Psychology, English Literature or History of Art (the main disciplines that I suspect are most relevant to Freud’s ideas). Nearby, there are plenty of cinemas and art galleries to put Freud’s ideas to work. More of that to follow in a latter post.

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