The imposing townhouse at Berggasse 19, within spitting distance of both the canal and the Ring, is equally inspiring and worrying.
Inspiring because former occupant Sigmund Freud shaped the public imagination of the 20th century as few others have. He gave us an entire vocabulary for talking about our interior lives. For some, his name is synonymous with Vienna. It’s worrying because unlike, say, the Monument Against War and Fascism outside the Albertina or the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, it is one of the city’s more subtle historical scars. Why ‘historically haunting’ you ask? Something there is that doesn’t quite ring true: Ironically, we can submit the Freud Museum to Freudian analysis. Thus dragging it kicking and screaming into the practice room; even sans couch.
- The conspicuous absence of that couch
This isn’t the only museum in Europe dedicated to Freud. There is, of course, the site of his residence-in-exile in Hampstead, London. At least the Vienna museum boasts some of his personal possessions and his collection of antiques. However, the famous couch and the original furnishings were taken into exile. One of Freud’s many key insights was that things could be conspicuous by their absence. Traumatic experiences often involve fixing and stylizing our memory, redefined in the form of fantasy. The absence of the couch is a psychic scar marking the trauma of exile.
- A house haunted by itself
Freud’s extraordinary later work dealt with how human civilization holds the individual hostage to almost impossible standards of conformity. It represses our deepest, most violent, instincts. This creates a crushing burden of guilt, leading to unhappiness. The Freud Museum makes that burden of guilt palpably real. Where the man and his theories once took society’s pulse, questioning its need for obedience, a museum now displays his superficial worldly possessions and snapshots of bourgeois domesticity. The museum itself is therefore a pathological defense mechanism for a civilization still in shock after its brief descent into barbarism.
- The world is still hostile to Freud’s work
The Vienna Freud Museum boasts the largest psychoanalytic research library in Europe, as well as the research institute of the Sigmund Freud Foundation. Furthermore, Vienna is the home of the Sigmund Freud University – one of the few places one can study Psychotherapy Science as an academic degree. All this presents a double bind: psychoanalysis has been institutionalized, but the world remains suspicious. Psychoanalysis was regarded as an avant-garde, even dangerous, discipline, scornfully dismissed by polite society, only entering the public mind when Freud’s exiled acolytes found an eager public in post-war America. Nowadays, hostility towards Freud has evolved from flat-out rejection into a consensus that he was ‘wrong’, his work now unfashionable among mainstream psychology.
- Freudian kitsch: exit through the gift shop
According to Iris Murdoch’s novel The Sea, The Sea, one of Freud’s favorite jokes went like this: ‘The King meets his double and says “Did your mother work at the palace?”; the double replies “No, but my father did.” It is very easy for us to go from utilizing Freud’s analysis of the social role of jokes to putting the joke on him. This is the risk the museum’s gift shop faces. Flogging overpriced Freudian kitsch is probably necessary for the museum’s economic survival, but cheap titillation (incest jokes, playing on the supposed wackiness of Freud’s theories) is a perfect example of the very embarrassed coping mechanism he so astutely discerned. Your overeager laughter echoes through the very rooms in which these ideas were conceived.