Ilse Grubrich-Simitis

Seeds of core psychoanalytic concepts

On the courtship letters of Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays

Contribution to the Opening Ceremony of the 47th Congress

of the International Psychoanalytical Association

‘Exploring Core Concepts: Sexuality, Dreams and The Unconscious’

3 – 6 August 2011 Mexico City

Translated by Philip Slotkin MA Cantab. MITI


© Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Königstein (Ts.) 2011

Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Königstein (Ts.) 2011

Permission by Sigmund Freud Copyrights / Paterson Marsh Ltd, London,

to reproduce the illustrations is gratefully acknowledged.


Mr President,


Ladies and Gentlemen

There is such a thing as serendipity. And one such lucky chance is the coincidence of the centenary celebrations for the International Psychoanalytical Association with the publication, inthe original German, of Volume 1 of the letters exchanged between Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays during their engagement from 1882 to 1886.1 The edition of this correspondencewill eventually comprise five volumes, each bearing a quotation from one of the letters contained within it as its title. These titles, translated, are as follows: Volume 1 Be mine as in mymind’s eye; Volume 2 Our story, a “serial novel”; Volume 3 Waiting in serenity and devotion, waiting in struggle and excitement; Volume 4 Traces of our complicated existence; andVolume 5 Having you the way you are. These courtship letters – the Brautbriefe – are the most comprehensive document we possess of the prehistory of psychoanalysis, predating as they do even the letters to Wilhelm Fliess. The engaged couple were almost always apart during those years: Martha, twenty years old when the correspondence began, lived with her mother and her sister Minna in Wandsbek, near Hamburg, while Sigmund, initially in his twenty-sixth year, resided in Vienna and, towards the end of this period, was studying in Paris. Owing to unfavourable external circumstances, he had by then already had to abandon his hopes of a university career. For this reason, in preparation for setting up in private practice as a neuropsychiatrist he was working as an aspirant at Vienna’s General Hospital and at Jean-Martin Charcot’s Salpêtrière in Paris.

The engaged couple, about 1882


Each wrote to the other more or less daily, and on occasion even several times a day, of course by hand. Of the more than 1500 surviving documents, now preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington, only 93 have so far been published. The selection made by Freud’s youngest son Ernst in 1960 from his father’s enormous epistolary oeuvre for an initialanthology2 is, in one respect, perfectly successful: it is a gripping collection of gems from the world literature of letters each of which can be savoured individually. Yet it is necessarilylimited in what it can tell us about the wider universe contained in that bundle of letters from the couple’s courtship. For instance, the reader learns virtually nothing about the drama of anat first highly conflicted love story punctuated by repeated crises of jealousy and mistrust, and hardly anything about this reciprocal éducation sentimentale, which was marked by bothquarrels and affection but eventually crowned with success. Moreover, the dangers from within facing a Freud barely out of his adolescence, as well as the astonishing discernment andindependence of an even younger Martha Bernays, remain substantially concealed. In particular, however, the fact that vast stretches of this correspondence actually amount to an intellectual dialogue in letters was until now completely unknown. In his beloved, Freud was seeking, and found, what he called “a collaborator in the most serious of things”,3 by which he meant his scientific work. He involved Martha in his thinking and sought her critical opinion. In a word, the unabridged edition of this most comprehensive, most direct, most intimate and most unprotected of all Freud’s correspondences, which includes the hitherto unpublished letters of Martha Bernays, is something fundamentally new. I am both honoured and delighted to have the opportunity in this opening ceremony of the 47th Congress of the IPA to offer you some initial insights into this vast textual edifice, which I am editing together with the renowned historians of medicine Gerhard Fichtner and Albrecht Hirschmüller. Charles Hanly suggested that, to mark the centenary of the IPA, whose mandate, after all,is the preservation and further development of the Freudian heritage, we psychoanalysts should recall that heritage in gratitude and reflect anew on the core concepts of psychoanalysis. 4 Accordingly, the theme of our Congress is ‘Exploring Core Concepts: Sexuality, Dreams and The Unconscious’. I shall attempt to demonstrate to you the presence of seeds – that is, some of the earliest traces, or prefigurations – of these three core concepts in the Brautbriefe.

Sigmund Freud’s first letter of 15th June 1882, first page



But let me begin with a word about the pictures you will be seeing at the same time. They include a few photographs that will be familiar to you. Their main purpose, however, is to offer you a graphic visual impression of the original letters and indeed of the two correspondents’ handwriting while you listen.


Let us first of all consider which Freud, in terms of his development as a scientist, we encounter in the courtship letters. They were written a good ten years before the Studies on Hysteria5 and some fifteen years before The Interpretation of Dreams.6 At that time Freud is undeniably still a neuroscientist, a brain researcher. The particular objects of his study are the microscopic anatomy of the nervous system, neurology and neuropathology. Again and again he reports to his fiancée on experiments and his work in the laboratory. He tests measuring instruments, such as the dynamometer for determining muscular strength, and conducts experiments both on himself and on animals such as frogs, rabbits and cats. As an aspirant at Vienna General Hospital’s Psychiatric Clinic he contemplates “subjecting the brain of the newborn to a complete investigation”. 7


Accordingly, his writings in this period of just over four years include further neurohistological contributions, the cocaine papers and his first clinical text, on a case of cerebral haemorrhage in scurvy8. At the same time, however, on 22 September 1883 – long before he fell under the influence of Jean-Martin Charcot in Paris – he confided to his beloved: “I am now studying the innermost being of man; if you want to turn that into a novel to earn a bit of extra money, you are welcome to do so; I’ll supply you with the material in return for a free copy.”

At any rate, from the beginning these letters indicate, not least in the engaged

couple’s dialogue about their joint reading of certain works of literature which display an intuitive grasp of psychology, that in Freud the neuroscientist the sympathetic strings of the psychologist and hermeneuticist could already be made out as a background vibration. Even if Freud did not renounce the as yet insufficiently advanced neurosciences in favour of the new focus of his research interests, “the innermost being of man”, until after the conclusion of the Brautbriefe, in order step by step to develop his own science of psychoanalysis, seeds of psychoanalytic thinking – seeds of some core psychoanalytic concepts – can already be discerned in this unique correspondence.

Let us now turn to the first of the three core concepts: sexuality. The word itself does not occur in the courtship letters. That is not surprising, as it was not yet part of the vernacular at the time. However, the correspondence between the lovers is extremely discreet with regard to the entire sexual field. It was obviously, it seems, at most their frequent health concerns that would trigger references to each other’s bodies – apart from the face, hands and figure as a whole. Yet it is not only between the lines, but also quite explicitly, that the letters tell of ardent excitement, passionate embraces and kisses, mainly when the lovers looked back on the happiness experienced during one of Freud’s brief, or longer, visits to Wandsbek.


The erotic and sexual tension was felt, affirmed and communicated by both. At any rate, sexualitydoes not seem to have been among the conflicts that imposed a heavy burden on the relationship with virtually cyclic regularity. Of course, their separation banished desire to the realm of fantasy and dreams for long periods at a time. For instance, while climbing one of the towers of Notre-Dame during his stay in Paris in December 1885, Freud fantasized: “I could have given you a kiss on every step if you had been with me, and you would have reached the top in a wild and breathless state! So you will not be spared the 2000 kisses, my lady-love.”9 Martha, for her part, had told of a dream in March 1885: “I was kissing you, kissing you like mad, and your hair was so soaked through with oil that it was running down your forehead, but that hardly bothered me at all even though I can’t stand the smell of oil; I just went on kissing and kissing.”10


Rather than sexuality, the Brautbriefe contain seeds of the related core concept of the drive. As early as on 7 August 1883 Freud refers descriptively to the “self-preservative drive”. Then, a good twenty days later, in connection with his impressions of a visit to the opera to see Carmen, he is reflecting on the renunciation of the drives and on sublimation – not yet, of course, in those terms – when he writes: “I’ve just remembered what I was thinking at the performance of Carmen: the rabble sows its wild oats, and we go without. We go without to preserve our integrity; we save on our health, our capacity for enjoyment, our excitements; we keep ourselves for something and not even we know what it is – and this constant habit of suppressing natural drives gives us the character of refinement.”11


At about the same time, on 26 July 1883, Freud describes to his fiancée another work of art, Gustave Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint-Antoine, which had been published nine years before and which he found quite gripping: “Just imagine, the whole thing is so amazing: St Anthony, a great penitent in the Christian third century, the founder of monasticism, stands fasting outside his hut in the Egyptian desert.” Freud goes on to recount how the Saint atlength begins to hallucinate and how the Devil appears to him in the shape of a former pupil of his, leading him through cult after cult and causing alien gods to appear before him, until he – St Anthony – is finally overcome with doubt about Christianity. In the midst of his depiction of this “witches’ sabbath of religious history”, as Freud calls Flaubert’s text, we find a formulation that in effect foreshadows the second psychoanalytic drive dualism: “death and pleasure, the great opposites and drives of life”.


Here is a further indication of the important contribution of belles-lettres to the context in which psychoanalysis came into being. It was Martha Bernays who alluded, in her letter of 2 November 1882 to her beloved, to the lines from a poem by Friedrich Schiller that as it were outline the first psychoanalytic drive dualism. Mother Nature, Schiller writes, is driven by hunger and by love (Einstweilen [...] / Erhält sie das Getriebe / Durch Hunger und durch Liebe). These lines manifestly made a profound impression on Freud at this time, for he repeatedly presented variations on them in his psychoanalytic oeuvre, in relation to the drives, to their classification and to drive theory. These references extend from his early paper on ‘Screen memories’, dating from 1899, in which he refers to the “influence of the two most powerful motive forces – hunger and love”,12 to Civilization and Its Discontents, where, reviewing in 1929 the evolution of his drive theory, he writes: “In what was at first my utter perplexity, I took as my starting-point a saying of the poet-philosopher, Schiller, that ‘hunger and love are what moves the world’”.13 So it is surely to Martha that he in fact owed the awareness of these lines, with their foreshadowing of drives and their dualistic nature – hunger and love or, indirectly, self-preservation and sexuality, the self-preservative drives and the sexual drive.

Unlike sexuality, the word dream occurs quite frequently in the courtship letters. Once again, it is Martha Bernays who pays attention to dreams from her very first letters. For instance, she writes on 24 June 1882: “Last night I dreamt that I received two letters from you together,” adding in an allusion to the function of dreams as wish fulfilments that an older friend “used to call such things ‘day-dreams’ [in English in the original]” because as a child she, Martha, had usually reported her wishes in the form of dreams. In an even more direct description of the function of dreams as wish fulfilments, we read in her letter of 26 June 1884: “In my dreams I already receive you every night – isn’t that strange? – and yet in the last few days I was convinced that you wouldn’t come.”

It is not only dreams but also their interpretation that are addressed in the engaged couple’s letters. As is only to be expected, they always base their comments exclusively on the manifest text of their dreams, which they note down meticulously and attempt to “interpret” directly by the traditional approach of solving a puzzle. In so doing they not only consider the overall scenario of the dream, but also already pay keen attention to certain of its details and elements – albeit not yet, of course, as a starting point for free association. Indeed, some of the dream interpretations in the Brautbriefe as it were get stuck half-way, simply because the actual psychoanalytic dimension, that of the unconscious, latent content of the dream, had not yet been conceptualized.

Nevertheless, these sumptuous documents do reveal seeds of certain aspects of the genuinely psychoanalytic conception of dreams. We find observations on the notion of the typical or recurring dream – for example, examination dreams or dreams of paralysis. We come upon the day’s residues as dream material, for instance when Freud writes on 9 November 1883: “a question my Martha had asked [...] stayed active in my sleeping brain and produced three dreams – about you – until I was woken by the angry excitement in which the third one culminated.” Intimations of the concept of condensation as a mechanism of the dream work, as it would later be called, can also be discerned, as well as of the construction of composite figures – such as when, three days after the above allusion to the phenomenon of the day’s residues, Freud writes: “Oddly enough, I dream a great deal about you now, but absolutely crazy things which otherwise never pass through my mind. You are always someone else: the day before yesterday you were a daughter of [Josef] Breuer [...].” Both Freud and his fiancée try to find regular correlations between dream images on the one hand and their meaning and interpretation on the other. Even at this stage, then, the hunt was already on for symbolism in dreams. Freud thus remarks on 19 July 1883 that landscapes featuring in dreams plainly stand for forthcoming journeys.

The fact that, as stated, the couple’s constant exchanges on dreams and their interpretation predate the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams by some fifteen years shows the extent to which this subject was in the air at the time, impressing its stamp on the final decades of the nineteenth century. However, to grasp the quantum leap actually represented by Freud’s magnum opus, one need only compare the extremely numerous phrases involving dreams and dreaming to be found in The Concordance to The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud14– from the “dream-work”, via the “function of dreaming”, the “dream-instigator” and the “dream-stimulus”, to the “situation in the dream”, the “dream-wish” and the “censorship of dreams” – with the few already present in the Brautbriefe.

The third core concept, the unconscious, like that of sexuality, does not occur in the courtship letters as a noun. Freud uses the word “unconsciousness” (Unbewußtheit) on just one occasion, on 19 July 1883, albeit not in a prepsychoanalytic sense but purely descriptively. What can be found is the adjectival or adverbial form, unbewußt, and here it certainly is employed in a prepsychoanalytic sense and, remarkably enough, in letters of Martha Bernays. She uses the term for the first time on 2 July 1883: “You say I also cause you pain, but if so, then it is unconscious and involuntary. – You write down words that you must surely realize will hurt me.” Not long afterwards, on 24 August 1883, she writes: “My week has been so empty and bleak: I haven’t had a single line from you for three days now, and don’t know if I should feel hurt or worried, in case you weren’t well and couldn’t write, or if I had unconsciously hurt you and you didn’t want to write to me?” She underlined the word wolltest [want], thus drawing attention even more emphatically than in the first quotation to the contrast between unconscious and conscious. Lastly, here is a third example. On the evening of 14 November in the same year, as if outlining the process of unconscious identification, she notes: “My darling, have you not noticed that I am gradually taking on your idiosyncrasies – it’s quite unconscious, but ridiculously exact – how I’ve started writing like you, and even treating things the same way as you do.”

We do not know how Martha Bernays came to use the term unconscious on a number of occasions in what was effectively the psychoanalytic sense of the word. Let me indulge in a little speculation. Martha read a great deal. One of her favourite authors, whom she repeatedly quotes to Freud, was Jean Paul. His works from the classical period of German literature were still very popular decades after his death in 1825. Now in his theoretical treatise, Vorschule der Ästhetik (Introduction to Aesthetics), which dates from 1804/1813, this Jean Paul had already developed a kind of theory, or concept, of the unconscious.15 There is no evidence in the Brautbriefe that Martha Bernays knew this work. However, in a letter of 19 February




The word »unbewußt« (»unconscious«) in a letter of Martha Bernays of 24th August 1883

1886 she mentions another of Jean Paul’s theoretical texts, Levana oder Erziehlehre (Levana, or Pedagogy), of 1807, in which the word unbewußt (unconscious) likewise occurs.16 What is certain is that, in his psychoanalytic works, Sigmund Freud subsequently mentioned Jean Paul on a number of occasions; in particular, the Vorschule der Ästhetik is cited in 1905 in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious17. So it is quite possible that seeds of the core psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious have come down to us through Martha’s repeated use, in her letters to her fiancé, of the adjective and adverb unbewußt.

Without using the term as such, Sigmund Freud’s letters of course include repeated indirect descriptions of unconscious phenomena and unconscious processes. Barely two months after their secret engagement on 17 June 1882, a letter of 9 August presents a parapraxis, again without the use of the actual German word Fehlleistung to describe it. Shortly after the couple became engaged, and even before Martha finally moved away from Vienna to northern Germany with her mother and sister, she had travelled to Wandsbek to spend the summer with relations who lived there. Freud visited her in Wandsbek for a few days. On his return he had written her some of his furious attacking letters and now, waiting in vain for an answer, feared that he had aroused her wrath. On 9 August 1882 he in effect apologized for his “angry” letters and explained how they had come about – while playfully using reported speech to describe Martha as “our beloved mistress”: “We have after all only opened our poor tormented heart to her and shared with her what we had inside it [...]. And then we beg her to consider what an abrupt change took place from the beautiful days in Wandsbek to the loathsome time in this city [Vienna] and how that change inevitably upset the balance of a profoundly excited soul.” Freud had made two big ink blots at this point in the letter, around which he drew a circular frame. Inside it he wrote, outlining the mechanism of a parapraxis: “Here the pen fell from our hand and wrote this secret sign. We beg for forgiveness and ask you not to concern yourself with an interpretation.”


Another of Freud’s early letters, dated 7 July 1882, indirectly alludes to an attribute of the unconscious, when he notes “that it is only in logic that contradictions cannot exist; they can coexist perfectly well in feelings”. Even at that stage he was wont to describe incestuous phenomena and indirectly to diagnose, in particular, obsessional symptoms, but again without expressly using the term unconscious, whether as a noun or as an adjective, in such contexts.

Following this account, you will not be surprised to hear that the seeds of further psychoanalytic concepts can likewise be discovered in the courtship letters – even of the modern notion of countertransference, as when Freud informs Martha on 13 July 1882 that he finds it “uncanny when I cannot comprehend someone else’s mental life on the basis of my own”. Initial prefigurations even of the subsequent psychoanalytic method, of free association and of the fundamental rule, developed directly in the course of the engaged couple’s exchanges, can be found in their correspondence. As early as on 3 August 1882, Freud notes: “My girl tells me every thought that flits through her little head.” Again, on 7 November 1882 he insists that “nothing be kept secret and nothing be suppressed” – that is, precisely, that all communications should as far as possible not be censored. “Bringing the truth to the light of day”18 as the overriding principle. For both, taking language and its nuances seriously. Noting precisely what the beloved has to say and how he or she expresses it. Being convinced of the importance of the past in the present: “one cannot understand [...] the present without knowing the past”.19 The high frequency, regularity and reliability of communications and contact.

A willingness on the part of both to engage in introspection and profound self-exploration. An unconditional love of truth by both. Even if Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays still use the traditional instruments of self-knowledge, quite a few of these uncommonly powerful letters, whose writers are unsparing of themselves, already possess a quasi-self-analytic character.


As we read the letters, two portraits thus emerge. One of them is as yet virtually unknown to us: Martha Bernays at last takes the stage. The other is as it were the fruit of a higher resolution scan: we encounter a novel and much more complex image of Sigmund Freud as a young man – an image that is by no means ideal and precisely for that reason more fascinating and touching. In the second part of my contribution I should like to introduce these portraits to you at least in outline. There is unfortunately no time to trace in detail the arc spanning the love story from its tyrannical beginnings to its tranquil conclusion. I have tried to capture it in the quotations used for the titles of Volumes 1, 3 and 5. This arc extended in effect from the initial quasi-command “Be mine as in my mind’s eye”, via the unhappy experience of years of “Waiting in serenity and devotion, waiting in struggle and excitement”, to the eventual saving anticipation of “Having you the way you are”.

First the portrait of Martha Bernays. We have long been familiar with photographs of this graceful young woman, but her unmistakable voice, which affords direct access to her hitherto substantially hidden inner being, can now be heard for the first time with the complete publication of her contribution to the Brautbriefe. Unlike her fiancé’s virtually always meticulously formulated letters, hers are variable. Many are perfectly on a par with Freud’s stylistic finesse, whereas with others she by her own admission took less trouble.

 Martha Bernays, 1884

Freud, however, was at this time delighted not least by the linguistic form assumed by many of her letters and called his bride-to-be a “writer”.20 At first her own estimation of herself was if anything negative. Seeing her role in conventional terms, she unreservedly admired her beloved and felt that she ought to be grateful “that you concern yourself so much in your thoughts with that insignificant thing called ‘Martha’”.21 Yet some of her letters do in fact also exhibit early feminist impulses, for instance when she longs to have a job of her own and complains of the thoroughly restricted opportunities for development available to women in those days. At any rate, as stated, in his courtship letters Freud involved her intensively in the development of his thought and sought to engage in an intellectual dialogue with her. Once he even noted with a smirk: “You write so aptly and so cleverly that I’m a little bit afraid of you. It seems to me that this is just another instance of how quickly women are overtaking men.”22


In another respect Martha really was ahead of him from the beginning, although she did not know it at the time – namely, in her spontaneous humanity, tact and calm personality. Gradually she learnt to perceive herself and to realize how she differed from Freud and why it was good for the destiny of their love for her to insist, steadfastly and with increasing selfconfidence, on that differentness. So it was that, at the end of their correspondence when she was once again concerned about his melancholy, she was able to write with tender humour: “Come on, you foolish, ungrateful man, be pleased that I am not quite as foolish as you are. [...] that I am the way I am and not otherwise.”23 Thanks to her gift of keen observation and her subtle psychological intuition, soon after their first meeting Martha Bernays had already understood Freud’s inner imperilment at this early stage of his life. Again and again she was able to avert the threat presented by his distrustful oversensitivity by clearly marking out the situation of external reality. She was fully aware that, owing to his extreme poverty and his urgent wish to start a family of his own as soon as possible, he wanted to achieve quick success as a scientist, in order to become famous overnight with a discovery of some kind, and thereby to provide a secure economic foundation for their future together. In other words, she understood perfectly well why he was then forcing himself to work at such a pace and for a time tending to build “castles in the air”.


That is not to say that Martha Bernays ever attempted to change her exceptional, eccentric beloved, let alone to normalize him. Already during their engagement she had realized and accepted that she would be sharing her life with a unique figure. With her cheerful and balanced personality, common sense and level-headed affection, she exerted her influence in a number of different ways, now protecting, now soothing, now moderating, and if necessary setting limits. In her letters she not only, as stated, offered her fiancé countless intellectual hints, but also kept everything together, reminded him of visits, of the repayment of debts, and of social commitments, while also managing all kinds of practical matters for him. Just before they set up home together, as if an expert in such affairs she noted: “I think in terms of economics rent is reckoned to account for 1/6th of one’s annual income [...].”24


Sigmund Freud had recognized and acknowledged this early on: “Hold my hand tight on our journey together. Even if I seem to be leading you, in reality you are my support and my guiding angel.”25 This, it appears, applied throughout their lives. Admittedly, Martha Bernays, whose health was if anything delicate and who, as his wife and the mother of their six children, had the prime responsibility of bringing up their offspring and of maintaining a hospitable household for so many people, may later no longer have kept up the intellectual partnership documented in the Brautbriefe; but if so the reason surely lay in a loving, sober division of labour. By virtue of her profound, exact understanding of Sigmund Freud’s essential being and objectives, she succeeded, over a period of several decades, in supplying the solid, calm, warm everyday background without which he might well not have been able to create his rebellious life’s work. The unabridged edition of the courtship letters, in which Martha Bernays at last takes the stage with her charm and her admirable independence, will from now on enable us to recognize and appreciate her part in providing the conditions for the genesis of psychoanalysis – and, sixty years after her death, it is not a moment too soon.


Sigmund Freud, 1884

Now to the portrait of Freud. In reading the bundle of letters from the time of his engagement, as expected we encounter him as a breathtakingly energetic young man, a genius bursting with ideas, willing and able to conquer, as loving as he was affectionate. At the same time, however, we meet someone worn down and overburdened by misfortune, torn asunder and plagued by violent mood swings – a hot-tempered and thoroughly brusque individual, in the highest degree sensitive and vulnerable. In other words, our reading offers a realistic picture of a many-sided Freud far removed from shallow hagiographic idealizations and even more so from the grotesque distortions of the “Freud bashers”.


Let us consider first his extreme poverty. It is only when we read the courtship letters that we in fact become fully aware of the constant, oppressive nature of this shadow over his youth. In what is in effect a gripping piece of social history, they document what it was really like, at a time without any form of social security, to be a non-earning paterfamilias like Freud’s father: in a word, one starved. Freud portrays this situation of penury to his bride-tobe in numerous passages of his letters: “Whenever I go back home, I of course sink a little further into melancholy”; “[...] not a brass farthing in the house”26. There are repeated descriptions of the parental figures – how his father, incapable of earning a living, is lapsing into a “blissful state in which he has no needs and has become totally insignificant”;27 how his permanently ailing mother has become “such an enthusiastic and unfortunately also vociferous pessimist”;28 and how his brother and sisters are emaciated and deprived. Throughout these years, Freud, still in training and therefore without a regular income, desperately sought to share what modest resources he had with his parents and siblings. He actually extracted most of these funds from friends, colleagues and sponsors, so that in those days he was always to a greater or lesser extent in debt. The humiliations associated with this existential dependence, as well as the resulting rage that sometimes made him almost cynical, are an oppressive thread running through the entire course of the courtship letters. Where, in these circumstances, was he to derive the confidence to become, before very long, the head of a family capable, unlike his father, of earning a living? Freud’s letters reveal in particular his inner divisions and contradictions, even with regard to his underlying feeling in the love relationship with Martha Bernays: “My love, I can be so happy and then so profoundly unhappy again.”29 This was due in part to the repeated severe crises of mistrust the couple had to overcome. One of the main reasons was surely that the two had been separated much too soon, before they had been able to get to know each other well through daily personal contact, which would have permitted the development of a robust foundation of trust.


Regardless, Martha’s widowed mother had decided to return permanently to Hamburg, where the family had its origins, with her daughters. For this reason the young Freud conceived a violent aversion to his imposing, thoroughly resolute future mother-in-law and fought against his fiancée's powerful bonds to her mother and indeed to her entire family of origin. In these crises, at any rate, Freud was often incapable of restraining himself in his angry, unempathic, tormenting and self-tormenting letters with their extreme demands, although soon afterwards, full of remorse and shame, he would try to explain them as the result of “an elevated level of sensitivity and disgruntlement”.30


Just a few weeks after they first met in the early summer of 1882, Freud wrote while in the throes of an acute fit of jealousy: “I think my imagination is somewhat sick and playing nasty tricks on me. It is constantly presenting me with scenes [...]. A sick man needs to be nursed a bit and spared.”31 He must have had to overcome powerful resistances to make this confession, because at the time nothing seems to have been more important to him than the possession of a robust nervous system. It was only towards the end of the engagement that he was able with more equanimity to connect “excessive sensitivity” and “nervousness"32 with his own person. During the course of the correspondence there are occasional references to “melancholy” and “depression”, as well as to physical symptoms of psychogenic origin such as headaches, states of exhaustion or gastritis.

Oppressed as he was by these external and internal burdens that were so hard to endure, the young Freud sometimes longed for something to dull the pain. In a letter of 17 January 1884 he writes: “Smoking 25 a day, I’m afraid, but when one’s darling isn’t there, one needs an anaesthetic.” He also sought to forget himself in work, as he confessed as early as on 9 October 1883: “Always having so much to do is [...] a kind of anaesthetic, and you know that lately I’ve been looking for something to save me from my great sensitivity and excitability.” What was more dangerous than this hard-pressed, driven immersion in work had, since the spring of 1884, been his recourse to cocaine, the use of which he had been researching. All too naïvely, he had embarked on experiments, some of them on himself, in the hope that this alkaloid would turn out to be a kind of cure-all, thus giving him the brilliant success for which he had so long yearned, and making him instantly famous and financially independent. At that time he himself resorted to this substance – not yet seen by public opinion in central Europe as a narcotic – principally when he had to overcome anxieties and shyness prior to public appearances or to give himself strength for long walks. But when the addictive potential of cocaine eventually became general knowledge, Freud, who had used it only occasionally and never in high doses, was manifestly able to give it up without great difficulty.

How much of the realistic image of Sigmund Freud presented to us by the Brautbriefe is particular to the young Freud? A great deal is certainly typical of late adolescence: the intemperance, the aspect of “to heaven rejoicing, cast down unto death”, the sometimes strident contradictions, the restless questing, and the rapid pace of life. Neuroscientists have since shown that the primary processes of brain maturation that accompany this phase of life actually continue into the mid-twenties – that is, Freud’s age at the beginning of the courtship letters.

The letters written by the newlyweds in Vienna to Martha’s sister Minna, who had stayed behind in Wandsbek, already show us, barely six months after the date of the last of the Brautbriefe, an inwardly strong, calm and more self-controlled man, who joyfully reports that he and Martha are getting on better with each other than at any time during their engagement and that, most fortunately, the material “security of existence”33 has been achieved sooner than expected.

Other features of the image revealed in the courtship letters would characterize Freud throughout his life: his profound seriousness, his passionate steadfastness of purpose and his capacity to take enthusiastic delight in his scientific work, the extreme openness of his senses, his freedom from many prejudices and conventions, the stunning originality of his thought, and his mastery of language. However, one of the prerequisites for his many decades of enormous creativity was surely also the highly permeable nature of his ego boundaries, which repeatedly threatened his inner balance. Well compensated for as it was, though, it later hardly ever emerged on the surface of his texts, except perhaps in that work of his old age, Moses and Monotheism 34.

Besides the experience of his studies with Jean-Martin Charcot and the frustrating clinical realization that he was unable permanently to help his patients with the standard therapeutic procedures of the time, it was surely the confrontation with and management of his own susceptibility to inner turmoil that were likewise factors in Freud’s turning to psychology and psychopathology. They compelled him to engage in ever more radical self-exploration. The rational investigation of the irrational and the systematic study of unconscious processes within himself, too, ultimately made him one of the great pioneers of modernity. The realistic image of Sigmund Freud that takes shape before our eyes when we read the courtship letters unquestionably contains seeds of the later non-reductionistic psychoanalytic image of man that was the fruit of decades of detailed labour: non-ideal, unflattering, at times repellent, contradictory, ambivalent, plagued with conflict throughout life, but also capable of grand cultural accomplishments, profound change and innovation, with the boundaries between mental normality and pathology constantly shifting in both directions.


So much, then, for the earliest seeds of core psychoanalytic concepts and of the psychoanalytic image of man to be found in the courtship letters exchanged between Sigmund Freud and Martha Bernays from 1882 to 1886. So much for the prehistory and early history of the outstanding cultural achievement represented by psychoanalysis, which marked the 20th century as the epoch of the most humane form of therapy for psychological and psychosomatic disorders as well as of the most profound understanding ever yet attained of the human condition.

The next few days of the Congress will certainly make us acquainted with advances of many kinds in our view of the core concepts of sexuality, dreams and the unconscious. It can readily be imagined that some of these innovations would have astonished Freud, or that he might even have embraced some of them enthusiastically. After all, as he had once written in a working note: “Science humbles the individual, greatness shrinks before the difficulties of acquiring real knowledge; each individual can conquer only a small area, each must go astray after a certain point, only the succeeding generations can do it properly.”35


Permit me to make one final comment. Pleasure and satisfaction are all too comprehensible reactions on the part of those colleagues whose work has now forged or restored the connection with empirical and experimental research and the associated methods, which Freud had to relinquish in the past. Again, given that the criteria of scientific methodology established by the natural sciences and admittedly extraordinarily successful in that limited field of research continue to lay claim to universal validity, it seems appropriate to nurture and to stabilize these contacts. Yet the fascination with the allegedly superior evidential force of statistics and the stringency of empirical results might tempt us to lose sight of the particular, unique quality of psychoanalysis that emerges in the course of our daily work for the benefit of our patients – namely, its respect for each individual human being in his or her specificity at the highest level and for the complexity, which can never be fully apprehended, of the semantic universe of meanings, especially in the sphere of the unconscious.

We should take the offensive in countering the currently all too pervasive charge that our discipline is unscientific with good arguments for the existence of limits to generalizability and quantifiability in this field. Psychoanalysis needs its own kind of epistemology.35 We must at any rate take care to avoid inadvertently travelling in the reverse direction over the arduous path once trodden by Sigmund Freud, which led to the exploration of the subject and the subject’s monstrously alien unconscious inner world – the path from the nervous system to mental life – that is, reverting from mental life to the nervous system that can be apprehended empirically and experimentally. Modern psychoanalysts should keep their eyes open to both – to mental life and to the nervous system. In view of the enormous complexity of the clinical material, there is no doubt that, in addition to precision of thought and perception, we shall in the future still need an unshakable, well trained tolerance of obscurity, ambiguity and uncertainty.

− . −


1 Sigmund Freud, Martha Bernays, Sei mein, wie ich mir’s denke. Juni 1882−Juli 1883, Die Brautbriefe, Vol. 1,  ed. Gerhard Fichtner, Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, Albrecht Hirschmüller, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2011.

Letters of Sigmund Freud 1873−1939, ed. Ernst L. Freud, trans. T. & J. Stern, Hogarth, London 1960.

3 In his letter of 2 August 1882.

4 Charles Hanly, ‘From the President. Furthering Freud’s Dream’, in: International Psychoanalysis, the News  Magazine of the IPA , Centenary Special Edition, Vol. 18 (2010), p. 4.

5  Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud, Studien über Hysterie, Franz Deuticke, Leipzig and Vienna 1895 ( Studies on Hysteria, SE 2).

6 Sigmund Freud, Die Traumdeutung, Franz Deuticke, Leipzig and Vienna 1900 (The Interpretation of Dreams,

SE 4–5).



7 In his letter of 2 July 1883.

8 Sigmund Freud, ‘Ein Fall von Hirnblutung mit indirekten basalen Herdsymptomen bei Scorbut’, in: Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift, Vol. 34 (1884), cols. 244−246, 276−279.

9 In the second of Freud’s letters of 5 December 1885.

10 In her letter of 25 March 1885.

11 In his letter of 29 August 1883.

12 Sigmund Freud, ‘Screen memories’ (1899), SE 3, p. 316.

13 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930 [1929]), SE 21, p. 117.

14 Samuel A. Guttman with the collaboration of Stephen M. Parrish and Randall L. Jones, The Concordance of The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 6 vols., International Universities Press Inc., New York 1984.

15 Jean Paul, Vorschule der Ästhetik (1804/1813), in: Werke, Vol. 5, ed. Norbert Miller. Hanser, Munich 1963,pp. 7–456.

16 Jean Paul, Levana oder Erziehlehre (1807), in: Werke, Vol. 5, ed. Norbert Miller. Hanser, Munich 1963, pp. 515−875; the word unbewußt [unconscious] occurs on p. 539.

17 Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), SE 8, p. 9.

18 See Freud’s letter of 7 July 1882.

19 See Freud’s letter of 8 July 1882.

20 In his letter of 8 August 1882.

21 In her letter of 24 June 1882.

22 Letter of 6 October 1883.

23 Letter of 5 December 1885.

24 In her letter of 18 April 1886.

25 In a letter presumably written after 23 November 1882.

26 In Freud’s letters of 26 January 1884 and 19 May 1885.

27 Freud’s letter of 5 June 1884.

28 In the first of two letters from Freud dated 30 November 1883.

29 As he writes in his letter of 28 August 1884.

30 In the letter of 26 August 1882.

31 In his letter of 8 August 1882.

32 In the letter of 2 February 1886.

33 Quoted from Freud’s letter to his sister-in-law of 28 April 1887, in: Sigmund Freud, Minna Bernays, Briefwechsel 1882-1938, ed. Albrecht Hirschmüller, edition diskord, Tübingen 2005, p. 185.

34 Sigmund Freud, Moses and Monotheism (1939 [1934−1938]), SE 23, pp. 1–138.

35 Quoted in: Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, ‘Trauma or drive – drive and trauma. A reading of Sigmund Freud’s phylogenetic fantasy of 1915’, in: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 43 (1988), p. 30.

35 Cf. section VI in: Ilse Grubrich-Simitis, 'Die psychoanalytische Methode als Quelle von Freuds Traumdeutung', in: Frühe Entwicklung und ihre Störungen. Klinische, konzeptuelle und empirische psychoanalytische Forschung, ed. Marianne Leuzinger-Bohleber, Jorge Canestri, Mary Target, Brandes & Apsel, Frankfurt am Main 2009, p. 285-300.


Besides the IPA website publication of the English text, the lecture appeared in three furthe languages:


Semillas de conceptos psicoanalíticos fundamentales

Acerca de las cartas de noviazgo entre Sigmund Freud y Martha Bernays

In: Revista de Psicoanálisis (Buenos Aires), Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, December 2011, p. 677-694.


Keime psychoanalytischer Grundkonzepte

Zu den Brautbriefen von Sigmund Freud und Martha Bernays

In: Psyche; Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse und ihre Anwendungen, Vol. 66, No. 5, May 2012,

p. 385-407.


Germes de concepts psychanalytiques fondamentaux

À propos des lettres de fiancés de Sigmund Freud et Martha Bernays

In: Revue Française de Psychanalyse, Vol. LXXVI, No. 3, July 2012.