an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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brilliant women – Lou Andreas-Salomé, writer, psychologist, éminence grise

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Je dirigerai ma vie selon ce que je suis

In my rather aimless intellectual roaming in pursuit of feminine bonobo-like power and influence in the human socio-cultural world I’ve been reading various feminist and ‘inspirational’ texts such as Dava Sobel’s The glass universe, Melvin Konner’s Women after all, and Simone de Beauvoir’s classic The second sex. I’ve also taken up a book I bought and half-read more than two decades ago, Freud’s Women, a book the title of which immediately attracted me as it combined my interest in intellectual feminism with remembrances of one of my first intellectual interests, the ideas of Sigmund Freud. I’m talking here of my teen years, when I encountered Freud’s concepts in the most rudimentary, truncated form. The id, ego and superego, and the concepts of eros, thanatos, and especially polymorphous perversity and sublimation struck me as highly diverting at least.

Another Big Name I encountered and cursorily read in those early years was Friedrich Nietzsche. I remember three of the titles – Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and The Anti-Christ, and there may have been more. I write this with a kind of amazement – how were these books in the house? My mother rarely read a book, my father never. It may have been my older siblings… anyway, I recall puzzling over Zarathustra, being thrilled at Nietzsche’s excoriation of Paul of Tarsus, and generally feeling buoyed up by his ebullient self-confidence – if that’s what it was.

So, returning to Freud’s Women, a book I started rereading recently, almost out of a sense of duty. I’m now getting into the second half of the book, and it seems to me that the writing has lifted as the women in Freud’s circle have become more multi-faceted and interesting – or more interestingly depicted. This began with Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts, who had important associations with Jung, Freud and Piaget. Next was Loe Kann, a strong-willed, intellectual associate of both Freud and Ernest Jones, with whom she had a turbulent relationship. But the most fulsomely depicted character I’ve encountered so far is Lou Andreas-Salomé – a much-admired confidante and influencer of Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Freud, amongst others, and an important intellectual figure in her own write. She wrote a highly regarded book on Nietzsche’s philosophy, published way back in 1894 – probably the first major treatment of Nietzsche in print – as well as many other works. But the fact that she was so highly regarded by the tediously misogynistic Nietzsche as well as the faintly condescending Freud is testament, not so much to her writing as to her Dasein, if that’s the word – the effect of her character, intellect and attitude to life.

Andreas-Salomé, like many of the women described in both Freud’s Women and The Second Sex, such as Irene Reweliotty and Marie Bashkirtseff, came from a wealthy, intellectual family in a period when only the tiniest proportion of women could benefit from an academic education and a career open to talent. Writing was almost the only way to provide proof to the world of their value, as was the case years earlier for Jane Austen and the Brontës. I haven’t yet read Andreas-Salome’s work, beyond the excerpts found in Freud’s Women, and perhaps I never will, but I got a buzz of energy from the positive spirit of her influence – upon Rilke, Freud, his daughter Anna, among others. An intellectual bonobo, if you will. And that’s the highest praise!

It’s strange today to hear Freud described as a neurologist, as he’s occasionally described in Freud’s Women. It’s an indication of how far neurology has come in the 21st century. In earlier times it was all ‘mind’ and the brain was enclosed in an impenetrable ‘black box’. Everything was gleaned from behaviour, thoughts, impulses, obsessions, fantasies and the like. Fascinating stuff, but easily manipulated and exaggerated. Probably the best thing about the ‘talking cure’ was the talking itself, the sharing, the unburdening, and the warm connections so created. And in those early days it provided above all a career open to women – smart, insightful women who were keen to help. There were, of course disputes. Two of the most prominent practitioners in the thirties, Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, both of whom specialised in the treatment of children, were at loggerheads over the ‘Oedipal problem’ and how to deal with the ‘latency period’ – I’m no expert on psychoanalytic theory, but it seems that the pair were mostly in dispute over whether the analyst had a pedagogical role (Anna Freud) or not (Klein). Interestingly, and I think tellingly, Freud himself, who tended to be non-pedagogical in his own approach, generally sided with his daughter in these disputes, with the usual tangle of rationalisations and special pleading. Family is family, at the end of the day.

Anyhoo, returning to Lou Andreas-Salomé, the ‘poet of psychoanalysis’ as Freud called her, it’s clear that she knew her own worth and was never particularly intimidated by Freud’s reputation. And in the face of the whole Oedipus obsession she pushed back in underlining the value of women and mothers. Here is her response to Freud, after reading his essay ‘the taboo of virginity’, which deals with the historical and cultural obsession with female virginity and ‘defloration’:

It occurred to me that this taboo may have been intensified by the fact that at one time (in a matriarchal society) the woman may have been the dominant partner. In this way, like the defeated deities, she acquired demonic properties, and was feared as an agent of retribution. Also her defloration by deity, priests etc points back to a time when she was not the ‘private property’ of the male, and in order to achieve this she had to shake off the shackles of her impressive past – which may still play its part as the earliest positive basis for the precautionary measures of the male.

What’s interesting here is not the perhaps dubious historicity of her claim but the female valuation it implies. Andreas-Salomé was not a ‘noted feminist’ of her time, she took no active part in first-wave feminism, but her self-confident, no-nonsense dealings with the prominent intellectual males she met and clearly influenced, and her later conversion to the ‘talking cure’, so well-suited, it seems to me, to the values of partnership and collaboration and help, values that are generally more female than male, have made her a figure well worth discovering, for me at least.


Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester, 1992

‘The taboo of viginity’, by Sigmund Freud, 1918


Written by stewart henderson

November 19, 2022 at 9:39 am