Saturday, September 29, 2007

Character and Great Men

I went to a discussion this afternoon called "Freud and the Historical Imagination" and at one point the conversation turned to whether or not Freud and his sister-in-law Mina Bernays (mother of Edward Bernays, father of modern advertising), and what that might mean to psychoanalysis, if it indeed were true. It appears that recently a hotel register was found in Switzerland where Freud and Mina Bernays had registered as husband and wife.

Of course this doesn't mean that any hanky panky went on. It could be that Freud and Mina shared a room because he was too cheap to pay for two of them, and they slept platonically either in the bed, or perhaps Freud slept on the floor. Since there were no webcams back then or paparazzi staking out the hotel, it's all speculation. Freud was very fond of his wife's sister, that much is clear from letters that still exist.

The point of bringing this up is what does it mean to find out that a revered figure is human after all and is subject to the same temptations and desires as the rest of us? Does the fact that Freud might have succumbed to his desires instead of repressing them change the foundations of psychoanalysis? After all, Jung apparently couldn't keep it in his pants.

Is this strictly American Puritanism rearing it's ugly head again? In Europe, no one raises an eyebrow if the President or Prime Minister has a bit on the side. If he was a Nazi, that's another story, but a mistress, no big deal. Why are we the only country that has a problem with our leaders or great men having feet of clay? What is this need that we have to delve into their sexual lives. Recently there's all these books coming out claiming that Lincoln might have been gay or a repressed homosexual. So what? Does that change the Emancipation Proclamation or the Gettysburg address? It might explain partly at least why he suffered from depression. Does this say more about us, than it does about them?

I was thinking about all the scholars and people who refuse to even coutenance the idea that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings had a relationship. They give all kinds of reasons, but mainly they boil down to the fact that she was a slave and black, as if somehow Jefferson, because he wrote the Declaration of Independance, was different from the other 90% of slave owners back then. They don't consider the fact Sally Hemmings was the slave half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha Wayles Jefferson, who he loved dearly and that supposedly she looked like a duskier version of his wife. Hmm, doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why he would have slept with her.

Does the fact that TJ might have slept with Sally Hemmings and fathered seven little red-headed slaves bother me? Not really. Jefferson had other not very admirable qualities besides possibly sleeping with his slaves. Most people do, that's what makes us human. He wasn't a saint. Alexander Hamilton was still a brilliant man despite the scandals of his career. And Lord Nelson's reputation survived his relationship with Emma Hamilton.

Back to Freud, considering that his own disciples like Jung broke with him during his lifetime, and Freudian psychoanalysis survived, I think that it can survive the discovery of an affair. It might make people reevaluate his life a little differently.

Does learning about a historical figures little peccadilloes change the way that you think about him or her? Does it make their art or theories any less brilliant (think of Wagner and his rampant anti-semitism) because they weren't nice people?


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