Sigmund Freud Superstar
In early 1876, nothing suggested that 19-year-old medical student Sigmund Freud would one day become a great scientist and the cartographer of the Viennese soul. Quite the opposite: he was standing – haunted by the disappointment of a first love lost and struggling with poverty – in the zoology department in Trieste and, scalpel in hand, attempting to determine the location of the sex organs of an eel. His anatomy teacher admired the zeal with which he went about this task. For his doctoral thesis in 1881, Freud wrote about the nervous systems of lower fish species.
Today he is a household name all over the world. He remains one of the most oft-cited academics, and his fame continues undiminished. In China in particular his popularity continues to grow. His book ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, written 120 years ago, is more relevant than ever. In summer 2020, the Freud Museum in Vienna was reopened and the streaming giant Netflix released an Austrian series on March 23, 2020, which has been flickering across the screen in 148 million homes and in over 30 languages: ‘Freud’ is a portrait of a developing young man, who was no stranger to controversy with his passionate belief in his theories.
„He was a genius“
Freud had little success with his fish. So in 1885, after a period of study in Paris, he began to focus on psychopathology and, step by step, started laying bare the structures of human soul. A bold undertaking. Desire and aggression; the repression of drives and neuroses. Who wants to hear that we are not master in our own house, that the unconscious has us on a merry-go-round, and that what we see in other people is just the tip of the iceberg? Freud opened up chasms that changed everything: art, science, society – our picture of the human being.
“The time was ripe and he was simply a genius,” explains Professor Alfred Pritz, the founding rector of the Sigmund Freud University in Vienna. “Freud is a guiding figure in the understanding of the modern soul. He had his weaknesses, but we have to approach him overall as a historical personality. There is no one like him in the world in our discipline.” It is due in no small part to Freud that in 2021 and 2023 a neurology and a psychotherapy congress will take place in Vienna, with 9,000 delegates expected altogether. Pritz also underlines what a great achievement it was to develop psychoanalysis into a teachable method. “He showed that it is possible to ease people’s suffering and to heal them by means of a special, respectful relationship,” says Pritz. Freud was able to provide relief to and even heal many of the “crazy” people that entered his private practice at number 19, Berggasse in Vienna – simply by talking, with a couch as the only treatment aid.
The spirit of the time in Vienna around 1900 made Freud’s work possible. But there were also outstanding practitioners elsewhere. Naturally there were precursors to Freud’s thinking, but he set new standards. His legacy was taken further by the young acolytes who flocked to the great maestro. At Mariannengasse 1 in Vienna there is a museum dedicated to Viktor Frankl, whose work focused on the question of meaning in life.
During his lifetime Freud was known in Europe as well as in North and South America. And yet he was plagued by self-doubt; at the end of each working day he analyzed himself, as he also suffered from internal conflicts and messed-up relationships. Criticism of “unscientific” new teachings continued unabated, but his devotees venerated him all the more. In death, he retains his revered position in history. His appearance on Netflix would surely have pleased him.
Text: Stefan Müller