Dallas Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology
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Published in the DSPP Bulletin, Vol 17, No 4, December, 2000. 


Reflecting and Associating Freely to 
Israel Rosenfield’s
Freud’s Megalomania: A Novel

Book Review
Myron S. Lazar, Ph.D.

A recent New York Times article (Smith, 2000) describes the American Psychoanalytic Association’s efforts to gain wider visibility for psychoanalysis by using Marketing P.R. The article caused a flurry of activity on the American’s Internet message site about whether such an approach to countering the diminishing number of patients coming for psychoanalysis cheapens whom and what we stand for. One contributor quoted Oscar Wilde’s “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” I pondered this debate, especially in regards to the great number of negatives about psychoanalysis that have appeared in the press in recent years.

The negative public reaction and controversy surrounding Freud began over one-hundred years ago with his views on childhood sexuality. Following this auspicious beginning in our history came attacks about Freud’s views of female sexual development; e.g., penis envy, passive/active issues, moral inferiority of women, etc.; Freud’s so-called abandonment of the Seduction Theory with the development of Ego Psychology (Masson, 1981); suggestions by Peter Swales that Freud had a secret affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays (Blumenthal, 1981); his intolerance for those who disagreed with this theories; and, primarily for the general public, his reported negative views on religion.

So one could argue that positive press about the value and complexity of psychoanalysis, as is being presented by the American Psychoanalytic Association, Division 39, Social Work psychoanalytic organizations and the many psychoanalytic foundations across the country, is an important counter-weight to the distortions as well as the real problems that occur in this unique approach to treatment of human suffering.

Another take on the controversies surrounding Freud, with perhaps a less noble goal than the explanation of human frailty, has appeared in Israel Rosenfield’s new book, Freud’s Megalomania: A Novel. Rosenfield, a Professor of History, author of several non-fiction books on brain functioning, DNA, consciousness and Freud, is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. Some of the more vehement and bloody verbal battles regarding Freud’s theory and techniques have been fought in the pages of this formidable publication.

The addition of the subtitle A Novel to Freud’s Megalomania may have been offered by the author as a warning label to the reader, a strong reminder that what we encounter in this book will be, at times, compellingly believable. So much of the book is based on factual events in Freud’s life and work that one frequently questions the fictional aspect of the book. One is driven to check out many of the obscure details that turn out to be verifiable. Beyond the historical aspects of the work, what we are offered by Rosenfield is an audacious, titillating, surreal, and challenging fiction. It is audacious in that it claims to have discovered a seamier side of Freud than even his worst critics have purportedly revealed. It is titillating in the noir, mystery novel-like writing style that in many ways imitates Freud’s seductive, audience-centered way of engaging us, especially in his case histories; it is surreal in its zany, cinematic, alternatively dark and light, humorous story of intrigue, deceit, perversion, narcissism, abandonment and guilt, all blended together; and it is challenging in its moving us to want to explore not only Freud’s original works but leads us to curiosity about Linguistics, Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, and Set Theory. And finally, Rosenfield invites us to consider seriously the content of his fictitious manuscript that is given to Professor Albert J. Stewart, the narrator of this strange story.

I believe it would be helpful at this point to provide you with a brief outline of the novel in order to illustrate the dazzling odyssey on which Rosenfield takes us. Professor Stewart describes himself as one of the “cogs,” or cognitive scientists, who count among their numbers, philosophers, linguists, the founders of Cybernetics and Artificial Intelligence; namely John von Neumann, Norbert Weiner, Kurt Godel, and Alan Turing.

Professor Stewart, also an anti-Freudian, (the opening sentence of the novel (p.11) is “I never liked Freud.”) has just participated in a professional meeting in which “Freud” has been bashed unmercifully (From this point on, I will distinguish the historical Freud from the “Freud” of the novel with quotation marks). He finds himself feeling that the critics have gone too far in their attacks on “Freud”, and aggressively counterattacks indicating that the same criticisms leveled at “Freud” could be brought to bear on the cognitive sciences as well. His outcry causes pandemonium and he is later praised and vilified for his efforts. Soon afterwards, a young women, Bernadette Schilder, appears at his office, hands him a manuscript which she claims is a never before published work of “Freud”, her grandfather, who sired her mother with his secret mistress Adelaide Benesch (“Freud” met Adelaide on a train from Vienna to Berlin in 1916 when she was 16). Seven years later Bernadette’s mother was born on June 19th, 1923, the day that Freud’s grandson also died. Professor Stewart suggests that the birth of “Freud’s” illegitimate daughter made this particular day the worst of his life.

Late in his life, as the story goes, “Freud” gives the manuscript as a gift to his mistress Adelaide. She accepts it and then decides to return it to “Freud” at the time of the Anschluss. It finds its way into the hands of a Nazi officer, who happened to have studied with Julius Wagner-Jaurregg, Freud’s old boss in the Vienna Psychiatric Clinic. (An important factual backdrop for the novel is the real Freud’s testimony at the post WWI trial of Julius Wagner-Jaurregg, an eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner in Science for his malaria/syphilis cure. The trial was about the tortuous treatment by electric shock that was employed on soldiers suffering from war neurosis.) The manuscript is delivered to Bernadette Schilder who is living in London. Along the way attempts are made to get the manuscript authenticated and published but it keeps getting turned down as a fake (One publisher stated that the handwriting was too much like the genuine Freud to trust its authenticity.).

Professor Stewart, upon receipt of the manuscript from Bernadette, begins his own search for verification of the document as he recognizes that, in its content, the manuscript –“Freud’s” new theory of behavior, which he calls “Megalomania”, – is a radical departure from Freud’s theories of the past. In this search, Professor Stewart obtains from the Freudian Archives two previously unpublished documents, both of which shed light on “Megalomania.” The first of these papers is called “The Tower of Babel” which relates to the real designer of the Eiffel Tower, Maurice Koechlin, who sought consultation with “Freud”. The second document obtained from the Archives was attributed to Anna Freud and was titled “Notes on a Conversation with Johnny von Neumann”. In this piece, “Anna Freud” reports on a meeting (including a poker game) between von Neumann, the founder of Game Theory, and an inveterate gambler, bluffer, and cheater, and “Freud”.

Professor Stewart then pieces these two documents together to help himself and us understand the logic and motivation for “Freud’s” radical thesis contained in the manuscript. Professor Stewart states that the basic premise in the manuscript is “Freud’s” claim that human psychology would “not be possible without self-deception, double-dealing, lying and reprisals….While Freud had witnessed the beginnings of events that ultimately led to the collapse of political authority and ideologies, the manuscript suggests that he may have begun to uncover, as well, the psychological roots of the extraordinary events, both political and scientific, that have so overwhelmed us these past decades. If anyone has come close to giving us a sense of how all that could have happened, I must say that Freud of the manuscript has”(pp 18-19). Stewart also sees an important link between “Freud’s” new theory and the Game Theory strategies of John von Neumann that are also deceitful in that they seek to defeat the opponent by any means possible.

In addition to the more realistic aspects of the novel, there is a farcical side. Professor Stewart chronicles his relationship with Norman Dicke (This, by the way, is the surreal part of the novel that reminds me of the recent German art-house movie, “Run, Lola, Run” with its cartoon interludes and the affair in the office that plays over and over again.) Dicke is the Looker Laureate, (he actually is a voyeur, exhibitionist, sadist, and a prime example of the kind of megalomaniac described in the manuscript) creator of Loop Theory, and the inventor of the Marilyn (Monroe) Machine. “Marilyn was just a machine with an artificial sex voice and a collection of erotic images. But Dicke related to Marilyn as if it was a flesh and blood woman watching him have sex. He extolled ‘her’ qualities to the half-naked women lying on the convertible bed along the wall of his office. He told them ‘she’ was unique”(p. 28).

Professor Stewart condenses Dicke’s Loop Theory to a simple thesis: “We are loops and we loop”(p.24). Stewart praises the profundity of Dicke’s theory, which he says is only matched by its difficulty and obscurity. “Even if you grasp it, your understanding of its totality would last for an instant. As Dicke said, ‘You get it and it disappears.’ ”(p. 25).

Professor Stewart’s relationship with Dicke, like Freud’s relationships with Fliess, Jung, and others, ends abruptly and he becomes de-mystified of Dicke’s brilliance after reading the manuscript. In a footnote, Stewart says, “Freud’s Wagner (Jaurregg) bears an uncanny resemblance to Dicke. Of course my understanding of Dicke may have been influenced by my reading of the Freud manuscript, but I have good reasons to doubt that this is the case”(p. 28).

The entire manuscript is included in the book, running 77 pages. Reading it made me curious about whether this could have been something that, stylistically, Freud would have written. I turned to Patrick Mahony’s  Freud as A Writer (1982) to see if I could glean some clues to make such a judgment. Mahony comes to psychoanalysis from literary studies and is truly marvelous at describing the anatomy of Freud’s style of writing and thinking.

Mahony highlights several of Freud’s writing characteristics that could apply to Rosenfield’s style. One is the remarkable mobility of Freud’s attention and the way he allowed his intellect to roam from one realm to another. Rosenfield displays this quality in an amusing and dizzying way. In the manuscript and the “Tower of Babel”, Rosenfield is able to make some sense out of the juxtaposition of Moses, Wagner-Jaurreg’s war neurosis trial, Artificial Intelligence, Game Theory, and the deceit and betrayal that occurred in the building of the Eiffel Tower. The final words of the novel, a footnote, is a dream reported by Professor Stewart that condenses, in a brilliant, comic fashion the unconscious premise of the entire novel. In this final imagery, one could say that Professor Stewart has been transformed from a “cog” to a Freudian. By the way, Rosenfield captures Freud’s footnote fetish quite remarkably and through his use of them, propels the comic force of the novel.

Another Freudian literary tool recognized in the novel is a Baroque prose style adopted by Freud called pensee pensante that translates as thought thinking (p. 164), or a mind thinking in the actual moment that the thoughts unfold --what Mahony refers to as the ongoing unfolding movement in Freud’s writing. This tendency links to a most important quality of Freud’s writing, namely his ability to relate directly to his audience by allowing us to feel immediately and intimately present. His case histories are the best examples of these characteristics embodying a detective story quality that Rosenfield mimics.

When Professor Stewart first meets “Freud’s” granddaughter, he moves us in a Freud/Sam Spade/Sherlock Holmes manner: “And then something happened that seems to have forever changed my view of what we had done and where we were going. One day a woman of medium height with an uncommonly beautiful face came into my office. She introduced herself to me as Bernadette Schilder and handed me a manuscript that she said was by Sigmund Freud.” Somewhat later Stewart says about her, “I never would have predicted what I was about to learn, but even when I first met her there was something about this woman, something about the way she peeled off her coat and smiled, that told me she was going to break the routines”(p. 16).

Later in the novel a symbolic ‘primal scene’ occurs, reminding me of Poe’s “Purloined Letter”. It takes place in the purported archival paper by Anna Freud in which she discovers her father writing the manuscript: “My father’s light was on and I had knocked lightly on his door and opened it without waiting for a response. I thought he might have fallen asleep and was rather surprised to see him busily writing at his desk. He too was surprised. He looked up at me without saying a word, holding his pen in midair, a pained look on his face”(p. 159).

One characteristic of Freud’s style that Mahony highlights that is not evident in the actual manuscript is Freud’s self-irony and lightness. The “Freud” exhibited in the manuscript portion of the novel is more strident and absolute then we generally expect from him. Contrary to being light and ironic, he is a man who feels he was shamed and humiliated in the war neurosis trial and mistreated by Wagner-Jaurregg in spite of Freud’s continually friendly attitude toward him. Rosenfield might have been trying to capture in the manuscript Freud’s post WWI pessimism and despair that arose from the death of his grandson, his cancer, and the horrors of war.

So what did Rosenfield have in mind ultimately in his book especially in the actual manuscript within the novel? I thought that he likely was doing more than just having fun with the Freudian battles highlighted in the New York Review of Books or trying to imitate Freud. His blending together John von Neumann and Game Theory with “Freud” suggested to me that he was seriously promoting his own theoretical agenda in the manuscript; an agenda that he feels better matches how men and society function; that deceit, paranoia, and lying are more the rule of the game than guilt and repression. One only has to look at the presidential post-election chaos as well as other recent national events such as Watergate, Iran-gate, and the impeachment of Clinton to find some credence in this hypothesis.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Rosenfield (2000b) wrote a letter in response to Daniel Mendelsohn’s excellent review of Rosenfield’s book. Rosenfield disagrees with a conclusion both Mendelsohn (2000) and I had entertained, i.e., in Freud’s Megalomania: The Novel, Rosenfield was making fun of both camps in the “Freud Wars.” “The book is principally about the present state of the cognitive sciences (including psychoanalysis) and the nature of scientific, political and intellectual authority—issues that are completely ignored by both sides in the ‘Freud Wars’.” And later in the letter Rosenfield states: “The book is cast as a joke because this seemed to be the only way to ‘seriously’ discuss the issues without falling into what Mendelsohn so kindly says my book is ‘blessedly free of”—the ‘protesting-too-much’ that characterizes both sides: in the Freud debates, and, I might add, some discussions in the neurosciences as well”(p. 100).

In conclusion, however one reads Rosenfield’s delightful book, I would strongly recommend reading it at least twice. It is great fun, a good teacher of Freud, and a book that one could play with endlessly.


Blumenthal, R. (1981, November 22). Freud and wife’s sister called probable lovers. The New York Times.

Mahony, P. (1982). Freud as a writer. New York: International Univ. Press.

Masson, J. M. (1984). The assault on truth: Freud’s suppression of the Seduction Theory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mendelsohn, D. (2000). Fun with Freud. [Review of the book Freud’s megalomania: A novel]. New York Review of Books, 47 (18), 26-29.

Rosenfield, I. (2000a). Freud’s megalomania: A novel. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Rosenfield, I. (2000b). Freud’s megalomania [Letter to the Editors]. New York Review of Books, 47 (20), p.100.

Smith, D. (2000, December 9). Analysts turn to P.R. to market themselves. The New York Times on the Web. [Online] www.nytimes.com

© DSPP Bulletin, December 2000

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