Freud's Office: The Birth of Modern Thought

Visiting the site of the psychoanalytic revolution

Posted Feb 03, 2015

Pilgrims have their Meccas; as a shrink, I had Freud’s office.

It was now the Freud Museum, located downhill on an urbane street that radiated off the main Ringstrasse. It was one of many similar elegant rowhouses, not unlike the Upper East Side of New York City. Berggasse 19.

Despite the large monolithic sign sticking up as a vertical tower outside the building, the entrance itself was obscure, like a secret club. A simple apartment buzzer was labeled next to other buzzers. Handwritten were instructions to buzz and push open the heavy wooden door simultaneously. I could’ve been visiting my college buddy in Morningside Heights.

A quiet marble staircase led upstairs. Then a small door to the museum. Basically an old apartment suite. There was a larger space with high ceilings and arched entryways, with a side art exhibit inside, but off to the corner was the main draw.

A dark, velvety small corner room gave off a weird Victorian intimacy. A glass case held Freud’s hat and cane, and a small metal sign had in block letters “PROF DR FREUD/3-4.” (Rather limited hours.) His diplomas were on the walls, including one from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts,—my birthplace. (My father was there, training in psychiatry also. A direct educational line of descent going on here.) There was a tight, furnished section. The waiting area, snug like an armpit, covered in carpets and dark wood and velvet chairs. Here the patients would have sat, also heavy in their long skirts and corsets and brocade suits—respite from a job, a noisy tram car, a fractured marriage—or nervous, hopeful, angry, waiting to see the Wizard.

Entering the office, it was surprisingly bright and cheery, with blonde wooden floors, encircled by a display board of old photos and a timeline of Freud’s life. The furniture was gone, spirited away during his escape from the Nazis in the late 1930s to an office in equally posh and urbane North London. The monochrome photos show the famous couch, swathed in Aladdin carpets and velvet pillows. More like Ali Baba’s harem than the birthplace of modern psychoanalysis. Perhaps fitting though, given psychoanalysis’ themes.

Through the next door was Freud’s private office, also bright and spare, like a washed-out mind. It was hard to imagine an intellectual revolution burgeoning in this very civil space. The view out the window, with some trees, random sheds, and other buildings, was placidly banal. Life seemed as pedestrian here as in any similar therapist’s office today.

And yet a revolution did explode (or rather implode) here. In place of arbitrary superstition and religious conjecture was the ability to look inward, to go back to one’s literal roots for the answers, instead of upward and outward, comfortable externals and pat fantasies. This quiet space was the site of a dense implosion, modern thought caved into a supernova gone dense into its black hole. Your parents, your childhood, your animal instincts—what was real was what was immediate yet hidden just below the surface. It was all in the looking, the willingness to face the things we want to bury most, yet remain closest to our hearts all along. We build illusions for years, not unlike sloppy layers of lacquer and false colors applied to ancient works of art. Freud was the one who said there is a way to cautiously peel off the layers, to look at what is true underneath the hastily laid defenses of our frightened psyches. The quiet revolution was to trust our own human capacity for reason, for analysis. To trust in our mind’s ability to build narratives and reconstruct them, to rewrite our stories and uncover the original tropes. This was the new Iron Age, a mental one that Freud wrought.

Although the century to follow led to multiple greater revolutions in science and thought and also greater chaos leading us to the brink of global disaster and world wars, Freud’s groundbreaking work remains relevant. Perhaps not so much in the content of his sometimes sexually outlandish theories, which have become unfortunate parody fodder, but in the method—the willingness to question, to doubt, and to explore one’s own dark motivations, one’s feeble soul. The freedom to let the mind associate openly, via both creation and destruction, via randomness and logic, to important new theories and discussions.

Unfortunately, we are in danger of taking that mental freedom for granted at times; anti-intellectual forces like to retreat behind childish egos and rigidity, leading to primitive acts of terrorism and censorship, and winner-take-all socioeconomic greed and gamesmanship. Here, Freud’s office was a beacon of psychological evolution, of hopes for a peaceful society valuing critical thought, internal insight and examination. While Vienna, Austria, has become peaceful again after the dark decades post-Freud’s exile, and a century later, America’s democracy percolates along at a bizarre if troubled technology-driven pace, will the ever-shrinking, ever-growing world find its way to real progress? Will intellectual honesty survive?

Copyright 2015, Jean Kim

Photo of Freud's Waiting Room by Jean Kim, 2014. 

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