Art: 1, Freud: 0
The one thing Freud admitted he could never understand.
Posted December 18, 2019
Freud’s theory was grand and sweeping, a bid to explain everything from slips of the tongue to anal sex, from dreams to foot fetishes, from fear of horses to thumbsucking. If you had a thing for overlapping toes, Freud could tell you why. If you misremembered your neighbor’s name, he was on that too. Reading him, you get the feeling Freud never met a phenomenon he couldn’t reduce to a secret essence. It’s always Halloween in Freud Land. Life is a long disguise party. The task is to crack the code, find the subtext, uncover secret wishes. A daily application of Greek mythology to the private parts, as Freud-despiser Nabokov put it.
But there was one thing, out of a universe of mental life, just one thing, that made Freud think un-Freudianly, which took his theory out for a whooping. Art. Creativity. The mystery of artistic inspiration.
It's not that he didn’t take a shot at it. And to do so, the person he focused on, someone about whom very little was known—an ideally blank canvas—was Leonardo Da Vinci. For Freud, Leonardo was a limit-case. Gathering up a theory and throwing it at a real person—a pin-the-tail on the donkey process, minus the blindfold—is the stiffest test a theory undergoes. Is it going to shed light? Are we going to understand things we didn’t before? There’s a sense in which all theories are biographies and all biographies autobiographies, and at the time he started the Leonardo book in 1910 (Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood), Freud was troubled. The sex theorist wasn’t getting any. By his late 30’s, intercourse had ended for Freud. It’s not known whether he got off in other ways, but when it stopped, some say it was because of his wife’s health. First and foremost on Freud’s mind, then, was the question of what this meant psychologically and what one does with pent-up sexual feeling. Where does the sexual feeling go?
According to Freud, Leonardo was sexually inert, so the artist made for a perfectly-timed case study—he was, by choice, what Freud was by necessity. In other words, Freud located a subject who duplicated his personal conflict. This is where the double-standard comes in. In trying to make sense of Leonardo—and, by extension, himself—Freud vacated the basics of his theory, the result an unconvincing, error-filled mess.
The mess has several elements, each a function of Freud’s need to feel better about himself. First off, he was battling homosexual feelings. He felt them for a number of men, for instance Carl Jung, in whom the attraction was reciprocated. So to comfort himself, Freud called Leonardo gay too, a great gay genius. The conclusion lacked evidence, but Freud leaped to it anyway. Except for one thing. Leonardo, Freud asserted (again without evidence), never acted on his desires. His homosexuality was “passive,” a sort of Platonic homosexuality. This was having your cake and eating it too. You could be gay in theory. You could be gay and not gay. By saying it never led to anything, Freud, in his mind, made gay OK. The term for this is projection. Freud put his homosexual fantasies into Leonardo; but described them as un-acted-on, desexualized. It’s almost as if they weren’t real, these fantasies. Harmless desires only, leaving genius unblemished. If the great Leonardo felt them, Freud could safely feel them too. It wasn’t bad to be gay, Freud implied, so long as you never did anything about it. A pretend gay. A gay matrix.
Next Freud got even less Freudian. Think about it. Here’s a man who said we were all polymorphously perverse, all inherently bisexual, all beset by dreams of incest (the so-called Oedipus Complex). All, that is, except Leonardo, whom Freud decided was a “rare and perfect type.” How so? He “coolly repudiated” sexuality, a “thing scarcely expected of an artist.” He “did not love and hate.” He “converted his passion into a thirst for knowledge,” to which he applied himself with “consistency, persistence, and penetration.” Then, at the “climax” of his intellectual labor, the long-restrained feeling broke loose and flowed away freely. You can almost hear the satisfied sighs. If there were cigarettes around, Leonardo smoked one.
Freud proposed a term for this process, sublimation, but it made no sense. To sublimate is to charge whatever you’re doing with erotic energies, to access these energies and use them productively. What you get is a sort of mental masturbation, but it’s helpful, it’s stimulating, it’s fuel. This would not have applied to Leonardo, though. He had no fuel to syphon (Freud said). There was no sex to harness. In pretending to understand Leonardo, to shed light on his artistry, Freud castrated him. It was the opposite of penis envy. Leonardo wasn’t just not really gay. He was not really human. He was, in effect, the one person beyond reach of Freud’s sex-hydraulic model, all because Freud needed to see him as a cipher. Coolly, so very coolly, he “investigated instead of loving.”
Elsewhere in his writings Freud said that, faced with creativity, the artistic impulse, psychoanalysis laid down its arms. No kidding. Nabokov called the creative artist “an exile in his study, in his bedroom, in the circle of his lamplight. He’s quite alone there; he’s the lone wolf.” Nabokov did not want any elderly gentleman from Vienna inflicting his dreams on him. It wouldn’t have mattered if he did, however. With the Leonardo book, Freud put forth a theory of art that made him into an anti-Freudian. Just like Nabokov.