Sigmund Freud was one of many public figures who hoped to improve human life a little through their efforts. Even at eighty years old he was working on life’s problems, for example, how young people try to make order out of the “unruliness” of their psychological lives. Like family members gathered around a dying man, dimly seen ideas (“fauna of the night”) encircled him, just out of reach. He died in London “in exile.”
“Only Hate was happy,” finding extra room to treat the troubled through the old ways of hiding problems under “ashes.” Unlike that method, “all he did was to remember / like the old and be honest like children.” That is, people would restate their past honestly and find its patterns and meanings, “like a poetry lesson,” until people found a way to understand the origin of their problems. Thus people could begin to recover and then enjoy the future through forgiveness and humility, seeing how “silly” was their divergence from the “rich life” they could have been having. No more excuses or hiding behind masks or fake gestures.
Seeing the power of this new method, one could foresee that those who preyed on people’s frustrations would lose their power. Princes would fall, social norms of “the Generalised Life” would entirely lose their grip, and “the monolith / of State” would break. While such people “called on God” to exert their power, Freud went down among the lost like Dante as he envisioned a journey to Hell, both Freud and Dante observing that evil is defined not by acts alone but by their source, “our lack of faith.” Freud’s version of this observation is that people’s evil arises from denying the truth of one’s past and present, letting oneself be caught up in the false sense of inescapable oppression.
If Freud himself acted a bit autocratically, it was his own defense against enemies of his views. After all, he “often … was wrong” and sometimes “absurd.” Yet, his perspective has engendered “a whole climate of opinion” that has enlightened us. His theories provide understanding and challenge to the ways we deceive ourselves, freeing us if we try. The worry of the inner child finds new calmness, understanding, freedom, and redemption.
Further, Freud wanted to do more than release the lonely individual. He wanted to “unite” society in the same way, overcoming the fractures caused by a misguided but “well-meaning sense of justice.” Majorities would employ “wit and will,” which now are used by scheming minorities, returning to all “the mother’s richness of feeling” for all humanity together.
Even so, Freud would remind us to keep our sense of wonder about the unknown, less rational parts of mind and of society, and to tend this part of life with “love.” This dark part strives to “serve enlightenment” even if it is exposed as a traitorous “Judas.”
But now, Freud’s “rational voice” is silent, no longer helping us understand human impulses in the form of either “Eros, builder of cities,” or “weeping anarchic Aphrodite,” two different gods of love.
“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” is a difficult poem because one should have some understanding of Freud’s form of psychoanalysis in order to appreciate what Auden saw in the great thinker. Scholar Sam Alexander writes that despite “the deliberately simple style,” the poem possesses “nuances which demand interpretation,” much like a Freudian riddle. Auden wrote it in the United States upon hearing of the death of Freud on September 23, 1939, very shortly after Hitler invaded Poland and began the Second World War. It was published in The Kenyon Review in 1940.
The poem is in the form of an ode with about two dozen unrhymed quatrains (four-line stanzas), but it does not easily conform to traditional meter, with iambic order being ignored in many places. It is closer to the meter of Alcaeus, the 7th-century BC poet whose stanzas were used by Horace; it is called Auden’s first syllabic poem (inspired by the work of Marianne Moore) and one that is indicative of his growing interest in discursive poetry, in which the poet is a private conscience with a public vote. The poem is similar to “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”
As the poet suggests, Freud has been a near-mythical, towering influence. Born in 1856, he was an Austrian neurologist who developed psychoanalysis, becoming a professor in 1902 and writing many books. His writings and practice included works on the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, the id/ego/superego, infantile sexuality, the Oedipal complex, the death drive, and repression. His work was highly controversial, and contemporary scholars and psychologists claim they have discredited many of his theories. For the purposes of psychotherapy and the humanities, however, Freudian explanatory mechanisms have had practical import and value.
In the first four stanzas the poem confronts the difficulty of choosing one man to eulogize in the face of mass death (the war is one reminder of that) as well as the deaths of so many great individuals. This theme of the individual story vs. society’s story lasts throughout the poem. Note how political and social actors take advantage of individuals’ anxieties, and note the poem’s parallel between the fractured mind and a “fractured” society, drawing perhaps on Plato’s ancient metaphor of how the parts of the state mirror the parts of the soul.
In the state, and especially in the soul, there are dark memories to uncover—or, if we cannot directly uncover them, we can reveal what they might or must have been on the basis of other memories and experiences and reasoning about the course of our lives. This is the hard truth we can tell ourselves, and it is freeing, even when we recognize that some part of ourselves has betrayed us, like Judas did to Jesus as described in the New Testament. Understanding more about Freud’s method helps us understand what the poem means in, for example, explaining that Freud “merely told / the unhappy Present to recite the Past / like a poetry lesson,” making a person “able to approach the Future” with a stronger sense of reality. On the state level, uncovering the silly old reasons for social divisions and hatreds can lead to a similar kind of reconciliation and better future.
One alternative, what “Hate” does, is leave the hard and dark truths of the past hidden under scabs or, in the morbid diction of the poem, “ashes.” Society and its leaders often do the same, hiding truths under a make-believe mainstream the poem calls “the Generalised Life,” or picking at the scabs to keep them fresh instead of giving them room to heal.
But Freud’s way, the poem argues, is like Dante’s. In the great poet Dante’s Inferno, the poet himself travels through Hell under the poetic and actual guidance of his poetic predecessor Virgil. Freud’s way is poetic, too, and follows the same path, not flinching at what it finds repressed in the depths of one’s mind. People who come across his ideas even in the remotest of places can feel “the change in their bones and are cheered”; there is tremendous warmth and sympathy as the poem explains that “long-forgotten objects / revealed by his undiscouraged shining / are returned to us and made precious again.” Helping others come to terms with their past through this process, as Alexander writes, makes Freud “a liberator of unconscious memories and [is] politically liberating, but he makes clear that the social work of psychoanalysis, like poetry, must proceed at the level of the individual.” That is, Auden and Freud both disliked the “homogenizing forms of knowledge.”
A paradox in the poem is the claim that Freud “wasn’t clever at all” but just reminded us to look honestly at our own past. This makes the poem similar to Auden’s elegy of Yeats, which is similarly humbling. The absurdity of thinking that Freud was not really so clever sends us thinking about how to make sense of such a line in light of past events, which makes a good parallel with what Freud himself does psychoanalytically. Freud’s method is obvious only in retrospect, having influenced the “whole climate of opinion,” just as one’s story of one’s life only makes sense after one has put the episodes together.
The final stanza returns us to the reality of the man’s death: Freud’s personal voice is silent. Meanwhile, metaphorically, “the household of Impulse” stands over Freud’s grave, since he explained the role of impulse in the soul like no other person has. Two kinds of impulse particularly stand out. Eros represents the sublimated love that has accomplished great things in civilization as people seek to serve one another. And at the end there is Aphrodite, “weeping anarchic” Aphrodite, who represents the libido and cannot be forgotten or wished away. The challenge Freud sought to understand is how to incorporate both Eros and Aphrodite into a psychologically healthy, free, enlightened life.