We live in a world shaped by the thought of Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology: he established theories on sexuality and the unconscious that are inseparable from our twentieth century of the mind. We also live with a traditional view of the Founder as a chaste and puritanical man, a scientist of flawless integrity. He created and ruled over a worldwide psychoanalytic establishment, yet in 1934, he said:
“Nobody knows or has ever guessed the real secret of my work.”
Throughout the century, psychologists, biologists, theologists, feminists and social critics have used Freud’s own writings to challenge his theories. The intellectual game of using Freud to give Freud a whipping has been practiced by generations of biographers and historians as well. And yet, despite the dark secrets of Freud’s life — the “anomaly” of his cocaine use, rumors of his love affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays — the sacrosanct image of the Founder has endured, protected and burnished by his followers in their fortresses, the Sigmund Freud Archives in New York and the U.S. Library of Congress, where crucial documents are withheld from public view — some until the twenty-second century.
But now, the Freudian fastness is beset by a new attack; now there is a startling portrait of a Freud that no one knew existed. This is a Freud of vanity and ambition, of drugs and demonology, who elevated and codified his own narcotic and sexual obsessions into the “science” of psychoanalysis. This is a Freud whose intellectual development was deeply affected by his secret love affair with Minna, her subsequent pregnancy and the abortion he may have arranged for her at an Alpine spa. And what is most remarkable about this portrait is that it is far more consistent with Freudian theory than the standard image of Freud.
This new portrait comes from without the walls of the Freudian bastion, from outside the universities, psychiatric hospitals and institutes — from another world: it comes from Peter Swales, the self-styled “punk historian of psychoanalysis,” a thirty-six-year-old Welshman now living in New York, who departed on his fifteen-year odyssey into the life and mind of Freud from the Kingdom of Their Satanic Majesties, the Rolling Stones.
“Freud’s work began in drugs and hypnotic suggestion, which belong to the tradition of black magic and demonology much more than they do to medicine proper,” Swales announces in an interview at his Lower East Side tenement. His slight form is draped across a windowsill; he is tossing clots of grease to a crowd of cats milling in the air shaft four flights below. “And indeed, psychoanalysis has a kind of narcotic property: we all know the cliché of people addicted to their shrinks . . .
“I have always been interested in the drug culture and rock & roll because in microcosm they amplify tendencies that are prevalent in modern culture as a whole. And the point here is that Freud is incredibly contemporary. In a sense, in getting involved with cocaine, Freud was a precursor of rock culture by eighty years. We live in a narcotic culture,” Swales concludes, tossing himself into a kitchen chair to light a cigarette, “and anyone who can’t see that has to be in a fucking stupor.”
Not everyone sees it Swales’ way: his attack on the “science” of psychoanalysis has stung the Freudian establishment. Author Janet Malcolm reports on his intellectual wars in a gripping book, In the Freud Archives, a chronicle that depicts the staid sherry-sipping world of Freudian scholarship as a backstabbing, neurotic swamp. But in this swamp, Swales has shown a remarkable ability to swim and snap: his self-published essays are now near legends in some psychoanalytic circles; the shelves of his bedroom office are lined with neatly bound and indexed letters from psychoanalysts, psychologists and historians around the world; at his first public lecture, at New York University on November 18th, 1981, Swales exhaled a three-hour disquisition on Freud’s affair with Minna Bernays to an audience of 175 analysts, psychologists, sociologists, rabbinical scholars, academics and students. It was met with a standing ovation and not a word of dissent.
How a rock & roll fanatic from provincial Wales ended up “one of the world’s leading authorities — perhaps the leading authority — on the early life of Freud and on the early history of psychoanalysis,” as Malcolm called him, has to be one of the more bizarre intellectual odysseys of a generation. By approaching psychoanalysis through the drug culture, as did Freud himself, Swales employs the demonism, death obsession, stupefaction, paranoia and hype of the Sixties rock culture in the service of historical scholarship, and gives us good reason to defy the Freudian image of the mind as a nightmare from which we are unlikely to awake.
Sixteen years ago, in the fall of 1968, a twenty-year-old Peter Swales walked into a Georgian town house on the Thames in Chelsea, London, to be interviewed for a new promotional job with the Rolling Stones. The band’s most recent single, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” had reestablished its reputation after the critical fiasco of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the album that LSD had made. Their next album, Beggar’s Banquet, was about to profess sympathy for the Devil and revolution in the streets. The man Swales had come to meet was twenty-five-year-old Mick Jagger, the Crown Prince of Darkness.
In the midst of filming Performance with director Nicolas Roeg, Jagger had transformed himself into the decadent and demonic rock superstar he was portraying. Brian Jones’ ex-girlfriend, actress Anita Pallenberg, had filled the Knightsbridge mansion where Performance was being filmed with satanic icons and symbols. Swales now encountered the Monkey Man-Demon in his own drawing room, near a dark altar covered with drapes and candles.
“Jagger talked such a lot of rot,” Swales recalls. “All this revolutionary stuff: couldn’t we sell Beggar’s Banquet off the backs of lorries all over England, because Decca wouldn’t release it with a toilet on the cover, and such. It was pretty weird, because he kept poncing about in front of a mirror in his long hair and makeup. A right little Narcissus. I knew then how to be cheeky. He talked politics, and I kept talking ‘theater’ and ‘product,’ but with a twinkle in my eye, as if I knew the terms of the game.”
Swales had been living by his wits in London since the age of seventeen. A promising academic career had been foretold for this lad from Wales, but in February 1963, “Please Please Me” was Number One on the charts, and Swales’ schoolwork collapsed almost overnight. Growing his hair long, he began running off to London to hear Manfred Mann, the Yardbirds, the Who and the Animals, and was finally booted out of school in 1965 by his disgusted headmaster. He headed for London, ostensibly to attend piano-tuner school, but instead landed a trainee position in the record-sales division at EMI. There he wandered the halls, passing the word on Tamla-Motown and compulsively filling notebooks with maniacal formulas for calculating musical success. “I was so nice and naive in a way,” Swales recalls, “and on the other hand I was terribly manipulative, secretly. This duality has been a constant source of tension in my life.”
Through apparent guilelessness and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock music, Swales advanced to an under-assistant promo position at Marmalade Records and became the protégé of Giorgio Gomelsky, the first manager of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. Swales’ confident enthusiasm led to his interview with Jagger, but beneath this competent exterior was a painfully shy youth from the provinces. Living with a rock band called Blossom Toes, immersed in the “swinging London” of the mid-Sixties, he smoked his fair share of hashish, sampled a few psychedelics and took speed to dance all night at clubs around the city. But by and large, he kept his drug usage on a modest scale, fearing he might actually damage his “brain organ,” his surest instrument of survival.
Instead he became a fascinated observer of the aberrant behavior and personality changes that accompany drug use. “All around me there were casualties,” Swales recalls, “guys who blew their brains out and never came back. At the same time, I was interested in what people were overcome by.” This early fascination with the psyche had been shaped by a Russian-born mystic and psychologist, Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff, whose writings Swales received from a friend. “I felt an overwhelming shock of recognition,” Swales recalls. “So I’m not mad! I’m quite sane! People don’t know who they are! It totally changed my life. The basic postulate of the Gurdjieffian world view is that man is in a thousand pieces, every one of which calls itself ‘I’ but none of which is. Each of these fragments coexists oblivious to the existence of the others — only at moments do we get any perception of these contradictions existing between all these fragments.” Swales would later transform this insight into a methodological approach to Freud, but at the time, it provided a power to manipulate the madness of the decade.
“It was, if you like, almost like black magic — something that I’d artificially obtained but hadn’t paid for,” Swales says. “By marrying myself to this Gurdjieffian world, which was only what I intuitively felt anyway, I, for a moment, could see the structure of society in a way that enabled me to outwit it. And that’s how I came to work for the Rolling Stones — in a totally precarious situation.
“I suppose I was scared to work for the Stones — Satanism, you know. But then again, it seemed exciting for just that reason . . . I decided that I would allow myself to get jaded very fast. I wanted to see through the Stones’ mystique, the Stones’ charisma, the Stones’ image. I didn’t want to be liable to it anymore. This had been my dilemma since I was fourteen, when I looked up to the Beatles and the Stones and idolized them. Now I wanted to see what their brilliance was or wasn’t.”
Swales was hired by the Stones a year and a half after drug busts had nearly destroyed the band. The rebirth of the group after nearly three years without a major tour, and the massive success of Beggar’s Banquet, released that December, meant that a kind of family business had to be reorganized into a worldwide financial and musical empire. Nominally the promotions man, Swales in fact served an undefined role as general assistant and subtle master of hustle and hype. He spent much of his time as a liaison between the band and Decca but was also called upon to hail taxis and stage-manage love affairs for Jagger.
Observing the band members with his cool, analytical eye, Swales was careful not to mingle with them socially, fearing that too much intimacy would backfire. “I remember once smoking a huge joint in the studio of Jagger’s Chelsea home. Mick made tea, then took me around to look at his new Moog. Suddenly I got incredibly paranoid, partly under the influence of a bit of dope, and I started thinking, ‘He’s coming on to me; he’s gay! He’s always pouting and doing these weird things at me.’ And I got really scared. I was a pretty kid, you know, very pretty. And the girl he was fucking at the time, a gofer in the office, was continually mistaken for my sister. I fled the house at the earliest possible moment without offending the guy.”
Jagger had a demoniacal aspect that used to intimidate me, because he would use it to inspire awe and fear and to get his way. I’m not putting him down for that. It came from strength, not weakness. He’s not a schizo; he would simply capitalize on the magnetism he knew very well he had. Sometimes he’d come on like Jagger the rock star. At other times he’d walk in like a drugged-out hippie. Another time he’d come in in a fancy suit like a fast-talking businessman. Another day he’d come on to me like he was my big brother. I gradually learned that the only way to deal with him was to hold one’s own center of gravity. I would have to act as if I saw through him and that it was all good fun, but things have to get done, so-let’s-cut-this-little-game-short-and-get-down-to-serious-business sort of thing, ya know? Because beneath all the acts, I found a much more benevolent demon that one could have a little laugh with, because it wasn’t that serious in the end. Jagger was perhaps less Satan than he was the Antichrist — a false prophet.”
In January 1970, Swales left the Stones. With the band back on the road as a huge act, he was encountering situations he felt incapable of handling. Close relationships in the office were disintegrating; Jagger had broken off with Marianne Faithfull, and the word had gone round the office to keep a distance from her. “One loses one’s self-respect if one has to simulate an emotional attitude according to the more or less fickle lives of the band,” says Swales. “I left because most people who go to work for the Rolling Stones tend to become swallowed by the myth and spend all their time being appendages. I felt that I had my own life to live, and great, it was wonderful while it lasted, but now I’ve seen the looking glass. I did not want to overstay my welcome; it was time to move on.”
Almost immediately, he started a rock management company called Sahara, with money provided by a wealthy director and part owner of an investment bank, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, who had just been appointed the Stones’ personal financial adviser. Swales would spend the next fifteen months blowing a quarter of a million dollars and visiting for the first time the most Freudian nation on earth. “Once I had eaten of the Big Apple, there was no going back,” Swales recalls. “New York was the modern Babylon, a whole new speed and attitude.”
He quit Sahara and emigrated to New York in June 1972, with plans to develop a screenplay he’d written. But he soon found himself at age twenty-four the vice-president of Stonehill Publishing Company, working with longtime acquaintance Jeffrey Steinberg, an enthusiastic recreational user of cocaine and a heroin addict. The following spring, Swales stumbled upon an out-of-print book — a collection of Sigmund Freud’s writings on cocaine — that he suspected might appeal to his associate. Yet it was Swales who became fascinated, and by late 1973, he was at work with Professor Robert Byck of Yale University School of Medicine compiling a new collection of Freud’s cocaine papers.
They drew documents from Freud’s extensive writings on the drug in the 1880s, the very dawn of knowledge of coca in the West. Freud had stumbled upon cocaine as a young doctor in training and was soon experimenting with the effects of the drug on his own psyche. His subsequent rejection of several former associates and an episode of paranoia during a visit to Paris in 1885-1886 seemed clearly drug related; a careless attempt to wean a friend from morphine had resulted in cocaine addiction as well, hastening his friend’s death.
In June 1974, Swales fell out with Byck and left Stonehill to write his own history of Freud’s cocaine episode. The finished manuscript was returned by an interested publisher at the end of the year, with a request for a final chapter on the role of cocaine in the origins of psychoanalysis. Swales was unprepared to deliver: too many doors were flying open in his head. That December, he moved to San Francisco and began to delve even deeper into Freud’s drug life, and this time it led to the Devil.
The notion that Sigmund Freud may have been party to a satanic pact was first broached in 1958 by an American analyst named David Bakan in his book Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition. Now Swales began to realize that the notion ran deeper in Freud’s life and thought than was previously imagined, principally because Bakan failed to take into account Freud’s fascination with Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, in which a man sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge, power and sexual vitality. “In having already studied the literature on coca, Freud knew that the Spanish conquistadors in South America had regarded the coca plant as ‘the work of the Devil,’ ” Swales argues.
“Moreover, Freud had obtained the cocaine from the chemical manufacturer Merck, of Darmstadt, in Germany. Incredibly, the great-great-grandfather of the man who supplied Freud with the cocaine was Johann Heinrich Merck, a close friend of Goethe’s whose character and personality had provided the model for Mephistopheles, the Devil in the play Faust. Freud had known Faust since his school days; he quotes it in his writings and letters more than any other work. In his fantasy life, Freud must surely have regarded cocaine as the very vehicle for achieving a satanic pact. Because in the play, the pact between Mephistopheles and Faust is consummated when Faust agrees to swallow a narcotic potion procured by the Devil to restore his virility. He succeeds in seducing a young girl, Gretchen, who remains tragically unaware of his infernal complicity.
“One could say, simplistically speaking, that along similar lines Freud evolved psychoanalysis precisely as a means for opening the hearts of beautiful, desirable women. In a sense, he would ultimately succeed in developing a psychological system that consists of rules and methodology — free association, the whole atmosphere of séance — that could artificially invoke the most basic psychological phenomena that are to be found in drug taking. In other words, Freud transformed cocaine and narcotics into the very medium that is now psychoanalysis.”
Not only was analysis a disguised compact with the Devil, Swales now realized, but cocaine was the actual source of Freud’s hypothesis of a chemical substance in the body that serves as the organic agent of the supposed libido, the basic motivational drive in the Freudian world view. Freudian psychology was suddenly revealed as less a psychology of sexuality and the unconscious than one of narcotics and drug-stimulated fantasy.
Confronted with such deviousness, Swales began to undergo the worst crisis of his life. Through Sigmund Freud, he began to confront “the monster that existed in myself” — his own addictive powers of manipulation. “There was certainly a subjective drive in my work,” Swales concedes, “but there wasn’t a bias or a tendency — that would be a corrupt way of looking at it. Rather, I had had experiences that enabled me to liquefy my assets in doing business with Sigmund Freud.”
Unearthing extraordinary and controversial information on the origins of psychoanalysis, but ill equipped to evaluate it properly, Swales felt like an Englishman washed up at the ends of the earth. “The insights, the revelations I was getting were too powerful for me to deal with at that time,” he says. By May 1975, Swales had moved to New Mexico, where “somewhat reluctantly and rather to my surprise, I had to confront the fact that I was an intellectual, and that if there was one thing I was good at, it had to do with the realms of ideas and research.”
In February 1976, he returned to his parents’ home in Haverfordwest, Wales, where he spent the next forty-six months at a desk in a chilly attic wrestling with a demon — Sigmund Freud. “What you must understand,” he says, “is that I sat there through the night until six in the morning for nearly four years. I wasn’t living in Wales in the modern world at all. I was living in nineteenth-century Vienna in the world of Sigmund Freud.”
Reading through all of Freud’s writings, along with associated literature from dozens of obscure Austro-German medical journals, Swales began to reassemble the scattered fragments of Freud’s early life in precise chronological order. He concentrated on the decades before the virtual completion of Freudian psychology in 1905-1906, and especially on Freud’s self-analysis in the years 1897 to 1901. Surveying the principal books in Freud’s life in conjunction with his letters, Swales discovered not a man of science but an inventor of personas, much like Mick Jagger, only much more complex and grandiose — a man counterfeiting history by passionately reliving aspects of the lives of Don Quixote, Faust, Don Juan, Hannibal, Napoleon, Leonardo da Vinci, Moses and Oedipus.
Swales also discovered enormous hiatuses in the factual knowledge of Freud and his circle, in part because of Freud’s own reluctance to divulge much about his personal life. One avenue for remedying this situation had been opened by a German scholar, Siegfried Bernfeld, in a crucial paper written in 1946. Correlating known biographical data on Freud with the facts of an 1899 case study, “Screen Memories,” Bernfeld proved that the paper was actually a disguised autobiographical fragment from Freud’s own self-analysis: Freud had fraudulently played the part of analyst and patient at once. Swales now began to follow Bernfeld’s example, examining the suppressed relationships between Freud’s scientific papers and his life and mind. By assuming that psychoanalysis was based largely on autobiographical insights, Swales gradually began to uncover what he calls “a royal road” for confronting an entirely new conception of the man.
A few months before arriving in Wales, Swales had examined the “Aliquis episode,” in Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), in a chapter concerned with the unconscious motives of forgetting. Freud encounters a young man on a holiday and successfully analyzes why the man has forgotten a word from a line from Virgil: “Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor” — “Let someone [aliquis] rise up from my bones as an avenger!” Freud explains, with preposterous insight, that this tiny lapse represents an unconscious expression of the man’s fear that a certain young lady may miss her menstrual period. “It stank,” says Swales. “It was too good to be true.”
Swales began his own analysis by noting remarkable similarities between the young man and Freud himself, and concluded that this presumed self-analysis could only have taken place during Freud’s 1900 trip to the Alps with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays. The possibility that Freud may have conducted an affair and worried about a pregnancy afterward found support in statements by Carl Jung, who claimed in 1957 that Minna had confessed the relationship to him. “I was inclined to think, well, what guy who went off on at least twelve documented occasions on holidays to beautiful regions in the Alps with his wife’s sister, beginning when he’s forty-four and she’s thirty-five and at the prime of her life, and with whom he has a strong intellectual rapport — my gut reaction was, well, if the man didn’t fuck her, then he’s got to be nuts.”
Swales’ suspicions were deepened in November 1977, through a rereading of an avowedly autobiographical dream analysis from Freud’s On Dreams, published soon after his 1900 trip with Minna. Freud interprets his own dream as an expression of a wish for an experience of love that for once would cost him nothing.
Swales surmised that this could only be a reference to the medical expenses Minna incurred at the Alpine spa and his own feelings of guilt and selfishness over the affair. Late one night a few weeks later, Swales reread another episode of misremembering in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, this time concerning a young man’s misquotation of Goethe’s poem “The Bride of Corinth.” The poem concerns an Athenian youth who travels to Corinth to meet his future bride; her mother welcomes him into the house, then leaves him alone. Suddenly a beautiful maiden enters the room; they talk, drink wine and soon make love. The mother returns, horrified — because the young woman is not his betrothed, but his intended wife’s sister. Swales believed that the man suppressing and misremembering certain crucial passages of the poem could only be Freud himself. Then it dawned on Swales that Freud must have conceived of himself as the mythical Corinthian, Oedipus, making incestuous love to a woman who lived in his house for forty years and acted as his children’s surrogate mother. Minna became a disguised or reincarnated version of the legendary Catholic nursemaid of his youth, who played a crucial role in Freud’s discovery of infantile sexuality and his invention of the Oedipal theory.
Swales then coupled this interpretation with another significant development in Freud’s life: at the beginning of that fateful holiday in 1900, Freud had fallen out with his close friend and father substitute, Wilhelm Fliess, and indulged in murderous fantasies before breaking off their relationship forever. Thus Swales’ complex, yet cogent, historical reconstruction had uncovered the biographical origins of a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory: that Freud had consciously “murdered” his “father” and slept with his “mother” a decade before enshrining the Oedipal drama as a universal principle of human psychology.
By the end of 1977, Swales considered himself in possession of a vast revisionist concept of Freud. He also felt a need to prove that he had his head screwed on right. Rereading all the early Freud literature, noting statements that might correlate with recorded history or possible testimony from living individuals, he began sending off dozens of inquiries in German and English — not only to scholars and historians but to anyone who might conceivably contribute recollections of Freud. “Within weeks I was getting twenty letters a day. Of course, this naturally stimulated me to want to travel very soon to see what had survived.”
And so he was off on the first of eight trips to Europe, tracing the footsteps of Sigmund Freud. Surviving on shoestring budgets, borrowing cars and staying with his wife Julia’s extended family and a number of scholars he had met through his prolific letter writing, the two spent literally hundreds of hours in archives and libraries, scavenging through monumental amounts of data from an age when people wrote letters as often as people today lift a telephone. Swales gradually began to accumulate reams of previously unknown information about Freud and his circle — including fifty family trees, vast material on the Bernays family and enough information to compose a biography of Wilhelm Fliess, of whom next to nothing had previously been known. There were numerous blind alleys and false leads, but also dozens of dramatic discoveries crucial to Swales’ evolving portrait of Freud. He learned from the son of Fleiss’ best friend, traced through the West Berlin phone book, that Fliess was convinced Freud had a plot to lure him to an Alpine precipice and toss him off. But Swales’ most spectacular find concerned the identity of the most important patient of Freud’s life — his “prima donna,” his “teacher,” whom he called in his writings Frau Cäcilie M.
From Freud’s writings, Swales knew that Frau Cäcilie M. was a poet, and wealthy, and therefore in all likelihood published; it took him a year to realize that Freud might have possessed a copy of her work.
Scrutinizing a catalog of Freud’s personal library from his home in Maresfield Gardens, London, he found that indeed there was a single collection of poems by a woman, Anna von Lieben, a close relative of an important acquaintance of Freud. Swales later learned from a descendant of von Lieben a previously unknown fact: that she was a morphine addict. Freud had visited her twice daily for three years to inject her with the drug, to “hasten the end” of her hysterical attacks. When Swales later obtained a copy of Freud’s complete correspondence with Fliess, he would notice a hitherto deleted phrase from a previously published letter in which Freud declines to visit Berlin because of the need to care for his most important patient — “and during my absence,” the line continues, “she may recover her health.”
Swales continued to uncover information that had eluded scholars for generations, yet he increasingly came up against the restrictions the Freud establishment places on masses of material about Freud’s life. The avowed purpose of these restrictions is to shield individuals and families who might be wounded by the confidential revelations obtained in psychoanalysis and to prevent selective quotation that might distort Freud’s life and work. But the real reason, Swales argues, is to keep the establishment’s version of Freud as a kind of Holy Writ that must be fiercely protected from direct inquiry.
In the summer of 1979, Swales’ entrepreneurial resourcefulness as a researcher was rewarded: a recently acquired set of Freud’s letters had mysteriously appeared on the unrestricted list at the Library of Congress. Swales immediately wrote away and received photocopies of two-thirds of them, along with a letter requesting that he apply to Dr. Kurt Eissler, director of the Freud Archives, for the rest. Needless to say, Swales did not hurry to write, but by February 1980, less than a month after returning from Wales to New York City, he at last contacted Eissler, only to learn that his coup had already been noticed.
Kurt Eissler is one of the world’s preeminent psychoanalysts. A bluntly spoken yet distinguished Austrian Jew in his midseventies, he is upright in his conviction that Sigmund Freud was a near-perfect man — a view he has propounded in a shelf full of nearly unreadable books. Although Swales considered Eissler’s obsession with Freud slightly daft, he held him in high esteem for the breadth of his purely factual knowledge.
At their first meeting, Eissler chastised Swales for obtaining copies of letters he had no right to see. Finally Eissler asked why he’d bothered, and Swales revealed the tip of the iceberg of his discoveries — omitting his more radical lines of inquiry. By the end of the hour, Eissler was enthusiastically offering him the first of two research grants. Swales had penetrated the sanctum sanctorum of Freudian scholarship and had won the support of the most powerful man in the Freud establishment; he felt like a spy about to fall upon the greatest cache of secret information in the world.
Within weeks, the projects director of the Freud Archives, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, contacted Swales with a request for information about a few of Freud’s early patients. Masson was Eissler’s goldenes Kind — his golden boy, a flamboyant, impulsive, often brilliant analyst who had been a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Toronto. To judge from Malcolm’s book-length indictment of his character, Masson was a sociopathic charmer who had overwhelmed the better judgment of the stern Dr. Eissler — and of the close to 1000 women who had leaped into his bed. Swales knew next to nothing of Masson at this juncture, but he did know that he himself was in possession of secret information that would be vital to Masson’s work as editor of the complete Freud correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess.
In addition to boxes of new Fliess material he had located in a basement in East Berlin, Swales had discovered that Fliess’ daughter, alive and living in an old folk’s home in Israel, had donated two huge stacks of Fliess’ papers to the Hebrew Museum in Jerusalem — an invaluable repository of information previously unknown to scholars. It represented the kind of treasure that most historians stumble upon once in a lifetime, if at all. Now, in a correspondence that resembled “two dogs sniffing at each other,” in Malcolm’s phrase, Masson flattered Swales for his detective brilliance, while Swales waved scraps of information in Masson’s face, hoping to be granted access to Freud correspondence crucial to his own Fliess biography. Finally, Masson promised to provide Swales with hundreds of restricted letters in exchange for everything that Swales knew. An agreement was struck, and Swales delivered his material.
Over a period of many months, during which Masson failed to produce a single restricted letter, Swales came to his own realization about the man. “Masson wanted to usurp my reputation as a ‘dogged Freud sleuth’ and to arrogate it to himself,” Swales claims. “He’s an impostor trying to pass himself off as a brilliant archival historian.”
In the spring of 1981, Masson sent Swales a copy of a lecture that he had recently delivered. Swales considered the work a disgusting piece of trash and he decided to denounce the man to Eissler; an ensuing telephone conversation terminated the Masson-Swales relationship. It was at this juncture that Swales spent three days writing a forty-five-page single-spaced letter — a masterpiece of invective recounting the panorama of Masson’s sins. “The narrative sweep, the energy, the intelligence and the high spirits of Swales’ writing,” wrote Malcolm, “outweigh the triviality of much of what he says and the lunacy of the lengths to which he goes to say it.”
A copy of this diatribe came into the hands of a New York Times reporter, Ralph Blumenthal, who contacted Swales, hoping to get him to talk about his Minna thesis and the Freud-Fliess murder “plot.” Swales declined. Blumenthal suggested that he would talk to Masson instead, and Swales told him to go ahead. With his talent for media manipulation, Swales knew that Blumenthal would so flatter Masson that he would blab his eccentric theory on why Freud had repudiated his “seduction” theory of 1897, which had traced hysteria to sexual abuse in childhood rather than to unconscious fantasy, as later Freudian theory insisted. The would-be director of the Freud Archives considered that Freud’s change of heart had much to do with peer pressure and the need to preserve his faltering career. Sure enough, Masson blabbed his head off, the article appeared in the New York Times in the summer of 1981, and Masson’s goose was cooked. His association with the archives was terminated for his use of restricted material to further his own idiosyncratic theories. If he had only controlled himself, he would have had access to enough unknown Freud material to last him a lifetime.
Swales suspects that certain aspects of his own findings will be altered only when the Freud Archives finally opens its stacks or new information appears from some other quarter. Until then, he eagerly waits for factually grounded counterattacks and refutations of his work, although few have come along; usually he must settle for ad hominem expressions of distaste or a general uneasiness about the almost perverse subtlety of his arguments, many of which are indeed constructed around what he calls “an uncanny ubiquity of coincidences.” Janet Malcolm called his NYU lecture on Freud’s Minna affair “a dazzling tour de force”: “The whole thing is immensely satisfying to contemplate as a piece of intellectual work; there are no loose ends, all the pieces fit, the joints are elegant. But it’s all wrong. It’s like a Van Meegeren forgery of Vermeer, in which all the pieces fit, too, but from which the soul of the original is entirely, almost absurdly, missing.” Malcolm’s substantive reservation proved to be the fact that she could not imagine that Freud sat down a few months after Minna’s abortion “and cheerfully worked these miserable and sordid events into his clever and light-hearted Aliquis analysis. How callous can a man get?”
Six months after his triumph at NYU, Swales wrote an even more outrageous paper, suggesting that callousness is hardly the word. Swales argued that Freud was determined to seduce his sister-in-law as early as 1897, at around the time he first conceived of using the Oedipus myth as a motif to reflect infantile sexual dynamics. Two colleagues were nominating Freud for a full professorship, but Vienna was seething with anti-Semitism at the time, and Freud felt unwilling to “crawl to the cross” in order to receive such an appointment. That September, he journeyed deep into Italy and was confronted by the oppressive yet magnificent Christian culture all around him. He viewed the murals of the Renaissance painter Signorelli, which depicted the theme of the coming of the Antichrist and the end of the world.
A year later, Freud wrote his first self-analysis, about his forgetting the name Signorelli. Swales argued that Freud’s conscious identification with the Antichrist was the most passionate fantasy of his life, that Freud had seen his own reflected image in Signorelli’s frescoes and, further, that Freud’s entire self-analysis was actually a disguised Christ burlesque, conjuring the memory of his imagined infantile sexual feelings for his Catholic nursemaid as a mask for Minna, with himself at her Madonna-like breast.
The inevitable conclusion: that Freud in his fantasy life transformed Minna into the reincarnation of his childhood Madonna, only to seduce rather than venerate her; that his self-analysis became his crucifixion and resurrection; and that the resulting doctrine of Freudian psychoanalysis became his cathedral — where he was to be worshiped as both the Messiah and the Antichrist.
“By the turn of the century, Freud was completely possessed of the Devil,” Swales says. “He had graduated from the role of Faust to Mephistopheles, whereupon all these new Fausts come into the picture — his early disciples — each of whom makes his own pact with Mephistopheles-Freud.”
But isn’t this a bit . . . mad?
Swales opens a book, turning the pages to Freud’s own words: “You do not know that I am the Devil? I have had to play the Devil all my life, so that others could build the most beautiful cathedral with the material I produced.”
On the anniversary of the day St. Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland, Peter and Julia are enjoying a dinner of sausage and potato salad to celebrate the arrival of Julia’s stepfather from South America. Well into a bottle of rum, Swales is jabbing ferociously at his food with a knife and fork, while his “aesthetic muse,” Kate Bush, warbles on a cassette player from the top of the refrigerator. He is describing psychoanalysis as little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It seems to me that analysts, by and large, live a very ‘dildo’ existence,” Swales says. “Their contact with life is so vicarious. They’re locked in a permanent state of infantilism in terms of subordination to substitute parental figures — be they institutes, analytic societies, hospitals, whatever — or for that matter society itself, which funds them. They’re not free thinkers, because they’re not capable of it. Unlike analysts — or for that matter all academics — I never made a pact and mortgaged my soul to any Satan. If one were to concede that there is some truth in my ‘gnostic’ version of Freud — why it should be that I came up with all this — I would have to say that this is the sole reason: I was thinking for myself.”
Swales insists that he came to Freud without prejudices, but in fact his sensibility had been shaped — some critics might say poisoned — by rock culture. Perhaps only a survivor of the late Sixties could have seen through the demonic imagery, manipulation and paranoia at the root of Freud’s life and thought by fastening on the greatest legacy of that decade: its iconoclasm, its rebellion against authority and desire for personal freedom. Except for a few passionate enthusiasms — Kate Bush, Nina Hagen and Laurie Anderson — Swales has little interest in today’s music; he returns to his own version of his music roots later this evening at a small community hall in Little Italy, where some 150 neighbors have gathered for a concert.
The emcee, a Puerto Rican woman wearing a dress slit up to the hip, introduces the next act: “Tonight we have a very special treat all the way from Wales. He is ‘one of the world’s leading authorities — perhaps the leading authority — on the early life and work of Sigmund Freud,’ and a musical sorcerer who has put on his red jacket especially for the occasion. Ladies and gentlemen, Peter Swales.”
Dressed in an Elvis Presley brocade, obviously a little drunk, the subject of this introduction moves in a buoyant stagger from the wings to center stager. He hauls a power drill out of his jacket pocket and lays it on the floor, muttering, “Sorry, they didn’t give me enough time to tune up.” Then he unwraps a shiny silver carpenter’s saw from a Spanish shawl, seats himself, positions the handle of the saw between his legs and begins to run a cello bow along its bent edge. The melody is “Molly Malone,” and a beautiful, haunting sound fills the hall. “I want to dedicate this next number to the late, great Elvis Presley,” Swales is saying, before plunging into “Are You Lonesome Tonight.”
“God bless America; I mean it,” Swales says, then finishes off with “Amazing Grace.” A half dozen people sing along.
“It was a credible interlude, wasn’t it?” he asks backstage, where he’s slugging down a beer and watching a band rip through “Gypsy in My Soul.” By the end of the night, Swales is completely plowed, strutting around the auditorium like a rock star and posing for a local photographer with a fistful of bills he has grabbed from the bar. On the street afterward, he stumbles and falls flat on the pavement, then pulls himself up to brandish the saw at a few startled motorists, running on to Houston Street to accost a cab before returning home to howl in the hallway of his building.
This is a story from the September 27, 1984 issue of Rolling Stone.