BOOK REVIEW / The importance of writing to Ernest: 'The Complete Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939' - ed R Andrew Paskauskas: Belknap/Harvard, 29.95 pounds

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IN MAY 1908, Freud wrote to Jung, who had recommended the young Ernest Jones to him as a possible assistant: 'Jones is undoubtedly a very interesting and worthy man, but he gives one a feeling of, I was almost going to say, racial strangeness. He is a fanatic and doesn't eat enough . . . 'Let me have men about me that are fat,' says Caesar etc. He almost reminds me of the lean and hungry Cassius. He denies all heredity; to his mind even I am a reactionary.'

In his subtle introduction to this massive book, which follows Freud's longest single correspondence with a first-generation collaborator, Riccardo Steiner displays an understanding of the passage of time and its effects - blurring, distortion, caricature - together with a sense both grand and intimate of the period spanned by these hundreds of letters. He calls up the declining empires (British and Austro-Hungarian) under which the correspondence starts, and the primitive but efficacious paraphernalia of that correspondence ('fat fountain pens, the first mastodonic typewriters'). To his psychoanalytical awareness of undercurrents Steiner brings a complementary literary instinct for the precise word.

This humane caution also distinguishes the editing. Paskauskas has translated Freud's letters from the German where necessary. Early in the correspondence, Jones confessed that he could not read the Gothic script of the 'pontifex maximus'; Freud diagnosed this (his jokes are among the letters' pleasures) as 'Alexia Gotica' and wrote thereafter in Latin characters.

The tone of the letters progresses from wariness on Freud's part and a fervent jockeying discipleship on Jones's, through innumerable psychoanalytical chores and snarl-ups, to friendship; and eventually, as the early uncomfortable tension between respect and rivalry adumbrates, to something close to the relation of father and heir. At Jones's initiative, Freud moved in 1938 from Vienna to London, where he died 16 days into the Second World War; the first account of Freud's life was written by Jones.

The monumentality and authority of Freud's thought characterise his side of the correspondence. The deep bourgeois loam of his home life, and his pleasure in mushroom-gathering and cigars, emphasise his unaffected nature. The letters return over the years to a mutual preoccupation with Shakespeare, especially Hamlet; late in life Freud became convinced by the theory that Shakespeare was the Earl of Oxford. This is the nearest we get to evidence of a bee in a bonnet otherwise roaring with tremendous hornets. If Freud lacks the human fear of truth, he is also without self-righteousness.

These wants make him terrifying yet merciful; they give the percipience and cool analytical power that were his genius. His style has a logical penetration and scope that eradicate confusion and distend the reading mind, lifting its capabilities. Jones, whose letters are not elegantly written, is touchy, devious, hiding from the truth as he purports to seek it. In at least one way, the correspondence resembles a satisfying novel, taking the reader on a journey from something close to dislike of Jones to a comprehensive tenderness for him; and the letters also constitute an enthralling account of the life of Europe's intelligentsia for the first decades of the century.

Both men worked enormously. At the beginning of the correspondence, Freud was 50, well, and at the pinnacle of Viennese intellectual life, a man more roundly educated in the arts of Jones's own country and language than Jones himself, who was a medical man before all else. During the years covered here, Jones saw 11 or 12 analysands a day, managed the British Psychoanalytical Society, the International Psychoanalytical Library and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis; he was also translating Freud's earliest works. His personal life was complicated. Although he was one of the inner circle whom Freud did not analyse, these letters in some way amount to an analysis as Freud waits for the truth to emerge from Jones about his relations with various women. The directness of a letter from Freud will have Jones squirming, denying, transferring - and, after a few more letters, admitting another unhelpful emotional vermiculation. Professionally, the schism between Freud and Jung, and the arguments between Freud and Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, are only the most famous among a host of intriguing and painful fallings-out anatomised here.

Most painful of all, and posing the profoundest questions about human life and its proper end, are the reactions of these two rational atheists to disease and death. Each of them endures the loss of a child. There is distinction in their despair that avoids sterility while refusing all consolation but that of a high mind and the stubborn will to life. In his grief at the death of his seven-year-old daughter, Jones turns for comfort to the mentor whose life's work has been his own life; Freud can offer no false comfort. This magisterial correspondence moves clearly through deep waters, scraping from the most sceptical reader's mind the barnacles of triviality and debasement that have grown upon the study of psychoanalyis.

(Photograph omitted)