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Freud: Genius of the Modern World, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Freud: Genius of the Modern World, BBC Four

Freud: Genius of the Modern World, BBC Four

Dr Freud takes his turn in the psychiatrist's chair

Presenter Bettany Hughes indulges in some blue sky thinking

Recently the television historian Bettany Hughes, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, energetic, enthusiastic and rather astonished, has tramped across the continents on our behalf, making a clutch of hour-long documentary introductions to the individuals with the most profound influence on human society. For this third and final film (made in association with the Religion and Ethics department of the Open University), she had as her quarry the medical man whose insights, however intuitive rather than scientific in the modern sense, formed and still form our view of ourselves.

Yes, it was he: Sigmund Freud, who brought us Freudian slips, the Oedipus complex, ego, super ego and id, penis envy, not to mention all our current touchy-feely talk about our own emotions, PTSD (two of his own sons fought in World War One), the interpretation of dreams, transference, and the opening up to non-censorious scrutiny of the broadest spectrum of sexual attitudes and practice. All this can be laid at the feet of Sigmund, born in 1856 into a poor Jewish family who lived in just one room in Freiburg, then Moravia, now in the Czech Republic.

Sam Goldwyn called Freud the world's greatest expert on love

By the time Freud was three, the family had moved to Vienna. We spent time wandering around the imperial city, where Sigmund was soon to be recognised for his ferocious and precocious intelligence. There were early photographs of a young and handsome Freud, and vintage film of Freud as an old man.

Back in London, we visited the Freud Museum, the house in Hampstead where the family settled after they had fled the Nazis in 1938 – and where Freud lived in the last year of his life. Freud’s office came with him, with its air of Central European bourgeois comfort, his prized collection of antiquities and even the couch on which his patients lay as they talked, talked and talked in the talking cure he pioneered.

There were indications that he proffered the entitled Western individual a poisoned chalice of self-indulgence. But Hughes also told us that the modern science of neurology has confirmed what Freud could not in any practical way, that our decisions are taken in the layers of our brain associated with the unconscious or the subconscious, as she herself talked with various talking heads, professors of philosophy and psychology.

Hughes examined Freud’s own life, in a neat echo of how he treated his patients: Freud only really loved, she said, one woman (actually the jury’s out), his wife of 53 years, Martha Bernays, the daughter of a rabbi, with whom he had six children. New discoveries included some 1,600 letters to and fro during their long courtship, in which Freud advised his beloved against the repression of love. He was too poor to marry until he was 29, and he left his scientific investigation of the nervous system of fish (you couldn’t make it up)  to study human psychology ("Tell me about your childhood": Sigmund Freud, pictured below).

Evidently Freud did not want psychology identified as a Jewish science, and in 1902, instituted regular Wednesday meetings at home in Vienna of psychologists and psychiatrists, forming the first such professional association. In 1925 Sam Goldwyn, speaking for Hollywood, called Freud the world’s greatest expert on love, and indeed offered substantial monetary rewards for Freudian insights, an inducement declined by the good doctor. Again and again we were reminded how Freud himself gave in to his desires. Twenty cigars a day, a substitute he suggested for the satisfactions of masturbation, led to cancer and 30 operations, although he was all of 83 when he died of a self-administered dose of morphine. 

The final compelling image was of our guide staring in awe at a huge Greek vase from Freud’s own collection which showed the story of Dionysus, the god of wine, madness, fertility, pleasure, ecstasy and rage, not to mention the arts. In this vessel the ashes of Freud repose, in the Columbarium at Golders Green crematorium. And the programme gave to Freud himself the last ambiguous words: "In the end I succeeded, but the struggle is not yet over."  

There were indications that he proffered the entitled Western individual a poisoned chalice of self-indulgence

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