I have not studied Dr Freud


Alessio had this comment to my post Woolf & the Ramsay’s:

Thank you for sharing this. It is what I believe to be ‘writing as therapy’ as I recently suggested in one of my posts. Virginia Woolf is no exception.

The comment, which I believe to be to the point, made me want to have a quick look on Woolf’s view on Freud. (I deliberately say quick look, because I know this theme could easily become a subject for a thesis of considerable length …)

But my quick look first led me to a text by Julia Briggs (2006)

In her text Briggs points to both similarities and differences between Freud & Woolf.

Alix Strachey, a practising psychoanalyst and an old friend of the Woolfs, discussing why Leonard had not persuaded Virginia to see a psychoanalyst about her mental breakdowns, concluded ‘Virginia’s imagination, apart from her artistic creativeness, was so interwoven with her fantasies – and indeed with her madness – that if you had stopped the madness you might have stopped the creativeness too…

It may be preferable to be mad and be creative than to be treated by analysis and become ordinary.’ So whether art is regarded as transcendental and impersonal or as autobiographical in its genesis, the artist’s integrity seemed threatened by psychoanalysis.

What Woolf did in her literature, say for example in To the Lighthouse,  is very similar to the things Freud did in therapy – but Woolf is on several occasions stressing that she has no knowledge of psychoanalysis.

A way to understand this then, is to see these two writers as developing similar comprehensions on personality and inner life – explored from different point of views.

Commenting on the composition of To the Lighthouse, Woolf observed that, before writing it, she had been obsessed with her mother. She had written the novel ‘very quickly; and when it was written:

I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her. … I suppose that I did for myself what psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.

According to her diary Woolf began reading Freud in 1939, after his death. But his thoughts had of course reached her long before, through Leonard & the Bloomsburys.

Between them, Freud and Woolf create an ongoing dialogue about the relations between thought, art, and life – a dialogue which can be read into all Woolf’s work …

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting. I think most writers have the experience of the therapeutic effect, or what could also be called exorcising one’s demons (it’s all metaphor anyway, isn’t it?) . Creating a narrative works that way, whether it’s a general confession, a session on a therapist’s couch or a weepy confidence with a friend…or writing a book.

    The little I know about her madness (mostly from her final letter to her husband) suggests schizophrenia, which today is more or less considered a physical brain malfunction rather than the sort of metaphysical constructions that used to be made of it. Without any effective drugs, I wonder if anything could have helped her at all. As far as her relationship with her mother or even that bit about her not wanting therapy because her madness was tied up with her creativity, I see that as self-delusion of the kind artists (or those who attach themselves to artists) typically engage in to dramatize themselves (perhaps necessarily).

    1. Sigrun says:

      To me she seems to have been much to well functioning to have had schizophrenia. I would rather guess she had – according to our contemporary standard – a depressive disease with psychotic incidences.

      Self-delusion? Like you I do not think there were any effective treatments available for her in her time. She has written about some very ineffective treatments; e.g pulling out teeth, so her skepticism towards psychiatry as a discipline was probably well founded.

      And about the therapeutic effect – Woolf was actual skeptical, also to her own statement about the healing power in her own writing: “Why, because I described her and my feeling for her in that book, should my vision of her and my feeling for her become so much dimmer and weaker?” (Moments of Being, 93)

      Remember also that she suffered nervous breakdown after having finished some of her works.

      1. I was thinking of the “voices” she said in that letter she was hearing. Knowing as little as I do about her state beyond that, I don’t doubt there was a great deal more involved.

      2. Sigrun says:

        Yes, I know she heard voices. My view is just a guess too.

  2. Max says:

    I used to read a lot of Virginia Woolf. I read all of her diaries and her letters too. This was twenty years ago. Did she ever meet Freud? I think there was something that connects the two of them in my mind. Or did she meet Anna Freud? What strikes me most about Freud is his sense of humour. I know your discussion above is more of a serious discussion, but the man had a way with words. I do remember reading “Dora” and Woolf’s “The Waves” one after the other and finding that I liked the combination. As I mentioned above, this reading was when I was about 21 years old and I may be losing my mind.

    1. Sigrun says:

      According to Julia Briggs Freud and Woolf met in his London residence in January 1939.
      To Virginia, he seemed ‘A screwed up shrunk very old man: … inarticulate: but alert. … Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering.’ (Diary v, 202) For Leonard, Freud had always been ‘an extraordinarily nice man’, one of the few great men who lived up to his greatness, who was neither boring nor boastful. He felt in Freud a great gentleness, and behind it, great strength.
      Freud died in August 1939. Woolf’s diary entry for 2 December 1939 records that she ‘Began reading Freud last night; to enlarge the circumference. to give my brain a wider scope: to make it objective; to get outside. Thus defeat the shrinkage of age. Always take on new things. Break the rhythm &c.’
      Freud had a great literary talent, so one might think that he also was inspired by reading her work, not only the other way around.
      “The Waves” is my favorite Woolf, reading it in combination with “Dora” seems very interesting!

  3. I have studied Freud, but it was ever so long ago and before I ever read Woolf. I never knew they’d met! Very thought-provoking post & discussion. Thanks!

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you Ann,
      I think it could be very interesting to read them together, not necessarily to see how one influenced the other, but to see how each of them captured and interpreted the same cultural area within different discourses.

  4. KM Huber says:

    Yet another intriguing post and discussion. Sigrun! Following your blog is very like reading Julia Briggs’ biography for both bring me Woolf once again. It is fascinating, and thank you!


    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you for these kind words! Its so great to have such a diverse and meaningful response upon private thoughts – I really love the world of blogging!

  5. I’ve only just realised my comment prompted your post. Which I’m really happy about. 🙂
    What Virginia Woolf could do was great. By focusing on certain things, a broader perspective could be coming to show. That is pure genius!

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