David Bakan, Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (1958)

I wanted to learn about the background to the birth of Freudian theories – I’m not sure this book really helped. I’ve not written any review yet on Frank Tallis’ mystery: Vienna Blood, but I must already explain that the Freudian circles are very present in this novel (the detective’s best friend and sidekick is a young doctor interested in budding psychoanalysis and presents the case of the serial killer to Freud at one of his Viennese evening group discussions).

It helps a lot to the credibility of Tallis’ mystery that the author is a psychiatrist himself and has obviously researched a lot his subject and background. But after finishing the mystery, I still wonder about how much is realist and historical, how much is fiction is Tallis’ novels: the reception of such controversial theories in Vienna at the beginning of the century, the friction between a very repressive aristocratic society and other, new forces in the society like ethnic groups and women, the very Jewish atmosphere Tallis renders in certain circles of Viennese life and the intellectual and cultural hotbed Vienna at this particular period, although traversed at the same time by nationalistic and reactionary tensions. Perhaps it’s not Bakan’s book I was looking for but another book altogether. If you know a great (non-fiction) book about these subjects, please drop a line in the comments!

Bakan’s thesis is very academic, quite dated (the French translation is 1963) and obviously a very defensive thesis on a thorny, potentially loaded subject. But the result, when I come half a century afterwards, is dispiriting and take-this-in-your-face-till-you-swear-you’re-convinced aggressive and demonstrative. But faced with a thick book with small lines, loads of notes and references, I felt my inner bookish student kick back to life and I scribbled some notes to follow the steps of his demonstration (although I readily confess I just skimmed through the chapters).

Bakan wants to link Freud’s intimate conflicts that led to the emergence of his theories, to his identity of a liberal, unbelieving Jew. I quite agree to his point that psychoanalysis hasn’t emerged out of nowhere like a flash of genius and that it’s important to uncover its diverse sources. In his thesis, he has to fend off potentially strong opposition, as the link to Kabala is far from evident and Freud himself didn’t expressly refer to it. So Bakan seeks to demonstrate that it was an unconscious influence that Freud pushed at the back of his mind because of the prevalent Antisemitism and his inner difficulties to cope with his Jewish identity. So you see, the book’s theory is very narrow while I was looking for a more open, inclusive sort of analysis. The interest for dreams, their sexual interpretation, sacred or magical signification is not reserved to Kabbalists, but they aren’t limited to Plato, Shakespeare and German Romantics, as the French introduction points out in a more level-headed attitude. Jewish mysticism and Kabbala may be another, unconscious influence that contributed to the origins of Freudian theories, not to be overlooked, but perhaps not to be privileged either. The other pitfall to avoid would be to reduce psychoanalysis to the particular mental dispositions of his creator.

There are 6 parts in Bakan’s thesis, I didn’t explore them all, and I should perhaps have devoted more time to the last one, that develops the meaning of “heimlichkeit” (“unheimlichkeit” has famously been translated into “uncanny” but “canny” isn’t right for the opposite, it should be something like “familiar”) as Freud’s own word to describe his relation to his Jewishness.

I don’t feel very comfortable reviewing a book I didn’t read at length, but I guess I must see it like one particular door to a subject that I want to explore in a broader approach in the future.

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2 thoughts on “David Bakan, Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition (1958)

  1. Well, I must certainly read the Frank Tallis! I wish I could suggest good background reading to that particular era but none springs to mind. Maybe a good biography of Freud would cover it? I think it must have been an exciting but confusing and complex time.

  2. Pingback: Frank Tallis, Darkness Rising (2009) (US: Vienna Secrets) « Smithereens

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