A conference at the New York Public Library entitled 'Freud's Foreskin' was one of many events planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud's birth this month (to uphold the admirable standards of journalistic accuracy upon which this site prides itself, perhaps it would be more precise to note that this conference commemorated the sesquicentennial of the great improviser's circumcision rather than his pre-beard-and-glasses expulsion from the womb). Here in London, denied access to such a potentially animated PowerPoint debate, I visited the Freud Museum for a chance to experience what was voyeuristically billed as 'A View from the Desk'.
The so-called 'view' turned out to be a sterile simulacrum. The desk and the chair were merely reproductions placed in the uncluttered calm of the modernized Exhibition Room rather than in Freud's actual consulting room. Instead of fulfilling some latent wish to occupy the exact space of the father of psychoanalysis these displaced replicas forced into play some kind of repression of desires and deferral of gratification that set me thinking about the authenticity of the museum itself; which I guess was the point, right?
Discreetly located on a quiet suburban backstreet in leafy Hampstead, the Freud Museum was the house in which Freud spent the last year of his life after finally leaving Vienna in 1938 in order to escape Nazi persecution. His Viennese consulting room, the model interior for every analyst's office that, um, came in his wake, was recreated in the downstairs study and library at 20 Maresfield Gardens. Anna Freud, his youngest daughter (and also his student, long-term nurse, tireless defender, public representative, etc.), preserved the room after his death in 1939. In accordance with her wishes, the house was turned into a museum when she died, opening to the public in 1986. As well as the genuine desk and fantastically well-worn chair, the consulting room is home to Freud's extensive library and his astonishing collection of artefacts from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Asia.
Freud once explained that he had 'read more archaeology than psychology' and that his addiction to collecting antiquities was second only to his addiction to nicotine (the preferred shape of his fixes was a fat cigar and he also liked to write with a fat fountain pen, ok?). Regardless of the recurrence of archaeological tropes in Freud's texts, standing in this room crowded with nearly two thousand relics, the heavy curtains drawn, it becomes easy to understand why archaeology has sometimes been seen as the master metaphor for psychoanalysis. The room is a plush version of an ancient burial chamber. As tribal leader, Freud operated from inside his own encrypted tomb. Nowadays, the one thing lacking is a coffin containing his corpse. Instead, the focus shifts to the most famous couch in the world. Although haunting and atmospheric, considering the subject matter, the room is strangely static. A theatrical time capsule. His dead brain reconfigured as interior design. Meanwhile, Freud's provocative significance remains fascinatingly susceptible to the radical disagreements that helped to keep his thoughts in a productive state of flux throughout his long life.
Leaving the museum, I walk down the short path to the empty pavement and spot a cluster of yellow petals arranged in the shape of three numbers on the small front lawn: 150. Happy Birthday, Sigmund.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London
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