• The Good: A history of Freud and his life in Vienna
  • The Bad: Too broad in topic; author commentary; unclear thesis
  • The Literary: Highly researched, with references

Sigmund Freud is one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, and the evolution of his life and theories were highly shaped by the city in which he lived, Vienna, the birthplace of the modern mind. This book comes at you from several angles. First, it’s a history of Freud’s professional life, the birth of psychoanalysis, and several patient case studies. Second is the city of Vienna, several other famous thinkers and artists of the time, the rise of antisemitism, and how each of these reflects on Freud’s personal life. I appreciate the thorough reference section.

In Freud’s second year at university he permanently shortened his first name from Sigismund to Sigmund, perhaps because the stooge character in Viennese anti-semitic jokes was usually called Sigismund. In 1889, the coalition of Christian Scientists called for the elimination of Jews from the medical profession. But Freud never tolerated prejudice, often lecturing the young men and women who would shout insults at his family. Even after fleeing Vienna for London well into World War II, Freud maintained a sense of humor about it, and when he felt particularly lucky in his home and garden would proclaim, “We thank our Fuehrer!”

Freud came from humble beginnings, but always wanted greatness and worked hard for it. When he fell in love, he gave up on his theoretical studies and became a doctor so his future mother-in-law would approve the marriage. Freud lived in Paris and studied under eminent medical director Jean-Martin Charcot and soon made it into Charcot’s inner circle. Late nights of studying and hobnobbing were fueled by cocaine, but he eventually returned to Vienna to open a private practice.

Vienna at the turn of the century was very interesting place. As a young man, Freud grew up in a culture obsessed with status and appearances, from clothing to verbal accents that mimicked those of the Emperor. Freud’s own status required him to employ a two-horse carriage. Vienna was a place of opulence and decadence. In the 1890’s, after empress Sisi went into mourning, melancholy, “nerves”, and even suicide became in fashion. Vienna had the highest suicide rates in all of Europe, with a special interest in leaving a schoene leich (a beautiful corpse). Health tourism was invented, and wealthy patrons further strengthened the association between leisure and health.

At the same time, the popularity of the occult, secret societies, and rituals were on the rise. Freud himself the hosted Psychological Wednesday Society at the same time as the Freemasons and several pan-German national societies also met. In 1908, when a young Adolf Hitler moved to Vienna to study art and probably attended meetings of societies interested in the promotion of pagan mythology and German history, Freud’s followers surrounded themselves with Greek antiquities and Kabbalistic mysticism.

Gustav Klimt, Egon Shiele, and other artists rebelled from stuffy orthodoxy by famously declaring themselves independent and referring to themselves as Die Jungen (the youth), today known as the Viennese Secession. A literary movement calling themselves Jung Vien (young Vienna) and even a new youthful liberal political party emerged. Freud was a part of this movement of ideas but only a few years later was called a stubborn patriarch. A separate faction split from his society, led by his pupil Carl Jung.

Once World War I arrived, things went downhill fast. Basic necessities like heat and food became rare. Work dried up, and the psychology practice that remained was for treatment of shell-shocked soldiers, which was definitely outside of Freud’s wheelhouse. A deadly flu spread across the world and killed between twenty and fifty million people during 1918 through 1920, including one of Freud’s daughters. Just a few years later, Freud found a cancerous growth in his mouth.

Freud was himself many walking contradictions. Freud shunned authority, both military and religious. He served his mandatory few years in the army and never looked back. Even though Freud was Jewish, he pushed for a civil wedding ceremony (which he did not get) and did not allow Jewish rituals to take place in his house. He was a sociable family man and a neurotic lonely professional. He was a visionary theorist, rooted in evolutionary psychology, while at the same time wildly speculative and would leave out aspects of a study that did not fit his model.

Several of his case studies are sprinkled throughout the book, and I find them especially interesting and will likely follow up. Several famous ones include entire books written about “the rat man” or “the wolf man” or quick sessions with Gustav Mahler, but I prefer the ones that Freud struggles with, and he seemed to struggle a lot of with female patients. I’d love to read more about Ida Bauer, Bertha Pappenheim, and Alma Schindler.

I suppose because Freud wrote so much about sex, his own sex life would be of interest. But I find the book’s speculations less interesting. Much time is spent on evaluating the racy details of Freud’s life, focusing on minute bits of evidence that he was sleeping with his wife’s sister, sleeping with his colleague William Fliess, being molested by his nanny, or even molesting infants himself. By forty, he may have been celibate but also had a “harem” of devoted women in his inner circle.

Even worse, Tallis often inserts his own opinions and abruptly switches gears. Discussing details of one of Freud’s books, for example, he’ll veer to referencing heroin-chic models, Childish Gambino, or the invasion of Ukraine. Tallis at one point asserts that Freud would be critical of “cancel culture”.

Having never read Freud, I am now more excited to do so, especially since his books blur the lines between autobiography, travelogue, novelistic fiction, and scientific text. Tallis compares The Interpretation of Dreams to Proust, Joyce, and Kafka in it’s modernism and surrealism. Fragments of an Analysis of Hysteria is a thrilling Victorian melodrama. Psychopathology of Everyday Life is a quick and accessible read that was popular amongst the public even during Freud’s life.

Tallis’ primary thesis is that while Freud’s theories aren’t perfect and he has many critics, psychoanalysis has left a lasting impression on not only the scientific field of psychology but our own modern way of thinking about the mind. For me, the biggest concept that I hold onto is the three structures of the mind—the id, the ego, and the super-ego.

Highly recommended for fans of Freud, but also anyone interested in Vienna around the turn of the century. Freud lived an interesting life but he lived in far more interesting times.