Genius and Crank

Review of Aus den Anfängen der Psychoanalyse. By Sigmund Freud. (Pp. 477) London: Imago Publishing Co. 1950.

British Medical Journal, 29 July 1950, p. 255.

For any student of the vagaries of human thought this is a book of great historical interest. The letters that Freud wrote to a Berlin friend and colleague, Wilhelm Fliess, found their way during the National Socialist epoch in Germany into the hands of the book trade, and eventually came to the editors of this work, among whom is his daughter, Miss Anna Freud. The letters themselves – two thirds of a total of over 280 are published here-date from the time when Freud was changing his interests from neurology to medical psychology. Freud confides to his friend his doubts and hesitations and his most original ideas as they spring fresh to his mind. One can read of the blind alleys which attracted him for a time, as well as of his first steps along those paths which led to the formulation of psycho-analytic doctrine as it still largely stands to-day.

   Fliess himself remains a rather enigmatic figure. Apparently he was a throat-and-nose specialist who extended his interests more and more widely, first to the hypothetical relationship between the nose and the genital system, and later to a metaphysical biology. He must have been a crank of the first water. From such observations as that uterine haemorrhage at the time of the menses may be replaced by bleeding from the nose he goes on to assume a close connexion via the nervous system between the nose and the female genital apparatus, and from there to a bizarre hypothesis of two types of rhythm, the 28-day and the 23-day rhythm, to which both sexes and all ages are subject. The days of both birth and death are, he believed, determined by these rhythms, and the sex of the child is fixed by which of the two rhythms is passed on from the mother. There seems little doubt that Fliess exerted a considerable influence on Freud, who regarded him with the highest respect: and, though Fliess's more extreme ideas are hardly echoed in those of Freud, they share the strong emphasis on sexuality and the tendency to extend uncritical speculations over wider and wider fields. Freud's genius cannot be doubted; but one is tempted to wonder how much more scientifically satisfactory an edifice he might have erected if he had received discipline and encouragement from a less fanatical and more critical mentor.