Practical criticism: couch or theatre?

It's a stage set waiting to happen. Freud only used his study in Hampstead for a year before his death in 1939, but the furniture, books and multifarious artefacts were transported from Vienna when his supporters brokered a deal that allowed him out of Nazi Austria. The house - in which Freud's daughter Anna also lived and practiced, until her own death in 1982 - is now the Freud Museum. A visitor to 20 Maresfield Gardens finds a leafy street, a comfortable elegance, a plush hush - this was for decades the popular image of the atmosphere in which psychoanalysis would take place.

The museum is interesting (though not as much as it used to be, when it would invite artists to engage with Freud's thought and legacy; it now favours laborious historical displays). But the study is the room which draws the attention. Shaded, still, it beckons. It feels untouched - the pair of round-lensed specs on the desk only add to the impression that the abstracted owner may return at any moment. It's a shrine, but it's also dramatic - you can imagine it occupied

As in a theatre design, nothing in the room seems randomly chosen. Everything is quietly weighty with significance. And, like a designer, who is signalling just a little too eagerly, the room is terribly cluttered. Freud's teeming collection of figurines and antiquities sits in cabinets and, most portentously, in a rank at the back of his desk. They face the desk chair; equally they look away from the analysand in the couch. Freud found them friendly, but they might equally seem forbidding - a vast array of archetypes into which one's own petty traumas will be subsumed, losing any claim to particularity. And they're a reminder that anyone in Freudian analysis is only notionally alone on the couch. In they all crowd - parents, siblings, lovers, the dramatis personae of the primal drama.

The couch itself would offer a soft secular confessional. This, too, came from Berggasse 19, and is piled with cushions and rugs, soothing (smothering, even) the jagged edges of the psyche. It's a location for drowsy recollection, the dream-logic of association. The atmosphere of the room is surprisingly soporific. You might find it cosy, but thinking about it now I find it oppressive. So many tchotchkes, so much stuffing. Was the populous furniture of the mind suggested by Freud's work produced by a culture which crammed its rooms with so much furniture? Is Freudian thought the inevitable product of mahogany and ancient stone, of plumped cushions and well-padded sofas?

The study is in fact the setting for Hysteria, Terry Johnson's 1993 play about Freud, in which delirious with pain, he meets DalĂ­ suffers the bizarre payback that may be due to one who has dealt with the volatile psyche. So much frenzy (libidinous, violent, familial) cannot be contained forever, and it erupts into the dying doctor's study. The room, in the original Royal Court production, ultimately warped and melted as if in a Dali canvas. Mad foreigners, unexpected arrivals, naked women in cupboards - Johnson understood grave psychoanalysis occupies a territory not unlike madcap farce, which in its classic incarnation often erupts into stolidly bourgeois homes like Maresfield Gardens. It would perhaps be fun if the Freud Museum would countenance a staging - or at least a reading - in the room itself. (Or perhaps of Nicholas Wright's Mrs Klein, a wonderfully spiky play about the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein - so attentive an analyst, so monstrous a mother. It's also sharp about the peculiar transposition of mitteleuropean intelligentsia to north London).

We read Freud as a visionary artist as much as a scientist, these days. Thinking about his study as an inherently theatrical space might only enhance the process.

March 30, 2009 11:21 PM | | Comments (3) |

3 Comments

There's more to come! I'm looking forward to it already.

Relieved that tchotchkes are just stuff.

Hang on, "just stuff"? I guess psychoanalyis makes a point of saying that just stuff is not just stuff.

And I guess Yiddish would be just the right language to express for such a self-contradictory sentence.

Glad you picked up on (and summarised so concisely) the interior life/interior design idea. And there's more to come on this theme, furniture-as-psychosis fans, so stay tuned...

And cool your fevered brow, Sanjoy. Tchotchkes are trinkets, knick-knacks... stuff. And it's Yiddish, of course - the lost language of psychoanalysis.

Ha! Our interior life as the product of our interior design (or lack of it, in my case).

I love it. Freud possibly wouldn't.

I'm already thinking about the amount of stuff I've "repressed" into my drawers (oh god...), wondering which of my chairs, if any, is the seat of my desire. Might be prudent if I started padding my walls.

And what in God's name is a "tchotchke"? Do I even want to know?

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This page contains a single entry by Performance Monkey published on March 30, 2009 11:21 PM.

Child's play? was the previous entry in this blog.

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