Freud on America

Presented at Après Coup, New York, NY in October 2013

“ I’m going to see what a porcupine actually looks like”
Remark made by Freud before leaving on SS. George Washington for the U.S. in 1909 (the same liner on which American President Woodrow Wilson travel ten years later in order he claimed to guarantee peace to Europe and to provide a “99 % insurance against any future war”)

Scarlet Letters

Freud’s experience and reflections on the United States – which he generally called “America” thereby ignoring its difference from the nations of Latin America – is constituted in my view by three moments of encounter. The first was his journey of 1909 and its aftermath, the second his struggle with “the Americans” over lay analysis.

The Errancies of the Super Ego

The second moment, which was a defeat, led Freud into another arena in which to pursue his own diagnosis of the symptom of the “American”. This was to be a collaboration with an author and politician, William C. Bullittt, a man of action from outside the psychoanalytic movement, who would not be inhibited by any concern for the consequences their biography of Woodrow Wilson might have on the psychoanalytic movement.
It was to be a book “plagued” by the errancies of transmission; an analysis of the super-ego, but also an enactment of the effect of the superego on transmission.
The reading of the book that I am proposing is that the character study of Wilson is a “failure” but this “failure” reveals the effects of the superego on “failure” in transmission. Specifically the book is about the political act as a “failed” act. But I will also argue that Freud conceives of the writing of this book to be a political act, an act that as the book proceeds shows itself to be increasingly a failure.
The book will be received as a “failure”. But in this “failure” I believe we find, among other things, an interesting fault line between the transmission of psychoanalysis and the political act.
Freud began work on Thomas Woodrow Wilson: a psychological study in 1930 but it took eight years to complete and then did not appear for another 30 years. Since its brief appearance in 1967 it has been kept out of print in the U.S
The subject of the book –an American President; Freud’s choice of collaborator and co-author – William Bullitt, and the reasons for the long delay in publication make it one of the strangest and most contested work’s in Freud’s oeuvre.
Most readers have found the book to be a digression, significant only as a continuation of Freud’s thinking about history and culture. But clinically I believe the book is both significant and challenging. It expands in an important way Freud’s analysis of the superego and anticipates Lacan’s description of it’s “obscenity”.
At times the manner in which Freud reifies and reduces his own thinking suggest that he is destroying something in his own theory, an indication that the imperative of the super-ego is in fact effecting theorization itself , but in a destructive manner.
What in my view makes this text so worthy of attention is that nowhere else in his writing, in my opinion, does Freud show in such an impassioned manner his awareness of the political catastrophe of his time.
I would propose that at the same moment that Freud is analyzing the ferocious demands of the super-ego he is also struggling with a super-egoical commandment to find a psychoanalytic interpretation of a cultural disaster and that the conflict between these two demands produces a book that falters and fails.
The “faltering” and “failing” of the book has a parallel to the “faltering” and “failing” of Woodrow Wilson, but despite the “failure” to produce an analysis of Wilson that would meet the standards of a historical account of his acts Freud produced a “historical fiction” that furthered a theoretical elaboration of the relation between the superego, the death drive and the ego.
If we find in Freud surprisingly few references to the rise of totalitarianism it is my view that this is in part due to his bitter search for the reasons for the failure of the Treaty of Versailles . Freud concluded that with this document the death warrant of European civilization was signed.
Freud’s own “suspicion” about America was revealed then in a new form. America, that had so long wanted to remain isolated from Europe and wanted to diminish its symbolic history, had re-enacted, through the agency of Woodrow Wilson, the murder of it’s own “symbolic” father.
One motif that Freud had always emphasized in his reflections on America, a motif that first appears in the notes of the Vienna Society meetings immediately after his return from Clark University, was that in America the function of the father had been diminished.
It was exactly this rejection of the paternal function that he found in the first American psychoanalytic associations who could not tolerate a leader amongst themselves or accept what he called “authority” – meaning on an imaginary level his authority, but on the symbolic level the “authorization” of their own acts as analysts.
Far from being a digression “Thomas Woodrow Wilson” continues Freud’s critique of religion with a specific emphasis on the consequences of Calvinism and protestant non-conformism for human civilization, specifically American civilization. Freud was concerned about the effect his Moses book might have on the Catholic Church at a time when it could have challenged the rise of Nazism in Austria.
The analysis in “Thomas Woodrow Wilson” of British Presbeterianism (with its roots in Calvin and Luther) occurs and implicitly responds to strong support the Lutheran church was giving Hitler, who found in his anti-semiticism a stronger echo of their own.
Prior to the books publication the only person to have read it appears to have been Ernest Jones who claimed in his 1957 biography that “it contained remarkable things” and would be published in due course. Far from being a marginal or incidental work the work was clearly of great concern and also trouble for Freud. The difficulties and perhaps reservations about its final form were such that he placed a restriction on its publication comparable only to the restriction that he placed on the reading of many of his letters.
The restriction was a shrouded in a mystique created by Freud’s co-author for his own political reasons but it was supported by Freud. The book was not to be published until one of it’s minor characters – the Second Mrs Wilson, Edith Galt – was deceased. This effectively led to the book being published “out of time” – as a relict.
Even Jones, who tended to know and share gossip, could not explain why Freud did not wish the book to be published until after the second Mrs Wilson, Edith Galt was deceased. After all what Freud had written about her husband already exiasted in the public record. Did Freud think that his own interpretations of Wilson were comparable in privacy or intimacy to the free associations of Wilson had he ever actually submitted to analysis? Did he hold a woman’s honor in such high regard that he could not bring himself to confront her with his own negative portrayal of her husband. ? What code of fealty was Freud obeying or what fantasy of marriage did he hold that to publish this book would be to destroy ( in a pitiless manner) the image that he presumed this woman had of her husband? .
Regardless of how highly the two authors honored and respected the feelings of their subjects wife they probably did not imagine that she would live into her 90’s and thus delay the appearance of the book. This delay prevented the work from being the political act that each collaborator ,in their different ways ,intended it to be .
If Freud considered America to be a “giant mistake” in the United States at least this book was considered to be Freud’s giant mistake. Freud’s U.S. biographer Peter Gay, himself a practicing analyst, argued that the book simply reflects the deterioration of Freud’s ability to think and write during his illness. Gay argued that Freud only agreed to the collaboration because he was having some kind of difficulty finding any subjects to interest him after 1930. This is absurd, but noteworthy because it indicates that Gay believed Bullitt’s account of the collaboration as well as the way that North American analysts have denigrated or diminished the significance of Freud’s later work, particularly “The Man Moses and Monotheism”.
Like a number of other North American analysts, Gay was very uncomfortable with Freud’s criticism of America and he attempted to ameliorate them by arguing from a historicist point of view. In Gay’s eyes Freud’s mordant witticisms and bitter jibes about the US are to be understood (and excused ) as simply a reiteration of the cultural prejudices of the European intellectual of his time. Gay was unwilling to acknowledge that far from reflecting a distant disdain for America that Freud’s remarks were based on his direct experienced with the culture, a culture that he considered to be represented in a paradigmatic way by Woodrow Wilson, whose character traits he also felt appeared amongst those American psychologists and doctors who opposed lay analysis.
Published in the U.S. in 1967 it received vitriolic reviews– “why did anyone ever believe Freud ?” asked the distinguished historian AJP Taylor an acknowledged expert on the origins of WWII and their root in Versailles.
Erik Erickson was amongst the first who thought he was protecting Freud’s honor by suggesting that Freud’s pen could not clearly be distinguished in the writing and that the bitterness expressed in the book was not Freud’s but Bullitt’s. American Freudian’s had cultivated the notion that Freud was a saintly and impartial figure, in the manner of the neutral, silent and anonymous analyst that the post-Freudian established had cultivated in the 1950’s . They could not tolerate a book in which Freud was clearly not neutral !
Erickson was a good choice to defend the book given that he had written many “psychological” studies of historical figures but his extensive review of the book in the New York Reviews of Books did little to save the Freudian establishment. The embarrassment of the book at the time was far greater than anything previously published by or about Freud. Erickson’s defense set the tone for most future discussions and the subsequent “forgetting” of the book. Erickson, who had consulted with Anna and Ernst Freud, who knew some of the ambiguities of the final manuscript claimed that (of course ) Freud was very ill when he wrote the book, that it was largely written by Bullitt(who Erickson sensed was something of a charlatan) and anyway Freud never wanted to publish it – the logic of the joke about the kettle it is!
Erikson’s defense of Freud and condemnation of the book was symptomatic of the many difficulties the émigré analysts had with their American colleagues many of whom wished to relegate Freud ( to simply that of founder ) in order to claim that their own theories were more relevant and efficacious in American society. The American Freudianism had gained credibility during the 1940’s and 50’ s not because of the writings of practicing analysts but because public intellectuals such as Philip Reif and Lionel Trilling valorized an image of Freud as a secular saint of modernity.
For Trilling Freud provided a melancholic truth about the price to be paid for civilization and offered a therapeutic and humane alternative from the standard practice of the American psychiatrist at the time which was cranial lobotomy. Rief caught the spirit of the American intelligentsia with the sub-title to his book “Freud: The Mind of a Moralist”
But Freud’s account of the super-ego in “Thomas Woodrow Wilson” was in shocking contrast to the importance Trilling and Rief gave to the superego as being the source of morality and culture. An ego psychology that valorized assertiveness, pragmatism , adaptation and particularly adaptation to US society required that moral values, conscience( and guilt ) be well organized in the domain of the super-ego. Only through the managerial nature of the super-ego would the ego be able to operate with the world rather than struggle against it and with its own inadequacy. For Rief the ego had to adapt to society but without the super-ego there was no society to begin with.
Furthermore in this book Freud was giving an analysis of American society as productive of pathological “weakness”. Freud’s view of America was that as a social model it was to be rejected and certainly not to be adopted or adapted to. Freud’s pen sometimes appears to invoke the style of his nemesis Karl Kraus when he wants to describe “the American”.
Erickson was right to suggest that “Wilson” was a work that could be grouped with Freud’s attempts to write about historical figures (Leonardo, Goethe, Moses) and to drawn from his investigations of them advances in his theory – even though such studies contravened Freud’s own premises that advances really only emerged from actual clinical material. But Erickson was at a loss to explain why “Wilson” was unique in being Freud’s only in depth analysis of a political figure. His defense of Freud was honorable but empty and he was oblivious to any theoretical advances.
Since Freud had always said that art and literature had preceded psychoanalysis in its appreciation of the subtle workings of the psyche Freud’s studies of Leonardo or Geothe were completely consistent with his own ideas of how advances in analytic theory could be made. “Thomas Woodrow Wilson” concerns, however, the exploration of the relation of an individual to a cultural disaster not an artistic achievement.
The book is closer to Freud’s interest in understanding the relation of the individual to collective action and the relation of the leader to the group. In many respect it is a further elaboration of the themes of “Group Psychology and the Ego” but with greater emphasis on the way in which the increased demands of the super-ego upon the leader can have catastrophic consequences for the collective.
The books analysis of religion is a prelude and companion to the analysis of Moses, particularly those parts of the book on Christianity that Freud subsequently excised. Most distinctively the book is a study in the failure of civilization to resist coming under the “weakness” of an individual leader.
Freud rails against this “weakness” is in a distinctly Nietzchean and with Nieztche he feels that this “weakness” deriving from the inordinate love of a father for his son and the identification of the son with Christ. If “Woodrow Wilson” is the return in Freud of a long suppressed relation to the political it is also a remarkable tracing of the relation of the political to the paternal metaphor.
When it was published in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam conflict ,Woodrow Wilson was an anachronism just as Freudianism was clearly an anachronism. The subject and the author were, to many eyes, out of step with the political reality.
Over the last 50 years, however, a considerable shift in the understanding of Wilson’s political significance has taken place. He has become one of the most exhaustively studied of American presidents.
In 1990 August Heckscher published a magisterial study, one which reveals that Heckscher’s approach to biography is indebted to Freud, particularly to the lasting influences of parental figures and siblings in the life of a public figure. Heckscher is admiring of Wilson because of his idealistic and liberal agenda, exactly the traits that Freud railed against.
Heckscher appears to have considered Freud and Bullitt’s book because he notes , like Freud, that Wilson repeated as President the same patterns of devotion to an assistant and then accusations of betrayal by that assistant as he had done when he was President of Princeton University. Unlike Freud he does not blame Wilson for the outcome of the Treaty. Surprisingly given that Bullitt played an important part in Wilson’s life before the collaboration with Freud he makes no substantial investigation of Bullitt ( and Bullitt’s pre-occupation with revenge)
Rather Heckscher argues that under Wilson’s presidency the US entered fully into the role of international arbiter and agent that it now occupies. He shows how during Wilson’s presidency the manner in which the United States conducts its current diplomacy and the relation between it’s internal politics and external actions was established . He also notes that Wilson was the first American president to transform the nineteenth century idea of the US manifest destiny into the prevailing political ideal that the US has a manifest destiny to guide the rest of the world to peace. This gives the USA a unique mission to thwart any nation or political movement that challenges the realization of this specifically Christian notion of peace and harmony.
What Heckscher makes less of is that Wilson is also the first American president to catch the attention of the international scene for his astonishing ignorance of world geography and he makes light of the claims that Wilson was notable for his ignorance of the specific historical, political and economic conditions of other nation states and sovereign powers. All these Heckscher ignores becauses in his eyes they are excused by Wilson’s nobility and idealism, exactly what Freud (rightly) objected to and wished to condemn in politics.
Heckscher also admires Wilson’s historical writing about the United States and its institutions. Equally at home in his ignorance of the non- American part of the world Wilson was the first president who attempted a major historical revision of his our countries past. A revision so bizarre that as Freud notes , and Heckscher, does not Wilson almost eliminated Thomas Jefferson from his account of the development of the specific political institutions of the US state. Freud’s interpretation of this is very pertinent – Jefferson was deeply influenced by French culture!. Wilson found the influence of European ideas on America incomprehensible.!
Wilson’s historical revisionism constitutes a paradigm of U.S. polity. Before he obtained political power Wilson wrote that the constitution of the US was highly problematic and that America should adopt a polity based on his fantasy of how the British constitution operated. He was thus the first ( but certainly not the last) American president who preaches to the rest of the world the superiority of the American separation of powers and to his own electorate that their own government contains structural problems that only he can resolve.
The bibliography to Heckscher’s exhaustive account contains the following entry:
Freud, Sigmund and William Bullit. Thomas Woodrow Wilson: a psychological study. A misleading book, written out of hatred; an embarrassment to students of Freud.
Familiar , as we in this colloquium , with the original way that Lacan interprets the term “embarrassment” in Seminar X “Angoisse” and in light of it I think Heckscher’s’s comment ( which indicate that Freud, who in many ways is a guide in his thinking about biography has in this work disappointed him) becomes appropriate to some aspects of transmission that are engaged in together. Heckscher’s comment suggested to me the sense that Freud’s book has the quality of a “pregnancy” which in turn echoes Freud’s term for America – “a mis-carriage”. There are ,in my view, three forms of this “embarrassment”. The first was Freud’s decision to work with a collaborator.
In 1987 “So Near to Greatness”, a biography of William Bullitt , was published by two historians and political journalists Will Brownell and Richard N. Billings. The authors portray Bullitt as a prophet who not only denounced Woodrow Wilson’s failure to see the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles but also showed that Roosevelt(who he worked for after serving Wilson!) endangered western civilization by giving too much territory to Stalin at Yalta. This neglected hagiography reveals that, however, symptomatic Freud’s choice of collaborator was – William/Wilhelm comes to mind – Bullitt certainly occupied a unique place in the diplomatic circles of the twentieth century. As a source of personal impressions of everyone from Lenin, to Hitler, to Clemenceau , to Roosevelt he was without compare. How did Freud, who appears to have kept a cool distance from political events pick him out.?
Bullitt is most often referred to, on accounts of his crucial role in organizing Freud’s departure from Vienna, as the American Ambassador, but it is no exaggeration to say that he was a man of action, a Francophile who despite his characteristically two faced acceptance of Petain signed up with DeGaulle to fight for the Free French Army, who awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
Without question ultimate destiny of the collaboration between the two men was shaped by this “rescue” and Freud’s sense of what he owed Bullitt. Bullitt wished to impress his whole life and having a strong sense that he never quite achieved his due he wished to impress his acquaintances amongst the literati that he was an intimate of the greatest “psychologist” of the twentieth century. In fact he was always suspect as a political operator and ultimately ruined his political career by falsely accusing his main rival for Roosevelt’s attentions of homosexuality.
He is responsible for one of the main travesties of the book the portrayal of the characters of Wilson’s two wives. If there was one “theory” of Freud’s that Bullitt subscribed to and fixated on in his contribution to the character analysis of Wilson it was the distinction between masculinity and feminity.
Bullitt turned Freud’s account of passivity and activity into a misogynistic ideology that did not believe that feminity was anything other than passivity and subservience to the activity of a man. This produces in the book an absurd characterization of Wilson as finding in his two wives “the greatest satisfaction that a man can find in his wife, a mother substitute” .
While Wilson was concerned that his first wife Ellen Axson was giving up her promising career as an artist ( a fact that Bullitt omits from the study) Bullitt was, according to his own daughter, unwilling to acknowledge her interest in art or any other artistic or intellectual pursuits. It is very easy to see how Bullitt’s animus towards Wilson was not only political but also, as evidenced by the utterly false characterizations of Wilson’s romantic life, founded on a jealousy for the richness of Wilson’s familial life. Bullitt was Wilson’s younger double, a representative of the other face of American masculinity. If Wilson was crippled by the Presbyterian injunction “thou shalt not , Bullitt was careless and dangerous to anyone who confided in him because he lived according to the law of “thou shall”.
The second “embarrassment” is Freud’s concept of a “psychological” study . When in 1965 Anna Freud attempted to delay the publication of “Thomas Woodrow Wilson ” she correctly pointed out that the style of the book was “too repetitious” to be her father’s and that it contained psychoanalytic “concepts” that were not her father’s (although one might add nor hers either).
There is some irony to the fact that she objected in particular to the indiscriminate use of the phrase “ passivity to the father” . But since she did not possess a copy of the manuscript it was not possible for her to prove any detailed fashion what she was right to suspect, that Bullitt had amended and distorted her father’s conceptual framework for the book. But Freud has also done considerable damage to his own theory in order to try to justify an analysis without an analysand.
Freud’s debt to entitled Bullitt to full copyright in the U.S. and he refused to even answer Anna Freud’s inquiries . She and her newphew Ernest decided that there was nothing they could do but allow Bullitt to go ahead with publication in the U.S. and subsequently voice their belief (through Erickson) that Freud had not really written the book or given a final consent to its publication. Neither one could see any conceptual originality in the book moreover Anna Freud had a lot of American friends and supporters, most notably her student Robert Coles who attempted the same kind of mis-judged defense that Erickson had undertaken. Anna Freud was capable of mis-interpreting her father’s work, but not critiquing it. Neither of them saw that an alternative could have been to publish a critical edition in Europe.
By consenting to the idea that the book “belonged” to Bullitt Anna disavowed that the book had been jointly written by her father( the initials on the mss proved he did) and she took the position that she was powerless to do anything about the way the book was used to attack her father.
Ernst Freud held the view that at the end of his life Freud considered the book to be the work of Bullitt’s and that his uncle had only provided psychoanalytic material in order that it be born. If Bullitt’s stylistic trait is hastiness in his relentless attempt to expose Wilson as a failure in terms of masculinity and consequently political gamesmanship the conceptual and theoretical portion of the book bares a trait that is sometimes detectable( and contradictory) in Freud’s later writin and that is dogmatism.
Central to Freud’s analysis of Wilson, and a trope that is painfully repeated in the book, is that Wilson denied “facts”. But Freud also asserts in the book that there can be “imaginary facts”. When in chapter 1, pp 36-51 outlines a conceptual framework for the book Freud he states “that psychoanalysis has established facts as incontrovertible and as unassailable as the facts of Einstein’s physics or modern chemistry.” Consequently he empowers Bullitt to time and again asserts that the interpretation of Wilson’s character that is being offered is unassailable. One wonders what was the necessity for this approach and clearly Freud is at odds with it himself because in several other places he appeals to an imaginary reader to respect that the “mark of intellectuality is to accept that we do not know”
The dogmaticism is, in my view, the result of the impossibility of conducting the character analysis that Freud claims he is making. For Freud a “fact” exists when something of reality has to be accepted as intransigent, as a limitation on a psychic wish, as a real. Freud is attuned rightly to the many instances in Wilson’s political career when he acted on the basis of what he wished to be the case – for example the wish for peace – but acted without acknowledging the “facts” that assigning territory from one country to another would become the basis of a war. Wilson was not a politician in the sense of aiming for personal aggrandizement from exercising power. Unlike his hero Gladstone, who he understood very poorly, he was sustained by a fantasy that the limitations of the political could be ignored if a higher purpose was being served. Freud appears to have allowed the necessity of careful research and historical contextualization to be ignored if the goal of extending psychoanalytic theory could be achieved. Freud was not interested in creating a concept of character or bringing psychoanalysis into the realm of psychology he was interested in how the “fiction” of Wilson revealed the capacity of the super-ego to ravage the subject.
Freud’s dogmaticsm is also his embarrassment with the undeniable “fact” that he could not analyze Wilson. Analysis cannot occur without an analysand. Freud’s wish to analyze Wilson encountered a theoretical “fact” that Freud was also at pains to try to sustain in the book even when the narrative construct of the book was implying that this “fact” could be ignored. Rather than facts what Freud was involved in trying to use, but denied himself in this book was the use of fictions. Can we propose that he learned from it what to accept and work with in “The Man Moses” – fictions.
Impossible as the analysis of Wilson’s libido so was the attempt to judiciously apply this analysis of character to a historical event of the complexity of the Treaty of Versailles. Bullitt did not see the same kind of limitation in the approach to “fact” as Freud and this was fatal for the effects of the book.
Bullitt was eager to see Wilson denying “facts” but never indicated that there was any kind of issue with regard to what he claimed to be “historical” fact. For Bullitt “facts” what were what enabled the writer to create “fictions” that served political agendas and vendettas.
In the first chapter Freud writes a dogmatic précis of the underlying concepts of what he mis-leading claims to be his own theory. The précis is a theory without a subject. It “forget” Freud’s own idea of “theory “ that it belongs to secondary elaboration and de facto it is subject to effects of repression. The libido is discussed in terms of a quantum theory that proposes that this force of both creation and destruction is located in the different “accumulator’s” the most important of which is narcissism. Objects of the libido exist because while narcissism is constitutional it finds passive objects of satisfaction in the parental figures. The second theorem proclaims Freud is that all human’s are bi-sexual and that the libido is therefore about to “accumulate ” in three areas – narcissism, masculinity and feminity.
These three “accumulators” determine the Oedipal complex that arises from the child’s different configurations of the passive or active aims to both mother and father.
In this précis the central problem for the individual is how to reconcile the active and the passive position towards the father. The reconciliation of the wish to kill the father and be loved by the father is achieved through the identification and “canabalistic” in corporation of the father and this produces the super-ego or ego ideal – Freud uses both interchangeably.
The demands of this superego torment the subject and direct its libinal activity. The superego can thus produce great achievement because of its demands and also neurosis and psychosis. In Wilson’s case it created an identification with God through an identification with his “all powerful father” and a precipitate of this was an identification with Jesus Christ.
The following four chapters follow this outline. Freud then proceeds to wrestle with his own premises. In the chapter on the libido he writes the following, the same with the question of his bisexuality, then the conversion to his identification with Christ and his decision to be a statesmen in the manner of Gladstone. At the end of this chapter Freud writes the following account of the difference between the conditions of America and Europe and their consequences for Wilson.
The subsequent chapters which recount Wilson’s activities as president of first Princeton University, the Governor of the State of New Jersey, followed by his election as President of the United States and his decision to bring the U.S into the first world war all appear to be the work of Bullitt the journalist and diplomatic insider.
Freud’s only contribution appears to be that Wilson’s identification with Christ led to him always trying to achieve his aims through passive means. The passive means required that he constantly distort facts. It allowed him to believe that even if he was mistaken he was nevertheless right. The consequences for Europe were catastrophic.
Finally let us return to supposed reasons for the delay in publishing the book . This was not in fact to protect the honor of Edith Galt but was symptomatic of the embarrasment and “mis-carriage” of the book and it’s attempt to transmit the effects upon Europe of the libidinal history of one man – Wilson. Bullitt told Freud in 1938 when the book was ready for the press ( it had been completed by 1932) that if his name was associated at that moment with a book critical of Woodrow Wilson it would damage his political career .Freud demurred.
Freud had used the details of Wilson’s career, expanding the a relation between political acts and symbolic debts to the father , to illuminate the way the super-ego could lead the subject to lose all sense of its own desire, and to collapse under the conflicting commands of the superego. But it was impossible to construct the sexual history of Wilson and to further claim that the “libidinal history” constituted evidence of both Wilson’s failure to rebel against his father and a fixation on becoming Christ.
In order to articulate the manner in which Wilson was tormented by and submitted to the commands of his superego Freud allowed Bullitt to create a fiction around Wilson’s relation to women.
This fiction began with both authors supporting the notion that Wilson was excessively passive and responsive to his father’s love because his mother was a sickly, withdrawn figure who had never recovered from the traumatic effects of her own voyage to America.
Wilson’s father was presented as the dominant figure of the family, sublimating his sexual desire in his preoccupation with oratory and the seduction of his congregation. But Joseph’s Wilson’s loquacity did not make him the all dominant figure in the Wilson household. As Freud points several times in the book names are very important for the Unconscious. By dropping the use of Thomas from his name Wilson underlined that he identified strongly not only with his mother, but with his mother’s family name . Repressed from the account that Bullitt gives of Wilson’s family life is the considerable intellectual and religious status that his mother’s two brother Thomas (afterwhom he was named) and James had in the family. It was there intellectual interests that Wilson appears to have identified with as strongly as any of his father’s.
Bullitt was able via Wilson’s official biographer Ray Stanard ( whose 6 volume work appeared from 1930-35) to provide access to Wilson’s letters to his first wife. What they reveal is not “weak libido” but his doubt that he is worthy of being loved – a doubt he overcame. No doubt Wilson was always able to turn to his father to find forgiveness and love, but Wilson also overcame in his first marriage the horror of sexuality inculcated in the Calvinist theology of his maternal uncle did have as great a hold upon him as it did earlier in his life.
Freud and Bullitt created the fiction that Wilson wanted to be the “wife” of his father, and that after the death of his mother his concerns about his father reflected this wish. But while such a fantasm may have existed it what was deemed necessary of denying the evidence that Wilson fell in love ( albeit platonically) with a number of women, and that his passionate correspondence with several of them caused his first wife some suffering.
Where the analysis of the super-ego appears to have generated the greatest errancies is in the elaboration of feminity
Freud is at pains to offer an account for the well documented account of Wilson’s first marriage. But what is clear is that Wilson in an obsessional manner divided his object. He fell in love with another divorcee and was as in love with her as he was also a devoted husband to his first wife. Further more he was very ready to marry another divorced woman as soon as his first wife died and apparently did not mourn her for very long.
Freud is at a loss to account for this in any other terms than that he always needed a woman’s breast and that he found in his second wife the very model of devotion to a man – an unstinting devotion to his cause which Freud assumes is the recovery of the experience of the boy being loved by his mother.
But this piece of theorization is in complete contradiction to his initial premise that his mother showed little libidinal interest in him and was withdrawn leading him to be over-indulged by his sisters.
In fact it is clear that despite his admiration for his father and his adoption of his traits the only voice he wished to obey was a woman’s and that in fact it was the relation to the maternal super-ego that was the determinant in his life. He could always remain indifferent to his struggles with men so long as he could count on a woman who would re-inforce the voice of the maternal super-ego that guaranteed both that he could do no wrong and that he should listen only to her demand that he renounce his sexuality.
The loyalty to the second Mrs Wilson was perhaps a figment of their own fear of the maternal Superego incarnated in the figure of a wife who maintains a constant support of her husband, whose secret failings are so unimaginable and yet intimate to her that to encounter the difference would be to destroy her being. To destroy the fantasm of the woman – complete in being both mother and wife.
Finally we must turn to Heckscher’s accusation of “hatred”. However mis-led and over-trusting Freud was of Bullitt Freud’s eloquent introduction to the book emphatically disproves that Freud’s study was an act of hatred. Freud’s admission of his own prejudice towards Wilson is very moving, because as he so openly admits he needed to overcome this prejudice in order to recognize why Wilson was “so exotic” to him. Wilson was his “porcupine”
Bullitt had mis-leading suggested that Freud “freud first became interested in Wilson when he learned that they were born in the same year”, but Freud’s apology for his own prejudice towards Wilson and its conclusion into Freud’s affirmation of his pity for Wilson suggests that the importance to him of studying Wilson was that he represented in his approach to existence everything that Freud was not.
No doubt there are moments that Freud recognized in Wilson’s wish to deliver humanity from the destructiveness of war a wish that he also harbored to produce a discovery that would bring humanity to a reckoning with its own limitations. In reckoning with the limitations of the human Freud had in his life time succeeded where Wilson had failed. The crucial difference being that Wilson’s failure had, because of fate and not because of his own intention, had such a catastrophic consequence for so many Europeans.
Wilson was not solely responsible for what occurred, Freud had studied the reports of the treaty far too closely to ignore the fact that Lloyd George had, with his secret negotiations, and subsequent denial of his verbal commitments used the Treaty to extend the reach of the British Empire and destroy Britain’s main marine competitor, Germany. Freud had allowed Bullitt to use the book to glorify his own criticism of Wilson, which was certainly an instance of political insight, but which led the book to imply that the only American of real consequence at the Treaty of Versaille was Bullitt.
This led to a considerable distortion of what Freud had aimed to do in the book and what he had infact learned from the study of the relation between Wilson and that aspect of American civilization that was so deeply imbued with the influence of Calvinism and English non-conformism. These religious influenced had contributed to the degradation of the paternal function and revealed what Freud had not been able to articulate so precicesly before which was that the Super-ego was working hand in glove with the deathdrive. This crucial advance was as we know picked up remarkably by Lacan and is the basis of his further elaboration of what Freud had so explicitly indicated in “Thomas Woodrow Wilson” that the strength of the ego could never be any match for the superego and that theory and clinical practice of psychoanalysis could never be oriented on the axis of the ego or the psychological. The creation of Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a fiction with which he could transmit these crucial insights.


Bullitt W.C. The Bullitt Mission to Moscow (New York) 1950
Brownell & Billings So Near to Greatness : A life of William C. Bullitt. (New York) 1987
Freud S. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego
On the Question of Lay Analysis
Civilization and it’s Discontents
Freud S & Bullitt, William C. Thomas Woodrow Wilson: A psychological Study (Boston) 1967
Freud S & E. Stanley Jeliffe Correspondence (Ed. W.McGuire) 1986
Grumbrich-Simatos, I. Returning to Freud’s Texts (Boston) 1993
Hale R. Freud and the American’s (New York) 1987
Hunesacker Woodrow Wilson: A life (New York) 1996
Jones, Ernest Sigmund Freud:A life (Boston) 1957
Lacan, J. Seminar X Angoise ( Paris) 1965-66
Rosenzweg,A. The Journey to America: Freud, Jung and “the King maker” 1985 (An indispensible book because it prints all of Freud’s correspondence with G.Stanley Hall)