An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2014

On Reading & Rereading Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Steven Marcus
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STEVEN MARCUS, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1974, is the George Delacorte Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Columbia University. His books include Dickens, from Pickwick to Dombey (1965), The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (1966), Engels, Manchester, and the Working Class (1974), and Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis: Studies in the Transition from Victorian Humanism to Modernity (1984).

I am going at least at first to write autobiographically. My justification for doing so is that I regard my experience as relatively typical and hence as bearing some fraction of non-negligible, if perhaps oblique, interest. I first read Freud sixty-five years ago. I was eighteen years old, and the occasion arose in what was then offered in my intellectually conservative college as a new course. The subject was in the humanities, and it consisted of works selected from some of the many masters of midnineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literature and thought. Included among them were such figures as Melville, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Henry and William James, George Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Proust, and Kafka. Inserted somewhere in the second half of the chronological list was Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, which he originally delivered between 1915 and 1917.1 Hence the context in which Freud was presented, and presented himself, to my largely bewildered late-adolescent sensibility was that of Western cultural, intellectual, and literary modernism. It was an advantage, I believe, to have read him for the first time among other immensely distinguished minds, writers who were in the course of radically departing from what had been generally accepted as canonical forms, conceptions, and conventions of representation–and of norms and values, including the values of civilization and of life itself.

Part of this advantage of reading and experiencing Freud as one cultural preeminence among others was . . .

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  • 1All quotations from and references to the lectures are from The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., vols. XV and XVI(London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1974). Page numbers are noted parenthetically within the main text.