Freud, The Writer of Leonardo1

László Halász
Research Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest
P.O.Box 398, H-1394, Hungary

At our eighteenth conference I reported that young subjects without any psychology education or previous information on the author judged a 1700-word excerpt from Freud's Leonardo to be remarkably readable and fictional, and found it as much a literary narrative as a scientific-expository text. I am now investigating how Freud could write such an astonishingly original story with deep dramatic turns in spite of (or because of?) his uncertain information, obvious biographical mistakes, mistranslations, and misinterpretations). The reader of Freud's Leonardo has two contradictory attitudes simultaneously: a willing suspension of his/her disbelief, as is usual with a literary work and maintenance of his/her doubt against anything that is not factually correct or testable, as is usual with a scientific work.

At our 18th Conference, among others, I reported (for details Halász, 2002) that young subjects (35 well-motivated secondary-school students yet to take their school matriculation examinations) with no psychology education or previous information on the author (even his name was unmentioned) read an 1700-word excerpt from Freud's Leonardo as a painter, in the light of his relationship with his mother and Mona Lisa, and Leonardo as an inventor-scientist in the light of his relationship with his father. The subjects' task was to categorize the text, namely to assign it to the genre drama, dissertation, essay, novel, report, or short story (one genre, two genres or even more, as they found it appropriate). (For summarized data see Table 1)

Table 1
Proportions of the genres in percentages (as compared to the number of total responses=65)
No significant difference
Literary narrative41
Short Story35

Although the proportion of dissertation and essay catgegorizations was somewhat higher than that of novel and short story ones, the difference was not significant. (The data for report and drama were negligibly low). In other words, the naive subjects basically speaking judged the totally unfamiliar text to be as much a literary narrative as a scientific-expository discourse. Anyway, this means that they supposed the author to be a fiction writer as much as they did a scientist. Were they right or not?

Leonardo is special kind among Freud's case studies. Usually the material for such a study was based on the interaction between Freud and a patient. In other words, in addition to him only the patient could have a direct knowledge of the material. It was quite a different story when the subject of the case was an artist very famous for centuries. Under such circumstances the raw material per se had already been published. When Freud began work on Leonardo, the papers and books around him were piled high. It was rather difficult to produce a work that would grab the attention, especially since Freud was an admirer of Leonardo like many of those who had already written about him. How, then was it possible to draw up a really remarkable case study, and to speak differently from them?

Leonardo's elegant appearance was not news, nor was his Renaissance versatility. But it was mysterious that his activity as an experimenter displaced his work as a painter and the artist often left his creations unfinished. At the same time, he was an unusually gentle man in his personal relationships. He had a horror of violence which, however, did not prevent him back from being an unbiased observer at the executions of condemned criminals or an officer of the engineers engaged in designing destructive weapons. An additional characteristic is that "In an age which saw a struggle between sensuality without restraint and gloomy asceticism, Leonardo represented the cool repudiation of sexuality—a thing that would scarcely be expected of an artist and a portrayer of feminine beauty" (Freud: 1985:158). Although accused of homosexuality, he was acquited of the charge. It may be that his tender relationship with the youth never took this form. "He merely converted his passion into a thirst of knowledge" (ibid. 164), and he subordinated his art to pure knowledge. Here is an emerging picture.

If Freud really had aspired to write an extraordinary narrative concerning an extraordinary man, then now a revealing turn must follow in the work, one that would give a new direction to the course of events. Freud quotes Leonardo himself, who was writing about the flight of vultures when he suddenly interrupted himself: "It seems that I was always destined to be so deeply concerned with vultures—for recall as one of my very earliest memories that while I was in my cradle a vulture came down to me, and opened my mouth with its tail, and struck me many times with its tail against my lips." (ibid. 172).

The scene—says Freud—is much more a phantasy than a memory image. Leonardo probably heard about this from his mother. It is, certainly, full of significance and meaning. It is similar to a dream image of passive homosexuals about fellatio. Behind it is the memory of sucking the mother's nipple. The mother—in Egyptian hieroglyphics—is represented by a vulture. This was the symbol of motherhood because the Egyptians believed that male vultures did not exist and that the females were impregnated by the wind. Leonardo was able to read about this and thought that "he also had been such a vulture child—he had had a mother, but no father" (ibid. 181).

Leonardo was born illegitimate and was already five years old when his father received him into his family. A strong instinct for infantile sexual research (where a child comes from and the role of the father), is intensified in Leonardo on account of his own situation. Like many children he, too, imagined for some time that his mother had had a penis as he did. Thus his phantasy said: "That was the time when my fond curiosity was directed to my mother, and when I still believed she had a genital organ like my own " (ibid. 189). The cases of homosexual men attest that their love for the mother is repressed, while they themselves identify with the mother and search for a love object like themselves.

Focusing on his protagonist, Freud tells an interesting story that he intertwines with related mini-stories and interpretations of them. Following a presentation of the psychological development of homosexual men, he directs the reader's attention to some parts of Leonardo's diary in which the latter speaks of certain expenses item by item in extraordinary detail. All these items are connected with a certain Caterina's—his mother's—funeral. The accounts, which seem to suggest petty-mindedness, are, to Freud, really memories of the son's repressed attraction towards his mother.

However fascinating Freud's treatment of Leonardo's childhood memory, actually is, it cannot be continued indefinitely without loss of interest on our part. After all, Leonardo is Leonardo—he rests on his works and not on the events just narrated. The storyteller must introduce another change in order to keep his tale from losing its appeal. According to him, the artist saw in the Mona Lisa the stepmother, recalling the enigmatic smile of his mother when kissing him. In St Anne with Two Others (the Madonna and Child) in which Mary is sitting on her mother's lap and extending her hands towards the infant Jesus, on the lips of both women incarnations of Leonardo's real mother and his tender stepmother—Mona Lisa's smile can be seen, too. But now it expresses intimacy and not a thrilling mysteriousness. The artist immortalizes the desire of a son fascinated by his mother and recalls the lost paradise. "With the help of the oldest of erotic impulses he enjoyed the triumph of once more conquering the inhibition in his art " (ibid. 227).

Until now the role of the mother has overshadowed that of the father. But the father also arouses Freud's prediliction for storytelling and analysis, by means of one of Leonardo's diary entries. On the day of the father's death Leonardo mentions the hour twice, at the beginning and at the end of the laconic text. The well-known pedant precision, the perseveration of figures, is a sign of the affective inhibition. Leonardo wished to occupy the place of his father in line with his desire for his mother. He had wished to surpass his father in the house, ever since puberty albeit not in erotic areas. Like his father who as a distinguished stranger abandoned the peasant girl he had nonchalantly made pregnant, his son paid no attention to his intellectual children: his paintings.

"But if the imitation of his father did him damage as an artist, his rebellion against his father was the infantile determinant of what was perhaps an equally sublime achievement in the field of scientific research" (ibid. 215) Leonardo was able to reject religious and secular authority precisely because he had learnt in his first years to break away from his father and from his fear-arousing power. This helped Leonardo to carry his infantile being unchanged into his research activity, sometimes in very important inventions, and sometimes in things without use, such as the painted lizard with big eyes and glued wings, horns and beard. He was quite happy, while his friends were frightened to death.

All these things convince us—if we need convincing—that Freud is able to describe clearly the dramatic structure of personality, the pressing confusion which, as Stefan Zweig (1931) pointed out, rules in the conflict-ridden realms of consciousness and unconsciousness. The whole effect is increased by the fact that the shaping of character and fate through a series of crises is accompanied by an exchange of attitudes and roles. The turn does not depend on the subject's control (Rieff, 1959:131). Personal dispositions and regressive forces are in conflict with each other. Leonardo loses so that he can also win. With his unique endowments his artistic career is turned in a scientific direction that one of the components of his infantile past brings into prominence.

Freud was interested in Leonardo on account of his own deep dilemma. The "choice between the sensuous pleasure of art and the intellectual pleasure of science" was his personal decision, too, "and like Leonardo, if with less agony and earlier in his life, he chose science rather than art, or rather subsumed the latter in the former" (Kuspit, 2000: 27). Freud thought that poets and researchers can recognize similar truth, but that their approaches and aims necessarily drive a wedge between the aspirations of these two groups. The separation between arts and science could be followed up to the end of the Renaissance and opposition between the romantic poet and the qualified researcher not only deeply pervaded Freud's professional identity, but also constituted an essential point in how to define psychoanalysis as a new science (Yerushalmi,1989). Freud made a clear distinction between the psychoanalyst and the artist possessed by a divine madness, by demoniac inspiration or spiritual intuition. But if the figure of the psychoanalyst—first of all as he/she is represented—had indeed become clearly separate from that of the artist, Freud would hardly have put such an emphasis on this.

One of the characteristic modes of narration is when we know the protagonists, and their external and internal worlds by means of an omniscient narrator standing outside. This role is perfectly convenient for Freud as a psychoanalyst. Combining the ramifying threads, Leonardo, "this great and mysterious man", appears before us in Freud's presentation. Nevertheless, at the end of his work Freud excuses himself. After all, the material "which tradition makes available" (ibid. 228) is unrealiable and fragmentary. At this point in time we cannot rid ourselves of the idea that Freud has chosen his protagonist not despite, but just because of this. In this way he is not constrained to follow the sources relating to Leonardo. His freedom is not less than in his typical case studies. Here, too, he has to analyse riddles "to find a solution" (Freud, 1979:245).

Freud's work reminds us of the authors of highly-esteemed classic detective stories. Confronted by fragmentary evidence and scattered traces he finds the explanation of the story, the meaning of the ambiguous signs in the past (Brooks, 1984:269). The prototype of this detective is Oedipus, who finishes his work only when he discloses the terrible truth about himself. Both detective and psychoanalyst are aware of the fact that puzzle-solving can be only accomplished if they can reach the meaning hidden behind the surface. It is the discovery of fine, minute details which change the whole picture that is decisive (Zizek, 1994:108, 112-113). According to the Sherlock Holmes tradition, nature can be read like a book—the point is to observe the tiniest details and then to group them logically. Perhaps one can make allowances for the spectacular deductions, perhaps one shakes one's head over the missing link in the argumentation. "This particular narrative genre clearly supports the tradition of privileged withholding and it was eagerly supported by Freud. Early in his career, he argued that if the reader was not inclined to agree with his formulation, additional data would scarcely change his mind." And if the author uses his genre well, "Who would want to break off an exciting and suspenseful account only because some detail seemed out of place or some sequence seemed unlikely?" (Spence, 1987:118, 121).

The omniscient author is the master—he builds up the structure of the narrative and the reader's understanding. "There is, however, a large difference between Freud's detective story and other instances of the genre: in the novels of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, author and reader are engaged in a contest in which they are armed with the same weapon, their ability to reason along lines cause and effect—but these are precisely the lines that Freud has told us he will not pursue, and as a result the reader comes to his task with a double disability—not only he must to look to Freud for the material on which his intelligence is to work—he must also be supplied with a way of making that material intelligible. And, of course, it will be Freud who supplies him, and who by supplying him will increase immeasurably the control he already exercises. Not only will he monitor the flow of information and point to the object that is to be understood—he will stipulate the form in which the act of understanding will be allowed to occur" (Fish, 1989:535).

One of the key components of the story is Leonardo's relationship with his mother, more precisely with her death. Freud put on record that he used a "discovery" in Mereshkovsky's biographical novel (1912), namely that the latter's identification of a certain Caterina as Leonardo's mother. Although Freud (ibid. 197) mentioned that according to an Italian Leonardo expert this person was only a servant in Leonardo's household who stayed a short time, he took his lead from the Russian writer, having said that "This interpretation by the psychological novelist cannot be put to the proof, but it can claim so much inner probability, and it so much in harmony with all that we otherwise know of Leonardo's emotional activity, that I cannot refrain from accepting it as correct."

As if such an approach were not odd to say the least on the part of a researcher, Freud increased the problematic nature of the material unintentionally, too. What he considered certain, was not certain. It cannot be excluded absolutely that the father took Leonardo into his home soon after his birth and not some years later. And if was so, almost everything in the Freudian story would be ruined. But supposing that in this respect Freudian starting point was based on firm data, it is unquestionable that the growth of the cult of St. Anne contributed significantly to the background of St Anne with Two Others. The pope sent out indulgences for those who prayed to the saint. The prayer could be read on a note and St. Anne, the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus could all be seen on a great number of xylographs. By the time Leonardo began to paint his work, this xylograph was rather fashionable in Catholic Europe (Clark, 1980:347—348).

But a more serious problem is that the vulture which is of central importance to Freud, is simply a mistake on the part of the German translator of Leonardo's diary and another translator of Mereskovsky's novel, too. Leonardo wrote about a kite. Thus, the parallels relating to vultures from cultural history simply have no place in Leonardo's childhood mental world. But all these things cannot be erased from Freud's "novelist" text, surely this is authentic so—namely Freud's and not Leonardo's—, and without them the text would lose much of its originality, richness and meaning. It would be diminished of such great virtue in it: from its deep and astonishing portrayal of human beings in general to its presentation of Leonardo's "powerful instinctual passions which can nevertheless only express themselves in so remarkably subdued a manner" in particular (Freud, ibid. 228). We understand that when Freud's attention was called to the translating mistake more than ten years after publication his work, he admitted what he had to admit, although he was not willing to alter in the slightest the several latter editions published in his lifetime. How could he do so when not long before he had confessed to Lou Andréas Salomé "This is the only beautiful thing I have ever written" (Gay, 1988:268). Despite Freud's above mentioned choice in his early life, this is much more the attitude of a poet who—in line with artistic freedom and imagination— may transform the facts (may neglect some and make up others) than that of a scientist.

"I have often observed that the subject-matter of works of art has stronger attraction for me than their formal and technical qualities, though to the artist their value lies first and foremost in these latter. I am unable rightly to appreciate many of the methods used and the effect obtained in art"—remarked Freud, correctly (1985a:253). This means that he was rather contentoriented in a one-sided way when interpreting a work of art. Though it may be said that among the arts narrative literature was the closest to him owing to written words which are quite appropriate for analysis, this does not change the fact that he was "simply a layman" (ibid.) even in literature, at least in the earlier sense of the term. Thus, all this fails to explain why Freud made so many important mistakes with regard to content, or to put it in another way, why he dealt with the "subject-matter" so arbitrarily when writing about, say, Leonardo, Jensens' Gradiva or Moses the Man (see Halász, 1996, 1992). Even based on his above moderate self-critical reflection, mere maximalist caution could have been expected in the processing of the data. Considering this, I do not think that his most important short cuts could have been caused by "his withdrawal from the visual to the literary" (Kuspit, 2000:26), but by the frequent prevailing of the brilliant storyteller (novelist, if you will) over the scientist.

Aristotle (1968) identifies the specifity of literarature in its mediating cognitive (informative) function between history and philosophy. Like history, it describes individuals and events, but like philosophy it generalizes them. It tells us not what has happened, but what may happen. Hirsch (1984), following Philip Sidney, says that the poet suggests a general principle (like the philosopher), and also gives an example (like the historian). Freud's astonishing case histories are quite close to this example-giving function.

So would I say that Freud's case study at issue can, like the less extraordinary other ones, be only read as a literary narrative fiction? As a matter of fact, the majority of Leonardo researchers rejected Freud's conclusions "with horror", as Clark points out (1952:4, 151-152). Despite this, Clark recognized "some passages of fine intuition", even in connection with St Anne with Two Others he recalled that "I cannot resist quoting the beautiful and I believe profound, interpretation which Freud has put on this picture. (...) it is the unconscious memory of these two beloved beings, intertwined as if in a dream, which led him (i.e. Leonardo) to dwell with such tenderness on the subject of the Virgin and St Anne. Whether or not this is true in fact, it seems to express the mood of the Louvre picture—and explains the apparent nearness in age of mother and daughter, the strange interminglings of their forms, and their remote, mysterious smiles". "Whether or not this is true in fact": with these words one of the leading Leonardo experts of our age surrenders to Freud's fine (in)sight. As another art historian points out in a recent monograph: "A painted smile representing an artist's infantile memory of his mother will always remain a possibility. But better the 'possible' account that answers our questions than a documentable interpretation that says nothing" (Collins, 1997:110).

At the end of his Leonardo Freud remarked: "If in making these statements I have provoked the criticism, even from friends of psychoanalysis and from those who are experts in it, that I have merely written a psychoanalytical novel, I shall reply that I am far from overestimating the certainty of these results" (Freud, 1985:228).

In other words, the author of a literary narrative fiction has become extraordinarily cautious, I would say that he is now an anxious scientist, the author of an expository technical text, of a nonliterary nonnnarative nonfiction, as though he had had enough of the earlier genre. He clarifies exactly why cannot Leonardo be considered neurotic. He emphasizes that psychoanalysis is not able to "throw light on the fact of Leonardo's artistic power", but "renders its manifestations and its limitations intelligible to us" (ibid. 230). And he indicates in an effective and quite general way "what psychoanalysis can achieve in the field of biography " (ibid. 228). In reply to our question at beginning of the paper, yes, the naive subjects were right. The reader of Freud's Leonardo has two contradictory attitudes simultaneously: a willing suspension of his/her disbelief, as is usual with a literary work; and maintenance of his/her doubts about anything that is not factually correct or testable, as is usual with a scientific work.


1. The study was financially supported by the National Scientific Foundation (026234)

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