In the summer of 1893, a 37-year-old clinician made for the Alps in a bid to escape the stultifying heat of a Viennese summer and the pressures of his work. Having spent some time walking through cool mountain valleys, the steady flow of physical movement had begun to weaken the intensity of his intellectual preoccupations. Thoughts of Vienna and his patients began to fade and he decided to turn off from the main path and climb a more strenuous trail to a mountain top. Having reached the summit, he sat down, physically weary but mentally refreshed, ready to immerse himself in the panoramic moment.
But, as is so often the case, an escape to the mountains does not mean an escape from the self. In this case, the man's own preoccupations would return in a startling and revelatory way. The man in question was Sigmund Freud and the preoccupation was neurosis. What was about to be revealed was a seismic breakthrough in his work on anxiety.
According to his original account, Freud had reached a mountain hut perched on the flanks of an unnamed peak in the High Tauern. Having moments earlier signed the hut's visitors' book, as Herr Dr, his moment of tranquillity was interrupted by the question: "Are you a doctor, sir?" On turning, Freud found he was speaking to 'a rather sulky looking girl of perhaps eighteen,' named Katherina. The girl continued:
"The truth is, sir, my nerves are bad. I went to see a doctor in L and he gave me something for them; but I'm not well yet."
Even here, on the mountain top, Freud could not escape from the psychic puzzles that had fascinated him for years:
So there I was with the neuroses once again—for nothing else could very well be the matter with this strong, well-built girl with her unhappy look. I was interested to find that neuroses could flourish in this way at a height of over 6,000 feet.
The story that followed, later reported in one of early psychoanalysis' seminal works, Studies in Hysteria, helped Freud to begin formulating both a re-conception of the function of anxiety and the process of dialogue that would become the foundation of the new form of talking cure he was to introduce to the world. 'Katherina', it would later be discovered, was actually Aurelia. And the mountain was not in the High Tauern (home to the highest alpine peaks east of the Brenner Pass) but the Rax, a 2000m peak in the northern limestone Alps, some 200km to the east. This misdirection, it seems, was intended to protect the identity of the sulky looking girl. As so often with Freud and our understanding of the man and his work, all is not quite as it seems at first glance.
If one were to sketch a picture of Freud and the environment in which he worked, it's likely to be that of an elderly man with a serious look about him, smartly dressed in the rather cossetted fashion of the early twentieth century bourgeois, all framed by the inner sanctum of the consulting room. Just as Freud's account of his dialogue with Katherina was later revised to give a more accurate appraisal of her circumstances, this picture of Freud does not give the full measure of the man. Appropriately, the path that led to the Rax began not in space but in time, in Freud's childhood.
Born in 1856 in the Moravian town of Freiberg in the Austrian Empire (now Příbor, Czechia), Freud developed what we might call a fixation on historical figures associated with mountain warfare. One particular figure, who Freud returns to in many of his writings, is the ancient Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Freud recognised in the stories of Hannibal's war against the Romans a familiar if complex constellation of feelings – desire and guilt being foremost – with the excitement experienced in reading of the general's crossing of the Alps expressing a transgressive imperative.
Travel was to become one of Freud's great passions, an activity in which he saw the capacity for escape from something unsatisfactory at home or from an earlier period of life. But he was alive to the fantastical, distorting aspect of travel too. When a traveller reaches a remote goal, they can feel, Freud said, like 'a hero who has performed deeds of improbable greatness.'
Freud could also see in the stories of Hannibal, a narrative with the power to transmute a painful childhood experience. One day, Freud's father was walking in the streets of Vienna when a young boy of twelve knocked off his father's hat. The child taunted, "Jew, get off the pavement", and the disappointed Freud learnt that his father stepped into the gutter to retrieve his hat. This, he contrasted with the behaviour of (to his mind, semitic) Hamilcar who made his son, Hannibal, swear on the household alter to take vengeance on Romans. Battling through the mountains, then, was to make war against the painful memories of early childhood.
A second major childhood hero was the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic War era Andre Massena. Massena fought successful campaigns throughout the Alps, though in Switzerland it is perhaps his nemesis Alexander Suvorov who is better known. Nicknamed the Russian Hannibal, commemorations to Suvorov can be found across Switzerland, not least in the form of a pair of bronze statues crowning the apex of the St Gotthard Pass. It was here that he defeated a French division in 1799, only to become encircled by Massena's reinforcements. Suvorov's forces had covered almost 80 miles in five days as the Alpine winter approached, they were outnumbered and exhausted. Astonishingly, Suvorov successfully led them through a strategic retreat via the Glarus Alps, famously traversing the Panix Pass at 8,000 feet in October in 1799. Massena would eventually lead the French to ultimate victory, but defeat of such a worthy opponent added further lustre to his shining mythology for the young Freud.
With all these legendary stories forming a central narrative in Freud's childhood, it would come as no surprise that when asked to suggest a name for his younger brother, he proposed Alexander, after the ancient Macedonian leader. Myths, mountains and warfare shaped not just the imaginary world for Freud, but his family history too.
Over time, these adolescent fantasies of conquest and adventure were sublimated into a more mature love of travel and mountains. Even in the early impecunious years of his professional life, Freud would make annual visits to the Alps, a common enough itinerary for the cultured Viennese middle classes. However, he was no sedate tourist and his appetite for travel was voracious.
One biographer suggests Freud found the Stelvio Pass, astonishingly mundane for one of the highest Alpine Passes, so beguiling he walked up and down multiple times in succession. Even at the age of 65, a few years after WW1, he took a group of colleagues, all of whom were much younger, on a walking tour of the Harz Mountains, northern central Germany, and is said to have exceeded all of them in speed and endurance. It's no wonder that his wife, Martha, found it too much and sometimes had to let him go on alone.
Five years after his revelation on the Rax, his summer season in the Alps took him to the Stelvio Pass, then on to Bormio. From here he made for Lake Poschiavo and then over the Bernina Pass and through to Pontresina, after which he experienced his first glacier walk — a five hour trek, most likely along the Morteratsch Glacier, then and even now a huge sweep of ice, snaking down through the valleys of the Bernina Range with the colossal Piz Bernina, crowning summit of the Eastern Alps, towering above. In the following summer Freud yet again headed first to Trafoi at the foot of his beloved Stelvio Pass, then to Sulden, where he set off again up a glacier. This would have placed him somewhere on the flanks of the Ortler, the highest peak in the Tyrol. Freud was well beyond the lowly 2000m Rax, the playground of the Viennese, and well into the heart of the high Alps.
Following his climb of the unnamed glacier, his party proceeded to dreamlike Castello Toblino, and up the 'uncannily beautiful' mountain road to Lavarone in the Southern Tyrol. Freud's use of the term 'uncanny' here has a hauntingly proleptic quality. The word would become loaded with significance when twenty years later Freud wrote about the concept in his famous essay Das Unheimliche: 'Uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.' One wonders whether Freud's encounter with the uncanny at Lavarone was an encounter with possible repression of his earlier childhood transgressive obsessions with mountain warfare.
While the mountains might have somehow provoked in Freud the unconscious re-evaluation of his childhood fixations, they might also have provided inspiration that would bubble up from the unconscious sometime after. Decades later, Freud would develop a Topographic Model of the mind, which has been popularly illustrated to resemble an iceberg. The famous American psychologist, Grenville Stanley Hall, likely taking inspiration from the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, suggested this likeness, which Freud then adopted. GS Hall would have had contact with Freud in the US, where Freud, along with fellow psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sandor Ferenczi, visited on a lecture tour, finding time to go hiking in the mountains. Ferenczi being a regular hiking partner, there is a charming picture of Freud, Ferenczi and Laszlo Gonda hiking in the Tatras in 1917, too.
But one wonders how formative his glacial expeditions might have been. What is visible on the surface masks dangerous cracks and fissures hidden below, and the slow forces of the glacier can remain hidden, though they have powerful consequences. The dynamic nature of glaciers would suggest a close metaphoric expression of the topographical model.
A little over a decade after Freud's first glacial walks, the Swiss pastor and psychoanalyst Oskar Pfister visited Sigmund Freud, taking as a present a model of the Matterhorn. In later correspondence, Freud would concede the impact of Pfister's visit, and the stories he told to his children, writing:
'I do not know what promises you left behind with my children, because I keep hearing things like next year I'm going with Dr Pfister, I'm going climbing with him, and so on and so forth. I dare not mention your 10,000-foot climb with your son, because it would rouse my boys' blackest envy, they would wish they had a father like you, who could still climb with them instead of . . . picking strawberries in the woods down below.'
The love of mountains and stories of exciting climbs had thoroughly embedded themselves in the imaginations of Freud's children. As WW1 loomed, Freud's son Oliver is said to have looked forward to his first battle as if anticipating a mountaineering tour. Another of Freud's sons, Martin often escaped his unhappy marital circumstances through climbing. A letter from his wife, Esti, reveals her anxiety after he returned late from difficult rock climbing in the Gesause (Northern Limestone Alps). Esti was fully appraised of the dangers of climbing; her father was a member of the Austrian Alpine Club and she had regularly ventured up above 3000m. In a letter before one of her trips she reminds Martin 'don't forget to oil my climbing shoes.'
The intergenerational relationship with mountains continued further and Martin's son Walter, Freud's grandson, eventually enlisted in the Special Operations Executive in WW2, parachuting into the Austrian Alps to secure territory for the British. The formative tales of mountain warfare in Freud's childhood became the lived reality of his descendants.
As the years rolled on, fascism took a grip in Germany and beyond and, shortly after the Anschluss of 1938, Freud made the fraught move to London. He wouldn't see his beloved Alps again. He was, however, surrounded by friends, admirers and all manner of cultural celebrities, but he had been forced to leave his sisters behind in Vienna where they perished under the Nazi heel.
A decade before relocation from Vienna, he began analysis with James Strachey, member of the Bloomsbury Group. James Strachey would go on to become famous as both a psychoanalyst and the trusted translator into English of the Standard Edition of Freud's work. Strachey and his network of contacts in British elite society would provide a ready-made society to welcome Freud to London. Strachey himself was no climber, but was highly charismatic, and appears in correspondence as a target for the affections of George Mallory. Typically for this social milieu, while James and Mallory's flirtations cooled, Lytton Strachey, James' brother, had much more overtly erotic (and unfulfilled) designs on Mallory.
Sadly, for Freud, age and years of heavy smoking led to his increasingly frailty, compounded by botched surgery to remove a mouth tumour. In late 1939 Freud's suffering was so great that he agreed with his daughter, Anna to be euthanised by morphine. As one of the most influential figures of modern times slipped away, the first Nazi bombing raids hit Warsaw and the remaining Jewish population in Germany had their radios confiscated. Darkness fell in myriad ways.
The light of psychoanalysis, however, was not extinguished. Anna Freud continued her work whilst Melanie Klein led an alternative school of thought in the discipline. Klein's own history was marked by mountains – her son, most beloved by her, fell to his death in 1934 aged 27 in the Tatras, though his sister would claim suicide. This event marked Klein for life. This tragedy, along with the fracturing of conceptual and clinical fault lines in the British Psychoanalytic Society, known as the Controversial Discussions, and the threat of Nazi bombing of London, would lead to Klein temporarily relocating to Pitlochry.
Freud had written a breakthrough paper on grief and depression in 1917, called Mourning and Melancholia and Klein published her own ground-breaking theory of the idea of the depressive position in a 1935 paper 'A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States', perhaps influenced by her son's death. This she further refined in 1940, informed by the work she carried out with a small number of patients in the local girl guide hut in Pitlochry.
What can we learn from this tentative step into the vast and complex history of Freud and his work? First, that the popular conception of Freud from outside the psychoanalytic community, more familiar with his biography, might be quite at odds to Freud's actual life. Second, that the mountains might somehow have influenced Freud's thinking, or ability to conceptualise psychoanalytic theory. And third, that together, his biography and theories cast a light on how we all interact with the mountains.
This is all perhaps best summed up in a passage from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a 1924 modernist masterpiece of prose through which we can see complex receptions of Freudian thought. The narrator introduces us to the protagonist who is bound for a sanitorium in the Swiss Alps and reflects on the journey away from home and into the mountains: 'Space, like time, engenders forgetfulness; but it does so by setting us bodily free from our surroundings and giving us back our primitive, unattached state.' The mountains are strange yet familiar, uncannily so. What we take to them is the ability to lose and rediscover ourselves, the selves of our earlier lives, and all stations in between.
With special thanks to Freud Museum London for the provision of photographs.