Freud’s Mex­ico: Into the Wilds of Psy­cho­anal­y­sis

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Rubén Gallo, MIT Press, 408 pages — To­mas Jaehn

Rubén Gallo’s Freud’s Mex­ico is a fas­ci­nat­ing story of Mex­ico and at the same time a labyrinthine ex­cur­sion into Freudian psy­cho­anal­y­sis. The ap­pli­ca­tion of “neu­roses,” “li­bido,” and “Oedi­pus com­plex” to ex­plain as­pects of Mex­i­can iden­tity and cul­ture is at times dif­fi­cult to con­sume. As a dis­claimer, though, I must con­fess my view that some­times a cigar is just that — a cigar.

While lit­tle is known about Freud’s im­pact in Mex­ico, Gallo as­serts that, since the 1920s, “Freud was read by Mex­i­can poets, nov­el­ists, his­to­ri­ans, philoso­phers, and artists, as well as by med­i­cal doc­tors and psy­chi­a­trists.” Gallo’s inspiration to write about Freud and Mex­ico — a coun­try Freud never vis­ited or dis­cussed much in his writ­ings — orig­i­nated with three pre-Columbian sculp­tures owned by Freud.

In “Freud in Mex­ico,” the first part of this two-part work, the au­thor dis­cusses the Mex­i­can in­tel­lec­tual elite’s ap­pli­ca­tion of psy­cho­anal­y­sis. It delves into writer Sal­vador Novo’s in­ter­ests in sex­u­al­ity, mod­ern me­dia, and sim­ple self-pro­mo­tion, cit­ing his spe­cial affin­ity for young male chauf­feurs — “those sexy sym­bols of a Mex­i­can moder­nity.”

Gallo con­tin­ues with a dis­cus­sion of philoso­pher Sa­muel Ramos’ take on Freud. Ramos dis­liked Freud’s ap­proach to sex­u­al­ity but was ea­ger to use his meth­ods to ex­plain the Mex­i­can na­tional char­ac­ter, whose traits in­cluded ex­act­ness, pedantry, and the need for be­ing dif­fer­ent in clothes, work, and morals to cover up the “feel­ing of in­fe­ri­or­ity.” The au­thor pro­vides in­sight into Frida Kahlo’s ap­pli­ca­tion of Freud in her paint­ings, and he shows writer Oc­tavio Paz turn­ing Freud’s Oedi­pal model up­side down by re­call­ing the rapes of In­dian moth­ers by Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors. Gallo also dis­cusses Gre­go­rio Le­mercier, a Bene­dic­tine monk, who used the monastery Santa María de la Res­ur­rec­ción for psy­cho­anal­y­sis in an at­tempt to mod­ern­ize Mex­i­can Catholi­cism, thus threat­en­ing the con­ser­va­tive foun­da­tions of the Catholic Church.

It is gen­er­ally known that Freud was an avid col­lec­tor of an­tiq­ui­ties, in­clud­ing the three preColumbian pieces that are in­te­gral to the sec­ond part of Freud’s Mex­ico. Gallo seeks cor­re­la­tions be­tween Freud’s un­der­stand­ing of Mex­ico and the psy­chi­a­trist’s writ­ings, his pre-Columbian statutes, and a Mex­i­can law book he owned. (In­ci­den­tally, the Mex­i­can law book was the only Mex­i­can book in Freud’s li­brary, and it ap­pears that Freud had not read it.) Gallo pro­vides a de­tailed in­ter­pre­ta­tion of why Freud may have had the book and for what pur­pose — an in­ter­pre­ta­tion that in­cludes can­ni­bal­ism, its use for pa­tients, and Aus­tria’s brief, in­di­rect in­volve­ment in Mex­ico via the Habsburg dy­nasty’s Max­i­m­il­ian of Mex­ico.

With these ar­ti­facts and other psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal tools in hand, Gallo goes on a psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal ex­cur­sion to find Freud’s some­times deeply buried thoughts on Mex­ico. He sees a Mex­i­can con­nec­tion in that Freud read and spoke Span­ish and was in­ter­ested in Miguel de Cer­vantes’ lesser-known work The Col­lo­quy of the

Dogs. He an­a­lyzes Freud’s ju­ve­nile let­ters — writ­ten in Span­ish — to Ed­uard Sil­ber­stein, a friend of his youth and young adult­hood, and hints that Freud might have had ho­mo­sex­ual ten­den­cies. Gallo also in­ter­preted Freud’s sole Mex­i­can book — the law book, writ­ten by Judge Raúl Car­rancá, who ap­plied Freud’s psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal meth­ods to ex­am­ine the ef­fects of “cen­sor­ing” the sex­ual prac­tices of prisoners — in an ef­fort to un­cover Freud’s thoughts on Mex­ico. Car­rancá was later named judge at the trial of Ramón Mer­cader, the mur­derer of Leon Trot­sky, pro­vid­ing Gallo an op­por­tu­nity to an­a­lyze Mer­cader and his mo­tives for the as­sas­si­na­tion. Gallo also re­lies heav­ily on The In­ter­pre­ta­tion of

Dreams, Freud’s most del­i­cate and in­ti­mate pub­li­ca­tion. Al­though he ad­mits that “Mex­ico did not fig­ure as an im­por­tant theme in Freud’s pub­lished work,” Gallo an­a­lyzes Freud’s dreams, de­tect­ing an ad­mi­ra­tion for Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors as well as a re­sent­ment of no­ble Aus­trian ar­ro­gance. More “fic­tion tinged with au­to­bi­og­ra­phy” (as one bi­og­ra­pher of Freud called

The In­ter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams), it serves Gallo’s pur­pose well. It was dur­ing these psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal musings that I thought, “some­times a cigar is just a cigar.”

The lin­ger­ing ques­tion for the reader is: What does Freud have to do with Mex­ico? The an­swer re­mains: very lit­tle. Freud’s Mex­ico is a study of Mex­ico, its en­try into the 20th cen­tury, its strug­gles for na­tional iden­tity, and a some­what su­per­fi­cial in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Freud’s life and works. At times it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing study of Mex­ico’s in­tel­lec­tu­als dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tury and an elo­quent re­it­er­a­tion of many his­tor­i­cal Mex­i­can and in­ter­na­tional events. But the book’s Freudian con­nec­tion is at times a stretch.

With his ex­clu­sive re­liance on Freud’s works and the­o­ries, it is sur­pris­ing that the au­thor chooses not to note Freud’s chang­ing sta­tus among mod­ern sci­en­tists and his­to­ri­ans. These crit­ics con­tend that Freud’s the­o­ries lack em­pir­i­cal proof and that his clin­i­cal data are flawed, in­ac­cu­rate, and se­lec­tive, at best. Freud’s ap­proach to in­ter­pret­ing dreams — a sig­nif­i­cant part of Freud’s Mex­ico — has been crit­i­cized as well. Re­gard­less of whether or not one ac­cepts Gallo’s psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal, Freudian un­der­tak­ings, in the end,

Freud’s Mex­ico re­mains a well-writ­ten and in­ter­est­ing psy­chobi­og­ra­phy of a coun­try.

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