Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis
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.