Sigmund Freud is famous for saying two things for which there is no evidence that he was the actual source. One is, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” According to the Freud Museum in London, there is no proof that he actually said or wrote this. I find this hard to believe. If I had given the world ideas like “phallic symbols” and “castration anxiety,” and yet were so addicted to tobacco that I always looked like this:
then I would have started every conversation and public appearance by saying, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Freud is also famous for saying that the two things a person in good mental health should be able to do well are “to love and to work” (“lieben und arbeiten”). This comes from an anecdote told by the psychoanalyst Erik Erickson more than a decade after Freud’s death; but, again, there is no public record of Freud making the statement, and it does not appear in his voluminous writings. The phrase has the kind of catchy terseness you would expect from a mid-20th-century American shrink like Erickson (a modern one might have said, “to actualize one’s potential and to lose weight without dieting or exercise!”), so the story could be apocryphal.
But this saying, too, I’m going to give Freud credit for. As a young man, Freud had chosen to study medicine, one of the few accepted career paths for bright young Jewish men in late-eighteenth century Vienna. He soon found himself interested in the study of the nervous system. He considered going into neurophysiological research, but at the time such endeavors in pure science were the province of the independently wealthy, who could bankroll themselves. Not only was Freud not wealthy – independently or dependently – he was also in love, and secretly engaged. Letters written by Freud and his fiancée, Martha Bernays, published for the first time only last year, show an almost-daily four-year correspondence of intensity and shared curiosity.
Freud knew he had to find a way to earn a respectable income before he could marry Martha. Thus, he chose to go into private practice, for the money, but he made neurology his specialty, to pursue his real interest. In those days “neurology” covered a lot of territory, from brain anatomy to hypnosis, and it wasn’t long before Sigmund, working to understand the commonalities among his many patients, was trying to tie much of it together in new theories that would become the basis for psychoanalysis. His work was creative, prodigious, and groundbreaking; even if much of it has not stood the test of time, it spurred much of what has proved useful in modern psychology. And by all accounts, Freud remained engrossed in his work until his death, just as he remained close to his wife and six children (well, also perhaps his wife’s sister – there were reports of an affair – so Freud may have overpracticed in trying to get the “lieben” part right).
Freud put himself in the place he needed to be to devise his revolutionary theories – focusing on neurology, but in a context in which he would be exposed to the full range of personalities of hundreds of real patients – because he chose a career path that would allow him to pursue both his romantic and professional goals. I therefore think it quite believable that he would point to love and to work as equally essential elements of mental health and fulfillment.