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More Than a Cigar

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, revered his cigars and defended his right to smoke above all else.
Evan J. Elkin
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

Obtaining good cigars, however, was no easy task. In turn-of-the-century Vienna, the Austrian government maintained strict control over the tobacco industry, and so Freud's cigar options were quite limited. According to The Diary of Sigmund Freud 1929-1939: A Record of the Final Decade, translated by Michael Molnar, Freud usually smoked a cigar called a trabucco, which was small, relatively mild and considered the best of those produced by the Austrian monopoly. But he complained that they were inferior, preferring the Don Pedros and Reina Cubanas, which he could get during his vacations in the picturesque Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. Freud also enjoyed Dutch Liliputanos, and when old age limited his travel, he frequently recruited friends and colleagues to bring him his favorite cigars from across the border.

Though it was somewhat unorthodox, even by the somewhat less rigid standards of the early practice of psychoanalysis, Freud frequently received boxes of cigars as gifts from his patients. In January 1931, hoping to surprise him with a supply of cigars, Freud's friend Max Eitingon traveled to Berchtesgaden, located Freud's tobacconist there and ordered several hundred of Freud's favorite Don Pedros. The tireless efforts of his friends to keep him supplied with his preferred brands began to resemble a sort of espionage operation, complete with border crossings and clandestine meetings in remote mountain villages.

If Freud inherited his passion for cigars from his father and inspired his patients to keep him supplied, he also endeavored to instill a love of smoking in his disciples, colleagues and the young men in his family. Hans Sachs, a member of Freud's inner circle, once remarked that "[Freud] was so fond of smoking that he was somewhat irritated when men around him did not smoke. Consequently nearly all of those who formed the inner circle became more or less passionate cigar-smokers," according to Freud, Master and Friend by Hans Sachs, (1944), Harvard University Press.

For Freud, cigars conferred a special insider status, symbolic membership in a community. This was the community of psychoanalysis, but it was also a community of men, and becoming a cigar smoker was an integral part of its initiation rites. His disappointment in his nephew's refusal and his anxiety when his colleagues did not smoke reveal a man highly invested in the ritual value of smoking and highly attuned to the role that sharing a cigar with a friend or colleague plays in cementing social bonds.

Freud's 50-year relationship with cigars was not, however, without storm. When Freud was in his late 30s, he began experiencing symptoms of cardiac illness. His physician-friend Wilhelm Fliess attributed his problems to excessive smoking and hypersensitivity to

nicotine. He urged Freud to give up cigars. Fliess' warnings and the suggestion of a connection between his heavy smoking and poor health concerned Freud, but, in spite of his anxiety, he never significantly modified his consumption of cigars. Some physicians felt that Freud's heart problems may have been congenital. Others hypothesized that his difficulties were essentially psychosomatic and had nothing to do with cigar smoking. Whatever the cause of Freud's heart problem, it ultimately proved not to be life threatening.

The lesson learned from this early period of illness was that Freud was not likely to cooperate with any efforts to modify his cigar smoking. Freud's response to being advised not to smoke cigars was nothing short of oppositional. Freud wrote in a letter to Fliess after being advised him not to smoke: "...I was deprived of the motivation which you so aptly characterize in one of your previous letters: a person can give something up only if he is firmly convinced that it is the cause of his illness...For the first time I have an opinion that differs from yours on some matter....You have been so absolute and strict in your smoking prohibition, the merit of which is all relative...." In this not so subtly hostile response to Fliess it is clear that he was patently unwilling to deprive himself of the thing that gave him the most pleasure in life and which he felt facilitated his incredible capacity for work.

In 1923, when he was 67 years old, Freud's cigar smoking again became a source of difficulty in his life. After nearly 40 years of what by any estimation was an unusually heavy cigar habit, Freud developed a leukoplakic growth in his mouth, which later turned out to be cancer of the soft palate. Freud was himself a doctor and although many of his friends were also physicians, he waited years before showing anyone the growth in his mouth. He feared that smoking would, as he put it, "...[be] accused as the [cause] of this tissue-rebellion." The physician who finally treated the growth naturally advised Freud to quit smoking cigars. Once again, in the face of potentially grave medical consequences, Freud was resistant, even rebellious about abstaining from cigars for any substantial length of time.

Why, in the face of strong warnings from Fliess, several other doctors and his own common sense, did Freud continue to smoke cigars? The notion that the warnings of Freud's doctors should or could have discouraged him from smoking misses the critical role cigars played in Freud's psyche. Freud's moods and his capacity for work, the most important thing in his life, were dependent on cigars. He simply could not fathom giving them up. Those who knew him can attest that Freud was inconsolable when he could not smoke.

During one brief period of abstinence urged by Dr. Fliess, Freud wrote in a letter to him: "I have not smoked for seven weeks since the day of your injunction. At first I felt, as expected, outrageously bad. Cardiac symptoms accompanied by mild depression, as well as the horrible misery of abstinence. These wore off but left me completely incapable of working, a beaten man. After seven weeks I began smoking again...Since the first few cigars, I was able to work and was the master of my mood; before that life was unbearable."

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Comments   1 comment(s)

T van der Horst December 22, 2011 12:19pm ET

What other reasons do i need to continue?


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