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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 2)

Freud's tone in this letter to Fliess seems hysterical, a smoke screen, as it were, to divert his doctor away from the issue at hand. For the content of the letter was that he had failed to comply with his physician's orders. How could Fliess insist that Freud continue his abstinence after hearing the "magical" effect cigars had on Freud's mood?

But Freud would not have appreciated this or any interpretation of his ambivalent behavior toward smoking. On the one hand, Freud pioneered our understanding of the way people employ psychological defense mechanisms when faced with intolerable thoughts and feelings. But his very own inability to modify his smoking habit illustrates a basic mechanism in human psychology that Freud termed "knowing and not knowing," where an individual, faced with rational understanding, may still be unable to act appropriately.

He knew he could not give up cigars and sought desperately to rationalize his choice to continue smoking. After suffering through a brief period of abstinence due to swelling in his mouth, Freud wrote to colleague Sandor Ferenczi: "Yesterday I smoked my last cigar and since then have been bad-tempered and tired....Then a patient brought me fifty cigars, I lit one, became cheerful, and the affection [swelling] of the palate rapidly went down. I should not have believed it had it not been so striking...." While he could analyze the defense mechanisms of his patients brilliantly, when it came to cigars, Freud's capacity for self-knowledge broke down.

There was another reason why Freud was compelled to continue smoking in the face of his doctors' prohibitions. Sigmund Freud, always the master of his own life, now faced the ultimate loss of control: a diagnosis of cancer. To defy his physicians and continue to smoke permitted Freud an appearance of control over something beyond his control and against which he was helpless. With each cigar, he was able to repeatedly observe his own survival and to experience his own freedom to do as he wished in the face of repeated warnings that he was harming himself, which undoubtedly he was.

Freud was not the only one conspiring to deny the potentially adverse effects of his cigar smoking. Those who were close to Freud struggled with the same conflict. In reading Freud's correspondence, it is clear that a number of his colleagues and friends continued to supply him with cigars even at times when he was most strongly advised not to smoke. In 1931, Max Eitingon, a friend of Freud, heard that he had given up smoking. Yet despite this, Eitingon purchased a supply of Don Pedros and Reina Cubanas. In a letter, he persuaded Freud to accept the cigars. His friends could neither bear to see him suffer the effects of abstaining from cigars, nor admit that he was terminally ill.

Freud is generally considered to have been quite open to analyzing his own psychological makeup. Early in his career he published what he called his self-analysis and The Interpretation of Dreams using his own life and dreams to illustrate psychoanalytic principles. But his inability to give up smoking remained an intentional blind spot. Freud's admitted addiction to smoking always remained a source of extreme defensiveness and was not mentioned at all in his self-analysis. It was a part of himself that he felt was no one's business.

And yet Freud had a partial understanding that his own penchant for cigars was significant for psychoanalysis. In letters to colleagues, Freud hinted that he had the beginnings of a theory of addiction in which he posited that addictions like smoking were secondary substitutions, akin to "withdrawal symptoms," from addictive masturbation in childhood. Freud even hinted that he felt his own addiction to smoking may have had this psychological origin. However, he never published his theory, and his abortive attempts at a theory of addiction may be the result of his ambivalence about examining his own addiction to smoking.

Perhaps Freud's defensiveness about his cigar smoking--and the enormous pleasure he derived from it--was understandable. It was both ironic and inevitable that Freud, the man who taught the world to appreciate symbolism, would be subject to all the clichéd interpretations of his cigar as a phallic object. Even today, banal cigar jokes haunt Freud's image.

Freud adamantly insisted that cigars were a part of his life that was to remain insulated from the observing eye of psychoanalysis. The famous quote captures this sentiment: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." This is not the only time Freud felt compelled to protect himself from the the prying eyes and sharp minds of his colleagues. In the early 1920s, Sigmund Freud created a minor scandal by suggesting in a memorandum to the members of his inner circle that he believed in mental telepathy and that he had himself conducted tests that convinced him of the existence of such phenomena. In his own defense Freud stated that " adherence to telepathy is my private affair like my Jewishness, my passion for smoking, and other things, and the theme of telepathy--inessential for psychoanalysis."

Freud worked and smoked up to the very end of his life at age 83. One of the last photographs taken of Freud in the year prior to his death shows the stately psychoanalyst sitting at his desk in his new office at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London, where he moved after escaping Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. The 82-year-old Freud was dressed in full suit and tie, cigar in hand, working on the manuscript of his final book, the controversial Moses and Monotheism.

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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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