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
When Sigmund Freud's nephew Harry declined a cigar at age 17, his illustrious uncle started as if thunderstruck. He paused and then, weighing his words carefully, admonished Harry: "My boy, smoking is one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in life, and if you decide in advance not to smoke, I can only feel sorry for you." (Freud: A Life for Our Time. Peter Gay, 1989, Anchor Books/Doubleday.) For Freud, the decision not to smoke was surprising, even illogical. Indeed, one can hardly think of Freud, father of psychoanalysis, without thinking of cigars. He was seldom photographed without a cigar in his hand, which is no surprise, since he typically smoked 20 per day. As he wrote, analyzed patients and took his daily walks, Freud smoked continually.
The memories of those that knew him are often recalled through the haze and aroma of cigar smoke. Raymond De Saussure, a psychoanalyst who was himself analyzed by Freud in the 1920s, reminisced that the smell of Freud's cigar wafting through the consulting room provided a special sensory connection to the therapist as the patient lay on the couch during a session. Freud sat behind his patients, completely hidden from view, an arrangement that is typical of the psychoanalytic situation even today because it is thought to cultivate a regressed feeling and facilitate free association. In Freud As We Knew Him, edited by Hendrik Ruitenbeek, De Saussure recalls: "One was won over by the atmosphere of his office, a rather dark room, which opened onto a courtyard. Light came not from the windows but from the brilliance of that lucid, discerning mind. Contact was established only by means of his voice and the odor of the cigars he ceaselessly smoked."
Not everyone was as enamored with Freud's cigar smoking as De Saussure. Freud's son Martin recalled watching his mother prepare the conference table for his father's famous weekly meetings. She carefully placed an ashtray from his father's prized collection in front of each chair. He learned the reason behind all the ashtrays one evening when he returned home just as the meeting was concluding. Martin described the room as "so thick with smoke it seemed a wonder that human beings had been able to live in it for hours, let alone speak in it without choking."
But it was from the smoke-filled atmosphere of these meetings that the field of psychoanalysis emerged. In the fall of 1902, Sigmund Freud and a group of his colleagues had begun meeting every Wednesday evening in Freud's home at 19 Bergasse in Vienna. This "Wednesday Psychological Society," later renamed the Vienna Psycho-Analytical Society, was a lively forum where Freud and his inner circle discussed and sometimes aggressively debated ideas, charting new directions in psychoanalytic theory and practice. The meetings took place around a long table in the waiting area outside Freud's consulting room. The door always remained open so that members had a view of Freud's famous couch with the armchair behind it, the enormous collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities and the books that lined the walls from floor to ceiling.
Freud originally contrived the weekly meetings as a chance to try out his latest theories on a hand-picked audience of critical young minds. Like a star performer and the patriarch that he was, Freud always waited until the group was fully assembled and Martha Freud had finished serving black coffee and cigars, before making his grand entrance. With characteristic self-confidence he presented his new ideas forcefully, as though they were foregone conclusions. His colleagues sat scribbling notes feverishly, puffing on their cigars, champing at the bit for their chance to disagree with him. The sweet smell of cigar smoke and the aroma of coffee permeated the lofty intellectual atmosphere.
For Freud and his followers the ritual and pleasure of cigar smoking were inextricably intertwined with psychoanalysis. And for Freud himself cigars were rich in symbolic value. In fact, contrary to the quote attributed to him, for Freud a cigar was never just a cigar. Cigars and smoking are central to understanding Freud's life, his work and his own personality. And given Freud's conviction that he could not work without them, without cigars there may not have been psychoanalysis.
Cigars were among other things a family affair. Freud began smoking when he was 24 years old, following in the footsteps of his father, who was himself a smoker right up to age 81. Jacob Freud typified the Austrian fin-de-siècle work ethic, toiling long hours in his fabric business and struggling to support his family. From early on, young Sigmund associated his father's smoking with his great capacity for hard work and self-control.
In his old age Freud was quoted as saying: "[cigars have] served me for precisely fifty years as protection and a weapon in the combat of life...I owe to the cigar a great intensification of my capacity to work and a facilitation of my self-control." Clearly Freud saw a connection between cigars, patrician authority and success. In a letter to a colleague, according to Freud: Living and Dying, by Max Schur, M.D., Freud affectionately referred to cigars as arbeitsmittel or "workstuff," a clever play on the German word for food: lebensmittel. Cigars, he believed, were a form of sustenance and a catalyst for his work.
In his own case at least, Freud may have been right: he had an astonishing capacity for work. He conducted a full-time clinical practice for much of his career, published hundreds of essays and books, regularly lectured at universities, served as chief editor for a number of psychoanalytic journals and maintained an enormous regular correspondence with several friends and colleagues. His staggering accomplishments are in large part due to the rigidity with which Freud organized his time.
Freud maintained a highly ritualized daily schedule that did not vary significantly for nearly 50 years. He awoke at 7 a.m. and saw psychoanalytic patients from 8 a.m. to noon. After a midday meal with his family, he walked around his neighborhood for an hour, during which time he typically visited his neighborhood tobacconist. (For much of his life Freud kept a diary in which, among other things, he meticulously recorded his visits to the tobacconist and cigar purchases.) He then made consultations and worked with patients until 7 p.m. Following his evening meal, Freud often played cards with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays, or took a walk to a neighborhood cafe where he would smoke and read the paper. At 9 or 10, Freud withdrew to his study where he did his editorial work and wrote manuscripts, correspondence and lectures until well past midnight. All the while he smoked. Cigars were so deeply woven into the fabric of Freud's daily ritual that he literally smoked them from the time he awoke to the time he went to bed.
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."
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 "...my 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.
Up until the very end of his life, Freud had four patients in psychoanalysis and did not disband his practice until two months prior to his death. In his final days, although he was no longer able to work, Freud requested that his bed be brought to his study so that he could be near his books, his desk and his prized antiquities.
Before he died, on his brother Alexander's birthday, Freud bequeathed him his most prized possession: his stock of cigars. In the letter he wrote: "Your seventy-second birthday finds us on the verge of separating after long years of living together. I hope it is not going to be a separation forever, but the future--always uncertain--is at the moment especially difficult to foresee. I would like you to take over the good cigars which have been accumulating with me over the years, as you can still indulge in such pleasure, I no longer."
Evan J. Elkin is a clinical psychologist interning at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He is an avid cigar smoker.
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