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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

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.

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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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