Sigmund Freud
Lilli Strauss  /  AP
A bust of Sigmund Freud stands in Vienna Feb. 17 at the Sigmund Freud Museum, which was his apartment before he emigrated to England in 1939. Freud was born 150 years ago on May 6, 1856 in the Czech city of Pribor.
updated 5/2/2006 7:39:09 PM ET 2006-05-02T23:39:09

At the Cafe Freud, a whimsical watering hole two doors down from the apartment where Sigmund Freud plumbed the human psyche, a famous poster commands instant attention.

It’s a cartoon profile of the frowning father of psychoanalysis, with nose and eyebrows blending into the image of a naked woman. “What’s on a man’s mind?” reads a wry inscription in English, but the real question might be: What would your mother think?

Mirth and melancholy, hubris and humor — it’s how the world likes its Freud, whose legacy is still being celebrated and scorned as the 150th anniversary of his birth arrives Saturday.

For every sober and scholarly discussion about his groundbreaking theories on neurosis, narcissism or Oedipus complexes there’s a New Yorker cartoon, a Woody Allen clip, a “Seinfeld” rant or a memorable Freudian slip of the tongue that springs to mind.

The English poet W.H. Auden foreshadowed all this after Freud’s death in 1939 when he said Freud had already become “no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.”

'He made psychology popular'
“There are only a very few personalities who have had such a significant, fundamental impact on today’s cultural history as Sigmund Freud,” said Austrian President Heinz Fischer, a law scholar who says he “always loves” to read Freud’s works and who is the official overseer of his country’s anniversary events.

A special exhibition titled “The Couch” is being mounted at his apartment at Berggasse 19, now the Sigmund Freud Museum. There are also plans to display paintings by psychiatric patients, screen films about Freud and hold an international symposium on psychoanalysis.

His face, bearded and brooding, is on the covers of magazines comparing him to Copernicus and Darwin — an inspired genius who developed the science that would fundamentally change mankind’s understanding of the mind.

Dr. Peter Kramer, an American psychiatrist writing a biography of Freud, puts it succinctly: “He made psychology popular.”

Freud, he said, made it easier for people to talk about sex and aggression, and his ideas spurred a surge of public interest in personal and sexual fulfillment around the time of World War I.

Many ideas modified or discarded
Many of Freud’s ideas have been modified or discarded, and even psychoanalysts differ on how closely to follow the father of their profession. But they all basically accept Freud’s notions that human behavior is unconsciously motivated and that people all struggle to keep their underlying motivations out of their consciousness, said Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a New York City psychoanalyst.

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More specifically, Freud’s hand can be seen in the popularity of such notions as being a supportive parent rather than just a strict disciplinarian, and the idea that a person’s childhood experiences will influence how he or she turns out as an adult, said psychologist James Hansell of the University of Michigan.

The very idea of talking to a therapist is a Freud legacy. “Every form of (talk) therapy out there today rests on the foundations that he laid,” Hansell said. Even today, Kramer added, “it helps tens of thousands of people.”

An early user of cocaine who thought it might have cure-all properties, Freud believed psychoanalysis might someday be replaced by medication. But today, talk therapy in general has not given way to drugs. In fact, it has formed a useful partnership.

One form of talk therapy, called cognitive-behavioral therapy, coupled with an antidepressant, works better for depression than just the pills alone, says Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle.

It’s not psychoanalysis, but Freud “did, I think, lay the foundations for future clinicians to develop talk-therapy type of interventions that are quite effective,” Coyle said.

'Freud Lite'
Millions of others worldwide channel the good doctor with the kind of “Freud Lite” pop psychology chatter so often overheard at cocktail parties. Who among us has never indulged in a little armchair analysis of our dreams or childhoods, or snapped up a self-help book laced with Freudian ideas?

“Everybody jokes that the taxi drivers in Argentina read Freud, and they do,” said Young-Bruehl.

Some of his signature work has inspired generations of comedians and cartoonists — the Oedipus complex, penis envy, infantile sexuality, the anal phase, the meaning of dreams.

Bookstores from Boston to Berlin sell impish, white-bearded Freud “action figures” that say, in guttural German-accented English, “Tell me about your mother.”

Even at the Freud Museum in Vienna, which displays his “Prof. Dr. Freud” nameplate, degrees, fedora and cane, “Analyze Me” T-shirts are on sale in the gift shop.

Would Freud be offended? Maybe not. He clearly had a sense of humor, as evidenced by one of his more droll quotes: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Theories on women, gays criticized
Not all women are fond of Freud, who once referred to them as “a dark continent.”

“My grandfather was a good and loving man, but he understood nothing about a woman’s sexuality,” Freud’s granddaughter, 82-year-old Sophie Freud — who emigrated to the United States in 1942 and became a social worker — said in an interview with the Austrian news magazine Profil.

Freud was also ambivalent about homosexuality; though some scholars say he regarded it as a perversion, he once described it as “assuredly no advantage, but nothing to be ashamed of.”

A Jew by birth but an avowed atheist, Freud was born in what is now the Czech Republic in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire on May 6, 1856. He spent most of his life in Vienna but fled Nazi persecution in 1938 for England, where he died at 83 of cancer on Sept. 23, 1939.

His love of cigars was his undoing. In what might have been a macabre example of his own theory of oral fixation, he is said to have smoked a box a day even after a malignancy forced the surgical removal of his jaw.

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