Freud Fainting


Seymour Chwast, Freud Had It (detail), 1970s.

Yesterday, inexplicably, I fainted. I was stepping off the subway and I collapsed onto the platform. I’d known it was going to happen for maybe a minute beforehand. I thought if I could just get to my stop, sit down, and get some fresh air, I’d be okay. But as soon as the doors closed at the stop before mine, I knew it was unstoppable—I crossed the threshold from “might happen” to “will happen.” A grayness clouded my vision. I made eye contact with a woman and absently wondered if I should tell her I was about to faint, if she could read it on my face.

I’ve never fainted before in my life. I came close as a kid: kneeling during mass and standing up too quickly. The grayness would creep in, and I’d lean my weight against the side of a pew. But before now, I’d never fully fainted. I’m sure there’s a physiological explanation: I was probably overheating, dizzy from standing. But that’s no fun. So I looked into the psychological, emotional reasoning behind fainting. 

Freud, I discovered, fainted at least two times, both in the presence of his protégé and rival, Carl Jung. The first was in 1909, in Bremen, shortly before he was to sail to America. He, Jung, and Ferenczi were having lunch and chatting about mummies, as one does:

Jung spoke about being fascinated by some recent discoveries of “peat-bog corpses” in prehistoric Copenhagen cemeteries. Jung had confused these corpses with seventeenth-century mummies preserved in Bremen; Freud made the correction, but Jung’s persistent interest in the subject of corpses “got on Freud’s nerves.” Jung recalled Freud’s questioning of him:

“Why are you so concerned with these corpses?” he asked me several times. He was inordinately vexed by the whole thing and during one such conversation, while we were having dinner together, he suddenly fainted. Afterwards he said to me that he was convinced that all this chatter about corpses meant I had death-wishes towards him. I was more than surprised by this interpretation, I was alarmed by the intensity of his fantasies—so strong that, obviously, they could cause him to faint.

(Freud and His Followers, 1992, Paul Roazen)

A few years later, in 1912, Freud fainted at a conference during the discussion of a Karl Abraham paper, an Oedipal reading of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. Apparently Akhenaten removed some stone monuments built by his father—Abraham read this as akin to parricide. In Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt (2014), the Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat recounts the incident:

Over lunch, Freud and the others discussed approvingly Abraham’s interpretation of Akhenaten as a mother-fixated neurotic who destroyed his father’s monuments out of a desire to erase him … Jung was annoyed. He argued that Akhenaten was a creative and profoundly religious man who honored his father’s memory and had no hostile impulses towards him. For Freud, anxious about Jung’s rejection of his own ideas and their worsening relationship, this talk of ungrateful sons destroying their fathers’ heritage was a little too much. He slid off his chair in a faint. Jung picked Freud up and carried him to a sofa. He later wrote that he would never forget the look Freud gave him. ‘In his weakness he looked at me as if I were his father. Whatever other causes may have contributed to this faint—the atmosphere was very tense—the fantasy of father murder was common to both cases [Freud’s and Akhenaten’s].

I think Freud is right to associate fainting and death. Fainting is some kind of pantomime of dying. Like you’re a bird in the sky that suddenly loses its ability to fly and just drops. Your muscles don’t work, your mind doesn’t work; you abscond, momentarily, from the world. But only for a small moment.

When I fainted, a wave of adrenaline coursed through me as soon as I hit the concrete of the platform. My legs turned to jelly, but I kept them beneath me, falling hard on my hip. I was out for half a second and immediately felt total, melting relief; I’d been trapped on this trajectory, and now, by fainting, I’d broken the spell, escaped my fate, woken up from a vivid dream. I blinked away the afterimages, my skin glossed in sweat, and stood, shaking, surrounded by concerned citizens.

Lionel Trilling wrote in the New York Times about the aftermath of Freud’s second fainting spell, after the Akhenaten incident:

A few days later Jung wrote Freud, coolly but with amenity, even with the avowal of his wish to continue in personal if no longer in intellectual closeness. Freud replied in kind; he commented on the fainting episode, about which Jung had enquired, and contended by saying, “A bit of neurosis that I ought really look into.” The minimizing phrase seems to have put Jung into a state of hysterical rage. He insolently replies that “this ‘bit’ should, in my opinion, be taken very seriously indeed because it leads ‘usque ad instar voluntariae mortist’ (‘to the semblance of voluntary death’). I have suffered from this bit in my dealings with you … ” and more to the same effect and in the same tone.

If Freud’s fainting stemmed from, as Trilling puts it earlier in the essay, ambivalence over Jung’s professional relation to him, what was my fainting all about? Strangely, I think I do have an explanation. The day before I fainted, I ate a salad for lunch. It occurred to me just before I took my first bite that the dressing I used was at risk for carrying botulism. It was a week old, at least, a clove of raw garlic sitting in olive oil. Botulism develops when botulism spores have an anaerobic environment in which to grow.

I ate the salad anyway, but I had embarked on a small thought experiment. If you eat something tainted with botulism, it usually takes eighteen to thirty-six hours to show symptoms: double vision, dizziness, paralysis, et cetera. Followed by possible death. So what if, in about a day, I contracted botulism? It was possible. I was never scared about it, it was just something I entertained, something I Googled a bit. And then, right on cue, a day later, I fainted, usque ad instar voluntariae mortist. I’d acted in some diminutive way on a death wish for myself. Or maybe a death thought, a death expectation.

I called my mom later to tell her about the incident. She gave me what, in some light, could be considered a psychological reading. If you think you’re going to faint, she said, you gotta get your head between your knees. It means your head isn’t getting enough blood. You have to get your head below your heart.

Nausicaa Renner is a senior editor at n+1. She tweets at @nausjcaa.

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