Re-upholstering Sigmund Freud's Couch and Remembering One Poet Who Made a Dent in it

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Audio Transcript:

Woody Allen: I'm working with a new therapist, you know, terrific, absolutely terrific. He's been putting me in touch with my inner maggot, which is helping me a great deal. And you know, I finally feel like I found my place. And you know what? It's right back where I started.

Marco Werman: Well, the number one psychoanalyst's couch has got to be Sigmund Freud's. It sits in the Freud Museum in London. You can bet it's seen its share of dreams, memories, traumas, and phobias. And now you might say the couch is in need of a bit of therapy itself. In honor of Freud's 157th birthday this week, the museum is planning to get the couch re-upholstered. Dawn Kemp is the acting director of the Freud Museum in London. She says Freud's couch is a boudoir chaise longue meets medical exam table.

Dawn Kemp: It was given to Freud by a patient, a Madame Benvenisti in the late 1890s, so it's over 130 years old. As you can imagine there are many hundreds of people have lain on it, each for 50 minutes at a time.

Werman: Fifty minutes being the psychiatric hour.

Kemp: Exactly, exactly. And I think it really now deserves a little bit of attention itself. It has seams that are coming apart. There is a spring that is actually protruding now through the undyed linen fabric, and has tears and holes in places. So we just really want to give something back to this iconic piece of furniture.

Werman: The chair is draped in a Qashqai rug from Iran, just as it was when Freud sat behind it.

Kemp: It's the rug that I think made it such an icon. They also, they kind of transfer it into being quite like a magic carpet, with that association with dreams and that half-waking state.

Werman: Now one of several well-known people who lay on Freud's couch was the late American poet Hilda Doolittle. She went simply by HD, and she was analyzed by Dr. Freud in the late 1930s. Susan Friedman, an English Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has studied their relationship.

Friedman: HD went to Vienna specifically to see Freud. She really wanted a spiritual adventure that would help her unlock her creativity. In 1933 she was absolutely certain that there would be another terrifying great war that would engulf Europe, and she had been devastated by the First World War in a personal way, and she was not producing very much poetry. So she went to Freud for help as a writer and as a woman.

Werman: Some time later she wrote a book called Tribute to Freud. What did she have to say about the couch?

Friedman: She liked very much lying on that couch. You couldn't see Freud. His chair was behind the pillow. So she knew he was a presence right behind her, but one of the things that she mentioned is that when he would get excited about some kind of interpretation, or a dream, or some set of ideas they worked out together, he would pound the back of the couch and back of her head.

Werman: Maybe that's why it needs some work today.

Friedman: Perhaps it is.

Werman: A lot seemed to be at stake in those sessions between HD and Freud, it sounds. So her relationship with Dr. Freud, how would you describe it, just patient-doctor, or more complex?

Friedman: She considered herself a student of Freud. She wasn't studying to become an analyst, but she understood that he was very concerned about the legacy of psychoanalysis. What he saw psychoanalysis as was a sort of philosophy. It's no accident that he won the Goethe Prize for Literature, but not the Nobel Prize for Science. And HD understood that and in some sense seemed to feel that what she would be able to do was learn from him the secrets of the soul, but she would take that into a different realm, that is the realm of art.

Werman: So Susan, ultimately what revelations came out of the sessions between Freud and HD and did it unlock her writer's block?

Friedman: It certainly did unlock her writer's block, and I think in 1933 it's almost unimaginable that the great work that she would produce in the 1940s and '50s would ever happen without Freud's helping her to confront the demons, the fear that she felt about violence, about war. And also, he was able to sort of give her permission and say it was okay to be bisexual. He said it's very rare to see truly bisexual people, that's what he believed, but he said you are one, and so instead of feeling guilty about that or somehow or other inadequate, she used this idea of having kind of two selves to write novels and poetry, for example, to have two voices. It's kind of extraordinary because his writings about women are quite narrow, so it's a kind of contradiction about Freud that always interested me.

Werman: Susan Friedman, an English Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, telling us about one of the more intriguing personalities to have spent time on Sigmund Freud's couch, the late American poet HD. Thank you, Susan.

Friedman: Thank you too.

Werman: And let's get back on the couch now. I had one final question for Dawn Kemp at the Freud Museum about Dr. Freud's style. You know, I saw one comment that really tickled me about the couch story online from a woman who wrote, "Walked into ABC Carpet and Home today, and they have a myriad of sofas, chairs, chaise, among other items that are upholstered in rugs instead of fabric." So Dawn, was Freud also ahead of his time as an interior designer?

Dawn: Absolutely. He has influenced so much of our culture and not just an understanding of our minds, but clearly just how we surround ourselves, whether it be film, design, music, literature. He's had an immense influence on all of our life whether we're aware of it or not.

Werman: Well, I don't know if it was Freud who first said it, but I'm afraid we're out of time. From the Nan and Bill Harris studios in Boston, I'm Marco Werman. Our theme music was composed by Eric Goldberg. Enjoy the weekend.