Beyond Freud’s Playground

In the 38th annual Freud Lecture, Siri Hustvedt pursues the roots of imaginative exchange from infancy to the therapist’s couch

It’s May 6, the 155th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. I arrive at the Austrian National Bank just before 17:30 to attend the 38th annual Sigmund Freud Lecture, given this year by American novelist Siri Hustvedt. First held in 1970, this event is in truth something just short of annual. Admittedly, “annual” does leap from the tongue a bit more fluidly than “very-nearly-annually-excepting-2001-and-a-few-years-in-the-early-70s.”

The ÖNB foyer is daunting, a massive presence of Jugendstil pride. Architect Leopold Bauer’s “Palace of Money” glows with nearly a century of care and polish. Gilt, glass, and rose marble are encountered as far as I can see – which isn’t far, because of the teeming mass of bodies pressing me against the revolving door. Apparently I was not alone in thinking it wise to arrive a bit early. The crowd, diverse as it was in age and dress, appeared as a single entity – bringing to mind the eagle composed of several thousand kings from Dante’s Paradiso. This entity, emitting the distinctive nervous chatter of fandom’s anticipation, gradually surged upstairs until, finally freed, we disengaged to find our seats in the small auditorium.

18:00 marked the beginning of the requisite introductory blather, provided by representatives of the bank, the US embassy, the Freud Foundation, and the evening’s moderator. It was 18:45 when Hustvedt finally came to the stage. A quick thanks to her hosts, and she launched into her lecture: Freud’s Playground: Some Thoughts on the Art and Science of Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity.

As Siri began to speak, all presuppositions and judgment fell aside as we were swept up into, as one commenter would later put it, “a love story.” The story was of children and parents, thinkers, researchers, and artists – but primarily of our minds, our milieux and how we relate.

She began by illustrating the “problem of the between,” examining our age-old wonderment at the nature of self and other through philosophical and psychoanalytical perspectives. She explained how an analyst identifies a patient’s “defensive styles,” which she described as patterns of behavior for handling and being with others in the world.

“Our need for other people is an essential need,” she emphasized, “and it is of us, body and soul.” Referring to the two most powerful human needs, namely hunger and love, she speculated as to the psychical aspects of our biology, as well as language’s role in the complex nature of our social needs.

This “between,” or intersubjective realm, is what Freud referred to as our Tummelplatz, the “playground” where emotional transference occurs and in which the therapist both observes and encourages their patients to sublimate their drives. Hustvedt agrees with the translation of Tummelplatz as “playground,” but notes also the further connotations of the German term, such as “battle zone,” “stomping ground,” and “hotbed.” This is the same realm in which children create and share imaginary characters, where dialog occurs and relationships develop, where dreams and nightmares are created.  As she stated, “The between is where therapy, imaginative play, and the creative process of the artist all occur.”

Donald Winnicott’s “transitional space” is described as an intermediate realm between an infant’s perceived world and its growing ability to accept an outer reality. It is not merely an inner space, but an external one as well. A child’s security blanket is both a solid object and symbolic imaginative construct.  Hustvedt refers to Winnicott’s assertion that it is through play that people begin to feel real, and ties this notion to Johan Huizinga’s theory that all of human culture is in fact a form of play.

Hustvedt charts the muddled territory between the real and the illusory (she also pointed out that “illusion” is derived from the Latin ludere, to play). She mentions that “falling in love is riddled with the imaginary” but also asserts that “emotions are not fictive.” Because of the impossibility of clearly delineating these codependent realms, she asserts that, “It is a mistake to isolate neurology from psychiatry, the biological from the psychological, and a further grievous error to discount subjective experience from illness in general.”

As an author, Hustvedt is invested in exploring the intersubjective realm and inviting the voices there – both real and imagined – to converse freely, with herself and with each other. She explained how writing a novel is a dialogic (referring to Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of literature) process, “created by many voices, chattering, rarely agreeing.”

The choices she makes in writing are never arbitrary. She stresses the importance of the “emotional truth” of her fiction. She states that we cannot help but be shaped and influenced by “ghosts of the forgotten past… haunting the intermediate area between me and you.”  Faint, nebulous memories are reconfigured as an author writes and imagines, and this is precisely “where stories bloom, where confabulations of literature flower like dreams over our wounds and losses in a bid for mastery.” Returning to Winnicott, she reminds us that for some, and perhaps for the author most of all, it is within the imaginative realm of literature that one may feel most real.

In her lecture, Hustvedt elaborated upon, but also demonstrated the nature of this intermediate region between minds. Without championing a simplistically cohesive theory of human interaction, she deftly wove together a delicate cat’s cradle of seemingly unrelated notions – ideas from a variety of minds in a multiplicity of disciplines – to inspire, to initiate an avalanche of association and hybrid thought in the mind of the listener. This, in itself, is the nature of sharing.

What can a lecturer hope to convey to a crowd gathered to hear her speak, when she knows that each of the 300 minds in attendance will hear, and hence synthesize, an almost entirely different speech? To what extent can one hope to share one’s own ideas?

Difficult to say, perhaps. And yet, certainly, sharing does indeed occur. How much of this process is intellectual, intentional? How are we to know which aspects of our being – intentionally shared or otherwise – will resonate with another? Perhaps a worthier, truer aim then is rather than attempting to imprint another with one’s own notions, to inspire unique thought in others.

When one may hardly hear the music of one’s own being – the patterns, the rhythm of one’s experiences – how shall we anticipate the potential harmonisation, or concatenation, of playing together? Still, we do play together, as a society, as lovers, or with the phantoms of our own private remembrance, often effortlessly, often beautifully.


The 38th annual Freud lecture can be viewed online in its entirety at:


Edward Said’s Cancelled Lecture 

There’s an interesting story surrounding the 2001 lecture that never was. Edward Said, a highly respected and much-laureled Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, was invited to deliver the lecture that year. Said, a Palestinian-American and vociferous critic of Israeli militarism, was at the time victim of a groundless smear campaign. The Sigmund Freud Foundation, capitulating to pressure from an unknown source, retracted their invitation to Prof. Said.

Immediately following, the London Freud Museum invited Said to deliver the same lecture there, which he did in December of that year. Said also spoke at the Palais Schwarzenberg Vienna in October of 2001, at the joint invitation of the Institute for the Human Sciences (IWM) and the Renner Institute.

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