Freud on Coke by David Cohen

The hardback edition of ‘Freud on Coke’ by David Cohen is due to be published on the 31 March 2011. Writer and filmmaker David Cohen has previously published works such as Home Alone (2010) and The Escape of Sigmund Freud (2009), and while the latter dealt with one of Freud’s so-called ‘secret histories’, this offering deals with another; Freud’s use of cocaine and its influence on his most famous work ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’ (1899).

David Cohen justly describes Freud on Coke as “half history, half polemic”, which is a fair self-declaration about the book, for Cohen does not try to hide what feels like his dislike for the man. However, Freud’s theories certainly hold some weight with the author for they are utilised in his analysis: “Any attempt to understand Freud has to confront the fact that he was, at times, a master of denial. The great unanswered question is whether he was aware of that aspect of himself” (Cohen 27). This illustrates how Cohen uses psychoanalytic method to analyse Freud himself – was he in denial? – there is a seduction of his theory involved; as a measure of the man. The book itself is divided into three sections. In the first part, Cohen deals with Sigmund Freud’s own use of cocaine, his writing on the topic and what it might reveal about his work and personality. Find more on cocaine addiction symptoms. In the second part, he examines the development of the introspective drug-use tradition following Freud in the twentieth century. And thirdly, he examines the state of play with drugs today in terms of their socio-medical-political position.

Cohen reviews the literature on the topic of Freud and cocaine to date and it is well worth repeating here, not least because the list stretches to the rather sparse number of three. There is, firstly, Freud and Cocaine (1983) by Elizabeth Thornton, which Cohen describes as “waspish” and overtly anti-Freudian; secondly, Pierre Eyguesier’s Comment on Freud devint Drogmam (How Freud became a Drugman, 1983), Eyguesier was a disciple of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan; and thirdly, Freud und das Kokain (Freud and cocaine, 1973) by Jürgen Von Schiedt, which Cohen describes as a “fair précis of Freud’s papers on cocaine” and also points out that the author felt it was more than merely coincidence that the first dream in Freud’s seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) involved cocaine. Neither of these final two have been published in English, though it should be added that Mike Jay, in Emperors of Dreams (2000), does deal with the topic, although Cohen does not cite him.

The analysis of Freud on his own terms takes the form of an examination of his personal history and, simultaneously, questions why previous biographers have not asked why Freud was susceptible to cocaine. Cohen is especially critical of Freud’s favoured biographer Ernest Jones, who is constantly referred back to as a source of misinformation or, indeed, lacking certain important information – and with good reason. In many respects, this lends itself to being the most critical aspect of the book. In examining his youth, Cohen points to the year 1859, when the Freud’s nanny was sacked (under, possibly, mysterious circumstances) and his two older half-brothers left their home in Vienna, Austria for Manchester, England, as being an important analytical point in his life. He cites recent research that links “separation anxiety and addiction” and thus seeks to justify Freud’s use of cocaine in terms of psychological problems connected with his childhood. Ultimately, this comes across as a sound groundwork in the text, although could perhaps have been carried on a further step.

Freud first took cocaine, 1/20 of a gram, on April 30 1884. Early on, Freud noted that it did not have an addictive quality, an assumption that would cause one of the most disastrous episodes in his career, one he tried very hard to bury. Cohen, to be fair to Freud, does offer a possible excuse as to why he noted this; namely that Freud took it orally and its addictive effect was not as noticeable as being either injected or snorted. Yet, after repeated use, Cohen illustrates how denial may have blinded Freud to its addictive effects. Essentially “Freud hoped coca would bring him fame and fortune” (Cohen 59), which he desired, according to Cohen, to enable him to marry his fiancé and achieve  the highest goals he had set for himself (Cohen also explores this in regard to psychological typecasting.) He was soon to discover, however, that all was not right with his early judgements about cocaine.

Ernst Fleischl was Freud’s physiology teacher. He badly damaged his thumb, and after a botched operation he was left in constant pain and began taking the opiate-derivative morphine as a pain-reliever, eventually becoming addicted. Freud felt cocaine might be a cure for morphine addiction and prescribed it to his teacher. As Fleischl became increasingly worse in his condition Freud still persisted in denying that cocaine was exacerbating his illness, and only slowly, writing in private letters, did he come to admit his mistake. Initially, Freud saw cocaine as a “success” and had quickly published a number of papers; the most important of which was Über Coca (1884): “the ‘song of praise’ for cocaine”. Freud also identified it as being useful as an anaesthetic, however he did not follow this initial finding up and his colleague Carl Koller went on to take credit for the discovery. Very soon it began to emerge that cocaine was highly addictive and Freud’s prescription had led to the severe deterioration of his teacher’s health. From then on he tried to bury the cocaine issue professionally while still privately using the drug. Although he told his biographer Jones he quit using it in 1887, Cohen tells us this is not true from research on his letters, and thus the question is begged; what influence did cocaine have on The Interpretation of Dreams?

According to Cohen, Von Scheidt had suggested cocaine had affected Freud’s dreams. In order to demonstrate the truth of this, Cohen analyses Freud’s dreams from his seminal work. He identifies thirty-nine that are purportedly Freud’s, of which seventeen have developed narratives, and of which eight involve cocaine in some way. He then proceeds to analyse these dreams, which reveals a rich psychoanalytical trend that goes some way to revealing the impact of cocaine on Freud’s life and work. Ultimately, as he went on to define the psychoanalysis project, his cocaine episodes were consigned to a forgotten history, but the extent to which cocaine itself might have brought out Freud’s own neurosis and thus made himself an ideal subject for the development of the project remains to be seem. Cohen does a good job of analysing the man himself, but it is likely a question that will forever remain open to debate. In An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, written toward the end of Freud’s life and published after his death in 1940, Freud reiterated a prediction he had made several times before, that in the future drugs would be discovered to heal neurosis and psychosis; with this in mind, Cohen goes on to explore how in the 1950s ‘big pharma’ tried to fill this gap with drugs like Prozac and how the rise of LSD reopened the psychotherapy drug debate.

Cohen, at times, is a little loose with his facts, especially concerning the history of drug writing. For example, he claims Louis Lewin isolated mescaline in 1893, when in fact it was isolated by his friend Arthur Heffter in 1897. In another place, Cohen writes that Timothy Leary was influenced in his psilocybin research “by John M. Allegro’s book on the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (1956).” This however, is slightly muddled up, as The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross was published in 1970, and his 1956 book The Dead Sea Scrolls was not about mushrooms. This assumption about Leary is consequentially wrong. Though, it should be noted, Cohen is no fan of Dr. Leary, who he describes as “the worst possible face for LSD” and largely puts him at fault for the ending of psychiatric research with the drug; ignoring both the in-fighting within the medical discourse and the wider media publicity, not all of which was Leary’s fault.

In conclusion, David Cohen’s psycho-analysis of Freud’s relationship with cocaine is a fascinating addition to the history of drugs in writing and theory, and draws out some interesting ideas; namely parallels between cocaine addiction, trauma and Freud’s work. It is unfortunate that his history of drug introspection appears to be poorly researched and in fact reads like a last minute tag-on to the book, in order to bulk it out perhaps. However, the interesting ground worked over in Freud’s biographical details is fascinating and certainly goes some way to reintroducing an important episode in the history of psychoanalysis, drug writing and theory.

Via the House

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2 Responses

  1. This review, much like the book which is its subject, draws out some interesting ideas. Freud’s issues regarding nicotine addiction and women also draw out some interesting ideas. Regardless, the practical uses of his insights changed the world. I wonder about this fascination with the messenger to the detriment of the message. Same as with Leary, T. McKenna, P.K.Dick and RAW.

    Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew twice over, both popularized his work and combined it with early crowd control ideas to create modern public relations. It is pretty obvious people are more interested in implementing psychological systems of influence than talking about it.

    Over and over psychonauts have returned with an important message regarding personal freedom and the universal human need for its revelation, only to become a straw man argument against the message.

    OK, I get it, using psychoactive drugs leads to developing psychological insights. May we now have those insights instead of another view, and review, of a drug user most suitable for sensationalist tabloids and cocktail hour gossip?

  1. May 14, 2012

    […] inclusions are revealing of character and history in ways that are not always popularly known: Sigmund Freud writing eloquently on the virtues of cocaine (while he ‘medicated’ himself with the drug it […]

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