The passions of the mind: a biographic novel of Sigmund Freud

There are probably more misconceptions about Sigmund Freud than any other psychologist, or to be precise, medical doctor. My knowledge about Freud was limited to what I learned in my bachelor program and I felt that it was time to find out more about the founder of psychoanalysis. Therefore, when my PhD endeavor took me to a conference in Vienna, I decided to mix business with pleasure and grabbed Freud’s narrative biography written by Irving Stone.

Irving Stone is a writer who is known for his biographic novels on influential artists, politicians and scientists, including Michelangelo (The Agony and The Ecstasy) and Vincent van Gogh (Lust for Life). It took Stone six years of research and writing to complete Freud’s biography. The story is based on a thorough analysis of Freud’s personal and official correspondence, his books and documents. An endeavor worth admiring, because Freud was not only a very prolific author, but also a meticulous documentator of his own work, his ideas and inspirations that he wrote for himself and shared with his friends.

The first part of the book describes Freud’s youth – his struggles with his academic ambitions, his own insecurities and problems with finding his area of expertise and his strong motivation to be able to financially support his parents and Martha – his wife-to-be. Personally, I found it the most interesting part of the book, as it pictures Freud as an ordinary man facing his insecurities and ambitions. His strivings to publish a paper and get accepted by the academic society and his emotional reactions to rejections, resemble the life of a young researcher nowadays.

Freud started studying medicine, but for a long time could not decide about his specialization. He tried specializing in histology, inner medicine, neurology and psychiatry. His own inablitity to choose the right direction made him suffer, as it meant that financial independence and marriage had to be postponed into the further future. Although it took him a long time to finish his studies, he did everything with full dedication and energy, spending long hours studying, working in the laboratory and with hospital patients. Freud is described as an extremely devoted doctor, with lots of patience for his patients, which might have been difficult to combine with his otherwise hot temper.

What finally decided about his future career as a private doctor, was the fact that he did not get the university position that he applied for. The rejection hugely undermined his self-esteem as he had always been dreaming of an academic career and had seen himself as a respected professor of medicine. However, it was probably one of those fortunate mistakes that changed the history of psychology, as it forced him to open his private practice that eventually led him to formulate his future theories.

The second part of the book pictures Freud as a regarded but controversial scientist in 20th century Vienna. His first major book The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899 and he became a Professor in 1902 (he received an honor title). Through Irving Stone’s narrative it becomes clear how his concepts developed in relation to the ideas of his time – the technical revolution and the atmosphere of fin de siecle in Vienna. The story is told with great attention to accuracy. In the 1880's, Vienna was Europe's glamour capital and Stone’s detailed description of the architecture, the culture and the cafés stimulate imagination. In fact, I was surprised how familiar Vienna felt to me after reading this book, even though I had never been there before.

The vivid descriptions of Freud’s environment also make clear how the mind of the time shaped the development of his theories. Especially the influence of sexuality that was present in the mind and in art, but absent in conversations, shaped his theories that nowadays need to be interpreted with the historical perspective in mind. Moreover, having a medical and cold attitude towards a patient that was the leading doctrine at that time, made Freud’s "talking cure" extremely popular. It is impressive that Freud’s work on mental states was mainly based on his great intuition, as there were no scientific and objective methods in psychology that he could rely on. Together with excellent medical and philosophical knowledge he developed his ideas about the functioning of the mind and its unconsious and emotional irrationality.

The biggest strength of Stone’s book is its narrative character. The fictionalization of the historical facts allows reader to understand Freud’s motives, way of thinking, feeling and behaving. Freud’s ideas are described in enough detail to understand his core ideas, but they are skillfully interwoven in the narrative so that it does not become boring. Detailed descriptions of the city and its inhabitants convey the feeling of following Freud through the narrow alleys of 19th century Vienna. The story also shows that Freud's ideas cannot be interpreted without having this historical background and the demands of this time in mind. Although this book is not psychological per se, it is definitely worth reading not only by those interested in the origins of psychotherapy, but also by those interested in the life of an extraordinary person who exerted an undeniable influence on 20th century psychology.


Stone, I. (1987). The Passions of the Mind: A biographic novel of Sigmund Freud. New York: Doubleday & Company


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