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Monday, 17 January 2005

Sigmund Freud - Leonardo da Vinci

"Leonardo da Vinci" by Sigmund Freud was a book which I bought at the local library in a sale. Every few months they clear books and sell them on at ridiculouly low prices. Amongst the stack of trashy novels and last year's annual books there are usually some real treats.

It took me a while to settle to read this book by Freud. I've read a lot of the works of Carl Jung. I did a PhD thesis which drew on the work of Jung (see here for an article from the thesis). In spite of the fact that Jung and Freud diverged hugely in their respective psychologies, I am also interested in the work of Freud. As ever, it is probably the middle ground which is the most interesting, rather than a simple "either / or" argument.

Freud's book on Leonardo da Vinci has an intriguing idea behind it. He sets out to carry out a psychoanalysis on Leonardo working only with the details of biography and the works that Leonardo left. This amounts to a significant amount of journal material as well as the paintings.

As ever with Freud, the book is beautifully written. The gist of his argument is that Leonardo was celibate and gay. Some of the arguments are stuck in their historical context. He makes some preposterous assertions about homosexuality - claiming that it can be caused by issues around bonding to parents. Ultimately the arguments put forward in the book lack coherence. They are just not entirely convincing. There is also an extended passage where Freud interprets a dream described by Leonardo in his journals, and draws some quite remarkable assertions. As so often with Freud, the sexual urge is given far too much emphasis.

However, even though the arguments don't stand up, I am intrigued by the basic idea that an analysis can be carried out on a figure based on secondary sources.

It probably doesn't make sense as a science, but as an art form I think it has endless possibilities.

So the book was well worth a read for the ideas it has generated even if it had shortcomings. I'm reminded of the early novels of Michael Ondaatje, particularly "The Collected Works of Billy the Kid" which combined fact and fiction really well. Many novelists have used this sort of technique.

It would be really interesting to see more of the interface between fiction and psychology in this setting.


Anonymous said...

I also consider Freud's work as a form of art based on the intuition of a genius. I recommend the reading of his biography of Woodrow Wilson is even better!

Stuart said...

Thanks for the comment - I will do as you suggest and look up the work on Woodrow Wilson.


Anonymous said...

I believe Sigmund Freud to be the greatest novelist of the twentieth century.

That said, I think his ideas about Leonardo are utterly absurd.

Freud was a wonderful writer. But he was an absolutely terrible scientist.

Freud used no double-blind studies in his research. He used no clinical trials. Often he got his results from studying just one person. Sometimes no one at all. Sometimes he just made his ideas right up out of his own head (as in the case of Leonardo.)

Freud thought Leonardo was gay. But then, Freud thought pretty much everyone was gay. No surprise there. I think we can safely discount Freud's ideas on Leonardo from this one view alone. It's an inbuilt bias, and it is unsupportable.

Freud is trying to analyze Leonardo without Leonardo. He is trying to analyze a subject without the subject. And this is ridiculous. Nobody knows what Leonardo was thinking. Because Leonardo is not here to tell us. This is not science at all. It is the purest fantasy.

Freud claims that Leonardo channeled all his gay sexual energy into creativity. Thus he became the most creative man who ever lived. He must have been really, really gay, then. Even to an outsider, this is absurd.

We now understand far more about gifted and talented people than we did in Freud's time.

Children who are born gifted with unusual high intelligence or talent naturally work hard to develop those gifts and talents. Because it is fun to do something you're good at. Mathematics, geometry, whatever. Even savants - mentally retarded people with unusual talents - work hard to master those talents (like the mathematical Dustin Hoffman in the movie RAIN MAN.)

Child psychologist Ellen Winner refers to this self-motivated hard work as a "rage to master." All gifted children have it. Intense concentration. Extraordinary focus and interest in mastering their talent - a focus so powerful that it is often mistaken by regular people for obsession.

Most gifted kids are only talented in one or two areas - maybe in music, maybe in mathematics. These are the two most common areas where gifted kids are identified.

But Leonardo seems to have been equally gifted in ALL areas. An INFINITELY gifted man. That is, a person gifted in every possible way that a human being can be gifted. Musically, athletically, socially, scientifically, even religiously - a man with superior talent in every possible area of human endeavor.

Such a man is entirely unprecedented. There has never been anyone like him, before or since. Most geniuses make contributions in only one area - Einstein, for example, in physics. Leonardo made powerful contributions in ALL areas of human knowledge.

Leonardo didn't work hard because he was gay. He worked hard because he was infinitely gifted. His focus and concentration - his "rage to master" - must have been absolutely extraordinary. As indeed they were said to have been.

People in Leonardo's time declared him to be "divine." A divine accident sent by God, so that others could marvel at his genius. This I find far more uplifting than Freud's silly "gay" theory, which seems firmly anchored in the ground. I am constantly astounded at how much "Enlightenment Thinking" is so very unenlightening - and dull.

Understanding what modern psychology has to say about giftedness and talent is essential when studying intelligence and creativity. Modern psychologists have far different positions on these issues than Freud.

The only reason I can see for Freud's silly essay continuing to have sway is because of lazy academics. Or willful ignorance. Or both. I think it's both.

I think it's time for a change.

Anonymous said...

The above comment is superb. The only really realistic analysis of Leonardo I have yet seen. Modern psychology has come so far since Freud. Time to challenge old unworkable ideas for what they are.

Whatever Freud was, he was no logician. Highly intelligent, yes. But he his ability to reason was shaky at best. I find a lot of highly intelligent people often function this way. They know so much they don't see the need to investigate the foundational logic behind their ideas.

Was Leonardo gay? We'll likely never know. But probably not. This is simply Freudian "theory" raising its ugly head again.

It's odd, actually. Most people believe that Leonardo was gay - the legacy of Freud's silly essay. But few people recall Freud's other beliefs about homosexuality. As the reviewer above states, Freud thought pretty much everyone was gay. And even if not outright gay, then at least latently so.

This belief has been conclusively shown to be unsupportable and wrong. A vast majority of people never even consider homosexuality in any significant way. And describing someone as a "latent" homosexual if there is absolutely no internal evidence for it is simply ridiculous. Freud merely assumes that most of us are gay, before the fact. But such sweeping, universal assumptions are untestable and unprovable. And assumptions do not count as science or fact.

There are far more factors driving people than just sexuality. It often isn't even central.

The great psychologist Alfred Alder once said that "it will take decades to clear up the damage Freud has done to psychology, and to the public's perception of psychology." It seems he was right. I am shocked how seriously people take silly essays like the Freud-Leonardo one. It takes a great deal of dedication to decipher bad reasoning for what it is.