freud's da vinci

review of:

FREUD, Sigmund:
Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci,
G.W. XII, 128-211

In 1910 Freud wrote a kind of ‘psychoanalytic biography’ of da Vinci. We would like to highlight two shortcomings in this study.

To begin with, Freud deals only with the scopic drive (voyeurism) and makes no mention of the corollary phanic drive (exhibitionism). As far as da Vinci is concerned, who seems to have been a boy of exceptional beauty, this is a serious shortcoming. It suffices to have a furtive look at the draft for Saint John the Baptist with a penis to read the following sentence from his 'Ode to the penis': ''What a man tries do hide and to conceal, he'd rather solemnly show like a priest celebrating a mass' (B 13 r).....

This one-sidedness of Freud is due to his conviction that voyeurism is the original form of the drive, whereas exhibitionism is only one of its derivatives*. He thereby overlooks two facts. First, there is an original 'parental' form of visual relation between mother and child, where showing and seeing are bound by an indissoluble tie: the baby smiles when seeing the eyes in the face of its mother, and the mother smiles when seeing the smiling eyes in the face of her baby. In the same manner, sexual voyeurism forms an indissoluble unity with sexual exhibitionism. ''The enamoured eye only gets to see the beauty of the beloved body when it is looking from a body that emanates beauty itself. Or to put it more technically: the scopic drive in the lover is elicited by the phanic drive in his beloved, and it elicits the phanic drive in the lover that elicits the scopic drive in the beloved in a wholesome self-inducing circular dynamic' as we put it in 'The erotic eye and its nude, chapter II.

Compared with the erotic freight of such reciprocal seduction, Freud's 'originary' scopic drive is a rather de-eroticised drive. According to him, the aim of the child's scopic drive is to see the penis: ‘(the child) is out at seeing the sexual organs of other people, initially probably to compare them with his own. The erotic appeal of the person of the mother is soon transformed in the desire to see her genitals, taken for a penis'’ (GW 165, this and the next translations by Stefan Beyst)** Such 'scopic' drive rather reminds of the first forms of a 'cognitive drive' (sexual curiosity), that is out at establishing how to tell a man from a women - and where the children come from.

From the converse exhibition of the penis, let alone of the beautiful body, whether or not adorned with an erect penis as in the above draft, there is no mention in Freud's text. A 'sublimated' version of this exhibitionism is the creation of paintings, especially paintings on which one would appear himself. It cannot but catch the eye then, when Freud misreads the quotation where Herzfeld (and so many authors in her wake) suggests that Leonardo could well have encountered himself in the Mona Lisa (GW 182)**. And it catches the eye even more that Freud, in his comment on the Mona Lisa, does not refer to the sexual ambivalence of her mysterious face, but only - as it were vicariously - to the opposition between 'modesty and seduction that governs female love' (GW 179-180)**. Androgyny is only mentioned when he is talking about the 'vulture' which was in fact a kite (the androgyny of the Egyptian goddess Mut with penis and breasts) and about John the Baptist and Bacchus (GW 189)**...

In that Freud did not honour the role of exhibitionism - the epiphany of the beautiful body as the primeval form of the epiphany of the image - he also missed the proper understanding of the reason for the prominent presence of John the Baptist in da Vinci's oeuvre. John the Baptist is the one who - with that ominous finger of his - continues to point to Jesus as to the 'Holy Lamb of God' - as to the beautiful body that is doomed to die on the cross. The decay and the eventual death of the beautiful body are the nightmare for every beautiful young boy (see Cavafy: surviving immortality). In that context, it should not escape our attention that Freud mentions that John the Baptist on the draft of Saint Anne is replaced with a lamb in the painting, but that, of all authors Freud - the very man who specialised in retrieving the most important findings from apparently futile details - explains this replacement as a mere consequence of the new position of Mary on Anne's lap: 'To motivate the shift, the divine child had to be placed on the ground, and no more place for John was left, so that he had to be replaced with a lamb' (GW 187)**...

Very remarkable is, second, the fact that Freud does not analyse the 'Leda and the swan'. Not that he does not know the work: he mentions it in one breath with the John the Baptist and the Bacchus (GW 189)**. And here again a second strange blindness for a counterpart appears, this time for the counterpart of what Freud calls da Vinci's 'passive homosexuality'. The beak of the swan is all but passive: it would all too eagerly penetrate Leda - only not through the central opening. Sucking is here not at all transformed 'into being breastfed, in passivity, and hence in a situation with an unequivocal homosexual character’ (GW 168)**.

That Freud leaves the swan aside is all the more strange, in that precisely this painting refers to the primeval phantasm of da Vinci: to be a winged being - an angel - born out of the merger of a woman and a bird (dove/swan). Freud himself points to da Vinci's identification with the divine child on Mary's lap (GW 159)**, and in that case, his father would have been a dove (see the annunciation). Apart form his prejudice about da Vinci's 'passive homosexuality', also his hypothesis about the infantile origin of the dream of flying hinders his correct understanding: ‘The wish to fly is nothing else than the wish to be able to perform sexually’ (GW 198)**.

Next to these two central shortcomings, I have my questions about the importance of events that leave 'indelible traces in the soul of the child' (GW 166)**. How Freud understands this is apparent from his explanation of da Vinci's supposed inability to finish his work: 'He created them and he no longer bothered about them, just like his father. The later care of his father could not change this obsession, because it originates from impressions from the first years of his childhood, and the repressed that remains unconscious cannot be corrected through later experiences' (GW 193)**. Apart form the fact that Freud gives a totally inappropriate account of the way in which the little Leonardo must have experienced his father, the question remains whether it was really da Vinci's fault that many of his works are left unfinished, and if yes, whether it is da Vinci's father Ser Piero who is to blame: Michelangelo, if not the rising star of Raphael are far more suitable candidates...

And finally, I could not but frown my brows at the certainty with which Freud - probably in the wake of Mereshkovsky's ascetic reading of da Vinci - asserts thatLeonardo was 'frigid'. His sole argument is da Vinci's saying that the act of copulation and the sexual organs are so repulsive, that mankind would have died out long ago, were it not for the beauty of the face' (GW 199)**. Precisely therefore, Freud would better have had a closer look at what is to be seen there on da Vinci's faces. That aside, this saying does not suffice to call da Vinci frigid! Freud brushes da Vinci's accusation of homosexual practices under the carpet by referring to his acquittal and to the fact that the young boy was only his model...

© Stefan Beyst, February 2005.

* FREUD, Sigmund: 'Triebe und Triebschicksale, GW X, p. 222)
**Quoted from: FREUD, Sigmund: ‘Eine Kindheitserinnerung des Leonardo da Vinci,
G.W. XII, (Vierte Auflage), Fisher Verlag, Frankfurt 1968.


FREUD, Sigmund: 'Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood' W. W., Norton & Company, Reissue edition, 1989.
ANDERSEN, Wayne V.: 'Freud, Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Vulture's Tail: A Refreshing Look at Leonardo's Sexuality', Karnac Books, 2001.

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