Into the Wilds
of Psychoanalysis

Rubén Gallo
(MIT Press)
The first real Mexican Freudian, Gallo believes, was a poet from Mexico City --- Salvador Novo --- who wrote semi-obscene verse and chapter for a somewhat obscene journal aimed at Mexico City chauffeurs (called "El Chafirete"). Here's part of a typical Novo poem as published in the magazine in 1924.

    Abro los ojos
    Mi alma se expereza a; sol de la mañana
    El cielo está azul
    Tan azul
    El muro es blanco
    Por la ventana abierta
    Azúcar o nieve...

    (I open my eyes
    My soul awakens to morning sunshine
    The sky is blue
    So blue
    The whitewashed wall
    By the open window
    Sugar or snow?)

Not necessarily Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams, but Novo is a rather interesting character on his own. Not only was he one of the first in Mexico to buy a Spanish translation of Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis, he was openly gay in a 1920's Latino culture, quite smitten by the chauffeurs that he knew, claiming to be turned on by the very stink of gasoline. He apparently, according to his autobiography, hustled every taxi- or bus-driver who came down the pike.

Freud's Mexico is jam-packed with obscure facts like this ... so much so that no matter our psychological resistance, we are pulled into it, learning, for instance, that

  • Freud's first scientific study, in Trieste, in March of 1876, was not the human brain, but the sexuality of eels.
  • One of Freud's biggest fans in Mexico was Raúl Carrancá y Trujillo, who came to be the judge at the trial of Ramón Mercader, the man who murdered Leon Trotsky. Carrancá was a judicial specialist in the sexuality of prisoners.
  • Another strange artist in the Freudian Mexico City Fan Club was painter Remedio Varo. She did commissions. One of them was an ad for a plastic surgeon, Dr. Jaime Asch. It shows a lady with a Pinocchio-style nose entering Asch's clinic, next to a statue of a woman with six breasts.
  • One Santiago Ramírez "interpreted the [Mexican] childhood enthusiasm for breaking piñatas as 'symptom of the aggressive feelings ... toward the pregnant mother.'"
  • When Freud arrived in New York City, in 1909, he was bemused by the crowds he saw, is rumored to have said, "They don't realize we're bringing them the plague."
  • In 1960, Fr. Gregoire Lemercier, head of Santa María de la Resurrección near Cuernavaca, "placed the entire monastery in group therapy."* A pair of doctors "treated groups of eight monks twice a week in eighty-minute sessions" --- until finally forbidden to do so by the Pope.
  • The book by Freud that aroused the most interest in Mexico was Moses and Monotheism, with its revolutionary concept that the ban against "graven images" forced people to abandon figurative art and take up a more indirect representation, e. g., words. Freud was an avid collector of what was then known as "primitive art," which, at the time of his death, totaled some 2,000 pieces.

§     §     §

Although Gallo has the temerity to call this Freud's Mexico, the connection --- at least to this reader --- is rather slight. There is an elaborate construct built around the fact that Archduke Maximilian, who was "Emperor" of Mexico for a scant three years (between 1864 and 1867), was, like Freud, from Austria. There is a labored reading of three of Freud's dreams from his ill-disguised autobiography, the best book he ever wrote, The Interpretation of Dreams.

Gallo tells us that Freud spoke Spanish which he and a friend taught themselves when they were but fifteen years old. They chose as their manual one of the more obscure Exemplary Novels by Cervantes. The story, with its vicious description of the deceptive powers of women, allows Gallo to construct a juvenile love-affair --- probably unconsummated --- between Freud and his childhood friend, Eduard Silberstein.

They learned the language so they could read "The Colloquy of the Dogs," which is just that: two dogs in a back-and-forth palaver that Gallo claims might be the first note of Freud's technique of "talking therapy." It's an interesting theory, as is the story of the pubescent affection between the two young men (Gallo writes, "The correspondence is so full of sweet nothings that at one point Freud noted they had become like husband ... and husband." ) However, his attempt to psychoanalyze the master psychoanalyzer may give one the feeling of overkill.

The main complaint we have has to do with the groaner that is attached as the last sentence to Chapter Five,

    What we do know is that the two boys played an elaborate homage to Spain, Cervantes, and the two canine protagonists of the "Colloquy," and therefore whatever they did, whether in fantasy or in reality, they did in Spanish, doggie style.

This is a gorgeously produced book, exquisitely and subtly designed.** It is so easy now for those of us in the twenty-first century to ridicule such concepts as the Oedipus Complex, penis-envy, and the picturing of the unconscious as such a black hole. We forget, at our peril, that Freud was as important, as Gallo points out, as Marx in creating a structure with which to overturn the stifling, complacent world of Victorian Europe.

His mastery was in his style. Norman Mailer said that Das Kapital and The Interpretation of Dreams were two of the best novels of 19th Century Europe. The Interpretation of Dreams is, indeed, a dream of a book; even now, it takes the crucial internal drama of our nighttime lives, offers a mirror so we can see clearly what all of us often use to protect ourselves from the gods within.

As I was reading this, it occurred to me that Freud's Mexico is not so much concerned with Mexico but with a state of mind, one man's brilliant vision of the self that is all of us. Combined with Freud's tremendous writing ability, it allows us access to the singular truths that drive our hearts, our souls ... and our spirit.

--- Lolita Lark

    *The phrase used by the sensationalist journals of the day ---
    and repeated by Gallo --- was "Monks in Psychoanalysis."
    But "group therapy" is hardly Freudian analysis.
    For those of us who passed through this awful stage
    at about the same time as Lemercier's monks,
    it is more like a public flailing:
    where six eight or a dozen people ---
    with or without "leaders" --- set out
    to tear each other to shreds.
    It was probably invented if not
    brought to perfection by Irvin Yalom,
    Wilfred Bion, and Fritz Perls.

    **The illustration, "Sigmund Freud and Jean Harlow,"
    appears in the book twice for some reason
    --- a Freudian slip perhaps --- once in
    black-and-white, the second time in color.
    The color illustration makes it clear, as the first does not,
    that Ms. Harlow is fully clothed, or, mostly, anyway,
    in a fetching if brief bathing suit.
    The cartoon appeared in Vanity Fair in May, 1935,
    and is by the great Mexican artist, Miguel Covarrubias.

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