Summer 2007

The Porcupine Illusion

Freud’s prickly secret

George Prochnik

The porcupine on Freud’s desk in the study of his London home, now the Freud Museum. His famous couch looms in the background. Photo Nick Cunard.

It began as an urbane fable about how to brush down bristling nerves. Sometime in the summer of 1909, not long before Sigmund Freud was due to embark on his only visit to the United States, he was enjoying a cigar in the company of his inner circle in the busy Biedermeier interior of Berggasse 19, when he suddenly announced, “I am going to America to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.” 

The declaration no doubt provoked coughs and clinks of china—perhaps punctuated here and there by crinkling mouth-corners in anticipation of Freud’s masterstroke, which would illuminate the conceit. No one credited him with being so avid a porcupine aficionado that he would travel three thousand miles by steamship to make the acquaintance of one specimen of Erethizon dorsatum in its native woodland habitat. 

Freud continued, “Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail.” Thereafter, his disciple Ernst Jones reported, “The phrase, ‘to find one’s porcupine,’ became a recognized saying in our circle.”

And yet, why, exactly, a porcupine? Of all the indigenous New World species and sights, what made Freud settle on a glimpse of the strange, quill-studded rodent as the alternative objective to introducing psychoanalysis to America? Freud himself teaches us to doubt that any such linkage could be random—any association truly free. Indeed, it emerges that Freud and the porcupine share a philosophical genealogy.

In Parerga und Paralipomena, published in 1851, Arthur Schopenhauer created a parable about the dilemma faced by porcupines in cold weather. He described a “company of porcupines” who “crowded themselves very close together one cold winter’s day so as to profit by one another’s warmth and so save themselves from being frozen to death. But soon they felt one another’s quills, which induced them to separate again.” And so on. The porcupines were “driven backwards and forwards from one trouble to the other,” until they found “a mean distance at which they could most tolerably exist.”

Schopenhauer’s tale was later quoted by Freud in a footnote to his 1921 essay Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, where it was invoked to illustrate what Freud called the “sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility” adhering to any long-lasting human relationship. Freud’s entire corpus is haunted by questions of intimacy: How much is too much? What degree of intimacy is necessary for our survival? How can we simultaneously crave and repel intimacy—especially from those with whom we find ourselves in some kind of intermittently repulsive, inconceivably intimate embrace to begin with? One could say that the dilemma of the porcupine, as rendered by Schopenhauer, is the Freudian relationship problematic as such.

Freud’s intimations of America made the choice of this “secondary goal” more provocative still. When he first received his invitation to lecture at Clark University at the end of 1908, the international psychoanalytic movement was hardly flourishing. It had only congregated beyond the confines of his own apartment for the first time that year, at the Hotel Bristol in Salzburg, under the title of the “Meeting for Freudian Psychology.” Freud was obsessively aware of the fact that at fifty-three he could no longer be considered young. Even though he had recently won the allegiance of the rising psychology wunderkind, Carl Jung, the mystical volatility of the Swiss pastor’s son was already apparent. As for his original supporters, Freud disliked most of them and eventually distrusted them all. He was conscious that the movement, left to its Viennese nursery, might well implode in internecine spatting or languish into obscurity—becoming merely a variation on his weekly card game, with the play of dreams and complexes substituting for the concealment and show of Tarock cards.

Freud sensed that the future of psychoanalysis lay in the New World. But it was not a future about which he felt sanguine. Long before landing on American shores, he was lambasting American worship of the “Almighty Dollar.” Yankee prudery was another target of indignation. After having rejected his initial invitation because the honorarium was too low, Freud lamented to Ferenczi, “By the way, we could soon be ‘up shit creek’ the minute they come upon the sexual underpinnings of our psychology.”

Sex, money, and the romance between the two were only scapegoats for Freud’s Americaphobia. His general feelings about the country may best be summed up by a remark he made to Jones after returning home: “America is a mistake. A gigantic mistake it is true, but nonetheless a mistake.” Still, Freud intuited from the start that the United States would be the making of psychoanalysis, and that this making would involve the transformation of his theories into something taxonomically distinct from his founding vision. The quandary of the porcupine that Freud saw embedded in human relationships took on the piquancy of caricature when it came to his own liaison with America. Freud yearned for the warmth and communal support America promised, but then felt needled and otherwise violated in consequence of whatever proximity he did attain.

Yet why didn’t Freud tease out this backstory of Schophenhauer’s porcupine simile for the benefit of his followers? Doing so could only have amplified their appreciation of his wit in designating as an object of his visit the finding of a creature which epitomized the danger of coming too close to the very thing one sought. This question raises the intergenerational porcupine problem: how far to acknowledge the prick of intellectual influence.

Freud steadfastly denied having read Schopenhauer before he was in his sixties, writing in 1925 that he came to the philosopher’s work “very late in life.” He did so despite Schopenhauer’s dominant stature throughout the years of his education; notwithstanding his membership in a Viennese reading society where Schopenhauer was a leading subject of study; and despite having cited Schopenhauer himself three times in The Interpretation of Dreams, which was published in 1900. Indeed, Schopenhauer foreshadowed analytic concepts ranging from repression and the death wish, to the centrality of sexuality in mental life. His theory of the will established a vital, if less mythologically vivid, template for Freud’s epic narrative of the unconscious and the id.

Freud may, then, have kept the true basis for his fascination with porcupines secret from his followers because exposing it would have meant conceding a familiarity with Schopenhauer, thereby contracting the boundaries of his own originality—and, perhaps, revealing the limitations of the scientific as opposed to philosophical authority of his claims. Just as with intimacy, the problem became one of distance and propinquity. How much influence was required to prevent one’s pen from freezing, and how much would result in one being stabbed full of holes by the writerly quills of intellectual predecessors? Freud carried the inner meaning of his American porcupine hunt beneath his cloak, amulet-fashion, to safeguard the notion of his intellectual independence. To see the wild porcupine would be to spot his own freedom—the integrity of his inviolable, individual self. Which made the search also, ironically, a peculiarly American one.

Yet however important the idea of his private porcupine might have been, he had no idea when he made his declaration that he would end up actually seeing a specimen of the animal. Or that the porcupine would be bestowed on him by the very person who ended up being his first major American champion.

• • •

It almost didn’t happen. In New York, Freud saw a Chinatown noodle den, Coney Island, the Metropolitan Museum’s Cyprian antiquities, and Tiffany’s—but no porcupine. In Worcester, he delivered the lectures and received the only honorary degree he would ever get, yet glimpsed not a single quill. Then came Putnam Camp. 

Primeval forest had not been on Freud’s itinerary. But the eminent Boston neurologist-psychologist, James Jackson Putnam, who, at sixty-three, was ten years Freud’s senior and had no a priori passion for analysis, happened, almost by chance, to be in the audience at Clark. He became so excited by Freud’s lectures that he spontaneously invited him to visit his family’s Adirondack retreat. Recognizing that Putnam’s reputation and connections would make him an invaluable ally, Freud accepted.

And so it happened that Freud found himself staying with Jung and Ferenczi in a rustic cabin nicknamed the Chatterbox, on a rocky slope stippled with other cabins bearing similarly whimsical sobriquets, such as the Coop, the Pig Pen, and the Ark. The foreigners were introduced to tetherball, elaborate board games, bonfire sing-alongs, manic exercise regimes, marathon meals, and a slew of other bracing, exhausting, befuddling WASP holiday rituals. Freud described Putnam Camp to his family as “by far the most amazing thing” he had experienced in America. And though his visit there cemented his friendship with Putnam, it was also at Camp that he succumbed to a chronic gastrointestinal malady, which he dubbed his “American Colitis.” Perhaps this mysterious bellyache lay behind his complaint to Jones a few months later that his handwriting had deteriorated so much since visiting the States that it was now more legible when he wrote in English than in German. Camp externalized the panoply of subterranean fears and hopes informing his American complex.

The Putnam family on a climbing expedition at Grindelwald before the 1911 psychoanalytic congress at Weimar, where Putnam would deliver his American “plea” for a new, philosophically inclined approach to analysis. Courtesy George Prochnik.

Somehow Freud let slip there that he had failed to see the object of his whole trip, and so it happened that one afternoon there was a knock on the Chatterbox door and Freud found himself confronted by two giggling adolescent girls in bloomers and sailor blouses who claimed to know where a porcupine had its nest. Staring at their outfits, Freud commented aloud on the unusual, even bizarre fashion sense evinced by American girls—but felt constrained to rouse himself.

He had been told that the hike to the porcupine’s lair would be quick and gentle. It was long and grueling. Jung flirted with their guides to appalling effect the whole way. At last, the girls said, they were nearing the spot. A strange odor began to waft through the air. It grew worse. Became fetid. One girl suggested they switch course so as to be no longer directly downwind of the stink, but Freud refused to swerve. Having been hauled off on this mission, he would make no concessions to the niceties of female nostrils. The smell grew more vile still—became unbearable—and then, suddenly, there it was. They had found the porcupine. Or rather the bloated carcass of a porcupine, swarming with flies. After a pause, Freud walked up to the body. He prodded it with the tip of his gold-head cane, then turned back to the others. “It’s dead,” he said.

During the descent, he held up his end of a conversation with Jung and Ferenczi about global variation in porcupine traits. But what did it mean to Freud to have caught sight, at long last, of this symbolically overcharged creature—in the form of a corpse? What did it reveal about the future of his theories in America, about his own wild porcupine identity? About intimacy, influence, and their vicissitudes?

• • •

The story has a coda. At the hour of Freud’s departure from Camp, as he was preparing to remount the buggy that would traverse the twenty-mile, five-hour journey back to Lake Placid, Putnam announced that he had a gift for him and handed over a bronze model of a porcupine—an immortal porcupine icon. (How had Putnam managed to procure the compensatory figurine at a moment’s notice in the middle of the American wilderness?)

Freud took Putnam’s porcupine back to Austria and placed it in a prominent position on his desk, behind his ashtray, between his ancient bibelots, where it stayed for the rest of his life. Perhaps as an emblem of his own spirit. Perhaps as an objectification of the question of America. Perhaps as some kind of prickly, hybrid muse—America and Freud welded together in metal porcupine form.

Since Putnam was my great-grandfather, I had heard about and been intrigued by the present he bequeathed to Freud since my childhood. As an adult, I had come to envision the object as a cute tchotchke, an image nurtured by a letter of Anna Freud, in which she mentioned how, if you ran your hand over the porcupine’s quills, they made a musical noise. Several autumns ago, I went to the Freud Museum in London where, I knew, the porcupine had been restored to its original place on Freud’s desk. I had been told that if I got to the museum early, I could even go behind the velvet rope to get a close-up view of the thing. 

When I got to the museum at the appointed hour, there was no one around. I buzzed the door respectfully, repeatedly, then stood in the forlorn front lot gazing at the dull brick facade of Freud’s final residence, while a dog barked somewhere and very silent and expensive cars slid past the hedges behind me.

At last, a somewhat beleaguered woman bundled out of a not-so-quiet car. News of my arrival had apparently gone astray, and she had no idea who I was. But she wasn’t especially bothered by my lack of demonstrable credentials and consented to let me have my special look at the porcupine so long as I agreed to get back to the other side of the rope the moment the first visitors appeared. We went inside and padded through the rooms to the inner sanctum. My guide switched on the lights. She stood next to me for a moment, then seemed abruptly convinced that I was not a Freud-object basher and left me alone.

The moment she was gone, I could not resist lying down on Freud’s couch. It felt nothing like the 1970s-era hard, black, leather Manhattan-analyst article—it was in fact so soft as to call to mind a classic 1970s waterbed. To lie here was to sink down into literally undulating depths of self.

Then I went on to Freud’s desk. Here awaited an even greater shock. The porcupine was big, heavy, and utterly non-cute—it was a savage creature with a dilated snout, spraying a hundred long, razor-sharp spines. This was no toy, but a metal porcupine Cerberus. I picked it up, gingerly avoiding the needle-tips, and slowly stroked my fingers across its back. To my astonishment the spines indeed produced a melodic, harp-like sound. 

With this discovery, the array of porcupine possibilities became a vertiginous barrage. Freud’s porcupine, a gift from America, looks fiercely forbidding—cries out, “Don’t come near.” But if you dare to make contact with the object, you discover that the spines metamorphosize and become musical strings. This capacity is concealed from those who only gaze upon the porcupine’s quills, and may, in the final analysis, be a chance byproduct of their material and arrangement—a fantasy of the ear so inclined.

George Prochnik is the author of Putnam Camp: Sigmund Freud, James Jackson Putnam, and the Purpose of American Psychology (Other Press, 2006). He is completing a nonfiction book about a New York literary agent’s descent into voodoo and homelessness on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro.

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