Monday, September 2, 2013

Freud, Mortality and Suicide

Mark Edmundson entitled his book The Death of Sigmund Freud, and indeed his book does focus on death’s approach and Freud’s attitude toward and preparation for his death.  Freud never freed himself or sought to free himself from his: cigars.  He smoked an average of 20 a day and he firmly believe that they gave him the ability to think clearly.  At some point probably in his late 60s a cancer was discovered in his upper jaw on the right side.  He ultimately more than 15 surgeries and eventually had part of his jaw removed and prosthesis installed which was necessary for him to work and eat but was very painful.  Also it needed to be cleaned regularly – the removal and cleaning taking about an hour.  He couldn’t do it himself so his daughter Anna helped him.  How could he get her to do such a disgusting thing?  How could she do it?  They made a pact to treat it as an impersonal medical procedure and managed.

Freud died at age 83 and was in almost constant pain from the time his cancer was discovered until his death.  For him living involved working, thinking, writing and reading; so the only pain reliever he would use was aspirin.  Eventually his jaw could no longer be operated upon and began to rot.  A hole appeared in his face and the rotting odor drew flies.  This is quite a disgusting story and Edmundson tells it in some detail because at some point Freud is going to say “enough” and have his doctor, who is also one of his followers administer excessive doses of morphine.   He lost his ability to talk clearly and so could no longer see patients.  He finished his last writing and while he could think he needed to do something with his thoughts but there was no longer any thing he could do, and he probably couldn’t think clearly because of the pain.  Finally he could no longer read.  I don’t know what that entailed, but perhaps he lost the ability to concentrate upon books he thought worthy of reading.  So he called in his faithful retainer and said, “’My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk.  You promised me then not to forsake me when the time comes.   Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Schur let Freud know that he had not forgotten the promise he made ‘Ich danke Ihnen,’ Freud said.  ‘I thank you,’ He told Schur to ‘talk it over with Anna, and if she thinks it’s right, make an end of it.’  Schur spoke to Anna and Anna sorrowfully concurred with her father’s wish.”

“That same day, Schur gave Freud an injection of three centigrams of morphine, a dose much stronger than he would have used if the objective had only been to relieve pain. . .  He gave Freud another injection that day, then a third on September 22.  Freud lapsed into a coma, but he held on to life.  Midnight came and on Saturday, September 23, Sigmund Freud was still alive. . . At three in the morning on Saturday, September 23, 1939, Sigmund Freud died from cancer and from Schur’s morphine overdoses.”

As I read this, my dog Sage was in the process of dying.  She can no longer eat or walk.  She can no longer come up into my study.  I have in the past struggled over when to take a dog to the vet to have administered some drug like that administered to Freud, but Sage is clearly at that point now.  I would take her to the vet today, but the office is probably closed for the holiday.  From time to time she struggles to get up, probably to go outside and relieve herself, but the best she can do is change positions.  I’ve placed towels and blankets underneath her and take comfort from the fact that she doesn’t seem to be in physical pain.  There has been evidence of “confusion.”  The last few days whenever she has been outside she has looked about her as though trying to recognize where she is, or perhaps it is as though she is seeing these familiar sights for the first time.  Sage has had a number of ailments, severe allergies, thyroid problems, and lastly renal failure.  If any of these involved pain, I couldn’t tell.  Up until just a few days ago Sage wanted to go with us at least on walks if no longer to the river.  If she was experiencing “torture,” she was enduring it well. 

On page 229 Edmundson draws our attention to Freud’s “farewell utterance: ‘Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense anymore.’

“Consider, by contrast, some other parting words.  Oscar Wilde, mortally ill in a Paris flophouse, announced, ‘I am in a duel to death with this wallpaper.  One of us has to go.’  Goethe cried out, enigmatically, movingly, ‘More light!’  John Maynard Keynes, looking back on a life that was not without its pleasures, said, ‘I wish that I had drunk more champagne.’  Standing on the scaffold, about to die, Sir Walter Raleigh proclaimed, ‘This is a sharp medicine, but a sure remedy for all evils.’  Picasso petitioned all and sundry to drink to him.  P T. Barnum, American to the last, as Freud would see it, inquired into that day’s circus receipts from Madison Square Garden.  At his own end, Freud was sober and correct: ‘Now it is nothing but torture.’”

Edmundson doesn’t examine the idea that Freud should have endured his torture, and “modern medicine” doesn’t consider that possibility either.  Instead, drugs are administered to enable the dying to endure the pain.  Whether that is a more humane approach I don’t know.  We don’t want to be seen as a nation that kills its old people, but if at some point “it is nothing but torture,” are we not torturing them instead?  Is torture more humane than death?  If the torture is of limited duration then, yes.  But if it is to go on and on, then many would at some point prefer death.

I was never captured by the North Koreans but I did have to sit through classes on what I was to do if captured.  I was also exposed to the idea that I might be tortured and should at all cost resist giving up military secrets.  In more recent times it now seems to be common knowledge that no one can resist torture indefinitely.  Eventually it will reduce the tortured to crying, screaming, willingness to do whatever the torturer wants.  This is one of the reasons for the “Need to Know” policy.  If you don’t know the secret, you can’t divulge it to the enemy.  In Freud’s case perhaps he was concerned over something like this – not divulging secrets but “crying or begging for relief” from the torture.   He wanted to go out with dignity and he couldn’t do that if he was tortured for too long.  Neither could he do that if he was drugged to the point that he no longer had control of himself. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here I am catching up on this month's Larry writings and I came to the place about Sage.

The death of my dogs has been the worst of times in my life. The very worst, but I know that our dogs knew we did our best for them. Sage knows you did the best for her.

Such a hard task to know the best time, or to wait for their time. Blessings to her and the family.
Our love,
S., M., Tink and Guinness