Reflections on Netflix Freud TV Series with Psychoanalyst Yavuz Erten

“Imagine you are on a journey from the present to the past but it is only in your imagination.”

“When you open that door, what do you see behind it?”

Mahan Doğrusöz: We watch the story of Freud as he follows clues to solve a series of murders. Pursuit of what is hidden behind the appearance; believing that there is always more to what is seen and what is said; taking dreams and nightmares “seriously”; an effort to put together seemingly unrelated clues like pieces of a puzzle; walking into the depths of a tunnel, underground, into the vaults… Could we read the entire series as a psychoanalytic therapy journey?

Yavuz Erten: The series takes places in the 1890s. Those are the years when Freud was close to Breuer, complained about Meynert’s repressiveness, was about to leave the hospital for private practice, got engaged, and swigged cocaine. He lost his father after a while, and got quite confused. Then he began his self-analysis. It is possible to read the series as an analytic therapy journey, but it firstly needs to be considered as the initial analysis, the self-analysis. We can see Freud’s inner dynamics, internal discoveries, and how his exploration with another leads to a recognition of his internal “other”. Some scenes feature his father and his mother, along with his insecurities and ineptitude on the way to become an adult man. Fleur Salomé leads him to experience certain things. She affects him in such a way that he overcomes his inhibition of the engagement period and reaches maturity to marry Martha.

The scriptwriter has done a good job studying the historical context and dynamics of the 1890’s, for example the house and turmoil of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as well as the birth of psychoanalysis. We see three or four layers in the series. The innermost circle of one’s internal life touches the internal lives of others, the exchange between two internal worlds extends to collective consciousness, and the historical dimension completes the interbedded circles. We observe fluid transition between the circles. The script may well be seen as a literary text. The scriptwriter has successfully stitched all these layers together. One might watch the series solely from a historical perspective. Another might watch it like a dream about the creation of psychoanalysis. But it would disappoint those who want to watch a Freud biography or docudrama, because it is neither the content nor the function or genre of the series.

“I don’t want to go back to the darkness of my childhood room.”

Mahan Doğrusöz: Contrary to the contemporary psychotherapies’ emphasis on “light” and “consciousness”, the Freud series is rather “dark” in parallel with the zeitgeist. Beyond the filming, it is all “dark” in the backyards of the characters, depths of the city, and behind the scenes of events. Freud is trying to make way through this darkness. What are your associations when you look at this “darkness” from the perspective of 2020?

Yavuz Erten: It says in the series, “I am a house. My consciousness is a flame inside that house.” Think of the candle flame. It sheds light on some parts, but there is also depths of the “house”. Some parts of the house are in the dark.

Freud has a famous saying. He says, “The narcissism of men, their self-love, has suffered severe blows from the researches of science.” Galileo’s work led to the understanding that we are not at the center of the universe, and Darwin’s to the realization that man is not God’s representative on Earth, but he is one of the animals. Along with the advent of psychoanalysis came the awareness that “I” is not the sole owner of its house. “I” includes other “pronouns” uncontrolled by “I”. It is sort of a narcissistic injury that self-assuredness in one’s complete consciousness of the self is shaken, which arouses both anxiety and curiosity.

When people face darkness, they experience various feelings about what might come out of darkness. Analyzing the fear of darkness, those who fear darkness are afraid of what is in the dark within themselves. So, defensively, they may not wonder about the darkness in the outside world. Some, however, may be curious to explore themselves. They may enter that dark hole, they may open that creaky door. Freud is a character who has been exploring the darkness through the series. When we watch a movie, we identify with the character. While watching a horror movie, we want the character to open the door, yet we are also appalled, thinking “who would open that door!”. People experience a vicarious gratification as they watch thrillers. The entire genre of pictures, theatre, and series provide a sense of vicarious gratification. We think “I could not open that door, but he does.”

As for the artistic and visual quality, there is a somber appeal of the 18th– and 19th-century Central Europe, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. The nighttime, gaslight chandeliers, elongated shadows, gothic architecture, and its ostentatious and gloomy atmosphere… Horse-drawn carriages rattling, long hallways echoing the voices, doors opening slowly, curtains blowing in the wind… They are all aesthetical aspects of the inner darkness. The series strongly portrays this background in the cinematographic sense. Furthermore, the criminal, occult, and orgy quality of the social affairs reminds of Traumnovelle (Dream Novel), a novella by Schnitzler who had an excellent grasp of Vienna at the time. Schnitzler was a physician and also very interested in psychology. Freud was influenced by him very much. He even referred to him as his psychic twin. This novella was later adapted to New York of the late 20th century by Stanley Kubrick in the movie Eyes Wide Shut.

Mahan Doğrusöz: Do you think that this dark aura of Vienna of the day has permeated the psychoanalytic theory?

Yavuz Erten: Freud is an adept author, researcher, theoretician, and clinician. He writes eloquently. Reading The Interpretation of Dreams, or his famous six case histories Wolf Man, Rat Man, Little Hans, Dora, Anna O, and Schreber, can be compared to reading a novel or a script. One must remember that Freud’s texts always contain cinematographic elements. Vienna is the scene of a grand psychoanalytic metaphor with its carriages, trains, stairways, windows, doors, and architectural details. You catch the scent of Vienna, Rome, and other European cities as the “fabric” of Freud’s writings. And let’s not forget the Medieval foundation of these cities before the bourgeoisie presence in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Gothic architecture of these cities has not sprung out of nothing, but has evolved constantly since the Renaissance. Freud explores this constancy as if digging into his own unconscious. There are lengthy descriptions of Italy and Rome in The Interpretation of Dreams where he frequently mentions art, sculpture, and paintings.

Mahan Doğrusöz: I think the strong cinematography of the series conveys us a sense of how the unconscious infiltrates the conscious, how darkness flows into light, how our backyards ooze into our lives. The successful portrayal of transitions between dream/fantasy/nightmare and real life in the series brings to mind how permeable the boundaries are between the conscious and the unconscious. What are your thoughts on that?

Yavuz Erten: Subjectivity is actually a dream-like configuration with conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious aspects. Conceptually, we may call the entire subjectivity as phantasy. Here I refer to phantasy in the Kleinian sense as the very fabric of the inner world. I call this phantasy world the Dream, with a big D. Within this dream-like construct, i.e. in our subjectivity, in the Dream, we have dreams when we sleep at night (let’s call it dream with a small d). While asleep, something touches my foot, and the inner dream-maker casts it, weaving the cat’s touch into the dream scenario. While awake, i.e. while I am in the Dream, I meet a new person, and this person is immediately cast in the phantasy, just like the cat’s touch was inserted into the dream scenario. The Dream of subjectivity includes the new person within the story of the phantasy right away. From this perspective, the historical and sociological layers in the series –for example, the meeting of Rudolf and Freud, or the trouble between Austria and Hungary– are incorporated by Freud into his subjective phantasy, taking on the ghosts of his inner world. Our experience of the social events echoes in our invididual world. There are moments when the social wavelength is synchronized with the individual wavelength. Erik Erikson refers to it as the “historical moment”. As the individual struggles to overcome an inner inhibition, s/he also deals with a matter at the social level.

Mahan Doğrusöz: “I am a house. In me, it is dark. My consciousness is a solitary light. A candle caught in a draught… Everything else lies in the shadows. Everything else lies within the unconscious. But they are there. The other rooms. Niches, gangways, trapdoors, hallways. At all times. And everything that lives inside of us, everything that wanders around within us, it is all there. It acts, it lives, within the house that is me. Our inner thoughts that we are not prepared to see in daylight dance around us out of the daylight. They trick us and stalk us. They whisper. They make us afraid. They make us crazy.” What else would you like to say about the relationship between subjectivity and consciousness that has been described over a house analogy in the series?

Yavuz Erten: The analogy of a “draught” is very interesting here. The state of consciousness is not fixed in its coverage or focus. It is a “wandering, flickering” state. We sometimes assume a static consciousness as if there is a conscious space and a separate space for the unconscious with no connection in-between. But a careful reading of Freud shows us that he describes a dynamic course through consciousness and unconsciousness. Some things can even be repressed during the day. Or, conversely, what is repressed can shift to the semi-conscious space and become recognizable. Things that go unrecognized in the unconscious become recognizable in the preconscious (of course, there are things that will always remain unconscious). There is constant movement between the conscious and the unconscious. One thing may be repressed while another is recovered from the unconscious. “Candle light” is thus a strong metaphor. Candle flickering in the draught may shed light on different places in the room while leaving others in the dark.

“The animal that dwells in us, deep down in a dungeon.”

Mahan Doğrusöz: The series depicts in a strong cinematographic language the conflict between desire vs. forbidden, instinct vs. conscience, “animalistic” vs. “human”, primitive vs. “civilized”, “id” vs. “superego”. The envy of the defeated/repressed Hungary toward Austria, the compelling force of sexual taboos on the therapeutic process, the aggression penetrating daily life, the underground ritual threatening higher goals… What would you like to say regarding Freudian theory of conflict and its reflections in the series?

Yavuz Erten: There is an important figure that does not appear in the series except as a voice: Taltos. It is an id-related character that may be destructive, influences people, and is transmitted from one person to another like a virus. Taltos is firstly introduced when young Fleur’s family was murdered and women were raped. Taltos is the embodied form of Fleur’s rage that will turn into revenge as a result of her psychic injury and despair. Think of it as repressed within an individual or a group; for the ethnic groups that suffered persecution or genocide, how it may transform the repressed narcissistic injuries and unmourned losses into furious revenge and aggression. It is like the little girl constructs a phantasy there: The moment she cries “Taltos!!!”, the soldiers freeze. Fleur channels the power of Taltos to have soldiers kill each other.

From the perspective of self psychology, severe injuries have a significant role in the emergence of aggression. Like in the story of Cain and Abel, Taltos resulted from a basic narcissistic injury that turned into an immensely destructive power for mankind. This powerful rage, revenge urge, and envy is not always conscious. Then it emerges at one point, ravaging and devastating. Like an earthquake… The fact that earthquakes happen occasionally does not imply the absence of fault lines at other times. The fault lines are always there, but causes destructive movement only now and then.

Here is a beautiful example of the synchronization of the wavelengths and interaction of the layers we talked about earlier. When Taltos means to have someone do something, it enters their inner world, analyzes their vulnerabilities, conflicts, and developmental arrests, and activates them. For example, the physician cuts off his sister’s toes because he is jealous of her playing the piano and his mother’s affection for her. The crown prince Rudolf attempts to kill his father, the Emperor Franz Joseph. There are plenty of similar examples in the series. Taltos, which is deep-rooted in the collective unconscious, finds and activates the “demons” in the individual stories.

Let me add this: Taltos is a shamanic archetype from the pagan past of the Hungarian community rooted in Central Asia. It is a figure repressed and imprisoned in the unconscious by Christianity. In the Austro-Hungarian association, Austria may be defined as the devoted Catholic partner. There are Catholics in Hungary, as well, but not as many or devout as in Austria. Actually, some of the elements in the script and quality of this series make even more sense when we look at what has happened over the past two decades and how the Hungarian culture is drawn to its roots in Central Asia.

Mahan Doğrusöz: Freud made visible the competition, envy, lust, and revenge within “sacred” family relationships, which was culturally considered taboo. He showed the courage to talk about oedipal competition and desire, and castration. In this light, I find terrific examples in the series to how “toxic” and deeply traumatic our intimate relationships can be. I was mostly affected by the “toxic” relationship between Fleur and her aunt. We see a narcissistic aunt “victimizing” her niece for her “higher” goals. I feel that the series strongly depicts how the family relationships, assumed to be the most innocent of all, can be so “traumatizing”. What is the “toxic” relationship that affected you most in the series?

Yavuz Erten: A doctor who cut off his sister’s toes; a soldier whose father is a decorated army commander and who is having a secret homosexual affair, scolded by his father, and so “stuck” that he agrees to a duel as if committing suicide; a crown prince overshadowed by his father… These are the examples that affected me. In the series, sons rebel against the patriarchal system. On the one hand, they strive to make their own way; on the other hand, they struggle with the imperial morals, particularly with the themes of honor and pride. Wherever there is family involvement in the series, there is a violent intergenerational conflict.

You notice that most people in the series are wounded. They have battle scars on their faces and bodies as if they just came of combat. This is a world headed towards the 1st World War that will unleash unprecedented atrocities driven by the urge to revenge heavy casualties resulting from previous regional battles in the European territory.

“Fleur has become strong…does not need Taltos any more.”

“I know who I am thanks to you.”

Mahan Doğrusöz: What clues do you find in the series regarding “recovery” in the psychoanalytic sense? He tries to “integrate” the selves that were split as a result of trauma, telling that Fleur, Taltos, and the little girl are one, and encouraging her to give up dysfunctional defenses… What do all these scenes tell us about the psychoanalytic theory’s view on recovery?

Yavuz Erten: “Dissociation” resulting from trauma is another narrative in the series. We see that the little girl had suffered severe traumas. Little Fleur and Taltos are depicted as if separate from one another. Trauma therapy focuses on bringing these separate parts together because dissociation is sustained by continued suffering of the subject. Dissociation persists as long as the pain remains inside, unmetabolized and frozen, experienced as eternity. As long as the little girl experiences the attack, the rape, the murder of her parents, the hijacking of her life as a frozen traumatic moment, her dissociation continues. Only when there is an “other” who can first contain and then work through this experience that the pain is narrated, “mentalized” and symbolized, and the “dissociated” parts can be integrated. Healing occurs when suffering is transformed into a narrative, when it can be written with footnotes and spaces in-between the lines. In addition to dissociation, we may also think of these in terms “repression”. It is also a split state. It is what Kohut calls “horizontal split”. Here, too, the goal of analysis is to “integrate”.

“So close that your hand upon my chest is mine, so close that your eyes close with my dreams.” Pablo Neruda

Mahan Doğrusöz: We watch an impressive portrayal of how an analysand’s unconscious interacts with that of an analyst. As Freud tries to help Fleur, Fleur “catalyzes” Freud’s digging into his own unconscious. Freud, in his unconscious, meets all his male authority figures, kills his father, and desires his mother. He experiences that it is snowing as he assists Fleur to go to her unconscious. What would you like to say about this as an analyst?

Yavuz Erten: Fleur is an important figure in the series. We may presume that young Freud has inhibitions when it comes to women. We learn from his biography that he had a quite long engagement (4 years). He keeps “delaying”. Yet another impact comes out of his relationship with Fleur. Just as Taltos transforms the one with aggressive intentions into a murderer, it transforms the one with libidinal intentions into a man. Id contains not only the aggression but all of the male/female, phallic/genital themes. In this sense, Fleur’s Taltos helps Freud pass over a threshold.

Here is another way to look at this: We watched Freud’s dream. We saw his objects and his phantasy during his self-analysis that he carried out in the process of creating psychoanalysis. Certainly, there were realities in the external world, but there were also internal objects corresponding to the experiences that happened in the Phantasy. In this sense, Fleur made Freud a “man”, but we may also interpret this relationship as Freud’s encounter and coming to terms with his female side. Here comes to mind his dream called Irma’s Injection from The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud’s ambivalence about a patient, whom he called Irma, was reflected in his dream as he had been concerned that the analysis was going in the wrong direction. In the dream, Irma was surrounded by doctors whom Freud saw as his rivals. Together they were examining her throat. They were debating the accuracy of an injection that was given to her. The throat seemed like “genital cavity” to Freud who then felt embarrassed about his work. The dream shows that Freud is also like Irma, feeling passive in front of all male and phallic figures. Freud is coming to terms with his own femininity, his own passivity in this dream.

“The world will not be the same.”

“Of course, it will. We will just understand it a little better.”

Mahan Doğrusöz: Freud compares psychoanalysis to an archeological excavation, and psychoanalyst to an archeologist. The series construes the psychoanalyst as a detective and puts him at the center of serial murders. As he was a theoretician who formed his theory on the basis of sexual and aggressive drives, how do you think he would react if he had a chance to see this production that is filmed 100 years later?

Yavuz Erten: Though it is not easy to predict, I think he would immediately grasp the dream-like quality as a man who has so skillfully mastered the language of dreams, who has inspired the Surrealists. On the other hand, let’s not forget that it was Martha who said “The world will not be the same”. Freud was asleep in that scene, and Martha uttered this sentence as she woke him up. Freud listened in astonishment what Martha was saying. It is hard for one to evaluate oneself; the “other” is needed for appreciation and narration. Fleur did help Freud pass over a threshold in the series. Yet, in real life, Martha has been there for him throughout the entire process of his creations. It is beautifully described in the book Martha Freud: die Frau des Genies (Katja Behling, 2002, Aufbau Tb; English translation, Martha Freud: A Biography, 2005, Polity Press; Turkish translation, Dahinin Karısı, 2005, Everest). We are going through such times that can be called “The world will not be the same”. We need psychoanalysis in order to understand and make sense of this process. What we have been experiencing and what is to come may be baffling. Psychoanalysis and critical thinking is required to sustain thinking. All the tools to explore and make sense of what is behind the visible are significant in this period because this fear and devastation may destroy “meaning”, which might turn mankind into something that does not think but only acts. It is not only the pandemic that I am talking about, but also the dictatorships that may be formed on the pretext of the pandemic and the dystopias that may beleaguer our world.

Let me end with a few additional notes. Freud halted Taltos in this Dream/Phantasy scene that we watched to take place in 1890s. However, Taltos returned after several decades. At least for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was like the sharp sword of the so-called Hungarian curse: the crown prince Rudolf ended his own life in the “Mayerling Tragedy”; his mother the empress Sisi was killed in a terrorist act; and the emperor Franz Joseph’s nephew, who became the crown prince because Rudolf was an only child, was assassinated in Sarajevo. This event started the World War I, at the end of which the empire was defeated and destroyed. As Taltos raged, the Spanish Influenza also started around that time, and Freud lost his daughter to this relentless pandemic. Despite his terrible grief, the great master did not give up on his work to reflect on and make sense of the devastation he suffered as a result of these catastrophes, and created Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Mahan Doğrusöz: As a final note, let us remind of the importance of the psychoanalytic perspective at a time which threatens to confront us with loss of meaning.


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