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Freud's Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis
Reviewed by Ramon M. Greenberg, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2011;168:440-441. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.10121809
View Author and Article Information
Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Book review accepted for publication January 2011.

The author reports no financial relationships with commercial interests.

Accepted January , 2011.

Copyright © American Psychiatric Association

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I had no idea what I would find in Freud's Mexico but must say I have been surprisingly rewarded by reading a book that I would have been most unlikely to look at. Rubén Gallo has given us a fascinating introduction to Mexican intellectual history and significant figures in the first half of the 20th century. He does this by showing how Freud was like a Swiss Army knife or a Rorshach. That is, Freud and the psychoanalytic movement he inspired were used in different ways in different fields by different artists and academics and professionals. Readers will become familiar with the richness of Mexican culture as we see how Freud and psychoanalysis were used to justify and understand Mexican behavior and ideas. This is the first half of the book. In the second half, Gallo introduces us to aspects of Freud's life and mind as it related to Mexican and Austrian history, his fascination with the Spanish language, and how this played out in his dreams. All of this is presented in a very readable, scholarly, and absorbing manner. Once I got into the book, I found it hard to put down.

The first half of the book is called Freud in Mexico. It begins with Salvador Novo, a young and flamboyant poet who seemed to represent an exception to the coolness with which most Mexican poets met Freud. The atmosphere was different from other parts of the world. Novo, by contrast, was an extremely colorful figure who embraced, both figuratively and literally, Freud's ideas about sexuality and particularly homosexuality. Novo was openly gay in a very Catholic setting and used Freud to justify how his behavior was normal. He used Freud in his poems and became what we would now call a cult figure on the new medium of wireless broadcasts. In contrast to homosexual writers in other countries, Novo was able to live an open and celebratory life. Just how he did this is the opening chapter of the book.

Gallo then proceeds to introduce us to other major Mexican intellectuals. These include an eminent professor of philosophy, a monk who founded a monastery in which psychoanalytic group therapy was central, a leading jurist who "psychoanalyzed" criminals to try to understand them and their crimes, and Frida Kahlo, who in some of her art seemed taken by Freud and psychoanalysis. I found all of these figures fascinating in themselves, but Gallo also took the opportunity to discuss, in a very sophisticated manner, Freud's ideas about religion, as presented in Moses and Monotheism and the The Future of an Illusion. I also found an extra dividend in this section in that it enriched my feel for Roberto Bolano's recently published and acclaimed novels.

Part II is called Freud's Mexico. We are treated to several different aspects of Freud's relationship to Mexico. Of great interest was Freud's relationship to Eduard Silberstein. This was an intense adolescent relationship that Gallo describes vividly. Central to the relationship was the learning of Spanish, which the boys did without a teacher and in secrecy. A primary focus was on a Cervantes novel as a source of Spanish text and also with content related to other parts of this book. From there Gallo provides us with a discussion of Austrian and Mexican history as they relate to each other and also to Freud's interest in antiquities. This involved Totem and Taboo and the role of human sacrifice in Aztec history. He discusses differing scholarly views of these sacrifices, from those of sheer horror to the question of whether such activity was in some ways more civilized than that of the Western world. With all this in mind, Gallo considers the evidence for Freud's special relationship to Mexico, although he was never actually there. Freud's books and artifacts give some support, but then Gallo turns to three of Freud's dreams and the story becomes more interesting and integrates what has come before. Using Freud's methods of reconstruction, Gallo discusses three dreams: the Breakfast Ship, Count Thun, and the Self-Dissection dream. Gallo draws from Freud's own interpretations as well as those of a number of psychoanalytic scholars. He also uses his own reconstructive efforts, including noting Freud's "slips of the pen" to present intriguing insights.

In relation to Freud's dreams and their treatment, I think some interesting questions can be raised. Gallo's scholarship and grasp of classical psychoanalysis is impressive but is now somewhat outdated. What is missing is what is often lacking in most academics' discussions of psychoanalysis, whether positive, as it is here, or negative. This is an appreciation of the changes that have occurred in psychoanalytic practice and theory in the last 30—40 years. With these changes in mind, Gallo might well have paid more attention to Freud's memory of his father's comment that he would never amount to anything (Gallo's own slip of the pen). Freud's memory might lead to a consideration of his dreams not as evidence of competition or aggression with major authority figures but as indications of his struggle to overcome his shame by becoming or replacing a great man. The Spanish and Mexican connection highlights the special and secret language for expressing these feelings. Louis Breger, in his book A Dream of Undying Fame, captures this eloquently.

With all this to think about, I leave this review with the statement that this is a rich and rewarding book, and I think most readers will finish with a sense of having learned a great deal that is new and thought-provoking, both about Freud and about Mexico.

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