Written as a commission in 1915, Sigmund Freud's On Transience is a short, beautiful and enigmatic work. When he wrote it, Freud was 60. His sons Martin (Lucian's father) and Ernest were away at war, and news of them was intermittent. At this stage of his life Freud had few patients, and the Austro-Hungarian empire - with his beloved Vienna at the centre - was being destroyed. There were many reasons for him to be pessimistic, even despairing.
In On Transience, however, despair is a state Freud attributes not to himself but to the poet Rilke, one of his companions on the walk "through a blossoming summer landscape" with which the essay opens. Freud's other companion was the writer Lou Andreas-Salomé, formerly Nietszche's lover and now Rilke's. She was evidently someone for whom Freud had a soft spot - he invited her to attend the famous "Wednesday night" meetings at his house.
In Freud's Requiem, Matthew von Unwerth has written an absorbing account of the trio's conversation and the essay it inspired. Yet he gives us good reason to believe that the walk never took place. Why should it have done? Freud was a creative writer who had, as a young man, composed poetry, stories, histories and translations. His own analysis was conducted not by another analyst, but by himself, on paper, using a method akin to free association - free writing. The talking cure was initially a writing cure.
None the less, like Plato with poets, Freud always had an ambivalently passionate relationship with what he called "creative" writers. His works are full of references to figures as diverse as Ibsen, Dostoevsky, Goethe and Sophocles, whom he credits with spying the unknown land - the unconscious - before he, Freud the scientist, mapped it. But on other occasions he accuses writers of merely "daydreaming" and of wanting nothing but "fame and the love of women". He once wrote to his wife that "there is a general enmity between artists and those engaged in the details of scientific work". He regarded what he spent his life doing as science; he wanted to be Darwin, not Maupassant.
On Transience seems, like many of Freud's case studies, to have been a "mash-up" - an account of a real conversation mixed with fantasies and ideas. The argument of the essay concerns that which passes and can't be held on to. For Rilke, this form of transience invalidates experience. Freud writes: "The poet was disturbed by the idea that all this beauty was bound to fade, that it would vanish through the winter, like all human beauty and everything beautiful and noble that people have created and could create." On the contrary, Freud argues, it is separation and passing that make the world valuable. Death sponsors life. As Walt Whitman writes in "Song of Myself": "Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?/I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it."
It is clear, nevertheless, that to live is to endure loss, repeatedly. Without the ability to bear this, nothing new would exist. Once something or someone has died, we can mourn it, making space within ourselves for other experiences. This is what it is to be healthy. The opposite of this "healthy repudiation" is melancholia, or depression - which Freud characterises as "the psychical revolt against grief". One of the characteristics of such unfree attachments is the refusal of words, of speaking, of the symbolic world, without which there is stagnation and no renewal of our appetites. The mourner knows what he has lost; the melancholic doesn't. There is only suffering. This is where the practice of psychoanalysis comes in.
One odd thing about the essay is that neither Freud nor Rilke makes the distinction between that which passes naturally and that which is violently disposed of, in a deliberate act of destruction. Freud, with unusual imprecision, appears to think of all loss as the same. In later works, he tells us that there are losses that are deliberately engineered, repeatedly: he calls this the "repetition compulsion". There seems to be an aspect of this in Rilke's self-inflicted misery, which he insists on clinging to as though he believed, superstitiously, that it is this which generated his poetry. Rilke wrote to Andreas- Salomé, when discussing the possibility of having analysis: "But finally the decision prevailed to struggle through alone, as far as one still has a miserable shred of solitude left."
Freud is well known for his pessimism, for his awareness of the perversion, hatred and violence of which men and women are capable. We might put our faith in religion, but neither this nor our education can cure us of our unconscious. And On Transience was certainly written in a dark time. Yet Freud is the optimist here. If we cannot bring ourselves to celebrate or enjoy our voyage towards extinction, we can at least face the fact that this is the only framework in which human life can take place. Otherwise we cannot see that death does not diminish us, or learn that we must not let our murderousness defeat us. However, creativity and eradication are more closely connected than we like to think. One of the purposes of art is to help us mourn.
Like David Edmonds and John Eidinow's Wittgenstein's Poker, Freud's Requiem is intellectual history made personal and dramatic. At a time when Freud's irrelevance is gleefully celebrated, von Unwerth illustrates the truth of Trilling's remark that Freud is "a quarry not an edifice" - that, far from having been dismissed, his work continues to generate new work, like a burst of fresh associations. There are few, if any, brain scientists or behavioural therapists of whom this can be said.