Life, Death, and a Good Cigar

Freud Chose to Face the End on His Own Terms

Magazine Issue
July/August 2016
Life, Death, and a Good Cigar

For most of us, death seems both terrifying and unfathomable, clearly very real—nothing more real—but also impossible, inconceivable. In The Violet Hour, author Katie Roiphe, a journalist nicknamed the “uncomfortabilist” because of her unsparing eye for the foibles and hypocrisies of our time, offers a set of unusual essays, both biographical and meditative, about the last days of six famous authors (Sigmund Freud, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and James Salter), seemingly as if perched on their shoulders throughout their final struggle to face their death.

In the excerpt below, Roiphe gives us her portrait of Sigmund Freud—the image of a profoundly self-willed man, who began preparing for death many decades before the actual event, apparently obsessed by it, even as he was determined not to be cowed by it. To be stalwart, uncomplaining before death, unseduced by the sweet-talking blandishments of religion was a moral imperative—anything less, more merely “human,” would be shameful, a blot on psychoanalysis, which was, above all, the application of hard-headed reason to the murky forces of unreason.

And yet, in spite of endless warnings from his doctor, this obdurately rational man wouldn’t give up his beloved cigars, even to save his own life. Indeed, smoking seems itself to have been perhaps his most comforting and most loyal companion, in his mind linked to his creativity, even to a sense of inner wildness that allowed him to conceive his scandalous system about the true, deeply unpresentable roots of human nature. Roiphe shows how in Freud, eros—the life force—continued to fight his own death instinct, a bare-knuckled struggle to the end.

Mary Sykes Wyle



On an early September day, Freud opens the novel he is reading: “‘Wretched weather for drowning yourself,’ said a ragged old woman, who grinned at him.” The French doors of his study give way to the garden, with its blossoming almond tree.

His study in London is an exact replica of his study in Vienna, Egyptian statues lined up like soldiers in the same order on his desk, same Persian carpet, same shawl thrown across the couch, a re-creation of the old sanctum in this more spacious, beautiful house: someone’s generous refusal of change. His famous patient, the Wolf Man, talked about the “sacred peace and quiet” of the study, and now there’s a new kind of peace and quiet. The patients are gone, but stacked on the desk are the midnight-blue notebooks with his notes on their sessions.

A few months earlier, during a particularly brutal radiation treatment, Freud had written to his former patient and friend Marie Bonaparte, “My world is again what it was before—a little island of pain floating in a sea of indifference.” And now the pain is unruly, would be for most people impossible. His family and friends and doctors urge him to take painkillers, but he refuses anything stronger than aspirin and the occasional hot-water bottle. “I prefer to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly,” he says.

The decision to refuse painkillers is difficult to watch; it appears to some to be stubbornness. One of his doctors writes, “What he really requires is some psychological treatment to enable him to make a pact with some other medicament similar to that which he has with aspirin, but I dare not suggest that to him.” And it’s true that the old man is not exactly suggestible. He has made up his mind about this last stretch. He wants to be able to consider and analyze what remains to be considered and analyzed.

In blooming health, he had written: “Towards the actual person who has died we adopt a special attitude—something almost like admiration for someone who has accomplished a very difficult task.” And the accomplishment here, the work, is apparent. The necrosis in his mouth has begun to give off an unpleasant smell. There is a hole in his cheek, as if a bullet has passed straight through. His elaborate prosthesis, which he and his daughter Anna privately refer to as “the Monster,” chafes in his mouth. At night, because insects are drawn to the smell, his bed is covered in mosquito netting, which gives it an exotic, transporting, colonial feel, as if he is in India or Thailand.

His dog, Lun, will not come near him; the reddish chow cowers under the table. Freud says that what he loves about dogs is their lack of ambivalence, how they, unlike people, can love without hate, but Lun’s unambivalent love has now turned into unambivalent fear. Lun, who lay on the floor of Freud’s study as his patients went on with their streams of talk, who lay under his desk as he was writing, who had become, through her presence, almost a part of his work, part, almost, of his thinking, is now out of reach.

This rejection is terrifying, because it is the rejection of the living world, of nature itself. The dog will act on knowledge that the people who love Freud will not act on; they will suppress, overcome, but the dog will not. This is the evidence that death is already in the room. The smell is of rotting, of corpses; it would more decently have waited, but it does not wait.

On nice days, Freud still lies on a chaise longue in the garden. There is a breeze, so he is covered in a wool blanket and wears a hat and vest. He looks distinguished even swaddled in the blanket, somehow manages even now to project some of his famous authority, to impose. He wears his round-frame black glasses, his face bone white. In his novel he reads, “For him the universe existed no longer; the whole world had come to be within himself. For the sick, the world begins at their pillow and ends at the foot of the bed.” But this is exactly what Freud will not allow. He will not allow the world to begin and end at the foot of his bed. He will not allow that shrinking, or will allow it only up to a point. He listens to the radio reports of the war. He reads the newspaper and follows the march of the Germans through Europe. He reads letters from his friends and from strangers. Letters find their way to his door at Maresfield Gardens, in London, addressed only “Dr. Freud, London,” which amazes him. There is something magical in this, something enchanted; after the elaborate and petty persecutions of the Nazis, this is part of the way England has welcomed him in.

The novel he is reading, Balzac’s dark, hallucinatory La Peau de Chagrin, lies folded on his lap. “This is just the book for me,” he tells his personal physician, Max Schur. “It deals with shrinking and starvation.”

In his head, Freud had been working for many decades on ideas of how to die. When his friend and disciple Anton von Freund died of abdominal cancer, he wrote in a letter, “He bore his hopelessness with heroic clarity, did not disgrace analysis.” This is, of course, a telling formulation: it means there are ways of dying that Freud felt would disgrace analysis. These ways would include not facing scientific facts, denying, suppressing at the end. To engage in fantasies of immortality or to enter into a drugged, woolly state, or to otherwise look away, would be shameful, would be in some way a betrayal of both the poetry and the science of their shared venture.

The ideal Freud set out in this description of Anton von Freund’s “heroic clarity” is to see clearly. To be rational. To allow oneself to apprehend, fully and with all the senses. Which is, of course, even harder and rarer at the very end than at other points in life. One can read in Freud’s near-constant descriptions of his own upcoming death, in his elaborate set pieces of impossibly comic, wry acceptance, an exercise of this heroic clarity, a gearing up.

He wrote, for instance, in the early years of his struggle with throat cancer: “About my operation and affliction there is nothing to say that you yourselves couldn’t know or expect. The uncertainty that hovers over a man of 67 has now found its material expression. I don’t take it very hard; one will defend oneself for a while with the help of modern medicine and then remember Bernard Shaw’s warning: ‘Don’t try to live forever, you will not succeed.’” His tone here is light, perfectly calibrated, and his correspondence is filled with statements of a similar tenor. He was determined to play, at least on paper, the role of the cool, unruffled man of science, the rational, bemused intellectual; in the course of his many correspondences, he offered up 16 different kinds of dry resignation; he was, in his studied, eloquent, playful way, unfazed by death. In the weeks after Freud died, his daughter Anna would speak of this elegant resignation of his as his ability “to reduce every occurrence to its right proportions.”

Throughout his life, even when faced with the most breathtaking losses, he would not allow himself the luxury of rage, or the loosening of control; he would not allow himself any kind of outspoken rebellion against the hard facts of mortality. He reined in his anguish, though his terse, intelligent sentences crackle with it. In 1920, when his pretty daughter Sophie died, pregnant, in her mid-twenties, of influenza, leaving behind two small sons, he wrote to a friend, “For us there is little to say. After all, we know that death belongs to life, that it is unavoidable and comes when it wants.” From another point of view, of course, there is much to say. But Freud would not say it.

In a letter that same year to his good friend and colleague Sandor Ferenczi, he wrote, “Please don’t worry about me. Apart from feeling rather more tired I am the same. The death, painful as it is, does not affect my attitude toward life. For years I was prepared for the loss of our sons; now it is our daughter.” What he means here is that he had thought his sons would die in the war and had readied himself for the loss. His faith in preparation is central: Freud’s barely submerged premise is that death is something to be mastered, something that one prepares for or practices. “If you would endure life,” he wrote in one of his essays, “be prepared for death.”

It could certainly be argued that this vigorous and energetic man may have been a bit overprepared for his own death. He began making declarations that he was close to death, or resigned to death, long before he was anywhere near dying. In his 30s, he suffered from various ailments, including what he called a “sudden cardiac oppression,” a heart palpitation, which bolstered this belief that he was near death. This heart problem was, for him, “accompanied by a depression of spirits which expressed itself in visions of death and departure in place of the normal frenzy of activity.” To his closest confidant of this period, Wilhelm Fliess, he talked openly about his fear of dying, which he referred to as his “death deliria.” So the idea that he was dying, or near death, long predated his cancer or seriously failing health. He had, by the time he was diagnosed, thoroughly considered and studied from every angle the prospect of his premature death. His devoted translator, biographer, and friend, Ernest Jones, later wrote a letter attributing this early obsession to a “neurotic horror of old age and death.”

Over the years, Freud was very often convinced that he was dying. He wrote to Karl Abraham, “The idea that my sixty-eighth birthday the day after tomorrow might be my last must have occurred to others too.” He also wrote, “Though apparently on the way to recovery, there is deep inside me a pessimistic conviction of the closeness of the end of my life, nourished by the never-ceasing petty torments of the scar, a kind of senile depression centered around the conflict between irrational pleasure in life and sensible resignation.” Why is resignation sensible? Why is pleasure in life irrational? Freud is so eager to rise above, to conspicuously see and take in the facts of mortality, that he can only classify an ebullient attachment to life as “irrational.” Rationality seems to be an expansive, overarching code word here for something altogether stranger and more rare: moderation in one’s attachment to life. As if one is supposed to be only a little bit attached to life.

In his essays, he acknowledges that we can accept death while at the same time not accepting death. There’s a difference, in other words, between what we know and how we feel, and of course much of Freud’s revolutionary theory was pitched in that very space between the two. He writes in the marvelous novelistic beginning of his 1915 paper “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”: “To anyone who listened to us we were of course prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes nature a death and must expect to pay the debt—in short that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, however, we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise. We showed an unmistakable tendency to put death on one side, to eliminate it from life. We tried to hush it up . . . at bottom no one believes in his own death, or to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”

When he was diagnosed with a “leukoplakia” in his mouth in the winter of 1923, Freud finally found tangible form for his sense of impending doom. He underwent the first of many grueling operations to remove it. His doctors did not tell him right away that it was cancerous, but he intuited that it was, and the radiation and X-ray treatments they recommended confirmed his suspicions. The fact that his doctors treated him like an ordinary patient, lying to him, obscuring the truth, enraged him: He did not want to be shielded or coddled.

His illness strengthened his attachment to his daughter Anna, made it feel more pressing and necessary to both of them. She wrote to Lou Andreas- Salomé, “You are right. I would not leave him now under any circumstances.”

Six years later, at the urging of Marie Bonaparte, Freud decided to take on a personal physician, Dr. Max Schur. Dr. Schur was a warm young internist, with an unusual interest in psychoanalysis. Of course, taking on a personal physician, or Leibarzt, involves taking an extraordinary position toward one’s health, managing it above and beyond the ordinary person; it’s the luxury of the affluent, the privilege of a king, but it is also a statement of power, of intent. In taking on a personal physician, Freud entered into a personal relation with death. He was beginning what could almost be called a negotiation. He asked Schur to promise that when the time came he would help him die, which Schur did. He also asked Schur to promise to be completely honest, which he did as well.

In many ways Freud was the perfect patient—stoic, rational. He referred to himself as Max Schur’s “docile patient” and was brave and uncomplaining through even the most florid mishaps of his treatments, through no fewer than 33 painful and sometimes botched operations on his mouth; yet in his cigar smoking he continued to elude, to rebel, to court his illness, his future death. He knew that his smoking was compounding his lesions, making them worse, and yet he continued to smoke. As he wrote to a friend very early on in his illness: “Smoking is accused as the etiology of this tissue rebellion.” But he smoked through the discomforts and difficulties.

In February of 1923, when he first discovered the growth in his throat, Freud delayed telling the doctors, in part because he knew that they would ask him to quit smoking again. After the cancerous lesion in his throat was removed, he continued to have swelling and lesions and difficulty with the large, awkward prosthesis that was fitted to replace parts of his palate. His smoking intensified the complications and side effects; it led, very clearly, to more interventions and pain. Freud would often say to Schur, “I know what you are going to say—don’t smoke.” On May 1, 1930, he wrote, “For six days now I have not smoked a single cigar, and it cannot be denied that I owe my well-being to this renunciation. But it is sad.

His health problems, seriously as he took them, never really got in the way of his smoking. As early as 1893 he announced defiantly in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess his commitment to continue smoking after his heart troubles: “I am not observing your ban on smoking. Do you think it is such a glorious fate to live many long years in misery?” This is interesting because it is during this time he developed what he referred to as his “death deliria,” a serious preoccupation with the idea that he was dying, and yet even then, or perhaps particularly then, he was not willing to give up his beloved cigars. After he began smoking again, he explained to Fliess: “From the first cigars on I was able to work and was the master of my mood; prior to that life was unbearable.” These are strong statements: life without cigars was unbearable, a misery. From very early on he linked smoking to his imaginative work, to his creative side. It seemed to him impossible to work, to concentrate, to envision without a cigar, impossible, almost, to live. Something vital, crucial, was tangled up with cigars, something akin to identity.

The sensible, scientific response to his medical situation was unambiguous. But Freud continued to elude the sensible, scientific response. At one point, his doctors issued a whole written report of the smoking-related damage to his throat and palate, explicitly connecting nicotine to the recurring precancerous growths and inflammation: “specially noticeable this time is the widespread inflammation which . . . is the consequence of excessive smoking. There is every evidence that the inflammation develops first and that the typical leukoplakia appears as its sequel.” The report ended with the admonition: “The patient should be strongly advised to give up smoking.” When Schur showed Freud this report, he shrugged.

The shrug is the perfect gesture. Freud’s smoking did not have a rationale: it existed outside words. It was itself an argument of sorts, an imposition of personality on the facts. He was responding to the warning by not responding. He would try periodically, in starts and stops, to quit, but it would not be possible for Freud to give up smoking, or he did not want to.

In fact, Freud corrected his early biographer, Stefan Zweig, in a letter: “I feel inclined to object to the emphasis you put on the element of petit bourgeois correctness in my person. The fellow is actually somewhat more complicated; your description doesn’t tally with the fact that I, too, have had my splitting headaches and attacks of fatigue like anyone else, that I was a passionate smoker (I wish I still were), that I ascribe to the cigar the greatest share of my self-control and tenacity in work.” Of course, soon after writing this, he resumed passionate smoking.

Freud liked to call himself an “adventurer.” The adventure shows itself in his work, in the gargantuan act of imagination required, but it does not show itself in his life, which was, as Zweig pointed out, largely orderly, punctual, proper. His sense of humor revealed the rogue impulse, glimmers here and there of wickedness, or mischievousness, but he did not live the vivid, expressive life one might imagine in the father of psychoanalysis. His courtship of Martha Bernays was turbulent and a little wild, but after they were married, his romantic life remained, on the surface, quite settled, and he hinted that he and his wife ended their sexual relationship after the last of their many children. His explorations of an untrammeled id and libido were purely theoretical and on the page. Scholars have combed through his life for scandal, for the sexual obsession to be made real, which has led to heated speculation of an affair with his sister-in-law, Minna Bernays, but there is no solid evidence that he acted on any attraction to her, or that there was any attraction at all. The one anarchic thing he did, the one vice he clung to, the one irrational pocket of destructive behavior, the one “sin” he could actually lay claim to, was his cigar smoking. During his impetuous engagement he wrote, “Smoking is indispensable if one has nothing to kiss.” Smoking, he suggests, is a substitute for the sexual; it is the expression of the libido.

And smoking was also linked in his mind to certain kinds of love. Once when Anna was away on a trip to Berlin, he wrote to Lou Andreas-Salomé about losing her: “If she really were to go away, I should feel myself as deprived as I do now, and as I should do if I had to give up smoking!” This is a peculiar equation, of course, to talk about quitting smoking in the same breath as surrendering the extravagant devotion of your adult daughter. But they are both forbidden in their way, both complex, fruitful, unhealthy addictions he cannot bear to surrender. Anna never moved on; she never married or ran off with anyone and remained, unlike her siblings, in her childhood home. Freud wrote, in a moment of candor: “Sometimes I urgently wish her a good man, sometimes I shrink from the loss.” He was too attached to Anna and was painfully aware of the costs of that attachment, especially to her, and yet he was not willing to release her, to entertain the possibility of her leaving him for a fuller adult life. His willful and conscious cultivation of his too-close relationship with Anna is, like smoking, an enactment of something you are not supposed to do. They are both the impulse not resisted.

On the whole, and apart from these occasional allusions, Freud resisted any sustained analysis of his cigar smoking; it was somehow off-limits, separate from the analyzable world. He analyzed himself extensively in The Interpretation of Dreams and elsewhere. But he did not analyze his relation to smoking, complex and impassioned as it obviously was; he did not discuss his continued commitment to smoking even in the face of illness and the explicit prohibitions of doctor after doctor. He seemed to be living the idea that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

There is some question about whether Freud actually ever made this legendary comment in a speech he gave to students at Clark University in 1909. He did, however, carve off cigars as a private matter, something to be kept apart from the interpretive digging of his method, in a letter to Ernest Jones: “If someone should reproach you with my Fall into Sin, you are free to reply that my adherence to telepathy is my private affair like my Jewishness, my passion for smoking, and . . . inessential for psychoanalysis.” Smoking, then, is in a special, separate category: He does not want it to be analyzed. It is something he does beyond analysis. It is his own mystery.

In Freud’s lifetime, biographers and other analysts tried to connect his theories of Thanatos—an innate attraction to death—to his own grief or morbidity during this period. They argued that he had dreamed up the death instinct in grief after his daughter Sophie died suddenly of influenza in 1920, out of some sort of depression or excessive mourning, but Freud quickly pointed out that he had shown drafts of the book to colleagues long before Sophie caught the influenza that would kill her, and so they were mistaken.

Still, there was always an undercurrent, an attraction, a despondency that every now and then found voice in his letters and work. There was something in the theory of a death instinct that flickered through his personal writing over many decades, that had already appeared in traces, in shadows. The formal postulation of a “death instinct” is in some sense the culmination of a romantic notion, much like his nexus of romantic notions surrounding smoking. There is a perverse beauty to the idea of the death drive; there is a poetry to this disturbing theory, just as there is a poetry to Freud’s reflections on smoking. He found the “death instinct” beautiful, seductive.

For Freud, smoking would represent the choice, the exertion of will on unpromising circumstances. Part of his smoking was a resistance, a rebellion, a declaration of himself. He wrote, “annoyed that the discomfort will not give way, I am again sinning more.” He could do nothing about his declining health, but he could smoke. He could assert his power over the long hours of an afternoon. He wrote in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” “What we are left with is that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.”

Whether or not this is true of the “organism,” it was certainly true of Freud. He was increasingly focused on the issue of control, a control so expansive and consuming it encompassed even the mode or method of one’s dying. Freud wanted to choose when and how to die. When Anna suggested that they should poison themselves if they couldn’t get out of Vienna because of the Nazis, he was irritated and snapped, “Why, because they want us to?” Freud was in no way opposed to suicide in extremis, but he did not want to be forced to die by Fascists or nature; he wanted to choose when he would die. He wrote, while waiting for his visa out of Austria, that he wanted to “die in freedom,” which meant, ostensibly, that he wanted to die in England, away from the minor and major persecutions of the Nazis. But he also meant: “the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.”

In spite of his increasing preoccupation with his physical decline, Freud doesn’t want to stop working. Over the years and through all kinds of harrowing treatments, he had seen patients, often taking only a day or two off after his surgeries. In March 1939, in his office in London, when he was weak from brutal radiation treatments, he continued to see his patients without interruption. He was a willing patient, able to tolerate a great deal of pain, up for any chance of prolonging his life, as long as that life was productive.

“The only real dread I have,” he once wrote, “is of a long invalidism with no possibility of working.” The work was worth suffering for; likewise, the discipline and habit of it was sustaining. In some not entirely abstract sense, the patients were healing the doctor.

He doesn’t close his analytic practice until August 1, by which time he is undeniably too weak to continue. At that point, he has four analytic patients, who come to the house at Maresfield Gardens, and one training analysis. He records their visits and their fees in midnight-blue notebooks. As he writes to a friend, “With all the resignation before destiny that suits an honest man, I have one wholly secret entreaty: only no . . . paralysis of one’s powers through bodily misery. Let us die in harness, as King Macbeth says.”

Even as a younger man, Freud did not like the idea of prolonging life at all costs. He did not subscribe to any lofty or sentimental ideas about longevity. He did not romanticize suffering in any of its forms. When in 1904 Lou Andreas-Salomé wrote a floridly sentimental poem about how she would like to live a thousand years, even if those years contained nothing but pain, Freud commented wryly, “One cold in the head would prevent me from having that wish.”

And yet throughout August he remains committed to his extreme alertness, to the idea of not dulling his consciousness. In writing about the rampant casualties of the First World War, he says, “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in it. . . . The accumulation of deaths puts an end to the impression of chance. Life has, indeed, become interesting again; it has recovered its full content.” In some way it is this “full content” that Freud is chasing in these last days: this bright, vivid, painful awareness.

On September 1, Freud reads the newspaper reports of the Germans marching into Poland, and Schur moves in to Maresfield Gardens to attend to his patient. Because of air raids, Freud’s bed is moved to a safer part of the house. At one point, they are listening to the radio and the announcer refers to the war as “the last war.” Schur asks his patient if he thinks it is, in fact, the last war, and Freud says, “My last war.” Here is Leonard Woolf’s half-extinct volcano—which is, of course, half active. The volcano remains a volcano.

Schur would later write a letter to Jones about Freud’s mood: “Freud’s attitude toward death changed from a neurotic fear of death to an awareness of the inescapable anger which one has to face with wisdom, resignation and indomitable courage . . . he certainly hated the idea of death up to the very end and was eventually constantly aware of its imminent reality, but the ‘neurotic anxiety’ was gone.”

Freud is reading Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin in these last days. “There is something great and terrible about suicide. Most people’s downfalls are not dangerous; they are like children who have not far to fall, and cannot injure themselves; but when a great nature is dashed down, he is bound to fall from a height. He must have been raised almost to the skies.”


Anna sends her very close friend Dorothy Burlingham, who is in New York, a cable saying that her father is worse and no treatment at present is possible. Dorothy writes back, “It’s so sad and hard. I wish the ocean were not so wide and I so far away.”

The pain is now debilitating, but Freud continues to refuse painkillers. He accepts aspirin and a hot-water bottle at night. He is having trouble sleeping, which is unusual for him. Here is the “heroic clarity” he wrote about in Anton von Freund’s death. The clarity is a willed, arduous clarity, a clarity to be honest, which most of us would refuse if we had the choice. He is choosing not only how long to suffer but also how to experience that suffering. He does not want a dimming or a blurring or a diminishing of awareness. He does not want to sink into the state Balzac describes in the novel he is reading: “Thanks to the material power that opium exerts over the immaterial part of us, this man with the powerful and active imagination reduced himself to the level of those sluggish forms of animal life that lurk in the depths of forests, and take the form of vegetable refuse, never stirring from their place to catch their easy prey.”

He has a different idea. Freud had written about his own father, who died at 82, “He bore himself bravely up to the end, like the remarkable man he was,” and that is the model he has in his head. It bothered him enormously when his first doctors lied to him about the fact that he had cancer and then later about his prospects for recovery. He had written to Marie Bonaparte the previous March: “One has tried to draw me into an atmosphere of optimism: the cancer is in shrinkage, the reaction manifestations are temporary. I do not believe it, and do not like being deceived.” Likewise, he has no desire to avoid or gloss over the truth in this last stretch. He talks to Anna about the importance of “courageously looking life, and whatever it brings, in the eye.” In his poem about Freud, W. H. Auden puts this same tendency a slightly different way: “all he did was to remember like the old and be honest like children.”



Anna cables Dorothy to say that her father has gotten much worse.

Dorothy writes back: “It’s such a terribly cruel world. I’ve somehow lived with the feeling that your father would always be there—anything else seems so impossible. Such courage and such a wish to live.”

Freud finishes the last page of the Balzac novel and closes the book. He is not working anymore. He is not reading. He says, “My dear Schur, you remember our first talk. You promised me then you would help me when I could no longer carry on. It is only torture now and it has no longer any sense.” Then he asks Schur to talk to Anna about it—Anna, who has become almost an extension of his own body. Schur asks Anna for her assent.

This is a question that is impossible to answer. He does not seem different to Anna, just reduced. She writes to a friend, “His bodily pain grew more and more but his spirit never changed in spite of everything.”

At first Anna says no, and then Anna says yes.

Schur gives Freud a third of a gram of morphia. He drifts to sleep. Later, Schur administers more morphia when he becomes restless.

A quiet falls over the house. Freud is quiet under the mosquito netting.



“The organism wishes to die only in its own fashion.” As he had written, he died in the manner he chose to die, at the time he wanted to die. He chose and controlled something most of us are not privileged to choose and control. He imagined for himself this death. It looked to others like he had fallen asleep. He stopped breathing in the early hours. Anna wrote, “I believe there is nothing worse than to see the people nearest to one lose the very qualities for which one loves them. I was spared that with my father, who was himself to the last minute.” He was so much himself to the last minute that Anna would feel as if he were just off on one of his journeys, with her keeping things in order until he came back.

Right up to the moment he took the shot of morphia, it would almost seem as if Freud were taking notes, organizing his thoughts, readying himself for the great essay he would write about dying if he could sit down, after the troublesome part was over, and write it. That essay, ghostly, unwritten, imaginative, wild, hung in the air in the room by the garden. “We cannot observe our own death,” Freud wrote so authoritatively, so convincingly, and all the while he was trying his best to do exactly that.


From the Book: The Violet Hours by Katie Roiphe. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Roiphe. Published by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


Photo © Ullsten Bild/Contributor/

Katie Roiphe

Katie Roiphe, PhD, is the author of several books, including The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism and Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and others. She’s the director of Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.