“What the hell am I doing?” Sigmund Freud wondered as he warmed himself in the heat of a bonfire next to a group of homeless in a dead end street in the New York neighborhood of Harlem. “I’m not a man of action, for God’s sake. I am a psychoanalyst, the most sedentary profession that exists. And here I am with these niggers (Freud was not racist but he preferred to stay away from anyone who was not of his own race and, if possible, from his own tribe of Zebulun) fleeing from colleagues with an Oedipus complex.” He expressed these thoughts aloud, which made him the target of the grim looks of his companions in disgrace. To ingratiate himself with them, he offered to psychoanalyse them for free, which he did with the help of an old mattress and a broken chair found in the trash.
It turned out that the subconscious of those homeless men was much richer than that of any of the members of the European high society and bourgeoisie that Freud had analyzed. Starting with Baron Rothschild who the previous year had gone to Vienna expressly to be analyzed by Freud, who would say that “there was nothing to analyze because he completely lacked subconscious.”
In fact, his subsequent essays would rest almost entirely on the testimonies provided by these homeless. One of them in particular, who in the psychoanalytic literature is known as the Key-Man, would give him the foundations for the anthropological theories of his essays “Civilization and its discontents” and “Moses and Monotheism”. These men also gave him valuable testimonies regarding phenomena such as precognition and premonitory dreams, phenomena in which until then he had never believed.
Almost a whole year lived Freud in the company of these men, psychoanalyzing them thoroughly one by one and taking notes without stopping on the back of used folios that he found among the garbage.
Meanwhile, New York had launched an unprecedented campaign to locate the “father of Psychoanalysis” accidentally lost in its streets. Only the dirt and soot accumulated on his face and clothes as a result of his homeless life, protected Freud from being discovered and separated from that huge stream of human psyche that were his new friends for him.
When his field study was concluded, Freud dedicated himself to earn money following the example of his friends, that is, picking up cardboard and scrap metal in the streets. And, when he managed to raise enough money, he said goodbye to them with tears in his eyes (surprising thing in the case of Freud) and rented a tiny room in the Bronx where little by little he regained his original appearance as an academic scholar. He finally made his public reappearance, but he did not let anyone know where he had been or what had happened to him. Soon after, he bought a steamship ticket to old Europe, where he was eager to resume his therapeutic and academic work, already without any trace of the paranoid outbreak that had assaulted him in New York on account of the Oedipus Complex. (By the way, in Vienna he came to establish a close friendship with “Oedipus” Von Stroheim with whom he used to urinate in public, which he came to consider a healthy means of liberating repressed social tensions.) Again, many followers and former patients went to the dock to say goodbye to him. Among them were Rank, Jung and Adler. (And we are also present among the crowd. Because we stay here, in New York, where psychoanalysis is destined to flourish in the coming years and to provide analysts with a variety of cases that we can not help but relate here.)