On ‘Leonardo, A Memory Of His Childhood’

Provide a brief critical précis of Freud’s classic speculative essay on Leonardo. Why did Freud decide to write about Leonardo, and what evidence do you find here of Freud’s own personal feelings of ambivalence, doubt, despair and hope?   Is there any evidence that Freud identified with Leonardo? Does Freud’s mistranslation of “nibbio” undermine the entire argument according to Meyer Schapiro? What is Schapiro’s central point and does it strengthen or undermine Freud’s position?  Do you agree with Peter Gay’s remark that Freud’s reconstruction of Leonardo’s early emotional development “stands—or falls—on its own account.

In this essay published in 1910, the Renaissance polymath’s life is analysed by Freud as a puzzle with many lost pieces. Though largely speculative and even flawed in its logic and core derivations thorough mistranslation, both DaVinci’s work and accounts, of what apparently is his childhood memory, are used to construct the backbone of his personality. Surprisingly, Freud, who considers art to have no real use or value, relies mostly on Leonardo’s art to analyse him. This also amplifies Freud’s own contradictions as an individual where he surrounds himself with ancient art in his room and travels the world to see archaeological wonders and collect these artifacts yet claim all of it to hold no value in his eyes. Freud commences this essay by stating that he wishes to bring a more human face which the other historians and biographers tend to overlook when it comes to writing about greats like Da Vinci. With whatever little information he has available, he tries to fill the gaps in our understanding of the artist. Freud takes Leonardo’s childhood, of having been reared by two mothers as a huge influential factor over his sexuality and creativity. The lack of a father in the initial years of infancy and the passivity of his father towards him even after having been around also acts as an explanation to his lifelong childlike curiosity with which he pursued the phenomena of the world and the rate at which he abandoned them. Despite of Leonardo coming across as a man ahead of his time who was not understood, often accused and alone, probably like his single mother, Freud did maintain that he would not have achieved what he did without this almost tragic upbringing.

Freud considers Da Vinci to be one of the most influential and important humans to have ever lived – his outlook in the essay is of reverence and understanding. This work could also be considered as an homage by a man who wishes to seek similarities between himself and someone he admires, this he does first by bringing him to the level of a human who can be analysed (which he explains at length incase it might feel blasphemous to some) and then questioning and speculating on the aspects of his life as if he were just another subject. I feel that Freud feels a time spanning bond with Leonardo, where he sees him as a man who would have exactly understood him even when having an entirely different approach and perception towards the world. Though the essay also aims to explain Leonardo’s dormant and almost maternal homosexuality, it also defends DaVinci. Bringing Freud himself, as a writer into the analysis, one can feel an almost maternal level of understanding with which he writes about Leonardo in this which just might have been the reason why this was one of his favorite pieces.

Freud saw himself, through his analysis of society and mankind, having reached a place or a zone and now was curious to know the way which led Leonardo to the same vantage point. The essay reveals much more about Freud, to me, than it does about DaVinci. Some interesting points are that Freud directed his mental pursuits to what was within, and most of his explanations were centered around the primal facet of mankind among which sexual force was the most dominant for both the individual and the group. Leonardo’s pursuits were directed to the outer world and very visibly avoided the topic of sexuality. Also, Leonardo was met with disappointment from his peers for having abandoned many projects and his scientific pursuits were not really recognized or shared with the world back then. This was there even toward the end of his life where he had found himself to be closer to alchemists of the day than the artists. On the other hand, Freud was almost a celebrity and an influential figure in the field of psychoanalysis which in itself was swinging between a  being a largely speculative pseudoscience and a proper scientific field. While Freud claimed to not feel any use in art and considered himself to be a man of pure reason, Leonardo gravitated toward the sciences through art – the paintings led him to study light and color which ultimately led him to study the physical sciences in a greater detail. The ways with which both the individuals explained the world around them also differed, where Leonardo would try to demonstrate and explain via experiments, Freud would rely on observation and explanation. I feel that Freud was very well aware of these differences while also knowing the similarities that bound them. I would also go as far as to say that one can feel Freud seeing a more feminine side of himself in Da Vinci – the same, if not less, level of rationale and awareness that completely leaves Freud fascinated to some extent. And like Freud, Da Vinci also had some contradictions about himself – while he was a person who did not eat meat and had an almost pagan interpretation of nature and its forces (highly feminine qualities for those times), he would also design weapons of war and show an indifference towards that nature as something beyond our control.

With these differences, he also connected to Leonardo on multiple levels placing both, first and foremost, as natural scientists. Also, Freud’s own sex life was largely inactive prior to his marriage and after the birth of his children. He also was involved with Wilhelm Fliess – a romance that might not have been physical in nature but definitely was strong. Freud, in this shows Leonardo almost like a hero whose flaws and difficulties made him what he was. A childhood full of questions that cross into the realm of adults is another commonality, in a way, with Freud’s own upbringing in a conservative Jewish household, his eventual abandonment of the faith and the anti-semitic climate he grew up in Europe during those days.

Freud did indeed misread the translation of the word “nibbio” from Oskar Pfister’s work. What was meant to be a kite in Italian, Freud mistook as a vulture and continued to defend the decision to confirm to his own bias. This breaks down most of Freud’s hypothesis regarding the bird  which Peter Gay has rightly skipped in his version. The bird which was supposed to be a vulture, thus, is not Leonardo’s mother nor is it the representation of Virgin Mary. Schapiro sees this memory of a kite touching the infant Leonardo’s mouth with its tail in a much more plausible way. DaVinci had a lifelong pursuit to bring flight to mankind. Most of his designs concerned flight in some way or the other, this also meant that he closely studied the physiology and the behavior of birds in flight. The bird and its tail, which acts as a rudder, could be considered to be a manifestation of those essential actions in flight over his breathing, his life. The tail touching an infant’s mouth could also be viewed as a literary pattern that Leonardo was aware of and repeating. This pattern has been observed in various cultures where a prophecy or a blessing is handed over to a mortal by a bird’s tail touching the infant’s mouth. The works of Valerius Maximus, which employed this pattern, were also prominent around the time of Leonardo and must have had some influence over what he saw as symbolic in either memory or in dreams. Maybe, beyond Freud’s explanation of dreams of flying being a yearning for improved sexual performance, Leonardo saw himself as the forebearer of the gift of flight to mankind and this lifelong pursuit gave him these memories – the ego of the artist in him saw it more than violation by a bird but a divine message.

Freud assumes that all was well between Leonardo and his mother, which also fits well into the story he is trying to build. Schapiro points at Freud having had dismissed the contents of one of Da Vinci’s notebooks called Envy, in which the kite is the opposite of a model good mother. This brings in a fair balance to what Freud tries to push as a largely peaceful and admiring yet highly impactful relationship of the artist with his mother. All in all, if some other details about the family were considered, one could very well state that Leonardo had not forgiven his mother for his illegitimacy and abandonment at a later age. The same would also be reciprocated by the mother as the shame and burden of having reared a child out of wedlock. Once either one of these becomes possible, it isn’t important who points the barrel of hatred towards the other first. Both of these arguments by Schapiro undermine Freud’s position in a manner that is superior in its research.

I agree with Peter Gay’s statement of this reconstruction being self supported on the assumptions it makes. He mentions in his introduction that this was Freud’s favorite essay but also the one which exposes Freud’s flaws in his chain of argumentation, also thus becoming the favorite of his critics. Surprisingly, Freud was also aware of its flaws and even though it was initially claimed to be as ‘psychoanalysis’ conquest of culture’ – a large part of it was argued back into the realms of pure speculation. In my opinion, the assumptions made by Freud would have held some ground thad there been no mention of Leonardo’s memory of childhood. The symbolic interpretation of sighting that bird, and that too a wrong one was a spiral Freud chose to go down for himself. Once that was done, the vulture became obvious to spot in the painting and the mythical relations behind it could quickly be found in Semitic myths – a common parallel of this in contemporary times would be the numerous conspiracy groups for almost everything that exists. The only positive aspect I see of the essay, like the conspiracy groups, is that it opens up an alternate path that might hold true under certain circumstances for someone else. Or, at least it makes an individual on a similar path relate to a person like Da Vinci at some level, and for that, one could say that Freud succeeds in humanizing him in a way for all of us. Just by initiating this dialogue, one could say, that the legacy of Leonardo stays alive through all the absurdity and the logical reasoning – probably that is what Freud was trying to do after all in Leonardo’s own ways of play.