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Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Leonardo da Vinci. 1916.


IT would be futile to delude ourselves that at present, readers find every pathography unsavory. This attitude is excused with the reproach that from a pathographic elaboration of a great man one never obtains an understanding of his importance and his attainments, that it is therefore useless mischief to study in him things which could just as well be found in the first comer. However, this criticism is so clearly unjust that it can only be grasped when viewed as a pretext and a disguise for something. As a matter of fact pathography does not aim at making comprehensible the attainments of the great man; no one should really be blamed for not doing something which one never promised. The real motives for the opposition are quite different. One finds them when one bears in mind that biographers are fixed on their heroes in quite a peculiar manner. Frequently they take the hero as the object of study because, for reasons of their personal emotional life, they bear him a special affection from the very outset. They then devote themselves to a work of idealization which strives to enroll the great men among their infantile models, and to revive through him, as it were, the infantile conception of the father. For the sake of this wish they wipe out the individual features in his physiognomy, they rub out the traces of his life’s struggle with inner and outer resistances, and do not tolerate in him anything of human weakness or imperfection; they then give us a cold, strange, ideal form instead of the man to whom we could feel distantly related. It is to be regretted that they do this, for they thereby sacrifice the truth to an illusion, and for the sake of their infantile phantasies they let slip the opportunity to penetrate into the most attractive secrets of human nature.

Leonardo himself, judging from his love for the truth and his inquisitiveness, would have interposed no objections to the effort of discovering the determinations of his psychic and intellectual development from the trivial peculiarities and riddles of his nature. We respect him by learning from him. It does no injury to his greatness to study the sacrifices which his development from the child must have entailed, and to compile the factors which have stamped on his person the tragic feature of failure.

Let us expressly emphasize that we have never considered Leonardo as a neurotic or as a “nervous person” in the sense of this awkward term. Whoever takes it amiss that we should even dare apply to him viewpoints gained from pathology, still clings to prejudices which we have at present justly given up. We no longer believe that health and disease, normal and nervous, are sharply distinguished from each other, and that neurotic traits must be judged as proof of general inferiority. We know to-day that neurotic symptoms are substitutive formations for certain repressive acts which have to be brought about in the course of our development from the child to the cultural man, that we all produce such substitutive formations, and that only the amount, intensity, and distribution of these substitutive formations justify the practical conception of illness and the conclusion of constitutional inferiority. Following the slight signs in Leonardo’s personality we would place him near that neurotic type which we designate as the “compulsive type,” and we would compare his investigation with the “reasoning mania” of neurotics, and his inhibitions with the so-called “abulias” of the latter.

The object of our work was to explain the inhibitions in Leonardo’s sexual life and in his artistic activity. For this purpose we shall now sum up what we could discover concerning the course of his psychic development.

We were unable to gain any knowledge about his hereditary factors, on the other hand we recognize that the accidental circumstances of his childhood produced a far reaching disturbing effect. His illegitimate birth deprived him of the influence of a father until perhaps his fifth year, and left him to the tender seduction of a mother whose only consolation he was. Having been kissed by her into sexual prematurity, he surely must have entered into a phase of infantile sexual activity of which only one single manifestation was definitely evinced, namely, the intensity of his infantile sexual investigation. The impulse for looking and inquisitiveness were most strongly stimulated by his impressions from early childhood; the enormous mouth-zone received its accentuation which it had never given up. From his later contrasting behavior, as the exaggerated sympathy for animals, we can conclude that this infantile period did not lack in strong sadistic traits.

An energetic shift of repression put an end to this infantile excess, and established the dispositions which became manifest in the years of puberty. The most striking result of this transformation was a turning away from all gross sensual activities. Leonardo was able to lead a life of abstinence and made the impression of an asexual person. When the floods of pubescent excitement came over the boy they did not make him ill by forcing him to costly and harmful substitutive formations; owing to the early preference for sexual inquisitiveness, the greater part of the sexual needs could be sublimated into a general thirst after knowledge and so elude repression. A much smaller portion of the libido was applied to sexual aims, and represented the stunted sexual life of the grown-up. In consequence of the repression of the love for the mother this portion assumed a homosexual attitude and manifested itself as ideal love for boys. The fixation on the mother, as well as the happy reminiscences of his relations with her, was preserved in his unconscious but remained for the time in an inactive state. In this manner the repression, fixation, and sublimation participated in the disposal of the contributions which the sexual impulse furnished to Leonardo’s psychic life.

From the obscure age of boyhood Leonardo appears to us as an artist, a painter, and sculptor, thanks to a specific talent which was probably enforced by the early awakening of the impulse for looking in the first years of childhood. We would gladly report in what way the artistic activity depends on the psychic primitive forces were it not that our material is inadequate just here. We content ourselves by emphasizing the fact, concerning which hardly any doubt still exists, that the productions of the artist give outlet also to his sexual desire, and in the case of Leonardo we can refer to the information imparted by Vasari, namely, that heads of laughing women and pretty boys, or representations of his sexual objects, attracted attention among his first artistic attempts. It seems that during his flourishing youth Leonardo at first worked in an uninhibited manner. As he took his father as a model for his outer conduct in life, he passed through a period of manly creative power and artistic productivity in Milan, where favored by fate he found a substitute for his father in the duke Lodovico Moro. But the experience of others was soon confirmed in him, to wit, that the almost complete suppression of the real sexual life does not furnish the most favorable conditions for the activity of the sublimated sexual strivings. The figurativeness of his sexual life asserted itself, his activity and ability to quick decisions began to weaken, the tendency to reflection and delay was already noticeable as a disturbance in The Holy Supper, and with the influence of the technique determined the fate of this magnificent work. Slowly a process developed in him which can be put parallel only to the regressions of neurotics. His development at puberty into the artist was outstripped by the early infantile determinant of the investigator, the second sublimation of his erotic impulses turned back to the primitive one which was prepared at the first repression. He became an investigator, first in service of his art, later independently and away from his art. With the loss of his patron, the substitute for his father, and with the increasing difficulties in his life, the regressive displacement extended in dimension. He became “impacientissimo al pennello” (most impatient with the brush) as reported by a correspondent of the countess Isabella d’Este who desired to possess at any cost a painting from his hand. His infantile past had obtained control over him. The investigation, however, which now took the place of his artistic production, seems to have born certain traits which betrayed the activity of unconscious impulses; this was seen in his insatiability, his regardless obstinacy, and in his lack of ability to adjust himself to actual conditions.

At the summit of his life, in the age of the first fifties, at a time when the sex characteristics of the woman have already undergone a regressive change, and when the libido in the man not infrequently ventures into an energetic advance, a new transformation came over him. Still deeper strata of his psychic content became active again, but this further regression was of benefit to his art which was in a state of deterioration. He met the woman who awakened in him the memory of the happy and sensuously enraptured smile of his mother, and under the influence of this awakening he acquired back the stimulus which guided him in the beginning of his artistic efforts when he formed the smiling woman. He painted Monna Lisa, Saint Anne, and a number of mystic pictures which were characterized by the enigmatic smile. With the help of his oldest erotic feelings he triumphed in conquering once more the inhibition in his art. This last development faded away in the obscurity of the approaching old age. But before this his intellect rose to the highest capacity of a view of life, which was far in advance of his time.

In the preceding chapters I have shown what justification one may have for such representation of Leonardo’s course of development, for this manner of arranging his life and explaining his wavering between art and science. If after accomplishing these things I should provoke the criticism from even friends and adepts of psychoanalysis, that I have only written a psychoanalytic romance, I should answer that I certainly did not overestimate the reliability of these results. Like others I succumbed to the attraction emanating from this great and mysterious man, in whose being one seems to feel powerful propelling passions, which after all can only evince themselves so remarkably subdued.

But whatever may be the truth about Leonardo’s life we cannot relinquish our effort to investigate it psychoanalytically before we have finished another task. In general we must mark out the limits which are set up for the working capacity of psychoanalysis in biography so that every omitted explanation should not be held up to us as a failure. Psychoanalytic investigation has at its disposal the data of the history of the person’s life, which on the one hand consists of accidental events and environmental influences, and on the other hand of the reported reactions of the individual. Based on the knowledge of psychic mechanisms it now seeks to investigate dynamically the character of the individual from his reactions, and to lay bare his earliest psychic motive forces as well as their later transformations and developments. If this succeeds then the reaction of the personality is explained through the coöperation of constitutional and accidental factors or through inner and outer forces. If such an undertaking, as perhaps in the case of Leonardo, does not yield definite results then the blame for it is not to be laid to the faulty or inadequate psychoanalytic method, but to the vague and fragmentary material left by tradition about this person. It is, therefore, only the author who forced psychoanalysis to furnish an expert opinion on such insufficient material, who is to be held responsible for the failure.

However, even if one had at his disposal a very rich historical material and could manage the psychic mechanism with the greatest certainty, a psychoanalytic investigation could not possibly furnish the definite view, if it concerns two important questions, that the individual could turn out only so and not differently. Concerning Leonardo we had to represent the view that the accident of his illegitimate birth and the pampering of his mother exerted the most decisive influence on his character formation and his later fate, through the fact that the sexual repression following this infantile phase caused him to sublimate his libido into a thirst after knowledge, and thus determined his sexual inactivity for his entire later life. The repression, however, which followed the first erotic gratification of childhood did not have to take place; in another individual it would perhaps not have taken place or it would have turned out not nearly as profuse. We must recognize here a degree of freedom which can no longer be solved psychoanalytically. One is as little justified in representing the issue of this shift of repression as the only possible issue. It is quite probable that another person would not have succeeded in withdrawing the main part of his libido from the repression through sublimation into a desire for knowledge; under the same influences as Leonardo another person might have sustained a permanent injury to his intellectual work or an uncontrollable disposition to compulsion neurosis. The two characteristics of Leonardo which remained unexplained through psychoanalytic effort are first, his particular tendency to repress his impulses, and second, his extraordinary ability to sublimate the primitive impulses.

The impulses and their transformations are the last things that psychoanalysis can discern. Henceforth it leaves the place to biological investigation. The tendency to repression, as well as the ability to sublimate, must be traced back to the organic bases of the character, upon which alone the psychic structure springs up. As artistic talent and productive ability are intimately connected with sublimation we have to admit that also the nature of artistic attainment is psychoanalytically inaccessible to us. Biological investigation of our time endeavors to explain the chief traits of the organic constitution of a person through the fusion of male and female predispositions in the material sense; Leonardo’s physical beauty as well as his left-handedness furnish here some support. However, we do not wish to leave the ground of pure psychologic investigation. Our aim remains to demonstrate the connection between outer experiences and reactions of the person over the path of the activity of the impulses. Even if psychoanalysis does not explain to us the fact of Leonardo’s artistic accomplishment, it still gives us an understanding of the expressions and limitations of the same. It does seem as if only a man with Leonardo’s childhood experiences could have painted Monna Lisa and Saint Anne, and could have supplied his works with that sad fate and so obtain unheard of fame as a natural historian; it seems as if the key to all his attainments and failures was hidden in the childhood phantasy of the vulture.

But may one not take offense at the results of an investigation which concede to the accidents of the parental constellation so decisive an influence on the fate of a person, which, for example, subordinates Leonardo’s fate to his illegitimate birth and to the sterility of his first step-mother Donna Albiera? I believe that one has no right to feel so; if one considers accident as unworthy of determining our fate, it is only a relapse to the pious aspect of life, the overcoming of which Leonardo himself prepared when he put down in writing that the sun does not move. We are naturally grieved over the fact that a just God and a kindly providence do not guard us better against such influences in our most defenseless age. We thereby gladly forget that as a matter of fact everything in our life is accident from our very origin through the meeting of spermatozoa and ovum, accident, which nevertheless participates in the lawfulness and fatalities of nature, and lacks only the connection to our wishes and illusions. The division of life’s determinants into the “fatalities” of our constitution and the “accidents” of our childhood may still be indefinite in individual cases, but taken altogether one can no longer entertain any doubt about the importance of precisely our first years of childhood. We all still show too little respect for nature, which in Leonardo’s deep words recalling Hamlet’s speech “is full of infinite reasons which never appeared in experience.” Every one of us human beings corresponds to one of the infinite experiments in which these “reasons of nature” force themselves into experience.