On 4 September 2020, a balmy late summer evening in the Museumsquartier in Vienna, more than twenty people from the Initiative Wien met to read three of the Introductory Lectures that Sigmund Freud gave in the winter semesters (1914/15, 1915/16 and 1916/1917) in the lecture hall of the Psychiatric Clinic of the Vienna General Hospital.[1] It was a Friday evening, and, after a long lockdown, many people came out into the open to breathe the soft night air of a seemingly regained freedom. The Museumsquartier is an ideal place for this; it is a huge area for the performing and applied arts, for dance, performances, music, theatre. Numerous large museums in the city are located here, as well as bars and nightclubs. The area was once the imperial court stables, and this evening it pulsed with youth and life. It was a sigh of relief after a long break, a quiet time. The area had reopened a few weeks earlier under strict conditions for events, which included our night with Freud.

Freud’s words were sent into the ether and resonated with the passersby who had come by chance and were then struck by a language that was foreign to them: “Who is that, what is speaking there?”

“Ladies and Gentlemen! I do not know how many of you know about psychoanalysis from your reading or from hearsay. But I am obliged by the wording of my announcement – Elementary Introduction to Psychoanalysis – to treat you as if you knew nothing and needed initial instruction.”[2]

Many young people sat down on the floor and opened their ears. There was no comment from us, no subsequent discussion, no après Freud. We let this first teaching of an “elementary introduction to psychoanalysis” speak for itself through our voices.

“As if you knew nothing” – this is a very central phrase, especially in times where knowledge seems to be omnipresent.

Passersby who let themselves be carried away by the stream of words, who sat down, turned around, smiled, were startled, walked on, or lingered. They sat cross-legged, stood, leaned against a wall – some closed their eyes, others looked at the podium expectantly. Many stayed until the end of the event.

Something happened when the text was read aloud. The particular rhythm, tempo, tone of voice of each participant brought Freud’s words to life in the singular way of each reader. Reading a text aloud carries more than the content that is read, it adds the act of saying to the content. I experienced something of that at this event.

It is no small thing to give voice to Freud’s words, especially in public, in the German language, the original language of psychoanalysis, in Vienna, the place where he discovered psychoanalysis, the city he had to flee to escape National Socialism.

It is also not insignificant that this event took place the way it did in times of Covid-19, when the presence of the body has become a rarity.  It was an evening of reduction: no frills, no attempt to sell Freud (a common phenomenon these days), just the words and the way they struck the body of the listener. One participant told me afterwards that she had the feeling that Freud’s words had been “given weight.” Another visitor spoke of having heard something “new.” Something new at the beginning of the study year, a year that will be precisely about the bodily effects of language, which is the theme of next year’s NLS congress.

[1] Josef und Renée Gicklhorn, 1960: Sigmund Freuds akademische Laufbahn im Lichte der Dokumente. Wien: Urban & Schwarzenberg.

[2] Sigmund Freud, “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” (1914-17), Standard Edition, Vols. 15 & 16.