Freud’s Mexico: Into the Wilds of Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Gallo, Rubin 
Publisher:  MIT Press, 399 pp., 2010
Reviewed By:  Mark Stafford

Don Quixote in the New World

This inspired and inspiring book traces the range of cultural effects Freud’s writing has had on Mexico, a dynamic society, rapidly modernizing and attempting to shed the psychic effects of four centuries of colonial rule and a century of political and military intervention by the United States.

Freud’s Mexican readers included the poets Salvador Novo and Octavio Paz, the philosopher Samuel Ramos, the jurist Raúl Carrancá y Trujillo, and the Benedictine monk Gregorio Lemercier. Beautifully produced and illustrated with photographs of Novo’s annotations to his copy of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Spanishlanguage books in Freud’s library, Gallo has also included reproductions of works by Frida Kahlo, who portrayed Freud in her painting “Moses,” and Remedios Varo, whose analytic experience influenced portraits such as “Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst.”

Rubén Gallo is Director of the Program in Latin American Studies and Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. A previous work, Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution (2005) was an equally well documented account of the way in which new forms of mass communication (particularly radio) and transportation (the automobile) were adopted by artists and poets as symbols of a cultural change emerging from the Mexican Revolution and an attempt to form an identity liberated from their colonial past.

Gallo’s two books are linked both through their interest in how Mexican artists and writers addressed the question of cultural inheritance and transmission and also through the significance given to the Futurist poet Salvador Novo, whose reading of Freud Gallo characterizes as a self-analysis. The more recent work also attempts, as it’s equivocal title suggests, to investigate the place of Mexico in Freud’s life and thinking.

Gallo’s introduction to Freud occurred via the seminar of Julia Joyaux, to whom the book is dedicated, and he also acknowledges the influence of Alexander Etkind’s comparable study of Freud in Russia, Eros of the Impossible, and Carl Schorske’s magisterial Fin-De-Siècle Vienna. Mariano Ben Plotkin’s Freud on the Pampas and Elizabeth Roudinesco’s two-volume history of psychoanalysis, Le Bataille de Cent Ans and Jacques Lacan and Co: A History of Psychoanalysis in France 1925–1985, are also precedents for the kind of scholarship, which attempts to depict the interrelation between psychoanalysis and broader culture influences and crises.

Stylistically, the book is a great pleasure; Gallo is that rare scholar who conveys his erudition and discoveries with passion. The direct inspiration for the book was his discovery on the occasion of the exhibition of Freud’s archaeological collection in Mexico City (2000) that, as a result of Mexican laws against the importation and exportation of pre-Columbian artifacts of unknown provenance, Freud’s Toltec and Mixtec pieces could not be displayed. Freud’s Mexican desire was, in a sense, a lost object.

The idea that Mexican culture significantly influenced Freud is both original and speculative, as Gallo is at pains to point out. But the precedent for such a construction derives from Freud, in particular the “historical romance” with which he framed his investigation into the fate of Moses. Anticipating challenges to this inventiveness, Gallo emphasizes that his reading is firmly rooted in both historical evidence and archival scholarship— for example, Freud’s passionate relation to the Spanish language, the allusions to the fate of the Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in a number of Freud’s dreams, the presence of a study of Mexican law in Freud’s library, and inevitably the significance of Mesoamerican artifacts in Freud’s archaeological collection.

The nodal point of Freud’s various encounters with Mexico is Freud’s early study of the Spanish language, which he pursued out of an unfettered love for Spanish literature, and about which he appears to have been guilty because it took him away from his strictly academic studies. Of particular interest to Gallo is the connection between Freud’s desire to teach himself Spanish (in order to read Cervantes, and in particular Don Quixote) and his passionate friendship with Edward Silberstein, with whom he formed the sophomoric but brilliant Academia Cervantes.

Since the central focus of the first half of Gallo’s investigation is the importance of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, to a gay man the possibility that there was a homoerotic experience in Freud’s adolescence (subsequently suppressed by a long and erroneous tradition of reading Freud as homophobic) makes for a fictive sexual drama akin to the controversy Freud provoked by suggesting that the Jews had murdered an earlier leader or “Moses.”

Gallo is right in that the correspondence does reveal a passionate devotion that does include a devotion to another person, but the real passion of both men (which included a period of jealousy and resentment when Silberstein began to pay attention to Freud’s first love Gisela Fluss) was to literature. Gallo is clearly infatuated by the implication of the story of the two men’s relationship, even suggesting that the repression of his homosexual desire (and his fear of women) contributed to Freud’s failure to discover the reproductive organs of the eel (his first major piece of scientific research). But the fact that Freud developed a pattern of intense intimacy with men, who subsequently disappointed him and who he then rapidly dropped, is well-known (Fleiss, Jung, and Ferenczi are all examples) and does not add, in my opinion, anything to our understanding of how Freud became Freud.

What does is the interesting way in which the two men chose their nom de plume, Silberstein choosing Berganza and Freud Scipio, both from Cervantes’s story “The Colloquy of the Dogs,” published in his Exemplary Tales. In Jean-Pierre Winter’s study Les errants de la chair, he suggests that Freud’s adoption of the character of Scipio, a dog surprised to find that he can speak, enabled him to explore a way of questioning and listening to the division between what is enunciated and what is stated (the dog in the story is constantly commenting on this characteristic of human speech), and this subsequently formed the basis for Freud’s ability to renounce the position of the medical master and invent the position of analytic listening.

Gallo’s thesis and construction are more productive when he analyzes the place in Freud’s study occupied by two Mesoamerican artifacts. Providing a very detailed account of the visits Freud made to the Vienna Museum of Anthropology, where he was on friendly terms with the curators of both the Aztec and Egyptian antiquities, Gallo suggests that Freud constructed for himself a museum (in his office!) that subverted the racial and cultural hierarchy employed by the museums of his own time, a thesis that deserves a book in its own right. This redress of the idea that Freud was fundamentally European and Jewish in his cultural interests helps also to show the importance of Freud’s archaeological collection, both in his avoidance of any notion of cultural hierarchy and in his sense that all his objects were crucial starting points for his search for the earliest expressions of the psychic history of humanity.

If Gallo is openly surprised at the Freud he discovers by following associations that derive from Freud’s relation to the Spanish language, he is equally surprised to discover the ways in which Freud’s works were transformed by his Mexican readers. Far from being “wild” analysis, they contributed to the lifting of repression, and the remembrance of what had been repressed, which in turn made possible the work of geistlickheit (cultural advancement) that Freud attempted to portray in The Man Moses and the Monotheistic Religion. The advancement of geistlickheit was for Freud at the core of that aspect of cultural transmission that passed unconsciously between generations. For Freud, the Jewish advance in religious thinking, monotheism, and the prohibition on idolatry was made possible because of the traumatic repression of the murder of the man Moses. The greatness of Freud’s “historical romance” about Moses is that it reveals the link between trauma and transmission. Without intending to comment on the clinical practice of psychoanalysis, Gallo’s research produces through a subverting of the perjorative term “wildness” evidence in the history of psychoanalysis itself of a failure in transmission and a willful need to reject the element of surprise in both theory and practice.

Gallo’s style is one that allows him to portray his own surprise at the discoveries he is making, and in doing so he subverts the desiccated quality of contemporary scholarship and theory. His romance with his own fictional narrative sustains an encounter with the “uncanny,” and this enables him to reveal previously unsuspected links between history, psychoanalysis, and culture.

Amongst the first Mexican readers of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality was a poet, dandy, and sexual adventurer by the name of Salvador Novo, whose seduction in adolescence by a gasoline-scented family chauffeur framed a sexual fantasy that would subsequently be re-created in numerous encounters with the taxi drivers of Mexico City.

Novo read and annotated Freud’s works as they appeared in the great Spanishlanguage translations by Luis López Ballesteros that began to appear in 1923 and were completed in 1940 (after an interruption due to the Spanish Civil War) just after Freud’s death. It was a collected edition that Freud greatly admired, and it is in his letters to López Ballesteros that he confesses to having taught himself Spanish in order to read Don Quixote. But Novo had little time to analyze the larger questions of Mexican masculinity (and perhaps gynophobia), as he was more interested in his own sexuality and that of his contemporaries.

Gallo’s earlier work on the relation between technology, modernity, and Freud— the automobile, organized workers, the modern metropolis—all brew nicely together in this hugely entertaining portrait of Novo, who found, via Freud, a new acceptance of the centrality of his passion for making love either in limos or with limo drivers. Novo’s relation to Freud’s text is a wonderful instance of a transference with the text. Novo read in order to discover his own symptoms and those of Freud. Novo was even able to link Freud’s curiosity about his railway phobia (fear of physical/sexual excitation) to his own excitement about being chauffeured around Mexico City.

Far from finding any kind of homophobia in Freud’s account of sexuality, Novo drew from it a sense of the liberation and legitimacy of his own desire. Freud’s text provided the means for an extended self-analysis, one that led him directly to the acknowledgement of perversion and fetishism, both in himself and his compatriots.

For clinical reasons Freud was quite firm in his own Wild Analysis that his theory did not imply that free sexual expression was the cure for individual neuroses. A useful parallel might be made between Novo’s quest for an acceptance of his own sexual fantasies and that depicted in Frederick Rolfe’s novel of homoerotic longing, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. Novo’s reading, brilliant and entertaining, is exactly that—a desire for the whole, and poignantly (but not unsurprisingly) there is little indication of any serious study of Freud’s later works. Predictably, Novo didn’t engage in any aspects of Freud’s thinking that were not directly phallic, and his convictions might have been chastened if he had gone “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” Nevertheless his adventures make for highly amusing reading, and his annotated Freud is now housed in the Novo Museum in Mexico City.

Another reader of Freud was the poet Octavio Paz, who was continually drawn to (and criticized for) the position of the exile. Via this exile he was able to enter what he called in his great work of 1945 The Labyrinth of Solitude. If for Freud the Jewish religion was founded upon the murder of its founder, the foundational act of Mexican culture in Paz’s eyes was the rape and subjugation of indigenous women, from whom each mestizo Mexican was descended.

Paz, like his Mexican predecessor Samuel Ramos, and his contemporary Gilberto de Mello Freyre in Brazil and Ezequiel Martínez Estrada in Argentina, turned to Freud’s text on “acquired” cultural traits, a concept that had been rejected out of hand by European and North American science, in order to give an account of what he experienced as a violent rejection of transmission. This was the refusal to acknowledge the rape of indigenous people and the illegitimacy of progeny, and the subsequent inability to produce a culture that was able to identify what it was that it wished to transmit. Brilliantly, Paz’s use of Freud’s thesis turned on the interpretation of a piece of everyday linguistic usage. To describe someone as a “son of La Malinche” is to give the strongest of curses, and yet, as Paz pointed out, it is also to evoke what each Mexican man believes to be his own origin.

Paz received considerable criticism within Mexico (and Latin America) for what appeared to be his avoidance and isolation from political struggles in contrast, for example, to Pablo Neruda. The Spanish speaking world had been galvanized and divided by the Spanish Civil War, characterized by atrocities that included the execution of García Lorca, probably the most famous Spanish-language poet of the time period, by the loyalists.

In 1940 Mexico City was itself the site of an event of international and historical importance. Leon Trotsky, an avid reader of Freud, was assassinated by a man who had traveled under the alias of Frank Jacson and refused, after his arrest, to give any name other than Jacques Mornard. The case was handed to an ambitious judge, Raál Carrancá y Trujillo, who, in 1938, had sent Freud a copy of his Derecho penal Mexicano, in which he argued “crimes stem from an inability to adapt to society, that they are the result of the various complexes (Oedipus, Electra, etc.) and that the judge—aided by psychoanalysis—can elucidate how unconscious phenomena led an individual to commit a crime.”

The Trotsky case turned out to be a good opportunity to put into practice this psycholegal theory. Since Mornard (whose real name was Mercader) refused to speak, Carrancá y Trujillo decided to put to the test Freud’s theory that nothing is harder to keep than a secret. Unable to conduct the analysis himself, he asked a forensic psychiatrist, Jose Robleda, to apply a battery of psychological tests to uncover the unconscious motives behind the assignation.

After meeting with the prisoner for 942 hours, Robleda and another investigator, Quiroz, published “Organic Functional and Social Study of the Assassin of Leon Trotsky,” in which they wrote that that Mornard/Mercader had suffered an “affective trauma” in early childhood and that this led him to develop a “very active Oedipal Complex” and that he felt a violent hatred for his father and paternal figures in general— a murderous impulse he eventually directed against Leon Trotsky.

The assassin was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and upon his release he was quickly whisked to the Soviet Union, where he received a state pension before dying of cancer. The mystery of his identity remained, however, until another Mexican criminologist took the opportunity of a visit to the World Congress on Criminology (Paris, 1950) to make inquiries amongst the police departments of various European cities, aided by a full set of Mercader’s fingerprints. What he discovered was a perfect match to one Ramón Mercader del Rio Hernandez. Mornard/Mercader adamantly denied this published account and continued to claim that he was Jacques Mornard, but Quiroz pointed out that “Mornard” contains all the letters found in Ramón, an instance of how “he who devises a false name betrays himself.”

Quiroz considered the case solved, but in fact, the purloined letters revealed an even more complex relationship—that between Mornard/Mercader and his mother. Caridad Mercader had been a powerful political activist in the Spanish Republic and then an agent for the Soviet Union. During the Spanish Civil War she traveled to Mexico, where Diego Rivera painted her portrait and may also have become her lover.

Caridad certainly was the mistress of Leonid Eitingon, one of the most powerful Soviet agents and eventually the head of Stalin’s GPU (later the KGB), who planned all the most important assassinations of Stalin’s enemies that occurred outside of the Soviet Union. In 1940, Eitingon had convinced his mistress Caridad to recruit her son for the assassination of Trotsky, but when her son was arrested she returned to Moscow (where she was awarded the Order of Lenin for the sacrifice of her son.) Carrancá and Quiroz had grasped a family romance that held the key to the significance of Totem and Taboo for the understandingof criminology.

Remarkably, this sacrifice of a son was also linked to a piece of mythology that suggests the paranoia that had entered the Freudian movement and compromised its own transmission and institutionalization. In 1939 the well-known psychoanalyst Sandor Rado had suggested that Leonid Eitingon was in fact the brother of Max Eitingon, who had been the first head of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Association and ultimately the President of the IPA. The IPA was riven by Sandor Rado’s claim that Max was well-informed of his sibling’s involvement with Stalin and the GPU and that Max’s wealth (which was important to the IPA) may have even partially derived from the wealth Leonid had amassed as one of Stalin’s key henchmen. Although historians now debate how closely Max, and by extension the IPA, were linked to Leonid Eitingon (they are now believed to have been cousins, not brothers),the GPU agent had been a frequent visitor of Max Eitingon’s Berlin home.

The IPA was less successful in establishing an association in Mexico than the GPU was in recruiting accomplices for the abduction and murder of Stalin’s critics. But international politics and Cold War fears (and no doubt the politics of the IPA) did play a part in Erich Fromm’s decision to leave the United States in 1952 and begin teaching at the University of Mexico in Mexico City. While Fromm immediately gained a considerable following as a teacher, he preferred to conduct psychoanalytically oriented studies of Mexican peasants than begin a psychoanalytic association. But two of his students did gain worldwide attention when a Frenchborn Benedictine monk by the name of Gregorio Lemercier hired them to conduct group and individual analysis of the monks in Lemercier’s monastery.

Lemercier did not consider Freud’s analysis of religion to be an obstacle in the use of psychoanalysis itself to reveal the unconscious motives for novitiates entering the monastery. He was one of a number of Catholic thinkers who questioned why Vatican II was so silent on the question of psychoanalysis, given that it was a clearly established field of psychological inquiry which could be employed for the greater understanding of the kind of difficulties that priests and laypeople confronted in the modern world.

Lemercier felt that confronting the novitiate’s unconscious desire to escape the world and its individual responsibilities would contribute to a reduction in the hypocrisy and rivalry that was undermining the monastic order to which he was devoted. Were the Catholic Church, the Communist International and the International Psychoanalytic Association suffering some similar symptoms linked to the repression of traumatic events whose secrecy compromised the various purposes—transmissions—of all three institutions?

What indeed would Freud have made of these various “wild” cases? Perhaps it would have confirmed his own discovery of the place of human sacrifice at the heart of any form of cultural order and his own fears that the IPA, by providing lay analysis, would sacrifice his own creation. This fear of human sacrifice had emerged in Freud’s own dream analysis and via associations that led him to the impact on his own unconscious of the execution of the Emperor Maximillian I (brother of Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria) by the Mexican nationalist government of Benito Juárez—a pitiful death that appeared to Freud to suggest the utter incapacity of the House of Hapsburg and to presage nothing more than a catastrophe about to happen, a catastrophe no political initiative could avert. The death of the Old World—but was the New World to offer any alternatives? Perhaps he would have simply returned to his study to contemplate his collection of antiquities, many of them of unknown provenance, but nevertheless suggestive of the desire of humanity to attempt to transmit something of their forgotten collective and subjective traumas.


Ekind, A. (1997). Eros of the impossible. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Freud, S. (1939) Moses and Monotheism, SE 23:134. — (1910) Concerning ‘Wild’ Psychoanalysis, SE 11:219. Boehlich, W. (Ed.), Pomerans, A. (Trans.) (1990). The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Eduard Silberstein 1871- 1881. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Roudinesco, E. (1999). Jacques Lacan and co: A history of psychoanalysis in France, 1925–1985. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Schorske, C. (1986). Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and culture. New York, NY: Vintage.

Winter, J.-P. (2000). Les errants de la chair: études sur l’hystérie masculine. Paris, France: Payot.


© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to Henry Seiden, Publications Committee chair.