When is a Couch Not a Couch? When it’s Freud’s Couch.

Sigmund Freud's couch unburdens itself to the public at Freud's   home and museum in Hampstead.
Freud’s couch — laden with subtext and patient confessions — at Freud’s home and museum in Hampstead.

We all know by now that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But when is a couch not just a couch? When the couch’s past owner was Dr. Sigmund Freud, it becomes nearly as celebrated as he is. There are several surprises when viewing the couch. Not the least of which is the lavish drapings and pillows which adorn it.

The couch, along with other personal effects, is on display at the red brick house in Hampstead, London where Freud moved with his family in 1938 after fleeing the Nazis. It was, as he predicted, “his last address on the planet.” The next year he died. But the house has been preserved as a museum, the heart of which is Freud’s own study and consulting room, with its infamous couch and collection of antiquities sent from Vienna.

So, what is the significance of the psychoanalyst’s couch? As the father of psychoanalysis, Freud was the first to use a couch in his practice. Theories abound. One theory says it was Freud himself who couldn’t deal with looking directly at patients, so by having them lie back on a couch and positioning himself behind and slightly to the side of them, he could avoid eye contact. A more likely reason may have been that he believed when no eye contact was made, patients felt freer to express themselves and were released from any inhibitions caused by their doctor’s facial expressions. Others think the couch places the patient in a “one down” position from their patients and thus increases the power of the analyst in the therapeutic situation.

But another solution to this mystery may have been found, and is on display in Freud’s old apartment in Vienna as part of the celebration for the 150th anniversary of his birth. In Freud’s day, reclining in mixed company was seen as extremely risqué. So much so, that “a gentleman never takes a seat on the sofa,” declared Herr Schramm in his book of etiquette, Good Form & Proper Deportment (Berlin, 1919). Only a straight back chair was considered proper.

As a practitioner of hypnosis, Freud found that lying down promotes a loss of control that encourages more intuitive conversation. Is it any wonder that the word couch (from the French coucher) doesn’t only mean to lie down – it also means to put an idea into words?

So not only was his invitation to his patients remarkably daring, the manner in which he chose to furnish the couch bespeaks of intimacy as well. Most magnificent of these furnishing is the five-sided red and blue rug woven by one of the tribes of the Confederacy of Western Iran that lies draped over Freud’s couch and that invites the same easy familiarity a Bedouin might find settling into his tent.

Not surprisingly, a psychoanalyst’s couch has been likened to a crib or a womb. The thinking goes that as people regress into their childhoods, they will be more able to understand the source of their unhappiness, thus ultimately gaining insight and awareness.

Back in Vienna, at the Freud Museum there are gathered an array of couches, and Andy Warhol’s erotic movie, Couch, is screened every Sunday. But as more than one person has ruefully pointed out – Freud’s true couch, given him by a Viennese patient and so laden with subtext and patient confessions, has found a permanent home in prim and proper England. No doubt, Freud would appreciate the irony.

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