Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality

by Mark Wallace


Freud, biographer of Leonardo

Sigmund Freud is a fascinating writer because of the enormous influence he has had on contemporary culture. Sometimes it seems as if our whole sense of what a human being is and does underwent a revolution with Freudian theory, and I’m not just talking about intellectual and academic discourse, I’m talking the tropes of popular culture that seem to have become increasingly Freudian. This is something that particularly fascinates me in the diachronic study I have been making of adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: it is clear that modern retellings like Sherlock and Elementary have to tackle questions about the detective’s sexuality, his unconscious, and the personal psychic development that leads to his unorthodox character, whereas Doyle was perfectly comfortable with the idea that Holmes had no sexuality, no unconscious and underwent no personal development. This is something I go into in more detail in an upcoming publication.

But it comes back to Freud: the stories we tell about ourselves are different now that Freud’s works have made their way into popular culture. One of Freud’s most compelling narratives is the essay on Leonardo, the original Renaissance Man. Freud himself considered this “the only beautiful thing I have ever written”. One thing that interests a semi-Victorian such as myself is the sense in which Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of a Childhood Reminiscence is a throwback to Victorian “Great Man” studies of the Carlyle type. Freud actually calls Leo a “great man” as well as a “universal genius” (in Strachey’s translation), and is throughout open about his admiration for his subject. More generally, he states that he’s interested in making biography into a branch of psychoanalysis.

A further point of interest in the essay for me is that Leonardo is a historical figure who does resemble Sherlock Holmes in one notable respect: he is, as far as behaviour goes, totally asexual. I say “behaviour” because for Freud he was a non-practicing homosexual. There’s no entry for asexual in The Freud Reader (ed. Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995), but Freud essentially did not accept the category of asexuality, speaking of the “historical probability of Leonardo having behaved in his life as one who was emotionally homosexual”. Even though he believes Leonard lived a wholly celibate life, he does not translate this into an identity, but assumes he must have been homosexual.

The first point Freud makes about Leo’s chastity and apparent dedication to the pursuit of knowledge (both artistic and scientic – he was a real Renaissance Man and just because we think of him as first and foremost and artist does not mean that he dedicated himself more to art than to science) is that it was a sublimation. This is one of Freud’s key ideas, especially from the point of view of a literary scholar. It occurs when the sexual libido that Freud sees as the fundamental drive of a human (ignoring the later development of the death drive for the moment) is sidelined into any activity, and it is fundamental to Freud’s understanding of writers, artists, scientists, etc.

The methodological importance of sublimation for Freud is that it immediately leads to a question: why? Sublimation is not a natural occurrence, but only takes place in culture, and always in response to a certain circumstance. In recreating such occurrences Freud is at his most audacious, creating psychic lanscapes with a verve and a sweep of vision that impresses, even if it doesn’t always convince. For a self-declared scientist, Freud tends to go far beyond what the evidence warrants. But that is a familiar complaint – it’s important, but the simple effectiveness of Freud’s theories in the marketplace of ideas demands we don’t limit our analysis of them to the scientific truth they contain.

So, regarding Leo, why did he sublimate his sexuality into the pursuit of knowledge? Almost nothing is known of his childhood, but one of his notebooks contains an account of a childhood dream, too complicated to get into here, which Freud reads with great ingenuity to posit that Leonardo’s father was absent during his early childhood. (Leo was illegitimate, but the evidence, such as it is, suggests he lived with his father – Freud acknowledges this evidence, but nevertheless feels that his reading of the dream trumps it.) Freud further posits that Leo’s mother was sexually frustrated and developed an overly intense and eroticized bond with her young son. Because Leo came to desire his mother, he also wanted to replace or gain ascendency over his father. The rebellion against the father Freud apparently sees as central to all intellectual achievement: “His later scientific research, with all its boldness and independence, presupposed the existence of infantile sexual researches unintibited by the father, and was a prolongation of them with the sexual element excluded.” So the absence of the father is necessary for the development of an independent intellect. It is often said that Freud’s thinking is infected with misogyny. That is a point that can be convincingly made, but one should also note that his attitude to the father seems to place men in a particularly invidious position, as a dark, brooding and stultifying presence contrasted with the erotically tinged nurturance of the mother.

So Freud’s theory of how Leonardo came to be a genius and a (theoretical) homosexual is one based entirely on nurture, not taking nature into the equation at all. In some ways it seems inadequate, given that even if Freud’s presuppositions about Leo are right, his circumstances are not that unusual. But Freud’s model of explaining how genius came to be, and particularly the childhood family circumstances, are now the norm. Thus in Sherlock, the relationship of rivalry and ambivalence with the older brother and quasi-father (Mycroft) has taken centre stage, and season 3 also saw the “Redbeard” motif introduced, wherein Sherlock’s childhood love for a pet dog that died is introduced as an implied reason for his asociality/aromanticism/asexuality. For Doyle, Sherlock’s family background was irrelevant, and is never mentioned, though Mycroft does enter into a couple of stories, mainly as a plot device. But why not go the whole hog, and use the Leonardo essay as a basis for a full Freudian explanation of Holmes’ character and his genius: absent father, over-affectionate mother, repression of sexual love for the mother, sublimation into work, remaining libido directed towards other men etc. Elements of this narrativization of the character are found in Elementary and Sherlock, as if they adapt not only Doyle, but also Freud.