A Little Archival Thrill: “Fingerspitzengefühl” at the Freud Museum


A little archival thrill! Back in Vienna, and after so many recent travels I’m glad to be spending a week with my nose to the grindstone at my desk in the Freud Museum. My scholarly thrill this week was to spend some time with the original typescript of Freud’s late work, “Moses und Monotheismus,” with corrections written in Freud’s own hand. There are few such documents pertaining to religion here at the museum, but this one was especially meaningful for me to see – and touch – since I’m researching the treatment of religious themes by Freud’s early circle of Vienna analysts. Whatever Derrida may say about “archive fever,” (and I did feel a little silly asking my archivist friend Simone to snap this picture!) fellow researchers will understand how this was a small thrill amidst the larger privilege of working here in Freud’s former home and consulting rooms! I was reminded of the wonderful word used in the antiquarian book world: “Fingerspitzengefühl” (literallyl, “fingertip feeling”), which Leona Rostenberg and Medeleine Stern described so wonderfully in their book about a lifelong friendship built around discovering rare books, “Old Books, Rare Friends” (1997). “Fingerspitzengefühl” has no English translation, but it refers to a kind of intuitive sense (based on experience), which Rostenberg and Stern describe as “the electrifying alertness to what is unusual or important in an early printed book.” (p. 4) That magic component word Gefühl itself – used by Schleiermacher to describe an innate feeling for religion in the human being – Gefühl means more than just sensory feeling, but it can also be a deep feeling, or a tingle of excitement: something profound and numinous is happening here!

And the gentleman who keeps the very old books in good shape – the bookbinder (in the Lesesaal of the Freud Museum), who no doubt exercises a Fingerspitzengefühl of his own as he carefully handles, repairs, and rebinds some of the library’s treasures:
1-20 bookbinder at Freud Museum in Lesesaal

Later the same evening I gave a talk on my research at Christ Church, the Anglican church I joined early in my stay here in Vienna, and we had a great discussion. Smart people, great questions. Followed by a delightful further conversation with a smaller group at a local Gasthaus, where I was introduced for the first time to “Theatertoast” – a small heart attack on a plate: a poached egg with Hollandaise over a thinly sliced beef filet, over slices of Schinken (ham), on a piece of grilled toast. As my friends pointed out, the spinach between the egg and the steak made it healthy – ha! I came home smelling of (secondhand) cigarette smoke, though none of us at our table were smoking, which is unavoidable in such locales. The good conversation and camaraderie was worth it!


About pcooperwhite

Christiane Brooks Johnson Professor of Psychology and Religion, Union Theological Seminary, New York NY
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