Freud's carpet mousemat
Materials: latex material, printed design
Dimensions: 25 centimeters on longest edge
Place acquired: Freud Museum shop, London
Place of manufacture: not known
A few years ago, whilst staging photographs at the Freud Museum in north London, I had the opportunity to lay on Sigmund Freud’s couch and, for a brief few moments whilst no-one was looking, I took that opportunity. It was the very couch his patients had laid upon to recount their dreams and fantasies in all of those now-famous psychoanalytical cases that helped Freud to build his theories of the unconscious. Covering the couch was the equally famous 19th century Qashqa’i Persian rug. I have never undergone psychoanalysis, and am certainly no ‘freudian’, but even as a layman I was aware of the thrill of proximity, the aura of being in the very place, lying on the very fabric, heavy and silky, where medical and cultural history had been made.
For many people, such an experience would have been even more profound. The carpet-covered couch has become such an iconic symbol of the psychoanalytical process that for ‘believers’ the original one is a bit like the Turin Shroud. This little mousemat souvenir of the couch carpet (that I subsequently bought in the museum shop) is poised somewhere between the reverent and the jokey, but its very existence as a saleable product is testimony to the cultural capital that the actual object has attracted.
So, how did this mythic object come into being? Essentially Freud had to invent a new piece of therapeutic furniture as he began to develop his talking cure. Using chairs, with doctor and patient sitting face-to-face, was not going to work. To allow for reverie and free association Freud's patients were going to have to lie down, however unconventional and socially unacceptable that was to the Viennese bourgeoisie from which those patients came. A couch was the obvious solution, but the addition of the persian carpet was an interesting and inspired move. By covering the couch with an oriental carpet it lost it’s western couch-like connotations. It became ‘othered’ as a slightly exotic, but socially neutral, item of furniture. Freud would have had plenty of handy carpets to choose from. His tastes were always decidedly orientalist and he had quite a collection of persian rugs and carpets.
As Freud’s theories and fame began to grow, so did the reputation of the psychoanalyst’s couch, and it became a standard feature of any analyst’s practice. Over time the carpet became optional, but in the beginning it was important for Freud. It helped to establish the acceptability of his new piece of consulting room furniture, and with it a whole new way of thinking about ourselves.