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What Are We to Do with Sigmund Freud?

What Are We to Do with Sigmund Freud?

Wednesday, 18 January, 2023 - 10:00

There is no harm in starting with a confession: no writer has perplexed me the way Sigmund Freud has. Every time I read him, I felt like he is creeping into a dark room in my soul that only I had ever entered. It was difficult for someone who felt this way to swallow the Marxist critiques of the author of ‘Totem and Taboo.’ That is why I was overwhelmed with glee when I read a Herbert Marcuse book: here he is, a Marxist master, using Freudian analysis. The tortuous dilemma went away, and suspicions of heresy no longer threatened me.

The fact is that few have divided critics like this Austrian doctor and teacher. What did he offer us, and where do opinions on him diverge?

Since his 1900 book ‘Interpretation of Dreams,’ Freud has been considered the founder of psychoanalysis, with a centrality given to the concept of the unconscious, which he later applied to history, religion, and literature. If it is true, as he himself admitted, that poets and philosophers had already discovered the unconscious, then he discovered the “scientific” means through which to study it as one of three levels, with the other two being the conscious and the preconscious.

Freud did make inroads into our understanding of the mind. He saw it as three conflicting parts: the id, which drives us toward pleasure, the superego, which contains this drive and upholds morals and laws, and the ego, where they balance each other out. On the other hand, individual sexual development undergoes three phases, each of them comes with particular behaviors, but more significant is his discovery that children have their own sexuality and that every individual is sexual since childhood. At that time, this revelation infuriated many of his contemporaries, especially those who believed in the “innocence of children.”

Freud’s humans are driven, in the end, by the “pleasure principle,” whose drives are contained by the “reality principle,” which ensures adaptability and appropriateness. Even kinship is not a bulwark against desire, as demonstrated by what he called the “Oedipus complex”. Nonetheless, bringing love and sex together is difficult, as it is not possible to have sex with those we love and learn love from. It is like a hedgehog during winter: a need for a warm embrace accompanied by an impediment presented by the hedgehog’s thorns on. In such human relationships, neurosis lurks; however, we are not the only ones who suffer from neuroses. Entire societies could suffer from them, as he wrote during the volatile interwar period.

As for hysteria, it was characterized, among other things, by patients suffering from physical symptoms without being physically ill. As for jokes, they help mock a state of affairs we cannot resist. A slip of the tongue (which is now known as a Freudian slip), meanwhile, stems from tension and conflict with ideas and emotions. When the desires of the unconscious and the preconscious come into conflict, they come to us circuitously, through slips of the tongue or dreams, which remain the “royal road to the conscious.”

Analyzing dreams could clear up repressed desires, as they expose the sexual and aggressive thoughts and drives we carry from our childhoods. However, they are not revealed to us directly but distortedly and in disguise.

From “defense mechanisms” and the “death drive” to particular interpretations of major historical events (Moses and monotheism...), his ideas influenced literature, art and medicine, and intellectuals were drawn to his analysis as they sought to understand war and peace, love and hate, religion and ethics.

However, it seems that his reactionary ideas are neither few nor mild. Some reflect the prejudices of his time and others the modest limitations of how far science had come and the influence that organic and scientist ideas had on the 19th century, during which he lived two-thirds of his life. In any case, his reactionary views do not escape what science has come to regard as clear-cut errors.

He has been criticized for his writings on coping and conformity despite having argued that the repressed returns. Liberals had reservations about unconscious forces controlling the individual’s consciousness, and Marxists refused to recognize a human being that cut across social classes. Nonetheless, many Liberals and Marxists subsequently leaned on Freudism.

Freud drew heavily from ancient and prehistoric events in developing his psychology because of what he believed to be the impact that old traumas leave on humans. For example, he saw the period of sexual frigidity that precedes puberty as being among the remnants of the Ice Age.

And there are his abhorrent views on women: according to him, they are “envious,” haunted by their persistent and unrealized desire to turn into men. They are also morally immature, while their superego is non-existent or weak. Women are more petty, dependent, and submissive than men, as well as being less vigorous and capable of love.

Surrendering to a biological determinism that had little concern for social transformations and technological developments, he attributed the status of women to an innate predisposition. Conservatives in the US were thus able to use his views to convince women that their fates had been biologically predetermined, just as they made use of his opinion of homosexuality as a developmental defect.

Freud, who always remained patriarchal, only imagined families composed of a mother, a father, and children. They reflected the milieu of conservative upper and middle class families in Vienna; nonetheless, he often leaves out the role of the mother in his analysis and treatment of patients.

Early on, the German psychoanalyst Karen Horney, despite being labeled a “neo-Fruedian,” hit back. She saw sexual difference, which he had elevated to the status of an essence, to be the result of society and culture, not biology. As for the pioneers of feminism, such as Simone de Beauvoir in France and Betty Frieden and Kate Millett in the US, they attacked him sharply, considering him an “enemy of women.”

With that, the British feminist and psychoanalyst Judith Mitchell deviated, arguing that his discovery of psychoanalysis was more significant and enduring than his reactionary views. This analysis, she claimed, put the question of women’s sexuality on the table, contributing to liberating them from male culture. She also stressed the need to come down from the roof description and get into the more radical aspects of psychoanalysis.

In doing so, she tried to reconcile it with feminism through the elements they share, such as their engagement with the question of sex, their challenges to the status quo, and the fact that both highlight how society and its awareness deter change.

Others have gone as far as painting him as a “progressive” because he had paved the way for creative and liberation movements like the sexual revolution, gay movements, and Surrealism, arguing that Freudianism gave us the tools for opposing what is “reactionary” within Freudianism itself.

So, should we, in the final analysis, adore this controversial old-timer or stone him after all this time?

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