My Significant Authors: Freud

I've become a little bored by the multiple reviews I was doing on a Sunday and think that for a while I'll look at authors who have been profoundly significant in determining the way I think, write and teach. The Viennese grandfather of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, is high on this particular list. It's become very fashionable to knock Freud and scoff at his pronouncements, but those who do, foolishly ignore the immense legacy of Freud in matters medical, literary, and cultural. Pioneers don't come much bigger – he established his doctrine in the teeth of fierce opposition – and it was founded in a great compassion for the suffering of mankind. If some of his ideas have been reworked beyond recognition over the course of century, it's surprising how much of his original structure of thought remains. Whatever you think of the man, the twentieth century would look very different in the Western world without him.

The first thing to note about Freud is his readability. 'It always strikes me as strange that my case histories should read like short stories' he wrote, somewhat disingenuously. It's not strange at all; the case histories are marvels of literary construction, halfway between detailed character studies and detective mysteries. The famous ones remain classics of literature; the rebellious Dora, stuck between her ailing father and the sexually overcharged couple, Herr and Frau K; little Hans, the child who developed a phobia of horses after his sibling was born (more of a nuisance than you might think, given that in those days all vehicles were horse-drawn); and the Wolf Man whose violent nightmares led Freud via a rich array of symbolic images to construct his notorious theories on castration and the primal scene.

What is so enticing in Freud's analysis is his treatment of the human subject as an intriguing puzzle to be cracked, an epistemological problem to be solved. We might be unacceptable to ourselves, Freud suggests, but we are not unintelligible. We can reconstruct the past and find the missing link, the lacuna that prevents us from feeling coherent, the black hole into which our happiness and security slips. For Freud mental health was equated with being able to tell a tidy story, with narrative consistency. Abandoned or unfinished or irrational tales indicated the presence of some troubling, unrecognised factor in our experience that acts like a hitch in the fabric of the soul. Freud termed that black hole the unconscious, the part of ourselves forever withdrawn from self-knowledge. When you reach the doors of the unconscious, it is always closing time, Freud said. But this, his greatest concept, when followed to its logical conclusion, undermined much of his thought. The existence of the unconscious means we will never be fully present to ourselves, no matter how many puzzles we solve. The latter half of the twentieth century has seen in literature and art, as well as psychoanalysis, the recognition that we are creatures of the gap, irredeemably enigmatic.

But this was, I think, the brilliance of Freud – he made just the most fantastic mistakes. Really productive mistakes that allowed subsequent thinkers to elaborate and develop his ideas in provocative and ground-breaking ways. My favourite of these has to be the Oedipus complex, Freud's belief that small boy children desire their mothers and provoke thus the paternal prohibition. There's so much to say on this topic that I might return to it another time, but for now I'll just mention the beautiful irony of Freud latching onto the one Greek myth of male initiation that goes horribly wrong. Oedipus is not a hero in the mould of Jason or Hercules, who follow their quests through life-threatening encounters with horrific monsters, engage in bloody battle, and eventually win the nubile maiden. Oedipus, by contrast, avoids the fight by simply answering the Sphinx's riddle. Now, no one likes a smartarse, and so his booby prize is to win his mother. Oops! Serious wrong turn. But Freud's theories about child development were never fully abandoned – they were productively reworked. Similarly his views on women. Freud studied his hysterical and his neurotic women and realised the ambiguity of the word 'complaint'; these women had an illness but it grew out of something they longed to express but were culturally forbidden to do so. Freud was the first to recognise the specificity of female desire even if he couldn't account for it.

For me, the significance of Freud lies in the power he attaches to the word. The talking cure hasn't really altered so very much since Freud first developed it, and it has brought relief and insight to hundreds of thousands of people who were not mad, or ill, or dangerous, and thus entitled to one of society's other, orthodox modes of assistance. Freud helped people who were downright miserable, and didn't know why. And in a century in which the respect given to words has been repeatedly challenged by the power invested in the image, the legacy of Freud never lets us forget that language holds the only means we have to change ourselves and to understand our place in the world.

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3 thoughts on “My Significant Authors: Freud

  1. I like your idea of the fantastic mistake! That’s an excellent reason for appreciating someone I think — for opening up the way for further research and ideas by making some really interesting mistakes. I think Freud is fascinating too because of his storytelling ability, and the way he encourages others to think in terms of stories, although this approach is fading with drugs to treat depression, wouldn’t you say?

  2. You've touched on something I have been thinking about…the literary nature of psychoanalysis. This science seems a liteary science to me, studying the vertical world rather than the horizontal one (Frye's description of literature.) Freud's use of Oedipus and other observations seem to grow out of myth. And, as you have pointed out, his research is readable because it takes on conventions of literature. Maybe Freud is a bridge between literature and science?

  3. I think you both make important points. The science in Freud’s writings was always the shakiest element, and the medical profession has also developed over the century (although I trust the ethics of drug companies less than those of Freud) recognising depression as an illness in some cases. But where Freud scores is to take an analytical approach to the nebulous domains of conscious/unconscious, our relationship to speech and symbols, and the experience of sexuality. And he was very ready to give literature it’s due, calling it ‘the unconscious of psychoanalysis’, which is to say endowed with all kinds of preternatural knowledge.

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