On the 150th birthday of Sigmund Freud, Roger Scruton explains why Freud's improbable theories still dominate the way we think about our minds
Saturday, May 06, 2006
Freud was born 150 years ago today, on May 6, 1856, the same year that Richard Wagner finished work on his opera Die Walkure, a work that dramatizes all the themes, from dreams to incest, that were to fascinate Freud.
There is no doubt in my mind that it was Wagner, not Freud, who got things right, and that a knowledge of Wagner's masterpiece casts serious doubts on Freud's claims to originality. However, Freud's reputation remains as great today as it was in my youth, when the Kleinians, the Jungians and the Adlerians were disputing his legacy. The idea of sexual repression has entered the culture, as has the doctrine (not one of Freud's) that repression is harmful. It is almost universally assumed that the mind has a large unconscious component, that the sex drive (the "libido") is the motive of our primary attachments, and that we all have "complexes" instilled in childhood according to the archetypal patterns proposed by Freud. And every now and then some commentator will tell us that these assumptions are not merely true but also the proven results of a genuine science.
Freud, who assumed the mask of the objective observer, who presented his results as the inescapable conclusions of arduous empirical study, who repeatedly claimed that his psychological discoveries would one day be grounded in biology, is now widely accepted at mask-value. Freud the artist, Freud the literary critic, Freud the high priest of manipulation, Freud the sex-obsessed and cold-blooded enemy of womankind are rarely put on display, though all those personae lie behind the mask, and each is much closer to the original inspiration than the Freud to whom psychology now defers.
What evidence does Freud adduce for the existence of the Oedipus complex? A play by Sophocles, dealing with a situation so strange that it must be treated as an exception. What evidence does he adduce for the theory of infant sexuality? The sight of "a baby sinking back satiated at the breast," which is a self-evident "prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life." It was simply obvious to Freud that infantile sexuality exists and that it passes through three stages -- oral, anal and genital -- each stage characterized by its defining "erogenous zone." Yet he defines the erogenous zones so widely that every body part, even the eye, is included. Someone must have reminded him that not all children are boys; but he had an easy way with his critics, which was to throw the Greeks at them. Thus was born the Electra complex, conjured from a thigh-bone of Oedipus. Faced by a patient with a dream that seemed to refute his wish-fulfilment theory, Freud retorted that the dream fulfilled the patient's wish to refute the theory. At every point where scientific method might impose its logic on the argument, Freud stepped sideways into metaphor, asserting with dogmatic intransigence that this is how things are because this is how they must be.
Freud's scientistic aspect is enhanced for the English reader by James Strachey's absurd translation. To render Das Ich, Das Uber-Ich and Das Es as Ego, Superego and Id is to give a medicine-chest aspect to these idioms, even though they are fairly straightforward borrowings from German philosophy. When Freud tells us that the libido "enters" or "occupies" (besetze) some object, Strachey tells us that it "cathects" that thing, and "cathexis" then spreads across the page like a dangerous disease. It is very hard for the reader to reach through this armoured idiom to the often poetic, and invariably fanciful, description of the human being that Freud was constructing.
It is especially hard to recognize the true nature of Freud's genius, which lay not in his theories, which are bunkum, or in his practice, which was inspired quackery, but in his astonishment. Freud saw mysteries where others saw facts. He recognized that the influence of parents on their children ran through deep and hidden channels, that it showed itself in every aspect of their future lives, and in no matter more fatefully than that of sexual desire. He pondered the mysteries of guilt, anxiety and mourning and tried to fathom them. He was amazed by both jokes and dreams, and offered a crazy diagnosis of their meaning. Where others saw muddle and eccentricity, he imagined diseases of the soul and set out to vanquish them. And in his case studies he presented unforgettable portraits of wrecked human beings, about whose flailing carcasses he patrolled like a jackal, tearing off pieces and holding them up to the light, which he imagined to be a light of science, but which was in fact a light of the imagination, transfiguring all on which it fell.
Freud suffered from the "charm of disenchantment." Like Marx he was irresistibly drawn to explanations that demean us, and which turn our world view upside down -- or set it, as Marx insisted, "on its feet." This is apparent in Freud's theory of the "incest taboo," which begins from a characteristic gesture of astonishment. Why is it that incest is not just avoided but forbidden?
What explains the horror and the sense of pollution that caused Jocasta to hang herself and Oedipus to stab out his eyes? Freud leaps at once to his conclusion: that which is forbidden is also desired. And the horror is needed because the desire is great. If it is so great, it must be there in all of us, repressed but simmering, seeking the channels through which to flow in some disguised but virulent version.
A real scientist, observing the facts, would draw the opposite conclusion. Incest arouses horror not because we desire it but because we don't. Why don't we? First, because incest undermines the relationships on which the home is built, and so impedes the transfer of social capital; second, because communities that permit incest pay a genetic price. The horror is there because societies that lack it have all died out. The Freudian story is a fiction, believed not because of its explanatory power but because of its charm. We are thrilled by disenchantment, which seems to set us free from social norms. We watch with fascination as our ideals are punctured, and our gods brought down to Earth. After this Gotterdammerung, we imagine, there will be a bleak but permissive dawn.
Even today, therefore, people are drawn to the most disenchanting of Freud's theories, which is the theory of infantile sexuality. And once again the theory is upside down. Children develop from blobs of needy flesh to rational adults, and their sexuality develops with them. Only with puberty does it begin to focus on the Other, since only then can sexual desire be integrated into personal life. Were it otherwise, then chaos would ensue, both in the home and in the reproductive potential of the community.
Pedophilia horrifies us; but societies without the horror have all died out. Freud simply cannot accept that kind of explanation. Instead of reading childish sexuality forward into its mature realization in adult desire, he reads adult desire backwards, into the naive titillations of the child. By thus polluting the image of childhood he casts a spell over his readers. This is how it must be, he implies; and as with the theory of incest, we acquiesce in fascination as our last picture of innocence is destroyed. It is an interesting feature of Freud that he devised a comprehensive answer to his skeptical critics, and that is psychoanalysis. Once you are on the couch the analyst has ways of changing your mind; you are no longer criticizing the theory but resisting it.
You have become a case for treatment, and the answer to your problem is not a refutation but a cure. And the cure goes on for ever, since there was no disease.
© National Post 2006
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