By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

26. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 559-580

The Unconscious: The Freudian Unconscious (Sigmund Freud)

Sigmund Freud: The Structure of the Unconscious

Of the great transformative modern thinkers, Darwin revolutionized biological science and Marx politics and economics, but Freud probably had the greatest impact on the way ordinary people think about themselves. Even though Freudian analysis, his theories of the way the mind works, and the validity of his claim to be a scientist are in some disrepute today, we no longer think about mental illness and sexuality and the fundamental needs and desires of human beings the way the nineteenth century did.
Sigmund Freud in 1921

In these excerpts from An Outline of Psychoanalysis (1940) and New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud presents the basics from which all the rest of his theories flow, starting with the premise that consciousness is actually a dynamic process in which the preconscious and the unconscious participate. He asserts that "consciousness is in general a very highly fugitive condition. What is conscious is conscious only for a moment." There is a transitional state between the unconscious that is "better described as 'capable of entering consciousness,' or as preconscious."
What is preconscious becomes conscious ... without any activity on our part; what is unconscious can, as a result of our efforts, be made conscious, though in the process we may have an impression that we are overcoming what are often very strong resistances.

Underlying everything in the human experience is the primitive force Freud calls the id, which "knows no values, no good and evil, no morality." The ego's role is to mediate between the external world and the id, which is what consciousness is for.
This relation to the external world is decisive for the ego. The ego has taken over the task of representing the external world for the id, and so of saving it; for the id, blindly striving to gratify its instincts in complete disregard of the superior strength of outside forces, could not otherwise escape annihilation.
So the ego "interpolates between desire and action the procrastinating factor of thought, during which it makes uses of the residues of experience stored up in memory." It substitutes "the reality principle" for "the pleasure principle." Freud has created here a lovely little morality play, but not an original one. Schopenhauer made much the same observation when he spoke of the ways in which the individual has to modify the activity of the will, by teaching it "that it erred in the means it employed and can therefore bring it about that the end after which it strives ... shall be pursued on an entirely different path and in an entirely different object from what has hitherto been the case."

Freud's diagram of the relationship of id, ego, and superego. The area labeled "pcpt-cs" is the "perceptual-conscious system" -- the interface with the external world. Although this egg- or eyeball-shaped image was reproduced in Freud's work, he insisted that the area given over to the id should be represented as much larger, giving rise to some diagrams that present the theory as an iceberg, with only the tip poking into the area of consciousness and the vastness of the id under the surface deep into the unconscious.
What Freud adds to this process of modifying the will is the creation of the "superego" and his theory of repression, in which the ego is also forced to deal not only with the id and with the external world, but also with the behavioral norms imposed on it by the superego. The ego thus has "three harsh masters, and has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three." If it goes too far in one direction, allowing the id to fulfill its rampaging desires, the result is self-destruction: The id is like the mouse that attacks the tiger. If it goes too far in subservience to the superego, clamping down on the boiling kettle that is the id, repressing its desires instead of finding ways for it to let off steam, the result is explosion.
When the ego is forced to acknowledge its weakness, it breaks out into anxiety: reality anxiety in face of the external world, normal anxiety in face of the super-ego, and neurotic anxiety in face of the strength of the passions in the id. 
So this is the task of psychoanalysis: "to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super-ego, to widen its field of vision, and so to extend its organisation so that it can take over new portions of the id. Where id was, there shall ego be."

Sigmund Freud: The Instincts

In these excerpts from the Outline and from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) and Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), Freud presents two primal instincts arising from the id: libido (which he sometimes calls Eros) and the death instinct. They are "the ultimate cause of all activity," he says, even though they are opposing force:
The aim of the first of these basic instinct is to establish ever greater unities and to preserve them thus -- in short, to bind together; the aim of the second, on the contrary, is to undo connections and so to destroy things. We may suppose that the final aim of the destructive instinct is to reduce living things to an inorganic state. For this reason we also call it the death instinct.... In biological functions the two basic instincts work against each other or combine with each other. Thus, the act of eating is a destruction of the object with the final aim of incorporating it, and the sexual act is an act of aggression having as its purpose the most intimate union.... A surplus of sexual aggressiveness will change a lover into a sexual murderer, while a sharp diminution in the aggressive factor will lead to shyness or impotence. 
Yes, that last sentence is the basis for innumerable disagreements with Freud, as well as many well-meaning misinterpretations. For he follows it up by asserting, "The holding back of aggressiveness is in general unhealthy and leads to illness." The jury is still out on that one.

And then there's the distinction between sex and love: "It is only when someone is completely in love that the main quantity of libido is transferred on to the object and the object to some extent takes the place of ego." Freud seems to feel no compunction to define "love" here, which only muddies the statement. Elsewhere he ventures into more specifics, allowing that "love" takes many forms, some of which are seemingly non-sexual: "self love, ... love for parents and children, friendship and love for humanity in general, and also devotion to concrete objects and to abstract ideas. But he asserts that all of these "are an expression of the same instinctual impulses," and that "sexual union" is the primary expression of the impulses, whereas "in other circumstances they are diverted from this aim or are prevented from reaching it, though always preserving enough of their original nature to keep their identity recognizable (as in such features as the longing for proximity, and self-sacrifice)."

The key thing to remember here is that Freud is aiming for an acceptance of sex as a perfectly natural and acceptable function. "I cannot see any merit in being ashamed of sex." Even so, it's quite a leap to identify sexual intercourse and, say, love of one's country as manifestations of the same instinct.

The instincts, Freud argues, are essentially conservative: "an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things." Freud was much influenced by the nineteenth-century zoologist Ernst Haeckel's theory, famously encapsulated in the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- the idea that in the embryonic state, an organism reveals "the structures of all the forms from which it is sprung."
G.J. Romanes's 1892 copy of Ernst Haeckel's drawings of embryos
Haeckel's theory is generally rejected today, but Freud made much of it, arguing that "Every modification which is thus imposed upon the course of the organism's life is accepted by the conservative organic instincts and stored up for further repetition." And the primary instinct of the organism, he argues, is "to return to the inanimate state." Life, Freud argues, wants to remain simple: "It would be in contradiction to the conservative nature of the instincts if the goal of life were a state of things which had never yet been attained. On the contrary, it must be an old state of things, an initial state from which the living entity has at one time or other departed and to which it is striving to return by the circuitous paths along which its development leads."

Freud even argues that such contrary impulses as "self-preservation" and "self-assertion ... are component instincts whose function it is to assure that the organism shall follow its own path to death, and to ward off any possible ways of returning to inorganic existence other than those which are immanent in the organism itself.... What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die in its own fashion. Thus these guardians of life, too, were originally the myrmidons of death."

The sexual instincts arise from the production of the "germ-cells" (i.e., sperm and egg), which are themselves "earlier states of living substance." These instincts "watch over the destinies of these elementary organisms that survive the whole individual."
They are the true life instincts. They operate against the purpose of the other instincts, which leads, by reason of their function, to death; and this fact indicates that there is an opposition between them and the other instincts, an opposition whose importance was long ago recognized by the theory of the neuroses. It is as though the life of the organism moved with a vacillating rhythm.
Freud moves well beyond science here. He is riding a theory. Or is it riding him?

The evolution of species, then, is a kind of accidental thwarting of the conservatism of the death instinct: "There is unquestionably no universal instinct towards higher development observable in the animal or plant world, even though it is undeniable that development does in fact occur in that direction." As for human process, "What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of the instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilization.... The backward path that leads to complete satisfaction is a rule obstructed by the resistances which maintain the repressions. So there is no alternative but to advance in the direction in which growth is still free -- though with no prospect of bringing the process to a conclusion or of being able to reach the goal."

Sigmund Freud: The Theory of Dreams

Freud starts with "the unsatisfied repressed impulses, which are ready to seize on any opportunity for expression." And one opportunity exists when consciousness falls asleep.
We can, indeed, have no doubt about this: the unconscious impulse is the real creator of the dream, it provides the psychic energy required for its formation. Just like any other instinctual impulse it can do no other than seek its own satisfaction, and our experience in dream-interpretation shows us, moreover, that this is the meaning of all dreaming. In every dream an instinctual wish is displayed as fulfilled.
Eventually, however, Freud has to deal with some substantial objections to this theory of dream as wish-fulfillment. For one thing: nightmares, particularly "the fact that people who have had severe shocks or who have gone through serious psychic traumas ... are continually being put back into the traumatic situation in dreams." And here Freud cops out: In these cases, the dream has failed, it is only "an attempted wish-fulfillment" in which the "dream-work, which endeavours to change the memory traces of the traumatic event into a wish-fulfillment, fails to operate."

Sigmund Freud: The Oedipus Complex

Probably the most famous Freudian theory of all, the Oedipus complex was discussed in the General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (1916).  In fact, Freud almost credits Sophocles with discovering psychoanalysis: "The Attic poet's work portrays the gradual discovery of the deed of Oedipus, long since accomplished, and brings it slowly to light by skilfully prolonged enquiry, constantly fed by new evidence; it has thus a certain resemblance to the course of a psycho-analysis." On the other hand, "it is an immoral play: it sets aside the individual's responsibility to social law, and displays divine forces ordaining the crime and rendering powerless the moral instincts of the human being which would guard him against the crime."

Freud credits the Oedipus complex with being "one of the most important sources of the sense of guilt which so often torments neurotic people." And in fact, referring to his 1913 Totem and Tabu, he suggests "that perhaps the sense of guilt of mankind as a whole, which is the ultimate source of religion and morality, was acquired in the beginnings of history through the Oedipus complex." Does Freud overemphasize the role of guilt here? Or has he so altered our concept of guilt that we now downplay its significance?

The central crime in the Oedipus story for Freud is not the murder of the father but the copulation with the mother, the incest, for he devotes the bulk of his attention to it:
The first choice of object in mankind is regularly an incestuous one, directed to the mother and sister of men, and the most stringent prohibitions are required to prevent the sustained infantile tendency from being carried into effect. 
We tend to forget how shocking the very idea of infantile sexuality was to Freud's earliest readers. All previous Western culture had seemed to proclaim the innocence of childhood until he began to explore the human instincts. But most of all, the idea that sexual instinct was "normal" even in children, unsettled the imagination:
since all men and not only neurotic persons have perverse, incestuous, and murderous dreams ... we may infer that those who are normal to-day have also made the passage through the perversions and the object-investments of the Oedipus complex; and that this is the path of normal development; only that neurotics show in a magnified and exaggerated form what we also find revealed in the dream-analyses of normal people. 
"Normal people?" I don't think I know any.

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