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Is Freudian Symbolism a Myth?

It has become a commonplace among the general public, and perhaps among journalists in particular, that some things are Freudian symbols. In the popular usage of this phrase, the word Freudian is synonymous with “sexual,” the word “sexual” is synonymous with “genital,” while the question “What does the word ‘symbol’ mean?” is answered, if it is asked at all, by saying that it is something that stands for something else. A pipe, a sword, a gun are held to be Freudian symbols on the ground that Freud reputedly said that they stand for penises. In view of this widespread’ assumption, I thought it might be appropriate to start this essay by investigating whether the general public has in fact correctly divined and understood an essential part of Freud’s thinking or whether some distortion of his ideas has taken place during their passage from the learned literature into the popular press.

Now, in one very simple sense, a distortion certainly has occurred, Freud himself was not the psychoanalyst who first attached central importance to sexual symbolism. As he himself said, he arrived late at a full realization of the importance of symbolism of any kind. The first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) contains only a few pages devoted to the subject of symbolism in general and only one dream exemplifying sexual symbolism. These few pages came at the end of a section entitled “Considerations of Representability,” and the matter under discussion was not primarily “How are sexual ideas symbolized in dreams?” but two more general questions: How are thoughts, which are not necessarily visual, converted into the visual imagery characteristic of dreams? And how can forbidden, taboo ideas be expressed in dreams in such a way that the dreamer, when he awakens, will not understand them? (Sexual ideas being only one of several classes of forbidden ideas which the “dream work” has to translate into imagery that will get past the censor.)

Freud did, however, eventually get around to attaching great importance to symbolism in general and to sexual symbolism in particular, successive editions of The Interpretation of Dreams containing additions referring to sexual symbolism. But it was not until the fourth edition (1914) that Freud included a section concerned exclusively with symbolism. However, even in the present definitive Standard Edition, this section consists of only 55 pages in a work running to 623 pages.

Freud’s reasons for taking fourteen years to attaching central importance to the idea with which his name has become most widely associated are expressed clearly in the opening paragraphs of this section, and I should like now to quote extensively from them.

The analysis of this last, biographical, dream [i.e., the one discussed at the end of the previous section] is clear evidence that I recognized the presence of symbolism in dreams from the very beginning. But it was only by degrees and as my experience increased that I arrived at a full appreciation of its extent and significance, and I did so under the influence of the contributions of Wilhelm Stekel (1911), about whom a few words will not be out of place here. [1925]

That writer, who has perhaps damaged psycho-analysis as much as he has benefited it, brought forward a large number of unsuspected translations of symbols; to begin with they were met with scepticism, but later they were for the most part confirmed and had to be accepted. I shall not be belittling the value of Stekel’s services if I add that the sceptical reserve with which his proposals were received was not without justification. For the examples by which he supported his interpretations were often unconvincing, and he made use of a method which must be rejected as scientifically untrustworthy. Stekel arrived at his interpretations of symbols by way of intuition, thanks to a peculiar gift for the direct understanding of them. But the existence of such a gift cannot be counted upon generally, its effectiveness is exempt from all criticism and consequently its findings have no claim to credibility….

Advances in psycho-analytic experience have brought to our notice patients who have shown a direct understanding of dream-symbolism of this kind to a surprising extent. They were often sufferers from dementia praecox [i.e., what we nowadays call schizophrenia], so that for a time there was an inclination to suspect every dreamer who had this grasp of symbols of being a victim of that disease. But such is not the case. It is a question of a personal gift or peculiarity which has no visible pathological significance.

I should like now to make two glosses on this quotation. First, it is apparent that in symbolism Freud encountered a phenomenon which was resistive to, and indeed incompatible with, his ideal of founding a psychology based on natural-scientific principles. Freud’s original and indeed lifelong Grand Design was to construct a science of mind which would be analogous to the physical sciences, which used concepts such as force and energy, which was strictly determinist, and in which all explanations were in terms of causation. But here in symbolism he encountered phenomena which required explanations in terms of meaning, not of cause, and in which convincing explanations could be arrived at by “a method which must be rejected as scientifically untrustworthy” and by persons who possessed not a training in the rigors of the scientific method but a “peculiar gift for the direct understanding” of symbolic equations. It must have been all very embarrassing for Freud and one has to sympathize with his resistance against recognizing the importance of symbolism.

It should, however, be remembered that Freud displayed similar resistance against two other ideas which have become generally associated with his name: the idea that human beings are as affected by their fantasies as by their actual experiences (vide his distress at realizing that his female patients couldn’t all have been seduced by their fathers); and the idea that psychoanalytical treatment is essentially a matter of transference—“finally every conflict has to be fought out in the sphere of transference” (Freud, 1912).

Second, it is evident that Freud must himself have had patients who possessed the “peculiar gift” of being able to translate symbols intuitively, that it would have suited his theoretical book if they had all turned out to be mad, but that in fact they often weren’t—but note his phrase “no visible pathological significance.” It followed from this embarrassing observation that symbolism in the Freudian sense could not be either a pathological phenomenon capable of a causative explanation or one of the so-called “primary processes” which Freud postulated were characteristic of unconscious mental activity.

Freud held that there are two types or principles of mental functioning, one discursive, verbal, conforming to the laws of grammar and formal logic, and characteristic of conscious thinking, the other nondiscursive, condensive, iconic, ignorant of the categories of space and time, and characteristic of unconscious thinking. It would have been methodologically convenient and economical if Freudian symbolism could have been included in the latter, and most analysts other than Freud have in fact done so, but the existence of peculiar people like Stekel—and also, as Freud himself pointed out, of artists and jokers—makes it impossible to do so.

Having described Freud’s rather reluctant acceptance of the fact that there is such a thing as what has come to be called Freudian symbolism, I must turn to the question whether this symbolism is exclusively sexual, as popularizations of psychoanalysis would have one believe. The answer to this question is equivocal. According to Freud’s Tenth Introductory Lecture (1916-1917), “The range of things which are given symbolic representation in dreams is not wide; the human body as a whole, parents, children, brothers and sisters, birth, death, nakedness—and something else besides.” This “something else besides” turns out to be “the field of sexual life—the genitals, sexual processes, sexual intercourse. The great majority of symbols in dreams are sexual symbols. And here a strange disproportion is revealed. The topics I have mentioned are few, but the symbols for them are extremely numerous.” Freud then goes on to list over thirty symbols for the male genitals and over twenty for the female.

Reading this lecture one is indeed left with the overwhelming impression that in Freud’s view Freudian symbolism is predominantly sexual, but I must confess that I think that Freud reached the conclusion that “the great majority of symbols in dreams are sexual” by a mixture of logical error and intellectual sleight of hand.

The logical error consists in failing to appreciate that the topics which he designates “few” and the “symbols” which he designates as “numerous” are not of the same logical type, and cannot therefore be compared numerically with one another. The topics mentioned—birth, death, sex, etc.—are general ideas arrived at by abstraction, the symbols mentioned—umbrellas, revolvers, Zeppelins, cupboards, apples, etc., etc.—are specific objects, or, to be pedantic, concepts of a lower level of abstraction. It is therefore hardly surprising that there are more symbols that topics symbolized. The entities classified must of necessity be more numerous than the classes into which they are classified.

The intellectual sleight of hand consists of a) asserting that the range of things which are given symbolic representation is not wide, when in fact the list of things which he says are symbolizable embraces almost the whole range of human experience, apart perhaps from work, intellectual activity, and some kinds of play, and b) detaching the sexual life from the other members of the list of things deemed symbolizable and treating it as though it has no intrinsic connection with them. But this is, of course, not so. To go through his list: we only have a body because our parents once had sexual intercourse; we only have children because we have had intercourse; we only have brothers and sisters because our parents had inter-course more than once; birth and death are the first and last members of the series birth, copulation, and death; nakedness has obvious connections with both the sexual life and with the interfaces between the self as private and public being, as biological and social being.

What, it seems to me, Freud should have said was that the range of things which are given symbolic representation embraces all aspects of man’s biological life cycle, and that scrutiny of dreams reveals that human beings are much more preoccupied with their biological destiny and with their intimate personal relationships than most of them realize. Freud, strangely, seems always to have assumed that it is normal for human beings to be oblivious and obtuse about the importance of this emotional, poetic, mythopoeic, imaginative aspect of human experience, and that people who are aware of it are “special cases,” with gifts that are “peculiar” in both senses of the word. As I have written elsewhere (1962) Freud’s conception of the normal person was cast “in the mold of the scientist at work.” Hence, incidentally, his ambivalence toward artists, whom he both admired for their natural understanding of things that he had had to learn the hard way, and disparaged by trying to demonstrate that they were all neurotic. To be fair to Freud, I must add that late in his life he abandoned this attempt: “Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms” (Freud, 1928).

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