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Freud Under Analysis

Furthermore, why is the mechanism of repression so feeble during sleep when it is so powerful during waking hours? We would expect that an efficient repression mechanism would simply block all access of the unconscious to consciousness; but during sleep it mysteriously loses its iron grip and lets material through that is normally repressed. Is it that the censor itself falls asleep during sleep and allows desires through that it normally catches and prohibits?

Again, this problem arises because Freud is assuming that there must be a wish behind every dream, which compels him to postulate unconscious wishes that are partially manifest in the content of the dream. It is not that dreams lead one inexorably to the idea of the unconscious; rather, that idea is forced upon us once we make the initial assumption that there must be a motivating wish behind every dream, whether it is apparent to the subject or not. We don’t need an unconscious to interpret an anxiety dream if we simply take it that the dream is about what it seems to be about, for example, something we are, or were, anxious about, such as passing an exam. Fears prey on the mind in sleep as in wakefulness; anxiety dreams are therefore not a way of satisfying some further hidden wish I have—they are just the fear itself dominating my mind.

Consider animal dreams: for Freud they presumably do not involve repressed infantile sexual desires, so are they all of the conscious wishes of the animal being wonderfully fulfilled? Clearly not: it can be apparent from the behavior of a sleeping dog, say, that it is dreaming of something that causes it anxiety, and it would be silly to suppose that this must be a mere manifest dream content that masks an unconscious wish that the dog is dreamily satisfying. Why shouldn’t the same be true of us? And notice again that if we do accept the heterogeneity of dreams the need for the unconscious disappears; nothing about dreams themselves forces us to accept the unconscious and its repression mechanism. A patient of Freud’s once pointed out to him that she had an anxiety dream of something she very much wanted to avoid, so that his wish-fulfillment theory of dreaming had to be wrong. His reply was that she had dreamed this in order to refute his theory, the wish to discomfort him being unconscious.4 Clearly that is not a good way to argue that dreams always represent the fulfillment of unconscious wishes.

The Freudian unconscious is not to be confused with the preconscious—which is his term for such mental phenomena as memories not currently present to the mind but capable of being recalled on demand—or with the kind of subconscious mental processing favored by contemporary cognitive science, the processing, for example, by which we convert the patterns of light and darkness into intelligible visual images. Indeed, there are unconscious processes at work in all cases of mental functioning, as the brain works subconsciously to generate our conscious mental life. In the case of the conscious understanding of speech, for example, Noam Chomsky has argued convincingly that there is a highly structured system of unconscious representation of the rules of grammar in our heads. Memory itself operates by means of processes of which we are not consciously aware. But these kinds of unconscious processes are different in kind from Freud’s conception of the unconscious. The Freudian unconscious is essentially a system of actively repressed desires, memories, and feelings—those charged with “negative affect,” by which Freud meant emotional distress of one kind or another. We have become so accustomed to this idea of repression that we tend to take it for granted as an established mental mechanism, but in fact it is full of difficulties.

Of course, we are all familiar with the mental act of suppressing a desire, of rendering it inactive. This occurs when we have a (conscious) desire that we desire not to have—say, a desire to eat lots of ice cream combined with a desire not to have this desire. But there is nothing unconscious about any of this: we know what we desire and we knowingly set about suppressing this desire, decoupling it from action. Mental life is overflowing with such deliberate acts of desire suppression. But Freudian repression is not meant to be anything like this; it is meant to be totally unconscious. Freud’s thesis is that when a desire or memory is felt as unpleasant or shameful or in serious conflict with other desires there is a mechanism in our heads that works to render this mental state unconscious to us. Nor is it the case that we are always initially conscious of such a mental state and then consciously render it unconscious. Sometimes the whole operation occurs unconsciously—in fact, most of the time, since repression works constantly in us to keep unpleasant mental states from consciousness.

This is a very puzzling idea when you consider it closely. In the first place, it appears to be simply not true that unpleasant desires and memories are subject to repression as a matter of course. We all have many painful memories and shameful desires of which we are persistently and naggingly conscious. Why do some get repressed and some do not, according to Freud? The presence of “negative affect” cannot be the explanation.5 So far as I can see from my own introspection, it is quite impossible for me to render unconscious these disturbing mental states—if only it were possible!

Children are supposed by Freud to be particularly adroit at this operation of repression. But why can they achieve easily what I am unable to bring about as an adult? Am I not usually more in control of my mental life than a mere child? I am sure I have forgotten much that I once knew, but I have to report that I don’t know of a single desire or memory I have ever repressed, in Freud’s sense. I have no evidence, either from manifest gaps in my memory or from the testimony of other people, that any such motivated forgetting has occurred in me. Freudians would say that such a statement misses the point, and that what is repressed generally cannot be remembered, unless one is analyzed. But the question of repression is not that simple. We should not, of course, confuse knowing I have forgotten something with actually remembering that which is still forgotten. It is perfectly possible to have indirect evidence of memory lapses of various kinds, and hence knowledge that something has been forgotten. For example, suppose you and I both see the same movie and years later you remember it and I do not; you might then inform me that I must have forgotten what you remember me observing, and so I come to know that I have forgotten seeing the movie.

My point then is that I don’t know of any case in which such a lapse of memory on my part is attributable to repression. Some memories or desires fade through time, some retreat in centrality; but I don’t know of any case in which I once had a desire or memory and now have it safely repressed. Surely if repression were as pervasive as Freud suggests, I should occasionally think: “I used to have a very bad memory about X, but now I can’t remember it at all”—just as I now know that I used to have a good knowledge of Italian but can remember very little of it today. In fact, painful memories seem to me particularly insistent and consciously present.

Nor do I find that specifically sexual desires that I would prefer not to have ever become repressed, just (at best) suppressed, that is, kept from being acted on. I suspect that the whole idea of Freudian repression is a myth, despite its popular currency. But if repression is a dubious postulation, then so too is the Freudian unconscious, since it is defined as the sum total of what has been repressed: the idea of the bubbling mental cauldron with the lid half on is also a myth. The bubbling is all out in the open, just where it seems to be.

Secondly, there is a deep conceptual problem with the very idea of unconscious repression, as Sartre pointed out long ago in Being and Nothingness.6 Freud believed there was a special agency of repression, which he called the censor, rooted (like all his other constructs) somewhere in the nervous system. The censor has to detect which desires to repress and which to admit into consciousness, as when it works to determine the content of dreams. Revealingly, Freud writes:

Let us…compare the system of the unconscious to a large entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like separate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower, room—a kind of drawing room—in which consciousness, too, resides. But on the threshold between the two rooms a watchman performs his function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and will not admit them into the drawing-room if they displease him. 7

But how can the censor do this without itself being conscious of the desires it represses? A real-life censor is aware of both what he passes and what he prohibits, but Freud’s censor is somehow supposed to know what to prohibit and simultaneously not to know it. The idea of repression thus appears incoherent. This argument about the contradictions of the censor may seem based on purely logical analysis. But the more you think about it the more you see that the idea of unconscious repression is impossible: you cannot repress something whose existence is not known to you, but if you know of it then it is not unconscious. And if the censor must be aware of the contents of the unconscious, then what is the point of repression after all—wasn’t it meant to block such awareness? Or does the censor itself contain a repression mechanism to protect it from the desires it represses? But then the same question would arise again about this censor within a censor. The idea of the unconscious cannot be made to cohere with the idea of the censor, and hence with the Freudian concept of repression.

But repression is precisely what is supposed to give rise to the unconscious. There is no Freudian unconscious without repression, but repression entails consciousness, so the concept is contradictory. You might think you could avoid this problem by distinguishing the ego—the conscious self—from the censor, so that the latter is conscious of repressed desires but the former is not. But the censor is at the service of the ego, protecting it, so it cannot be cut off from the ego’s preferences. And what is the point of protecting the ego from these unpleasant mental states if the censor has to endure awareness of them anyway? Not to mention the bizarre character of a theory of several centers of homuncular consciousness in each person’s head.

  1. 4

    Reported by John Forrester in “Portrait of a Dream Reader,” in Roth, Freud: Conflict and Culture, p. 58.

  2. 5

    This point is made by Adolf Grünbaum in “A Century of Psychoanalysis: Critical Retrospect and Prospect,” in Roth, Freud: Conflict and Culture.

  3. 6

    The discussion occurs in the chapter on Bad Faith in Being and Nothingness (London: Methuen, 1969).

  4. 7

    Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, translated and edited by James Strachey (Norton, 1966), p. 365.

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