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Freud Under Analysis

Then, too, there is the fallibility of repression, even by Freud’s own admission. Why is it so poor at its job? It can make desires unconscious, but it cannot prevent them from erupting in dreams, parapraxes, and neurosis. That is no way to build an efficient repression mechanism. If we are biologically equipped with such a mechanism, then Mother Nature has given us a very shabbily designed piece of mental equipment. As soon as we start dreaming it becomes foiled, leaking great clumps of material into our accessible mental life, desperately covering its ineptitude with symbols and distortions.

The only answer to this question that can be discerned in Freud is that unconscious desires have a kind of mental energy attached to them that presses for release, like steam in a defective pressure cooker. But this kind of energic model is little more than a metaphor (in what units is such energy to be measured?), and anyway it invites the question of how repression can take some of the energy out of these forbidden desires but not enough of it to keep them under full control. How is it that repression has the amazing power to render a conscious mental state unconscious and yet cannot manage to prevent that mental state from causing slips of the tongue? I myself find that I can quite easily prevent my conscious mental states from causing slips of the tongue, but I am quite powerless to make them unconscious. The strengths and lapses of the repressing censor are peculiar and unexplained, dictated more by dogmatic theory than by actual observation and internal coherence.


Repression and sex go tightly together in Freud. His entire theory of sexual development is based on the claim that the infant is a sexual being who is brought to repress its sexuality through mainly parental forces. Here we find the famous oral, anal, and genital phases, the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, penis envy, the latency period—the psychodrama of the child’s early sexual life that results either in mature healthy sexuality or in neurosis. Reading Freud’s own presentations of the reasons for proposing this elaborate theory one is continually struck by the warping of language, the unwarranted speculative leaps, and the sheer implausibility of many of his claims.

It is not the thesis that the child is sexually active that causes offense; it is the contortions of theory that Freud indulges in, and the lack of any convincing evidence for his very bold claims. It is a crucial claim of Freud’s that the genitals are not the sole site and point of sexual satisfaction for the infant: the mouth and anus also are sexually charged.

The natural objection to this claim, which Freud anticipated in his discussions, is that it seems to conflate pleasure in general with sexual pleasure specifically. Granted that the child obtains pleasure from its mouth and anus, during sucking and defecation; but why insist on calling this sexual pleasure, especially when the genitals are not yet supposed to be involved in the infant’s sexual feelings and activities? The obvious alternative description is that the mouth affords the pleasure associated with eating and the anus with the pleasure of release. These pleasures are not in adulthood sexual in nature, so why are they in the infant? They are pleasures associated with bodily organs, indeed, but they are not specifically sexual pleasures in any interesting sense of the term.

Freud never explains satisfactorily why he insists on calling these oral and anal activities phases of sexual development; the best you get is the lame suggestion that babies look as if they have had an orgasm after they contentedly finish sucking.8 It can hardly be because the mouth and anus can be deployed during adult genital sex, since Freud is sensible enough to acknowledge that this cannot be part of the world of the infant; his claim is rather that the infant is engaged in non-genital sex when it sucks and defecates. Freud simply refuses to distinguish between sexual pleasure and other somatically based pleasures, apparently out of a misplaced desire for theoretical unity (as he also does with dreams and wish fulfillment).

Freud suggests that children go into a sexual latency period as a result of repression, this being occasioned by the notorious Oedipus complex. He cites childhood amnesia—the forgetting of the early years of life—as evidence in support of his idea of repression, not noticing that most of our memories from this period will not be of the kind that call for repression. Surely there is no reason for the child to repress memories of every experience in the first three or so years of life. The Oedipus complex that is said to precipitate this alleged repression has so permeated ordinary thought about childhood and sex that it is difficult now to stand back from it and examine it critically; but if we do, I think it must strike us as a farfetched and unsupported conjecture. Is it really true that little boys desire—consciously desire—sexual relations with their mother and believe that their father intends to castrate them for harboring this desire? Here is a typical formulation from Freud:

When a boy (from the age of two or three) has entered the phallic phase of his libidinal development, is feeling pleasurable sensations in his sexual organ and has learnt to procure these at will by man-ual stimulation, he becomes his mother’s lover. He wishes to possess her physically in such ways as he has divined from his observations and intuitions about sexual life, and he tries to seduce her by showing her the male organ which he is so proud to own…. At last his mother adopts the severest measures; she threatens to take away from him the thing he is defying her with. Usually, in order to make the threat more frightening and credible, she delegates its execution to the boy’s father, saying that she will tell him and that he will cut the penis off…. But if at the time of the threat he can recall the appearance of female genitals or if shortly afterwards he has a sight of them—of genitals, that is to say, which really lack this supremely valued part, then he takes what he has learned seriously and, coming under the influence of the castration complex, experiences the severest trauma of his young life.9

What is the evidence for this amazing suggestion? (Note that all of these thoughts and emotions are held to be conscious in the child; it is only when castration anxiety eventually sets in that these mental states are repressed into unconsciousness.) At the least one would want to see a careful empirical investigation into the desires and fears of male infants, which should not in principle be too hard to obtain. It is not enough to erect this hypothesis merely upon the basis of what neurotic adult Viennese patients at the turn of the century suggestibly say to their theoretically committed analyst.

As for the claim that little girls suffer from penis envy and consequent resentment toward their mother for not giving them one, leading to a shift of sexual fixation onto the father, this must be one of the most questionable ideas ever seriously entertained by intelligent people. Again, what is the hard evidence from the observation of girl children for it? Freud offers none. And why not suppose that boys suffer from breast envy instead? Or indeed clitoris-vagina envy? Why is the penis thought to be the ultimate treasure? And do other female animals show the same feelings of genital inferiority? Do young female monkeys, say, suffer from penis envy when they observe male monkeys with their appendages dangling?

Freud would have done well to consider animal psychology more closely in developing a theory of sexual development; despite his avowed Darwinism, he presupposes radical discontinuities between human and animal psychology, especially in relation to sex. Surely it is far more reasonable to suppose that girls and boys are aware that as different sexes they naturally possess different kinds of genitals; it is not that somehow girls are natural castrati, bringing fear of castration to boys and resentment at their own deficiencies. Freud deserves credit for acknowledging that children are sexual beings, but let us not stuff their heads with erotic thoughts that they are not sophisticated enough to form and that we lack any evidence to believe they have.10 Nor is it at all credible to suppose, as Freud does, that such alleged psychic configurations lie behind all neuroses, even the likes of wartime shell shock. Here again Freud overgeneralizes wildly: yes, excessive sexual discipline and trauma can lead to neurosis in later life, but that is very far from the claim that all mental woes have a sexual basis in childhood.

What of the id, the ego, and the superego—weren’t these important discoveries? Freud’s expositions of this tripartite division within the mind tend to be unrelentingly homuncular: he speaks as if these were three full selves within the mind, each competing for attention, as if the mind were really a society of warring factions.11 This must presumably be taken as metaphor, however, and when it is so taken the division seems to me perfectly acceptable. We do indeed possess a reservoir of instincts or innate tendencies (an “id”), a self that responds to and negotiates external reality (an “ego”), and a conscience that governs our sense of moral worth (a “superego”). To say this may have been helpful to some people, but it is not clear that there was anything new or particularly interesting about it: of course human beings have a set of innate desires and a set of moral beliefs, which may come into conflict, as well as a self that oversees such conflicts.

But Freud has some distinctive ideas about the content and formation of these mental systems that are anything but banal. Among our instincts he supposes an instinct for death as well as for life (“thanatos” as well as “eros”); but this is scarcely credible on biological grounds, since an animal with a death instinct is hardly likely to do well in the game of survival and reproduction. And are other animals supposed to have such a death instinct? Insofar as we have self-destructive desires, how are we to account for them as part of our instinctual biological endowment? Also incredible is Freud’s theory of conscience, namely that it is the internalized result of parental and societal prohibitions. That may have some truth for the prerational phase of child development; and the prohibitions and punishments of our childhood obviously affect the formation of our personalities. But they surely do not account for all the moral choices made by the mature reflective beings most of us aspire to be. Our moral faculty is far more free of parental influence than Freud allows, which is why in adulthood we often reject the morality enforced by our parents and their generation. Once again, we see Freud overreaching, procrustean, forcing everything into his narrow theoretical frame. It is not, contrary to the Freudian view, that we don’t want to believe his theories; it is just that we don’t see why we should.

If Freud’s theories are so shaky in their foundations, why does he remain such a popular thinker? Where does his undeniable attraction come from? He is a highly seductive writer, alternately imploring and hectoring, easily able to make the reader feel that she is stodgy and prejudiced and afraid of the truth. He is also an inspired writer: he seems to open up a whole unseen world of drama and structure, an entire hidden layer to human life; under his scrutiny, we are so much deeper than we thought. He offers us, too, the heady joys of explanatory omniscience: we thought something was puzzling and lacking sense, but it turns out that our explanatory powers are far greater than we suspected—he makes us so much more knowing about people.

His emphasis on sex is itself highly seductive. Wittgenstein observed that there is an undeniable appeal in the very repulsiveness of Freud’s picture of the human soul.12 There is something reassuring in the idea that we are all a boiling pit of unspeakable urges which we strive ceaselessly to contain. And it is enticing to believe that one is fighting the forces of sexual suppression and dishonesty—as if to disagree with Freud is to endorse the sanitized vision of human psychology purveyed by sentimental Victorian morality. Freud makes us feel we are party to the dark and thrilling truth about ourselves, brave spirits in a blind world. It is all very appealing, very worldly and wised-up. But it may be that for all of his hold on the twentieth-century mind, for all his modernism and atheism and skepticism, Freud’s theories are just one more myth about human nature—an intoxicating mixture of truth, half-truth, and sheer invention.

  1. 8

    There is a good critical discussion of Freud’s treatment of sexuality in Malcolm Macmillan, Freud Evaluated (MIT Press, 1997), Chapter 10.

  2. 9

    Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psychoanalysis, pp. 71-72.

  3. 10

    In a recent book, The Scientist in the Crib, by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl (Morrow, 1999), three distinguished child psychologists write: “One of the things that Freud got right was the startlingly erotic character of three-year-olds. (We’re developmental psychologists, and it still startles us.)” But it is a quite separate question whether this sexuality has the structure and dynamics postulated by Freud; the authors write that preschool children are “more like Proust’s Swann in love with the enigmatic Odette than like Oedipus in love with Jocasta.”

  4. 11

    For example, Freud writes on pp. 49- 50 of An Outline of Psychoanalysis: “The severest demand on the ego is probably the keeping down of the instinctual claims of the id, to accomplish which it is obliged to maintain large expenditures of energy on anticathexes. But the demands made by the super-ego too may become so powerful and so relentless that the ego may be paralyzed, as it were, in the face of its other tasks. We may suspect that, in the economic conflicts which arise at this point, the id and the super-ego often make common cause against the hard-pressed ego which tries to cling to reality in order to retain its normal state.”

  5. 12

    Quoted by Frank Cioffi in “The Freud Controversy: What Is at Issue?” in Roth, Freud: Conflict and Culture, p. 173.

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