The Dialogue of the Mind With Itself: Volume III: Early Psycho-Analytic Publications (1893-1899)
What drove Freud to develop psychoanalysis? Why wasn't he satisfied with a wholly materialist account of consciousness and mental suffering, such as the one he tried to develop in the Project for a Scientific Psychology? These questions are at the heart of the conflicted Volume III: Early Psycho-Analytic Publications. On the one hand, Freud presents here the fullest account of the theory of repression (in 1894's "The neuro-psychoses of defence"), which significantly foreshadows the future development of Freud's work. On the other hand, Freud in these essays is still wedded to the "seduction theory" of hysteria, which he will reject in order to turn fully to psychoanalytic work. What we see in the book is Freud clinging to, but ultimately moving past, his initial theory of hysteria.
The seduction theory arose from Freud's clinical experience. Observing that his patients continually produced stories about sexual relations at a very early age, or with family members, or some other traumatic element, Freud first inferred that this must be the cause of hysteria: The premature seduction (broadly construed) of a child into the world of adult sexuality. As legions of Freud's critics, then and now, have observed, that would mean that the sexual abuse of children, perhaps especially of young girls, is astonishingly prevalent (at least, in the sections of Vienna from which Freud drew his patients). In these early works, Freud usually argues that the memory of this abuse has been repressed, and it is the work of analysis to excavate it. Soon, however, Freud would change his mind, arguing that what was central to the onset of hysteria was not actual trauma, but rather, fantasies about trauma, including, perhaps, the fantasy of having had sexual relations with one's father. (His views change pretty significantly over time, in ways that we'll track here. As Chris Lane says below, that's one of the most interesting aspects of Freud: his shifting attempts to understand mental suffering.)
But shifting his attention from actual trauma to fantasies about trauma has proved enormously controversial. Many critics have argued that this shift sells out the victims of childhood sexual abuse, and that it tends to cover over the sins of the bourgeoisie, who, after all, were Freud's friends and colleagues. And certainly I do not want to downplay either the reality, or the horror, of sexual abuse.
To understand Freud's shift, though, it probably helps to adjust the frame of reference a little bit: Actual traumas don't, in the first instance, require psychoanalytic help. They require medical, and sometimes legal or judicial, intervention. What psychoanalysis can help with is the way we end up making meaning of our lives -- the various reasons why sometimes we believe our own stories, even when they're not true, and even when that belief seems to make us miserable. Why might we enjoy believing the worst about someone else, or even about ourselves? That the "worst" is occasionally, or even frequently, true doesn't tell us anything about the role of that truth in our mental lives. In the second instance, psychoanalysis works backwards -- it's about the ways in which our minds work over memories, preserving and transforming them. It's not good at solving problems in real time. (There's a hilarious moment, discussed in Mark Edmundson's The Death of Sigmund Freud, when someone asks Freud how being an analyst influenced his parenting. His answer, in effect, was that he parents as a parent, not as an analyst.) In an analysis, you're never dealing with an actual event, but only the story that a person tells about it. That story has a meaning for the person -- a meaning that's related to, but not reducible to, whatever really happened.
Of course, in Volume III, Freud hasn't yet made this move -- however, the theory of repression (and of psychic defense in general) brings him directly to the heart of the matter: Who, or what, speaks in a fantasy? To what end? By whose authority? To answer those questions, Freud embarks on his self-analysis, the fruits of which are published in Volumes IV & V of the Standard Edition, as The Interpretation of Dreams.
Elsewhere in this issue, Christopher Lane discusses his new book, Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness (Yale UP, 2007). He was also good enough to answer these questions, which are closer to the theme of the column than the interview.
What does Freud have to offer an intelligent lay reader?
Freud has been characterized and mischaracterized in so many ways that even to mention him these days is to court the response: We know almost everything we need to know about him. The surprise of reading him, though, is the combination of accessible, witty prose with insights that are highly paradoxical and counterintuitive. I find that combination appealing. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to appreciate his insights as well as the extent of the conflicts he raises.
Why do you think Freudianism has persisted so long in the humanities? (If it has?)
Yes, I think it has. And one reason for that among literary scholars is definitely that the material we work with is fiction -- imaginary writing. Psychoanalysis to my mind offers the best (most subtle and cogent) way of talking about fantasy, the twists and turns of desire, dilemmas of and difficulties in identification, and complex types of motivation that virtually all other approaches to psychology are at a loss to explain. True, some philosophers deplore Freudianism, but many that don’t recognize a serious philosophical edge to his thinking, because it involves ethics, perception, knowledge, belief, political theory, and so much else besides. Freudianism complicates each of these elements, in ways that I find vital and necessary.
Do you have a "favorite" Freud text, one that you particularly enjoy reading, teaching, or thinking about?
There are passages in The Future of an Illusion that are, to my mind, quite brilliant and redolent. But I also find myself pulled to Civilization and Its Discontents, both in class and in my writing, because, despite the book’s deceptive simplicity, it really gets to the heart of so many ethical problems -- between couples, among families, between squabbling neighbors, among varied groups. In many ways it’s a flawed, uneven work that’s sometimes too schematic and at other times too conjectural, but its appeal, to me, is that it grapples with urgent questions for which there aren’t simple answers.
--Next month (and the month after): Vols 4 & 5 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900 ). Also upcoming, an interview with Jeff Warren, author of The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness