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8.4: Freud

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  • While not an artist himself, the great thinker of modernism was, in many ways, Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939). Freud was one of the founders of the medical and scientific discipline of psychology. He was the forefather of the concept of modern therapy itself and his theories, while now largely rejected by psychologists in terms of their empirical accuracy, nevertheless continue to exert tremendous influence. In historical hindsight, Freud’s importance derives from his work as a philosopher of the mind more so than as a “scientist” per se, although it was precisely his drive for his work to be respected as a true science that inspired his research and writing.

    Freud was born in Moravia (today’s Czech Republic) in 1856, and his family eventually moved to Vienna, the capital of the Austrian Empire of which Moravia was part. Freud was Jewish, and his family underwent a generational transformation that was very common among Central European Jews in the latter part of the nineteenth century, following legal emancipation from anti-Semitic laws: his grandparents were unassimilated and poor, his parents were able to create a successful business in a major city, and Freud himself became a highly-educated professional (he received his medical degree in 1881). Many of Freud's theories were influenced by his own experience as a brilliant scholar who happened to be Jewish, living in a society rife with anti-Semitism - he sought to understand the inner psychological drives that led people to engage in irrational behavior.

    Sigmund Freud in a suit, holding a cigar.
    Figure 8.4.1: The best-known portrait of Freud, dating from 1921.

    Freud's greatest accomplishment was diagnosing the essential irrationality of the human mind. Influenced by modernist philosophers, by great writers like Shakespeare, and by Darwin's work on evolution, Freud came to believe that the mind itself "evolved" from childhood into adulthood in a fundamentally hostile psychic environment. The mind was forced to conform to social pressure from outside while being enslaved to its own unconscious desires (the "drives") that sought unlimited power and pleasure. Freud wanted to be the "Darwin of the mind," the inventor of a true science of psychology that could explain and, he hoped, cure psychological disorders.

    Freud became well known because of his work with “hysterical” patients. The word hysteria is related to the Greek hystera, meaning womb. Essentially, "hysteria" consisted of physical symptoms of panic, pain, and paralysis in women who had no detectable physical problems. “Hysteria” was a term invented to blame the female anatomy for physical symptoms, in the absence of other discernible causes. Freud, however, believed that hysteria was the result not of some unknown physical problem among women, but instead a physical result of psychological trauma - in almost all cases, that of what we would now describe as sexual abuse.

    Freud built on the work of an earlier psychologist and employed the "talking cure" with his hysterical patients - Freud named his version of the talking cure "psychoanalysis." The talking cure was the process by which the therapist and the patient recounted memories, dreams, and events, searching for a buried, suppressed idea that is causing physical symptoms. As Freud's theories developed, he identified a series of common causes tied to childhood traumas that seemed remarkably consistent. He extrapolated those into “scientific” truths, most of which had to do with the development of sexual identity. This culminated in his 1905 Three Essays in the Theory of Sexuality.

    The Freudian “talking cure” was verbal, inferential, and in a way speculative, since it was about the conversation between the therapist and the patient, working toward causes of mental disorder. The analyst played an active role, above and beyond the medical diagnosis of disorder. Freud believed that the human mind was almost always arrested in its progress toward mental health from childhood to adulthood. It was possible to be “healthy,” to be mostly unencumbered by mental disorders, but it was also very difficult to arrive at that position. In turn, he hoped that his theories would create "the possibility of happiness."

    Ultimately, Freud’s most important theories had to do with the nature of the unconscious mind. According to Freud, the thoughts and feelings we experience and can control are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Most thoughts and feelings are buried in the unconscious. Within the unconscious are stored repressed memories that trigger responses, verbal slips, and dreams, symptoms of their existence. It is always terribly difficult to reconcile one's desires and the requirements of socialization (of living in a society with its own rules and laws) and that leads inevitably to inner conflict. Thus, people form defense systems that may protect their emotions in the short term, but return later in life to cause unhappiness and alienation.

    According to Freud, there are three basic areas or states that exist simultaneously in the human mind. First, part of the unconscious is the “Id:” the seat of the drives for pleasure (sexual lust, power, security, food, alcohol and other drugs, etc.) and for what might be considered "obsession" - the seemingly irrational desires that have nothing to do with pleasure per se (pyromania, kleptomania, or seemingly self-destructive political activity). Freud called the drive for pleasure "eros," the Pleasure Principle, and the obsessive and self-destructive drive "thanatos," the Death Drive.

    Next, Freud identified another area of the unconscious as the “Superego:” the social pressure to conform, the confrontation with outside authority, and the overwhelming sense of shame and inadequacy that can, and usually does, result from facing all of the pressures of living in human society. In the context of his own, deeply Victorian bourgeois society, Freud identified the Superego’s demands as having to do primarily with the suppression of the desires that arose from the Id.

    Finally, the only aspect of the human psyche the mind is directly aware of is the “Ego:” the embattled conscious mind, forced to reconcile the drives of the Id and Superego with the "reality principle," the knowledge that to give in to one's urges completely would be to risk injury or death. In Freud's theory, the reason most people have so many psychological problems is that the Ego is perpetually beset by these powerful forces it is not consciously aware of. The Id bombards the Ego with an endless hunger for indulgence, while the Superego demands social conformity.

    In short, Freud described the mind itself as defying control: despite the illusion of free will and autonomy, no one is capable of complete self-control. Freudian theory suggested that the life of the mind was complicated and opaque, not rational and straightforward. The great dream of the optimistic theorists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had been that proper education and rational politics could create a perfect society. Freud, however, cautioned that no one is completely rational, and that politics could easily follow the path of the Death Drive and plunge whole nations, even whole civilizations, into self-destruction. He lived to see at least part of his worst fears come to pass at the end of the life as he fled from the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938.

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