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Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The successful passage from the oral to the anal stage requires that the infant gain sufficient and sufficiently reliable satisfaction orally to be able to accept the inevitable frustrations and postponements of gratification that come with adapting to the real world. When teething begins, an erogenous zone previously entirely pleasurable now becomes intensely painful, triggering rage in the infant. [If “rage” seems too strong a term, I can only report the experience that I and innumerable other parents have had of watching a charming, cuddly baby erupt into red-faced screaming, inconsolable until given a teething biscuit or something – anything! – to ease the pain. Incidentally, one of the many confirmatory evidences of Freud’s characterization of the mentality of the young child is the astonishing speed with which babies go from happy cooing to ear-splitting screaming, and then back again.] A similarly successful passage must be made from the anal to the genital stage. This passage involves, among other things, the emotionally fraught business of toilet training. [I realize that there is a certain problem here of what in literary criticism is called “high and low styles.” Somehow, “learning to use the potty” doesn’t seem to rise to the same level of cultural/philosophical significance as, say, “substituting the Reality Principle for the Pleasure Principle.” But as parents know, toilet training is at a certain point in the development of the child quite the biggest thing happening. Once again, it was, in my opinion, a triumph for Freud to recognize these facts and accord them the importance that they deserve in the story of the slow formation of adult personality.]

It is difficult and even painful for little children to learn how to control their excretions and to deposit them in implausible places stipulated by supposedly loving and caring parents. After a long time during which no constraints at all are placed upon these bodily functions [the entire life of the child, remember, and therefore from its point of view an infinite time span], suddenly and to the child quite unaccountably, the powerful and loving parents start making demands that the child control its anal sphincter and urethral sphincter.

Like all the other developmental stages, this passage de corps has a profoundly ambivalent emotional significance. On the one hand, successful mastery of the sphincters brings exaggerated, exorbitant praise. “Good job!” “Well done!” “Robbie peed in the potty, Mommy!” “Robby is a big boy now and doesn’t need baby diapers any more!” On the other hand, this physical self-control is difficult and painful, it deprives the little child of one of its principal pleasures, instant and uncontrolled excretion. [God, is anyone still with me, or are you all making gagging motions and saying “Gross, gross?” This is the way it is, folks. This is what underlies all that rarefied philosophical theorizing and artistic creativity that we engage in. Sorry about that.]

The ambivalence is captured in our extremely complicated use of the terms “good” and “bad,” and the associated notions “front” and “back.” Our “good,” public, praiseworthy, grown-up side is our front, our face, the side we show to the rest of the world. Our “bad,” private, shameful, but secretly very pleasurable side is our back, what we hide, put behind us, cover up, are ashamed to acknowledge – where the anus is, with its product, our feces.

These transitions, from the oral to the anal phase, and from the anal to the genital phase, must for healthy development be accomplished with a balance of pleasure over pain, of praise over condemnation, so that the process is rewarding and acceptable to the child. If this does not happen, the child can become stuck at the earlier stage. As sexual feelings continue to develop, the child may never transfer the libidinal energy to the penis or vagina, but instead remain in effect committed to attempting to derive sexual satisfaction from the oral or anal sensory zones of the body. This is the origin of the sexual perversions that are presented by adult patients in the consulting room – patients who only want to suck a breast rather than have sexual intercourse, or who have fantasies [which may be played out with “low,” “unacceptable” sexual partners like prostitutes] of playing with feces or even defecating on the sexual partner. [Yeah, I know, this really is gross, but these are what any psychiatrist encounters, and that is what Freud was trying to treat clinically.]

At the genital level, all manner of problems can arise, Freud concluded from his clinical work. Before talking about them [here we go with the Oedipus Complex, folks], there is one really important difficulty with Freud’s work that I need to discuss. To put it as kindly as I can, Freud was, with all his genius and innovation and courage, a man of his place and time. As a consequence, he got certain aspects of the whole man/woman thing really screwed up. Like so many people of his time and place [but not all, let us note], he saw men as the norm, the model, the fully complete human beings, and women as secondary, lacking something [a penis, in the first place, of course], as appendages to men [if I can mix my metaphors a bit]. Now he was not simply blind. I believe it is the case that more than half of his patients were women, and when he claimed that women suffer from penis envy, and think of themselves as having lost something immensely valuable, he was basing this claim on what his female patients dreamed and fantasized and freely associated. The same is true of his claim that boys fear castration when they begin to have sexual desires for their mothers and come up against the frightening reality of their large, powerful, stern, disapproving fathers.

There is surely no doubt that all of this was true of some of the men and women he treated. Perhaps, given the culture and mores or upper middle class Viennese society, it was true of most of them. But Freud concluded that all of this was built into the universal schema of human psychosexual development, and he seems, so far as I can tell, not to have given serious consideration to the possibility that what he was discovering was in part specific to a certain historico-cultural moment.

There, that is about the gentlest and least condemnatory way that I can refer to a controversy that has generated a vast, angry literature. I confess that I do not hold this failure against Freud, even though one of the things he got massively wrong was homosexuality, a subject very close to my own personal life and family. The reason is that I do not view Freud as a prophet or a savior, a mentor, a guide along life’s path, anymore than I consider Immanuel Kant or Karl Marx in that way. I view Freud as a brilliant, creative, innovative scientist who advanced our understanding of the human condition in astonishing ways, and who also got some very big things just plain wrong. I do not find that at all surprising. Every great thinker I know of has exhibited the same sorts of failings and limitations. [Newton was big on astrology, for heaven’s sake, and Bishop Berkeley wrote a whole tome on the virtues of tar water.] My principle is always the same: Find a thinker whose ideas open new worlds to me, follow him or her into the depths of those ideas, master them, understand them, recognize their strengths and their weaknesses, and then move on.

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