The big news was that charming little girls have the hots for their daddies – indeed, that they have the hots for anyone. But equally interesting and important was the realization that the content of the unconscious is repressed wishes rather than repressed memories. Over a long period of time, Freud explored this insight, particularly with regard to dreams. Again and again, he found [or, to be quite precise, he believed he found] that dreams were, in a complicated fashion, the eruption into consciousness of repressed wishes. Every dream, he finally concluded, is the expression of a wish. Inasmuch as many dreams are rather frightening and dark in both their content and their tonality, this was a counterintuitive conclusion. Since, as I have several times remarked, I am writing this from memory without access to my copies of Freud’s writings, I cannot give examples taken from The Interpretation of Dreams. If you take the trouble to read that very long, very detailed book, you will find there countless descriptions of dreams and their interpretation. Many of the dreams were related to Freud by patients. Some of the most interesting are Freud’s own dreams.
Dreams by and large present a puzzling array of images, events, actions, and words, frequently strung together in no obviously coherent or logical order. Since we are of course not awake when we are dreaming, our knowledge of the content of our dreams always depends on after the fact recollections. Freud therefore was forced to ask his patients to recount their dreams, and as all of you will attest who have ever tried to recall a dream, these recollections can be spotty, episodic, and uncertain. Freud found it useful to have his patients associate freely to or another of the elements of a reported dream. The patient was told not to try to make sense out of the dream, but simply to put into words the first thing that came to mind when thinking about an element of a dream, and then to continue voicing the associations until they ran dry. Freud discovered that it was unhelpful to ask the patient to associate to, or comment on, a dream as a whole, as though the patient were doing literary criticism. Instead, each separate element became the spur for a train of association. There is so much to say about what Freud discovered in the course of these efforts at dream interpretation that I could not begin to cover the subject adequately, even if I had my books with me.
For example, Freud found that quite often the element in the dream that proved most important was, in the initial report of the dream, all but overlooked. “Important” here means, among other things, fraught with powerful emotional overtones, sometimes not “rationally” connected to the “story” of the dream. For example [I am making this up, now], a patient might report a dream in which he was confronted by a huge, roaring lion, and yet felt no fear or apprehension, either in the dream or when reporting it during a therapeutic session. In the dream, standing next to the roaring lion, might be a small, inoffensive child, and the presence of the child in the dream might seem to the patient ominous and terrifying. Through associations and interpretations, Freud would try to figure out what the child and the lion meant to the patient. And so forth. Again and again, Freud would find that the chain of associations led to a repressed wish, often a wish from early childhood, and also often a wish of some sexual nature.
Freud’s claim that little children have sexual desires was far and away the most controversial of the many problematic theses he advanced over the course of his career. As it came to play so central a role in his explication of the mental disorders he called neuroses, I will spend a little time here discussing it, even though it does not fit exactly into the framework of five questions that I have been using to organize this part of my tutorial. Human beings are mammals, and all normal mammals develop into sexually mature adults capable of reproducing. Many mammals, even those quite high on the evolutionary ladder, develop the ability to reproduce after a fairly short time – three or four years, for example, for lions. A few mammals take much longer [elephants, judging from the information on the web, come to maturity at ten years or a bit older.] In human beings, reproductive maturity is reached at what is called puberty, when the male body is able to produce sperm, and the female body is able to ovulate. This stage of physical and neurological development, which occurs anywhere from eleven to fourteen or fifteen years after birth, is accompanied by a variety of what are called secondary sexual characteristics.
If one were simply extrapolating from other mammalian species, one would expect that the human development to sexual maturity would be a linear process, lasting eleven to fourteen years, terminating in the ability to reproduce. But on the basis of what he discovered in his clinical experience, Freud eventually concluded that in humans – but not in other mammals – the process actually occurs in two stages. First, there is a normal linear process starting shortly after birth and continuing until the young boy or girl is psychologically ready for reproduction, but not yet at all physically ready. In fact, Freud decided, the normal child goes through a sequence of stages of development in which sexual feelings are attached to or associated with first one and then another part of the body, culminating at perhaps six or seven years of age with sexual feelings focused on the parts of the body that will play the central functional role in reproduction – the penis and the vagina. But then, instead of developing the physical capacity for reproduction, the human body goes through an extended period of arrested sexual development that Freud eventually called “latency,” at the end of which period, the physical developmental process is resumed, the young man or woman goes through puberty [with all the associated hormonal changes], and emerges physically ready for reproduction.
This two-stage process of psychosexual development, Freud concluded, has the most profound effect on the formation of adult personality, and also is implicated in a wide variety of neuroses, or painful and self-defeating functioning in some adults. It was these neuroses, more than any other neurological manifestations, that were the subject of Freud’s clinical work and his theorizing about what that clinical work was revealing to him.
Fourth: What are the laws or rules that govern the way in which the materials of the unconscious function, and is there any way in which those laws or rules are different from the laws or rules governing conscious thinking?
We come now to what is, for me at least, the most interesting, complex, and revolutionary of Freud’s theoretical discoveries. The full working-out of its ramifications and implications resulted in a picture of the structure and functioning of the human psyche utterly different from what had been advanced by philosophers and psychologists in the preceding two and a half millennia. I am going to sketch as much of this development as I can in this segment of my tutorial, and then return to it for further elaboration later on.