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Friday, May 13, 2011


The powers acquired by the child as it develops, though ever greater [including as they do locomotion, speech, control of one’s bowels, etc.], always have a shadow of disappointment and regret hovering over them, for they are all necessary, painful compromises with the original fantasy of omnipotence. Or so Freud argued, on the basis both of his clinical experience and his interpretation of that experience. This view of the development of the child has been the subject of considerable debate in the post-Freud analytic community, and it might be worth pausing for a moment in my exposition to sketch the lineaments of that debate. As readers of his speculative essay, Civilization and its Discontents, will know, Freud had a rather dark and unillusioned view of the human condition. He thought that our infantile wish for instant gratification is doomed to be unfulfilled, and that all of the splendid accomplishments of high culture and industry, on which advanced civilization depend, are bought at a psychic price. We are forced by the nature of the universe to substitute the Reality Principle for the Pleasure Principle, as he put it. All of our achievements depend on our ability to defer gratification, accommodate ourselves to the relentless laws of physics, and substitute manageable satisfactions for the unfettered delights of which we dream [literally, as it happens]. And no matter how dutifully we submit to the rigors of reality, waiting for us at the end of life is enfeeblement, dementia, and death. The submission to reality begins in infancy with the failure of fantasy to bring instant gratification, and it is all down hill after that, so to speak.

But a number of students of infant and early childhood development have contested this dour portrayal. They claim that the development of reality-oriented competences enabling the infant to interact successfully with the world is actually evolutionarily hard-wired into the infant, for whom successful development is a mostly positive process not clouded by the pain and disappointment of unfulfilled fantasies. Problems of the sort that Freud encountered in his adult patients, they suggest, occur only when this natural process of development is warped or thwarted in some manner. Freud may have been correct in tracing his patients’ neuroses to repressed childhood wishes, these folks say, but he was too pessimistic in claiming that these early frustrations inevitably cast a pall over all of our psychic development.

The larger point here is this: On Freud’s view, the reality oriented rational self that philosophers have for millennia been identifying as human nature tout court is in fact a secondary formation, overlaid on the innate drives, instincts, and mental processes that, as I have observed, he called primary thought processes. The locus of this reality orientation, the Ego [in his terminology], sits uneasily on top of [so to speak] primary thought processes that stay with us throughout our lives and make themselves known in dreams, in neurotic symptoms, and even in such unlikely places as jokes and slips of the tongue.

Because my exposition, which has taken the form of answers to a series of questions, has gone on far too long, I shall draw it to a close with a brief answer to the fifth question, and then, after taking a deep breath, launch into a series of discussions of matters that have thus far been set to one side. Among those discussions will be an account of the ways in which the analysis of dreams revealed to Freud details of the primary thought processes. [Also sex, for those of you who have been waiting for it with bated breath,]

Fifth Question: In light of the answers to the first four questions, what is the most effective therapeutic strategy for treating patients afflicted with the sorts of problems Freud was dealing with?

As Freud struggled to treat his patients while using what he was observing to develop a revolutionary new theory of human personality, he also experimented with a variety of therapeutic techniques. The theory, of course, interacted with the techniques, each one being adjusted or altered in light of the other. The central problem was how to get at the materials of the unconscious and, by bringing them to light, relieve the symptoms that the patient had presented upon entering his consulting room.

[A brief aside: Regardless of what people have said coming after Freud, about how everyone should undergo analysis, and similar nonsense, Freud was quite clear that he was engaged in medical treatment, not philosophy or religion or counseling. The first commandment of the medical profession may be, Do no harm, but right after it surely comes a second commandment, Only treat the sick. I leave it to plastic surgeons to justify their professional behavior.]

After giving up on hypnosis, Freud tried the “talking therapy” that eventually became psychoanalysis. The aim was very definitely not to offer advice or counseling of any sort about real world current life problems. The aim was to get at the unconscious wishes, hang-ups, call them what you will, that were manifesting themselves as hysterical blindness or paralysis, or as compulsive, self-defeating behavior, or as uncontrollable rage, or as obsessive immobilizing fears [of snakes, of going out of one’s room, of little girls, of rabbits – whatever the patient presented.] Freud’s working hypothesis was that the thoughts doing the harm were wishes dating back to an early stage in the patient’s life, repressed in the unconscious and held there by the force of the Censor, wishes that as the doctor he had somehow to get at and bring to the surface. As I have already remarked, the arrangement of the consulting room was designed to lull the Censor into inattention, to weaken the forces of repression, and thus to increase the likelihood that the repressed material would erupt into consciousness.

The principal tactic was to get the patient to recount his or her dreams, and then by following trains of association with elements of the dream, to uncover the underlying wishes that were being manifested, in some way or other, in the dreams. Since this is an enormous subject, I shall defer discussing the interpretation of dreams to a later segment of this tutorial.

Initially, Freud thought that merely bringing the repressed material to light would be sufficient to relieve the symptoms, but this proved not to be true. Since the repressed material was powerful wishes charged with intense, and unabated, libidinal energy [to get ahead of ourselves just a bit], and since it was the original failure of the young child to work through and somehow come to terms with these powerful wishes that lay at the heart of the neurosis [or so Freud concluded], Freud had to find a way for the patient to resolve the long-frustrated and repressed wish, to deal with it in an open, adult, emotionally satisfactory fashion. Freud found that it was not enough for the patient simply to talk about the wishes, to talk about the feelings, to acknowledge their reality even though they were often very painful to contemplate. Eventually, Freud made the surprising discovery that a successful therapeutic resolution of the neurosis required that the patient transfer the wishes and feelings from their original object – a mother or father, say – to Freud himself as therapist. The patient had actually to feel these emotions as directed at the therapist, whether they were sexual desires or rage or envy or guilt.

Now, if you stop and think about it, this is really a very odd thing to have happen. If a forty year old male patient is [if I may speak informally] hung up on his six year old lust for his mother [who was, in his young eyes, beautiful and desirable, whatever the rest of the world might actually have thought of her], how on earth is he supposed to transfer that lust, still vivid and alive in his unconscious despite the passage of thirty-four intervening years, to a bearded fifty-ish cigar smoking doctor with the unlikely name “Freud.” [“Freud,” for those of you who, like me, are linguistically challenged, means “joy” in German. Contrary to what you might guess, that really was his original name, not a nom de profession that he adopted once he saw which way his research was heading.]


Bob said...

As we learned in the latter part of the twentieth century these "repressed memories" were more often planted than released!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think you are referring to a controversy that really has very little to do with Freud's work.

Bob said...

Perhaps, and yet a heated debate exists in the professional literature concerning the very existence of repression. Those who accept the notion are largely therapists with a psychoanalytic (i.e., Freudian) bent (or patients of Freudian therapists who have converted). Experimental psychologists, by and large, tend to have more doubts about the idea of repression. They note, for instance, how many people fervently wish they could repress terrible scenes from their childhood. Even among those who accept the reality of repression, there are still disagreements about how extensive it is and what techniques, if any, might bring repressed memories to light. Various clinicians have advocated free-association, dream analysis, hypnosis, dissociative drugs, and guided imagery in a trance-like reverie as ways to revive these hidden memories. Critics contend that these procedures are as likely to produce fantasy and confabulations that feel like valid recollections as they are to expose true hidden memories.
Freud's "theory" may have a lot to do with our accepting a vocabulary that suggests or reifies aspects of our memory as being of a certain kind that would serve as a"place" for these repressed memories to reside.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You see, this is exactly what I was trying to avoid by the tone and content of my tutorial. The use of terms like "converted" and the use of scare quotes makes it clear that we are involved in a quasi-religious or ideological controversy, and I simply want none of that. If you think the evidence does not support Freud's theories, so be it. I find much of what he says persuasive [and some of what he says not persuasive -- what else would you expect in a medical or scientific investigation?] I am just not going to get into these disputes.

Bob said...

You write: "I am just not going to get into these disputes."
Fair enough; it is your Blog and you can write what you want.