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Sunday, May 8, 2011


We shall have a great deal more to say about dreams, as they were the object of a deep and continuing investigation by Freud, but let me continue on the path I have laid out by mentioning several other ways in which Freud hoped we might get past the Censor to access unconscious ideas. Both jokes and slips of the tongue, Freud thought, were moments when repressed materials gain overt expression, and he wrote some charming essays about each. [Freud was, of course, very much a man of his time – a proper Viennese bourgeois – so the jokes he analyzed were not real side-splitters or knee-slappers, and his examples of slips of the tongue were also a bit creaky.] The idea here is that at these moments of verbal play or simple verbal error, materials being forcibly repressed in the unconscious may erupt into public, as it were, and, in a revised and safer form, find expression. In focusing on dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue, Freud was carrying forward a process that has characterized the development of the Social Sciences and Humanities, as well as the physical sciences, in the last several hundred years.

For a long time, organized intellectual investigations of both the natural and human worlds concentrated on exploring what were thought to be elevated, important, or honorable phenomena: the motions of the heavenly bodies, the nature of the sun, the doings of kings and princes and generals, the foibles and follies of members of the upper classes. It was thought to be beneath the dignity of a gentleman even to take notice of the doings of peasants, or to attend to the feelings, thoughts, and desires of soldiers in the ranks rather than to those of their commanders – infra dignitate, as the Latin expression had it. There are some things it is better for a gentleman not to know, Aristotle suggested, by way of explaining why the Prime Mover knows only universal truths, not particulars. Much the same attitude was manifest in the Humanities, where poetry, tragedy, and philosophy were considered appropriate subjects for study, rather than low amusements like novels. [I believe it is the case that one could not formally study the novel at Oxford until well into the twentieth century.]

Little by little, curious and imaginative students of the human condition began to reason systematically about matters hitherto ignored. The bartering and trucking of the marketplace became the focus of the new discipline of Political Economy. Travelers turned their attention first to the barbaric religious practices of South Sea Islanders, then even to their kinship relations, art, music, and ways of getting their food and clothing, thus giving rise to the discipline of Anthropology. Sociology was born in an exploration of the statistics of suicide, and quickly extended to a wide range of behaviors, practices, and institutions that had long been the subject of witty commentary by chroniclers of manners, but never before the object of organized scientific investigation. Even historians, long accustomed to relate the succession of dynasties and the heroic doings of warriors, began to gather information about members of the middle classes, and even of the lower classes. Jokes and slips of the tongue are very much the detritus of quotidien life, familiar enough, but passed over when the time comes to think seriously about the human condition. Freud sought to use them as clues to the unconscious.

Dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue are all objects of investigation. Freud’s last avenue to the unconscious, and eventually central to his therapeutic technique, was a process that he called free association. During the therapeutic sessions that he conducted, he would ask his patients to allow their minds to wander freely, as far as possible without the censorship and correction that we all subject our thoughts to before we voice them. Patients were called upon, as a condition of the therapy, to agree to say whatever came into their minds, no matter how seemingly irrelevant, inconsequent, or even vulgar or embarrassing. This demand by Freud may not strike modern readers as particularly onerous, considering that young people amuse themselves on occasion by playing “truth or dare,” or by “sexting” nude pictures of themselves to their friends. But it was a very difficult condition to meet for women [and men] brought up in proper, bourgeois Viennese families. To make the process of free association flow more easily, Freud would arrange his consulting room so that patients were reclining on a sofa, thus mimicking the experience of going to sleep. The lights were kept dim, and Freud himself sat so that the patients could not see him. Instead of responding conversationally to what the patient said, Freud would remain silent, creating a space in which the patient could continue to process of voicing whatever came to mind. All of this was designed to circumvent the ordinary social norms governing the exchanges between adults, exchanges in which, so to speak, the Censor was fully alert and on guard against the eruption into the public world of those repressed thoughts.

Third: What is the content of the unconscious? What can we learn about what resides in the unconscious?

At first, Freud anticipated that he would find the unconscious populated, as it were, by adult memories of experiences that the patient found too painful or frightening or – in his quaint terminology – “unacceptable” to be acknowledged, and which therefore had to be forcibly shoved into the unconscious and held there by powerful forces of repression. But more and more, he came to the conclusion from his clinical observations of and interactions with his patients that the unconscious actually contained ideas dating from quite early in the patient’s life, ideas that were more likely to be wishes than experiences. What is more, the ideas brought up out of the unconscious first by hypnosis and then by dream interpretation and free association were frequently sexual in nature.

There is a very great deal to say here, and as I am doing this in Paris from memory, I am unable to cite chapter and verse of some of the hundreds of examples that Freud gives in his writings. But one famous and complicated matter is worth describing in detail, both because it illustrates what Freud was finding, and also because it helps us to understand the reasons for the violent opposition Freud encountered when he began to lecture about and publish reports of his clinical observations.

As Freud conducted his practice, he found that one after another, young ladies from proper bourgeois families, who had come to him with a variety of hysterical complaints, reported under hypnosis, or as a consequence of free association, experiences, as little girls of four or five or six, of being sexually abused by their fathers. Now, doctors are accustomed to dealing with things that the rest of us, for the most part, do not have the misfortune to encounter. They see patients whose bodies have been terribly damaged by injury or ravaged by disease. They see patients with grotesque tumors, disfiguring congenital conditions, raging fevers. They see patients raving uncontrollably, wasting away from incurable maladies. Like any other professionally trained physician, Freud was prepared for this and a good deal more. So one young woman, or even two, claiming to have been molested as a child by her proper haut bourgeois father was manageable. But as the cases piled up, Freud struggled to make sense of what seemed to be a Viennese plague of abusive parents. Needless to say, when he reported his findings [always taking care completely to conceal the identity of the patients, needless to say], he was met with outrage, disbelief, censure, and professional ostracism. Now, Freud was a young man with a growing family to support, and it would have been easy and natural for him to conceal his findings in order to protect his professional reputation. But with great courage, he persevered, insisting that he was simply reporting what he had discovered in the course of his clinical practice.

At a certain point, Freud had an eclairecissement of the most fundamental importance. He realized that he was wrong. The patients were not in fact reporting childhood experiences; they were reporting the memories of childhood wishes! These women had not been molested as little girls by their fathers. They had, when no more than five or six, wished to be sexually involved with their fathers.

Well, that certainly got the fathers off the hook. But, if I may hopelessly mix my metaphors, it got Freud into even hotter water. If there was any idea in late nineteenth century Vienna more unacceptable than the widespread sexual abuse of little girls by their fathers, it was the claim that those adorable pure angels were possessed of full-blown sexual desire for their fathers! Once again, we must try to think our way back into the time in which Freud found himself, for one of his many legacies to us is the recognition of infantile sexuality.


summortus said...

Out of curiosity, what do you think of Jeffrey Masson's argument in "The Assault on Truth," that these repressed memories were in fact memories -- not wishes? Jettisoning the parts of Masson's argument that are extraneous, doesn't it seem possible that there was quite a lot of sexual abuse of female children by male adults in Victorian Vienna? While this does make mincemeat of the standard repression of asocial id desires by the superego, I don't know if that's the part of Freud to which I am most wedded, though I suppose if one wants to get to Marcuse, one needs just that account of repression. At any rate, I'd be curious to hear your evaluation of Masson's historical case.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am really not competent to judge. I recall a long while ago reading a lengthy exchange about Masson's views and concluding that he had got the short end of the argument, but I cannot even recall the details now. What really interests me is not whether lots and lots of little Victorian girls got abused by their fathers, but rather the notion of the content of the unconscious as repressed wishes rather than memories -- that and the notion of infantile sexuality, which seems to me obviously right simply from my own observation of young children. As I go on, I will try to say more about this.