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Monday, May 16, 2011


It is time to discuss Freud’s most famous contribution to developmental psychology – his account of the psycho-sexual development of the young child, and of the neurotic emotional deformations that occur when the progression of this development does not go well. Even those not particularly knowledgeable about Freud’s theories have encountered references to “the oral stage, the anal stage, and the genital stage,” as well as to the “Oedipal complex” and the less well-known “Electra complex.”

The new-born infant is, or seems to be, neurologically speaking, a bundle of nerve endings, drives, and instincts. Initially, its attention [if we can even speak this way] seems focused on its mouth and its alimentary tract. The first instinct it manifests is the sucking instinct. It responds immediately to the breast or to substitutes – the nipple of a bottle, or a pacifier -- and gives every evidence of experiencing intense pleasure from them. Right here, we need to note that there is, for Freud, an unavoidable indirect inference involved in concluding that the newborn infant experiences intense pleasure when sucking at the breast. I mean, he could not ask it, “How does that feel?” Today, it would presumably be possible to wire up the infant and see whether sucking lights up the “pleasure centers” in the brain – centers whose function has been established by performing like experiments with adult subjects who are capable of answering the question “How does that feel?” [thus linking the objective neurological evidence of the MRI to the subjective reports of pleasure.] Freud’s evidence is actually doubly indirect, since he appeals to the dreams and associations [and observed “fixations”] of adult patients, not even to direct observation of infants. But as someone who has done a good deal of giving of bottles to little babies in my day, I have not the slightest doubt that Freud was correct. Feel free to differ if you are so disposed.

On the basis of his clinical work, Freud concluded that we are all born with a powerful drive or instinct that he labeled “libido.” This is much broader and more diffuse than what we call “sexual desire” in adults, and as we shall see, contributes not only to our adult sexual life but also to the energy expressed in sports, in art, in career ambition, and in intellectual work. Much more of this later on. He also eventually concluded that we are also born with an aggressive drive or instinct that is not reducible to or explainable by reference to Libido.

When the infant is born, its nervous system is not yet fully developed, nor, needless to say, is its hormonal system. Over time, in the healthily developing child, the libidinal energy focused on the mouth [or “cathected,” as Freud said] becomes redirected to the anal region of the nervous system. The infant takes great pleasure in moving its bowels – pleasure that has a distinct sexual tonality to it. Little babies, so far as is suggested by observation and adult fantasies and dreams as well, take great pleasure in the movement of their bowels and in the products of their bowels, playing with their own feces and seemingly taking a kind of pride in what they have produced.

O.K., time to interrupt my exposition and make a few points, some controversial, some not. First of all, uncontroversially, it is, I believe, enormously to Freud’s credit that he wrote openly and explicitly about these matters, and did not try to insulate himself from the inevitable opprobrium he would bring down on himself by using Latinate terms or couching what he said in the language of the anatomy textbook. Modern readers may not be so impressed by this, present-day norms being what they are, but you can take it from me that in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, Freud knew that he was letting himself in for a world of criticism by saying such things and attributing such feelings and desires to little children. To a considerable extent, we owe our freedom to discuss these matters to Freud’s courageous example.

Second, and more controversially, these infantile oral, anal, and genital desires, pleasures, fantasies, and their associated hang-ups underlie a very great deal of what we consider elevated, sophisticated, socially quite acceptable thought and behavior, whether we realize it or not. Let me get ahead of myself a bit by giving you some examples.

** Fecal fascinations. How often have you heard someone say of a scholarly article he has just finished writing, “That’s pretty good shit”? Have you ever heard someone who is trying to sort out her life and get organized say, “I need to get my shit together”?

** Aggressive instincts, sublimated and concealed. Someone who has just made a powerful argument against an opponent in a debate, “I crushed him. I fucked him good.” A mathematician describing a proof of some very abstract proposition: “I just rammed it through.” Someone who has strongly criticized an underling in a bureaucratic hierarchy, “I tore him a new asshole.”

Notice that in all of these cases, the real world actuality – writing a scholarly article, organizing one’s life, making a good argument, proving a mathematical proposition, demonstrating a logical theorem, criticizing a subordinate – does not involve a lot that one is actually doing with one’s muscles, with one’s fists, with one’s penis. [I think of weeny little Woody Allen, dancing along the street after having managed to make love the previous night, saying with comic self-satisfaction, “I gave her some of my best moves,” as though he were a boxer in the ring, fighting a dangerous opponent.] Think of the enormous sensuous pleasure that one experiences when creating a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Recall my descriptions on this blog of the pleasure I take in managing to make a difficult idea clear, so that I can present it [as a lovely redolent turd] to an adoring public.

This displacement of powerful libidinal feelings about one’s mouth, one’s anus, one’s penis or vagina, Freud insists, is perfectly normal. These are the feelings from which we derive the energy we call on to do good work, to create great art, to develop satisfying and productive adult relationships, to make revolutions.

As the development of the child continues, the focus of the libidinal feelings becomes genital, rather than oral or anal. With this last stage in the full unfolding of the nervous system there come some pretty complicated transformations and problems. In addition, of course, if the development at any stage goes badly, the individual may get stuck, or “fixated” at that stage, with consequences that can erupt decades later in full blown neurotic symptoms. More of that tomorrow.

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