In the history of ideas, few writers have been so controversial as Sigmund Freud. To this day his works divide the room, with some revering him as a fearless, ground-breaking prophet, others branding him a charlatan, proved wrong on almost every point. But Freud’s influence on 20th century novelists, poets, philosophers, psychologists, and painters has been so great that even if he were proved wrong it would still be important to understand his theories. Indeed, this influence can hardly be exaggerated. Along with Marx, Nietzsche, and Darwin, Freud shaped the intellectual landscape of the 20th century.
Before turning to Freud himself, it would be helpful to understand why he has generated such hostility and controversy. First, he dealt a fresh blow to human pride. In the 15th century, Copernicus had revealed that the Earth orbited the sun like any other planet. Then, in the 1850s, the English naturalist Charles Darwin provided overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution, showing how it worked and suggesting that human beings, far from the pinnacle of creation, were just another animal species. Freud delivered a final blow, demonstrating that reason, prized as the distinguishing feature of a civilized European, was limited; a great deal of thought and action was in fact driven by unconscious forces.
The second revelation was even more controversial. Freud suggested that children, far from spotless little angels, were sexual beings who experienced sexual, aggressive, and even sadistic desire and pleasure. This struck at the heart. The Romantics had established the idea that childhood was a golden age, a time of purity and innocence.
Freud was born in what is now Czechoslovakia in 1857, the first son of middle-class Jewish parents. When he was 3, his family moved to Vienna, where Freud remained until a year before his death. As a young man, he hoped to be a research scientist. And this ambition reveals a crucial aspect of Freud’s character, one that was to shape the development of his ideas. Freud was an atheist who believed passionately in the European Enlightenment. He was also a pessimist. In his opinion, civilization itself was fragile and unnatural and could only be maintained through the denial of instinct and the exercise of reason.
Ultimately, Freud became a medical doctor instead of a researcher and went on to specialize in neurology, setting up a private practice in Vienna. It was through this private practice that he was to make his great discoveries. Many of his patients suffered from hysterical or obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Others had physical symptoms for which there was no anatomical or physiological explanation. By hypnotising them, or analyzing their dreams, fantasies, and slips of the tongue, Freud concluded that a great deal of so-called physical illness in fact derived from the repression of traumatic memories and sexual and violent desires.
When the Nazis occupied Vienna in the 1930s, Freud knew he would eventually have to leave. A lifelong anglophile, he decided to settle in England and left for London in 1938, dying there from cancer in 1939.
Ego, Id, and Superego
Freud developed what is sometimes known as a tripartite theory of the human psyche. In essence, he believed that the mind could be divided between a seething, swirling, amoral entity he labelled the ‘id’, a rational centre of consciousness he called the ‘ego’, and a sort of moral judge he christened the ‘superego’. The id seeks the immediate satisfaction of its violent and sexual desires, while the superego, derived from the moral codes, laws, and taboos of an individual’s family and society, sits in judgement. The ego is trapped between the other two. Failure to satisfy the first arouses anxiety and tension, while failure to satisfy the second causes shame and guilt. Thus to be human is to be forever torn between desire and morality.
Freud did not discover the unconscious. Many poets and philosophers before him had been aware of such a thing. But Freud was among the first to approach it as a scientific and medical problem. He was not seeking new theories, however, but new ways of healing people.
The unconscious is essentially an energy centre in which the id instincts reside. It is also the place in which thoughts begin, with conscious thoughts being the finished product. Finally, the unconscious is a sort of storage depot for all those thoughts, memories, and desires unacceptable to the ego and superego. Many of these desires date from childhood and are often incestuous, combining both love and aggression. Since they cannot be satisfied, the individual seeks to discharge the tension through neurotic symptoms.
A New Understanding of Sexuality
Freud demonstrated that sexual feelings and sexual life does not begin at puberty. In fact, even a baby has a sexual life. And that is because sexuality is not restricted to the sexual organs. The whole body is animated by a kind of sexual energy which Freud named the ‘libido’. And this libido is satisfied in different ways at different stages of life.
Freud named this learning process “the psychosexual stages of development.” First, as a baby, there comes the oral stage. At this stage, the child derives pleasure from sucking the mother’s breast. Next comes the anal stage, coinciding with potty training, in which the child obtains pleasure from either withholding or releasing excrement. This is followed by the phallic stage. It must be emphasized that the pleasure children derive from these stages is not the same as the pleasure experienced by a mature adult.
These psychosexual stages culminate in romantic love for the parent of the opposite sex. When it is accepted that this can never be consummated, the child represses the memory, enters a ‘latency period’ in which all sexual feeling is denied, and eventually begins puberty.
But this psychosexual development can be tricky. Individuals sometimes get stuck, or “fixated,” at particular stages of the process. Others regress. For example, people who cannot cope with a particularly stressful time of their life will often drink and smoke more than usual. Though they do not realize it, they are seeking the blissful satisfaction they originally found during breastfeeding. But since they can never return to the breast, sucking a bottle of beer or a cigarette will have to do.
Ask the average person which single word they associate with the name Sigmund Freud and most will reply “dreams.” Freud certainly broke new ground here, and his Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1900, was one of the century’s most influential books. In his opinion, dreams existed to preserve sleep. In sleep, the usual repressing mechanisms are relaxed. Unacceptable desires, lurking in the id, flood the mind, arousing anxiety and threatening the individual’s rest. To preserve sleep, the wish is satisfied in hallucinatory form. But, so as not to disturb the superego by arousing shame and guilt, this hallucination is disguised. In a sense, the dream is one long metaphor. By analyzing and interpreting these metaphors or symbols, you could lay bare the unconscious, enabling the individual to release pent-up tension and ease neurotic symptoms.
Of course, Freud’s theories are vastly more complex than this article suggests. Indeed, whole books have been written on the Oedipus complex alone. But an understanding of these key concepts is a good place to start.