Sigmund Freud, Part One

SIGMUND FREUD (1856 – 1939)



Freud died in exile in London from tongue and throat cancer, brought on from his longtime habit of smoking some twenty cigars a day. He had left his native Vienna reluctantly, as he also suffered from a bit of agoraphobia, under threat from the occupying Nazi regime that was determined to kill all Jews, regardless of how famous they were. Freud was on the list of those destined for extermination but was persuaded to find safety. His sisters refused to leave, stayed behind, and died in the camps. Freud also died, in agony, without ever having seen the city that was the metaphor for his newly conceptualized theory of the human mind—psychoanalysis. That city was Rome, buried, like the human mind under many layers of the past. The analyst, like the archaeologist, was expected to excavate the mind, to dig beneath the encrustations of memory to relocate the source of the disturbance. Psychoanalysis is a science of investigation.

Although Freud did not invent the science of the human mind, he was certainly the most eloquent, insightful, and poetic of those who attempted to chart the terrain of human thought. Like Charles Darwin, who came before him, Freud managed to pull together a number of preexisting ideas into a coherent framework that struck a cord with the public. Like Darwin, Freud would be used and misused, understood and misunderstood. His ideas would be pragamatized and medicalized in practical America. The Nazis would simply dismiss his writings as “Jewish” and burn them in bonfires. His ideas would be turned into literature in France under Jacques Lacan. And his ideas would be deemed “sexist” by a new generation of women in philosophy who, as feminist scholars, criticized his male-centric philosophy.

Contemporary science and current events may have disproved many of Freud’s suggestions, but his basic insights remain as provocative today as they did one hundred years ago. Nietzsche would have noted that Freud only reflected the temper of his own time and a contemporary historian would caution against judging Freud anachronistically. Instead, his many books, Civilization and Its Discontents, The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Pschopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality (1905), Totem and Taboo (1913), Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), The Ego and the Id (1923), Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926), need to be read as literature and as a writer who conveyed some of the “truths” of his own time. His insistent gendering of all human activities only reflected the obsessive gendering of society at the end of the nineteenth century as a possible reaction to the need to keep women “in their place” when faced with the demands of the First Wave of Feminism.

Typical of his era, Freud conceptualized the human mind as dynamic, as a living organism, and utilized a biological model of becoming and evolution. Equally in keeping with the mindset of the century, Freud visualized the mind as being divided between two parts, the conscious, and the unconscious. The conscious mind is that which is familiar and that which is accessible, both to the individual and to those around her. The conscious mind, according to Karl Marx, has been formed in a matrix that is social. For Freud, this mind is formed elsewhere—in another time and place, in childhood—through a series of infantile traumas that caused part of that mind to go underground, as it were, to become that which is called the “unconscious”. The unconscious mind is the central concept of Freudian thought.

Both Marx and Freud are Modernist model builders and their thinking is architectonic. Marx used the metaphor of the base and superstructure, a building in which the base is the mode of production, the economy, and the superstructure, the many rooms, is education, government, the arts, and so on. Freud imagined the mind as a divided form, split into thirds: id, ego and super ego as well as the conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious. Although it seems to be like Marx’s base with the conscious mind as a sort of mental superstructure, the unconscious mind is deeply hidden and well defended. In contrast, Marx’s base and superstructure were in a constant state of dialectical interaction. Freud works less with a dialectical structure and constructs a depth model—one penetrates from above, seeking to locate and to interpret that which is hidden beneath.

Both philosophers seek the truth and have faith that truth will be revealed when that which conceals truth is removed. What follows is recover—social recovery or psychic recovery to health and balance. For Marx, ideology is the “false consciousness” which conceals the true purposes of the ruling classes. Moreover, ideology is more than lies; ideology is very the structure of the consciousness that leads members of society to collude with the interests of the ruling power. In other words, what is of interest is not the specific aspects of the “falsity” but the structure of thought that make false consciousness possible and effective. For Freud, the truth of the unconscious is also embedded in a structure that has its own topography.

The Freudian personality is organized in three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. This split mind is the result of Civilization, which is mastery over nature, or the ungoverned human being. The cause of this mental fracturing was what Freud called “the Oedipal complex (in men) (the Electra complex in women) a trauma suffered in childhood when a child is separated from his first love object, his mother by his father, from whom he fears castration. As Richard Wollheim explained it in his 1971 book Sigmund Freud,

…the indissoluble connection of the superego with the Oedipus complex accounts for the remarkable intransigence of morality and its comparative imperviousness to reason. Rooted as it is in what Freud had called the “infantile neurosis,” it shares in the backward-looking character that we have already seen to be of the essence of the neurosis itself.

In his seminal late work of 1930, Civilization and its Discontents, located the cause of “neurosis” or “discontent” in the state of “civilization.” Freud asked a simple question: why are we so unhappy? The answer is that for humans to come together in a civilized state, repression of the most basic instincts was necessary, resulting in sublimation of basic instincts. These instincts are “instincts” and “basic” due to necessity. In order to survive, humans had to be aggressive, but in a social setting, the law forbids aggression. The resulting conflict between the repression of these instincts is a neurosis of guilt and conflict.

Writing during a decade of social upheaval, Freud noted that these instincts are either rechanneled or redirected or simply ruthlessly disciplined by the ruling forces of society. Unknowingly between two wars, the Great War still fresh in his memory, the philosopher seemed to sense the conflicts to come. He stated,

What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! ‘Natural’ ethics, as it is called, has nothing to offer here except the narcissistic satisfaction of being able to think oneself better than others. At this point the ethics based on religion introduces its promises of a better after-life. But so long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic misconception of human nature.

Writing about the same time, Nietzsche also saw civilization as causing human dis-ease and alienation. With Freud, these ruling forces were internalized as the Superego, which controlled the Id, or the defiant instincts, always threatening to reemerge and disrupt civilized life. Squeezed in-between the childish Id and the parental Superego, is the Ego, the disciplined adult mind that fights for mental health, balance and harmony. That conscious mind has become, over time, a city like Rome, one part visible and functioning openly and the part being covered with layers of repressed instincts, called the psyche. For his entire career, Freud sought to alleviate the psychic pain of humans. The question was how to get behind the mind’s defenses and to reach the buried layers of the psyche.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]