Expanding the history of ideas, Freud popularized the possibility of a mental unconsciousness that could affect behavior, focusing upon individual biological drives. He elaborated a theory positing the mind as an intricate energy-system worthy of structural psychological investigation. He articulated these unconscious concepts as essential for explaining human mental development and mental abnormality treatment to include infantile sexuality, wish fulfillment/repression, a tripartite mental structure (id, ego, superego), and the Oedipus complex conjecture. This essay briefly explores some of Freud’s speculative ideas.
The Interpretation of Dreams
Freud claims his theories are transformative despite collegial disregard. He never promotes inconclusive opinions, reporting only established verified facts. In this account, he interpreted his own dreams, concluding that death of the father is the most significant human event. One such dream concerns a patient named Irma, and associated colleague involvement. Freud proceeds to self-analysis, searching for hidden content, motivation, and meaning. All dreams are primarily about “wish fulfillment,” and are attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict based on repression. Images in dreams are often ambiguous. Because dreams are not just an expression of disconnected brain activity, remembered fragments can help uncover masked import. In the specific case of the Irma dream, he was repressing malpractice responsibility. He was also exacting revenge against disapproving colleagues and customers. Thus, the dream’s purpose was to resolve professional conscientiousness or lack thereof. Because dreams are manifestations of emotions obscured in the unconscious that surface in disguised form, symbols or image presented have multiple meanings. He admits that after analysis a dream’s meaning might still be obscure. Nevertheless, everyone should self-analyze dreams to reveal hidden genuine meaning.
From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (“Wolf Man”)
Here Freud claims that difficult long-term psychoanalysis of severe illness produces best results. In this regard, a focus on childhood neurosis is paramount. Scenes from early infancy profoundly influence behavior in later life, whether those scenes are real or imagined. The affect can be severe enough to cause adult psychosis. Dream analysis proves the validity of psychoanalysis. By analyzing specific dreams of a psychotic aristocrat, the “Wolf Man,” Freud was able to unravel a complicated and deep-seated neurosis. The Wolf Man, when he was 3-5 years old, dreamed of a pack of white wolves in a tree seen through his bedroom window. The latent content included material derived from fairy tales and the “primal scene.” The primal scene was the Wolf Man’s observation, when 1.5 years old, of his parents in coitus a tergo. Freud claims that if this observation was real or just a fantasy is inconsequential to its effect. The effect included multiple vicissitudes of an obsession involving fear of father (wolf transference), fear of castration, and destruction of normal sexual functions. As all dreams result from restrained wish fulfillment, Wolf Man desired to have sex with his father (409). If an analysis proceeds to the proper depth, it is convincing (fact) (417).
Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood
To the psychoanalyst, nothing is too small to be a manifestation of hidden mental processes (471). Freud wished to extend his psychoanalytic theories as universal explanations. He therefore employed psychoanalytic methods to art, biography, and history through a speculative study of Leonardo da Vinci's life and motivations. Although Leonardo avoided antagonism and controversy, his contemporaries derided his scientific efforts. Nevertheless, for Leonardo, rebellion against his father caused his interest in science (473), and work becomes a substitute for sex (453). In fact, he converted sexuality into thirst for knowledge, and postponed love until full knowledge could be acquired (450). This stemmed from childhood sexual repression, including his illegitimate birth and excessive motherly tenderness (480). Evidence of these claims is contained in Leonardo’s notebooks that contain references to a vulture dream memory. Here Leonardo recounts being attacked as an infant by a vulture that “struck me many times against my lips” with its tail. This latently relates to sucking his mother's nipple, except this vulture tail represents a penis, replacing his mother. All of this is proof of a passive homosexual fantasy (458) (461) and castration anxiety (460). By repressing love for the mother, Leonardo was driven to narcissism and then homosexuality (running away from other women) (463).
Totem and Taboo
Continuing to extend his theories into all aspects of human activity, Freud attempts to apply psychoanalysis to archaeology, anthropology, and religion. He speculates the primitive system of Totemism is a universal construction of the Oedipus complex. Every clan has an animal totem (spirit of ancestor), involving a prohibition to harm or kill. Totem origins are numerous including childhood animal phobias and cultural ignorance of human reproduction, especially the male fertilization process. This leads to fear of the totem animal, displaced fear of the father (492), and patricide, creating a narcissistic precondition and fear of castration (493). This also promotes exogamy, where clan members are prohibited from totem incest. Once per year in ceremony, the totem animal-ancestor is killed, eaten, and wild rejoicing follows ritual grief. This totem meal involves sacrifice, formed kinship, and deity worship (497). God, the sacrificed animal, and the clan are all of the same bloodline. This represents killing and eating of the father, implies a deeper Primal Myth (repression of oedipal crime), and is the genesis of social organization, moral restrictions, religion, art, responsible for many modern behaviors (482) (501).
Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes
Anatomical differentiation affects psychosexual development stages. During the phallic phase, human children are bisexual and desire sex with both parents. When the boy first sees a girl's genitals, he initially denies her penis deficiency, later to develop castration anxiety. When the girl discovers the male penis, “she has seen it and knows that she is without it and wants to have it,” leading to penis envy. This causes a feeling of inferiority, jealousy, and a release of the girl's affectionate relationship with her mother, whom she blames for a nonexistent penis. Nevertheless, under the powerful Oedipus complex, the girl replaces her penis desire by a craving to procreate with her father: “Whereas in boys the Oedipus complex is destroyed by the castration complex, in girls it is made possible and led up to by the castration complex” (676). As the Oedipus complex never really disappears in women, female individuality culminates in a frail imperfectly formed ego, and subsequent sexual inequality.
Civilization and its Discontents
Civilization instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens. The value of civilization is in its potential to reduce pain. Humans seek pleasure instinctually; however, they are actually more motivated to avoid pain. Reality provides more opportunities for experiencing pain than pleasure, so most people will sacrifice pleasure if civilization can reduce suffering. When any desired pleasure situation is prolonged, it creates gratification. There exists a genuine and irreducible aggressive drive within all human beings formed by two instinctual forces of sex and death. Thus, the laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery restrict our possibilities for gratification. This sets-up deep tensions between civilization and the individual. The individual's quest for instinctual freedom and civilization's contrary demand for conformity and instinctual repression are in conflict. Civilization is a fundamental paradox. Created to protect us from discontent, it is our largest source of misery.
Religion Psychoanalysis Relationship
Religion socially functions in a way analogous to the unconscious mind. The formation of religion is based upon the suppression of certain self-serving, socially harmful, instinctual impulses/desires. Humans also need to resolve a painful, mortal existence and the cruel and caustic aspects of the natural world. Suffering is endemic to the reality that we must live with other human beings in a society, pitting individual needs against collective needs. Religion is a social structure allowing the individual to distance and reconcile suffering. Freud connects religious acts and obsessive ceremonials, and although not identical, they share many commonalties. Religion and neurosis relationships involve many obsessive characteristics including:
- Actions serve unconscious motives and ideas
- Action motives are the same, compelled by some unconscious childhood guilt
- Actions are compulsions carried out without understanding their principal meaning
- Action anxiety source is always hidden, necessitating defensive mechanisms used to avoid the danger of disquiet
- Actions tend to be completely secluded from all other actions, with no interruptions allowed
- Actions are infinitesimally performed and are significant in every detail
- Actions serve vital interests of the person involved through both direct and/or symbolic representation
- Actions involve qualms of conscience caused by neglect of the actions - anxiety and guilt
- Action performance is linked to punishment resulting from unsuccessful attempt to rid the self of the notions of sin, guilt, and anxiety
- Actions seek to control humanity's omnipresent instinctual or animal natures, both sexual drives and drives for self-preservation
- Actions leave the obsessive in a state of never ending conflict
- Actions are a compromise between the mental martial forces - instinctual desires and the yearning to avoid the consequences of those desires
Social Systems Proliferate Singular Obsessions
Social structure is a term used to refer to patterned arrangements in a human collective that are both emergent from and determine the actions of the individuals. Sanctity is the perceptive state of being religious and divine. Religious “sacred acts” transfer to other aspects of civilization through the collectivization of these obsessions in our social systems and structures. Therefore, certain “sacred acts” or ceremonial behaviors can become objects of devotion. That is, civilization requires each individual to sacrifice individual pleasure for the satisfaction of the sanctioned divinity. Progressive renunciation of constitutional instincts, whose activation might stimulate primary pleasure, appears as a foundation of human civilization development.
Such acts are exceptionally formal even though they may seem meaningless. Still the participator must partake. Any sacred act deviation engenders painful angst requiring immediate reparation. As such, the performance of a ceremonial act can be described as an unbreakable law. “Thus the ceremonial and obsessive actions arise partly as a defense against the temptation and partly as a protection against the ill which is expected.”(434) Sacred acts and associated obsessions provide structure and predictability, assisting quotidian uncertainty adaptation. The following is a partial list of singular obsession examples commonly transferred to Western social systems.
Demand/need for entertainment obsession, violence obsession, sex obsession, drug obsession, automobile culture obsession, gun ownership obsession, spectator sports obsession, money accumulation/wealth obsession, pet ownership obsession, celebrity worship obsession, tattoo obsession, cell phone/mobile device obsession, youth worship obsession, consumerism obsession, conformity obsession, food obsession, race relations obsession, national security obsession, terrorism obsession, climate obsession, tragedy obsession (school shooting, airplane crashes, etc.)
Freud speculated that the unconscious mind, anonymous to the conscious mind, has a sovereign will and purpose affecting overt behavior. Further, it is a hidden repository for socially unacceptable desires, traumatic memories, and agonizing emotions, all purged from consciousness by psychological repression. Individuals are in a constant state of mental confliction. This unconsciousness is an evolutionary product of instinctual biological forces, characterizing a universal human essence. If the “unconscious” has a profound effect on our understanding and behavior, beyond our control, then we do not define our own self-identity. This begins to question the implicit rationality, species-specific self-determination, and morality of humanism.
Freud’s authoritative claims can neither be validated nor falsified. However, significance does not equate to accuracy. Perhaps Freud’s import was to twist reason onto itself, revealing fragile command over profoundly complex mentalities. Constantly in flux, knowledge is never entirely indomitable, presenting no ultimate solution.
Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. The Freud Reader. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. Print.
"return of the repressed" wilson hurst 2013