HOW FREUD CHANGED YOUR LIFE
Denounced as pure filth, revered as ultimate truth, the teachings of Sigmund Freud have influenced our books, movies and the way we rear our children. He gave us the subconscious, the libido and the id
AT THE turn of the century a middle-aged doctor woke in Vienna from a strange dream. He dreamed that he was working in the hospital dissecting room, but that
the specimen he was preparing was his own pelvis. Methodically and conscientiously he noted his findings.
The dreamer was Sigmund Freud, then preparing his book “The Interpretation of Dreams.” In it the pelvis dream appears, together with its interpretation: it expressed Freud’s inner reluctance to give away so much of his inner life by publishing his work.
In the 50 years that have passed since then Freud has become world famous and many conflicting ideas have been labeled Freudian. His theories have been sneered at as filthy nonsense and treated with the hushed respect accorded religious dogma. Everybody has had something to say about
Psychoanalysis, his method of treating neurotics, has become equally famous. The man on the couch unburdening himself to the psychiatrist has become a familiar ingredient of magazine cartoons—talking to himself, for example, into a dictaphone. And, although psychoanalysis is only a very small part of psychology, many people think they are both the same. And both bunk.
All the same, we continually feel the influence of Freud throughout our everyday lives. When a mother looks in a parents’ magazine to see what to do about thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, she is probably being influenced by Freud. When a suspected criminal is given a rapid word-association test as part of a lie-detector examination, Freud’s theories suggested it.
His influence is conspicuous in our entertainment. Many
of the movies you see have somewhere a basis in Freudian theory (“The Snakepit,” “Lost Weekend”), usually considerably hashed over. If you pick up a new novel you will probably feel the influence of Freud. The chances are you won’t read James (“Finnegan’s Wake”) Joyce yourself; but writers read him and Joyce Cary’s recent novel, “The Horse’s Mouth,” bears the influence of Joyce, and through him, Freud. Even a topical revue audience is ready and eager to laugh at lines like “I’m the Sweetheart of Sigmund Freud.”
But Freud also explained many of the mysteries of human behavior, both big and little. Whenever men want to study each other it is to Freud they turn. He has explained just why you forgot the name of the fellow you were introduced to 10 minutes ago; why Australian aborigines always marry outside their clan; why Hamlet hesitated about killing his uncle; why you sometimes dream of flying; why people buying Valentine cards don’t like them to have pictures of cut flowers in vases; and why people laugh at jokes like the one about the man who said he had a bath every year whether he needed it or not, which Freud discusses in his book, “Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious.”
But while many people think of Freud with indignation as a cold-blooded muckraking extremist, or with a snigger as the man who invented sex, the fact remains that no scientist of recent times, with the possible exception of Einstein, has received more professional respect and admiration.
Many psychologists disagree with certain of Freud’s theories, or at any rate wish to modify them considerably. However, his life-size statue stands in the American Institute of Psychiatry.
In 1930 he was awarded the
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How Freud Changed Your life
Goethe Prize, then the highest scientific and literary award in Germany. In 1936 his 80th birthday was an international event, culminating in the birthday oration delivered by Thomas Mann in the Vienna Opera House. Mann compared Freud to Goethe’s ideal of a useful man: a drainer of swamps.
In 1938 Freud, as a Jew, became a victim of the Hitler invasion of Austria, and the great scientist, old and seriously ill with cancer, was unable to leave his apartment because of Nazi insults in the streets. Arrangements were made to ransom him and all over the world scientists worked together with princes and princesses to raise a quarter of a million Austrian schillings, which was raised to “purchase” a passport for Freud.
And when he finally arrived in London the great register of the Royal Society was carried to his house to sign —an honor extended before this only to royalty. He died in England on Sept. 23, 1939.
Freud's greatest achievement was a general one: to bring new life to the science of psychology. Although many of his theories have become so thoroughly accepted that it is surprising to think they were ever seriously questioned, Freud really opened up the whole field of the unconscious to students of psychology. Fifty years ago the effect among scientists was as though someone had discovered half a dozen new continents, as indeed Freud had. If every single one of his original theories is shown to be untrue (though this is very unlikely) he will still be respected as a great man for the tremendous impetus of his ideas.
Sad, Unhappy Minds
He said himself he realized he was one of those who have disturbed the world’s sleep. At first the disturbance was confined to scientists, but by the 20’s Freud had become the idol of the “lost generation.” It was a scientific age so sexual extravagances had to have a scientific excuse.
Freud was very indignant about being thus exploited. Always stern and conscientious he was contemptuous of the way ideas were recklessly distorted —especially on this side of the Atlantic. “America is vulgarizing too extensively,” he said. “The newspapers seem too prone to popularize the lewd instead of the intellectual fact.”
Most of his remarks showed this same Puritan directness and honesty. It was an attitude that made him few moderate friends: only warm
disciples, or bitter enemies. Pupils who disagreed with him, such as Jung and Adler, he treated with disparagement and scorn. He justified his intolerant attitude by saying, “What claims are to be made on us in the name of tolerance? That when somebody has expressed an opinion we consider fundamentally false, we should say, ‘Thanks for the contradiction.’ ”
But in the clinic or in his study, crowded with his collection of little statues, he was a different man. It is generally agreed that no psychiatrist has exceeded Freud in his skill and patience in working with the wretched, distraught people who came to him day after day and year after year, and whose sad, unhappy minds he labored to make well again. No wonder he was such a bitter opponent in debate. He knew the innermost souls of too many forlorn patients to treat the
healing of their minds as an academic puzzle, to be discontinued if it seemed to be turning out embarrassing.
But what of Freud’s theories? What did he say that made him such a remarkable object of controversy?
He said many things which are still highly controversial. He wrote a book to show that Moses was not a Jew. and several other books on religion that show either that he had a blank spot when it came to a religious sense or that we are still too superstitious to understand him. He was so inflexible about it that his nephew never even laid eyes on a Bible until he was 18.
There remain four main discoveries which are generally accepted. Taken together these lead to Freud’s picture of working of the mind, which is also generally accepted—at least as a representation of the way things seem to
But there is a very odd thing about these four discoveries. They are not at all original. They have been known from the beginning of history; you can find them in myths, in legends, in books, and by asking your neighbors about them. Freud was very careful to point this out; he only told us what we knew already. The originality of the discoveries lies in the mind of the man who could put them together and tell us what they meant.
Why’d I Say That?
First, there was the fact that hysteria and other kinds of mental illness (anxiety, obsessions, feelings of guilt and the like) called neuroses are caused by the deliberate refusal of the mind to acknowledge certain desires, usually sexual, and consequently to pretend to forget them altogether. This he called repression: the basic sexual impulses themselves he called the libido. So if the mind is like a boiler the steam is the libido, the fellow sitting on the safety valve is the repression and the resulting explosion is the neurosis.
All this has been known for years. The standard old wives’ advice about a highly strung neurotic young girl has always been: “Give her a husband and she’ll settle down soon enough.” The word hysteria is derived from the Greek word for womb. The ancient Greeks understood that hysteria in women was connected with the sexual function.
The second discovery was that this ever-changing repression creates a kind of inner conflict in the mind, which is expressed in slips, errors, and stumbles.
Freud quotes an example of a man at a dull supper party. The hungry guests were discussing Teddy Roosevelt, the great square-dealer, when this man said: “There’s one thing about Roosevelt: he always gives you a square
Another good example of a Freudian slip happened recently at the UN. A committee chairman had been gloomily anticipating a stormy and useless session and would be glad when it was all over. So he began the meeting by banging his gavel and saying, “I declare this meeting adjourned.”
Freud’s third main discovery was that this inner conflict of repression uses dreams as a carefully disguised means of escape. He showed how dreams are built of symbols that succeed in giving a sly expression to secret wishes that even the sleeping mind will not always acknowledge. This, too, has been known for a long
Freud suggested that dreams of flying have to do with sexual excitation, and in “Anna Karenina” (written years before Freud’s dream theory) Tolstoy makes a woman who has been disturbed by the gallantries of a young man while playing tennis dream that
he is flying around the tennis court.
As the popular song says, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”—this has been known for a very long time. Freud quotes the old proverb, “the pig dreams of acorns, the goose dreams of corn.” Or you need only think of the bridesmaid putting a piece of wedding cake under her pillow to dream of the man she is going to marry: evidently
an intention rather than a prediction.
The fourth and last of the generally accepted Freudian discoveries is that the sexual life of a human being does not begin from nowhere the instant he or she is married, but can he traced in
its far beginnings right back past puberty to the earliest ages of childhood and even infancy.
These four discoveries, or rather collections of well-known facts, led Freud to formulate his famous picture of the mind: that all we know is the surface, so to speak, of mental activity. This we call the conscious. What you are now reading is in your conscious, and immediately below it lies the preconscious, which contains the memories waiting to appear in the conscious.
For example, you are now reading the word Confederation. Your preconscious should be delivering to your
conscious the date 1867 together with a feeling of pride, or possibly a twinge of regret if you live in the Maritimes, for the preconscious contains latent emotions as well as latent thoughts. Sometimes the preconscious is called the subconscious.
The furious and turbulent remainder of the mind is called the unconscious. Things here cannot be brought to light by the normal exercise of the memory, even though they may be battering the conscious out of shape. You do not know what there is in your unconscious, though it may be seriously influeneing your life by making you frightened of
cats, or worried by the number seven, or angry when you hear the word Jew.
There is also another way of thinking of the aspects of the mind and this, too, was invented by Freud. The realm of the unconscious, where the libido rides whirlwind, he sometimes called the id. The realm of the conscious and preconscious together, where man is aware of his personality, he called the ego. The dominant part of the ego he called the super-ego, corresponding pretty well to conscience.
Freud himself often described the general effect he tried to convey by his picture of the mind. “The mind is an iceberg. It floats with only one seventh of its bulk above water.” And again, he also said, “The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of the subconscious from which it rises.”
Porridge Made Her Sick
Freud’s treatment for certain mental ills, psychoanalysis, has been hard done by by the popular mind. Some people think of it as a fraud, many people think it’s ridiculous, and most people think it is a greater part of psychology than it really is. Among the hundreds of psychologists in Canada there are only a handful of dyed-in-the-wool psychoanalysts. But every psychologist uses psychoanalysis from time to time, for it’s really nothing but an occasionally useful technique which Freud developed for getting rid of disturbing repressions. The patient pours out whatever comes into his head on the basis, as Freud said, that the unconscious does not lie and that sooner or later the truth will come out.
Psychoanalysis does not consist of finding out what is at the back of the patient’s mind, telling him what it is, and sending him about his business. The patient must be led to find it out for himself. He must not only know the root of the trouble, he must believe it too. For example, a woman became violently sick whenever porridge was even mentioned. After many hours of free association and much emotional strain she was able to recall something that she had previously completely forgotten. When she was a tiny girl she had seen an automobile accident. Somebody at the scene had compared the spilt brains to porridge and it was the repressed memory of the accident which upset her.
An Animal With Will
Sometimes it is very difficult to dig out these hidden memories. Naturally, since your mind is anxious to forget them, it is very wily about hiding them: this process Freud called resistance and he noted it turned up in every psychoanalysis, together with a strong emotional attachment to the analyst himself, which Freud called transference. Resistance is unconscious and is not the same as deciding to be stubborn; nor is transference the same as falling in love with the doctor. Unfortunately, psychoanalysis has become a fashion with some people and so the saying has arisen that psychoanalysis is the disease it professes to cure.
Freud asks us to stop treating man as an animal that only thinks, but to treat him as an animal that wills also. The will is the mule that pulls the load, the thought is the farmer trying to steer it. Nobody doubts that the farmer is a more rational and cultivated creature than the mule, but to pretend that the outfit is all farmer and no mule is asking for trouble. Though we may not like the bubbling boiler of the id (that is why we repress it, in fact) all the same we have to live with it, and
the more we try to ignore it the more trouble we shall get into. This rhyme puts it in a nutshell:
Sigmund Freud Was very annoyed
With people who kept putting the lid Back on the id.
One criticism often made of Freud’s work is that he derived his ideas of normal people from studying neurotics. Freud’s reply was that the difference between the normal and the neurotic was only one of degree. It is very easy to pass from thinking about something to worrying about it.
An old English proverb puts it this way: “All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou arta bitqueer.”
Another objection has been that Freud makes sex altogether too important. Some psychologists think there are other drives just as strong as the libido: the instinct of self-preservation, for instance. But this kind of careful scientific criticism is less prevalent than are milder attacks, such as indignant denials that human beings are governed by their libidos in any way what-
Unfortunately the human race seems determined to preserve the species by means of the libido, even if it gives offence to a great number of decent well-brought-up people, ft intends to keep itself perpetuated in spite of them and even those who dislike it most are still filled with the wild vitality of the libido.
Dull, Dirty and Heroic
Thus Freud’s influence spreads far beyond the innumerable specific examples we can find every day. It comes from the tingling zest of discovery Freud brought into psychology. Also it comes from Freud’s personal example.
He did a lot toward making diseases and disorders of the mind much less shameful than they were; and for many years he did this at the expense of his own reputation and happiness.
It is never pleasant to give your life to people who are in misery. They are frequently insufferable while they are ill and ungrateful when they are well. But Freud was always persistent. His enemies were misery, anxiety, despair, and the piercing inner sickness of inexplicable guilt.
There was a time when these things were thought to be not only incurable but unclean. Freud tried to cure them. No happy person wished to risk contamination by the oppression of unhappiness; no clergyman knew how to cure faithlessness except by calling for faith; and no physician even regarded these everyday horrors of loneliness and torture as diseases.
Even last year I learned of a woman who, on the verge of a mental collapse, which actually took place a few days later, was told by a doctor to go away. He said he had no patience with people like her, his Lime was taken up with those really ill.
Freud would have had the patience. It was to this dull, dirty, heroic work that he gave up his life, and for all his bitterness and inflexibility it made him a great man.
His reward was to see a tiny glimpse of the way life works. The price he paid was to undergo the experiences of many tortured souls, to persist in the repellent darkness beside wretched men and women whom hopelessness made hateful and misery made detestable, and to learn for himself the grinding monotony of despair.
In other words, Freud understood suffering and his influence is still at work to teach us all to try and do the same, if