Sigmund Freud

by W.H. Auden | October 6, 1952

Today, thanks to Freud, the man-on-the-street knows (to quote by an inaccurate memory from Punch) that, when he thinks a thing, the thing he thinks is not the thing he thinks he thinks, but only the thing he thinks he thinks he thinks. Fifty years ago, a girl who sprained her ankle on the eve of a long-looked-forward-to ball, or a man who suffered from a shrewish wife, could be certain of the neighbors’ sympathy; today the latter will probably decide that misfortune is their real pleasure. The letter of apology to the hostess whose dinner invitation you have forgotten is much more difficult to write than it used to be. If an Isolde worries all day lest her absent Tristan should be run over by a bus, the dumbest Brangaene could warn her that her love includes a hope that he will never return. As for parents, not only the few who have read up on the Oedipus Complex and erogenous zones, but also the newspaper-reading mass, the poor things are today scared out of their wits that they will make some terrible mistake; the Victorian, even the Edwardian, paterfamilias who knew what was right is almost extinct, which is, perhaps, a pity. (However, if the bearded thunder god has turned into a clean-shaven pal, there is still the iron-toothed witch.)

It always comes as a shock to me to remember that, when Freud was born, The Origin of Species had not yet appeared, and that he was in his fortieth year before he published his first “Freudian” papers. Freud’s formative years, that is, were a time when the great intellectual battle was between Science and the sort of bourgeois idealist Manichaeism of which, in 1875, Mrs. Eddy became Popess. The feeling that matter and the body are low or unreal and that the good and the real are spiritual or mental is always likely to become popular in a society where wealth and social prestige go to those who work with their heads; as long as the aristocracy thinks of itself as the warrior class, it is protected from this heresy because, while it may depise manual labor, athletic fitness is a badge of class: Further, as long as their work is really manual, the market value of physical strength and manual skill prevents the working classes from underestimating the body, but with the coming of the machine which can be minded perfectly well by an unskilled child, white-collar Manichaeism infects them as well. The great dramatic interest of the second half of the nineteenth century lies in the fact that, at the very time when the scientific advances which were being made in the natural sciences like chemistry and biology seemed to suggest that all reality might ultimately be explicable in terms of quantity and necessity, the development of society was making the notion of any relation of the good and the beautiful to matter peculiarly repugnant. One cannot read either the scientists or the naturalistic novelists of the period without feeling, in the very passion with which they assert that man is only an animal, their selection for portrayal of the ugliest “nature” they can find, the same horror as was exhibited by their Episcopal opponents; they see themselves as preaching the truth, but none of them thinks that the truth is good news. Freud is no exception; the very man who has done most to free us from a Manichaean horror of sex quotes more than once, with an unmistakable shudder of distaste, the Church Father who pointed out that we are born inter urinas et faeces. Some wag once summed up the message of psychoanalysis as saying: “We are born mad; we grow sane and unhappy; then we die.” There are photographs of Freud in which he almost looks as if he would agree.

In this battle between those who asserted that the egg is only a dream of the hen and those who asserted that the hen is only a dream of the egg, Freud certainly thought of himself as a dyed-in-the-wool egg-fancier. He observes all the egg-fancier tabus; Beatrice, for instance, becomes the Love Object and the four-letter words always appear veiled in the decent obscurity of the Latin language. (The childlike faith of even the most anticlerical members of the medical profession in the magical properties of that tongue is extremely comic and warrants psychoanalytic investigation.)

 

But Freud is a clear and beautiful example of a revolutionary thinker--it probably holds good for them all--who is much more revolutionary and in quite another way than he himself realizes. Had one asked a doctor in the 1880s and 1890s to forecast the future of psychology, he would almost certainly have replied somewhat as follows: It seems probable that we shall soon be able to describe all mental events in terms of physical events in the brain, but even if we cannot, we may safely assume:

1. Like the human body, the human mind has a constant nature, typical for the species; individual variations are either pathological or insignificant.

2. The behavior of this mind can be explained in terms of stimulus and response. Similar stimuli will necessarily produce similar responses. Both are quantitatively measurable in terms of intensity and duration.

3. Mental development is like physical growth, i.e., the mind passes from a younger or earlier phase into an older or later one. This process can be arrested or become morbid, but two phases cannot exist simultaneously any more than an oak can be an acorn at the same time.

4. The neuroses and psychoses must be typical diagnostic entities, identical in every patient. To discover a cure for one means to discover the procedure which is effective independently of the individual doctor or the individual patient.

One has only to read a few lines of Freud to realize that one is moving in a very different world, one in which there are decisive battles, defeats, victories, decisions, doubts, where things happen that need not have happened and even things which ought not to have happened, a world where novelties exist side by side with ancient monuments, a world of guilt and responsibility, a world, heaven help us, that has to be described with analogical metaphors. The Master may sometimes write as if he thought that saying a three-year-old child wishes to commit incest with his mother were the same kind of statement as saying he wishes to go to the bathroom, but we are not deceived. Whatever we may think of that famous trio Ego, Super-Ego, and Id, we can see that they are like Prince Tamino, Zorastro, and The Queen of The Night and not like mathematical equations. We may find the account of the Fall in Totem and Taboo more or less plausible than the account in Genesis (the Bible version which makes the psychological sin, and therefore the sense of guilt, prior to the moral crime seems to me the more “Freudian”), but we shall not dream of applying the standards of “scientific” evidence employed in chemistry or biology to either.

In fact, if every one of his theories should turn out to be false, Freud would still tower up as the genius who perceived that psychological events are not natural events but historical and that, therefore, psychology, as distinct from neurology, must be based on the pre-suppositions and methodology, not of the biologist but of the historian. As a child of his age who was consciously in a polemic with the “idealists,” he may officially subscribe to the “realist” dogma that human nature and animal nature are the same, but the moment he gets down to work, every thing he says denies it. In his theories of infantile sexuality, repression, etc., he pushes back the beginnings of free will and responsibility earlier than even most theologians had previously dared; his therapeutic technique of making the patient re-live his past and discover the truth for himself with a minimum of prompting and interference from the analyst (meanwhile, one might add, doing penance by paying till it hurts), the importance of transference to the outcome of the therapy, imply that every patient is a unique historical person and not a typical case. Freud is not always aware of what he is doing and some of the difficulties he gets into arise from his trying to retain biological notions of development when he is actually thinking historically. For example, he sometimes talks as if civilization were a morbid growth caused by sexual inhibition; at other times he attacks conventional morality on the grounds that the conformists exhaust in repression the energies which should be available for cultural tasks: similarly, he sometimes speaks of dream symbolism as if it were pure allegory, whereas the actual descriptions he gives of the dreaming mind at work demonstrate that, in addition to its need to disguise truth, it has an even greater need to create truth, to make historical sense of its experience by discovering analogies, an activity in which it shows the most extraordinary skill and humor. In a biological organism, everything was once something else which it now no longer is, and change is cyclical, soma-germsoma; a normal condition is one that regularly re-occurs in the cycle, a morbid one is an exception. But history is the realm of unique and novel events and of monuments--the historical past is present in the present and the norm of health or pathology cannot be based on regularity.

Freud certainly expected opposition and obloquy from the conventional moralists and the man-in-the-street for his theories about human sexuality; in actual fact, the general public took him to their bosoms, rather less critically, perhaps, than they should have done, while the real opposition came and still comes from the behaviorists, the neurologists, and all the schools of psychiatry that regard their subject as a natural science and are therefore outraged by the whole approach of the psychoanalysts, irrespective of any particular theory they may hold.

The opposition can certainly find plenty of ammunition in psychoanalytic literature; for, while it is possible to do important work (though not, I believe, the greatest) in the natural sciences without being a wise and great man, the most routine exercises in a field that involves the personal and historical demand wisdom, and a psychoanalyst who lacks it cannot write a five-minute paper without giving himself away as a vulgar nincompoop.

The same holds for the reader; a man may fail to understand a textbook of physics, but he knows he has not understood it and that is the end of the matters; but he may read a psychoanalytical treatise and come out more of a damned fool at the end than he was before he began it. Or more of a crook--every defense lawyer in a seemingly hopeless criminal case knows how to instruct his client in his unloved childhood to embarrass Bench and Jury.

In the long run, however, the welcome given to psychoanalysis by the public is based on a sound intuition that it stands for treating everyone as a unique and morally responsible person, not as a keyboard--it speaks of the narcissism of the Ego, but it believes in the existence of that Ego and its capacity to recognize its own limitations--and that in these days is a great deal. The behaviorists are certainly right in one thing; the human mind does have nature which can be tampered with; with a few drugs and a little regular torture every human mind can be reduced to a condition in which it is no longer a subject for psychology.

Psychoanalysts and their patients may sometimes seem funny little people, but the fact that they exist is evidence that society is still partly human.

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