“The more I became interested in psychoanalysis, the more I saw it as a road to the same kind of broad and deep understanding of human nature that writers possess.”
Towards the end of the 19th century, the new discipline of psychology became entrenched in both Europe and America. The study of the human mind, hitherto a preserve of philosophers and theologians, became a legitimate subject of scientific (some would say, pseudo-scientific) scrutiny.
The Structuralists – Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Bradford Titchener – embarked on a fashionable search for the “atoms” of consciousness: physical sensations, affections or feelings, and images (in both memories and dreams). Functionalists, headed by William James and, later, James Angell and John Dewey – derided the idea of a “pure”, elemental sensation. They introduced the concept of mental association. Experience uses associations to alter the nervous system, they hypothesized.
Freud revolutionized the field (though, at first, his reputation was limited to the German-speaking parts of the dying Habsburg Empire). He dispensed with the unitary nature of the psyche and proposed instead a trichotomy, a tripartite or trilateral model (the id, ego, and superego). He suggested that our natural state is conflict, that anxiety and tension are more prevalent than harmony. Equilibrium (compromise formation) is achieved by constantly investing mental energy. Hence “psychodynamics”.
Most of our existence is unconscious, Freud theorized. The conscious is but the tip of an ever-increasing iceberg. He introduced the concepts of libido and Thanatos (the life and death forces), instincts (Triebe, or “drives”, in German) or drives, the somatic-erotogenic phases of psychic (personality) development, trauma and fixation, manifest and latent content (in dreams). Even his intellectual adversaries used this vocabulary, often infused with new meanings.
The psychotherapy he invented, based on his insights, was less formidable. Many of its tenets and procedures have been discarded early on, even by its own proponents and practitioners. The rule of abstinence (the therapist as a blank and hidden screen upon which the patient projects or transfers his repressed emotions), free association as the exclusive technique used to gain access to and unlock the unconscious, dream interpretation with the mandatory latent and forbidden content symbolically transformed into the manifest – have all literally vanished within the first decades of practice.
Other postulates – most notably transference and counter-transference, ambivalence, resistance, regression, anxiety, and conversion symptoms – have survived to become cornerstones of modern therapeutic modalities, whatever their origin. So did, in various disguises, the idea that there is a clear path leading from unconscious (or conscious) conflict to signal anxiety, to repression, and to symptom formation (be it neuroses, rooted in current deprivation, or psychoneuroses, the outcomes of childhood conflicts). The existence of anxiety-preventing defense mechanisms is also widely accepted.
Freud’s initial obsession with sex as the sole driver of psychic exchange and evolution has earned him derision and diatribe aplenty. Clearly, a child of the repressed sexuality of Victorian times and the Viennese middle-class, he was fascinated with perversions and fantasies. The Oedipus and Electra complexes are reflections of these fixations. But their origin in Freud’s own psychopathologies does not render them less revolutionary. Even a century later, child sexuality and incest fantasies are more or less taboo topics of serious study and discussion.
Ernst Kris said in 1947 that Psychoanalysis is:
“…(N)othing but human behavior considered from the standpoint of conflict. It is the picture of the mind divided against itself with attendant anxiety and other dysphoric effects, with adaptive and maladaptive defensive and coping strategies, and with symptomatic behaviors when the defense fail.”
But Psychoanalysis is more than a theory of the mind. It is also a theory of the body and of the personality and of society. It is a Social Sciences Theory of Everything. It is a bold – and highly literate – attempt to tackle the psychophysical problem and the Cartesian body versus mind conundrum. Freud himself noted that the unconscious has both physiological (instinct) and mental (drive) aspects. He wrote:
“(The unconscious is) a concept on the frontier between the mental and the somatic, as the physical representative of the stimuli originating from within the organism and reaching the mind” (Standard Edition Volume XIV).
Psychoanalysis is, in many ways, the application of Darwin’s theory of evolution in psychology and sociology. Survival is transformed into narcissism and the reproductive instincts assume the garb of the Freudian sex drive. But Freud went a daring step forward by suggesting that social structures and strictures (internalized as the superego) are concerned mainly with the repression and redirection of natural instincts. Signs and symbols replace reality and all manner of substitutes (such as money) stand in for primary objects in our early formative years.
To experience our true selves and to fulfill our wishes, we resort to Phantasies (e.g., dreams, “screen memories”) where imagery and irrational narratives – displaced, condensed, rendered visually, revised to produce coherence, and censored to protect us from sleep disturbances – represent our suppressed desires. Current neuroscience tends to refute this “dreamwork” conjecture but its value is not to be found in its veracity (or lack thereof).
These musings about dreams, slips of tongue, forgetfulness, the psychopathology of everyday life, and associations were important because they were the first attempt at deconstruction, the first in-depth insight into human activities such as art, myth-making, propaganda, politics, business, and warfare, and the first coherent explanation of the convergence of the aesthetic with the “ethic” (i.e., the socially acceptable and condoned). Ironically, Freud’s contributions to cultural studies may far outlast his “scientific” “theory” of the mind.
It is ironic that Freud, a medical doctor (neurologist), the author of a “Project for a Scientific Psychology”, should be so chastised by scientists in general and neuroscientists in particular. Psychoanalysis used to be practiced only by psychiatrists. But we live at an age when mental disorders are thought to have physiological-chemical-genetic origins. All psychological theories and talk therapies are disparaged by “hard” scientists.
Still, the pendulum had swung both ways many times before. Hippocrates ascribed mental afflictions to a balance of bodily humors (blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile) that is out of kilt. So did Galen, Bartholomeus Anglicus, Johan Weyer (1515-88). Paracelsus (1491-1541), and Thomas Willis, who attributed psychological disorders to a functional “fault of the brain”.
The tide turned with Robert Burton who wrote “Anatomy of Melancholy” and published it in 1621. He forcefully propounded the theory that psychic problems are the sad outcomes of poverty, fear, and solitude.
A century later, Francis Gall (1758-1828) and Spurzheim (1776-1832) traced mental disorders to lesions of specific areas of the brain, the forerunner of the now-discredited discipline of phrenology. The logical chain was simple: the brain is the organ of the mind, thus, various faculties can be traced to its parts.
Morel, in 1809, proposed a compromise which has since ruled the discourse. The propensities for psychological dysfunctions, he suggested, are inherited but triggered by adverse environmental conditions. A Lamarckist, he was convinced that acquired mental illnesses are handed down the generations. Esquirol concurred in 1845 as did Henry Maudsley in 1879 and Adolf Meyer soon thereafter. Heredity predisposes one to suffer from psychic malaise but psychological and “moral” (social) causes precipitate it.
And, yet, the debate was and is far from over. Wilhelm Greisinger published “The Pathology and Therapy of Mental Disorders” in 1845. In it he traced their etiology to “neuropathologies”, physical disorders of the brain. He allowed for heredity and the environment to play their parts, though. He was also the first to point out the importance of one’s experiences in one’s first years of life.
Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist by training, claimed to have cured hysteria with hypnosis. But despite this demonstration of non-physiological intervention, he insisted that hysteroid symptoms were manifestations of brain dysfunction. Weir Mitchell coined the term “neurasthenia” to describe an exhaustion of the nervous system (depression). Pierre Janet discussed the variations in the strength of the nervous activity and said that they explained the narrowing field of consciousness (whatever that meant).
None of these “nervous” speculations was supported by scientific, experimental evidence. Both sides of the debate confined themselves to philosophizing and ruminating. Freud was actually among the first to base a theory on actual clinical observations. Gradually, though, his work – buttressed by the concept of sublimation – became increasingly metaphysical. Its conceptual pillars came to resemble Bergson’s élan vital and Schopenhauer’s Will. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur called Psychoanalysis (depth psychology) “the hermeneutics of suspicion”.