Updating Freud

Mary Midgley

  • Narcissus and Oedipus: The Children of Psychoanalysis by Victoria Hamilton
    Routledge, 284 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0869 4
  • Archetype: A Natural History of the Self by Anthony Stevens
    Routledge, 295 pp, £12.50, April 1982, ISBN 0 7100 0980 1
  • Freud on Femininity and Faith by Judith van Herik
    California, 216 pp, £17.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 520 04368 5

If Freud were now – much against his principles – to poke his head out of the tomb and look in on us, what would he say? The appalling state of the world would of course not surprise him. But what about his own therapeutic and theoretical empire? He need scarcely be disappointed at its size, or at the number of his entries in indexes. He would still find himself named as prime mover of the movement he fought so hard to keep under his own control. But one thing which would sharply hurt him would be the widespread determination of modern scientists to keep him out of their province. Here he would be justified. His scientific reputation has fallen a victim to a highly confused defensive attempt by scientists to narrow and consolidate their own empire. It is impossible to limit the word ‘science’, as theorists have wildly hoped, to the experimental collecting of detailed facts – still more so, of course, to that of purely negative facts. Science has to include the background conceptual schemes within which those experiments were conceived and selected, and through which their results will be interpreted. It is only because physical scientists are often unconscious of these schemes, and take them for granted like the air they breathe, that this was ever overlooked. In psychology, where getting the conceptual scheme right is half the battle, nobody ought to overlook it. Once it is seen, Freud’s scientific standing becomes clear. He wanted a scheme which would map something real and important enough: namely, the relation between human motives. He wanted it in order to grasp more fully what is happening when they go radically wrong. He rightly thought that the everyday approach to this problem – though incredibly rich in some areas – was patchy, and blurred by a good deal of self-deception. He asked: what is the general structure and connection of human motives, including the unconscious as well as the conscious part of them? There is nothing wrong with this question, any more than with Darwin’s about the Origin of Species. Both ask for very general causal and structural maps. Without such maps, science cannot start. But it must also continually improve the maps as it goes on. How good were Freud’s methods and his answers?

This is where criticism is needed. It was long delayed by the bitter disputes which arose among the pioneers of the psychoanalytic movement. Today, however, it can be made with much less passion, and the directions it is taking seem hopeful. All these books contain excellent chunks of this criticism, and all roughly agree on its four most general components.

1. Freud’s theory is not plausible evolutionarily. The controlling place which he gave to sex over other motives is bizarre and unexplained as an adaptation. Ethological evidence makes it look odder and odder. Many motives which Freud took to be only secondary offshoots produced by sexual repression – motives such as curiosity, anxiety, aesthetic interest – appear freely in animals, without repression, as independent motives with no sexual context. Thus, though there may well be a constant mutual influence between the motives, there can scarcely be a monolithic empire of the kind Freud proposed.

2. Freud is ahistorical. In spite of his real interest in history and archaeology, he treated the society of his day and city as a human norm. When he considered the life of ‘primitive peoples’, past or present, he was incurious and inclined simply to project his dominant fantasies. He thus missed many opportunities for correcting personal biases. His medical status increased this tendency, since it made it extremely hard for his patients to correct him.

3. His approach to symbolism was narrow and arbitrary. The sexual meanings he found may indeed often have been present. But that was no reason to ignore other, non-sexual meanings. The human power of using and reading symbols is immensely rich and versatile. We distort it fatally if we insist on receiving only one kind of message.

4. Homo sapiens is a social creature (here again evolution is relevant). Freud drew from the Enlightenment tradition an uncompromising, unargued egoism, a certainty that each individual starts life as an isolated billiard-ball rolling onto the social table, a being who can directly desire only his own satisfaction. (His, not her: this assumption is even less convincing about women.) For Freud, sociality arises only later as a second-best, a resigned way of meeting frustration. But this idea, in spite of its attractive simplicity and gratifyingly worldly air, is just an assumption. In detail, it turns out to fit much in human conduct very badly. Babies in particular, with their well-known disregard for theoretical considerations, insist on acting contrary to it in many ways.

These criticisms seem very interesting. They do not, of course, point in the direction of showing Freudian theory as vacuous; they tend to show that it is not. What can conflict with discoveries in ethology, anthropology or social history, or with a distinct, politically significant way of viewing individuality, can hardly be idle vapour. It has meaning; it can be wrong. It can therefore be fruitfully wrong, pointing up difficulties in grasping a complex truth. Theories of any size are in any case not usually proved or disproved as a whole. They are reshaped, developed, and fitted more exactly to their proper area. There is nothing like a resounding, enlightening error for speeding up this process.

Narcissus and Oedipus begins, quite rightly, at the beginning, by looking at the concept of ‘primary narcissism’, which, in Freud’s view, is the original condition of a baby. Freud saw it as one of complete self-containment, like a bird’s egg, yielding reluctantly to that of an amoeba, which puts out cautious pseudopodia to check the dangers of an alien world, but can, as he said, ‘retract them at any time, so that the form of the protoplasmic mass is retained’. Only gradually and unwillingly, as a result of repeated frustration, was this detached, self-protecting infant forced to relate itself to others. This, says Victoria Hamilton reasonably, cannot be right:

In this book, it is Freud’s concept of relationship as a secondary development which is challenged ... The development of the child is not a function of the gradual and painstaking socialisation of an original isolate ... The child is intensely related from the moment of birth, and, of course, for nine months before ... Primary narcissism theories lead to a misidentification of the central problem of human development. In an original, divided world, a problem arises about linking and object-relating.

She gives plenty of solid evidence for this. Much of it rests on ethological observation, of both babies and other animals, and much more on clinical practice. But this is lit up also by a shrewd discussion of the myth. Narcissus, she points out, is not shown to us alone. We see him interacting with Echo, the girl with no ideas of her own; they are natural partners. (Echo had been deprived, by a curse, of the power of speech – except for repeating the last words of what anybody said to her.) Narcissus is shown, too, as being, not just beautiful, but so beautiful that all his life everyone had admired him, particularly his mother, and he had heartlessly turned down many other lovers. This is not a background of isolation, but of a special sort of interaction. It has formed him; he is addicted to it, but it cannot contain him for ever. He rejects his echo, but finally tries, too late, to reach out to something no better – his reflection: ‘In the Greek myth, the death of Narcissus coincides with the failed grasp. He does not die because he falls in love with himself, but because he falls in love with a phantasm – his mirror image – which is ungraspable.’

Certainly, argues the author, there are people like this. Their worlds, like those of Narcissus and Echo, are limited, walled in by images and repetitions. But this is not the universal fate. It does not represent something which – as Freud believed – continues to be true inside each one of us all our lives, beneath the dressing of apparent outgoing relations. It happens where something has gone wrong. And what has gone wrong is not that no relation was ever formed: it is that the original relation was too limited, and guarded itself with a peculiar force against further development. People who are narcissistic in this sense tend to relate – exceptionally – only to one parent, and to do that in a way which tolerates no further fertilising disturbance:

Narcissus’ fate was to be pleasing (especially to the eye) and to be pleased. The mother of a narcissistic person may have had an unusual difficutly in separating herself from her baby’s distress. She may have over-fed her baby in order to placate him ... The child’s temper tantrums can be ‘panic tantrums’ at the unbearable experience of separateness. Neither the child nor the parent(s) realise that it is not the love of the other which is lost forever, but the narcissistic relationship of mutual placation.

With Oedipus, the trouble is rather similar. The story is indeed some people’s story. But it is not everybody’s. To use it, as Freud did, as a universal explanation of adult motivation is distorting. Essentially, says Victoria Hamilton, it is the story of a child surrounded by deception: in particular, the story of an adopted child from whom everybody tries to conceal the truth. (To illustrate this, she gives case-histories of adopted people, showing how their fantasies do indeed run this way.) The infanticides, Laius and Jocasta, are scarcely ordinary parents. Thus a tragic fatalism is woven into the account of ordinary development which does not really belong there.

Freud used the Oedipus complex to explain the entire rise of curiosity – which he took to be essentially just frustrated sexual interest – and also that of conscience, since the superego is really the reshaped figure of the forbidding father who has intervened to veto parricide and incest. Victoria Hamilton comments:

Freud’s super-ego has its base in paranoia – in watching, ordering, judging, threatening and punishing. In my view, this type of watching agency interferes with the individual’s approach to his culture ... The Victorian attitude of disapproval and threat towards curiosity would tend to enhance withdrawal and frustrate social urges. If the child’s curiosity is deemed incestuous and thus socially destructive, there is no way for an unreformed child to participate in culture. In Freud’s day, development and learning involved elaborate detours.

In any case, however, to treat these major motives as only by-products of the diverted sex-instinct is quite unconvincing. Freud assumed that parsimony demanded as few real motives as possible. But it no more does that than it demands that we keep down the number of chemical elements.

The peculiar brand of hypocrisy used in polite Viennese society in the late 19th century plainly did call for a dangerous amount of repression. It was therefore easy to believe that this repression concealed a single mainspring, from which the motives openly avowed drew most of their force. But observation of societies which do not make such a central business of obscuring sexual motivation removes this temptation. It suggests that there really are many independent motives. And evidence from animal behaviour fully supports this. This evidence throws, too, a welcome light on how these motives arise, especially on their surprising degree of spontaneity. Innate programming in animals is, we now know, far more complex than used to be supposed. Far from being the lumps of inert putty imagined by the cruder behaviourists, creatures are born equipped with very sophisticated and definite tendencies. Even the power to receive conditioning is itself a distinct power, needing its own mechanisms. And it always works selectively, against a background of activities characteristic of the species. Reed-warblers never succeed in teaching baby cuckoos to live like respectable reed-warblers. A few of their nestlings astonish them by lighting out for Africa. No training would induce the others to do so. Does this interesting proceeding have something to do with the fact that puritans do not always succeed in bringing up their children as puritans, while philistine parents sometimes find that they have produced an artist?

The idea of innate programming in humans is the skeleton in the evolutionary cupboard, a contingency on which social scientists have tried desperately to bar the door. They really should not do this, because original programming is a condition of freedom. Had we really been only passive lumps of inert putty, freedom could have meant nothing to us. It gets its meaning as a way of resolving conflicts which arise among our natural motives, and among the social customs which express them. The main difficulty in seeing this has been that programming was – very oddly – often taken to involve only a few crude tendencies to evil, such as aggression, dominance, stupidity, which were then made inevitable. Anyone prepared to notice a rather wider model naturally looked at the Freudian one, which still usually struck him as too narrow. It is so. As Anthony Stevens puts it, ‘the fundamentally reductive approach which characterised the Freudian attitude to the phenomena of life – what Jung lampooned as the “nothing but” approach ... helped to spread the disenchantment endemic to our culture ... Moreover, Freud’s view of the unconscious as a murky pond which could be drained by analysis and redeveloped by the ego in the service of a purely rational consciousness was bitterly uncongenial to Jung ... In the unconscious, Jung believed, there resided the collective wisdom of our species, the basic programme enabling us to meet all the exigent demands of life.’ Archetypes is a vigorous and very promising attempt to vindicate Jung’s position on such central psychological points, to show how much closer it is than Freud’s to modern evolutionary thinking, and to work out in detail how the concept of an archetype can be made to do real work, and to help us in areas where we are currently in great confusion. The psychology of motive cannot do without some such reference to innate structures, which of course does not displace social psychology, but is needed to complete it. Stevens presents Jung’s suggestions here as convincing and highly relevant. He is particularly good at bringing Jung off the fence on various issues where he certainly havered – for instance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics – and showing that Jung does not need various errors which he passingly considered. Brushed aside even more sharply than Freud by people holding a minimal view of science, Jung is actually closer to the scientific spirit, because less obsessed by local battles, and much more prepared to admit how much there is that he does not know. He restores our sense of the vastness of the human experience. He really is not reductive. But neither is he vacuous. Stevens is right: we need to use his thought.

Freud on Femininity and Faith is the most cautious of these books. Its theme is an interesting one: namely, that Freud’s contempt for religion is closely linked with his contempt for women, not just emotionally but as part of his argument. For Freud, both women and religion represented self-indulgence, so that both posed rather similar threats to his moral ideal, which was one of renunciation. In the process of civilisation, he says, ‘the turning from the mother to the father points ... to a victory of intellectuality (Geistigkeit) over sensuality – that is, an advance in civilisation.’ The step of renouncing religion is essentially similar.

Judith van Herik traces this melancholy story clearly and convincingly, with a grave detachment which is in a way admirable, but slightly puzzling. There are better things in Freud’s thought than this. Since he did not bother to understand either women or religion, why choose this subject? How are these topics connected outside Freud? She ends her book thus: The dilemma presented by Freud, that femininity represents fulfilment in renunciatory culture, might be a useful basis for asking further questions, within the context of feminist social theory, about how gender works in our moral economy and about how gender and uses of God are thereby intertwined.’ Perhaps she will tell us more about this some day.