Sigmund Freud: the great explorer

Submitted by Anon on 16 May, 2006 - 11:54 Author: Sean Matgamna

After his mid-day meal Trotsky would “Relax on the sofa for an hour or two, and there… take a nap or… read for relaxation some German or Russian or French literature… novels sent to him by friends in France, some new editions of Sigmund Freud, whom he read very extensively and whom he admired enormously. I noticed that he would mark off and annotate page after page of Freud during this siesta period, and after an hour or two would resume work at his desk…”

From the reminiscences of Max Shachtman about Trotsky in Turkey in 1930.

The great age of world exploration which opened late in the 15th century had as one of its characteristics a growing willingness on the part of European sailors to sail boldly out into the great seas.

Before that, with few deliberate exceptions, European sailors had hugged the shores, seldom choosing to go entirely out of sight of land. The Vikings who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and "discovered" America hundreds of years earlier, and the Irish sailors who may have made the same journey hundreds of years before that (serious scholars such as Fernand Braudel think that the story is more than legend), were the exception.

The new spirit that emerged in the Renaissance grew and spread with its own successes, sailors boldly going where other sailors had gone before. Feats like the journeys of the great pioneers became unremarkable and commonplace.

The tremendous daring and courage of the pioneer explorers ceased to be fully intelligible to later generations for whom the deeds of a Christopher Columbus, a Vasco da Gama, or a Ferdinand Magellan, had become the common experience of many in their own times.

In terms of human understanding of our own psyche, of the construction of our minds, the relationship between our animal nature and our "god-like” dimension of reason and rational understand, Sigmund Freud, who was born 150 years ago, on 6 May 1856, was the Columbus, the da Gama, the Magellan and all the other terrestrial explorers made into one man. It is fashionable in general to disparage him, and Stalinist hostility has always made him anathema on much of the left. But he deserves our gratitude as one of the great heroes of human liberation. His discoveries have become so commonplace a part of our everyday understanding of ourselves that now it takes an effort of imagination to grasp the scale and scope of the lonely “voyage” of discovery into the psychicall unknown.

A physician by training, Freud became convinced that there were "forces" other than the accessibly physiological in play in his patients which sometimes governed both their falling-ill and their recovery or incapacity to recover. These were not mystic "forces" — though the phenomena Freud observed had often been explained in mystical terms such as "possession by demons" — but forces rooted in the physical, animal being of humankind.

Freud believed, and never ceased to believe, that the basic subject-matter of medicine was the physicality of humankind — our bones; muscles; nerves; digestive, defecatory, and procreative systems. He was a 19th century naturalist, a materialist and an atheist.

Mind, for Freud as for Marx and Engels, was "a function of the movement of matter". But the phenomena he observed in his patients, neuroses, hysteria, psychosomatic manifestations, etc., could not, so he became convinced, be explained in terms of known anatomy.

They were things of the mind and of the effect of the mind on bodily states and functions. The human brain, like the rest of the human body, could be cut up and explored in its physicality. The nervous system could be explored and explained physically. But even if one assumed, as Freud did, that the mind was ultimately a function of physiology, and might even (as he put it) be reduced to chemical processes, it could not be directly assessed in a physical way.

It could not be cut up. It could not be subjected to controlled scientific experiments in the same way as, for example, nervous reflexes. In terms of the techniques available to physical, inductive science, it was simply inaccessible. Yet its aspects and its effects could be observed, deduced, and compared. Predictions could be made and tested.

In terms of the human psyche, Freud was like the early astronomers, before telescopes were invented, who studied the skies and the movements of the stars, which they could see but not, or not fully, comprehend; who studied such things as the gravitational effect of the moon on the tides and the seeming movements of the stars around the earth; and who speculated, often fantastically, on the possible relations of the movements in the heavens to the affairs of humankind and to individual human lives.

Continuing to believe that ultimately psychic phenomena would be explicable in terms of chemical formulae, Freud adapted his methods of exploration of the human mind to the nature and accessibility of the thing he studied and the limited nature of his own tools of exploration. He studied and interpreted dreams for what they pointed to in the mind of the dreamer; slips of the tongue — “Freudian slips” — for what they showed of divided and conflicting impulses and inaccessible, unconscious mental processes; he listened patiently to the talk of the troubled and mentally ill, using free association of words to by-pass the censorship of the conscious mind and glimpse the unconscious processes behind the conscious.

He postulated the existence of an unconscious mind, the hidden part of the iceberg, under the conscious. Poets and imaginative writers had often depicted human beings in whom unconscious impulses, conflicts and repressed desires were prominent. Hamlet, for example, in whom deep inner and to himself inexplicable resistance to avenging the murder of his father is the bedrock of Shakespeare’s play. Freud himself spoke of writers like Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky as especially important here.

We associate “evolution” with Charles Darwin. In fact ideas of “evolution” were widely accepted before Darwin — for example it is known from geology that the earth had changed. Darwin focussed the general notion of evolution on animal and human evolution to explain evolution of “species”. So with Sigmund Freud and the unconscious, which was not unknown before him.

What Freud did was to make explicit and to study systematically and in as scientifically a way as possible, and try to map what artists had portrayed glancingly, or only in terms of instinctive knowledge of how people behaved.

On the basis of his study of patients Freud mapped out a metaphorical physiognomy of the mind, distinguishing between layers of feeling and awareness and different functions in the psychical economy — the id, the instinctual deeply buried parts of the mind; the ego, the “executive” conscious part of the mind; the super-ego, the conscience, which is made up of both conscious ideas and deep instincts.

He produced case studies of patients — such as the Wolf man, so called because of a recurring dream of wolves. He constructed a language of dreams, of the symbols of dreams and what they meant. For example a house in a dream represents the human body.

Freud broke through the taboos on sexuality and explored female sexuality, showing that sexual malfunction, frustration and repression lay at the root of neuroses and of much human suffering.

He laid the scientific basis for the tremendous sexual revolution of the 20th century. He constructed scientific papers from experience with patients which explored such fundamental things in human life as mourning.

Most of the great pioneering work which Freud did — on sexuality for example — is now so much part of the mental and social fabric of our lives that it is taken for granted. It is “common sense”. Freud made it “commonplace”. What tremendous Columbus-like daring Freud displayed first exploring the unexplored taboo-walled-off areas of human personality, is obscured by his very success, by the general acceptance of his ideas.

Yet Freud remains one of the great explorers. Though in politics he was a middle-European bourgeois liberal (who yet publicly wished what was then called the “experiment” of the USSR well) — he was one of the great liberators in human history. For example his explanations of sexuality, including female sexuality, contributed enormously to the tremendous unshackling of women in the 20th century.

Some of the things that rouse the ire of some feminists against Freud, his idea of female penis-envy for example, are simply misunderstood. Freud was here talking, in the first place, about the perceptions and misperceptions of very small children, and its effects on their developing personality.

The criticism that Freud was “unscientific” is largely beside the point. The things he dealt with simply could not be studied like geological specimens. Freud was as scientific as his subject matter and his tools in appraising it allowed him to be.

As with the ancient students of the stars, probably much that Freud postulated was wrong or inexact, or incomplete. His great pioneering work is the basis for future more exact work.

Freud founded a school, and it has generated dissidents and heretics. There are many Freudians, ex-Freudian, anti-Freudian schools of psycho-analysis. His work has bred both conservative and communist-revolutionary conclusions.

The ego, the personality, is at odds with its familial and social environment? Teach the patient to be more at ease, to conform! Or — change the familial and social framework. The latter was the conclusion of Wilhelm Reich who in his early years was a member of the German Communist Party and preached the revolution of sex morality.

Some of Freud’s early disciples were socialists, Alfred Adler for example, whom Trotsky knew. Today conformist Freudians are very much part of the academic and medical establishment in the USA. But the first Freudian to be appointed to an academic post, Sandor Ferenczi, was appointed by the six-week communist regime of Bela Kun in Hungary in 1919.

The Stalinists denounced Freudianism and made war on it — but that is a point in his favour. Trotsky respected and defended Freud. To the “materialists” in USSR who lauded Pavlov’s work on nervous reflexes etc and damned Freud, Trotsky explained the difference between them with a metaphor. The human mind is a deep dark well. Pavlov goes down in a diving suit and feels about in it; Freud gazes into the depths and tries to understand it by way of observing the shifts and movements and shadows that he can discern. Giving the difficulities of the subject matter, both methods were valid techniques of exploration.

Freud still has a great deal to teach us. Living as we do in a left that grows appreciably crazier by the month, we socialists might benefit from paying more attention to Sigmund Freud and those he instructed and influenced.