Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Understanding the Passions of the Mind

100 Years of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams

The impact of Freud's theories was so far reaching, that the twentieth century could be called the Freudian century. Be it the sciences, the arts, literature, painting, music, or even cocktail conversation, Freudian influence was all-pervasive. He was arguably the first thinker to hold that human behaviour is explicable only in terms of the usually hidden mental processes or states which determine it, writes Kuldip Dhiman.

IT IS A DARK night. The bedroom window opens, and he looks out. To his horror, he sees half a dozen white wolves near the walnut tree just outside the house. The ferocious looking wolves see him. He hears their terrifying howl. Presently they begin to close in. The pack moves closer and closer towards him, but he is unable to move or even scream. In the end he wakes up trembling and sweating in his bed.

To most of us, this is nothing but a meaningless anxiety dream. A case of indigestion, that's all. No cause for alarm. "You are wrong," Schlomo Sigismund, or Siggie, or more famously, Sigmund Freud would have said, dragging at his pipe. The dream just mentioned was the true case of Sergei Pankejeff, the Wolf Man, that Freud handled during the early years of the twentieth century using the technique of free-association that he had developed with his mentor Josef Breuer.


Among the early cases handled by Breuer and Freud, the first one was that of Bertha Pappenheim (1859-1936), now famous in psychoanalytic history as Anna O. By describing her traumatic experiences and feelings about them to Breuer she seemed to have got some relief from debilitating symptoms such as partial paralysis and hallucinations. Although Breuer's treatment was not entirely successful, as he and Freud claimed, Anna O eventually overcame her symptoms to become a social worker and leader of the women's movement in Germany. Interestingly, it was Anna O who named the technique of free-association 'talking cure'. Other famous cases are those of Emmy von N, Lucy R, Katharinia, Elisabeth von R, Dora, Earnst Lanzer -the rat man who was tormented by dreams of rats, Sergei Pankejeff - the Wolf man who saw wolves in his dreams, and Little Hans who was terrified of horses.


  Of all these cases, the case of Little Hans, a five-year-old boy, encompasses almost all Freudian concepts: Oedipus complex, castration anxiety, sibling rivalry, defence mechanisms, death wish, fixation and so on. This case was brought to Freud on October 1, 1907.

Hans was the first-born child. His mother was so overprotective that she took Hans wherever she went, even to the toilet. When he was about three years old, he began to show a great interest in that portion of the body that he called 'widdler.' He asked his mother if she had one, she replied, "Yes." As his obsession grew, the only way he differentiated between animate and inanimate objects was to check if they had a 'widdler' or not. When he was barely three-and-half, his mother caught him in the act of self-gratification. Horrified, she threatened him with castration. About this time a girl was born into the family. When Hans asked where she came from, he was told that a stork had brought her. But Hans had a suspicion that his father had something to do with it. As the days went by, he began to wonder if other people and animals had widdlers too, especially if horses had them. He was puzzled when he discovered that his little sister didn't have one - if his mother had one, shouldn't the sister have one too? By the time he was four, he was already showing a great interest in girls between seven and eleven years old. He also was particularly close physically to a little boy, a cousin of his.

One day, Hans saw a horse draw a heavily loaded carriage. This triggered something in him, and he began fantasising about horses. When he was five years old, he woke up one morning in tears. He had seen a dream in which his mother had left him. After a visit to a zoo, his phobia about horses extended giraffes, elephants, and pelicans. He told his father that he saw two giraffes in his room: one big one and the other a crumpled one. Both these giraffes were interpreted by Freud as symbolic representations of the genitals of his father and mother respectively. Why was he afraid of such noble animals as horses and giraffes? The interpretation is simple: big animals have big widdlers! He often saw a falling horse, which Freud interpreted as the boy's dying father as well as his mother in labour.


Before we go further, we must realise that the late nineteenth century was a revolutionary period in the world of science. Charles Darwin had already delivered a severe blow to mankind, especially to the Western world, by suggesting that man had evolved out of apes, and now this bearded pipe-smoking Viennese had delivered the third knockout blow by suggesting that not only our bodies but even our minds have the same urges as animals, that is to say the difference between animals and humans was only of a degree not of kind. Too harsh to accept, and the whole world was scandalised.

The year 1900 saw the publication of Freud's revolutionary book: The Interpretation of Dreams. He was arguably the first thinker to hold that human behaviour is explicable only in terms of the usually hidden mental processes or states which determine it. He suggested that instead of dismissing the general behaviour of humans and of the neurotic as causally meaningless, we should search for an explanation by looking for causes in terms of the mental states of the individual. Hence dreams, careless slips of the tongue, and obsessive actions that are considered inexplicable and irrational, do actually determine our behaviour. Our behaviour, he held, is determined by hidden causes in our mind. Dreams reveal in covert form what would otherwise not be known at all. This gave rise to another uncomfortable question. If all our behaviour is determined by our experiences and memories of the past, do we have any free will at all? Another blow to our notion that we are masters of our own destiny.

What Freud was postulating is that our mind is not consciousness alone as Rene Descartes, the highly influential French philosopher had asserted three hundred years ago. The conscious mind is just the tip of the iceberg, the hidden three fourths is the

'unconscious mind' that determines our behaviour, where all our forgotten and suppressed memories lie. The only way to reach the unconscious mind is through hypnosis or free association. Then there are some memories that are not in the conscious, but come to surface if reminded of them, they are said to reside in the preconscious mind. It would be interesting to note here that although the suggestion of mind being conscious, preconscious, and unconscious was new to Western world, these are standard concept in Indian philosophy. In fact according to Indian system mind has not three, but four dimensions: Jagrit avastha (conscious state), Swapna awastha (dream state), Nidra (deep sleep), and Turiya, a state for which there is no word in other languages. Turiya is the ultimate state when the mind is free of time and space. Nirvana, as some might call it.


Later, Freud, taking a cue from Breuer that childhood events could have devastating negative effects upon the individual, shocked the world by asserting that the root to all our later life conflicts lies in our unresolved infantile sexuality the memories of which lie in our unconscious. And it is these unresolved conflicts that determine our behaviour. The child celebrated as the very epitome of innocence by thinkers and poets for centuries was actually full of socially unacceptable drives and desires. We must not forget, that Freud was saying all this in the late Victorian era, when such topics were forbidden even in academic circles. The fact is, even a hundred years on, people in may cultures, including ours, refuse to even discuss the fact that adults, leave alone children, have these natural drives that crave to be satisfied.

To understand Freud, we might keep Little Hans in mind. Could a child of three have sexual fantasies and other basic instincts? And could they lead to mental imbalance later in life? "Yes," said Freud loud and clear. We are born with an innate desire to obtain pleasure from worldly things, and to avoid pain as much as possible. He calls the pleasure principle. But we also know that not all our desires could be fulfilled and we have to make compromises all our lives, this is the reality principal. When we do not get what we desire, we get some sort of vicarious satisfaction by a person or an object that represents what we originally desired.

When the child is born, it is mainly dependent on mother for food that he gets from her breast, and protection that he gets from the warmth of her body. Freud called this the oral stage. During this stage the child forms a very close bond with its mother. As the child undergoes toilet training, the locus of pleasure or energy shifts to the anus, and Freud aptly called it the anal stage. Those who are in the habit of washing their hands frequently, and paying too much attention to cleanliness are said to be suffering from unresolved conflicts of this stage. As the child grows and becomes aware of its private organs, it gets attracted to the parent of the opposite sex. At this stage children begin to see the parent of the same sex as competitor. This gives rise to Oedipus complex in boys, and Electra complex in girls leading to immense feelings of guilt in the child. In the case of boys, as the child is unable to control his attraction towards his mother, he fears severe punishment from his father, thus becoming a victim of 'castration anxiety'. Most children, however, learn to cope with the situation and later learn to identify with the parent of the same sex around the age of five. This is the latency period, in which sexual motivations become much less pronounced until the onset of puberty, when they return with a vengeance.


Since our instincts lead us in one direction, and society leads us in another, there is always this eternal conflict in our minds all our lives. Why do some of us manage to strike a balance while some fail in it? Here Freud comes up with his classic hypothesis of Id, Ego, and Superego. Freud, borrowing Nietzsche's terminology, introduced a new structural concept of the mind in the 1920s, and this does not actually coincide with the distinction among conscious, preconscious, and unconscious that he had used until then. The Id represents all the instinctual desires that need immediate satisfaction. In Freud's own words Id is "the dark, inaccessible part of our personality . . . It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle." As we are forced to live in society, we do not have the freedom to fulfil these instincts. Society gives us security but controls our basic drives. It is the superego that acts as a censor of sorts on behalf of society, and it forbids us to succumb to the wishes of the Id. Thus the superego and Id are in constant conflict, and caught up between this conflict is the Ego. "We are warned by a proverb," wrote Freud, "against serving two masters at the same time. The poor Ego has things even worse: it serves three severe masters and does what it can to bring their claims and demands into harmony with one another. These claims are always divergent and often seem incompatible. No wonder that the Ego so often fails in its task. Freud adds that the Ego, driven by the Id, confined by the Super-ego, repulsed by reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces and influences working in and upon it; and we can understand how it is that so often we cannot suppress a cry: "Life is not easy!" The Ego is clearly not the master of its own house, but it has to strike a balance. How does it go about it?


In order to achieve a harmonious relationship between the three elements that constitute the mind the infant relies on a number of defence mechanisms. When we push conflicts back into the unconscious instead of finding a solution to them, it is called repression. Most of us on the other hand channel our sexual drives towards social acceptable activities such as painting, music, monetary achievement, military conquest and so on - this is sublimation. When the child fails to progress beyond one of the developmental stages, it is called fixation, and when it returns to one of the earlier stages, it is called regression. All these are devices to cope with the tyrannies of the Id and the superego. Fortunately, most of us cross these formative stages by one way or the other with relatively less damage. Freud tried to show, many mental illnesses such as hysteria, could be traced back to unresolved conflicts experienced during these stages. For instance, homosexuality results from a failure to resolve the conflicts of the Oedipus complex.

Coming back to Little Hans, following Freud it would be easier to understand now that at the root of his phobias was his secret wish to possess his mother, and that of the death of his father and sister. These phobias had arisen because the boy was forced to suppress his libidinal instincts. All this was compounded by his castration complex, this infantile sexuality, and his resentment of his parents for having told him untrue story about the stork. During sessions with Freud, Hans accepted that he would like to see his father dead and marry his mother. This was the culmination of the therapeutic process, and soon the phobias, fantasies, and dreams disappeared. The Oedipus complex had been reconciled.

The impact of Freud's theories was so far reaching, that the twentieth century could be called Freud's century. Be it the sciences, the arts, literature, painting, music, feminism, or even cocktail conversation, Freudian influence was all-pervasive. People either worship Freud or they hate him. But the seeds of dissent were sown quite early when his mentor Breuer parted company, and later Carl Jung and Addler followed suit and formed their own schools of psychology. The other strong challenge came from the behaviorists like J. B. Watson and B F Skinner.

The fundamental mistake Freud made was to insist that psychoanalysis was a science. It is definitely not a science. For a discipline to be declared science, there are certain conditions it must meet. Karl Popper's demarcation of what makes a theory scientific is now widely accepted. He says that every scientific theory must be testable, and, therefore, falsifiable, at least in principle. This means if a theory is incompatible with possible observations, it is scientific; conversely, a theory which is compatible with all possible observations is unscientific. But when we ask about Freud's theory: "What does this theory imply which, if false, would show the whole theory false?", the answer would be "Nothing.", the theory is compatible with every possible state of affairs, and hence cannot be falsified. To Popper, it is unscientific. But if we apply Popper's definition strictly, only pure sciences like physics and chemistry would qualify; botany, zoology, anthropology etc., would lose their scientific status. Why be so harsh to psychoanalysis?

To be fair to him, Freud was not altogether wrong, nor was he altogether right. But even if he is proved altogether wrong, his position does not diminish. We must not forget that it was he who for the first time began to challenge traditional theories of the mind thus giving birth to a new science or whatever one wishes to call it. And he also admitted that all psychoanalysis could do was to replace neurotic unhappiness with ordinary unhappiness.

Having learnt so much about Freud and his methods, how about some analysis about the man himself? Well, he was more close to his mother than his father, and was treated as a prince at home. His relationship with his wife is open to interpretation. There is also an unconfirmed rumour that when he was a little boy, he had a physical relationship with his nanny. Now what do we infer from his past, his impeccable dress sense, and his obsession with cigars? You need not waste time on it because when we smoke a cigar, it is a phallic symbol; when Freud smoked it, it was just a cigar!

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