Friday, January 4, 2008

Rediscovering Freud

From Bragg, Melvyn. On Giants’ Shoulders. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.

Freud at the end of his life declared:

I started my profession as a neurologist trying to bring relief to my neurotic patients. I have discovered some important new facts about the unconscious and the psychic life. I had to pay heavily for the bit of good luck. (216)

Freud’s revolutionary theories about the unconscious have, perhaps more than the work of any other giant, influence every aspect of life in twentieth century. Freud, whose grandparents were rabbis, had a decent Jewish middle class upbringing. As an eastern European, Freud’s parents wanted him to become a respectable doctor. An encounter with the world-famous Parisian neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, who was studying hysteria, proved to be a turning point in Freud’s career. Freud wanted to move from neurology and neuroanatomy into what we would now call fantasy and psychopathology. Charcot thought that if you could hypnotize people into having hysterical attacks, you could take them away from hysteria by hypnosis.

Following Charcot, Freud concluded that hysterical symptoms were symbolic representations of a repressed unconscious event, accompanied by strong emotions that could not be adequately expressed or discharged at the time. Instead, the strong effect associated with the event was diverted into the wrong somatic channels (conversion), and the physical symptom resulted. Psychoanalysis has had reasonable success in helping patients suffering from conversion disorder. Hysteria today is called conversion disorder where a psychological conflict is converted into bodily disturbance. It is quite different from Hypochondria, where sufferers don’t confuse their conflicts with real, physical disease. Even if the illness is absent or is unlikely to afflict, a hypochondriac is anxious about health.

Hysterics were enacting something which they were unaware of. So, in a sense, they were showing the theatricality which Freud called neurosis. Charcot had an element of sex in it and thought that neurosis was genitally attached and Freud was later to follow this in stating that sexual trauma was the source of neurosis.

For Freud and Charcot, another important thing was the idea of conversion: hysterics who couldn’t speak out, they talked with their bodies. Most think that Freud fantasized about all talk being about sex but what he really emphasized was that a suppressed idea like sexuality wished to find articulation and if not, the suppression converted into body language or symptoms.

Oliver Sacks, who wrote thrilling narratives as Freud did thinks that:

People didn’t come to Freud to be investigated, they came because they were tormented, because they were obsessed, because they were driven, because they were jealous, because they were frustrated, because they were depressed, because they were anxious, in some cases because they had strange symptoms which couldn’t explained by organic neurological disease. People came to Freud as patients to be helped. And psychoanalysis developed partly as a way of exploring what was going on with the patients and at the same time as a way of helping them. (220)

While developing Charcot’s ideas, Freud became convinced that hysteria had psychological origins rather than physical sources. Gradually, he began to formulate analytical theories like Oedipus complex, drawing on folklore and mythology. Susan Greenfield explains why Freud felt that traditional science, the study of brain, was inadequate to explain his patients’ problems:

Initially, he thought that hysteria was due to a specific cause, a specific idea, but he gradually realized that under hypnosis, some of the things his patients were telling him were not real facts but actual fantasies. (221)

These fantasies were not rooted in some simple straightforward cause but derived from complex, varied sources. That’s what makes neurological evidence insufficient for Freud. But, Sacks feels that Freud is extremely important for the history of neurology:

He started as a neurologist and some of his early neurological books are still read a century later – for instance a book on aphasia in 1891. Also agnosia was devised by Freud at a time when analysis of conditions like this was very diagrammatic, just described in terms of centres of brain.

Freud had a dynamic view of all the different brain actions that were needed to form a sentence and to form a language and which might break down. But, probably it is the psychological theories and insights which remain especially pertinent to neurology. I think neurologists have to have a clear idea of the structure of dreams, of fantasies, of repressions, of the unconscious, of fixations, of complexes, because these things occur in their patients as well and clearly these things probably have a basis in neurology. Freud himself attempted to give us a sort of neurology of the mind in 1896 but then gave that up and realized it was far too early. (222)

Sacks speaks further about Freud’s most relevant discoveries even for today:

Primarily his discovery of the unconscious, of the dynamic unconscious, of a whole area of feeling and thought which s inaccessible to consciousness and which is vehemently kept out of consciousness by process of defense and repression. Freud was very much aware of what is sometimes now called the cognitive unconscious, for example, the way in which the mind deals with language unconsciously and comes out with a perfect sentence or perhaps come out of a slip of tongue.

Freud had a dynamic view of memory which was unusual at the time. In the 1890s, phonographs had just been invented, photography was very popular and memory was usually compared to a trace, some physical trace which would remain unaltered and inert until it was played. One of the things Freud insisted upon was that memories get altered according to one’s own wishes and fears and further experiences and that they are in flux. There’s now good biological evidence for the dynamic quality of memory. (223)

This is innovative as Freud envisioned something that none of his contemporaries bothered about. Freud’s ideas have permeated into our everyday living that consciousness has become commonplace. I think one of the profound insights of Freud was the conflict between thinking and being; between what we believe and what we are. The difference between what I say and what I believe assumes a new dimension, namely that of my unconscious belief or striving. But, Freud restricted this discovery by assuming that essentially what is repressed is awareness of infantile striving and the conflict is essentially between thinking and infantile sexuality.

In the latter half of 20th century, Freud had received a backlash because of his emphasis on the subjectivity of consciousness and above all, Freud is thought as a “slightly chauvinistic character”. Ms. Greenfield thinks he is not:

He was one of the first people to have evoked derision from others when he said that men could be hysterical and there were smarty-pants people saying: “Well, we all know hysteria is connected to the womb, therefore how can a man be hysterical?” He also wrote about and was interested in, but did not exploit, the issue of transference, that is to say what nowadays would be regarded as, potentially, sexual harassment when his patients started finding him attractive or seeing in him some lover-figure. He wrote very sensibly and clearly about that and he did not take advantage of it, as far as we know. All his writings suggest that he did not, so it might be that people in a feminist mood mistakenly think of him as some lecher with the hysterical female patient on the couch. It was not like that. (238)

Contemporary deconstruction disciples of Derrida use this little understood facet of Freud to fatal use. Among the binary pairs with which they are quite obsessed with, there’s a Freud’s binary pair: male/ female. Something over the top (male) always quells the bottom one (female) and using their parlance the male is the presence striving hard to wallow the female into absence. But, one can also bring in Freud’s heir (for a short time), Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) into the picture. Jung talked about the male and female facets in females and males, which he named anima and animus. If there is a female facet in a male and male facet in a female which seek wholeness, then one can only think of an personality as having a deficit which must be filled by the other. Simply, everyone seeks a fullness that is ultimately a union with everything else. Or as the Chandogya Upanisad wonderfully puts it: “See every thing in yourself and yourself in every thing.”

There has always been a fight over whether psychoanalysis must be treated as an amazing art or a stunning science. I think it is both. As an art, it introduced a novel way of understanding the selves of the patients and treat them in the best way possible. Aspiring to become science, psychoanalysis tends to become objective (as in the practice of emotionally detaching from the patient by not facing the patient while talking to him.) Yet, the therapeutic value of the art and radical value of the science are important today as it was more than a century ago.

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