The awesome achievement of Freud -- and his notorious blindspots

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The achievement of Freud

Robert Shepherd

The awesome achievement of Freud
Sigmund Freud "Sigmund Freud is often linked with Darwin and Marx as being one of the three original thinkers who have most altered man's view of himself in the twentieth century." [Anthony Storr. page 120]

"Freud marked history and changed scientific thinking when he dealt with the question of how necessary sex is." [Irene Kassorla]

"Darwin had shaken man's self-esteem by demonstrating his kinship with other animals. Freud shattered it further by asserting that man was far less a master of his own mental house than he had supposed. The voice of the intellect might be persistent as well as soft, but men were far more governed by emotion and irrationality than they commonly realized." [Anthony Storr]

But before anything, the primary pre-requisite to attaining healing self-knowledge is the courage to confront with an almost excruciating self-honesty the truth hidden within one's heart of hearts. As Dr. Kassorla encourages her patients, approval seeking is something that must, very often, be shed. [Page 81]

Every great thinker had at least one blind spot. Freud's was woman. [ Robert Jay Lifton]

Erich Fromm says the fundamental discovery of Freud is his concept of the unconscious. None of us is aware of more than a small sector of our mental personality (the conscious) while the bulk of what goes on within us evades our awareness, is unconscious, repressed. We are like an iceberg, only a small part is visible, while the predominant portion is below the surface, out of view. Fromm compares the importance of this discovery on a par with Copernicus' achievement in our understanding of the physical universe.

Jung, whom Fromm calls perhaps the greatest of Freud's inner circle of disciples, was similarly appreciative, in awe of Freud's profound contribution. First we must "drain the miasmal swamp," is how Jung described Freud's insight.

Fromm tries to demonstrate or illustrate this principle of the unconscious.

Two simple examples may help to clarify the point. A man who is constantly bragging, boasting, belittling others is perhaps aware of himself as a masterful, superior person. What he is not aware of is that in reality all those feelings of power and superiority are only compensations for the very opposite. Deep down he feels weak, helpless, childish, and at the very moment when he tells us "look here what a great guy I am," he is really praying "do not let them find out that I feel like a helpless child."

If we are to investigate further, we might find that this man feels like a helpless child because he has never overcome a deep fixation to his mother, a passive attachment which, normal for a child, is weakening for the man and should long ago have been severed. His aim is probably still to be nursed, cared for, and admired by his mother, and just because of his attachment, he feels like a child and hence weak and inferior.

In the other example of unconscious motivation a young student, brilliant, intelligent, conscientious, gets so frightened before an examination that he is almost paralyzed and jeopardizes his whole career. He is particularly frightened when the examiner is a teacher whom he does not like. Otherwise, the young man shows no signs of fear, has no feeling of inferiority, and is always poised and sure of himself in his relationship to older people or contemporaries. If one seeks the reasons of his examination fear, one finds at first an intense rage against the examiners, and especially the ones whom he does not like. Behind the rage is a feeling that it is an unbearable humiliation that he should be forced to submit to authorities who can decide about his career.

Without going into the history of this rebelliousness against authority, it may be said that his anxiety, of which he was conscious, replaced and covered up what he was not aware of -- a deadly rage which he had to repress because to show and express it would have made his position untenable.

Freud believed therapeutic help was available, and of the many tools and concepts he evolved, one special word, from the classical Greek, may be particularly helpful. That word is catharsis -- essentially an emotional cleansing -- which word was first used by Aristotle.

For us today, it is a challenge to give a definitive verdict on Freud. Feminist critics have excoriated Freud for his sexism, his Victorian disdain for the unmanliness of womanhood. Indeed, scholars note that much of nineteenth century Europe was obsessed with a back-to-nature infatuation with strength, and a corresponding disdain for the weakness or effeminacy of civilization, of Christian religion, and of women themselves. Freud was certainly caught up in this zeitgeist, and his thought reflects it.

On the other hand, it seems to me that in sheer daring, Freud's simple honesty and insight have shed unprecedented light on a realm previously shrouded in darkness and ignorance.

Instead of ever-fearing and ever-fleeing from the pain of this "cross" we bear, there is hope for resolution, there is the promise of joy ahead. To borrow from Stanley Keleman, there is an authenticity in facing this suffering which gives our experience an intensity, an immediacy, a seriousness and an innocence that we have never known, or (if known) have long since forgotten. For me, the intensity and the vividness of the perception which is my life has scared me. But as Keleman points out, most of the great mystics and saints talk about the exquisiteness of their experiencing (their suffering) and of their discovery, as Blake said, of the world in a grain of sand.

Suffering - self-experiencing - "again returns us to this lingering of our senses, our emotions and events in appreciation of the life we are in. Imagination cannot take us there; it can only prepare us for the event."

"When we step out of our social roles, when we disengage ourselves from our programmed fears, when we immerse ourselves in the river of self-experiencing, we are bathed, merged in the non-verbal, non-conceptual, non-visual,, non-idealistic world. We are indeed in the sea of creation. We are the sea from which we create our own lives. When you find your own answers, it is you."

The phenomenon of "Projection"

An example of projection might be something like this. What we in the states call "hot dogs" were known in Europe by other (semi-derogatory) names. No one wanted to claim responsibility for them. This type of food was regarded as low-class, something only the poor would eat. The two likeliest origins were the cities of Vienna (in Austria) and Frankfort (Germany). But neither city wanted to claim the dubious honor of having originated the lowly food. Viennese blamed it on Frankfurters. And the Frankfurt-boosters blamed it on the Viennese (weiners).

Similarly, in American politics, each faction imputes to the other side the base motives of self-interest, perhaps a hidden (pernicious) agenda, and often manipulative tactics in order to sway the voters. To their own team, each party is often blind to any flaws. Love covers a multitude of sins. When you already are fond of a particular "hero," you easily overlook his foibles and failings.

The classic case of "projection" in American history must surely be the racist stereotypes underlying black-white racism --- with devestating consequences for the victims. The black people were seen as possessing the "animalistic" (generally sexual) traits that the upper classes (whites) dared not see in themselves. Polite society had to be "protected" from this untamed threat. The bitter hypocrisy underlying the self-delusion was the dishonesty involved in denying those animal (or sexual) impulses on the part the very ones doing all the "protecting."
Freud and women

Biographers have remarked on the close connection Sigmund Freud developed as a boy with his mother. He himself praised a maternal relationship as potentially very empowering for a male's future as a man. In the biblical story of Jacob, certainly, being a Mamma's boy, (as opposed the his brother Esau, the man's man) seems to have been favored by God. Jacob became Israel, whom God preferred.

On the other hand, can a maternal connection go too far? In Freud's case, the answer is yes. That which "openeth the womb" is holy. Is not every child holy, to his mother? Freud charted the Oedipus complex, as he called it. That special connection a boy has with his mother -- in which the ties based on early affection go beyond simple relationship and into sexual idolatry, of a sort.

A reader of the epistles of Paul might wonder just what was referred to in the verse: "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife." (I Corinthians 5:1). Was this some kind of Oedipus issue -- but acted out?

What is known is that Freud himself seemed to be characterized by his own distinctive brand of male chauvinism. Vienna in Freud's day, was after all as Victorian as the English upper crust. Freud seems to have shared with others of his day a kind of Nietzschean contempt for weakness. In a certain "male" view, anything associated with women (including religion) is by definition weak. Today such a view appears as blindness, almost adolescent. Yet it is also human history, is it not?

Freud's anti-feminism is known. Women have penis envy. (But what do men envy? What do little boys envy?) Women's orgasm is centered not just in the clitoris, but more profoundly in the vagina. (Has Grafenberg come to Freud's defense on this?)

If man is disettled by woman amongst him, isn't woman the handy scapegoat? SHE has aroused me, she has tempted or allured me. It's the devil in her. There is in the male rush to look outside himself a kind of brutish logic. "If I can't have her, I'll hate her." To a little boy, the prize possession, his mother -- is the property of the father figure. Since he is unable to supplant the rival in real world terms, he does so vicariously. This is Freud's Oedipal theory.

But of course the child has already "supplanted" the father, in a certain manner of speaking. A father shares the life-giving and nurturing Woman with the child the two have created (pro-creation).

Isn't this the mystery of ongoing life?

Freud's "sexual reductionism"
His Blind Spot was Woman

The genius had a notorious blind spot. For Freud, everything boiled down to SEX. Everything had sex behind it. All our life was influenced by, even permeated with -- SEX. (It was Freud's way of dealing with his "woman thing."

Freud's "woman thing"

Robert Jay Lifton summed up Freud with his comment. "Every great thinker had at least one blind spot. Freud's was woman". Freud himself wrote. "If you want to know more about femininity, enquire of your own experiences of life, or turn to poets, or wait until science can give you deeper and more coherent information. [Adrienne Rich. Of Woman Born. p204] Thus, in an edgy yet candid acknowledgment of his own limitations, Freud ended his essay, "On Femininity."

Rich remarks, "In the forty-odd years since he wrote those words, a great deal has happened. We have begun to accumulate, through the work of scientists like Mary Jane Sherfy, Masters and Johnson, Niles Newton, Alice Rossi, new information about female biology and sexuality and their relation to psychology Female Pleasure (no more double standard); the women's movement has unearthed and stimulated new descriptions of female experience by women Women's Sexual Fantasies; and women poets, certainly, have spoken.

And now, possibly related. If you think Freud is misogynistic, try Camille Paglia

Al Lowen: our body matters
Stanley Keleman Home Page
The scandal of Wilhelm Reich
Freud's Perspective on Women
With America's deep roots of puritanical faith, Freudian though provoked an immediate initial response. Prudery and intense concern with keeping one's neighbors moral are common among American Christians, and psychoanalysis is no friend of prudery. [Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek. Freud and America. pg 150]

Asked to make a list of the men who have most dominated the thinking of the modern world, many educated people would name Freud, Einstein, Marx and Darwin. Of these four, only Darwin was not Jewish. In a world where Jews are only a tiny percent of the population, what is the secret of the disproportionate importance the Jews have had in the history of Western culture? [Ernest van den Haag, "The Jewish Mystique"; pg. 13]

Did not Freud tell his patient Joseph Wortis,
"Women rule American Society; they are an anticultural phenomenon."

Freud's myth of penis envy
Erik Erikson says, "Behind man's insistence on masculine superiority, there is an age-old envy of woman.

Elizabeth Gould Davis notes that one after another of Freud's greatest disciples came to repudiate his claim of women's envy of man's penis. She lists Horney, Jung, Fromm, Reik, Harold Kelman, and Gregory Zilboorg -- saying that on studying women themselves, as Freud had not done, they came to realize that penis envy was a figment of Freud's imagination.

In his book on Freud, Fromm remarks: "Freud's prejudices against women were all those ... of the male who needs to dominate becasue of his fear of women."

Freud's Genius is Marred by his MISOGYNY
Freud's Attack on the Clitoris
Jack Holland notes: In a paper written in 1925, Freud saw the clitoris as the 'masculine' element of female sexuality since it has erections, and masturbation of the clitoris as 'a masculine activity.' He claimed, 'The elimination of clitoridal sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity.' Femininity is achieved through a sort of regime change, with the clitoris handing over 'its sensitivity and at the same time, its importance, to the vagina.'

He claims that true femininity comes about when the woman foregoes the sexual pleasure derived from 'masculine' activity, which is identified with the clitoris because it is the source of a pure pleasure unrelated to reproduction. Such selfishness is characteristic of the male, and therefore has to be abandoned if the female is to become fully a feminine creature, since femininity implies self-abrogation and self-denial for a higher purpose, which is identified with the vagina. And what, may we ask, could possibly inspire a girl to forgo her clitoral delights? Girls, writes Freud, 'notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of larger proportions, at once recognize it as the superior counterpart to their own small and inconspicuous organ, and from that time forward fall a victim to envy for the penis.' Clearly, for Freud at least, size matters. It also determines how men see women, and offers an explanation for misogyny.

'This combination of circumstances leads to two reactions, which may become fixed and will with other factors, permanently determine, the boy's relations to women: horror of the mutilated creature or triumphant contempt for her.' According to Freud, this explains not only why men hold women in contempt but also why women themselves develop a contempt 'for a sex which is the lesser in so important a respect.' This theory therefore predicts that misogyny is not an aberration but in fact a normal, universal reaction on the part of both men and women to the 'mutilated' female.

Misogyny: the world's oldest prejudice. P 210-211

For good or ill, Sigmund Freud, more than any other explorer of the psyche, has shaped the mind of the 20th century.
[Yale historian Peter Gay]

Dark Continent

An irony of Freud the atheist is that his misogyny in regards to the clitoris in some sense parallels the official doctrine of the Church as still binding vis-a-vis families and procreation. Freud disdained clitoral sexuality as an appendage for pleasure only (a male prerogative). Freud's Vienna enshrined a relaxed hedonism for MALES ONLY, the genteel pleasures of otium cvm dignitate. Women were only trusted to be wifely and motherly subjects, devoted to kinder, kirch, kuchen.

As Jack Holland observes: By the time Freud had come to write one of his last works, Civilization and its Disconents, in 1929, men were equated with civilization itself and women with its opponents, a hostile resentful and conservative force driven by penis envy. His conclusion was that female sexuality was a Dark Continent - a revealing meaphor that places women alongside the (hyper sexed?) Negro primitive, firmly OUTSIDE the realm of civilization, which is implicitly the calling of white man.

Freud, looking back on his life, wrote to Hereward Carrington, "If I had my life to live over again, I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis." Susan B. Martinez notes that Freud's fascination with psychic research and the paranormal was kept secret until after his death,

Indeed, as early as 1921 Freud had reached a reluctant private conclusion that there might be something to telepathy; he experimented with the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi but did not wish his interest to be made public. His papers on the paranormal were later gathered and published by George Devereaux. He died in London, September 23, 1939.

A Personal Reflection on Freud
Bob ShepherdBob Shepherd
What the Freudian revolution says to me is that, yes, I am my own worst enemy. Each of us must look inward. Our primary duty is ourselves. Before we can heal the world, or really "do good" for others, we first must attend to personal healing or change. Our inner stories and images, our dreams and fears, our fantasies and nightmares, all have something to teach us. They are our signposts and clues to guide our self-therapy. As in Sylvia Plath's nightmare, each of us also has our inner Hitlers and Nazis, as well as our inner holocaust victims. They cry out for healing, for justice.

At the end of his life, after Hitler's Anschluss had swallowed up his beloved Vienna, forcing the aging Freud into exile, he was asked if he still saw any hope for the world. Freud paused for a long moment, reflectively, then answered, he saw only hope for the world --- "love without a sexual aim."

Now much matured myself, I also see "love without a sexual aim" as a hope for the world. Let's learn from The East - and from sacred sexuality

Bob Shepherd
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