|Pierre-André Brouillet, "A Clinical Lesson at the |
Salpetrière" (1887). Freud's teacher Charcot is at right.
Freud's own early breakthroughs in the treatment of hysteria came with patients suffering from psychosomatic symptoms: bodily disorders (e.g. blurred vision, a chronic cough) inexplicable through bodily causes, and thus attributed to mental ones. Freud hypothesized that these symptoms were caused by repressed desires, desires felt to be intolerable to the conscious self and so driven back into the unconscious parts of the mind. Once repressed, these desires would nonetheless persist, and would seek expression through channels that the conscious self couldn't censor -- in dreams, for example, or in psychosomatic symptoms. Freud's therapeutic discovery (made in close collaboration with Josef Breuer) was that these symptoms could be relieved by bringing the content of the repressed desires to the patient's conscious attention; this was the 'talking cure' of psychoanalysis.
First published in 1905 but revised continuously until 1924, the Three Essays draw on Freud's clinical experience but also on the considerable body of research on sexuality carried out by others in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the book's first publication, for example, Freud had no clinical experience with actively homosexual patients (though he would treat many later on); his knowledge of homosexuality was second-hand.
In class on Wednesday, we should start out by making sure that we have a firm grasp of Freud's theory of sexual development. Here are some questions that should help us do so: 1) Why does it make sense for Freud to speak of "infantile sexuality"? 2) How are the many forms of infantile sexuality transformed at puberty? How, on Freud's account, is this transformation different for girls than for boys? 3) How, on Freud's account, is sexual pleasure different than other kinds of pleasure? (See pages 74-8 on this). 4) What accounts for the development of "perversions" in certain individuals? 5) What does Freud mean when he writes that "neuroses are, so to say, the negative of perversions"? (31). 6) What does it mean that "the finding of an object [i.e. a sexual object] is in fact the refinding of it"? (88).
Among feminist and queer readers, the response to the Three Essays has been intensely conflicted. I'd like us as we read this text to consider why this might be so, to imagine different ways in which it might be a problematic or a productive theory of sexuality for the present. Feminists in the U.S. (less often in Europe) have sometimes rejected Freudian psychoanalysis wholesale as a sexist (and heterosexist) enterprise, and I suspect you'll see what might motivate this as you work your way through the book. Some theorists of sexuality, though, have found continuing inspiration for their own work in this foundational text of Freud's.
One reason for this conflicted reception of Three Essays is that the book is sometimes at odds with itself. You should keep an eye out for claims that seem to clash with one another -- for tensions within Freud's own theory, as he works through and rephrases it over the course of the book. I'd be particularly interested in hearing about such moments of tension in class or in your comments here.
"Normal" is a term at the heart of many debates about this book. The word carries both descriptive and evaluative burdens--it names what usually is the case, and implies what ought to be the case. Yet a range of attitudes towards normality are possible--none follow automatically from the mere fact that Freud uses the word. How typical is normal sexuality, according to Freud? How should abnormal ("perverse") sexual practices be judged, medically and ethically? When might Freud's descriptions of normal sexuality or normal sexual development appear particularly dubious or coercive to a queer or feminist reading of this text?
Another important question about Freud's theory of sexual development concerns the social quality of sexual desire. Freud tends to fall into technical terms when this question comes up: he'll discuss "ego-libido" versus "object-libido," "narcissistic" versus "altruistic" desires, or the importance of "object choice" in sexual development. The fundamental distinction in all of these cases is between self and other. How does sexual desire bring self and other into relation? Does it draw us into genuine contact with another person, or does it rather return us more deeply into the self? (See for example pages 48-9, on "auto-erotism," or page 88 on "Finding an Object" with regard to this question).
We saw in Burke and Wollstonecraft a somewhat low valuation of sexual desire: they found love to be at odds with respect, and pleasure with virtue. Where does Freud stand on this question? When in the Three Essays does erotic love appear to be ethically or socially constructive, and when destructive or regressive?
"The Oedipus Complex" (1899) and "Fetishism" (1927): Castration and Sexual Difference
Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, of which we've read the first version from his Interpretation of Dreams (in the Norton), underwent significant change in his own later writings. Later psychoanalysts have also continued to question and revise it. I'll update the end of this post over the weekend to give you an outline of how Freud himself developed the idea. Before I do so, though, I think it would be useful for us to question his initial model ourselves. What assumptions about gender and sexuality underlie Freud's description of the Oedipus complex? What experiences does it account for well, and what sorts of experience would it have a harder time accounting for?
One of the stranger features of Freud's elaboration of the Oedipus complex is his idea that a boy learns to repress incestuous desires for his mother out of fear not simply that he will be disciplined by his father, but more specifically and more melodramatically that this discipline will take the form of castration, the loss of his own penis. (In Sophocles' play, Freud understands Oedipus's self-blinding as a displaced form of castration).
It seems stranger still that Freud held castration to be an instinctive childhood explanation of sexual difference. It seems "self-evident" to a child that everyone has a penis, Freud says (see Three Essays, p. 61). When this belief is disproven by the sight of a woman's genitalia, the child holds onto his original hypothesis, that everyone had a penis once, and interprets what he sees as a lack or loss: women (and the child's mother in particular) had a penis that has been cut off; they're wounded.
In Three Essays, Freud says that the discovery of women's castration often leads for male children to "an enduringly low opinion of the other sex" (61 n.2). There's no need to belabor how that interpretation seems to reverse cause and effect, using an interpretation of sexual difference that results from misogyny to provide a myth of origin for misogyny itself. What interests me in Freud's essay on "Fetishism," which he wrote in 1927 and thus over two decades after his first edition of Three Essays, is how much more emotionally and psychologically complex his description of the psychological response to sexual difference becomes. Here, the male child's reaction to female (and maternal) castration is no longer simply one of contempt.
If you hadn't read this essay before Wednesday, Nicole's summary of its central idea in class might have sounded confused: it seems like the mother both does and doesn't have a penis. That summary is perfectly faithful to Freud's text, though. The question we might take up on Friday is what psychic or emotional purpose this self-contradictory belief serves for the fetishist in Freud's account -- what sort of a response to sexual difference does it record?
"Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman" (1920)
This is a fairly easy text to read compared to the others we've worked with this week. Here we see Freud the storyteller, writing in a more social and somewhat less technical mode than in Three Essays. (We'll see more of this very readable Freud when we get to Dora in a couple of weeks).
I'd like to leave the field as open as possible for your responses to this essay, and so I'm not going to introduce it in a way that reveals any of its surprises here. I've included it in our reading because after Three Essays, it seemed to me important to have a brief look at Freud the clinician responding to real people, and dealing concretely with female sexuality and homosexuality. Here, he has responsibilities towards both the young woman and her parents, and also towards himself. If in the Three Essays "normal" is primarily a concept, one that Freud in some ways rather admirably divests of its coercive potential, here normality manifests itself as a more palpable social pressure towards (perhaps different and competing kinds of) respectability. I'd be interested to hear how you think Freud handles those pressures.
Postscript: Freud's revisions of the Oedipus complex
Freud continued practicing psychoanalysis and re-examining its underlying theory for over thirty years after the 1899 publication of The Interpretation of Dreams. Many developments in his theory are visible in additions to the revised editions of Three Essays. His idea that narcissism, understood as an attachment of libido to the self, plays an important part in mental life dates from the 1910s; in his earlier accounts of libido (i.e. sexual desire), he understood libido as necessarily attaching only to objects outside the self. The distinction between "ego-libido" and "object-libido" that we've seen in the Three Essays is thus a fairly late one in Freud's thinking.
An important development of Freud's understanding of narcissism came through his study of patients suffering from depression (for which he used the older term "melancholia"). Freud noticed that these patients, in their often excessive self-criticism, would reproach themselves for faults that seemed (to Freud) not applicable to the patient at all, but rather to someone that the patient loved. He inferred from this that the patient had unconsciously identified with the beloved, and was protecting them from criticism by directing that criticism inwards.
Love, in other words, involves identification with the object as well as attachment to it (to him, to her). In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud revised his own model of the Oedipus complex on the basis of this understanding of love, which also helped him to incorporate into the model his hypothesis that love is originally bisexual. A child will love the parent of the opposite sex and identify with the parent of the same sex; he called this the "positive Oedipus complex." Every childhood will also, however, identify with the parent of the opposite sex and desire the parent of the same sex; this is the "negative Oedipus complex." Together, these two formations of desire together make up the "total Oedipus complex." ("Positive" and "negative" are terms used to suggest that these two halves of the total Oedipus are complementary, mirror images of one another, and not that one half is good and the other bad).
This revision of the Oedipus complex has been important for later psychoanalysts and other theorists of sexuality, especially those who seek a fuller account of same-sex desire and of the distinctive development patterns of girls. Nancy Chodorow, a practicing psychoanalyst (and author of the foreword to our edition of Three Essays), has written an influential feminist revision of the Oedipus complex in The Reproduction of Mothering (1978). Judith Butler, in a section of Gender Trouble ("Freud and the melancholia of gender") that isn't part of the assigned reading on our syllabus, critiques Freud's theory of original bisexuality in an extensive engagement with his essay on melancholia. For fresh approach to the significance of "penis envy" and to envy within feminist debates more generally, see Sianne Ngai's Ugly Feelings (2005).