Sigmund Freud uncovered

I’ve a new online course at The Idler Academy, an introduction to psychotherapy. The first part, on Sigmund Freud, is released today. And here are a few thoughts…

Freud is, today, widely misunderstood. Maybe that’s the inevitable fate of an investigator of the mind whose brilliantly colourful terms – “retentiveness”, “death wish”, “penis envy”, “slips” – broke free of his careful deliberations and entered the rowdy realm of pop psychology and public discourse. Did you know that a narcissist is not someone who loves themselves, but is rather someone who repeatedly fails to, and so orientates their entire life around trying to cover up the unbearable self-loathing?

It’s doubly ironic, as whilst his displaced vocabulary continues to shape our culture, psychotherapists themselves tend to regard Freud not as the fount of all wisdom but rather as the man who let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Modern science had reached its rational, secular form in the nineteenth century, just before Freud lived. Scientists were confident that the world was now amenable to precise prediction and that they would one day know everything about everything. Freud crashed the celebrations, demonstrating how human beings are irrational and unpredictable at heart.

The story of psychotherapy over the last century has been one of establishing which theories best model that inner riot. It’s fascinating, with many useful outcomes. We’ll track it on this course.

But here’s another side of Freud that is so offensive even he tried to censor the discovery. He was happy to write about “polymorphous perversity” and “infantile sexuality”. He speculated about scenes of primordial murder and incestuous love. But he discovered one feature of the human psyche that many hardly dare talk about to this day.

The unconscious is a very strange place, he realised. There is no negative in its shadowy realms, which is why, when someone says “don’t worry”, your anxiety levels immediately rise. It has a timeless quality, almost akin to eternity, which explains how a trauma in childhood, like sexual abuse, can continue to haunt the adult decades later with as much ferocity as it terrorised the individual as an infant.

It’s also telepathic. Communications are exchanged between the unconscious of one person and another, Freud witnessed. He called it gedankenübertragung, or “thought transference”. He wrote six essays on the phenomenon and argued that it was connected to various other features of human experience, from dreams to empathy.

There’s a well-known story about Freud and Jung discussing the subject. Jung suddenly felt his diaphragm heat up, before there was a loud crack from a nearby bookcase that made them both jump. “There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon,” Jung exclaimed, before predicting that another crack was about to follow, which it did.

Freud was always anxious about how psychoanalysis would be received. He wasn’t mistaken in that. The antisemitism of his times was quite enough to crush it. But he seems to have projected his fears onto phenomena like telepathy, calling them a “black tide of mud”. “Such matters are probably true on some level, but they must be denied for the sake of intellectual consensus and the stable future of a young, and still vulnerable, movement,” Jeffrey Kripal concludes in his study, Authors of the Impossible.

The world of the human psyche is still underexplored, by modern minds at least. It’s a little known fact that biological causes for mental health conditions have only been identified in about half a dozen cases, ones in which the brain is clearly deteriorating, like dementia. Psychotherapy is at the vanguard of this often troubling adventure. As Freeman Dyson has argued, it has a place alongside neuroscience and psychiatry because there are clearly aspects of the mental universe that are “too fluid and evanescent to fit within the rigid protocols of controlled scientific testing.” (See his Forward in Extraordinary Knowing by Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer.)

In that sense, Freud’s legacy is secure. He confirmed what Shakespeare intuited, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in many philosophies, though he added something else. Many of those things are to be found closer to us than we often are to ourselves.

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