IS FREUD RELEVANT TODAY?
Psychoanalysis has not been in vogue for a while, although it has always been big in France and for some reason always popular in South America.
In England it never took off in a big way and now it is being replaced by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy by the NHS, probably because CBT offers a solution to a person’s ‘problems’ and can get them back up and running and back into the workforce within 6 visits.
I remember that about 15 years ago there was much excitement in the media when it was declared that Freud could at last be put to bed. The Unconscious didn’t exist, neuroscience now had the potential to explain the human condition. They had now found the place in the brain where love happens and I think there was even a claim that we had found the spot in the brain were we experience God. We no longer had to worry about these crazy ideas and we can get on with our lives untroubled by this eccentric bearded, cigar smoking, Jewish Viennese gentleman.
Freud did live in a very different world, politically and culturally but as a Jew he knew only too well what it was like to be a part of a suppressed minority in the Viennese society of the late 19th century, living there until the 1940’s when he was encouraged by friends to move to Highgate in London to avoid the Nazis. One of his Sisters was sadly not so lucky and was exterminated in one of the concentration camps.
Freud saw all sorts of problems with what was coined, the ‘talking cure,’ and one of them was that there was a danger that the analyst could take a role where he imposes his ego onto the patient. To avoid this position of hegemony, he focused exclusively on the language of the patient, listening to it word for word, listened to the gaps between the words, he listened to the repetitions, he listened for the slips, the witticisms, and so on and so. Whatever political situation the patient was immersed in, when the patient was in the consulting room it was all about discovering their personal truth and finding what was their real desire, not the desire which was imposed by the prevalent culture. He worked from the general domain to the specific and the effect was like a camera zooming in, from the day to day life of the persons experience, zooming tight into the very words that patient used and this is where he began to notice the Unconscious.
He would work everyday, structuring his day like an office job with a constant flow of people, arriving into his waiting room and then through his consulting room.
What he noticed over a long period of time was that there were characteristics shared by certain groups of people. Characteristics which are not necessarily related to sex, sexual orientation, colour or age. He starting putting a name to these distinctions, partly as a way of making his own practise more effective but also for the transmission of his experience to other analysts, and he would meet with a group of analysts, I think on a Wednesday evening, every week to exchange ideas, case study histories etc.
Some of the words in Freud like phallus and hysteria are problematic words to use today and maybe at some point they will be replace by other words. However nobody has yet managed it and when you read Freud, the insights are so compelling that the associated word becomes an important part of the distinction too. The hysteric psychic structure is not the privilege of just women, the male hysteric has always had a strong presence and far from having sad connotations, it is the place where we aspire to in an analysis. The hysteric is more open to delving into the treasure chest of signifiers and gets to the insight quicker.
Is sexuality and sexual orientation innate? Well this question engages with the argument; Biology/ Neuroscience versus The Unconscious and this has been carrying on for about 40 years without a resolution, although interestingly there are some discoveries in Neuroscience showing similarities to some of the concepts discovered in the Unconscious.
I think in a way the way we feel about the two sides; biology versus the unconscious boils down to belief and what mode of understanding resonates with the individual.
If the idea that we are all basically animals with a sexual instinct, and humans just have the addition of a self consciousness, and a better developed brain, that science is on the way to finding out how it works; if this idea resonates with you, then that is fine.
If you have an inkling that sexuality is interrelated with our language and our culture and something called the unconscious, a system that we don’t fully understand but keeps us guessing, and that we have a constant struggle between something called drive and desire where desire has been set in motion by what was thought to be a biological need but at some point it has been repressed because it has the face of something unacceptable, but then it pops up as a symptom, and you don’t know why you keep dating the same unsuitable people and it always ends up the same, resolving never to do it again, and then you want to lose weight but you can’t do the obvious thing such as eat less and drink less, and then you say one thing when you really mean the other thing and so on and so on; if that resonates with you and you want to understand it more, then that is fine.
If anyone is interested to read more about Freud, the brilliant writer and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written a book called ‘Becoming Freud : The Making of a Psychoanalyst.’ Although it is a biography it only covers the first 50 years of his life and it kind of evokes the idea that Philips could be making an analysis of Freud himself.