[This document was originally created for Intermedia in 1986, and it has since been exported to various Storyspace webs, then to the WWW around 2000, and reformatted in 2009.]

Freud's New Model of the Mind

The radically new model of the human mind proposed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the inventor of modern psychology and psychoanalysis, changed the way we all think about ourselves, our language, and our culture. Drawing upon both nineteenth-century science and nineteenth-century Romanticism, Freud created a description of the mind that emphasizes the major role played by unconscious drives, particularly those of sexuality. His theories, which struck many contemporaries as sordid and threatening, represents the most recent democratization or leveling of the old hierarchical conception of mind:

Classical through pre-Romantic: reason [rules] will + passion
Romanticreason + emotion will
Freud reason + will + passion (or ego +superego + unconscious)

Freud himself believed that his theories had struck but the latest blow against human vanity, the first being Copernican cosmology, which had displaced humankind from the center of the astronomical universe, and the second, Darwinian evolutionary theory, which had removed it from the center of the biological universe. By proposing that humans had evolved from animal species, Darwinism denied the biological uniqueness of humankind and asserted that human beings were but one of many species of animals. Just as Darwin destroyed the basic opposition between human and animal by placing human beings within a biological continuum, Freud similarly destroyed the traditional basic opposition between sanity and madness by locating normality on a continuum. (Anthropologists, as Levi-Straus has shown, similarly replaced a traditional western opposition of civilized and primitive humanity with a conception of culture that places all social organizations upon or within continua.) What effects can you find of this progressive decentering of humankind in literature read in this course?

Freud's system originates in nineteenth-century biology and physics, particularly in Helmholtz's dynamic theory of energy that holds that energy cannot be destroyed but can only be transformed into other states. Drawing upon this notion of undestroyable energy, Freud formulated a dynamic psychology, one of whose key points is that whenever a psychic drive or urge is suppressed, repressed, or driven below (or out of) consciousness, its energy inevitably appears elsewhere. Freud proposed that the Id (the essentially biological element), the Ego (the socializing element), and the Superego (the dispenser of rewards and punishment) interact dynamically. (Put more idiomatically: The Id says, "I want it now!!"; The Ego says, "No wait, please. Accept this substitute" (sublimation); and the Superego judges either "Well done!" or "You shouldn't have done that. Now you will have to suffer guilt.") Their relative strengths in different people produce differences in personality.

Freudianism and Culture

Freud's dynamic psychology, which implies that reality lies off stage or out of consciousness, simultaneously offers a mode of interpretation, a research method for psychology, a form of psychotherapy, and a theory of society and social existence. Pointing to the evidence of wit, dreams, and so-called Freudian slips, he demonstrated that one could reveal coherence and significant meaning in aspects of human language and behaviour previously considered meaningless. Using such analytic tools, Freud and his followers in many disciplines have decoded human culture.

Freud also claims to show how humankind can ultimately socialize itself by recognizing the determining factors of its illusions and neuroses, by rationally investigating what motivates people to carry out certain acts — to steal things, inflict pain upon themselves and others, paint this particular picture, or write that particular poem. In short, Freud's ultimate goal was to permit freedom through knowledge — at the same time that he revealed how limited knowledge is and how consciousness always appears contaminated by factors that lie outside it.

Freudianism and literature

Like Marx's theories, those of Freud provide various means of investigating human culture and its artifacts, including literature. First of all, his findings have led critics to treat literary works from the vantage point of psycho-biography, inquiring about personality traits or traumas that shed light upon an author's work. (Is there, for instance, a link between Virginia Woolf's suicide, her psycho-drama, and the themes of her work? Do Dickens's childhood psychic traumas shape the plots, characterization, or themes of Great Expectations?) A second mode of approach looks within the work itself for "obsessive" repetitions. This mode of analysis, for example, has led some commentators to discuss Swift's supposed "scatological vision." Thirdly, and perhaps most interesting from a theoretician's point of view, Freud's work on the language and structure of dreams, which emphasizes that all human thought and discourse is fundamentally symbolic, has produced fruitful comparisons between dreams and poetic language by showing that both rely upon metaphor, simile, and synecdoche to say one thing in terms of another. Lastly, one may examine works of authors influenced by Freud just as one may examine Pope or Wordsworth for influences of various scientific and philosophical theorists upon their work. (In what different ways do you think Freud's emphasis upon unconscious mental processes, biological drives, and the multidetermination of human phenomena affect Woolf, Joyce, and Lawrence? How does Freudianism shape conceptions of character? narrative? symbolism? literary diction? poetic and novelistic structure?)

Freud and Marx

Although the vehement followers of Freud and Marx would resist comparing their enterprises, both in final analysis are social critics. Both were also Jews exiled from their Germanic homelands, and both lie buried near one another in London. Both redefine human nature and human consciousness. Both investigated the determinating factors of human illusion. Marx, for example, believed that religion is the matrix of human illusion — "the opium of the people;" Freud considered it the "universal obsessional neuroses of humanity." Both offered "sciences" of humanity that they hoped would alleviate human misery by investigating necessary laws or deterministic models with which people have to come to terms. Marx looked at humanity's problems from outside the individual, from the vantage point of society that determines consciousness and hence restricts freedom. Freud, in contrast, regards the problem from inside the individual, that is, from within the world of human instincts that create an irrational world regardless of economics. Both men, finally, sought a world of rational order and individual self-determination.


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Last modified 1988