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Modern and Post Modern – Freud


Intensity and the Ordinary: Sex, Death, Aggression and Guilt,

Sigmund Freud, ..

Sigmund Freud,(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sigmund Freud Source : Wikimedia

This week the focus is Sigmund Freud.  Michael Roth opened by observing that most people have already heard of Freud and have some idea about him. When he asked a group of his Wesleyan students what their first thoughts were about him they answered – sex, incest and patricide.

My first thought was “Rambling” or “Free Association.”

Free Association was a therapeutic technique invented by Freud in which a patient said at length whatever came to their mind. With practice the patient was able to do this without the censor of the conscious mind which protects us from saying and doing things which may embarrass ourselves or others. The object was to access unconscious processes for the purpose of therapy. (Kerry Dwyer)

How well we control our internal sensor is an important factor in how well we are accepted in society.

Freud developed psychoanalysis and Free association was important part of his clinical practice.

Mr Roth explained that Freud was not a good hypnotist. Hypnotherapy and regression was part of psychophysical treatment at the time. Freud was at first enthusiastic about this therapy.

It is very probable, too, that the application of our therapy to numbers will compel us to alloy the pure gold of analysis plentifully with the copper of direct [hypnotic] suggestion.  (S. Freud, Lines of Advance in Psychoanalytic Therapy, 1919) 

Freud found himself unable to hypnotize a particular patient. He needed this patient as she was wealthy and so for financial reason he persisted. Eventually she told him to give up trying to and to listen to her story. It was in this way that Freud became ‘a Freudian’. He fell in with her story and helped her to interpret it. This was the beginning of psychoanalysis as we know it today.


For Freud initially everything came back to questions of sex in the family. This was a very shocking thing to come out with at that time. He said that problems were due to childhood memories of sex gone awry. He believed that a lot of his patients had been abused by their parents or others in the family  resulting in mental illness. There is more about this in the explanation of his Seduction Theory.

He later changed his mind about this and decided that the problem was that the patients  actually had unfulfilled desires.

Oceanic feeling

Oceanic feeling is a psychological term first coined by Freud’s friend Romain Rolland a French dramatist, novelist, essayist, art historian and mystic.  Rolland used this term to discuss religious beliefs, as the feeling of being connected with the external world. There is a good explanation of the link to religious beliefs in an article from Stanford University called Emotions in the Christian Tradition.

The term was used by Freud in his books  The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents  to criticize this feeling of limitlessness. On pages 11 and 12 of our text, Civilization and Its Discontents,  Freud talks about his friend Rolland’s view that the “fons et origo” of religious needs, “the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems,” is an “oceanic” feeling, “a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded”  It is “a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole”. Freud found this feeling (which he didn’t find in himself) a vestige of infantile consciousness. He said that this came from before the time when the infant begins to distinguish himself from his human and non-human environment; and he thinks that the oceanic feeling does not involve a strong enough need to be the source of all religious energy.

The Pleasure principle

Life, as we find it, it too hard for us; it brings us too many pains, disappointment, and impossible tasks. In order to bear it we cannot dispense with palliative measures. (page 22)

In expressing his thoughts that religion was a ‘prop’ he firmly aligned  himself with the enlightenment movement. The only thing you can look at scientifically, he said,  is the pleasure principle. This is the idea that people seek pleasure and avoid pain. As only religion, he felt, could address the ‘purpose’ of life, there had to be another way of considering life if religion were to be discounted. So Freud determined that man strives to find and the keep happiness. Happiness is derived from the absence of pain and a feeling of pleasure.

One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be ‘happy’ in not included in the plan of ‘Creation’ (page 23)

Escape from suffering

He spoke of the three causes for suffering that we all have. 1.Our own bodies because the break down and eventually die. 2. The external world which ‘rages against us’. 3. Other people and our relationships with them and Freud thought this might be the most painful of all.

As there are three cause of suffering he identified three ‘cures’. The easiest way to escape from suffering, Freud thought, was by using drugs.(P25) He was known to be a cocaine user. This wasn’t illegal at that time. He did, however, recognise the dangers of long-term intoxication. Secondly wildly impulsive acts can bring temporary relief from suffering. Giving way to instincts and losing control could bring a period of enormous joy. Finally ‘love’ although he felt that this was only available to a few people.  He wasn’t talking of romantic love as in this section he talks of artist painting the perfect picture and scientist discovering truths. The hermit could love his cave and many can derive pleasure from beauty.

Seeking pleasures in these ways could not bring man his desire but just give a respite from the suffering brought about because of repressed instincts.


And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer? (p 35) 

Oedipus Source: Wikimedia

So what are our instincts, what would make us happy according to Freud? He felt we had two basic instincts Sexual and Aggressive. These instincts, he believed, lead to our base desires which are to be with our mothers (sexual)  and to kill our fathers (aggressive). He called this the Oedipus complex.

On Page 44 of the text Freud talks of the effects that  renunciation of instincts has on us.  Society makes rules against the things we want to do and in order to have peace we have to renounce instinct. He argues that Civilisation is built upon a trade-off between protection from nature and the rules of society. – Hang on isn’t this the social contract?

Freud didn’t think we should act on our instincts but felt that we have renounced them so much that they are exploding in other ways. There are outbreaks of enormous violence, the worst of which is war,  because we deny our desire for aggression

Our desire for sex and aggression are denied by society and so we bottle up our impulses and deny ourselves pleasure. This denial   of pleasure, Freud said, leads us to internal aggression or guilt or war.

When I first read this text I was struck by the similarities to Nietzsche’s theory of repression.  I raised the question on the course facebook page and Mr Roth answered me. You can see his answer {here}. A lot of historians came to the same conclusion way before I did and some even accused him of just steeling Nietzsche’s ideas despite Freud’s protestations that he had not read his works. I had a look at some other works and found this quotation in Freud’s History of the Pscycho-Analytic Movement (1914).

The theory of repression quite certainly came to me independently of any other source…and for a long time I imagined it to be entirely original, until Otto Rank showed us a passage in Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea…What he says there about the struggle against accepting a distressing piece of reality coincides with my concept of repression so completely that once again I owe the chance of making a discovery to my not being well read….In later years I have denied myself the very great pleasure of reading the works of Nietzsche  with the deliberate object of not being hampered in working out the impressions received in psychoanalysis by any sort of anticipatory ideas. I had therefore to be prepared – and I am so, gladly * to forgo all clams to priority in the many instances in which laborious psychoanalytic investigation can merely confirm truths which the philosophers recognized by intuition.

Fraud was accused of plagiarism a lot and books were even written about it. Freud took a more scientific approach and Nietzsche’s was quite instinctive. As they are both now dead we can’t know and I don’t suppose it matters if they both came up with the same ideas or if Freud was heavily influenced by Nietzsche and decided to prove his instincts scientifically. We ended up here whichever road we took.

Freud said that we like to see our neighbours suffer, we can’t like our neighbours. As with Nietzsche, Freud thought we need to find a scapegoat on whom to vent our anger. Without a scapegoat our aggression can turn inwards this becomes guilt. People become twisted and crippled with guilt which if bottled up is an impulse that will eventually explode into murderous rage such as WWI.

 The Jewish people, scattered everywhere have rendered most useful service to the civilisations of the countries that have been their hosts. (P61) 

As we  modernised and society became more modern greater chances for explosion of repressed instincts developed   Freud did not advocate anarchism or immoralism but felt we needed  new ideals to live by. We need to understand our desires and learn to live with them. He was not interested in  modern principles or ideals but rather saw a need more satisfaction in what we do so that we are less likely to explode with discontent.


In this reading Freud changed his earlier definition of guilt. Professor Roth mentioned a story from Totem and Taboo (1912-13) where a group of boys got together and killed and ate their father so that they had access to the women of the tribe. They then felt guilty because they had killed him. This guilt and the fact they were not powerful enough led to the origin of society and started the rules against  instincts such as laws against incest and patricide. In the text for this lesson on page 78 Freud says that this sort of guilt would be ‘remorse’.

Remorse of this sort can never help us to discover the origin of conscience and of the sense of guilt in general.

This is another similarity between Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. 

Later in the text Freud contemplated the history of our desires. On the last page he ‘offers  no consolation‘ no answers of how to escape the pursuit of happiness through ideals.

Freud, Nietzsche, Baudelaire and Darwin spoke out ideals and repression of instincts. They spoke of either wearing masks to cover our true nature in order to obscure who we are. Then we create another source of suffering because we make ourselves suffer.

The conclusion of these ‘thinkers’ is that there is no goal of the perfect life. Instinct or impulse  is more fundamental than the disguises we make. All our desires are ambivalent,  full of conflict complex and intertwined so there is no complete satisfaction. The desire to kill your father contradicts the love that you have for your father. The only way to reduce discontent is to make meaning of our past in this way we can reduce the suffering that we cause ourselves.


Very depressing great thinkers. Now I have finished writing about Freud I feel thoroughly down. The closest I ever came to killing my father was throwing some mince pies at him one very emotionally charged Christmas when I was a teenager – maybe I was repressed and should have let go of the plate as well and sliced his head off? Not sure my mother would have wanted sex with me after that and it is not the sort of question I feel that I can ask her. – Yep repressed again I know it.

My body does make me unhappy sometimes because I can’t find a substitute for chocolate that doesn’t put weight on. The world gives me no end of pleasure. I just have to walk out into it and it works. Other people very rarely make me unhappy. Let’s face it I don’t come into contact with most people. They are busy getting on with their lives all over the world and don’t even know me. There are those close to me who I love to bits and some who I find irritating.

I don’t feel I need a scapegoat. Now that is where I do agree with Freud. There do seem to be a lot of people out there who need scapegoats. You see it on the news, the internet, written on the walls, everywhere you look. It is ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘they’ can be just about anyone you care to mention who we can fling some hate and bile at. If you belong to the lucky sperm club then you are not one of ‘them’ .  Scapegoats can be due to colour, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex, gender or which football team you support  There are probably a lot more, feel free to comment. I am bemused by the concept. I have been in the ‘them’ team a number of times but just managed to keep out of the firing line long enough for attention to shift to another ‘them’ and then it is OK again.

If you are a scapegoat (a ‘them’)  just wait a while .

OK – off for some chocolate. I have to admit that I am not looking forward to Virginia Wolfe next week. I could do with something to perk me up again.



  1. […] Modern and Post Modern – Freud (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  2. […] Modern and Post Modern – Freud (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

  3. […] Sigmund  Freud (1856 to 1939).  It is interesting for me to come back to Freud here. Of course reading about the castration of Sky by Kosmos immediately brought him to mind. I have included him in my toolbox. […]

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