Sigmund Freud

Benjamin Poore

in Literary and Critical Theory

ISBN: 9780190221911
Published online February 2018 | | DOI:
Sigmund Freud

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The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (b. 6 May 1856–d. 23 September 1939) was one of the most controversial and innovative thinkers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Freud’s account of selfhood inaugurated an entirely novel and disruptive conception of what it means to be a person, as well as a radical mode of psychotherapeutic treatment that put speech, meaning, and the unconscious at its center. The body of work—clinical, intellectual, and artistic—that has emerged in response to his ideas is dizzying in its scope, and this article can only touch on the most salient commentaries and arguments. His own body of work—running to twenty-four volumes in the Standard Edition—that is at the center of this article is also vast and thus this bibliography is necessarily selective, identifying prominent works in areas of his thinking that have been organized conceptually and thematically. Sigmund Freud’s work inaugurated a number of key ideas and principles that have simply refused to go away, despite the vicissitudes of the “Freud Wars” of the 1980s and 1990s and the oft-proclaimed “death” of psychoanalysis. Freud’s influence and reach, described by W. H. Auden as “a whole climate of opinion/under whom we conduct our different lives,” is as culturally and intellectually pervasive as ever. Freud himself considered the discovery of unconscious mental life as being no less than Copernican in significance. Freud’s work is characterized by, and, for some, scandalous for, the primacy that it gives to human sexuality as that which undergirds all of human behavior and social life. Sexuality in the Freudian version, however, is not simply a set of demands that can simply be articulated and met leaving one whole and replete; rather, sexuality introduces a destabilizing, disturbing asymmetry into the equilibrium of the subject and social life, what Freud would come to call das Unbehagen, that is, the “uneasiness” or discontent in culture. It is what must be repressed for civilized life to go on existing, yet it is also that which cannot be contained by the better angels of our nature. The Oedipus complex is the most exemplary instance of this dynamic, a developmental structure Freud identified in literary sources in conjunction with his clinical work. Freud’s family romance is one that places the child in a developmental deadlock: the forbidden desire for the mother and the murderous resentment of the father can be resolved, and the threat of castration averted, only by identification with him; an identification necessarily and frustratingly incomplete, as to fully emulate the father would entail desiring that which identification is supposed to assuage: the mother herself. Freud’s positing of the existence of child sexuality and the formative function of ambivalent sexual feelings toward the mother and father is the most controversial yet utterly essential aspect of his thinking, notwithstanding his concept of the unconscious. The unconscious is the realm of thoughts, fantasies, and wishes that consist of difficult or indeed unacceptable content, and which are only tentatively permitted access to our conscious experience in altered, concealed, and compromised forms. In the state of sleep we are more readily able to perceive the functioning of these processes of representation and transformation; so too in the clinical process of free association, where the patient lies supine on the couch and, unprompted, constructs complex and digressive chains of thought that is it the analyst’s task to respond to and interpret. Thanks in part to Freud’s both cultivation and expulsion of various disciples, the name Freud and the practice of psychoanalysis have become nearly synonymous. Indeed, this attitude is so pervasive that many of those working across the institutional and intellectual legacies of psychoanalysis frequently imagine themselves “returning” to Freud’s original project or intention in some form or other. Disputes in the history of psychoanalysis center on the proper definition of key terms that Freud himself set out, or what should and should not be considered to be “proper” psychoanalytic clinical practice, something most intensely articulated in the so-called Controversial Discussions of the 1940s. The focus of this article on Freud as an individual writer is not intended to elide the distinct and vast contributions of analysts in traditions subsequent to Freud, whose work also contributes a great deal to literary and critical theory; by the same token, a cursory inclusion of a rich body of work would risk positioning such writers as merely supplementary.

Article.  20569 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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