The Legacy of Sigmund Freud

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"The Legacy of Sigmund Freud"
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According to some writers, Freud dared "to pursue his exceptional insight - whether genius, vision or fantasy - into what many see as a revolutionary theory of sexuality". By contrast, others see him as a conservative thinker who reasserted patriarchal domination in a modernised form.

The question whether Freud was a visionary or an oppressor of women is a difficult one to answer. With the passing of time, any theory can become outdated, and its ideas challenged. With hindsight, one can see the prejudices and inhibitions theorists may face and have. Also, voices of opposition may arise, which wasn't as vocal at time. When these theories were applauded, these voices were silent and their viewpoints unheard. This is the case with Freud. At the time his ideas about sexuality was widely accepted as the truth; he was considered a genius, a man who had figured out what gives us humans our drives. He had used scientific methods to observe and determine how human sexuality works, and in doing so had revolutionised psychology and psychoanalysis. However, it is in Freud's changing of his mind and theory that questions arise whether he was a genius or asserting patriarchal dominance. The implications were enormous; first he accepted the women's memories as fact and believed that they had been sexually abused by their fathers (or other males), or that they had been experienced some sort of infantile sexual activity, but then he turns the situation around and makes them into the predators and the fathers the innocent victims of their daughters lust. But was Freud right? Was the seduction theory incorrect and the infantile sexuality theory and the Oedipus theory correct? Were the memories' just fantasies after all? Was Freud objective in these studies, particularly regarding women? Or was he a man of his times, with the same prejudices against women as the rest of male society? Had he really known the horrible truth of the situation, and found that this truth challenged the power of males in society? If so, in presenting instead a patriarchal theory that oppressed women further, did he knowingly set out to hide the truth and maintain male dominance, or did he really believe in his revised theories? On the other hand, aren't scientists allowed to revise and change their theories? Basically, was he a genius in discovering this new Oedipus theory, a coward who couldn't handle ostracism, or a man who wanted to keep women submissive? Unfortunately, one cannot truly find out the motivations behind Freud's conclusions, one can only examine his own and other's work and their reaction to Freud to decide whether his work was genius or detrimental to women.

The first view of Freud is one of genius. Freud invented theories that revolutionised psychology. He sought the truth; he pursued his goals with no ulterior motive other than finding the cause of his hysteria patient's sufferings. Peter Gay's book, Freud; A Life for Our Time, discusses Freud's life and the events that led him to discover his theories. He recounts Freud's early days working with psychoanalysis to cure hysteria sufferers. In the beginning he worked closely with Breuer, but began to disagree with him as to the cause of the problem. Freud was leaning more to the thought that the patients had experienced sexual trauma, and that they were real events, not imagined. It seems that Gay never believed Freud seduction theory ("that all neuroses are the consequence of an adult's, usually a father's, sexual abuse of a child." ) as correct; he says "What is astonishing is not that Freud eventually abandoned the idea, but that he adopted it in the first place." The seduction theory had (for Gay) an "uncompromising sweep" and was "inherently implausible" and that "only a fantasist like Fliess could have accepted and applauded it". Freud only accepted the theory after years of research. In Gay's view Freud was a real scientist, he worked on his seduction theory for years, and it had appealed to him for it's simplicity, yet he had only believed in it "as a good bourgeoisonly after overcoming strong inner resistances to such a notion" (in theory sex and sexuality was a silent matter in Freud's time and it would've shocked him as well as other people to discover that perverse sexual activity and desires were common, and that males actually sexually abused children). He based his research and findings on his eighteen hysteria patients, all of whom had been the victims of presexual scares'. It was on the 21st of April in 1896 that he presented his findings to the local Society for Psychiatry and Neurology. His audience (perhaps due to their own prejudices against women and the implications this theory had for male rule) was unreceptive and unbelieving, despite Freud's best efforts. Freud himself wrote to Fleiss saying that he "had an icy reception from the donkeys and, on Krafft-Ebing's part, the odd judgement: It sounds like a scientific fairy tale.' And this, after one has shown them the solution of a thousands-year-old problem" . Freud felt that this traumatic evening justified his resulting pessimism, and was convinced that this lecture had caused him to be ostracised from the scientific community. He was receiving no new patients, and was virtually ignored and shunned by his peers.

One would assume that with this criticism Freud would be affected by it and could change his theory accordingly. But Gay doesn't present this as Freud's reason for changing his theory; instead he says that for a while he continued to believe the patients recollections of sexual abuse as fact, but in May 1987 he is said to have had a dream in which he had sexual feelings towards his eldest daughter. He claimed that he had never sexually assaulted any of his children, and that the dream and feelings should be interpreted differently. In a letter to Fleiss on the 21st of September, 1897 he abandoned the seduction theory, saying that he could not complete any of his analyses (with patients leaving halfway through, or not gaining partial results). He also added that if the seduction theory was indeed correct in revealing the cause of hysteria, then infantile sexual abuse must be widespread, for hysteria was very common, therefore it would follow that "in all cases, the father had to be accused of being perverse, my own not excluded" and that "Such widespread perversion against children is scarcely probable" . Gay emphasises that Freud continued to believe that some patients were sexually abused, but realised that there was a difficulty in determining between truth and fiction in the mind. He also questioned his influence on the women, whether he had led his patients to the conclusion that they were abused. He did not abandon the theory for another two years, but in 1924 he called the seduction theory "an error which I have repeatedly acknowledged and corrected since then" . Freud seems to have been the perfect scientist, and though he was "upset, confused, wearyAt last came the reflection that, after all, one has no right to despond just because one has been deceived in one's expectations" . Freud was determined to move on and to improve his theory and find the truth; he began with a lengthy process of self-analysis and "recognised that his remembered infatuation with the mother and jealousy of the father' was more than a private idiosyncrasy" . He discovered' that all humans have this Oedipal complex' feelings inside them, which manifest in ones behaviour, and if repressed enough can result in hysterical symptoms.' According to Gay, despite this rush of insights, Freud still had bouts of depression and doubt, but continued to pursue this theory because he believed it to be the truth. There was no sinister motive in changing his theory; Freud was a scientist seeking the facts and was entitled to change his views if new evidence was presented to him.

Another man, Steven Marcus, reviews Freud as a literary critique and seems to have a viewpoint of Freud as a genius. The blurb on the back of his book Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis proclaims his admiration of Freud; "he is able to assess Freud both as an exemplary late Victorian and as a pivotal figure in the creation of modern thought and culture." The praise of Freud continues into the book, the first few paragraphs in the introduction extol his genius. Marcus is impressed with Freud's work for its scientific and literary merits. He analyses Freud's essays and interprets what he means (since Freud's theories have already been discussed earlier there is no need to repeat what Marcus says about them). He believes that in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality' Freud has delved into the mind and behaviour and found the truth about why we behave the way we do. Marcus says that "it is one more illustration of how rarely genius of revolutionary proportions occurs in both science and other theoretical disciplines. And it illustrates as well how when such a genius occurs the world changes. " Through analysing Freud's work for its literary value, Marcus is able to evaluate, and praise Freud not for what he said, but how he said it. Marcus does, however, seems to be an admirer of his scientific work as well, and has no negative comments about any of it. For him, Freud and his work was genius.

Yet to be considered genius one must have others who follow your works and try to replicate your results, in the process proving' your theory. Paul Kline in his book Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory does this. Scientifically, (by starting out with premises/propositions, then using various methods to test these theories) he finds conclusions which seem to support Freud's theory of sexuality. He states that the psychosexual theory has three empirical propositions,
"1. that certain adult personality syndromes may be observed,
2. that these are related to infant rearing procedures, and
3. that pregenital eroticism may be observed in infants." He then follows on with four different methods that have been used by scientists and investigators to prove Freud's theory; Retrospective studies of the infantile experiences of adults, Cross-Cultural studies, Current and longitudinal studies of children and Studies with the Blacky Pictures . This is followed up by studies of the Oedipus and castration complexes. There are however, problems in proving or disproving Freud's theories, due to lack of proper investigative techniques (at the time of publication). Most of Freud's theories are based on observation, and one can make their own opinions about the evidence. Kline does not abandon Freud though, and seems to have the view that Freud's theories as a whole were sound and valid, and the large numbers of scientists who have tried to validate Freud's theories testifies to his popularity.

But there is another side to the argument, that Freud was a conservative thinker who reasserted patriarchal domination in a modernised form. But did he really intend to do this? J.M. Masson points to the night in April 1896, when Freud delivered his paper on The Aetiology of Hysteria' as the turning point in Freud's life. Faced with the disbelief of his colleagues, and the possibility of being ostracised from the scientific community, Freud was urged not to publish his findings. While he did in fact publish the paper, he later changed his mind about the theory. Masson questions why he did so; "It had never seemed right to methat Freud would not believe his patients." He mentions an important fact, that those who defend Freud's change of theories by quoting Freud's own words and reasons in his letters from Fleiss do not have the whole picture. In fact the majority of the correspondence between these two men had not completely been published (in 1984), and that not many people had read all of the letters. The letters that had been omitted, according to Masson, contain a very different story. Freud was convinced that his hysteria patients were telling the truth, and that they had been abused. When Freud visited Paris in 1885 he was given access to vast amounts of studies and reports on child abuse; he knew that child abuse was very common in his times, yet he still discarded the theory. Why? Masson acknowledges the letter Freud wrote to Fleiss on September 21, 1897, in which he announces that he no longer believed in the Seduction theory. Yet the reasons and objections that Freud gives for leaving the old theory were identical to those raised by his colleagues (which Freud himself had answered and defended) ; and Masson produces later letters that prove that Freud was not convinced he had done the right thing. In an unpublished letter dated December 12, 1897 he wrote "My confidence in the father-etiology has risen greatly" , for a fellow psychoanalysist (and former patient) Emma Eckstein had been treating a patient who had unearthed repressed memories of abuse, without any hint of suggestion from Eckstein, which Freud believed he had done. Other letters which suggest that Freud was not so certain anymore that he had made the right decision in renouncing the seduction theory have gone unnoticed and unpublished. Masson suggests that the reason Freud did abandon the theory was due to the public pressure and condemnation and that he "suffered emotional and intellectual isolation as long as he held to the reality of seduction." He believed Freud did not make a conscious decision to change his mind, and believed that he was doing the right thing in doing so. He did not set out to inhibit women's growth in society, it was just a coincidence that it did happen. Yet his decision was, to Masson, a failure of courage and that it led to suppression of the truth, that children really were being abused.

The final view of Freud is the most extreme; that he knew exactly what he was doing and intended to oppress women, and assert patriarchal dominance. Freud, as a man of his times could not let women become equal. By attacking them in their infantile stages and turning a father's abuse into a daughter's lust, he was putting women back into their place and allowing men to rule over them. Gallop argues that he was "unable to accept the possibility of so many perverse fathershe goes on to locate the guilt where it will not besmirch him." Freud could not let his fellow men be labelled as the cause of hysteria, and therefore the females must be blamed. Mothers were perverse and sexually aroused their children (through handling and bathing etc) while daughters fantasised about having sex with their fathers. This theory let the men off the hook, because it was entirely the females fault. But Florence Rush thinks that the Freudian cover up' "was more than one man's attempt to hide illegal or immoral sex practices (It) provided a system of foolproof emotional blackmail: if the victim incriminates the abuser, she also incriminates herself." It could be viewed as a way to keep the women in check, to reassert male rule over society. The men could be free to fulfil their desires, while the women had to submit and keep silent. Rush points out some inconstancies in Freud's Oedipus theory; that if children are sexually aware, then surely they would be able to know when they have been exploited, and can determine the difference between fantasy and reality. Furthermore, since child abuse was mostly a female problem, and he heard little evidence of maternal seduction, the female abuse became imagined.' Yet he would not have heard of maternal seduction because it was not the mothers who were abusing the children, it was the fathers. Rush notes that Freud frequently omitted vital comments and observations from his notes, he regularly changed the role of the father as attacker to that of an uncle or brother, and in his own self-analysis edited information that he thought was inappropriate. Who knows what he really found when he delved into his unconscious. Was there any suggestion that his own father abused him or his siblings and he didn't want to admit to it? Or was he afraid that if he exposed a few fathers he would be implicating all of them?

Criticisms can be made of the various viewpoints of Freud. Gay appears to have completed extensive research on Freud's life, and attempts to give an unbiased view of it. But he doesn't mention any of the later letter that Masson does, which admit to him still believing in the theory. Yet, maybe Masson, Gallop and Rush take this evidence too far and turn Freud's doubts about changing his mind and worries about his peer's opinion, into sinister reasons for dismissing the seduction theory. They do not take into account the fact that many scientists change their theories with no ulterior motive. Furthermore, the feminist writers have a strong bias against any male who seem to oppress women. Marcus, on the other hand, seems to have a bias in favour of Freud. His flowery praise of Freud and his works does not contain any criticism at all. No theory is perfect, but if one was to believe Marcus, Freud's was. One shouldn't take just Marcus' word, not just one of the others. All views of Freud should be moulded together so that one can see the whole picture with all the facts and without bias.

Rush does not blame Freud for the popularity of his theory leading to the oppression of women. She admitted that he lived in an age where sexism was rampant, resulting in clouded judgement. She knew that "he could not acknowledge that they suffered from sexual abuse and social inequality and discrimination" for to do so would require admitting that women were not inferior and could contribute more to society. No, Freud is not to blame; he was a product of his times, and could not shake the role society have placed on males. He was playing out his role, and inadvertently forcing women back into theirs. Perhaps Freud genuinely wanted to help these women, and thought that his Oedipus theory was their problem. Maybe he was influenced by the threat of ostracism and quickly changed his theory to fit back into society. Or maybe he deliberately changed his mind because he could not accept the facts, and could not let men become the abusers. Whatever the reasons he had for doing so, the fact remains that women did suffer from it. They were the victims in the struggle for power. Yet Freud should not be completely dismissed; while he was wrong in dismissing the truth, his following theories should be considered genius. He was the first to properly examine the mind, our instincts and desires. He gave reasons for why we behave the way we do, and his extensive research helped people understand who they were. Whatever his reason for doing so, Freud pursed his Oedipus theory with a passion and was determined to discover the truth' about our sexuality. Freud's theories were genius, he influenced countless other scientist and his theories can still be applied today. It is unfortunate that with his theories there had to be a scapegoat. And it is unfortunate that he chose the women to be this scapegoat, instead of their fathers, and in doing so created a controversy about his actions.

Gallop, J 1982 extract from The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Cornell University Press, New York in Taylor, T 2001 Gender, Sexuality and Identity in Europe from 1890; HST211 Readings, Learning Materials Centre, Charles Sturt University, NSW.
Gay, P 1988 A life of our times, J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London.
Kline, P 1972 Fact and Fantasy in Freudian Theory, Methuen & CO LTD, London.
Marcus, S 1987 Freud and the Culture of Psychoanalysis, W.W Norton and Company Inc, London.
Masson, J.M 1984 Freud: The Assault on Truth, Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory, Faber and Faber, London.
Rush, F 1984 The Great Freudian Cover Up, Trouble and Strife , No 4 in Taylor, T 2001 Gender, Sexuality and Identity in Europe from 1890; HST211 Readings, Learning Materials Centre, Charles Sturt University, NSW.

More about this author: Kristina Manusu

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