Freud and Psychoanalysis
The Unconscious since Freud
The concept of “the unconscious” did not begin with Sigmund Freud who, between 1893 with his Studies on Hysteria and 1938 with his last work, almost single handedly invented and then developed the historical and cultural phenomenon known as psychoanalysis. What is new with Freud is the way in which the concept of the unconscious came to be the focus for a range of influential and effective resources for treating problems of at once a clinical, a philosophical, and a cultural character. The concept as it stands is hardly promising. The prefix un-, meaning “not,” suggests a negative definition: without consciousness, not aware, not self-conscious. Yet, as with many words that begin with this prefix, the word “unconscious” is very much more than a mere negation (compare it with, say, “unkind,” which generally means “cruel”). But by saying this I still leave room for misunderstanding. Since Freud the concept of “the unconscious” is often thought to denote a deep, albeit inaccessible level of “the psyche” in which reside impulses and memories that have been repressed. This sense leaves open the possibility of treating the unconscious as if it were a cave, dark and inaccessible but a place nonetheless, full of fearful things. Or less mythically perhaps, it is regarded as the dark end of a scale, the other end of which corresponds to the clear light of consciousness (back to the negative definition). Neither of these interpretations is adequate to Freud’s use of the notion. For him, the relationship between the unconscious and consciousness is the result of mental “work” that is characteristic of all psychic life, and neither of these concepts can be explained without reference to it. What is new with Freud is the consistent attention that he gives to the processes that characterise psychic mechanisms.
of psychic life for Freud is at least
double. For this reason
psychoanalysis tends to focus on the b
Freud began as
a neurologist in the nineteenth century.
An early insight was gained while observing the work of a French neurologist
Charcot, who was experimenting with hypnotherapy as a means of curing
hysteria. Under hypnosis the hysteric
would have her symptoms removed through the suggestion of the doctor. Symptoms of hysteria were then, as they had
been for thousands of years, associated with the female (the word “hysteria”
comes from the ancient Greek hysteron
which means uterus, or womb). Though hysteria has no traceable physical or
biological cause, depending on historical context a cause would always have
been found among the repertoire of ills associated with the feminine
(everything from lack of children to witchcraft). In the nineteenth century the standard
prejudice about women’s weak physical disposition--so fragile, always getting
ill--would regularly be drafted in.
Symptoms included various forms of paralysis, speech dis
In The Interpretation of Dreams he points out that there is no scientific method in existence that can help in the analysis of dreams. For the scientist, dreams are not mental acts but purely somatic, physical processes. Freud thus leaves the scientific view to one side and, as so often, looks for clues in the popular views about dreams. In popular accounts, dreams are either symbols of a hidden content or they are coded, with each image standing for a fixed meaning. As a result, there are two different methods of interpreting dreams among the popular accounts. Either they are regarded as symbolic, such that the whole content of a dream is replaced by another more intelligible but analogous content, or they are regarded as a form of code. With the decoding method each sign or image in the dream is translated according to a pre-established dream dictionary. In the decoding method, for instance, if a dream features the images of a letter and a funeral, the dream-dictionary might translate the letter as a sign for “trouble” and the funeral as a sign for “marriage.” The dream can then be interpreted as a warning against a possible imminent marriage. There are problems for each method, however. In the first case the dream is normally full of unintelligible and contradictory aspects, which must thus go without interpretation. And in the second case there is no way to be sure that the fixed code or key is right for each element. To solve the problems, Freud puts the two methods together. The decoding method can supplement the symbolic method because it can interpret individual fragments. The dream is considered as a special type of symptom (common to all of us) which can be interpreted with help from word-associations during a psychoanalytic session.
Freud’s description of how he prepares his patient for dream analysis once again shows the relation of the critical or judgmental side of the psyche to social relations. What is crucial is that there must be a suspension of the “critical” faculties, what he calls “a relaxation of the gates of reason.” The rational, judging, organising side of the personality is given a rest so that the pleasure-seeking side of the personality can come up with associations that the rational side would not normally have sanctioned.
The interpretation then follows these three steps:
* The dream is cut up into pieces and the series of associations belonging to each piece can be considered as “background thoughts.”
* The elements making up the background thoughts to each piece of the dream can be related to each other under the assumption that the meaning of the dream is of a composite character.
* Like decoding, the details can be interpreted; like symbolism, a dream can be regarded as a distorted version of a coherent psychic formation of unconscious thoughts.
In this way Freud was able to show that ideas which once would have been regarded as involuntary--just popping into your head as if from nowhere--can in fact be regarded as voluntary but from an agency of the psyche that is literally not conscious. His findings also lead him to a famous conclusion: “a dream is the secret fulfilment of a wish that has been repressed.” Freud suggests that there are two psychic agencies (Currents or systems) at work. “One of these forces constructs the wish which is expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship upon this dream-wish and, by use of that censorship, forcibly brings about a distortion in the expression of the wish.” The dream represents a series of limitations, distortions, defences and disguises, which are the consequence of a repression on the agency of wish creation, that is, on desire, the force of the drive for pleasure. They are like two forces. One creates wishes; the other represses them. The compromise between these two forces is typified by our contradictory dreamscapes.