Sigmund Freud, the fakir of the unconscious

Sigmund Freud, the conjurer of the unconscious and dreams, a psychologist and philosopher who could fantasize like Munchausen, was born 155 years ago on May 6, 1856. He hypnotized millions of people with his eloquence, legalized repressed desires, and also painted a new portrait of the human being – a neurotic creature tortured by his own complexes and much more focused on his body than soul.

Freud and his influence

Let’s leave aside Freud’s influences in art – Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte, and French and Italian film directors like Federico Fellini, who was Freud’s devout follower. Let’s also leave aside the Irishman James Joyce, who was Freud’s literary brother. The influence exerted by the magnificent Freud on art, and its sexual freedom and whimsical fancies, is more or less obvious. It is much more interesting to analyze what scientists have to say about him.

Dmitry Leontyev, a professor at the Psychological Faculty’s General Psychology Department at Moscow State University, said three-quarters of modern psychology and psychotherapy are rooted in Freud’s theories.

“Freud is one of the most courageous people in the history of science,” he said. “He was ready to act against all established rules. Freud formulated a ‘scientific agenda’ because even other scientists’ theories often emerged in debates with him.”

Freud’s “libido” came to explain almost everything in human psyche. However, the sexuality discovered by the father of psychoanalysis “is a curse that no one knows what to do about.” This is the opinion of Vyacheslav Tsapkin, the head of the Psychological Consulting Faculty’s Global Psychotherapy Department at the Moscow State Psychological and Pedagogical University. He said that, in Freud’s opinion, people have lost all their instincts and, therefore, have to constantly “reinvent” and agonize over their sexuality.

Tsapkin noted that Freud is partially an emancipator, a liberal thinker and the father of the sex revolution, but his theories have already become obsolete in modern society. He stressed that contrary to Freud’s predictions, the 20th century’s sex revolutions that freed repressed wishes have by no means rid society of neuroses.

Moreover, according to gender psychologists, the glamour race for sexuality, a desire to match unfettered glamour images, provokes new neuroses. The psychologist Olga Makhovskaya mentions the “glamour neurosis” when women torment themselves over their failure to match glamour ideals.

Glowing chaos of desires

Freud did not discover the unconscious. Leibniz and Schopenhauer were the first to approach the concept. But it was Freud who pulled the trigger and let the unconscious take a powerful shot at patriarchal family values, though himself he was a perfect family man and father of six children.

The psychologist Carl Jung, Freud’s colleague, spoke about his destructive role and was only partially biased. Freud turned out to be a genuine master of negation, a talented nihilist.

Needless to say, Freud was not the only critic of traditional morality. Friedrich Nietzsche, another eloquent speaker, was his soul mate and the author of the famous phrase: “Culture is merely a thin apple skin over glowing chaos.”

Both thinkers believed that the human soul was an abyss of repressed wishes that the mind found it difficult to oust, and both legalized the psychic underground. But nihilists have always made only a negative contribution to public consciousness. What about their positive programs? How did Freud reassure his perplexed and disoriented patients who were scared by the mixture of wishes that had suddenly revealed themselves in their souls?

Leontyev noted that Freud’s positive, soul-saving discovery was “psycho dynamics, a system of regularities showing how a person’s deeply ingrained motivations lead to actions.”

“Freud discovered that neurotic symptoms are imbued with meaning,” Tsapkin said. “He understood that a therapist must create such an atmosphere in communicating with his patient that lets his symptoms ‘speak out.'”

In the meantime, therapeutic treatment of symptoms is far from being a cure in all cases. In other words, the disappearance of a neurosis’ external manifestations does not always imply recovery. Psychoanalysis is a “trip to the terra incognita,” Tsapkin said.

“It is a detective investigation that may follow the wrong path,” he added, stressing that there are no unequivocal criteria for the effectiveness of psychological relief.

On the other side of science

Some of Freud’s theories are outside the sphere of science, Tsapkin said.

Professor Paul Bloom from the Yale Psychology Faculty noted with good reason that Freud’s perceptions are vague by default and this is why it is impossible to verify his ideas with authentic scientific methods. Interpreting dreams in his classic “Interpretation of Dreams” (1900), Freud revealed himself sooner as a poet than a scientist.

Here’s one example. When a patient saw white wolves in his dreams, Freud thought that as a child his patient saw sexual scenes between his parents or that he saw them in underwear. There seem to be no limits to the flight of fancy.

But doesn’t this play with associations lead to the manipulation of the human consciousness and the imposition of motives? This is the question and it still remains open.

And, finally, the main point.

Freud became a scientist after practicing with patients. Initially, he pursued strictly practical objectives – to render psychological aid to his patients. When Freud declared himself a theorist, a big question arose – is it appropriate to judge the laws of sound consciousness by observing a neurotic’s symptoms? Freud answered in the affirmative, but the question remains open, as healthy people were not usually striving to visit Freud. So, should we consider every boy a potential Oedipus?

Freud is primarily a philosopher, writer and speaker. His scientific theories are a fertile field, but it is also a mine field. It seems worth recalling in this context the wonderful comedy by Alan Parker, The Road to Wellville, where a group of idle people head to Dr. Kellogg’s (played by Anthony Hopkins) innovative clinic. They blindly believe in his paradoxical theories and cannot decide what to do in life. There is no happy end. Their neuroses are aggravated, damaging their physical health.

And here’s a scientific observation. The American Psychoanalytic Association has established that although psychoanalysis dominates the humanities, psychological faculties usually treat Freud’s teaching as an artifact.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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