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Sigmund Freud’s Sortie To America
The Father of Psychoanalysis came, saw, conquered—and didn’t like it much
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
Always good at analogies, he explained the significance of the phrase by using as examples the carved Gothic column at Charing Cross in London which commemorates the death of Queen Eleanor in the thirteenth century, and the Monument, a mile or so away in the city, built after the Great Fire of 1666. What, he asked his audience, would one think of contemporary Londoners who became melancholy about Queen Eleanor’s death as they passed the Cross, or who shed tears before the Monument? “Yet every single hysteric and neurotic behaves like these two unpractical Londoners,” he went on. “Not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate.” And he ended the first lecture on a humble note. His account, he said, might not have been particularly clear, and Breuer’s explanation was incomplete; but it might well be that it was “not possible to make them much clearer—which shows that we still have a long way to go in our knowledge of the subject.” As for explanations, “complete theories do not fall ready-made from the sky.”
During the second lecture Freud explained how he had developed Breuer’s method by dropping hypnotism. He went on to describe repression and resistance and gave his audience an account of the way in which Breuer’s technique had grown into psychoanalysis, illustrating his story with the case of Elisabeth von R. from “Studies on Hysteria” the book which he had written jointly with Josef Breuer. In the third lecture he introduced the technique of free association and explained that the study of jokes, and of everyday slips of the tongue, led to a better understanding of unconscious motives. He also revealed why he had not yet dealt at length with dream interpretation. “I was held back,” he said, “by a purely subjective and seemingly secondary motive. It seemed to me almost indecent in a country which is devoted to practical aims to make my appearance as a ‘dream-interpreter,’ before you could possibly know the importance that can attach to that antiquated and derided art. The interpretation of dreams is in fact the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious; it is the securest foundation of psychoanalysis and the field in which every worker must acquire his convictions and seek his training.” After this preamble he gave a brief account of the part that dream interpretation played and was heavily sarcastic about those who condemned psychoanalysis while knowing nothing about it. The “arrogance of consciousness,” he concluded, was one factor which made it so difficult for ordinary people to understand the reality of the unconscious.
Only in the fourth lecture did he come to the delicate question of sex in general and of infantile sexuality in particular. He began by reiterating that the sexual origin of the neuroses was not something that he had been looking for but was something forced upon him by evidence that he could not ignore. So, too, with infantile sexuality. Here he was able to play a trump card. For was it not Dr. Sanford Bell, himself a Fellow of Clark University, who had dealt with infantile sexuality in The American Journal of Psychology three years before Freud had discussed the subject extensively in his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”? Bell, Freud continued, had said “exactly what I have just told you.” Moreover, Bell’s concept of infantile sexuality, outlined in “A Preliminary Study of the Emotion of Love Between the Sexes,” had been supported by no fewer than twenty-five hundred positive observations in the course of fifteen years, among them eight hundred of his own. Having laid the ghost that he was propounding an un-American idea, Freud then gave a brief account of the conclusions he had arrived at in “Three Essays.” “You can, if you like,” he ended, “regard psycho-analytic treatment as no more than a prolongation of education for the purpose of overcoming the residues of childhood.”
His final lecture was a neat rounding-up, blaming a good deal on civilization, which made reality unsatisfying and thereby encouraged fantasy. Those with artistic gifts could sublimate their fantasies into artistic creations rather than into the symptoms of the neurotic. “The neuroses have no psychical content that is peculiar to them and that might not equally be found in healthy people. ” After a quick look at transference, Freud suggested that there were three possible results of successful psychoanalysis. Once the repressed unconscious had been brought to the surface, it could be mastered with success. It could, secondly, be sublimated for different and more useful purposes. And thirdly, “a certain portion of the repressed libidinal impulses” could be enjoyed once they had been brought up into consciousness. “I must thank you for your invitation,” he concluded, “and for the attention with which you have listened to me.”
He was over the hump; he had given an honest account, yet he had, he correctly estimated, shocked only a few members of his audience.
Freud and Jung were both awarded doctorates in an event that included “a tremendous amount of ceremony and fancy dress, with all sorts of red and black gowns and gold-tasselled square caps. …” Freud was visibly moved by the occasion, noting in his brief speech of acceptance and thanks: “This is the first official recognition of our endeavors.”