Question: What’s the definition of a Freudian slip?
Answer: Someone who says one thing and means a mother.
May 6, 2006 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sigismund Schlomo Freud. At the age of 21, he shortened Sigismund to Sigmund and more or less ditched the Schlomo. As Sigmund Freud, he left a huge shadow of complexities over our modern world. His legacy is immense, not least his complexes. His theories are loved and despised in equal measure. And he smoked lots of cigars.
Though few people actually read Freud these days, we pepper everyday speech with his legacy. We talk of Freudian slips, the Oedipus Complex and anal retentiveness. If the question and answer that introduced this article appeared in a list of Freud jokes, it would have been an anal, oedipal, slip. The mother of all jokes about the father of psychoanalysis and the man who, among many other things, wrote a book called Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. So who was Freud, why do we remember him with such controversy, and why would a father of psychoanalysis write a book about jokes?
To answer these question, we must first seek the help of history. Freud was born into a Jewish family in 1856 in Moravia. His native city is what was then Freiburg in the Austrian Empire and is now Příbor in the Czech Republic. Two things there, Moravia is still Moravia and Freud is Czech. His father Jakob was a successful wool merchant who had two children from an earlier marriage. At 40 years of age, Jakob married Amalie Nathanson. Sigi was the first and favourite of their eight children. Young Sigi’s bright, precocious nature was obvious from an early age and he excelled at school. He was a smart kid. At the age of eight, he was reading Shakespeare, and spoke several languages. His boyhood hero was Hannibal, who marched his elephants across the Alps. When his father asked him why Hannibal, the young boy replied “because he was a Semitic leader who fought the Romans.” From an early age Freud was acutely aware of his Jewishness in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Sigmund was just four years old when the family moved to Vienna, the capital and centre of the Hapsburg Empire. Vienna was an ancient Celtic settlement that was colonised by the Romans as Vindobona in 15 BC. Vienna was always on the frontline of Western Europe. It survived two sieges by the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs had inherited it from the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the 19th century, Vienna was a sophisticated melting pot with a dark underside. Populist mayor Karl Lueger played up successfully to the anti-Semitic vote. Among the citizens listening to Lueger with varying degrees of enthusiasm were the Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism and the Gentile painter Adolf Hitler, who’s idea of Lebensraum was drastically different to that of Herzl. Freud grew up in this foment of radical political ideas. He spent most of the 1870s in the medical school of the University of Vienna. There, he studied organic tissues and the nervous system under the influence of Ernst Brücke. Brücke was one of the founders of mechanism, the theory that believed physics and chemistry solved everything. Brücke was impressed by Freud’s pioneering work on nerve cells but offered him cruel fatherly advice: you will never succeed in academia due to your Jewishness, so turn to medicine. Freud reluctantly agreed. As well as difficult career choices, there was also love to contend with. Freud, now 26, met and married Martha Bernays in 1882. He returned to college and trained at Vienna General Hospital before starting up in private practice.
At medical school he fell under the influence of Theodore Meynert, the leading brain anatomist of the day. Meynert convinced Freud to specialise in neuropathology, the study of diseases of the nervous system. There he had easy access to medicine, and he fell under the influence of something else: cocaine. He saw cocaine as an anti-depressant and an anaesthetic. He himself took cocaine in small doses for about two years. He prescribed it to a friend as an antidote to his morphine addiction. He also assisted on an eye operation to his own father using cocaine as a local anaesthetic. This was ground-breaking work. However he was beaten to the credit by Carl Koller who claimed discovery of anaesthetic cocaine for himself. That this was a true blessing in disguise for Freud became apparent in 1886. Cocaine quickly lost its wonder drug status when its addiction properties were widely reported. In the same year, Freud received a grant to go to Paris and study with Jean Martin Charcot, a world famous neurologist. Charcot was also a brilliant teacher and he held court at Paris's Salpêtrière Hospital. Here he showed Freud the similarities between hypnotism and hysteria. Hysteria, the Latin for womb, was then seen as a "women’s ailment" which caused paralysis and convulsions in its victims. When he got back to Vienna, Freud noticed he could treat patients of both sexes who were showing these symptoms. A speech for his paper on ‘male hysteria’ caused hysteria of its own at the Vienna Medical Society. He was shouted down.
Undeterred by the medical outrage, Freud began to use hypnotism to treat his patients. He worked closely with his friend Josef Breuer who also used this technique. One day, Breuer mentioned a patient of his, a young lady known as “Anna O”. Anna showed symptoms of paralysis and hallucinations which Breuer treated by discussing the hallucinations. Because she felt better when discussing the problem, she called it the "talking cure." Breuer cured Anna completely by hypnotising her and thus teasing out the root cause under hypnosis. Freud was impressed by what Breuer called his cathartic method and began to use it himself. Freud made a few adjustments to the method. He found hypnotism didn’t work especially well for him. But one thing worked very well indeed. Patients talked a lot easier when placed on a couch. When they were relaxed, he allowed them to talk through their own cures by a mixture of free association and lack of censorship. He coined a name for this technique: psychoanalysis.
Here was another Freud theory not well received by the medical profession. The only person willing to listen to Freud was Wilhelm Fleiss. Fleiss was a Berlin nose-and-throat specialist with some radical ideas of his own. He believed that sexual illnesses were caused by disturbances in the nose. He operated twice on Freud for nasal infections. Nasal problems were not Freud’s only headaches. His father’s wool business had completely collapsed and he died broken and broke in 1896. Freud was now supporting the entire family as well as six children of his own. Nonetheless, he still found time that year to write his first book The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud proved to be a gifted writer and he cleverly exposed dream meaning with highly intriguing interpretations of nocturnal adventures.
Through his work on dreams, he discovered a complex which had striking parallels with a famous Greek legend. In the legend handed down by Sophocles’ play, King Laius and Queen Jocasta are warned by a soothsayer that their newly born son Oedipus will grow up to murder his father and marry his mother. They abandon the boy in the mountains where he is rescued by shepherds. As a young man, Oedipus hears the same warning and flees to avoid killing the shepherd he believes is his father. On the road, he meets a stranger (Laius) and kills him after a quarrel. In the royal capital he answers the riddle of the sphinx and is awarded the queen’s hand in marriage. It all goes pear shaped when the queen is revealed as his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus realises the prophecy has come true and blinds himself in punishment. His mother commits suicide. From this fascinating but grim tale, Freud extrapolated the Oedipus Complex, an incest fantasy that all children share.
Freud theorised that the mind had two parts. There was the preconscious containing ideas and memories. And then there was the unconscious with desires, impulses and wishes of a mostly sexual and sometimes destructive nature. In 1905 he published more horror on an unsuspecting public, his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. He said that the basic sex drive, the libido, was formed at birth. Children went through three sexual stages, the oral (breastfeeding), the anal (toilet training) and the phallic stage (the discovery of the sex organs at aged five or six.) The phallic stage applied to males and females. Young boys suffered castration fantasies at the hands of their fathers whereas girls suffered penis envy when they realised they were already “castrated”. This phallic stage was where the Oedipus Complex was acted out. Children’s sexuality then went into latency before reawakening at puberty. Freud stated that this two-stage sexuality was uniquely human.
This was certainly a theory to turn heads. Society was outraged. He was accused of destroying childhood innocence and of turning everything into a tawdry matter of sexuality. As a blow to human pride, it ranked with Copernicus’s theory of the solar system and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Here was Freud saying that mind does not equal consciousness; instead, what is mental is mostly unconscious and involuntary. His radical views picked up some influential adherents. By the end of the first decade of the new century, Freud was internationally famous. The Vienna Psychoanalytical Society was born under Freud’s aegis. It included the luminaries of the field such as Otto Rank, Alfred Adler and Carl Jung. Initially the young Swiss Jung was Freud’s greatest disciple. Freud admitted Jung was like a son to him. But relations soured when Jung started to diverge from some of Freud’s basic ideas. He went to America and announced that Freud was over-emphasising the sexual aspects of the theory. Freud didn’t have much time for dissent and further arguments led to an irrevocable split in 1912.
Freud continued to explore his sexual theories in his next book Totem and Taboo. In it, he traced the Oedipus Complex back to its early human roots. He described the kinship systems where sex was outlawed between members of the same clan. In order to procreate, the clan would have to marry into another. Freud showed how sexual exchange was the basis of culture and communication between clans. Freud supported his own clan when Austria’s archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and set in motion the First World War. Freud supported the Central Powers because his own sons were in the army. Freud was quickly disillusioned by the war which he saw as a ‘gigantic hypocrisy.’ Life in wartime was hard. He could not keep up his habit of one packet of cigars each day. His sons fought in vain to save the Hapsburg Empire and Freud lost all his savings in the galloping inflation that followed the war. The cigars that Freud did smoke gave him cancer of the jaw. Doctors had to replace the upper jaw and palate on the right jaw. A huge prosthetic denture was designed to shut off his mouth from the nasal cavity. He lived the last 16 years of his life in extreme pain and required 33 operations. Speaking caused him great agony. These dark times saw him develop another theory. This was ‘thanatos,’ the death drive. Thanatos is the Greek word for death and Freud saw it as an instinct within everyone. Paradoxically it could prolong life because the organism defends itself against all threats of death which are not appropriate to it.
Around the same era, he proposed a new map of the mind in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This was the id, the ego and the superego. The id holds the primary urges of the unconscious mind. The superego is the home of our conscience, taboos and morality. The ego tiptoes uneasily between the other two to give rise to self. This dynamic turned morality upside down. Sometimes it was our actions that form morality and not the other way round. Religion had no place in the Freud pantheon. Though always Jewish, he was first and foremost a scientist.
Germany, meanwhile, was handing over its entire national superego to one Fuehrer. The Viennese artist Hitler had left Austria behind for the moment. In 1933, the Nazis publicly Freud’s books. His reaction was, “what progress! In the Middle Ages they would have burned me!” He was sadly mistaken about Nazi ‘progress.’ When Hitler claimed Vienna in the Anschluss of 1938, Freud’s life was in great danger. One of his wealthy patients Prince Marie Bonaparte, a descendent of Napoleon, arranged for his escape to Paris. After some cajoling he agreed to leave Vienna. The Germans let him go after he signed a statement to say they had treated him respectfully. He eventually settled in London for the last year of his life. Freud died on September 23, 1939 with the world at war again and Warsaw burning. Hitler had started to impose his own thanatos on the world.
Freud was to prove as controversial in death as he was in life. The philosopher Karl Popper challenged Freud’s theories as pseudo-scientific. Popper argued that a scientific theory should be able to specify the empirical observations that would falsify it. Psychoanalysis cannot be tested empirically and therefore was not science. “Freud or Fraud” was a common catchcry as critics sought to poke holes through his theories. Feminists too were outraged by his castration and penis envy theories and said he was misogynistic. Today opinion is still deeply divided; some psychiatrists regard him as a charlatan, but many others agree with the core of his work.
Others again like A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at the University of London, see both sides. "Freud," says Grayling, “was a gifted artist, a philosophical visionary who re-imagined human nature and helped us confront taboos, but whose theories, offered as science, fail under scrutiny.” Freud’s contemporary and friend of letters Albert Einstein also recognised the genius and the failings. He said of Freud, “he had a sharp vision; no illusions lulled him to sleep except for an often exaggerated faith in his own ideas.”
As for Freud’s book on jokes, he theorized that jokes have only two purposes: aggression and exposure. Here was a man who said many things and meant much more than a mother.