I the Interpretation of Dreams


IV "Family Romances" and Essays on the Psychology of Love



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IV "Family Romances" and Essays on the Psychology of Love

Freud's essays have been praised for their concision of statement and felicitous handling of difficult ideas; but they have also been attacked for vagueness or a looseness of definition and phrasing that makes translation of the original German notoriously difficult. Jones states that "Freud was seldom meticulous in adhering to precise definitions."7 I have been suggesting that the explanation is to be found not in a habit of mind or a dislike of scientific exactitude but in the desire for concepts, even those of a popular nature, that would permit a broader generalizing of psychoanalytic ideas.

The language and formulations of certain later essays like "Family Romances" show this tendency clearly. So important has this essay been to psychoanalytic literary criticism that its main ideas are worth summarizing in detail. Freud distinguishes the "family romance"--an important phantasy of childhood and later years--through its phases: first, preliminary childhood phantasies in which substitute parents replace the real ones when they provoke hostility; then the first stage of the "neurotic's family romance," occurring before puberty, in which the child substitutes for the real parents ones of higher birth he has actually encountered; finally, the second stage, occurring at puberty and afterwards, in which substitution continues to be made for the father, since his identity can never be verified, but no longer can be made for the mother. These later phantasies are sexual, the child wishing now to observe his mother in secret love affairs, as in certain rescue phantasies (discussed in the first essay on the psychology of love), in which the child is himself the lover of the unfaithful mother whom he seeks to protect from her own weaknesses of character XI, 171. Motives of revenge are present particularly toward the father, though Freud adds that this hostility is not as deep as it may seem, for the "family romance" (and the rescue phantasy too) also preserves affectionate feelings of an earlier time of life:

Indeed the whole effort at replacing the real father by a


superior one is only an expression of the child's longing for the
happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and
strongest of men and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He
is turning away from the father whom he knows today to the father in
whom he believed in the earlier years of his childhood; and his
phantasy is no more than the expression of a regret that those happy
days have gone. IX, 240-41

In a related phantasy, the child returns to the family home to legitimize himself and bastardize his brothers and sisters. In the later essay on the psychology of love, Freud indicates that the father may be the object of a "defiant" rescue phantasy in which the child pays back all that the father has given him. In rescue phantasies in general tenderness and defiance combine in the child's wish "to be his own father" XI, 173.

Written as an introduction to Rank's The Myth of the Hero, "Family Romances" describes these phenomena in the most general terms. And this level of generality of maintained in the "Three Contributions to the Psychology of Love" (1910, 1912, 1918), which Freud originally intended as chapters in an uncompleted work.

The first of these essays concerns the need of some men to debase a woman as a condition of loving her, and as a second condition injuring a "third party" to whom the woman is already attached. In loving this woman, the man is rescuing her--that is, preventing her from sinking even lower than he imagines her to be. Freud's explanation for this behavior, as in rescue phantasies, is that the third person is a surrogate of the father; the woman, a surrogate of the mother. This kind of object choice is thus a remnant of the Oedipus complex (so named for the first time in this essay).

The second of the essays deals further with this tendency to debasement--through analysis of psychical impotence. The cause of this malady is the failure of the affectionate and sensual currents to unite into normal love owing to an unmastered Oedipus complex: "The whole sphere of love in such people remains divided in the two directions personified in art as sacred and profane (or animal) love. Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love" XI, 183. Few cultured individuals succeed in uniting the two currents. An increase in sexual freedom is not, however, the solution: "It can easily be shown that the psychical value of erotic needs is reduced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy" XI, 187.

The third essay concerns the taboo of virginity. Freud traces primitive defloration rites that employ substitute husbands to the need for directing aroused hostile impulses away from the true husband. The absence of a comparable rite in civilized marriage explains perhaps why first marriages are so often unhappy and why second marriages often succeed so well.

The tension of attitudes in the essay on "civilized" sexual morality (discussed earlier) is maintained in a contemplative irony that intensifies in these essays of the second decade--an irony used to explore the impasse between the individual and his culture that Freud had implied in the 1908 essay. Increasingly, as we suggested, a new pair of opposites absorbs the intellectual tensions earlier invested in the contrast between conscious and unconscious processes: the individual and his enemy, civilization.

Thus we may perhaps be forced to become reconciled to the


idea that it is quite impossible to adjust the claims of the sexual
instinct to the demands of civilization; that in consequence of its
cultural development renunciation and suffering, as well as the danger
of extinction in the remotest future, cannot be avoided by the human
race. XI, 190

Civilization long ago chose the path of repression, and in Totem and Taboo Freud indicates when it did and how.

The opening phrase of the passage just quoted is symptomatic of an attitude we also noted earlier: the responsibility of the individual for his unhappiness. As the heir of the "primal horde" and its act of original murder, he must atone to his conscience. The act of atonement is one of acceptance--reconcilement--with the reality of human nature. For there is something in human nature beyond control--"something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavorable to the realization of complete satisfaction." And Freud varies a statement of Napoleon: "Anatomy is destiny" XI, 188-89.

The frame of reference is now cultural. Ideas are stated in a philosophical language different from that of the Essays. That language is apparent even in a technical essay of the period, "The Two Principles of Mental Functioning" (1911), which introduces the term "pleasure principle," though the concept had been stated in different words and as the "unpleasure principle" earlier. In tracing such mental functions as attention, phantasy, and thinking itself to reality testing, technical language gives way to simile: thinking is "an experimental kind of acting" XII, 221, designed to make possible toleration of increasing tensions and to delay their discharge (thinking became conscious only when it became attached to verbal residues, Freud indicates). Phrases and distinctions such as this prepare for an increasingly philosophical definition of reality, in this essay briefly indicated through reference to a statement of Shaw's Don Juan that suggests Freud's own pleasure and reality ego XII, 223. In Shaw's play, Don Juan is the creature of an external Life Force that uses the individual to its own ends. This is exactly the conception that Freud has in mind, even though functions are not really synonymous with forces and the formulations of the essay are intended as heuristic. The earlier mechanistic language that lingered after the "Project" is now almost entirely abandoned for a genetic account which hypostatizes the two "principles" as if they were forces developing independently in the mind of the race.



V Essays on Narcissism and Metapsychology

This new direction in his thinking is evident in Freud's statement, at the beginning of the 1914 essay on narcissism, that the situation in psychoanalysis was comparable to that in modern physics. Empirical science "will not envy speculation its privilege of having a smooth, logically unassailable foundation, but will gladly content itself with nebulous, scarcely imaginable basic concepts, which it hopes to apprehend more clearly in the course of its development, or which it is even prepared to replace by others" XIV, 77. These concepts are the "top" of a structure founded on observation and therefore can be changed or dropped without harm.

But though Freud was drawing into a single theory empirical observations made over a number of years, the essay chiefly seeks to refine terms and at the same time establish a general mode of discourse appropriate to new interests. Thus his answer to Jung's criticism of his reasoning in the Schreber case concerns the ineptness of an analogy Jung employs. But he does not dismiss the possibility of a general libido such as Jung was proposing. The consideration, Freud states, is actually one of relevance:

It may turn out that, most basically and on the longest


view, sexual energy--libido--is only the product of a differentiation
in the energy at work generally in the mind. But such an assertion has
no relevance. It relates to matters which are so remote from the
problems of our observation, and of which we have so little
cognizance, that it is as idle to dispute it as to affirm it. . . .
XIV, 79

He wished to see what "a synthesis of the psychological phenomena" would show about an essentially biological problem. The frame of reference of terms employed is thus a central consideration.

The penetrating discussion that follows (the main ideas of which we have considered) leads to a series of generalizations in which technical distinctions, whose extensions Freud had severely limited in the statement quoted, are applied without qualification. For example, he uses his analysis to explain the great attraction of narcissistic women, criminals, and humorists in literature as resulting from their "unassailable libidinal position" which most people have given up. A succeeding comment on the erotic life of narcissistic women suggests that the frame of reference in this discussion is actually indeterminate:

. . . I know that these different lines of development


correspond to the differentiation of functions in a highly complicated
biological whole; further, I am ready to admit that there are quite a
number of women who love according to the masculine type and who also
develop the sexual overvaluation proper to that type. XIV, 89

Such considerations are, however, subordinate to conclusions Freud was able to draw. To have established correspondences in this way is to have treated terms as metaphors--in the phrase of Wallace Stevens, to have made things "brilliant."

The five essays that comprise the "torso" of a metapsychology were theoretical bridges to the later instinctual theory. "I broke off, wisely perhaps," Freud states in his autobiography, "since the time for theoretical predications of this kind had not yet come" XX, 59. "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes," "Repression," and "The Unconscious" appeared in 1915; the supplement to the dream theory discussed earlier, and "Mourning and Melancholia," did not appear until 1917. The first three essays are almost purely technical and aim to systematize the various lines of thought pursued in the later theoretical chapters of Dreams and other essays of the first decade.

Freud is chiefly concerned with unifying concepts in semantic categories in which psychological distinctions would be at least consistent with biological investigation and could meet the test of scientific exactitude in the process of generalization. Thus in the first of the essays he identifies three polarities of mental life, each an antithesis: ego and object (the external world), pleasure and unpleasure, active and passive, coalescing later with masculine and feminine. He applies these distinctions in a characteristic way to the phenomenon of love, which he traces through its various stages, indicating that it becomes the opposite of hate (deriving from the ego's narcissistic rejection of the world at the time the genital organization is complete). In "Repression" he distinguishes between "primal repression"--the denial to consciousness of the "ideational" representative of an instinct--and "repression proper," in which derivatives or ideas associated with the repressed content experience an "after-pressure." The tendency to repression comes from the working together of these forces. Then follows a dramatization of repression, designed to illuminate the feelings of the neurotic: "It proliferates in the dark, as it were, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when they are translated and presented to the neurotic are not only bound to seem alien to him, but frighten him by giving him the picture of an extraordinary and dangerous strength of instinct" XIV, 149.

The long technical essay on the unconscious emphasizes that only the "ideational" representative of an instinct can become conscious, and it distinguishes between the conscious and unconscious on the basis of an idea developed in different language earlier: they are not "different registrations" of the same material in different locations in the mind, nor "different functional states of cathexis" in the same location, "but the conscious presentation comprises the presentation of the thing plus the presentation of the word belonging to it, while the unconscious presentation is the presentation of the thing alone" XIV, 201. The semantic problem is central here. The emphasis is now on the discovery of the unconscious through verbal residues--a functional process. The passage illustrates the process of translation by which spatial or topographical characterizations of the unconscious (with stress on static, "eternal" features) became dynamic ones (with stress on the aims of instincts). He had stated in "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes":

Although instincts are wholly determined by their origin


in a somatic source, in mental life we know them only by their aims.
An exact knowledge of the sources of an instinct is not invariably
necessary for purposes of psychological investigation; sometimes its
source may be inferred from its aim. XIV, 123

Running through these three essays is a basic theme: psychological reality can be known, though as the passage just quoted suggests not directly or exactly. Freud had of course devoted many pages to the possibility of this knowledge earlier, but he had not dealt with the question philosophically. It is significant, then, that in these technical discussions he deals briefly with the epistemological implications of his views. The psychoanalytic unconscious, he states, seems to be an "expansion of the primitive animism which caused us to see copies of our own consciousness all around us" and also an "extension" of Kant's critique of "external perception" XIV, 171. Freud means that the demonstration of the systematic difference between consciousness and the unconscious gives weight (though not proof) to Kant's separation between "subjectively conditioned" perception and "what is perceived though unknowable." The unexpected discovery made possible by psychoanalysis is that "internal objects are less unknowable than the external world."8

This discussion (occurring at the end of the first part of "The Unconscious") helps to explain why the original and unsatisfactory concept of the unconscious was not discarded following the statement of the structural hypothesis in the 1920's: the concept was a guarantee of the claim of psychoanalysis to scientific importance--not philosophical. For philosophical inquiry, Freud seems to have believed, is mainly unfinished business, the indispensable predecessor to genuine scientific advancements--which are advances in definition, in increasingly exact formulations XIV, 177. It is not coincidental that he opens "Instincts and Their Vicissitudes" with an inquiry into the relation between hypothesis, definition, and empirical observation: "Even at the stage of description it is not possible to avoid applying certain abstract ideas to the material in hand, ideas derived from somewhere or other but certainly not from the new observations alone" XIV, 117. The statement is an advance over that quoted from the earlier essay on narcissism. Science, like the psychoanalytic session itself, is a discourse--a dialectical mode of discovery joined to empirical investigation.

"Mourning and Melancholia" is an outstanding example of this kind of discourse and surely one of Freud's greatest pieces of writing. The limited clinical evidence on melancholia made it necessary for him to work with abstract ideas chiefly. The focus of the essay is melancholia, a pathological disorder sharing the traits of mourning, including disinterest in the external world and severe dejection. Peculiar to melancholia is the self-abasement of the mourner. In mourning the world has been impoverished by loss of the loved one, but no element of the loss is unconscious; in melancholia the ego itself feels impoverished, and some part of the experience of loss is unconscious. The self-abasement of the melancholic provides the explanation for this difference: the qualities condemned in oneself are actually those displaced from the lost love object. This love object was originally chosen narcissistically and later caused pain and disappointment. Instead of making a new attachment, the libido turned back into the ego, where through a cleavage or split one part of the ego identified with the lost love object while the other attacked or reproached it for the pain caused XIV, 249. Freud applies this highly subtle and deductive analysis to the phenomenon of suicide: the ego can destroy itself because it deals with itself as an object and makes use of its original hostility toward the world. It is strengthened in this resolve by sadism to which the ego has regressed in its ambivalence.

The abbreviated style of the previous essays gives way now to highly pointed sentences that rise to an eloquent summing up:

[The patient] also seems to us justified in certain other


self-accusations; it is merely that he has a keener eye for the truth
than other people who are not melancholic. When in his heightened
self-criticism he describes himself as petty, egoistic, dishonest,
lacking in independence, one whose sole aim has been to hide the
weaknesses of his own nature, it may be, so far as we know, that he
has come pretty near to understanding himself; we only wonder why a
man has to be ill before he can be accessible to a truth of this kind.
XIV, 246

The melancholic is in this way imagined, and Freud brings to his situation his new awareness of powerful narcissistic behavior. Instincts are now consistently expressed as forces whose objects may correspond to internal, introjected ones. Theory and language are now flexible and abstract--and able to show the way to more adventurous exploration.



VI Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

His practice having fallen off during the war, Freud was able to give time to a general review of twenty or more years of thought; the first set of introductory lectures (delivered in the winters of 1915-16 and 1916-17) was the result. Though he largely restated ideas of earlier books and essays, he also developed in more detail his views on dream symbolism and anlytic procedure and presented new ideas on primal phantasies and anxiety. These lectures were Freud's first extended integral account of psychoanalysis (his five lectures at Clark University in 1909 are concerned with fewer topics), and they provided the first introduction to psychoanalysis for many (and continue to do so).

To those knowing little or nothing of the history of the libido theory, some of the discussion may be perplexing; for in the later chapters on symptom formation and narcissism Freud's terminology derives from his recent thinking on narcissism. Indeed, he was rethinking the nature of anxiety, so that inordinate attention is given to ideas that were shortly to undergo drastic revision. Thus he refers to the superego without naming it (in "Mourning and Melancholia" he anticipated the concept in distinguishing functions of the ego), but the still central distinction between conscious and unconscious layers of the mind organizes the discussion. In the essay on narcissism Freud suggested that the ego instincts might also be libidinal through their original attachment to the sexual instincts. In an effort to preserve his assumption that the instincts were dual, he now attributed two kinds of energy to the ego instincts: "ego interest," the distinctive self-preserving energy of the ego, and the narcissistic libido that he had shown to be transformable into object-libido XVI, 414-15. Three years later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he was to give up this distinction and state that the two kinds of energy were one and the same. His continuing awareness of the challenge presented by Jung is evident in his statement that "the name of libido is properly reserved for the instinctual forces of sexual life, as has hitherto been our practice" XVI, 413.

Perhaps no work of Freud's more reveals the complexity of his attitude toward psychoanalysis, and never had he been more outspoken about its importance. Beginning with a survey of the obstacles to its general acceptance--the fears aroused by his frankness about sexuality in a society anxious not to be reminded "of this precarious portion of its foundations" XV, 23, the intimate talk central to psychotherapy and the problem of transference, the demand of truthfulness that psychoanalysis enforces on the patient--Freud moves to what may be the most serious obstacle of all, the challenge of psychoanalysis to the mistaken assumption of "psychical freedom" XV, 49. Throughout the lectures he returns to deliver a blow to this assumption: he calls attention to the "determinism whose rule extends over mental life" XV, 106 and to the peculiar rationality and coherence of unconscious life XV, 226. He also suggests that neurosis is grounded in "a kind of ignorance--a not knowing about mental events that one ought to know of" XVI, 280.

That his rationalist premises might not be compatible with the knowledge gained in clinical practice is an implied concern of the later lectures, and Freud deals with this concern semantically. Thus the view of neurosis just quoted seemed to him an approximation of Socratic ideas, which assume that vice is grounded in ignorance. He admits, however, that "Knowledge is not always the same as knowledge" XVI, 281, for the doctor's cannot become the patient's without the phenomenon of transference. Still "our thesis that the symptoms vanish when their sense is known remains true in spite of this."

But was understanding the sufficient condition of the virtuous life, and was virtue itself a rational idea? Freud was certain only that the answer was not to be found in the thinking of society about morality: "We tell ourselves that anyone who has succeeded in educating himself to truth about himself is permanently defended against the danger of immorality, even though his standard of morality may differ in some respect from that which is customary in society" XVI, 434. Society cannot say what are rational sexual practices, nor is sexual liberation the alternative (a theme of the essays on the psychology of love). This recognition is an important source of Freud's pessimism. Another is that neurosis may be the basis of mankind's "prerogative" over animals. Neurosis is the price of "a richly articulated mental life," the "reverse side" of man's considerable endowments XVI, 414.

Toward the end of the lectures he summarizes a truth he had enunciated in so many different contexts earlier:

A recommendation to the patient to "live a full life"


sexually could not possibly play a part in analytic therapy--if only
because we ourselves have declared that an obstinate conflict is
taking place in him between a libidinal impulse and sexual repression,
between a sensual and an ascetic trend. XVI, 432-33

But he had not yet uncovered the cause of this seemingly intractable situation: the answer lay ahead in the revision of the dual instinctual theory. The note of philosophical anxiety in these pages indicates that Freud felt his most important formulations lay ahead.



Notes and References

1. Stanley Edgar Hyman suggests that later images of exploration relate to the sexual exploration of a woman's body. The Tangled Bank (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp. 333-35. Hyman also traces other patterns of imagery and notes the possible influence of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, first suggested by Theodor Reik.

2. Strachey summarizes the background of the essay in his introduction to it III, 301-02. Screen memories are insignificant early events that are substituted for more important later ones (discussed in this essay), or the reverse, later insignificant events that substitute for early important ones. In a 1913 essay on dreams, Freud shows how fairy tales often serve as screen memories.

3. Freud and Philosophy, pp. 105, 110.

4. "What Makes Basic Research Basic?", in Richard Thruelson and John Kobler, eds., Adventures of the Mind (New York: Knopf, 1960), pp. 153-54.

5. Incidentally, the 1908 essay on sexual morality is a corrective to the view that Freud regarded woman as constitutionally inferior to men intellectually, though he does insist that women have less capacity for sublimation. Intellectual inferiority, he states, is probably owing to "the inhibition of thought necessitated by sexual suppression" IX, 199.

6. Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, xiii.

7. Jones, II, 282.

8. Ricoeur deals exhaustively with correspondences between Freud and Kant, suggesting that Freud's recognition of affinities was not a superficial observation. See pp. 433-39.

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Source: 

Gerald Levin, "Sigmund Freud", In Twayne's World Authors Series Online New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999 Previously published in print in 1975 by Twayne Publishers.



Source Database:  Twayne's World Authors

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