The medulla oblongata is a very serious and lovely object.
When I was in college, I used to get in long and rather aimless arguments with a friend about Freud. The funny thing is, both of us agreed that Freud was fundamentally wrong about most things. The argument was, rather, whether Freud was worth reading and thinking about—and was even potentially useful—in spite of his theories’ veracity. My friend said he wasn’t, and I said he was. I still think this way, which is why, every now and then, I find myself making my way through one of his books.
Probably I should have come to this book sooner. Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis is his attempt to give an accessible introduction to his system, and is thus probably one of the best places to start if you’re curious about his work. The lectures, given over one academic year, are divided into three sections: the parapraxes (the “Freudian slips”), the interpretation of dreams, and the neuroses. The material is arranged this way for pedagogical purposes, beginning with the simplest and most easily observable phenomena and ending with genuine mental disorders. By necessity, the last section is both the longest and densest.
One thing that fascinates me about Freud is how a system of ideas with paltry factual support could be so seductive and gripping. For my part, I find Freud’s system remarkably attractive; thinking along his lines has an undeniable emotional appeal, at least in my case. In my review of Civilization and its Discontents, I gave a partial explanation of this by likening Freud’s system in outline to that of Christianity. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, and thus I want to explore it further.
While reading this book, it struck me that Freud’s system is comparable with the Aristotelian physics and cosmology that held sway for so long in the Western world. Both of these systems, Freud’s and Aristotle’s, are so compelling and take such hold of one’s mind because they seem to explain everything while offering very little in the way of falsifiable propositions. Aristotelians could throw around terms like matter, form, ideal, potential, perfect, nature, and soul without providing any circumstances in which these concepts could be tested and disproved.
These categories were specific enough to be rationally compelling, and yet vague enough to be applied to nearly anything. Similarly, Freud created a system that could be applied to history, religion, mythology, and literature, while never specifying how its categories—repression, unconscious, transference, libido, censor etc.—could be disproven. It thus gives the illusion of an airtight and exhaustive system while remaining safe from testability.
The main reason that Freud’s theories are untestable is that they rely on interpretation; and interpretations, by definition, cannot be falsified. Now to be fair I think Freud’s system is most plausible, as a therapeutic technique, when he has his patients interpret their own dreams and symptoms. If a patient is free-associating, it makes sense that they might be able to hit upon an emotionally resonant interpretation.
Nevertheless, I think it would still be incorrect to call even the patient’s interpretation the “true” one, since being emotionally affected by something now in no way proves that this same thing motivated a dream in the past. And this is putting to the side the fact that Freud’s explanation for how dreams are formed relies on unobservable processes and entities that he posits in the mind. But let me stop here before I get sucked down the rabbit hole.
To repeat, then, although I think it cannot be proved that any interpretation of a dream is a “true” one, I still think having patients interpret their dreams might help them to explore their own feelings. But when Freud begins enumerating a kind of “key” for dream interpretation, his system gets really unsupportable. According to Freud, certain things always symbolize other things in dreams, irrespective of the individual, their cultural background, or their experiences. And, of course, most of these symbols are representatives of sexual matters:
We have earlier referred to landscapes as representing the female genitals. Hills and rocks are symbols of the male organ. Fruit stands, not for children, but for the breasts. Wild animals mean people in an excited sensual state, and further, evil instincts or passions. Blossoms or flowers indicate women’s genitals, or, in particular, virginity. Do not forget that blossoms are actually the genitals of a plant.
There is an entire lecture like this; and personally I find it so ludicrous that it makes me deeply suspicious of Freud’s judgment. It relies on so many unsubstantiated premises—that dreams have a deeper meaning, that this deeper meaning is always a desire, that this desire is always illicit and sexual, that somehow certain symbols are universal, and that Freud is somehow privy to this information—that it boggles the mind trying to unravel it.
When Freud does offer the explanation for why one thing symbolizes another, it bears a remarkable similarity to the logic used by conspiracy theorists:
And, speaking of wood, it is hard to understand how that material came to represent what is maternal and female. But here comparative philology may come to our help. Our German word ‘Holz’ seems to come from the same root as the Greek [hule], meaning ‘stuff’ ‘raw material’. … Now there is an island in the Atlantic named ‘Madeira’. This name was given to it by the Portuguese when they discovered it, because at that time it was covered all over with woods. For in the Portuguese language ‘madeira’ means ‘wood’. You will notice, however, that ‘madeira’ is only a slightly modified version of the Latin word ‘materia’, which once more means ‘material’ in general. But ‘material’ is derived from ‘mater’, ‘mother’: the material out of which anything is made is, as it were, mother to it. This ancient view of the thing survives, therefore, in the symbolic use of wood for ‘woman’ or ‘mother’.
Clearly this sort of thing wouldn’t past muster in any scientific journal nowadays, and it’s hard to see how it could have been convincing in Freud’s day either.
The above is just one example of the un-falsifiability inherent in Freud’s thought; and this is a big part, I think, of why his system can be so seductive. But there is another reason for its appeal: It is fundamental to Freud’s system to question the motivations of its detractors. That it, the system has a built-in defense mechanism in that anyone who disagrees can be accused of being a repressed individual who can’t face the truth of his own illicit desires.
To take just one example, let’s look at Freud’s discussion of his famous Freudian slip. In these lectures, he claims that all slips of the tongue are caused by a repressed desire that is finding a distorted expression. Now to be fair, there are definitely many instances when this seems to be the case, that somebody accidentally said something they were trying to keep secret. Nevertheless, it is absurd to claim that all slips of the tongue have this origin. For one, you cannot legitimately make a universal generalization from any finite data set. You cannot, for example, claim that all apples are delicious after you’ve eaten 100 delicious apples. Moreover, and once again, finding the “deeper meaning” of a Freudian slip relies on interpretation, and interpretations can never be objectively determined.
But a more troubling problem for me is that Freud essentially asserts that it is impossible to make an innocent mistake. If you are tired and you misspeak, it cannot just be an error, but must be the expression of a deep and terrible desire of which you are not aware. And if you deny this, it only proves Freud’s point; obviously you can’t face the truth about yourself, you are too repressed. Thus there isn’t any way out. You can’t disprove Freud’s interpretation (since it’s an interpretation and can’t be disproven), and all your protestations only make you look more guilty. And this sort of double bind isn’t restricted to Freud’s theories on slips of the tongue, but apply to the interpretation of dreams and neurotic symptoms. I wouldn’t be surprised if Freud argued that any time somebody fell off a bike it was because of a latent death wish.
To be fair to Freud, none of these criticisms is unique to his system. To the contrary, they can be applied to many, if not all, religious and political ideologies. The questioning of other people’s motivation is especially destructive in the latter sphere, and can be found on both the Right and the Left. Democrats only want to expand social security because they’re communists who want to make everyone dependent on the government; they only want to expand background checks to take away everyone’s guns and make them unable to fight against the government tyranny. Meanwhile, poor whites are too dumb to vote for their own interests, those who disagree with Obama are racists, those with Hillary are sexists, and if you disagree it’s your privilege talking.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that these accusations are necessarily incorrect, and indeed I think they are often quite compelling. Nevertheless I think you have got to be careful when you questions the motivations of your opponent, because it makes it impossible to have a reasonable debate. Probably it’s best to assume good intentions unless proven otherwise. But this brings me pretty far from Freud.
Or does it? I began by saying how useful is Freud even if one disagrees with him, and I think one way is to see how unsupported ideas can become widely accepted. But of course that’s not all.
Freud was, in my opinion, quite obviously brilliant. His ideas were so original and his thought process so novel that it is fascinating just to see him at work. What is more, even if they lack rigor in a scientific setting, Freud’s ideas, terminology, and system have undeniably enriched how we think about the human experience. That dreams can reveal a deeper meaning, that slips of the tongue can reveal hidden intentions, that desires can be repressed, that traumatic memories can be unconscious, that much of your motivation lies beyond your conscious awareness—all this and more we owe to Freud.
Two weeks ago I was walking through the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, where there is a wonderful painting by Salvador Dalí: Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening. The painting, which makes no rational sense, was partly inspired by Freud’s ideas on the dream-logic, how ideas get associated in the unconscious. Thus the elements in the painting are associated, not by reason, but by other chains of association—the sounds of their names, specific memories, visual properties, sexual desires. The entire logic of the painting can thus be said to be Freudian. Now, considering this, can you argue that he didn’t enrich our culture?