an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘penis envy

Freudian chitchat, sex and bonobos

leave a comment »

Sigmund and Anna Freud

As previously mentioned, the world of Freudian categories was one of my first interests as a teenager. I loved the simple division, as I imagined it, between the id (our uninhibited ‘animal’ urges and appetites), the superego (the parental leash, restraining, guiding, forcing) and the ego (some sort of more or less stable truce between these forces). It was neat, and still allowed for freedom of sorts – the leash could be stretched or even snapped depending on the nature of our parents, the weakness or strength of our bond with them, and the changing nature of our relations over time. It all sounded right somehow, or at least it opened up powerful insights.

Other Freudian categories also attracted, more or less. The Oedipus complex, which I naturally reduced to killing Dad and fucking Mum, had less appeal. I was, at the time, more interested in the idea of killing Mum, but I was smart enough to realise that this was because Mum was the Dad in our house – dominant, remote, scary. At the same time, but never at the same time, she was the nurse, the comforter, the defender. If only I could explain this to Sigmund or his analyst friends.

Being, as mentioned, a teenager, I loved the sexual undertones, overtones, and basic in-your-face tones in Freud’s treatment of – what? The unconscious? Motivation? Human life? Whatever, ‘polymorphous perversity’ meant, I presumed, that we had the tendency, or ‘ability’ to be turned on by any activity or percept, but ‘sublimation’, a product of our superego, could transform that perverse energy into something productive rather than reproductive, like art or relativity theory.

Bonobos, it seems, just stick with the polymorphous perversity. But beware of what is seeming so. All animals strive to be more than what they already are. That is, to thrive. That’s what evolution is all about.

All of this is prologue to the fact that, after many decades, I’ve been revisiting Freudian ideas through Freud’s women, a fiendishly complex book written some thirty years ago, cataloguing Freud’s life and developing ideas, but more interestingly, his impact upon the next generation of analysts, all of them former patients (or analysands), as seemed to be Freud’s rule. That’s to say, the next generation of female analysts.

The generation of women after that of Freud, the generation that came of age in the early 20th century, whether born in Vienna or attracted to it by Freud’s growing superstardom, couldn’t be said to have an easy time of it. A depressing rate of childhood (and maternal) mortality, sudden changes of fortune due to cataclysms such as the Great Depression, two horrific European wars, the Nazi anti-Semitic frenzy of the thirties, and an obsession with female ‘hysteria’ and other mystery ailments, all created complications, to put it mildly, for upwardly mobile female intellectuals. Professional careers as doctors or academics were still largely closed to them, and it’s noteworthy that many, such as Lou Andreas-Salomé, turned to writing to establish their intellectual reputations. Others, such as Anna Freud and Marie Bonaparte, had clear birthright advantages. Other important female figures for this generation of psychotherapy were Helene Deutsch, Melanie Klein, Joan Riviere, Alix Strachey, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot and Ruth Mack Brunswick, to name a few, but many analysands were touched by this (occasionally vicious) circle, including the brilliant if mystifyingly mystical writer H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

What is fascinating about this little ecosystem that had come to thrive under Freud’s benevolent paternalism is its openness to the wiles of sexuality, while always maintaining an un-bonoboesque primness. Of course, bonobos weren’t fully identified as a species until 1929, and nothing was then known of their lifestyle, and nor was evolution and our connectedness to other species fully accepted, or its consequences much explored in Freud’s lifetime. But the circle of analysts, analysands and their companions, spiced with more or less explicit notions of childhood sexuality, latent lesbianism, father fixations and the like, seems like a simmering pot under the cover of polite society. Largely all talk no action. The talking cure? The talking distraction? The talking disorder? To read some of the writings of these analysts, well they often make heavy work of everyday life, its thoughts and feelings, as they seek to frame experience within one particular theory or another. It reminds me of other forms of over-intellectualising – it’s fascinating how dated and more or less quaint seem arguments regarding the philosophy of ‘mind’ and ‘free will’ of several decades ago.

Bonobos, of course, have no language. They can’t tell us how well- or mal-adjusted they are. All we have is our own observations. Bonobos aren’t always lovey-dovey, they sometimes fight, though not as often or as viciously as chimps. They suffer more from human raids than from their own species, which has led to a lot of orphans and ‘childless mothers’. At a stretch, you could argue that these threats have something in common with those experienced by Anna Freud and the Jewish or pro-Jewish psychoanalyst community of the twenties and thirties. An article from Discover magazine describes bonobo responses after a bit of rough tangling in the treetops:

The researchers found that those young bonobos that were able to calm themselves down most quickly after altercations were also those most likely to console another individual in distress. What’s more, these socially well-adjusted bonobos were far more likely to have been raised by their mothers. Orphaned apes, on the other hand, were less likely to offer consolation. This consolation behaviour through contact, such as by touching, embracing and kissing, suggests that the young bonobos are expressing empathy.

Some researchers aren’t entirely convinced that consolatory behaviour is going on, I’m not quite sure why, but it seems to me that consolatory behaviour (and the need for it among the suffering) in these non-speaking relatives of ours has something in common with the ‘talking cure’ that became so sought-after in early twentieth century Europe. What’s also interesting is the focus on sex, albeit in very different ways, in relation to stress, and effective function, in humans and bonobos. Here are some examples of Freud’s ‘sex talk’, in written form, from Freud’s women. First, in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess in 1897:

the main distinction between the sexes emerges at the time of puberty, when girls are seized by a non-neurotic sexual repugnance and males by libido. For at that period a further sexual zone is (wholly or in part) extinguished in females which persists in males. I am thinking of the male genital zone, the region of the clitoris, in which during childhood sexual sensitivity is shown to be concentrated in girls as well. Hence the flood of shame which the female shows at that period – until the new, vaginal zone is awakened, spontaneously, or by reflex action.

Freud’s women, p 400

This is all a bit below the belt for the late 19th century, and the male/female generalisations are questionable, but the fact that such matters are being aired feels like enlightenment. The difficulty I find with Freud, from many of these writings, is that he expresses himself with an air of certitude in so many works which, as his ideas ‘evolve’, contradict previous works, no doubt influenced by the enormous variety of analysands and their neuroses, or simply their backgrounds, as presented to him. The Oedipus complex, for example, appears to be enormously flexible in this way. You could say that his theories, or theory, if there is one, is so open to be tailored to the Individual that it’s unfalsifiable. Though I’m not particularly au fait with Karl Popper’s falsifiability test, I’m betting that he would have used Freud’s theories as a perfect example of work which fails that test.

Having said that, I’m not about to give up on old Sigmund, who perhaps unwittingly inspired many feminist intellectuals in the first decades of the 20th century, if only because he genuinely admired them, took them seriously and was influenced by their experiences and critiques. Perhaps also because his focus was on the internal and domestic world, the world of repressed desires, parental struggles and the great variety of female entanglements with male power, implicit and explicit. I’ll quote another, typically convoluted excerpt (to me at least), this time from 1926, in which Freud discusses castration anxiety:

there is no danger of our regarding castration anxiety as the sole motive force of the defensive processes which lead to neurosis. I have shown elsewhere how little girls, in the course of their development, are led into making a tender object-cathexis by their castration complex. It is precisely in women that the danger-situation of loss of object seems to have remained the most effective. All we need to do is make a slight modification in our description of their determinant of anxiety, in the sense that it is no longer a matter of feeling the want of, or actually losing the object itself, but of losing the object’s love [emphasis added]

Freud’s women, p 414

WTF, think thou? Firstly, an ‘object cathexis’ is apparently an ‘investment of libido or psychic energy in objects outside the self, such as a person, goal, idea, or activity’. But what exactly is a ‘castration complex’ in little girls? Apparently it’s the discovery that they don’t have the dangly stuff of their male counterparts (if they ever discover such a thing in childhood). This makes what follows a little complicated – they (the girls) lose the object’s (the penis’s) love? And so the theory, if it can be called that, gets more ‘flexible’.

All of this of course raises the putatively vexed issue of penis envy, which surely doesn’t have to be such a serious thing. De Beauvoir describes a cute example of this in The Second Sex, quoting from Frigidity in woman, a book by the Freudian psychologist Wilhelm Stekel, published in 1926. The reminiscence is from a 21-year-old:

‘At the age of 5, I chose for my playmate Richard, a boy of 6 or 7… For a long time I had wanted to know how one can tell whether a child is a girl or a boy. I was told: by the earrings…. or by the nose. This seemed to satisfy me, though I had a feeling they were keeping something from me. Suddenly Richard expressed a desire to urinate… Then the thought came to me of lending him my chamber pot… When I saw his organ, which was something entirely new to me, I went into highest raptures: ‘What have you there? My, isn’t that nice! I’d like to have something like that, too.’ Whereupon I took hold of the membrum and held it enthusiastically… My great-aunt’s cough awoke us… and from that day on our doings and games were carefully watched.’

The second sex, p 348

I can well imagine a non-verbal experience of a similar sort among juvenile bonobos – though given that bonobos, like every other non-human mammal, never ‘cover-up’, the surprise and delight would’ve occurred at a very early stage of development, and there’d be no elder relatives keen to prevent further explorations. Which brings me to civilisation – and its discontents.

Anyway, this post has gone on long enough, but the issues raised are important to me, and I’ll pursue them further in later posts.

penis envy mushrooms – another story altogether

References

https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/like-humans-young-bonobos-comfort-those-in-stress

Freud’s women, by Lisa Appignanesi & John Forrester, Virago Press 1993

The second sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, 1949: Vintage books 2011

Written by stewart henderson

December 8, 2022 at 12:13 pm