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There are three or perhaps four grand visions articulated in the 19th century. Each of them purports to make the case that individual human identity, Descartes' thinking thing or the Christian soul, is really not a starting point but an outcome. Descartes saw self-identity as a bedrock, a foundation. The thinking thing was what a human being really was, after all the extraneous accretions were stripped away. This is what cannot be doubted.

But Freud, Marx and Darwin all reject this claim and all argue that one's sense of one's identity is not foundational, but the result of the operation of forces of which the individual is generally not aware, and whose influence he or she cannot directly feel.


Let's see how these arguments work. I have already filled you in, in a rough way, about Freud's position as a doctor in fin-de-siecle Vienna. We have reviewed the antisemitism as well as the brilliance of the cultural and social life of the Austrian capital. We know that Freud was an assimilated, highly educated German-speaking Jew, who could not get a position as a professor because of his religion. We know that most of his patients were frustrated, disaffected Jewish women caught up in the strictures of late Victorian patriarchal culture. Educated and gifted, these women were 'doomed' to private careers as wives and mothers. And they developed a plethora of symptoms and putatively neurological problems for which they cam to Freud for treatment. 


We have also noted that Freud soon realized that he was confronting a problem. It was not that the women had physical illnesses; there were no neural lesions or other physical alterations causing their problems. The issue in nearly every case seemed to be psychological. The women were experiencing problems in their minds that they did not know, ion their minds, that they were experiencing. These mind problems were expressing themselves in a masked way as physical symptoms, and Freud set out to find the etiology, the source, of these symptoms.

Surprisingly, to Freud, he found out that many, but not all, of the physical symptoms could be traced back to early childhood experience. He found this out by adapting techniques he had learned while studying the hypnotic  methods of the Frenchman Charcot in Paris. While he ultimately rejected hypnotism as a technique, because he believed that under hypnosis the patient had no control of their awareness and therefore could interact with the doctor in a productive way, he did adapt some of the elements of hypnosis in his practice.

He had the client lie on a couch, not facing him, speaking into the air. Freud would assume what has come to be the analyst's traditional pose, sitting slightly behind and to one side the client, taking notes and asking few questions. The point of this set-up is to free the client to express her own thoughts without much external direction. Gazing forward into space with no pre-established agenda lends itself to revelations because there is no obvious critic/listener present to inhibit self-expression. And the absence of any conversational context allows the speaker to lapse into a kind of semi-trance state, releasing deep memories.

What surprised Freud when he used this technique (which he developed over time) was that when we allowed the women to speak freely they very often regressed to two areas: what they claimed were early childhood memories and descriptions of dreams they had. 

The early childhood memories were especially disturbing to Freud because a surprisingly large number of his patients related that they had been sexually molested by uncles, fathers and family friends when they were very young. Freud could not believe this and attributed the stories to dream-like stories the women made up to symbolize feelings of frustration and violation. Freud was proven wrong about this later; he was blinded by his inability to credit that the abuse of female children was so prevalent, and thereby distorted his theorizing, adding an unnecessary layer of complexity to what was already a complex situation.

Even given this misinterpretation, Freud was also impressed that so many of the women recounted dreams, many of whose details seemed incoherent. These dreams, and their stories about early molestation, led Freud over time to very interesting hypotheses. First he made the assumption that dreams always mean something; we only have to figure out how to decode them. Second, all the accounts had to do with desire and with memory - with the memory of desire. 

Here is what Freud came up with -- we are leaving out all sorts of detail here in favor of brevity and narrative economy -- was the idea that desire is fundamental to human existence, that desire has to do with physical excitation, at least initially, but that desires run so deep and are so self-serving that their demands must be worked out indirectly through dreams and stories.

And this brings us to the next layer of complexity: for Freud desire has to work itself out within the context of what he calls, ironically but with a point, the "family romance."

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