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p. 293. Exploring the pastfree

  • Anthony Storr


‘Exploring the past’ explores Freud's research on sexual and emotional development. Freud split sexual development into four stages spanning from birth until puberty — oral, anal, phallic, and genital. He believed that the interruption of sexual development could lead to neuroses (such as ‘oral’ and ‘anal’ personalities). Freud outlined the ‘Oedipus complex’, where children harbour sexual phantasies about their parents, coupled with fear and disillusionment. These ideas seem outlandish in a literal sense, but they do have merit when applied to real situations. Freud also described, albeit incorrectly, the latency period that exists between early childhood sexual development and puberty.

Infantile sexual development

Freud's rejection of the seduction theory did not shake his conviction that neurosis was connected with disturbances of the sexual function, nor his belief that neurosis originated in the earliest years of childhood. But instead of continuing to concentrate his attention upon traumatic incidents, he turned to studying the sexual and emotional development of children, and advanced the idea that neurosis in later life came about because the child's sexual development had been partly arrested at some immature stage. As he himself put it:

A formula begins to take shape which lays it down that the sexuality of neurotics has remained in, or been brought back to, an infantile state.

(SE, VII.172)

In line with his requirement that psychological processes should, wherever possible, be formulated in terms of their ‘indispensable organic foundation’. Freud couched his stages of infantile sexual development in terms of parts of the body rather than in terms of perception, cognition, learning, or attachment. During the first year of life, the infant's capacity for physical gratification is centred upon the mouth; this is the ‘oral’ stage. From around one to three years old, the anal region takes over. This is followed by the ‘phallic’ stage, in which p. 30the penis or clitoris becomes the focus of libidinal investment and masturbatory activity, although the child remains incapable of genital fulfilment with another person. The final ‘genital’ stage, in which the individual becomes capable of fully satisfying sexual relations with the opposite sex, is not reached until after puberty; and, even in the most maturely developed characters, traces of earlier stages of libidinal development can always be detected.

In Freud's original account of the infant's sexual development the emphasis is upon auto-erotism; that is, upon changes taking place in the infant's own body, rather than in its relationships. Freud thought that the infant was transiently attached to the mother's breast in the oral stage, but that the oral component instinct then detached itself and found satisfaction in such activities as thumb sucking and chewing. Although Freud continued to be aware of trauma as a cause of disturbance, he pictured the infant's development as an internal process only tenuously connected with interaction with the mother or other caretakers. It was not until near the end of Freud's life that he began to appreciate the signal importance of the infant's relationship with the mother. Before this, mothers were considered chiefly as agents who answered the infant's needs by relieving accumulated tensions, which the infant feared as dangerous. Mothers were not perceived as persons with whom the infant interacted emotionally and who provided stimulation and opportunities for learning as well as the relief of tension.

Freud pictured the infant's sexuality as ‘polymorphously perverse’: that is, as diffusely composed of component instincts which at first are separate tendencies, but which finally coalesce at a later stage to form the adult sexual drive. Among these component instincts are sadistic and masochistic impulses, homosexual interests, exhibitionistic and voyeuristic tendencies, and fetishistic preoccupations. Traces of all these components can be found in the normal person, but they are particularly emphasized in neurotics. Freud now suggested that p. 31neurotic symptoms were the consequence of the repression of perverse sexual impulses dating from the earliest years. Because of this early repression, the neurotic's sexuality remained partly undeveloped. When one or other component instinct had become exaggerated, but had not been repressed, the person concerned became a sexual pervert: that is, he acted out his perverse tendency in real life. Both neurotics and perverts, therefore, were fixated at early stages of sexual development, but dealt with this fixation differently. It was this observation which led to Freud's well-known statement that:

neuroses are, so to say, the negative of perversions.

(SE, VII.165)

At the end of the nineteenth century, many investigators were interested in the vagaries of human sexuality; but Freud was the most influential in persuading both doctors and the general public that sexual perversions are disorders of psychosexual development, not ‘hereditary taints’ or manifestations of ‘degeneration’. He particularly emphasized the bisexuality of both men and women.

In some persons, traces of early stages of libidinal development were so persistent that it became customary to refer to ‘oral’ or to ‘anal’ characters. Oral traits of character were largely worked out by Freud's disciple, Karl Abraham. Freud himself, as one might expect from the character sketch given in the first chapter of this book, concentrated upon anal traits. No one paid much attention to describing phallic traits of character; but Rycroft, in his dictionary of psychoanalysis, refers to the phallic character as:

a person who conceives of sexual behaviour as a display of potency, in contrast to the genital character, who conceives of it as participation in a relationship.

Of a variety of oral characteristics described, passivity, dependency, and p. 32doubts about one's own competence are those most often linked. These traits are commonly found together in persons prone to recurrent depression. Some people exhibiting these features of personality are also given to ‘oral’ habits, like thumb sucking, overeating, and overindulgence in alcohol and tobacco; patterns of behaviour which have been considered by psychoanalysts as compensatory for an original sense of deprivation at the breast. In the case of sexual perverts, a particular preoccupation with cunnilingus and fellatio or even with kissing, to the detriment of coitus, would be deemed evidence of persisting oral psychopathology. But the research evidence linking actual deprivation with the later development of oral behaviour or character is weak. It is best to regard orality as a useful piece of clinical observation without being specific about its cause.

The same holds good for the ‘anal’ character. Preoccupation with orderliness and cleanliness was considered to be a ‘reaction-formation’ against a particularly marked concern with the messiness and dirt associated with defecation. Obstinacy was interpreted as deriving from rebellion against parental insistence that excretion should take place only in particular circumstances. Parsimony was related to the infant's desire to obtain pleasure by holding on to its faeces for as long as possible; for, as Freud demonstrated from myths, fairy tales, and popular speech, money and faeces are often associated in phrases like ‘filthy lucre’, and ‘tight-arsed’. In perverts, rather than neurotics, preoccupation with excretion and with the anal orifice is easily demonstrated as, for example, in de Sade's Les 120 Journées de Sodome.

Research designed to discover whether or not obsessional neurosis and ‘anal’ traits of character are the consequence of severe or eccentric methods of toilet training has not found any consistent causal connection. But the traits, which Freud described as being associated, are in fact found together quite frequently. Although Freud's causal explanation receives little support, his clinical observation and descriptions are accurate.

The Oedipus complex

We come now to the vexed questions of the Oedipus complex, childhood amnesia, and the so-called latency period, which is supposed to follow the Oedipal phase. Freud's formulation of the Oedipus complex originated from his self-analysis. In a letter to Fliess dated 15 October 1897, Freud wrote:

My self-analysis is in fact the most essential thing I have at present and promises to become of the greatest value to me if it reaches its end …. It is by no means easy. Being totally honest with oneself is a good exercise. A single idea of general value dawned on me. I have found, in my own case too, [the phenomenon of] being in love with my mother and jealous of my father, and I now consider it a universal event in early childhood, even if not so early in children who have been made hysterical. (Similar to the invention of parentage [family romance] in paranoia – heroes, founders of religion) – If this is so, we can understand the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the objections that reason raises against the presupposition of fate; and we can understand why the later ‘drama of fate’ was bound to fail so miserably.

(The Freud–Fliess Letters, 271–2)

Freud came to assume that, by the time he has reached the ‘phallic’ stage of development, at around the age of four or five, the small boy is sexually interested in his mother, wishes to gain exclusive possession of her, and therefore harbours hostile impulses towards his father. However, the hostility arouses fear that the father will retaliate, and the form, which this retaliation is likely to take, is that of castration. The ‘castration complex’ is activated partly by threats of castration from adults who have observed him masturbating, and partly by the little boy's assumption that, because girls are without a penis, they must have suffered castration. Confronted by what he perceives as a horrifying threat to the most precious part of his body, the small boy unconsciously abandons his hopes of sexual union with his mother, p. 34identifies himself with his potentially aggressive father, and finally turns his attention towards securing sexual satisfaction from other feminine sources.

The female version of the Oedipus complex is less clearly worked out, in line with the fact that Freud continued to find women a puzzle throughout his life. However, Freud concluded that, while the little girl is also at first involved emotionally with her mother, her discovery that she lacks a penis, and is therefore an inferior being, leads her to become disillusioned with her mother whom she blames for her condition. This turns her towards her father as a love object, and she begins to phantasize that he will impregnate her. The resulting child, Freud supposes, will compensate the girl for her lack of a penis, and, in this sense, might be said to be a substitute for the missing organ. What brings this stage of emotional development to a conclusion is the girl's growing perception of other men as potential impregnators who will enable her to have a baby and thus overcome her continuing sense of being an inferior kind of human being.

Stated in so bald a fashion, Freud's perception of the Oedipus complex as constituting the central emotional stage through which every human being has to pass if she or he is to achieve adult stability and happiness sounds crude indeed. We have already observed that Freud invariably strove to reduce the psychological and emotional to the physical. To allege that all small boys fear castration at the hands of their fathers sounds ridiculous when taken literally. But, if we were to phrase it differently, and affirm that small boys are greatly concerned with establishing their identity as male persons, feel rivalry with their fathers, and are easily made to feel humiliated or threatened by disparaging remarks about their size, weakness, incapacity, and lack of experience, most people would concur.

Moreover, both small boys and men do feel that their genitals are an especially vulnerable part of their anatomy. Freud's contention that p. 35castration anxiety is greater in men, while fear of loss of love is greater in women, is supported by research. Females fear penetration, but because their sexual organs are less exposed, are not so prone to fear actual injury. Male genitals are not only unprotected, but also exquisitely sensitive to pain, as the torturers of the world have long appreciated. Enquiry among children attending a paediatric clinic revealed that a substantial minority had supposed that girls originally possessed a penis, but had lost it in one way or another. Castration anxiety has become part of day-to-day speech. Those familiar with psychoanalytic jargon often use it as a kind of shorthand. Thus, a man might say, ‘I feel castrated’, if, for some reason, he was unable to drive his car or carry on with his work. Freud's persistent attempt to abolish the metaphorical in favour of the literal has contributed to a widespread misunderstanding of what he had to say.

The same comments apply to the notion of ‘penis envy’. In Freud's era, male dominance was even more evident than it is today. Because men hold most of the power, many women consider themselves inferior, unappreciated, despised, or weak. Producing babies is one way in which women can feel equal or superior to men. If we express Freud's idea in psychological, rather than anatomical, terms, very few people would take issue with it. As Jung is supposed to have remarked, ‘After all, the penis is only a phallic symbol.’

In putting forward his ideas about infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex, Freud was responsible for underlining the concept that the child is father to the man, emotionally and sexually, as well as in other ways. Freud was writing before zoologists had carried out the kind of experiments with subhuman primates which demonstrate that, for example, prolonged isolation in infancy renders the adult animal incapable of mating or forming normal social relationships. Today, we take it for granted that a child's intimate relationship with each parent, including physical closeness, is likely to affect its future capacity for making warm, affectionate relationships with its peers when it grows p. 36up; and the fact that we make such an assumption is largely due to Freud, even though we may not now agree with everything which he had to say about childhood.

Freud thought of the Oedipus complex as a universal; but it can be argued that it is very much a Western concept, which particularly applies to the small, ‘nuclear’ family. Do children brought up in extended families, in which polygamy is the norm, experience the jealousy, possessiveness, and fear which Freud found in his patients? We do not know; but anecdotal evidence suggests the contrary. A Nigerian analyst told me that, during his training analysis, it took him over a year to make his analyst understand the entirely different emotional climate which obtains in a family in which the father has several wives.

We have already observed that Freud, at least in the early stages of his thought, was more concerned with the child's relation with the father than with its relation with the mother. Moreover, the father was also portrayed as authoritarian and severe; the source of prohibitions and threats; and the origin of what later became called the ‘super-ego’. Modern research supports Freud's idea of a stage of male development in which the boy feels rivalry with the father; but indicates that the boy's subsequent identification with the father is not ‘identification with the aggressor’ but because the father makes friendly, loving overtures. As Fisher and Greenberg put it:

It would appear that he [the boy] gives up his acute competitive stance vis-à-vis father because father transmits friendly positive messages inviting him to join up rather than fight … He invites his son to draw close, to form an alliance, to adopt his identity, and to accept his values

(p. 222).

Infantile amnesia

Most human beings can recall very little of their earliest childhood. Enquiry has demonstrated that ‘first memories’ date from about 3.2 years. Freud attributed infantile amnesia to repression, assuming that everyone would prefer to banish to the unconscious their earliest sexual impulses and experiences. This seems improbable, especially in cultures in which sexual play between children evokes amusement rather than horror. There are more likely reasons. Research shows that the growth of memory is a gradual process. Registration, retention, and recall are all less efficient before the development of language. No one knows how well children of, say, three or four recall events from still earlier periods, memory for which will disappear. But, even in adults, memory for recent events is transient unless it is refreshed by rehearsal. Without a capacity for language, rehearsal does not occur; and so it is not surprising that, before language is fairly well developed, memories are not well retained.

The latency period

Freud believed that the Oedipal phase was succeeded by a ‘latency period’, lasting from about age five until puberty, in which sexual impulses and behaviour, though not abolished, were much less in evidence. Research does not support this latter supposition. In sexually permissive cultures, sex play is common throughout the years of middle childhood; and even in cultures in which sex play is frowned upon, and hence concealed, the evidence is that masturbation, heterosexual play, and homosexual play all increase with every year that passes.

However, Freud was right in his perception that human growth and development are diphasic. From birth to five, the pace is rapid. Then comes a phase in which the growth curve rises less steeply, to be succeeded by another spurt just before puberty. Human adaptation largely depends upon learning and the transmission of culture. For p. 38these to take place effectively, the period of childhood dependency has to be prolonged, and it is probably for this reason that a phase of slower development, corresponding to the latency period, has been interposed between the two rapid phases. Many common human problems can justifiably be related to the prolongation of immaturity and dependence on parents. Freud's perception that the parent of the opposite sex constituted the child's first sexual object goes some way towards explaining a number of sexual difficulties experienced by adults. A man or woman who has not broken free of emotional ties with parents is likely to perceive potential sexual partners partly as if they were parents. This complicates the relationship, both sexually and in other ways. According to Freud, the Oedipal attachment to the parent of the opposite sex (at least in the male) is accompanied by the threat of castration. Men who continue to perceive women chiefly or partly as mothers may, therefore, regard them as potentially dangerous as well as sexually attractive; and this perception is likely to cause a variety of sexual difficulties, including turning away from women altogether, partial or complete impotence, or the need for reassuring devices like sadomasochistic rituals or fetishes before intercourse is possible. Various details of the Oedipal theory are open to question, but the general outline stands as powerfully explanatory of a variety of sexual difficulties and ways of behaving which had previously appeared inexplicable.

Where Freud was wrong was in making psychosexual development so central that all other forms of social and emotional development were conceived as being derived from it. In his essay on Leonardo, Freud even derives curiosity and the desire for knowledge from sexuality. He must have been aware that many animals exhibit exploratory behaviour which is obviously adaptive in providing information about the environment. Such behaviour seems more closely analogous to human intellectual curiosity; but Freud so insists upon sex as the prime mover that he regards sublimated infantile sexual researches as providing the motive power for a subsequent passion for knowledge. Today, most p. 39students of childhood development regard sexual development as only one link in the chain, not as a prime cause. Difficulties in interpersonal relationships may be derived from early insecurities which have nothing to do with sex, but which may cause later sexual problems. Similarly, difficulties in sexual development may cause subsequent social problems.