Freud, Satan and the serpent


AT THE BROADEST AND most general level, Freud’s nineteenth-century biologism drew its scientific authority from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But it was by no means a purely scientific phenomenon. For one of the major cultural functions of Darwin’s evolutionary theory had been that of legitimating the nineteenth-century doctrine of inevitable progress, and making this doctrine seem as though it were merely an expression of natural laws. Although it is widely held that ‘Social Darwinism’ was based on a corrupted version of Darwin’s theories, almost all the doctrines associated with it can be traced back to Darwin himself. It is quite true that Charles Darwin once wrote, in the form of a reminder to himself, ‘Never use the words higher and lower.’ Yet, after he had written these words, Darwin himself admitted that he was in a ‘muddle’ about teleology and he repeatedly failed to heed his own most subversive principle. Instead he consistently portrayed evolution as a competitive struggle for ascendancy and he himself wrote in the closing pages of The Descent of Man, to cite but one example, of how ‘man’ had ‘risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale’ and also spoke of the possibility of ‘a still higher destiny in the future’.[1]


That the fundamental idea which lay behind all nineteenth-century theories of evolutionary progress was a moral and religious one is perhaps indicated most clearly in some words written by Havelock Ellis: ‘It has been well said that purity – which in the last analysis is physical clearness – is the final result after which Nature is ever striving.’[2] It was this crypto-theological notion of evolution as an ever-upward progress away from earlier forms of animal life and towards spiritual and social perfection which came to be inseparable from the way Darwinian biology was received and interpreted.


Freud frequently expressed scepticism about the more facile manifestations of this conception of biological progress. Yet for all the pessimism with which he tempered his own philosophy, he never succeeded in escaping from the Zeitgeist of evolutionary progressivism. At the very heart of all his theorising about sexual development and human history is a passionate, culturally orthodox belief, derived ultimately from Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic, that human beings are fulfilling their historic destiny by progressively leaving behind their animal origins and developing a more rational and sublimated consciousness. To put the matter in traditional religious terms, Freud saw human history as a difficult upward progress from the realm of the flesh towards the realm of the spirit. While not sharing the optimism of those rationalists who held that future progress towards an even higher spiritual level was inevitable, his hierarchy of values never ceased to be shaped by the traditional view. He once told a patient that ‘the moral self was the conscious, the evil self was the unconscious.’[3] In describing the underlying aspiration of psychoanalytic treatment, he wrote the following words which have been quoted already in the Introduction:


[We] liberate sexuality through our treatment, not in order that man may from now on be dominated by sexuality, but in order to make a suppression possible – a rejection of the instincts under the guidance of a higher agency ... We try to replace the pathological process with rejection.[4]


As these words themselves suggest, there is a constant tension in Freud’s writings between the desire to explore the animal origins of human beings, together with their instinctual heritage, and the impulse to transcend this animality. But there is never ultimately any question that the path of transcendence – or ‘sublimation’ -represents the ideal. ‘We have no other means of controlling our instinctual nature but our intelligence,’ he wrote, ‘... the psychological ideal [is] ... the primacy of the intelligence.’[5]


There can be little doubt that this consonance between the ethos of psychoanalysis and that of Judaeo-Christian orthodoxy was partly responsible for the initial success of psychoanalysis, and that it helps to explain why Freud’s followers sometimes behaved more like the members of a church than an association of scientists. The survival of the psychoanalytic movement and its continuing strength today, however, seems to require a more specific explanation than can be supplied by vague comparisons between the ethos of psychoanalysis and that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.


One way of approaching this problem is to consider the manner in which Freud’s own attitude towards the ideas of health and illness changed and developed during the twenty years which elapsed between his visit to Charcot in Paris and the publication of his theory of sexuality. At the outset Freud was concerned almost exclusively with patients who, since they presented eminently physical symptoms, would have been deemed ‘ill’ by most physicians. By the time he published his sexual theory, however, many of his patients were not ‘ill’ in the traditional sense of that word. For increasingly Freud began to concern himself not with people suffering from physical symptoms, but with individuals who were clearly experiencing acute emotional distress – such as the woman afflicted by jealousy or the young woman with the obsessional bed-time rituals whose cases were discussed earlier (see Chapter 12).


From the fact that Freud progressed in this manner away from illnesses characterised by physical symptoms towards the analysis of people’s emotional difficulties, we might well conclude that he eventually succeeded in freeing himself from his narrow medical orientation towards ‘illness’, and replacing this attitude with a completely psychological viewpoint which was entirely independent both of biology and of medicine. This point of view is advanced frequently not only by the advocates of psychoanalysis but also by many ostensibly independent onlookers. Yet to accept this view – with its implicit disjunction between Freud's early and later work – would be to paint an entirely false picture of how psychoanalysis actually developed.


For, from the time of his collaboration with Breuer onwards, Freud never ceased to regard himself, and to seek to be regarded by others, as a healer. It is quite true that, like many messianic personalities before him, he was not prepared to allow himself to be constrained by the apparent limitations of this role. But it was not by turning away from those who were ill towards those who were healthy that he sought to escape these. It was by enlarging the notion of disease and applying it to those who, in reality, were not ill at all.[6]


. . . The course taken by Freud in starting as a healer who at first dispenses supposedly miraculous cures to a small number of sick people, and then subsequently universalises the concept of illness so that all individuals might be deemed to be in need of a physician, should be familiar to us. For a similar pattern of development is implicit in the doctrines of Jesus and the subsequent development of the Christian Church. The general pattern is noted by David Bakan in his study of the influence of Jewish mysticism on Freud’s thought:


That psychoanalysis should have grown up in the context of the healing of the sick who were incurable by orthodox medical means accords with the Messianic quality of the psychoanalytic movement. For Messianism characteristically proves itself first by miraculously healing the sick. Thereafter it reaches out to large-scale social reform. So Freud’s psychoanalysis reached out from the healing of individuals to the healing of society.[7]


Freud himself is clearly unaware of the depth of his own submerged religious traditionalism when, in a significant passage, he introduces psychoanalysis as one of the great blows inflicted on ‘the naive self love of man’. The previous blow, he says, had come from Darwin, who had proved ‘man’s ... ineradicable animal nature’.[8] This passage, in which Freud is clearly referring to his theory of the Unconscious, is frequently quoted by commentators on psychoanalysis. But its full significance is not always appreciated. For what Freud ignores, and what we tend not to notice, is that his words belong not to the realm of objective science, but to the realm of ethics. More importantly still, the moral aim which Freud implicitly professes is precisely the same as that of St Augustine, when he elaborated the doctrine which was to lie at the heart of Christian orthodoxy until at least the beginning of the eighteenth century – the doctrine of Original Sin.


The very essence of that doctrine was to be found in the attack it made on spiritual pride – or what Freud called ‘the naive self love of man’. The way in which it made this attack was by offering a theory of human nature according to which men and women, rather than being in control of their own lives, were doomed to remain the prey of a seething and unclean mass of impulses and desires which had become, through Adam’s fall, an ineradicable part of their nature. Individuals might seek to control these impulses through the use of reason, but they could never hope to escape from them within their earthly lives. The religious importance of this doctrine was that through it, and it alone, could the need for Christian redemption be established. For one of the essential points of the doctrine was that it universalised the concept of illness. By postulating that all human beings were afflicted by sickness of the soul it suggested that all equally stood in need of a physician. In the words of Pascal, the traditional Christian faith rested on two things, ‘the corruption of nature and redemption by Jesus Christ’.[9]


The doctrine of Original Sin reigned for centuries as perhaps the most important psychological theory of Christian Europe. Its immense historical significance and its deep psychological appeal is an essential part of the heritage of modern intellectual culture. Yet one of the eventual outcomes of the rational spirit of the Reformation, and of the Counter-Reformation in the Roman Catholic Church, was that the doctrine tended increasingly to be repudiated by theologians and intellectuals. Quoting Pascal’s words, and referring mainly to Protestant England, T. O. Wedel has written that ‘half at least of Pascal’s formula is seldom spoken of after 1700.’[10]


Yet although the doctrine of Original Sin has tended to be progressively weakened by the central tradition of Protestant rationalism, one of the main projects of religious traditionalists has always been to restore the doctrine to a position of theological centrality. If we wish to place the psychoanalytic movement in perspective, and understand the religious psychology which underpins both its cult-like features and the messianic role adopted by its founder, one way of doing so is to consider it in relation to earlier, more overtly religious movements which have taken a particular interest in the doctrine of Original Sin.


One of the most significant of all such movements in England was the Methodist Church founded by John Wesley. Wesley’s longest written work was actually entitled The Doctrine of Original Sin (1757). In this work, after surveying the host of optimistic views of nature and human nature which prevailed in the middle of the eighteenth century, Wesley inveighed against the arrogance of ‘the present generation of Christians’:


How many laboured panegyrics do we now read and hear on the dignity of human nature! ... I cannot see that we have much need of Christianity. Nay, not any at all; for ‘they that are whole have no need of a physician’ ... Nor can Christian philosophy, whatever be thought of the pagan, be more properly defined than in Plato’s words: ‘the only true method of healing a distempered soul.’ But what need of this if we are in perfect health?[11]


It would be difficult to find a clearer example of the tendency of Christianity to universalise the concept of illness. One of the aims of Wesley’s movement, indeed, was to re-establish the ‘reality’ of the Christian’s distempered soul. It did this by vitalising all the anxieties about irrational and sexual impulses which Christians had traditionally been encouraged to feel but which had been, as it were, disconnected from the consciousness of mainstream Protestant rationalism. Wesley and his followers believed that it was necessary to bring these buried anxieties back into the Christian consciousness, for it was only by doing this that they could establish people’s need for the religious therapy which they offered.


Wesley was by no means alone in seeking to revive the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. The work which he referred to most frequently in his own disquisition on the doctrine was none other than Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. For, as one or two largely forgotten literary critics have recognised, Swift’s scatological satire was, no less than Wesley’s religious propaganda, directed against the spiritual pride and naive self-love of ‘man’, which he felt was expressed by the rationalist optimism which surrounded him. In place of the view of human beings which saw them existing in harmonious, rational integration, Swift reasserted the traditional Christian view according to which they were profoundly divided between their rational souls and their carnal bodies. We can only understand Swift’s satirical intentions if we recognise that the excrement-loving Yahoos which Gulliver encounters in his Fourth Voyage are to be seen as an imaginative representation of this sinful carnal body. ‘Unregenerate man’ is in this way presented by Swift in very much the same way as he had been by St Paul, St Augustine and countless other exponents of the traditional doctrine of Original Sin – as a ‘lump of deformity and diseases both in body and mind, smitten with pride’.[12]


Deane Swift, the biographer of his cousin Jonathan, recognised this in a way that modern literary critics have generally failed to do when he defended Gulliver’s Travels against the attacks of Anglican rationalists. In describing the Yahoos, Swift was, wrote his cousin, fulfilling his duties as ‘a preacher of righteousness’ and ‘a watchman of the Christian faith’:


And shall we condemn a preacher of righteousness, for exposing under the character of a nasty, unteachable Yahoo the deformity, the blackness, the filthiness, and corruption of those hellish abominable vices, which inflame the wrath of God against the children of disobedience.[13]


We should recall here that the Yahoo vices by which the ‘children of disobedience’ are seen as ‘inflaming the wrath of God’ are, in Swift’s imaginative restatement of the doctrine of Original Sin, the same vices against which Christian moralists had always warned. For the Yahoos are portrayed not only as excrementally unclean, but as driven by uncontrollable sexual and sadistic impulses and as possessed by an animal lust for financial gain. The implicit moral of Swift’s religious satire is that Gulliver can be saved from his own destructive and naive self-love only by accepting the hideousness of his animality and the depth of his carnal sinfulness. For it is only when he has first done this that he will be made aware of his own deep need for the redemption offered through Christianity.


The relevance of these largely forgotten aspects of religious history to the creation of psychoanalysis and its twentieth-century reception should not be difficult to divine. For in the intellectual environment of nineteenth-century Vienna, Freud found himself in a cultural predicament which was in many respects similar to that experienced by Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century. With certain significant exceptions the intellectual climate was one of assured rational optimism. Many of the most influential rationalist thinkers seemed determined to forget that men and women had ever possessed such things as bodies and all those animal impulses and appetites with which bodies are associated. These, together with all forms of sexual behaviour, were often treated as the animal residue of a nature which could eventually be refined, by the power of science, into pure rationality.


Freud believed that the strategy which he chose in order to resist this intellectual trend was a scientific one. It was, as we have seen, within the framework of biological assumptions which had been created by Darwin and Haeckel that he constructed his theory of infantile sexuality, in which he proclaimed the discovery of such component-instincts as ‘oral-erotism’ and ‘anal-erotism’. While many of Freud’s contemporaries were outraged by his views, the success which psychoanalysis ultimately enjoyed itself indicates that there were other reactions. In 1917 the Harvard biologist William Morton Wheeler spoke for many when he contrasted the theories of psychoanalysis with other more rationalistic psychologies:


After perusing during the past twenty years a small library of rose-water psychologies of the academic type and noticing how their authors ignore or merely hint at the existence of such stupendous and fundamental biological phenomena as those of hunger, sex, or fear, I should not disagree with, let us say, an imaginary critic recently arrived from Mars, who should express the opinion that many of these works read as if they had been composed by beings that had been born and bred in a belfry, castrated in early infancy and fed continually for fifty years through a tube with a stream of liquid nutriment of constant chemical composition ...


Now I believe that the psychoanalysts are getting down to brass tacks ... They have had the courage to dig up the subconscious, that hotbed of all the egotism, greed, lust, pugnacity, cowardice, sloth, hate and envy which every single one of us carries about as his inheritance from the animal world.[14]


Wheeler’s caricature of contemporary rationalistic psychology expresses an entirely reasonable criticism. But he fails to recognise the true character of Freud’s instinctualism. In this respect the most revealing part of his statement is his conclusion. For what is presented as a plea for biological realism is couched in the language of traditional Christian morality. Indeed, while ostensibly discussing the biological basis of human nature, Wheeler comes very close to presenting a list of the seven deadly sins.


The confusion which is apparent in Wheeler’s language accurately mirrors that which lies at the heart of psychoanalysis. For, as should by now be clear, Freud’s ‘scientific’ enterprise followed almost exactly the same pattern as many earlier attempts to revive the doctrine of Original Sin. Freud, no less than Swift or Wesley, offered a view of the personality which saw human nature as radically divided against itself. The animal impulses and appetites which he located in the self were characterised in predominantly negative terms. The most obscene levels of the sexual imagination were not, according to Freud, to be affirmed or incorporated into the whole identity and liberated as part of the riches of the self. Rather they were to be intellectually acknowledged and then controlled and sublimated through the power of reason.


Freud himself was not averse to using the traditional rhetoric of Judaeo-Christian moralism in order to express this aspect of his vision. Although his attitude towards sexual ‘perversion’ was benign in comparison to that of the most repressive Victorian commentators, he continued to employ the concept and sometimes came close to endorsing conventional views, as when he compared ‘perverts’ to ‘the grotesque monsters painted by Breughel for the temptation of St Anthony’, and characterised their sexual practices as ‘abominable’.[15] He used similar demonological imagery to describe the wishes behind dreams. These were, he once wrote, the ‘manifestations of an unbridled and ruthless egotism ... These censored wishes appear to rise up out of a positive Hell ...’[16] Elsewhere Freud sometimes actually employs the term ‘evil’ in order to describe the Unconscious. As we have already seen, he refers at one point to the contrast between the moral self and the ‘evil’ self – equating the latter with the Unconscious.[17]


In A Short Account of Psychoanalysis he writes that the ‘impulses ... subjected to repression are those of selfishness and cruelty, which can be summed up in general as evil, but above all sexual wishful impulses, often of the crudest and most forbidden kind.’[18] In a discussion of group psychology, he suggests that the individual tends to lose his repressions when he becomes part of the mass: ‘The apparently new characteristics he then displays are in fact the manifestations of this unconscious, in which all that is evil in the human mind is contained as a predisposition’ (italics added). That Freud sees it as desirable to suppress and control this ‘evil’ part of the mind is made quite clear: ‘Our mind ...’ he writes, ‘is no peacefully self-contained unity. It is rather to be compared with a modern State in which a mob, eager for enjoyment and destruction, has to be held down forcibly by a prudent superior class.’[19]


Freud genuinely believed that, by invoking evolutionary biology in the manner that he did, he was using science to sweep away superstition and introduce a new view of human nature. His real achievement in creating psychoanalysis, however, was to hide superstition beneath the rhetoric of reason, and by doing this succeed in reintroducing a very old view of human nature. By portraying the unconscious or the ‘id’ as a seething mass of unclean impulses, and seeing men and women as driven by dark sexual and sadistic impulses and a secret love of excrement which was associated with a compulsion to hoard money, Freud in effect recreated Swift’s Christian vision of ‘unregenerate man’ as a Yahoo. By casting his intense moral vision in an ostensibly technical form he had, it would seem, succeeded in reinventing for a modern scientific age the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin.



THE VIEW THAT THERE are significant similarities between psychoanalysis and the Christian doctrine of Original Sin is not a new one. In an interesting essay published in the collection Psychoanalysis Observed, John Wren-Lewis has considered Freud’s contention that psychoanalysis represents the third and final stage of a scientific revolution against the ‘naive self-love’ of human beings. He points out that that Freud’s view is a ‘complete misrepresentation’ of the effects of the scientific revolution and goes on to suggest that his words betray ‘a wish to be morally censorious about humanity, a desire to make people feel small, exactly parallel to the traditional theological castigation of man for sinful pride’. More recently Ernest Gellner has drawn a direct parallel between Christian doctrine and psychoanalysis. One of the purposes of the doctrine of Original Sin, he observes, is to ensure that no one may shelter behind a consciousness of virtue:


It is a spiritual equivalent of universal peasant indebtedness. Such universal and starting-point moral indebtedness makes certain that no one can even begin life with a clear ledger. Everyone then has ever-renewable and self-perpetuating debts to pay right from the very start, and must work arduously to pay them off, if he is to be granted even the hope of salvation. The Unconscious is a new version of Original Sin.[20]


In 1948 R. S. Lee, in his book Freud and Christianity, actually attempted to enlist psychoanalytic theories in defence of Christianity, seeing Freud’s ideas as offering a scientific explanation of the doctrine of Original Sin:


Here too is found the explanation of Original Sin ... It is not our concern to discuss the theological conception here, but psychoanalysis has thrown considerable light on what underlies the conception, The sense of sin comes, we have seen, from the personalisation of the Super-ego at the resolution of the Oedipus Complex, by which the wish to destroy the father and possess the mother are mastered in the developing infant. If these wishes had not existed there would have been no need to form the Super-ego and so develop a moral conscience. Thus the precondition of getting a knowledge of good and evil at all is that we have sinned psychologically. A sense of guilt is inherent in our make-up. The original sin is the complex of wishes in the Oedipus Complex which we develop before we have a moral sense, but which remain, in varying degrees of fixation after we have developed that moral sense in dealing with them as dangerous wishes.[21]


Writing in 1960, David McClelland, a Quaker descended from radical Protestants, who was also a Harvard psychologist, suggested that Freud’s attitude towards human sinfulness is one of the reasons ‘why psychoanalysis has had such a great appeal to American intellectuals’:


Its insistence on the evil in man’s nature, and in particular on the sexual root of that evil, suited the New England temperament well which had been shaped by a similar Puritan emphasis. In fact, to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of Calvinistic sermons on infant damnation.[22]


Similar observations have been made by a number of different commentators. Yet although some observers have had no difficulty in spotting the external resemblance between psychoanalysis and the doctrine of Original Sin, the deeper significance of this resemblance has proved more elusive.


One reason for the failure to investigate the parallel has been the assumption that the superficial similarities conceal deeper and more significant differences. It is often assumed, for example, that whereas exponents of the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin have been deliberately setting out to create anxiety, and exacerbate feelings of guilt, Freud had discovered a way in which these feelings could be alleviated. To see the problem in this way, however, is to fail to understand the extent to which Freud, far from subverting Judaeo-Christian doctrines, merely adopted a modernised version of the sexual realism which was itself an integral part of traditional teachings. For Freud was by no means the first Judaeo-Christian thinker to take the view that ‘we ought not to exalt ourselves so high as completely to neglect what was originally animal in our Nature.’[23] This view of human nature, which is above all a commentary on human pride, is Augustinian rather than Darwinian. As we have seen, it was just such a view which lay at the heart of the traditional doctrine of Original Sin. Nor should we see Freud’s claim that some sexual impulses ‘have a right to direct satisfaction’ as in any way standing outside the traditional Judaeo-Christian view.[24] For mainstream Christian doctrine has always seen sexual impulses as being a part of human nature and – outside the priesthood at least – as having a right to direct expression; this view, indeed, is even more strong in Freud’s own Jewish tradition than it is in Christianity. It was only the gradual rise of some of the extreme forms of religious and scientific rationalism encouraged by the Reformation, and the cultural dominance which such rationalism achieved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which had begun seriously to challenge this view. It was against this kind of rationalist extremism, and not against more traditional manifestations of Judaeo-Christian ideology, that Freud attempted to rebel.


The fact that his rebellion resembles, in some respects at least, that undertaken by Jonathan Swift in the eighteenth century may appear to vindicate psychoanalysis. There can, I believe, be no doubt that Swift was in some respects an acute and interesting psychologist – much more acute and interesting, perhaps, than Freud himself. It would nevertheless be quite wrong to suggest that Swift ever managed to subvert, or even to see clearly, the rationalistic orthodoxies he sought to criticise. In Gulliver’s Travels his implicit moral had been clear: that only if people acknowledged the reality of their own sinful ‘Yahoo’ natures would they cease to project their corrupt nature onto others; by this means, and this means alone could human destructiveness be controlled and subdued.[25] The psychological truth which Swift cannot bring himself to confront, however, is that to expect people wholly to accept their sensuality and simultaneously to define that sensuality as sinful, is to make an impossible demand on the human personality. It is rather like expecting a poor man to accept a debt on the assumption that it will increase his solvency. For the very concept of sin implies an idealisation of some elements of the identity and a rejection of others. To portray human carnality in the form of a loathsome, sadistic, compulsively acquisitive, excrement-loving Yahoo, and simultaneously to demand that this carnality should be fully accepted as a part of the human identity is not, finally, to triumph over rationalist optimism; it is to concede defeat to it. For what we cannot but observe is that, although Swift saw himself as battling against the rationalist spirit of the Enlightenment, one of the basic assumptions of Swiftian psychology is itself rooted in a form of Enlightenment optimism. Swift assumes that a full acknowledgement of the ‘sinful’ elements of the identity can be made in spite of the emotional factors which militate against this; he implicitly assumes that this can be done through the power of human reason. Swift’s works contain their own refutation of this view. His satire, for all the psychological insights it contains, is frequently both corrosive and bitter. His opposition to rationalism becomes at times an uncontrolled rage. In this raging hatred we cannot but see a form of that very projection against which he implicitly warns.


The possibility which Swift could not entertain was that the ills which he divined in eighteenth-century rationalism derived not from a rejection of Christianity but from a profound internalisation of its doctrines. For the contemporary trend towards the denial of the doctrine of Original Sin, which disturbed both Swift and Wesley so deeply, was in one sense a direct psychological consequence of the ‘success’ of that very doctrine. It suggested that, among some deeply ascetic intellectuals, a sense of the loathsomeness of the human body and its appetites had become so acute that the only psychologically viable reaction was to ‘disconnect’ the body altogether and take refuge in dreams of the rational, scientific or military domination of nature. It is ironic that, in satirising these dreams of power, Swift consistently offers as an ‘objective’ religious truth the very degrading self-image which is their psychological source.


The confusion which we find at the heart of Swift’s psychology is not essentially different from that which is also present in psychoanalysis. For Freud, no less than Swift, assumes that it is possible for us to reconcile ourselves, through the power of human reason, to a self-image which is, in emotional terms, abhorrent and degrading. Just as the impossible nature of such a demand is reflected in Swift’s corrosive satire, which is frequently directed against his own implicit universalism, so Freud’s universalism frequently founders on the same kind of anxieties. The most valuable aspect of psychoanalysis is to be found in the way that it, like traditional expositions of the doctrine of Original Sin, forces back into our consciousness elements of our identity which we would prefer to conceal, and in this way points to a human predicament which is universal. Freud himself could on occasions be remarkably tolerant and generous, even in relation to homosexuality, which he found personally distasteful. In a letter which he wrote to the mother of a homosexual, Freud offered reassurance:


Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respected individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest among them (Plato, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, etc.). It is a great injustice to persecute homosexuality as a crime – and a cruelty, too.[26]


The generosity and the considerable moral courage which Freud shows here were very real features of his character. He always refused to submit to bullying by those whom he saw as self-righteous moralists and many of his patients undoubtedly benefited from his relatively liberal stance on matters of sexual morality. But, like countless more traditional prophetic figures, Freud’s capacity for emotional generosity was enclosed within a harshly demanding moral vision of his own. As a result, the positive universalism which is discernible in psychoanalysis is again and again overpowered by the tendency of psychoanalysis to reject or implicitly condemn aspects of human sexuality – or indeed whole categories of men and women.


According to traditional Christian doctrines (which have been widely repudiated by modern theologians) those who refuse to accept the cleansing baptism of Christ are liable to eternal damnation and are frequently seen by Christians of an apocalyptic turn of mind as ‘children of the Devil’ or followers of Satan. Psychoanalysis, it need scarcely be said, possesses no article of doctrine which corresponds to the Last Judgement. Nevertheless Freud himself frequently endorsed just the kind of sheep-and-goats habit of mind which underlies Judaeo-Christian eschatology. He tended to divide human beings into those he considered susceptible to psychoanalytic therapy and those who were not – who were in effect ‘beyond redemption’. The people who could be helped by psychoanalysis were seen as morally significant – worthy of keeping company with Freud himself. Most people, however, did not belong to this category of psychoanalytic worthiness and were regarded quite differently. Writing about another homosexual, Freud said that ‘in the most unfavourable cases, one ships such people ... across the ocean with some money, let’s say to South America, and there let them seek and find their destiny.’[27] At another point, in a letter to Lou Andreas-Salomé, Freud even made the explicit confession that one of his own worst qualities was ‘a certain indifference to the world ... In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless.’[28] In a letter to his friend and follower, the Protestant minister Oskar Pfister, he amplified this view:


I do not break my head very much about good and evil, but I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or none at all ... If we are to talk of ethics, I subscribe to a high ideal from which most of the human beings I have come across depart most lamentably.[29]


Much earlier in his career Freud made clear that his sympathy for patients, never conspicuously strong, was restricted to a very narrow range. ‘I cannot imagine bringing myself,’ he wrote, ‘to delve into the psychical mechanism of a hysteria in anyone who struck me as low-minded and repellent, and who, on closer acquaintance, would not be capable of arousing human sympathy ...’[30]


If such passages as these point towards the existence of an implicit Freudian demonology, this impression is reinforced elsewhere in Freud’s writings where, again and again, we may discern a tendency to project what Freud would regard as negative human characteristics onto specific categories of people. Freud’s moralism is frequently disguised by his habit of translating moral categories into clinical labels – rather in the same way that he objectified his distaste for homosexuality by characterising it as a developmental anomaly. But once we recognise that Freud’s clinical labels – such as ‘anal-erotic’ – tend to have a hidden moral content, the pattern of psychoanalytic demonology begins to become clear.


In Christian demonology the devil has traditionally been portrayed as a bestial creature who is lecherous, sadistic, and a lover of excrement. Medieval tradition associated Jews with the devil and the Christian stereotype of the Jew corresponded closely to the portrayal of the devil, who was also seen as a kind of pedantic infernal treasurer, hoarding in the infernal regions stockpiles of gold.[31] If we regard psychoanalysis as a disguised continuation of our religious tradition, we will not be surprised to find that a configuration of diabolic character-traits is used to define the concept of the ‘anal character’. Freud represents the ‘anal character’ by the image of a man who, like the devil, is given to hoarding, sadism and pedantry, and who, like the devil, is a secret lover of excrement. We will also not be surprised to find that the concept of the ‘anal character’ has frequently been used by psychoanalysts to launch bitter attacks against individuals, or against entire cultures. There is, admittedly, a difference between an intolerant Christian calling Hindus ‘heathen savages in to Satan’ and a psychoanalyst finding the anal-erotism of the Hindus confirmed by their concern with ritual impurity, their irritability, hypochondria, miserliness, pettiness, proneness to bore and obstinacy, and writing that ‘the anal erotism of the Hindu produces a congeries of character traits which are the very antithesis to those of Europeans, especially the English.’ This was the position adopted by Owen Berkley-Hill in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1921.[32] There is, admittedly, a difference between calling Jonathan Swift a ‘diabolical monster’ and claiming, as one psychoanalyst has done, that ‘Swift was a neurotic who exhibited psychosexual infantilism, with a particular showing of coprophilia, associated with misogyny, misanthropy, mysophilia and mysophobia.’ This is what Ben Karpman wrote in the Psychoanalytic Review in 1942.[33]


There is, admittedly, a difference between calling Hitler ‘an agent of Satan’ and arguing that he embodied an extreme type of the anal-hoarding character, and that he displayed all the characteristics of ‘a withdrawn, extremely narcissistic, unrelated, undisciplined, sado-masochistic, and necrophilous person’. This is what Erich Fromm argued in 1977, in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.[34] There are, admittedly, differences. But those differences are largely matters of terminology. Today we are more likely to accept the kind of ‘scientific’ language used by Erich Fromm than we are to give serious attention to talk about angels and demons. Yet the concerns remain recognisably the same. When Fromm seeks to persuade us that Hitler was a pure ‘necrophile’, whereas Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer and Pope John XXIII were pure ‘biophiles’, he talks in the language of modern scientific neologism. Yet his naive desire to divide the world into good and evil evidently springs directly from Judaeo-Christian apocalyptic. In this respect Fromm is only grotesquely exaggerating a tendency which is fundamental to classical psychoanalysis and which was originated by Freud himself – the psychoanalytic habit of inventing or exaggerating differences between human beings – differences between ‘moderns’ and ‘savages’, between the mature personality and the ‘neurotic’, between men and women.


Throughout all the centuries of Christian history there has functioned what the French historian Léon Poliakov has called ‘that terrible mechanism of projection that consists in attributing to the loathed people of God one’s own blasphemous desires and unconscious corruption.’[35] The millennial movements of the Middle Ages, the Great European Witchhunt, modern anti-semitism and Stalin’s purges have all alike been marked by collective fantasies in which groups identifying themselves as the ‘pure’ have sought to annihilate entire classes of human beings imagined as ‘evil’ or ‘unclean’.[36] Yet if we turn to psychoanalysis in order to gain insight into the fundamental process of demonological projection which has scarred the face of Christian history, what we find is nothing other than a less destructive version of the same process. Psychoanalysis does not only project men’s feelings of inadequacy onto women, and the anxieties and obscene impulses of the normal personality onto ‘neurotics’, it also, perhaps most significantly of all, projects adult impulses and desires onto children.


According to Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality and the associated concepts of fixation and regression, all of the darker and most destructive aspects of adult human behaviour originate in the earliest stages of the child’s natural development and represent eruptions of childhood energies and instincts into adult life. This attitude to childhood is perhaps encapsulated most clearly in a passage in Freud’s Introductory Lectures where he actually uses the term ‘evil’ in order to characterise the mental life of children. As soon as we recognise that ‘what is unconscious in mental life is also what is infantile,’ Freud writes, ‘the strange impression of there being so much evil in people begins to diminish’:


This frightful evil is simply the initial, primitive, infantile part of mental life, which we can find in actual operation in children, but which, in part, we overlook in them on account of their small size, and which in part we do not take seriously since we do not expect any high ethical standard from children.[37]


By such arguments as this an abstract ideal is created in which the ‘normal’, ‘well-adjusted’ or ‘healthy’ adult is portrayed as relatively free of conflict, tension, anxiety, inner rage and violence. In contrast the unregenerate child is portrayed, either implicitly or explicitly, as seething inwardly with sexual perversion and sadistic rage. To use Erik Erikson’s approving description, Freud’s theories present a view of the ‘infantile organism’ as ‘a powerhouse of sexual and aggressive energies’.[38]


The process of projection by which all manner of ‘badness’ is attributed to children is fundamental not only to Freud’s own theories, but to almost all later adaptations of them. The emphasis which Melanie Klein places on the supposed existence of an intense and violent fantasy-life during the child’s first years makes Kleinian theory into one of the clearest expressions of this tendency. Klein has no hesitation in attributing to normal children desires to lacerate the mother’s breasts or body and to suck or bite off the father’s penis. Klein maintains that in all normal children ‘urethral and anal sadism’ are added to aggressive biting in order to produce what she calls ‘the stage of maximum sadism’:



© Richard Webster, 2002


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