Freedom and domination in Freud’s Victorian world

Sigmund Freud, as conveyed in his seminal work Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, was convinced that the bourgeois families of his era were developing illnesses that were psychological and caused by the very repression that was considered moral and valued in his time. He concluded that European society itself was what was making these people sick. Here the dyad of freedom and domination becomes relevant, as not only was European society itself inflicting disease unto its people but the historically specific social norms prevalent in this society cause these people to repress their innermost desires themselves, inflicting these diseases unto themselves. But would the freedom of understanding these repressions free one from their grasp or only further tie them down to the prevalent societal values?

A patient of Dr. von Hug-Hellmuth was a “woman of fifty, who has no other thoughts day and night but worry about her child” (168). She describes a dream she has to him that she continues to have in which she dreams of “love services” (168) in war. She finds it disgusting and stupid that a woman of her age continues to have these dreams. On the contrary, it is not stupid that she has this repeating dream; the informant of this story remarks that for a psycho-analyst it needs no interpreting. To be as obvious as possible, though, Freud lays bare its meaning in his book. He speaks of its “inevitable interpretation” (175) and that the lady knew of this interpretation and so deliberately mumbled the most objectionable passages of the dream, as to make them unintelligible. He then clarifies that the “dream of our fifty-year-old lady, too, was incestous; her libido was unmistakably directed to her son” (175-176). The wild ego, which becomes fully freed from inhibitions in dreams, chose a forbidden sexual desire (libido), which was the lady’s son.

Here we return to our theme of freedom and domination. A psycho-analyst did not even need to tell the lady what she dreamt of, and presumably she was so unwilling to discuss its implications that the doctor did not bring it up again. She was apparently freed by the knowledge of understanding why she kept having that dream (her subsconscious incestous desires), but society’s dominating power over her proved too strong. Having a powerful libido at the age of fifty for a woman at that time was already unacceptable, so incest was beyond merely mentioning in conversation or even thinking about. This domination of social norms proved so powerful that it came from within her in the form of repression. The gaps of the dream, whether in her mumbling or in her remembrance of them, was a sort of dream censorship that came from her own repression. This repression would manifest itself as an illness in Freud’s own patients.

One would think that the freedom of knowledge (understanding the reason for this repeating dream) would be enough to cure society’s domination of her behavior, but in fact all this revelation did was make her aware of the unacceptability of her own behavior, making her double-down on her repression. Incest has never been widely accepted, and in the Victorian era it was more condemned than ever before (at least in bourgeois circles, as the paradox of the era’s increase in prostitution is not to be dealt with here). “Oedipus complexes” continue to be referenced today, but mostly as a joke or as a premise to a movie than as an actual desire one has that that person should seriously consider acting upon.

Domination by a relative that is hinted at as sexual becomes the basis of comedy in Woody Allen’s neurotic Oedipus Wrecks

The freedom of this knowledge only gives us an understanding of this societally-unacceptable-libido/regression and having this desire without acting on it creates a conflict and, after being rejected by the ego as it was by this woman here, a neurosis, which would manifest itself as a neurotic symptom. The lady ostensibly could have given into this regression by having her ego accept it, turning it into a perversion. But then, in order to have this regression not conflict with her ego, she would have to tell her son about her feelings, which a lady of her character and really any person in this era was incapable of doing. Hence why the knowledge of understanding this domination does not mean anything without acceptance and why having this knowledge still causes one to be dominated not only by society’s social norms but also those of them that you have internalized and are using yourself to repress your subconscious.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho is a fascinating declaration that “we all go a little mad sometimes,” arriving at the not-very-Freudian conclusion that acting on our perversions will lead to murder (but is still a great film nonetheless)

2 thoughts on “Freedom and domination in Freud’s Victorian world

  1. I think it is very interesting that you decided to address the usefulness of knowledge and whether or not it is able to free the individual from their symptoms. I agree that knowledge about the origin of whatever symptom alone is not powerful enough to overrides society’s conditioning of the individual. But I wonder if a knowledge of not only the conditions of the individual’s personal experiences and traumas, but of other people’s similar situations would be powerful enough? I’m not talking about society’s acceptance of ‘perverse’ sexual desires, but just knowledge that their is a community in the same or similar position. I wonder if the knowledge of that specific collective would have the power to free the individual from the social pressures restraining their desires?


  2. I think its interesting how you center on the idea of whether having knowledge of our unconscious thoughts bring us to freedom, but I think there is a problem in where you use the term “rejection”, as in “The freedom of this knowledge only gives us an understanding of this societally-unacceptable-libido/regression and having this desire without acting on it creates a conflict and, after being rejected by the ego as it was by this woman here, a neurosis, which would manifest itself as a neurotic symptom.” Rejection for Freud, as I understand it, is very different from repression. Rejection is a conscious action that a person takes when something is thought through consciously while repression is what happens when something is not allowed to enter the consciousness by the ego. Rejection is the expulsion of mental impulses, but repression by the ego is forcing the mental impulse to be redirected somewhere else. I think the use of language is probably important here to understanding freedom and domination.


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