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Hoses of the Holy in the Parallel Universe

May 22, 2006

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad..."

I've been thinking about paradigm shifts. I spent some time this weekend looking through some of my old research. For my PhD thesis, I did some work on Thomas Kuhn. And before that, for my MA, I did some work on Freud's abandonment of his Seduction Theory in 1896 which led directly to Freudian psychoanalysis as we know it. And I related that to The X Files. Otherwise, it wouldn't quite be me, would it?

I was interested in Kuhn, because he argued that so-called paradigm shifts (like the so-called Copernican Revolution) do not, in fact, happen overnight. It can take years and years (hundreds of years, in the case of Copernicus) of things not adding up for people to wake up to a new way of looking at the world/universe.

Kuhn argues, for example, that for Einsteinian physics to be right, Newtonian physics have to be wrong. And yet, people still behave - most of the time - as if they live in a Newtonian Universe, and not an Einsteinian one. This played into my hands, thesis wise, because I was writing about the way people tend to see double. For example, they will continue to be shocked by an event, even when all the things leading up to that event have been exposed, so that it comes to seem - not shocking - but inevitable. I called it, for want of a better phrase, the eventhood of the event, persisting in the same ways that old local gods can persist, even when superseded by a new, all-conquering religion.

The interesting thing about Freud was that - until 1896 - he had a lot of patients (18 in total) who were neurotic because - it seemed - they had been sexually abused.

Now, these days it's generally accepted that sexual abuse (by parents, step-parents, responsible adults and other carers) is depressingly common. In other words, what fucks you up is real trauma and real abuse by real people. Freud accepted this, and called it Seduction Theory. And we know, from contemporary writings, that it goes back to the ancient Greeks. Lots of those old speeches and rhetorical flourishes were designed to seduce little boys (see The Phaedrus, for example).

Anyway, Freud changed his mind, and instead invented the Unconscious, fantasies, and the Oedipus Complex. Conveniently for him, these new theories found general acceptance, whereas Seduction Theory was violently opposed. Why did he change his mind? Funny story.

Emma Eckstein was a patient of Freud who suffered from severe menstrual pain and difficulty with walking. Freud encouraged his friend Wilhelm Fleiss (an ear, nose and throat doctor), to operate on her nose to remove some of the bone. Such an operation was based on Fleiss’ conviction that the nose was intimately connected with the genitals, and that ‘sexual’ neuroses could be ‘cured’ by such an operation. Things went horribly wrong, with infection and severe hæmorrhaging going on for several months afterwards. At one point, another doctor discovered to his evident disgust that Fleiss had ‘inadvertently’ left a length of gauze in Eckstein’s nasal cavity. The result of this unfortunate case was that Freud, unwilling to jeopardise his intimate friendship with Fleiss, started to blame Eckstein’s symptoms on her hysterical nature: she hæmorrhaged, not because of an incompetent and unnecessary surgery, but because she had certain ‘longings’; she bled because she was a ‘bleeder’.

This case was crucial in Freud’s abandonment of Seduction Theory. He made an absolute U-turn in his attitude towards Emma not because of any change in her condition, nor even because he had learned anything new, but because he wanted to massage the ego of his friend. In order to make the case that Emma’s symptoms were caused by her unconscious longings towards her doctor convincing, the doctor had to reassess all his other cases. The neat trick Freud pulled off was in convincing Emma that it was all her own fault, and she continued to trust and rely upon him.

In other words Freudian psychoanalysis was built on a lie - a U-turn adopted in order to save face. Freud's neurotic patients, he went on to say, were neurotic because they had sexual desires for their parents, and had built fantasies around these sexual desires (iin which their parents abused them) which were making them neurotic.

Amazing, isn't it?

And yet a lot of people still behave as if they lived, as it were, in a Freudian universe.


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