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Sigmund Freud

unconscious. That

unconscious. That Freud sounds like the Oedipus who is sure of what he’s looking for. But, as we know, that Oedipus was mistaken. He was not as good a reader as he thought he was. The other Freud recognises that knowledge is always partial and subject to blind spots; he sees that we cannot separate our emotional attachments from our knowledge of the world – that there is no such thing as an absolutely objective perspective on ourselves. That Freud sees that passionate transferences of childhood emotions affect every relation to knowledge. At the end of Sophocles’ play, when Oedipus blinds himself, he does so in part because he discovers that he was already blind: blind to his own guilty desires. Self-knowledge, for Freud the end-goal of interpretation, turns out to hinge on the realm of sexuality – uncovering the early frustrated passions for the first and most important figures in the baby’s early life, the parents.

THREE ESSAYS ON THE THEORY OF SEXUALITY (1905) Throughout the earlier part of his career Freud, perhaps surprisingly, managed to make the differences between male and female unimportant to his theory of sexuality. In the psychoanalytic theory of infantile sexuality there is no real distinction between what girls and boys want – these distinctions do not develop properly until puberty. What is important, however, is the difference between what Freud calls the masculine or active principle and the feminine or passive principle. Freud assumes that all libido – all sexual drive – is fundamentally active, and therefore masculine. But Freud also found that young children, in the process of discovering their sexuality, took up different positions at different times – sometimes they imagined themselves as active, and sometimes they imagined themselves as passive. Femininity and masculinity were seen as movable positions rather than fixed identities. Each man or woman had aspects of their personality that were masculine and feminine. Freud’s ground-breaking articles, the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality of 1905, expand on these concepts of activity and passivity to open up a host of possible positions for the desiring infant. In the Three Essays sexual desire is not so much structured along bisexual lines – a struggle between masculine and feminine, or active and passive desires – as structured by polysexuality – the possibility of having varied desires and objects of those desires. In the Three Essays Freud distinguishes between the sexual object (the person or thing who is the object of sexual attachment) and the sexual aim (the sexual activity one imagines involving that person or thing). He suggested that the sexual object and the sexual aim are only loosely and contingently bound together – we can see this by looking at the free-ranging sexuality of young children. There is no natural, biological law which guarantees that desire will be heterosexual and procreative. Instead, sexual development is a process of multiple desires becoming disciplined and, in a sense, narrowed. The Oedipus complex can be seen as the story Freud creates about growing up and taming these radical and multiple desires. If the Oedipus complex is universal, it guarantees that desire is channelled into the one socially acceptable direction; the boy initially for the mother and then for a (female) substitute for the mother; the girl initially for the father and then for a (male) substitute for the father. One goal of Freud’s sexual theories is to expose the continuities between sexual and non-sexual love, between the love of the child for the parent and the later loves, sexual activities and sexual perversions which recall this relationship. Conversely, Freud also suggests, the love the mother feels for the child can also be seen as continuous with sexual desire: A mother’s love for the infant she suckles and cares for is something far more profound than her later affection for the growing child. It is in the nature of a completely satisfying love-relation, which not only fulfils every mental wish but also every physical need; and if it represents one of the forms of attainable human happiness, that is in no little measure due to the possibility it offers of satisfying, without reproach, wishful impulses which have long been repressed and which must be called perverse. In the happiest young marriage the father is aware that the baby, especially if he is a baby son, has become his rival, and this is the starting-point of an antagonism towards the favourite which is deeply rooted in the unconscious. (Freud 1910b: 209–10)

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