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Sigmund Freud

Desire and rivalry flow

Desire and rivalry flow both ways in Freud – from children to parents, but also from parents to children. Psychoanalysis suggests that we never really grow up, we never completely leave those childhood urges behind. They exist in the unconscious and return to haunt us in neurotic illnesses, in dreams, in our various sexual preferences. Freud’s repeated conclusions in Three Essays on Sexuality is that the developmental narrative he tells, and its movement towards adult ‘normal’ sexuality, is a very difficult path for the child to negotiate successfully. Because children enter the world as polymorphously perverse creatures, having drives, needs and wants which can be satisfied and frustrated in a huge variety of ways, it is difficult to see how all these multitudinous desires inevitably get channelled in the same narrow direction – towards adult procreative heterosexuality. The very definition of normal becomes shaky in the Three Essays because the perverse, that which swerves from the norm, is no less likely to happen than anything else. Reading the Three Essays one begins to see why Freud’s complicated ‘normal’ narrative of developing sexuality through the proper stages of the Oedipus complex is rarely achieved. Who you love, who you hate, who you fear and who you identify with as a child switches around – it is not written in stone. The Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, along with The Interpretation of Dreams, contain the bedrock of Freud’s theories. These were the two books he updated constantly during his lifetime. They outline his theory of neurosis and explore the crucial area of libidinal drives. The Three Essays cover the sexual aberrations, infantile sexuality and puberty. PERVERSIONS Freud begins with the idea of the sexual perversions as pathological, and proceeds to confront his readers with the reasoning behind all the variety of sexual practices that were then considered abnormal, such as fetishism, homosexuality and voyeurism. Freud defines perversions in the following way: ‘Perversions are sexual activities which either (a) extend, in an anatomical sense, beyond the regions of the body that are designed for sexual union, or (b) linger over the intermediate relations to the sexual object which should normally be traversed rapidly on the path to the final sexual aim’ (Freud 1905b: 62). The final sexual aim, in this definition, is genital intercourse; the assumption is that sex is primarily defined by that which leads towards reproduction. Through his explanations Freud goes on to overturn the conventional societal perspective on perversion, which defined perversion as any form of sexual act which did not lead to copulation. He pointed out that the goals of pleasure and procreation do not coincide – sexuality is much more to us than the guarantor of the reproduction of the human race. The human reproductive function is, in a sense, overwhelmed by the emotions we attach to the realm of sex. In the first section of the Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud extended the range of the perversions, to make it impossible not to recognise that every sexual relation included some form of perversion – some form of sexual congress which was not strictly in the service of procreation. Freud describes a kiss in such a way as to point out its essential perversity: ‘the kiss, one particular contact of this kind, between the mucous membrane of the lips of the two people concerned, is held in high sexual esteem among many nations (including the most highly civilised

ones), in spite of the fact that the parts of the body involved do not form part of the sexual apparatus but constitute the entrance to the digestive tract’ (Freud 1905b: 62). Describing a kiss as consisting of contact between mucous membranes, and pointing out its proximity to the digestive tract, exemplifies one of Freud’s cleverest rhetorical techniques in the Three Essays. By showing the proximity between behaviour that society defines as normal and abnormal sexuality he indicates the multitude of ways in which the two categories can shade into each other. Freud outlines his three central points about the unstable relation between desire and procreative sexuality in his late explanatory work, An Outline of Psychoanalysis: (a) Sexual life does not begin only at puberty, but starts with plain manifestations soon after birth. (b) It is necessary to distinguish sharply between the concepts of ‘sexual’ and ‘genital’. The former is the wider concept and includes many activities that have nothing to do with the genitals. (c) Sexual life includes the function of obtaining pleasure from zones of the body – a function which is subsequently brought into the service of reproduction. The two functions often fail to coincide completely. (Freud 1938:383) Infancy brings with it, from Freud’s observation, a fascination with sexuality and the baby’s own genitals. This can continue approximately up to the age of five, after which the child enters a period of latency, in which the sexual drive is not as obvious or active, until puberty. The early period of life inevitably falls victim to infantile amnesia – a universal forgetting of everything that happened during our childhood, often up to the age of six or seven. According to Freud, children, like neurotics, repress memories to cover up sexual knowledge. ‘Can it be, after all, that infantile amnesia, too, is to be brought into relation with the sexual impulses of childhood?’ Freud asks (Freud 1905b: 89). Infantile amnesia, according to Freud, conceals from the child the beginning stages of his own sexual life. Psychoanalysis centrally concerns itself with unearthing these early experiences, emotions and desires. As we saw in the last chapter, psychoanalysis attempts to cure by freeing this repressed knowledge, so that it can be used and understood. Amnesia, which Freud claims accompanies all of us about our early sexual lives, is also found in neurotics who repress and forget things they should know about their own desires. Babies are, in a sense, often healthier than adults, because they act on their erotic wishes rather than repressing and inhibiting them. Our first infantile erotic satisfactions are oral – the baby early learns to experience the world by putting what he can in his mouth, hoping that whatever it is will give him the same satisfaction that the breast once did. Freud names this erotic hunger for the world the oral stage. Much infantile activity, such as thumb-sucking, represents this stage of development, when the child hopes to attain its pleasure from the world by putting everything it can into its mouth. The next erotogenic zone that the child discovers as he explores his own body is the anus. The anal stage emerges from the pleasure the child takes in his excretory functions. Anal pleasure comes initially for the child from emptying his or her bowels; the bowel movement is often viewed (by both parents and child) as the child’s first gift to the parents. Anyone who has ever watched parents doggedly pursuing their child’s potty training knows the kind of attention every bowel movement can come in for. It is not surprising that what the child takes into his body and what he expels from it become so central to the child’s growing image of himself, for these very issues occupy the parents as they watch over the child’s growth. The holding back and expulsion are related to issues of control, orderliness and neatness later in life. The anal personality, as we

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