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by William H. Benson

May 6, 2004

     Born May 6, 1856, Sigmund Freud was the medical doctor of Jewish descent in Vienna, Austria who sought to understand the riddle of how and why the human mind worked as it did.  His ideas are today dismissed by most of the general public as well as many of the psychologists who chime in together and say that Freud’s “psychoanalysis is itself the illness of which it purports to be the cure,” considering it little more than a modern form of ancient shamanism, mere speculation, not even hypothesis, useless as medical science.

     In some regards Freud’s critics may be right, but “throwing him out will not get rid of him, because he is inside us.”  Freud is inescapable in that his terminology—such as repression, narcissism, Freudian slips, and the Oedipal complex—pervade modern ways of thinking.

     If he is now appreciated at all, it is by the literary critics who recognize him for what they say he truly was—a brilliant essayist, a master of exposition, and an unsurpassed persuader who had a very good prose style and whose works are very readable today.  These critics understand that his powerful mythology and his metaphors supersede what little science he created.

     Consider the universe of Freud’s inventions: the unconscious, the libido or the drive, the psychic functions of the id and the ego and the superego, the defense mechanisms of repression and regression and projection, and the consequences of a derailed infantile development.  Together these mental tools gave rise to Freud’s claim to his own science, that of psychoanalysis.      He had a portrait of men and women as insatiable beings who are pushed and pulled by unrespectable and unconscious inner drives and desires, and it was by psychoanalysis that he wished to determine those drives.  His map of the mind placed the unconscious in the central role which then created an inescapable inner and very recognizable human conflict.

     When one thinks of Sigmund Freud, one sees a bald head, a well-trimmed beard, a suit and a tie, a notepad and pen, a cigar, a chair, and above all else a couch.  Few people in humankind’s history had devoted their very life to listening to people’s stories of their memories of their infancy and childhood and of their dreams, all while they reclined on that couch.  Freud would offer some leading question, and then in free association they would talk while he took notes.

     His schedule was tight.  From 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. he would listen to patients, each for 55 minutes with a five minute break between.  Then, after lunch and a walk he would again meet patients beginning at 3:00 p.m. and work until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.  In other words, he would see eleven or twelve people every day, each for an hour, and he would do so six days a week.

     And he held to that schedule for four plus decades, gathering an immense number of human stories from which he then worked out his theories.  Freud’s originality remains so impressive mainly because it rested upon so much serious and determined and dedicated hard work.

     And he did not stop with just psychology, but in a daring venture argued that psychoanalysis is universal and that it should be expanded and applied to every aspect of human culture: to the arts, literature, biography, mythology, religion, politics, education, the law, history, and even prehistory.  Whether one can and should do so is debatable.

     His most original and profound work is The Interpretation of Dreams in which he suggested that “fulfillment of a hidden wish” is the essence of a dream.  He noted that normal human dreams that happen when asleep display a striking resemblance to the hallucinations that the psychotics described to him.  He said that even though dreams often appear to be quite senseless, “dreams contain the psychology of the neuroses in a nutshell.”

     By boring deep into people’s dreams, Freud believed that he was tapping into the unconscious.  Indeed, it was those dreams that provided a secure basis for his theory that humans possess an unconscious.

     In early June of 1938 at the urging of his friends and even though he did not fully believe in the German Nazi threat, Freud and his family fled Vienna for London where he resumed his practice. But then that steady stream of cigars took their toll, and there in London on September 23, 1939 he passed away.