Sigmund Freud and the other Klein

All this study in psychotherapy is humdinging fantastic.

I don’t remember being so completely absorbed in anything since I discovered Buddhism 10 years ago when I couldn’t stop reading and gravitating to that subject in my mind.

The study of how we come to be is endlessly fascinating to me.

How a lump of cells and blood is launched in to an environment that constantly tunes and develops that lump’s way of responding to the world. Everything I read naturally applies to me as a human – because everything I read is about how I might have become the way I am.

Among the million and one interesting things that have struck me in the last month or so is the idea of Freud and society. Sue Gerhardt‘s brilliant book pointed it out to me but other people have suggested it along the way.

Freud (like Marx) was writing at the apogee of the Industrial Revolution. People across Europe were being turned into appendages of machines, working long hours at looms and mills, forbidden to talk to one another, forbidden to emote. The rationalist view of the world had come to a cruel pinnacle. Emotions were messy – they got in the way of productivity.

Freud came along in the 1890s and started to suggest that actually our emotions were much more central to the project of society than society had cared to accept. In fact our primitive desires, our drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain, were the motive force of almost all our social actions. Nonetheless, Freud still thought that free-flowing emotions were a menace to society – at best they should sublimated into art or poetry or some such social lubricant.

Freud’s (revolutionary) exploration of the emotions was picked up by capitalism (especially in the USA in the first half of the 20th century) and seen in just this way: how can we solve those pesky emotions and convert them into something culturally useful and, most importantly, stop them being something that gets in the way of efficient production.

It was only in the last half of the 20th century that capitalism saw a new angle.

If desire was the motor of life – and drove every human being from cradle to grave – then why not cultivate desire like crazy – but make sure it’s desire for cars, clothes, films, lifestyles and my little ponies? Suddenly Freud was not a bandaid for annoyingly neurotic workers but instead the inspiration for a zillion ad campaigns.

But actually Freud was wrong. Our drives are not satisfied willy-nilly. It’s not like our libido is a massive body of water that dams up if blocked and overwhelmingly seeks for release. Libido is not like electicity. What we desire is linked to a specific object. Psychotherpists like Winnicot, Bowlby, Sullivan and Erikson all realised that we have drives to connect – not simply drives to eat or drink or ejaculate. It matters very much who we love.

And what does this mean for us in the 21st century driven wild by a million billboards telling us where to direct our desires?

It leaves us frustrated. If our drives were blind and didn’t care where they discharged then a Big Mac or a prostitute or a shiney new car would be just fine to satisfy our desires. It wouldn’t matter how we discharged only that we did.

But if, as research shows, that we have a drive to connect to satisfying objects (the mother, the milk-laden breast, the emotionally attuned caregiver) then attaching to all these hollow substitutes will drive us crazy.

We’re constantly being goaded into phoney satisfactions because Freud didn’t follow through. He was beginning to move towards the idea of object-attached drives when he died but his followers clung to the pure drive theory for a long time. Long enough for Madison Avenue to pick it up to sell jeans.

“Your desires must be satisfied – so why not satisfy them with some white underwear (with Marky Mark inside, just to sex up the carrot)?,” the ad men say. But 50 years of that is now wearing thin. If desire for meaningful nourishment is consistently thwarted, eventually the human being starves to death.


  1. Cyril Schumann

    April 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    I seem to remember Jung writing in his autobiography,
    of a very well dressed patient of his who he
    {very badly paraphrasing the case here} understood
    was misdirecting a powerful spiritual urge into
    material goods and physical appearance and was
    suffering a sort of psychosis as a result.

  2. vind

    April 28, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Hi Alistair,

    Nice essay! I agree with your comment, “It’s not like
    our libido is a massive body of water that dams up if
    blocked and overwhelmingly seeks for release. Libido
    is not like electricity. What we desire is linked
    to a specific object.”

    I was watching a show on a local news channel and a
    high profile prostitute was being interviewed and it
    was very interesting she said most men in very high
    business positions would pay her extra, a lot extra
    for her to tell them what to do. Not because they were
    into S&M or had a fetish it was because of their
    position at work they were expected to figure things
    out for people and make the best judgments for
    them including at home which was exhausting. For these
    men the desire to be told what to do and not having
    any expectations is what led them to this prostitute.

    Psychology is fascinating.

  3. David

    April 28, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    But don’t get too seduced by them. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis is only another way of looking at the human condition and the truth is no more out there in therapy land than anywhere else. Remember too that our understanding of the mind and body was still in its infancy when Freud was practicing in Vienna. Indeed, examine many of his famous cases and it’s only too easy to see the missed diagnoses, e.g. meningeal tuberculosis. Freud had his weaknesses – cocaine addiction being one of them – but probity wasn’t exactly high on the agenda in those days. I remember being referred a patient labelled by an eminent psychotherapist as having severe psychopathic disorder; the reality was that he had a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, but this therapist’s blinkered, non-medical training obscured the truth and almost with devastating consequences. So, Alistair, enjoy your journey through psychotherapy space, but don’t get too seduced… unless it’s by Marky Mark, of course.

  4. Courtney

    April 29, 2009 at 6:57 am

    As amazing and intricate as psychotherapy & the entire
    field of psychology is, always keep yourself planted
    in the real world, because one can get lost in any one
    study or field or historical figure. There was so much
    that Freud and his contemporaries missed in all of their
    studies and writings that is now amazing. Yet with the
    field being in it’s infancy, it’s not surprising. Continue
    to study and learn, but always keep yourself planted in
    the here and now….learn from that time, but don’t get
    lost, no matter how easy it may seem to do so….

  5. Poorna

    April 29, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Your writings are always vivid and full of life and
    energy & this is no exception. Connection with others
    at a level that is personally meaningful & satisfying
    is so crucially important to our sense of wellbeing
    and this cosumerist society where shopping is king, so
    deeply unsatisfying.
    I haven’t made a comment on your blog before, but have
    been dipping in and out of them for a few months now
    as much of what you write about strikes a chord
    somewhere or other!It’s kind of interesting to follow
    the journey of someone you don’t know – or at least
    aspects of the journey. So thanks for sharing as they
    say & keep it up!

  6. heikkie

    April 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    Remember to love the face you see in the mirror and move on to Jung!

  7. Valerie W.

    May 4, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    I can’t comment yet I’m still thinking. But yes strip
    away all the superficial crap and that is the basis of
    our lives.

  8. lori

    May 11, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Oh, you just drove us thru a crash-course of Ego Psychology
    and led off into Attachment theory and Object Relations!!

    Dual-instinct theory is not wrong, but the third drive is
    attachment, so yeah, the sexual aim is NOT independent of the object.
    But mind you, Freud dealt with neurotic cases, so all his theory pretty much
    meshes with them, not the rest of humankind. There is a seductiont that happens
    with his ideas, as someone said, which is what the capitalist machine quickly picked
    up and abused. Lucky, we have a different way of thinking now.

  9. Brent

    May 18, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Does this desire for connection help explain why the growth of social networking
    sites is far greater than that of online retailers? Although we are still very
    much a consumer culture, it seems that our priority (online, at least) is to
    communicate with each other and exchange information, not goods. Hope for
    the future?

    Also, your new promos for “Cash in the Attic” are very cute. Well done!

  10. Pete

    May 28, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    Let’s be flippant – the CK pants sported by the hunky
    Marky M are damn comfortable and you can’t get them

  11. Cary

    July 3, 2009 at 3:23 am

    Hello Alistair.
    Thanks so much for posting a riveting read!
    I agree with your sentiments.
    I also am currently exploring hypnotherapy.
    Actually connecting with the unconscious takes it all to a new level!
    Continue to be inspired. It’s wonderful. Evolution of consciousness pivots on it.

  12. Robert

    August 23, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    You are right of course that lack of meaningful nourishment leads to the starvation of the mind and spirit. Unfortunately, in this era of instant gratification too many of us are looking for the quick fix-the half hour with Dr. Phil that will magically cure a lifetime worth of pain and self-destructive behavior. To truly change self-destructive behavior requires hard work on the part of the patient and the therapist. Also to examine the underlying cause of these needs which drive us to sabotage ourselves both personally and professionally. Only by being willing to confront ourselves-will we be able to truly change. Was it Socrates who said”the unexamined life is not worth living?”

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