Freud’s Masterplotting

Section 1
The Beyonds of Freud’s Case Work: From Ontogenetic to Phylogenetic

2. Primal Phantasies: Freud as the Archeologist of the Mind

This third, what Freud called primal phantasies, complicates such categories as memory, fantasy, observation, reality, among others, by introducing a Lamarckian phylogenetic foundation to psychic reality. If we read Freud’s first answer to the conundrum of the status of the Wolf Man’s primal scene–"it is impossible that [the primal scene] can be anything else than the reproduction of a reality experienced in childhood"–with respect to the phylogenetic third answer, "reality" can be read as a phylogenetic reality, though the experience of it in childhood would itself be a reproduction. In the second answer–"we cannot dispense with the assumption that the child observed a copulation"–"observation" could be construed as a part of the recalling of a phylogenetic "memory," an internal observation of sorts. If we assume the centrality of the third, Freud’s logic no longer appears to be necessarily of the kettle sort. With the centrality of this third we have another dimension to our answer of "both" to Rand and Torok’s question, "Is what patients say about their childhood experiences true or false?" Material might be true or false ontogenetically, and be the opposite phylogenetically. Perhaps we should read the phylogenetic/ontogenetic split as what constitutes the split of the Freudian "subject" after the Wolf Man case.

Despite Freud’s persistent and intense rhetoric regarding the objective and external reality of the event observed by the Wolf Man at age one and a half, we can now understand why he might consider this issue unimportant in 1918:

I should myself be glad to know whether the primal scene in my present patient’s case was a phantasy or a real experience; but, taking other similar cases into account, I must admit that the answer to this question is not in fact a matter of very great importance. (XVII 97)
Of course, it is important if we are trying to establish an etiology, an origin of neurosis: again, as a fantasy the primal scene could hardly constitute a pathogen since it would be universal. It seems, however, that Freud–despite the fact that he is writing a case study–is at this point moving away from grounding his theories on etiologies of neurosis and toward a more grand masterplotting.

Freud’s reliance on this third–one that can be made to seem that it ties it all together and thus allows Freud to avoid the criticism of kettle logic–and his confusing undifferentiated use of "reality," "truth," and "experience" with respect to ontogeny and/or phylogeny help us to understand Freud’s non-abandonment of "seduction" as an element to his etiology of neurosis in the Wolf Man case, which is another issue for Rand and Torok. Freud needs a pathogen specific to the case. In "The Aetiology of Hysteria," after trying to allay his audience’s doubts about the reality of the sexual scenes of "seduction" Freud supposedly reconstructed with his so-called hysterical patients, he added the following footnote in 1924: "All this is true; but it must be remembered that at the time I wrote it I had not yet freed myself from my overvaluation of reality and my low valuation of phantasy" (III 204). To "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense" he added a similar footnote in 1924:

This section [on the "specific aetiology of hysteria"] is dominated by an error which I have since repeatedly acknowledged and corrected. At the time I was not yet able to distinguish between my patients’ phantasies about their childhood years and their real recollections. As a result, I attributed to the aetiological factor of seduction a significance and universality which it does not possess. When this error had been overcome, it became possible to obtain an insight into the spontaneous manifestations of the sexuality of children which I described in my Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). Nevertheless, we need not reject everything written in the text above. Seduction retains a certain aetiological importance, and even to-day I think some of these psychological comments are to the point. (III 168)
"All this" about the "seduction" theory is "true" except, according to Freud, the misappropriation of the scenes to the category of ontogenetic memory. But how can "all this be true" if "seduction" goes from being what disrupts normal development to a universal fantasy? In other words, how can "seduction" as a fantasy be the etiology of a neurosis if it is a universal fantasy? According to Freud’s "logic," "seduction" "retains a certain aetiological importance" with respect to phylogenetic phantasy-memory. And we find that "seduction" is one of the three primal phantasies, the others being the primal scene and castration. But how can the primal phantasies constitute the origin of an etiology of neurosis if they are at the center of normal development, if they are universal?

What we find, despite Freud’s twisted "logic" employed in an attempt to create continuity between the "seduction" theory and oedipal psychoanalysis, is that a radical reevaluation of everything claimed within these "seduction"-theory essays is needed. No specific origin, and therefore no specific etiology, can be gained from them since everything that is attributed to ontogenetic reality, experience, or truth after 1918 should be reconceptualized in phylogenetic terms. Freud’s rhetoric in his notes to the "seduction" theory essays is similar to that of his Wolf Man case, where he is so insistent on the ontogenetic reality of the "reconstructed" events that it seems that, if he is not convincing, the example and the theory won’t hold itself together–and then, in a blasé manner, he argues that it is not important that the event occurred after all.

What is consistently important for Freud up to this point is the origin of his etiology, which, during the war, he had decided were the primal phantasies. This origin, however, combines (conflates) material and psychic reality, normal and neurotic, and grounds psychic reality and Freud’s privileged form of truth in phylogeny.

All that we find in the prehistory of neuroses is that a child catches hold of this phylogenetic experience where his own experience fails him. He fills in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth; he replaces occurrences in his own life by occurrences in the life of his ancestors. (XVII 98, my italics)
Gaps in individual "truth" would only be created when individual experience strays from phylogenetic experience-truth-reality. We find evidence in the passage above that Freud does not wish to distinguish between reality, truth, and even experience. Furthermore, the agency given to the subject here–"He fills in …" and "he replaces …"–is misleading since "prehistoric truth" would always already be there, always already constitute the narrative structure and meaning, and the individual would certainly be passive with respect to this narrative and the symbolism determined by its transcendental meaning. Certainly this subversion of the ontogenetic subject to a phylogenetic "subject" or "other" would constitute "the Freudian breakthrough" for some.

When discussing in 1938 the importance of the mother as the first object of the child, Freud would argue:

In all this the phylogenetic foundation has so much the upper hand over personal accidental experience that it makes no difference whether a child has really sucked at the breast or has been brought up on the bottle and never enjoyed the tenderness of a mother’s care. In both cases the child’s development takes the same path.… (XXIII 188-89, my italics)
This passage has special significance with respect to four issues, only two of which concern us at present. The first of the two that will concern us only later is the issue of what constitutes the "original experience of satisfaction" that establishes the ontogenetic primary process and the corresponding pleasure principle, and whether chance could ever play a role in this ontogenetic moment of origin. The second of these two is the significance of ontogenetic experience and chance in general: "personal accidental experience."

The first issue I want to address presently concerns the importance of the ontogenetic reality and the chance events that were a part of the Wolf Man’s specific primal scene for the coherence of this case history. We are reminded that the Wolf Man’s primal scene included coitus a tergo in order for him to develop his various fantasies of his parents’ and sexuality’s relationship to castration, and the intricacies of his (and Freud’s) scatological fantasies, which were supposedly confirmed by the Wolf Man’s "transitory symptoms" of farting during session (XVII 80). The infant Wolf Man, Freud concludes, defecated while he watched his parents’ coitous a tergo, which gave him an excuse to scream and interrupt what he saw. When Freud protects himself from criticism by adding, "It would make no difference to the story as a whole if this demonstration had not occurred, or if it had been taken from a later period and inserted into the course of the scene" (XVII 80-1), I wonder if the Wolf Man might have taken a shit while watching the dogs, or how such an insertion would work. I also wonder how Freud might account for his scatological associations phylogenetically, which, of course, he could do since "Man’s" primaeval experience amply provides such material. But this accounting could never square with his appeals to the ontogenetic experiences of the Wolf Man, the requirement of any case study to establish an etiology that accounts for the specifics of that case, and that accounts for what is pathogenic. Regardless, many of the intricacies of Freud’s interpretation are left ambiguous with respect to their phylogenetic or ontogenetic status, which, it seems, is what Freud wants–that is, it is an important aspect of his rhetorical strategy. What remains clear is that Freud’s interpretative leaping room is greatly increased by the shell games he plays with the categories of ontogenetic, phylogenetic, phylo-"genetic," and the associated categories of truth, reality, and experience.

The second issue of interest here concerns the date of the quotation above: 1938. I refer to this date in order to dispute the common claims of the psychoanalytic orthodoxy who would like to believe that Freud’s phylogenetic theorizing, what Peter Gay calls Freud’s "Lamarckian fantasy" (Gay88 368), was short lived, primarily a product of the war years, and ultimately not important to psychoanalysis and its legacy (its transmissibility as a school of thought, as Rand would say). Despite the centrality of phylogeny in psychoanalytic theory after 1913, the psychoanalytic orthodoxy has consistently marginalized phyolegeny. Its centrality is evidenced by the necessity of such theories for Freud’s theories and claims to achieve some semblance of coherence (which certainly helps with transmissibility), and the importance of these types of theories in such major works by Freud such as Totem and Taboo (1912-13), Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), The Future of an Illusion (1927), and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The position that it was just a passing fancy of Freud during the war years is supported by occasional claims of Freud himself discounting the importance of phylogeny, which suggest that he was ambivalent at times with respect to his dependence on such theories. For example, Freud writes in the Wolf Man case,

I am aware that expression has been given in many quarters to thoughts like these, which emphasize the hereditary, phylogenetically acquired factor in mental life. In fact, I am of opinion that people have been far too ready to find room for them and ascribe importance to them in psycho-analysis. (XVII 121)
We find here, if not another candidate for kettle logic, a clear example of Freudian legerdemain. Freud seems to be referring to Jung here, and in an exasperating and bizarre case of active forgetting, seems to repress the fact that the coherence of this very case relies on what Freud posited as an "unquestionable" "inherited endowment, a phylogenetic heritage" (XVII 97), an endowment of memory-fantasy that supposedly made it immaterial whether the Wolf Man witnessed the primal scene at age one and a half or not. More poignantly, Freud was forgetting the importance he attributed to Totem and Taboo as a grounding of the universality of the Oedipus complex in the primal horde’s relation to practices of exogamy and to the killing of the primal father. A year or so after writing the passage above from the Wolf Man case, Freud wrote the following passage in his Introductory Lectures, which seem to express his conviction, or at least the part of him that was convinced, that the "phylogenetically acquired factor in mental life" was actually of crucial importance:
The only impression we gain is that these events of childhood are somehow demanded as a necessity, that they are among the essential elements of a neurosis. If they have occurred in reality, so much to the good; but if they have been withheld by reality, they are put together from hints and supplemented by phantasy. The outcome is the same, and up to the present we have not succeeded in pointing to any difference in the consequences, whether phantasy or reality has had the greater share in these events of childhood.… I believe these primal phantasies, which I should like to call them, and doubt a few others as well, are a phylogenetic endowment. In them the individual reaches beyond his own experience into primaeval experience at points where his own experience has been too rudimentary. It seems to me quite possible that all the things that are told to us to-day in analysis as phantasy–the seduction of children, the inflaming of sexual excitement by observing parental intercourse, the threat of castration (or rather castration itself)–were once real occurrences in the primaeval times of the human family, and that children in their phantasies are simply filling in the gaps in individual truth with prehistoric truth. (XVI 370-71)
It seems that Freud was the only one allowed to appeal to phylogeny. And, again, among numerous other repeated themes, we see here the conflation of ontological and phylogenetic experience, reality, and truth. We also find here how Freud makes these phantasies the origin of neurosis and then contradicts the possibility that they could ever differentiate the normal and the neurotic by making them universal endowments.

Despite the importance Freud gives the primal phantasies and phylogeny from 1913 to the end of his life in 1939, these concepts and themes are hardly discussed by either Ernest Jones or Peter Gay, two of Freud’s most read biographers. Gay alludes to Freud’s attempt to "plot the succession of neuroses onto a corresponding historical--or rather, prehistorical--sequence" (Gay88 368), an allusion to Freud’s 1915 letter to Sándor Ferenczi, but Gay’s treatment suggests that it is a passing fancy of merely peripheral significance. Gay makes the mistake of lumping all of Freud’s Lamarckian and phylo-"genetic" theories into one group and then dismissing them as insignificant, and concludes that "while it lasted, Freud’s phylogenetic fantasy at once elated and disturbed him" (ibid.). In a footnote, Gay writes:

During the war, as he told Abraham, he toyed with the possibility of enlisting Lamarck in the psychoanalytic cause by demonstrating Lamarck’s idea of "need" to be nothing other than the "power of unconscious ideas over one’s own body, of which we see remnants in hysteria, in short, ‘the omnipotence of thought’" (Freud to Abraham, November 11, 1917). (Gay88 368)
What Gay misses is that Freud did not have to make an announcement of enlisting Lamarck because he had already done so, as evidenced by Totem and Taboo, among the other central works mentioned above. Gay blinds himself to the crucial importance of this recurring theme of phylogeny in Freud’s work between 1913 and 1939. This blindness also seems to be endemic to the psychoanalytic orthodoxy, Freud’s legacy.

In Freud: Biologist of the Mind: Beyond the Psychoanalytic Legend, Frank Sulloway provides a corrective to the blindness of the orthodoxy. He argues that Freud’s Lamarckian foundational theories were a crucial aspect of his thought since the mid-1890s (364-65), and to his general and published theories after Totem and Taboo. In Sulloway’s chapter, "Evolutionary Biology Resolves Freud’s Three Problems," he argues this by showing how Freud, through his unique take on phylogeny, was able to resolve what Sulloway believes were the three problems which had proved so recalcitrant in the mid-1890s: "the nature of pathological repression, Why sex?, and the choice of neurosis" (367). Sulloway argues that between 1895 and 1905, the year of the Three Essays, Freud makes a "shift from proximate-causal theory to ultimate-causal theory" (365), the former’s concern being ontogenetic and specific, the latter’s phylogenetic and universal. Etiology-based theory would be proximate-causal, whereas metapsychologies and masterplots would be ultimate-causal. Sulloway sees the Project as Freud’s abortive attempt to provide a proximate-causal explanation of brain functioning and suggests that it was because of its proximate-causal limitations, and not its attempt to ground his theories biologically, that Freud gave it up. I would argue that the Project represents Freud’s first attempt at an ultimate-causal theory, a psuedo-biological metapsychology. Freud’s theories of hysteria, including those found in the Project, would be more representative of his proximate-causal work. In general, Freud was always more drawn to ultimate-causal theory: even his case work was used to ground his ultimate-causal theory, sometimes at the expense of his own proximate-causal claims, as with the Wolf Man.

Sulloway sees Freud as a "biologist of the mind" and finds his evolutionary and ultimate-causal theories as an attempt to provide a much needed "universal theory of human behavior" (367). Of course, I find such totalizing attempts of grand theorizing to be anathema to my attempt at achieving a Levinasian ethic of not reducing the Other to more of the Same. Furthermore, "Lamarckian fantasies" should not be associated with "evolutionary biology" as Sulloway argues, but with mythopoetic and social psychological history-archeology: I put "genetic" in quotes because his primal phantasies are outside of any time, idealistic. I will try to show below that Freud was more the mythopoetic "archeologist of the mind" or the oddly Lamarckian "Platonist of the mind." With respect to the question of the role phylogeny played in Freud’s theorizing, I am in partial agreement with Sulloway, who argues that,

In short, phylogeny was Freud’s final answer to many of the difficulties that threatened to undermine his most basic psychoanalytic claims. From the problem of attributing neurosis to phantasies instead of to real events, to the issue of just how universal were the psychosexual stages and neurotic complexes that Freud espoused, phylogenetic suppositions played a paramount role in legitimating his science of the mind. (388)
Of course, "attributing neurosis to phantasies" may have helped Freud avoid the problems of chance, the criticism that suggestion had played a role in his analyses, but it also creates another problem: whence the neurosis? Freud’s ultimate-causal solution does not work for significant proximate-causal problems such as "the nature of pathological repression, Why sex?, and the choice of neurosis" (Sul92 367). That Freud believed his "phylogenetic suppositions played a paramount role in ligitimating his [supposed] science of the mind" should be obvious by the importance he gave the books he wrote on the subject, from Totem and Taboo to Civilization and Its Discontents. Sulloway recounts how Freud tellingly responded to Fritz Wittels’ critical biography of Freud of 1924, where Wittels argues that Freud’s various caputa Nili–seduction, threats of castration, the witnessing of primal scenes–are in reality far too infrequent to support Freud’s claims of their universality: "Duly inscribed by Freud in the margin of his personal copy of this book is his confident handwritten retort ‘und die Phylogenese?’ (‘and what of phylogeny?’)" (Sul92 386).

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Copyright 2000 by Eric W. Anders