Questioning Freud

The two questions from my presentation both involved analyzing Freud’s work:

  1. How valid are Freud’s theories of the castration complex and child primary narcissism today?
  2. Do you agree with Freud’s view that suppressed desires cause hysteria given Nathaneal’s case from The Sandman?

In “The Uncanny” Freud picks apart Hoffman’s short story “The Sandman” along with many other texts, as well as his own personal experiences in order to define what exactly the “uncanny” is. He comes to the conclusion that it is not “intellectual uncertainty”, but actually “the class of frightening things that leads us back to what is known and familiar”, or the return of the repressed.

In analyzing Hoffman’s short, he claims it brings the feeling of uncanny because of its ties to repressed infantile desires. He says the act of losing our eyes is subconsciously related to our castration complex as children. The problem here is he doesn’t give much information how exactly these two things, fear of losing your eyes and genitalia, can be interchangeable. He also says the recurring theme of doubles in the story are uncanny because they indirectly remind us of our primary narcissism we had as children. Contrary to Freud, I have a hard time believing children participate in primary narcissism because they are afraid on some level of their mortality. I don’t believe small children have a strong enough grasp of the concept of death itself to begin fretting their own deaths, even subconsciously. Also, the example given in lecture of a child referring to themselves in the third person as evidence of primary narcissism is problematic. Children don’t call themselves by their first name because they wish to project multiple versions of themselves and become immortal, but simply because children don’t learn how to use pronouns before learning how names work.

It’s these little problems and ambiguity in Freud’s writings that caused me to question his credibility, especially given the case of Nathanael in “The Sandman”. While there are many instances of traumatic events in Nathaneal’s past coming back to haunt him in adult life (his spying on Coppelius and his father’s death), it is difficult to find any evidence of repressed desires that Freud believes is central to many cases of hysteria, not unlike the Nathaneal’s case. Towards the end of the story, he begins repeating phrases and acting without self-control. While this may be his repressed memories from his childhood (repressed because we never see what happens- just afterwards when Nathanael wakes up), I don’t believe he has repressed desires.

One thought on “Questioning Freud”

  1. I agree with you in many respects here. I, too, wonder about Freud’s point about primary narcissism in children being a result of the fear of death. Children could be said to double themselves in some sense, especially if we think about it in terms of imaginary friends like we discussed in seminar, but in my experience raising a child he didn’t have a real understanding of death until he was around 5, if I remember correctly. And even then I’m not sure he really got it. I think that’s later than what Freud is talking about.

    And yeah, I don’t think there’s nearly enough in the text to tie the fear of losing one’s eyes to the fear of castration!

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