Critical Concepts

some examples of simile, metaphor, parable as expository techniques

"The Horse of Schilda"

and a couple of additional analogies Freud employs
for explaining various ideas connected with the concept of repression

In 1909, Sigmund Freud came to the United States to give a series of five lectures on the origin and development of psychoanalysis at Clark University.  (This would turn out to be the only visit Freud ever made to the western hemisphere.)  These lectures are a model of clear exposition of the nature of Freud's theory and the process of observation and reasoning through which it was arrived at up to that time.  In his final lecture, Freud discussed the conditions of social life (and especially in complex civilizations) that introduce psychological repression into the individual personality.  And towards the end of that lecture, he turned to the question of what might be alternatives to repression.  The passage is the conclusion of the last lecture.  It is worth attention in our course for two reasons:  first, because of the importance in modern literature of the general notion of unconscious motivation, and second, because of Freud's artful use of comparison in explaining his ideas.  I have highlighted a simile, a metaphor, and a little story Freud exploits as an analogy to explain the unhealthiness of too intense a combination of sublimation and repression.  Pay special attention to the final two paragraphs, in which Freud turns a traditional piece of German-Jewish humor into a parable for his closing point. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, from the intellectual point of view we must, I think, take into account two special obstacles to recognizing psycho-analytic trains of thought. In the first place, people are unaccustomed to reckoning with a strict and universal application of determinism to mental life; and in the second place, they are ignorant of the peculiarities which distinguish unconscious mental processes from the conscious ones that are familiar to us. One of the most widespread resistances to psycho-analytic work, in the sick and healthy alike, can be traced to the second of these two factors. People are afraid of doing harm by psycho-analysis; they are afraid of bringing the repressed sexual instincts into the patient's consciousness, as though that involved a danger of their overwhelming his higher ethical trends and of their robbing him of his cultural acquisitions. People notice that the patient has sore spots in his mind, but shrink from touching them for fear of increasing his sufferings. We can accept this analogy. It is no doubt kinder not to touch diseased spots if it can do nothing else but cause pain. But, as we know, a surgeon does not refrain from examining and handling a focus of disease, if he is intending to take active measures which he believes will lead to a permanent cure. No one thinks of blaming him for the inevitable suffering caused by the examination or for the reactions to the operation, if only it gains its end and the patient achieves a lasting recovery as a result of the temporary worsening of his state. The case is similar with psycho-analysis. It may make the same claims as surgery:  the increase in suffering which it causes the patient during treatment in incomparably less than what a surgeon causes, and is quite negligible in proportion to the severity of the underlying ailment. On the other hand, the final outcome that is so much dreaded -- the destruction of the patient's cultural character by the instincts which have been set freed from repression -- is totally impossible. For alarm on this score takes no account of what our experiences have taught us with certainty -- namely that the mental and somatic [physical, bodily] power of a wishful impulse, when once its repression has failed, is far stronger if it is unconscious than if it is conscious; so that to make it conscious can only be to weaken it. An unconscious wish cannot be influenced and it is independent of any contrary tendencies, whereas a conscious one is inhibited by whatever else is conscious and opposed to it. This the work of psycho-analysis puts itself at the orders of precisely the highest and most valuable cultural trends, as a better substitute for the unsuccessful repression.

What, then, becomes of the unconscious wishes which have been set free by psycho-analysis? along what paths do we succeed in making them harmless to the subject's life? There are several such paths. The most frequent outcome is that, while the work is actually going on, theses wishes are destroyed by the rational mental activity of the better impulses that are opposed to them. Repression is replaced by a condemning judgment carried out along the best lines. That is possible because wheat we have to get rid of is to a great extent only the consequences arising from earlier stages of the ego's development. The subject only succeeded in the past in repressing the unserviceable instinct because he himself was at that time still imperfectly organized and feeble. In his present-day maturity and strength, he will perhaps be able to master what is hostile to him with complete success.

A second outcome of the work of psycho-analysis is that it then becomes possible for the unconscious instincts revealed by it to be employed for the useful purposes which they would have found earlier if development had not been interrupted. For the extirpation of the infantile wishful impulses is by no means the ideal aim of development. Owing to their repression, neurotics have sacrifices many sources of mental energy whose contributions would have been of great value in the formation of their character and in their activity in life. We know of a far more expedient process of development, called "sublimation', in which the energy of the infantile wishful impulses is not cut off but remains ready for use -- the unserviceable aim of the various impulses being replaced by one that is higher, and perhaps no longer sexual. It happens to be precisely the components of the sexual instinct that are specially marked by a capacity of this kind for sublimation, for exchanging their sexual aim for another one which is comparatively remote and socially valuable. It is probable that we owe our highest cultural successes to the contributions of energy made in this way to our mental functions. Premature repression makes the sublimation of the repressed instinct impossible; when the repression is lifted, the path to sublimation becomes free once more.

We must not omit to consider the third of the possible outcomes of the work of psycho-analysis. A certain portion of the repressed libidinal impulses has a claim to direct satisfaction and ought to find it in life. Our civilized standards make life too difficult for the majority of human organizations [constitutions]. Those standards consequently encourage the retreat from reality and the generating of neuroses, without achieving any surplus of cultural gain by this excess of sexual repression. We ought not to exalt ourselves so high as completely to neglect what was originally animal in our nature. Nor should we forget the the satisfaction of the individual's happiness cannot be erased from among the aims of our civilization. The plasticity of the components of sexuality, shown by their capacity for sublimation, may indeed offer a great temptation to strive for still greater cultural achievements by still further sublimation. But, just as we do not count on our machines converting more than a certain fraction of the heat consumed into useful mechanical work, we ought not to seek to alienate the whole amount of the energy of the sexual instinct from its proper ends. We cannot succeed in doing so; and if the restriction upon sexuality were to be carried too far it would inevitably bring with it all the evils of soil-exhaustion.

It may be that you for your part will regard the warning with which I close as an exaggeration. I shall only venture on an indirect picture of my conviction by telling you an old story and leaving you to make what use you like of it. German literature is familiar with a little town called Schilda, to whose inhabitants clever tricks of every possible sort are attributed. The citizens of Schilda, so we are told, possessed a horse with whose feats of strength they were highly pleased and against which they had only one objection -- that it consumed such a large quantity of expensive oats. They determined to break it of this bad habit very gently by reducing its ration by a few stalks every day, till they had accustomed it to complete abstinence. For a time things went excellently:  the horse was weaned to the point of eating only one stalk a day, and on the succeeding day it was at length to work without any oats at all. On the morning of that day the spiteful animal was found dead; and the citizens of Schilda could not make out what it had died of.

We should be inclined to think that the horse was starved and that no work at all could be expected of an animal without a certain modicum of oats.

Test your understanding:  (1) What does the horse stand for, in Freud's use of the story?  (2) What do oats stand for?  (3) What does eating oats stand for?  (4) What does the work the horse does stand for?  (5) What does the weaning of the horse from oats stand for?  (6) What does the fate of the horse stand for?  (7) What does the response of the citizens of Schilda stand for?

  Check out Freud's analogy for explaining the key concepts that make up his theory of the mindconsciousness, censorship, repression, the unconscious, the return of the repressed, and the expressions of the latter (which can range from jokes to parapraxes ["slips" of the tongue, bunglings, etc.] to the experienced content of nonsensical dreams to neurotic symptoms, and more).

  Work through some examples of confusion (category errors) touching the concept of repression.

  Even if one believes in the existence of an unconscious resulting from motivated repression, the concept of self-deception per se is more general than this.  Since it is a quite prevalent factor in human affairs, and since so many interesting -- and sometimes disastrous -- behaviors result from it, it has exercised the attention of philosohers and of psychologists outside the psychoanalytic tradition -- and, of course, of fiction writers, poets and dramatists.

  Go to the Index of the Glossary of Critical Terms.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

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      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 22 August 2004.