As I’m preparing my conference presentation which I’ve briefly discussed here, I’ve been reading some early papers by Freud. I especially enjoyed “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” (1908). I found Freud’s observations very prescient and provocative. In this paper he discusses how society’s regressive attitude about sexuality contributed to the high rates of neurosis in both men and women. Freud is critical of the value society placed on abstinence, believing that the amount of energy it required was certain to deplete the individual’s capacity to fully exert himself in other arenas. He argues that men who are abstinent before marriage ultimately do a disservice to themselves and their future wives because it renders them weakling who have irreparably damaged their libido. Freud goes on to claim that women are often promised that marriage will finally satisfy their sexual desires, when, in reality, it will certainly prove to be disappointing and unsatisfying. Freud criticizes those doctors who encouraged “nervous” women to get married, because Freud noted that “the cure for nervous illness arising from marriage would be marital unfaithfulness”. Due to societal repression of their sexual instincts (along with great moralistic coercion), women are forced to find “seek refuge in neurosis” and remain in their hapless marriages. Interesting stuff.
What intrigued me about this paper was that Freud raises larger questions about society and condemns cherished institutions and norms given that they are responsible for individual pathology. Eric Fromm also discussed how society can often have socially patterned defects and that adaptation to a pathological society should not be seen as healthy. Fromm argued quite persuasively that adaptation and conformity to the social order might be a sign of individual pathology. Surprisingly, social adaptation has been upheld as healthy in many psychoanalytic camps as the gold standard for “mental health” especially in the United States (think of Hartmann’s fixation on adaptation and Sullivan’s emphasis on consensual validation). Also, in my clinical experience, I’ve found that many clinicians are liable to label non-normative beliefs and skepticism of major institutions (e.g. marriage) as defenses rather than adult convictions.
Lacan likewise detested these analysts who upheld adaptation and conformity as the aim of psychoanalysis. Of course, for us clinicians in the trenches, things are not always so simple. Psychoanalytic clinicians also uphold neutrality (not taking side in the patient’s conflicts) and abstain from suggestion. Kernberg has written about how analytic neutrality has often served as a mask to obscure the analyst’s prejudices and ideology. My paper will move in the direction of stressing how Lacan’s understanding of the unconscious and desire necessarily require an analysis of the social order.
I think that the rules have to change radically when working with individuals who are suffering from psychosis but that’s another conversation. I’ve never really had much sympathy with the anti-psychiatry movement…