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Sigmund Freud: Human Mythology

from Program One


Freud turns to humanity's archaic past to explain the longing for an "exalted father."

Narrator: Freud called religion an illusion. For over 30 years, he developed this idea in his enormous body of work. His first major book, The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, a book for the new century.

Freud: I completed the dream book. I was once again intoxicated with a hope that a step toward freedom and well-being had been taken.

Sander Gilman: The book flops. It falls on its head in a way that is unbelievable, because the medical scholars read this and say, "Nothing to do with medicine." The popular reception is virtually zero. Freud is desperate.

Freud: Not a leaf stirred to reveal that The Interpretation of Dreams had any impact on anyone. Understanding was meager; praise was doled out like alms.

Gilman: It takes an enormous amount of time to sell the first hundred copies of the book. But based on that book, Freud is now taken seriously in a sub-group in medicine and in culture in Vienna.

Narrator: A group of followers — Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, Otto Rank — gathered around Freud and his work. The group gave themselves the name The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Within 20 years, there were dozens like it throughout the world.

Ismar Schorsch: The essence of psychoanalysis, of Freud's creation, is interpretation. Reading symbols. Understanding stories. It's this interpretive thrust, which I've always felt is so Jewish in Freud. Judaism is an interpretive religion and psychoanalysis is an intellectual discourse which turns on interpretation.

Narrator: From his work in The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud began to see that mythology reflected human history and human psychology too. On his desk, there was a collection of statues, heads, busts, figurines. Ancient objects that had been dug up.

Gilman: Freud imagined himself as the archaeologist of the soul. And so, one of the things that he does is to think about this notion of the psyche as having levels, as being equivalent to the levels that the archaeologist digs through. But he also understood that those levels represented different civilizations, different stages of development of civilization. Religion is something that Freud sees as something that has to do with the archaic past of human beings. And these objects, these beautiful aesthetic objects, are also ritual objects.

Gilbert Bond: He identifies in the language of religion and mythology, terms that can be appropriated for scientific use. He retools pre-Christian Greek stories and sees them as oracles to the inner workings of humankind and then arranges a scientific approach to understanding that phenomena within the structures of rationality.

Freud: Religions owe their compulsive power to reawakened memories of very ancient, forgotten, highly emotional episodes of human history.

Blum: I think that Freud decided because of his analysis of myth that many of the myths were in common. The myths about paradise, about expulsion from paradise, about immortality, about resurrection or rebirth, could be found in so many different societies and cultures and in ancient cultures, that it made him think about how similar they were to many of the beliefs in current religions like Judaism and like the different branches of Christianity.

Gilman: Freud tells the story of being brought to a church and being sort of overwhelmed by the spectacle. He tells this as an adult about a childhood memory. He tells other stories about the nanny also, about the seductive power of the nanny, in terms of her belief, her piety. These stories Freud tells to talk about the pitfalls of religion. He doesn't like religious practice, so he says, "only a child would've been suckered by these candles and this incense."

Narrator: Later in his life, Freud would bring all his thinking on religion together in the book, The Future of an Illusion.

Freud: Religion is the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity. Like the obsessional neurosis of children, it arose out of the Oedipus Complex, out of the relation to the father. Our God, reason, will fulfill whichever of our wishes nature outside us loves.

Ana-Maria Rizzuto: Freud claimed religion is an illusion but our science is not an illusion. Darwin had shown us that we descend from monkeys, that Copernicus had said we are not the center of the universe, and Freud was saying "come down from your heights, human beings, you are not as great as you think you are. You have to save yourself from your delusions. You're full of sexuality, you're full of hatred and lust and envy. Face yourself. I am going to save you from those delusions."