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Sigmund Freud: Libido

from Program Two


Freud's developing theories on sexual desire cause controversy among his peers.

Narrator: In the first decade of the 20th century, Viennese society was all gaiety and glitter. This is how they wanted to be seen. But day after day in his practice, Sigmund Freud saw the other side of Vienna: people who were deeply unhappy — and who did not know why.

Harold P. Blum: Freud showed that humans are not masters in their own house, that to some degree we are ruled in an unruly way by unconscious forces outside of our awareness.

Freud: Psychoanalysis has taught us that our intellect is a feeble thing, a tool of our instincts, and that we are all compelled to behave cleverly or stupidly by the commands of our emotional attitudes.

Peter Neubauer: For him, unconscious life is a dynamic life, is the repository of our experiences, of our wishes, of our needs, which have been repressed, which couldn't be acted upon. And he said there's nothing more important in his work than to say, I opened up a new territory of man's existence — namely his unconsciousness. It is important, it is large, it influences everything we do.

Freud: What is more natural than that we should persist in looking for happiness along the path on which we first encountered it? Sexual love has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness.

Narrator: In 1905 Freud wrote a series of essays on sexuality. He stated plainly that sex — or the libido — drives our desires and impulses, whether we know it or not. And that this drive is formed early in childhood. Viennese society was scandalized.

Sander Gilman: He's accused of being a pornographer from day one. The accusation is that he's obsessed with sex. Maybe the problem that Freud has is that he should've chosen another word, rather than sexuality. Sex for Freud is what we are as human beings. It is not simply genital sex. It's what underlies all relationships. But what he says is the drives are the ones, the underlying — can we say, amorphous unshaped drives, are those things which, in a sense, morph into various forms of relationships. As an individual, we relate to other people, to our care-givers when we're infants, to our spouses. At the base of who we are as a human being is, in point of fact, the sexual drive.

Freud: We psychoanalysts are unable to see anything forbidden or sinful in sexual satisfaction. But it must be said to believe that psychoanalysis seeks a cure for neurotic disorders by giving a free reign to sexuality is a serious misunderstanding, which can only be excused by ignorance.

Narrator: But Freud's theories were misunderstood. What most incensed the public was that Freud claimed that sexuality began at birth, not puberty. He was accused of violating the innocence of childhood.

Neubauer: When he spoke about infantile sexuality at the beginning, he spoke about genitality step by step in our development as the sexual component. Later on in life he does not just speak about the body component pleasures and their impact on us, but he spoke about sexuality as an overall component which connects us together with affection and with the capacity to love.

Freud: The making conscious of repressed sexual desires in analysis makes it possible to obtain a mastery over them. It can be said that analysis sets the neurotic free from the chains of his sexuality.

Neubauer: When Freud says science wants to achieve that we are free of suffering and that we are slowly learning to love thy neighbor, to be social, this is a condition which is difficult for us to achieve. So happiness is not something which is our aim. What he really said very often is we want to be in a state of comfort, but we don't achieve it, but we want to be.

Narrator: Although he was called a sexual libertine, in his private life, Freud was a typical straight-laced member of the middle class. He had six children with his wife, Martha, and found true pleasure in family life.

Blum: He was a typical paterfamilias. I think he took great pride and pleasure in his children, he said of his children, "They're my pride and my treasure."

Freud: We are living rather happily and steadily growing if modestly. The two boys Martin and Ernst are naughty and funny. Our Sophie is now becoming so beautiful.

Narrator: When he was not seeing patients, Freud taught and developed his theories about people's deepest conflicts and fundamental needs. What he wrote about happiness was a definition of his own happiness.

Freud: One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from sources of physical and intellectual work such as the artist's joy in creating or a scientist's in solving problems or discovering truths.

Bond: Freud would say that human beings have always been internally conflicted, and the internal conflict is between insatiable desires and prohibitions that are absolutely necessary for society to continue, and this leaves us in a state of unease, a state of dissatisfaction, and often in a state of wretched pain. And so rather than to look for another mythological intervention, that we need to accept our condition as it is, that we're perpetually conflicted, and then with the help of what he called the talking cure, we can change this wretchedness into ordinary unhappiness.