Monday, March 17, 2008

The Unconscious 4

While we certainly cannot credit Freud with discovering the notion of the unconscious we can for sure acknowledge that he was the first to give it professional attention from a medical point of view and with underlining its important role in how we as humans act, react and behave.  The history of the unconscious goes back a long way indeed - a lot of the ancients were aware of the power of dreams which they would have seen primarily as visitations from the divine realm.  Freud would see such obviously as messages from the personal unconscious of the individual and Carl Gustave Jung as images aplenty from the personal unconscious and indeed archetypes from what he was to term the collective unconscious.

I have already alluded to the fact that Freud looked upon the unconscious as a pathology or as Anthony Storr so crudely puts it as a veritable "cess pit" containing all our repressed wishes and desires.  Perhaps Storr is a little too acerbic and not a little too exaggerative in this contention.  Be that as it may, we owe a lot to Freud as I have outlined in my opening paragraph. Freud was indeed contentious and courageously so.  Most of his theories were nothing short of provocative and he had to deal with much opposition in his professional and scholarly life.  All his theories, while they could be called speculative in the extreme, he endeavoured to root in "scientific" observation.  Here, I have no intention of going into Freud's firmly held conviction that he was a scientist and not a speculative theorist.  That is for another post.  I feel that Freud's understanding of what a science is differs markedly from what modern scientists might mean by the term.

However, Freud was a brilliant doctor and a no less brilliant psychiatrist who did provide a foundation upon which all psychoanalysis has been built.  We can only kick away the foundation at our peril.

Now I wish to explore another metaphorical attempt that Freud made at describing the human psyche.  [If scholars refer to Freud's theory of the three layers as his topographical model of the mind and to his notions of id, ego and superego as being his structural model of the same thing, then the follwing description I will call Freud's imaginal model at describing the psyche] Freud saw, as we have outlined previously, that consciousness was a small part (roughly 10%) of our mental life.  One of the images or metaphors he used to describe this phenomenon was that of a very large Entrance Hall (the Unconscious) where loads of mental activity is going on, but only some of this mental activity manages to get into the Smaller Parlour or Drawing Room ( where the Consciousness resides).  Now, there is, according to Freud, a Watchman on the door leading to this small room and he keeps out all those unwanted thoughts and feelings.  Once again Dr Kahn expresses this better than I, and he is worth quoting in full by way of conclusion to this post:

He [Freud] portrayed the unconscious as a large entrance hall filled with mental images, all trying to get into a small drawing room into which the entrance hall opens.  In that drawing room resides consciousness, with whom the impulses are hoping for an audience.  In the doorway between the entrance hall and the drawing room stands a watchman, whose job is to interview each impulse seeking admission and decide if that impulse is acceptable.  If it is not, the watchman turns it away, and it must remain in the entrance hall of unconsciousness.  If an unacceptable impulse gets just past the threshold, the watchman will evict it and push it back into the entrance hall.  The impulses that are turned back in this fashion are repressed. Once an impulse has gained admission to the drawing room, it still is not conscious until it has caught the eye of consciousness.  Such impulses, those in the drawing room but not yet seen by consciousness, are the preconscious.  The watchman who ejects, that is represses, unacceptable impulses is the same watchman who turns up as resistance when the analyst sets out to lift the repression for the liberation of the patient.  (Michael Kahn, Basic Freud, 18-19)

Above the cold, cold Atlantic. Once again taken at Deplhi a week or so ago!

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