Booknotes: Five Lectures in Psycho-Analysis

In the few weeks since discussing Darwin, my Intellectual History class has moved through Nietzsche and Fin-de-siecle Vienna and arrived at Sigmund Freud.

I imagine there are few Women's/Gender Studies students in the country who have not encountered Freud in their intro-level classes: I remember the director of my women's studies program back at Hope College -- whose training was in the field of psychology -- suggesting that maybe, possibly, my response to Freud's theory of sexual development and penis envy was a little too categorically dismissive (if I remember right, my scathing response paper admitted to having thrown our textbook across the room). So I will admit upfront I came to Five Lectures in Psycho-analysis prepared for weary frustration at Freud's legacy, even as I was interested to see what a fresh reading ten years (yes, ten years!) since that first encounter might bring.

Five Lectures is a slim volume in which Freud recreated from memory five lectures he delivered at Clark University, Worchester, Massachusetts, in 1909 while visiting at the request of the university president, G. Stanley Hall. This fact alone gives me the creeps, since G. Stanley Hall had some heavily social darwinist theories of child- and adolescent development. Five Lectures is an extemporaneous-feeling overview of Freud's development as a psycho-analyst, his theories of dream interpretation and sexuality, and his beliefs about the role of psychoanalysis human development. Only one of the five lectures focuses specifically on sexuality, although his beliefs about human sexual development are integral to his view of human nature and growth.

While none of his basic views were startlingly new to me, I was struck as I read this chapter by two things: 1) how closely Freud's description of childhood sexuality corresponds with current, twenty-first century progressive, feminist views of human sexuality, and 2) how strongly Freud seems to feel the need to contain, organize, and channel that sexuality within the circumscribed space of heterosexual intercourse for the purposes of reproduction.

Of childhood sexuality he writes:

A child's sexual instinct turns out to be put together of a number of factors; it is capable of being divided into numerous components . . . independent of the reproductive function . . . it serves for the acquisition of pleasurable feeling, which, basing ourselves on analogies and connections, we bring together under the idea of sexual pleasure.

He describes masturbation, dominance/submission activities, the "desire for looking," fantasy, sexual play and emotional bonds all under this broad umbrella. He also points out that "at this early period of childhood difference in sex plays no decisive part." In sum, "widespread and copious" is the sexual life of children, loosely organized around the principle of pleasure (p. 46-48).

It is only after this rich description of sexuality, replete with possibility for variation, fluidity, and individuality which (crucially, in my opinion) places the recognition of pleasure at the heart of sexual feeling, that Freud retrenches. In the paragraph immediately following the descriptions above, he suggests that all of this abundant energy must, in order for "mature" adult sexuality to emerge, be "brought together and organized" into genitally-centered, reproductive activity (p. 48).

. . . Why? What is so terrifying to Freud (and any others who resist it) the first, "childhood," model of sexual-sensual experience? This week in class, I'm looking forward to sitting down with this fear and trying to understand what, exactly, is so freaky about "widespread and copious" pleasure.


  1. Hi Anna,

    I liked this post so much I've quoted a bunch of it. The good news about Freud is he was the first to recognize polymorphous perversity in children. The bad news, as you say, is he somehow (PTSD?) imagined being repressed German/Victorian adults was a step up. And then sold it as a good idea.


  2. Those interested in figleaf's comments can see his post here.