If who we are is, to a significant extent, our culture, and if that culture is partly composed of the arguments, discoveries, feuds, prejudices and mistakes of dead men and women, then those arguments, discoveries, feuds, prejudices and mistakes live on, in some form, inside of us. We’ve internalized them. They’ve changed who we are. They’re recorded in our brains as patterns of synaptic connections. They are us.

One of the strangest chain of events that changed who we are, in the West today, began in a cramped room in nineteenth-century Moravia. It was in that small space that a boy called Sigi lived, with his rapidly growing family. Along with his siblings, he was probably present when his parents had sex. He was present, too, when his brother died. Julius had been born just eleven months after Sigi and, in doing so, had robbed Sigi of the golden blessing of his mother’s attention. But even Julius’s death didn’t return his beloved mother to him; before he was ten, she would have six more babies. Whilst Sigi developed a resentful jealous hatred for his father, his maternal care came mostly from a nursemaid, Monica, who taught him about God and hell and would help him fall asleep, it is thought, by quietly stroking his cock.

It was all so confusing for the clever, earnest little boy. How could it not be? Consider the tangle of his immediate family. Back when Sigi’s parents married, his father had been twenty years older than his mother. In fact, he’d already been a grandfather, with two adult sons from a previous relationship. This meant that one of Sigi’s half-brothers was the same age as his mother, and the other a year older. These ‘brothers’, then, were old enough to be his father. Meanwhile, one of his dad’s grandchildren was the same age as him, whilst the other was a year older. No wonder he grew up feeling muddled. The ages and generations and roles were all mixed up. Perhaps because of this, the concepts of sex and arousal weren’t quite in their proper place. When he was seventeen, Sigi had a crush on a fifteen-year-old called Gisela. At the same time, he had a crush on Gisela’s mother. He also nursed a crush on his own mother.

It was a story from the foothills of the Western self that would change Sigi’s life: a tale from Ancient Greece. In 1873, as part of his final school examinations, Sigi read Oedipus the King. It was a kind of detective story with an ingenious plot: the ruler Oedipus had been told that a plague would only cease when the previous king’s murderer had been revealed and expelled. Oedipus vowed to do the job. The man he was looking for, a prophet predicted, would turn out to have a muddled family background: ‘He shall be shown to be to his own children at once brother and father, and of the woman from whom he was born, son and husband.’ Over the course of a stunningly dramatic plot, Oedipus slowly realized that the man he was looking for was, in fact, himself. Years earlier, in a road-rage incident at a crossroads, he had unknowingly killed his father, King Laius. After that, he’d accidentally married his mother.

There was something, something, about this story that left Sigi profoundly moved. The emotional response it detonated in him was so enormous that he concluded it must possess a particular and special quality that resonated deeply with the very essence of human nature. But what could it be? He studied the text. He went to see it performed, to rapturous applause, in Paris and Vienna. As he grew up, he became fascinated by the power of stories, and the mystery of how they moved such great masses of people. And no story obsessed him more than Oedipus the King. 

From what we know now about the left-brain interpreter we can wonder if the play acted as a kind of ready made confabulation for Sigi, a makes-sense story that fitted so perfectly over the traumatic, shameful muddle that happened to exist in his head, and made him feel better about it. As historian Peter Rudnytsky has observed, ‘The coincidence between his biographical accidents of birth and the Oedipus drama is staggering.’ And as the man himself was to write, ‘I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood… If that is the case, the gripping power of Oedipus Rex… becomes intelligible.’

As a student, at the University of Vienna, Sigi would wander at the Great Court, amongst the sun and shadows of the arcade, perusing the busts of former professors. He’d imagine himself among them one day. He could see it… There would be his anme, in full… Sigmund Freud… and what would the inscription say? Ah, yes, it would be a reference to his hero, of course, the searcher of truth from Ancient Greece, the killer of the hated father, the lover of the beautiful mother, Oedipus the King, who, as the playwright Sophocles had written, ‘knew the famous riddles and was a man most mighty’. It was a fantasy that was to come true, almost. Freud was to become the founding father of psychotherapy, his life’s mission to unbury, detective-like, the hidden forces that writhed in the human unconscious; urges that were often violent and perverted.

Central to his ideas was Oedipus’s tale. Childhood attraction to the mother and murderous hatred towards the father was, he decided, not just the experience of himself but the ‘inevitable fate’ of all of us. ‘Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex,’ he confidently declared. ‘Like Oedipus we live in ignorance of these wishes, repugnant to morality, which have been forced upon us by Nature, and after their revelation we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to the scenes of our childhood.’

In his assumption that he was just like everyone else, and everyone else was just like him, Freud was not alone. It’s well known by modern psychologists that most people tend to significantly over estimate the extent to which others share their feelings and beliefs. Professor Nicholas Epley, who’s studied this effect, writes that, ‘Brown-bread lovers think they are larger in number than white-bread lovers. Conservatives tend to believe that the average person is more conservative than liberals do. Voters in both sides of an issue tend to believe that those that didn’t vote in an election would have voted on their side. And when it comes to morality, even those who were clearly in the minority nevertheless tend to believe they are in the moral majority.’

Some of Epley’s own experiments have focused on the extent to which people believe that God himself shares their perspective. When participants in a brain scanner were interrogated about God’s views, and then their own, there was no observable difference in brain activity. Such tests are sometimes controversial, with sceptics doubtful that many solid conclusions can be drawn from them. But these particular findings have been supported by non-brain studies, in which people’s own views have been seen to change in concert with their imagined views of God. ‘When others’ minds are unknown,’ writes Epley, ‘the mind you imagine is heavily based on your own.’

But with this very ordinary error, Freud managed to redefine our concept of original sin. With our ‘wishes, repugnant to morality… forced upon us by nature’, he theorized that much of humanity’s inner misery came, not from the Devil’s temptations, but from the monstrous urges that we repress. After studying neurology, Freud had the world-changing insight that much of human behaviour appears to be out of a person’s conscious control. This was the perfect message for its time. During the nineteenth century, people had become entranced by scientific discoveries that were unveiling hidden worlds. They were learning about genes, bacteria and evolution – unseen forces in the air and in the body that had apparently godlike power over our fates.

For Freud the job of the psychoanalyst, this new form of priest, was to unbury the unseen forces that live within us and bring them into consciousness. ‘Freud saw the analyst as an Oedipus figure: a seeker of self-knowledge and knowledge of others, no matter what the cost,’ writes Professor Helen Morales. Patients would arrive for psychotherapy with the master at Berggasse 19, in the Alsergrund district of Vienna, to find a consulting room overflowing with books and artefacts from the early years of the Western self. They’d lie back on his famous couch to see, on the wall above them, and just to the right, a framed copy of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s painting Oedipus and the Sphinx. ’To be sure, psychoanalysis was born, in part, from neuroscience, in which Freud was trained,’ writes Morales. ‘But it was classical mythology that provided the crucial inspiration, scaffolding and legitimation of fundamental psychoanalytic theory.’ Without the myths of Ancient Greece, she suggests, ‘there would be no psychoanalysis.’

In the fifteenth century, ideas from both Ancient Greece and Rome had undergone a ‘renaissance’ that would eventually begin pulling the Western self out of its fug. It’s not a coincidence, of course, that this renaissance was centred in a place and time that also saw radical changes in how we got along and got ahead. It was in the mighty trading hubs of Genoa, Florence and Venice – glorious centres of hustle and thought that can’t help bringing to mind Ancient Greece’s ‘civilization of cities’ – that modern capitalism was born, with its debts, credits, powerful bankers and paper money.

The Renaissance aside, most histories would mark the break between Christianity and the discovery of the unconscious as a time of revolution. This, after all, was het beginning of the age of modern psychology. For all his flaws, Freud was undoubtedly a genius and he certainly prepared vast tracts of essential ground for what came next. But for this particular story, Freud’s essential view of the human animal only really constitutes a shift in perspective. Humans were still bad. They still needed to be fixed. The cure remained an eternal war with the inner self, which was morally polluted, purely by dint of birth. Freud was really just a self-hating, sex-afeared, secular reinvention of St Benedict. The actual revolution happened out west, in the United States of Ameerica. It was there that our view of who we are, and how we ought to be, underwent a true metamorphosis and gained an armoury of new characteristics, a great many of wich we still carry with us today.

In 1936, in an incident that surely seemed to him of little consequence, Freud was visited by an emissary of this revolution. Fritz Perls was a German-Jewish psychoanalyst who’d discovered Freudianism as boy after becoming terrified that masturbation was ruining his memory. After fleeing the anti-Semitism of Europe, he’d found safety and professional success in Johannesburg. Perls was a rather self-important man and, being a disciple of Freud and finding himself in Vienna for a conference, had decided to arrive unannounced in order to pay his respects. He’d presumably expected to be welcomed in and for a great meeting of minds to take place. But when Perls found his master’s house, Freud only opened his door a crack.

‘I came from South Africa to give a paper and see you,’ Perls explained.
There was a silence.
‘Well,’ said Freud. ‘And when are you going back?’

It was an awkward moment. The men had a short, stilted conversation and then Freud closed the door. Perls stalked away, numb with shock and humiliation. He’d never forgive Freud for the snub and would eventually disown him completely. Decades later, and many miles to the west, his new ideas on what a person is and should be would become so influential he’d earn his own place, alongside Freud, in the sack of noisy ghosts we call the modern self.

stem: will storr
perspectief: how we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, psychology, selfhelp, narcisism, self as story
titel: the bad self
bron: selfie (2019)
mopw: meerstemmige encyclopedie / freud