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Freud, the Serpent and the Sexual Enlightenment of Children 1

Author's Introduction ·

In November of 1988, I sent an earlier draft of this paper to R.D.Laing at his flat in Going, Austria, along with the inscription: "For R.D.Laing, to whom the Serpent speaks". I did this in the hope that, on reading it, he would agree to meet with me. At the time, my ambition was to write a monograph on the history of psychoanalytic psychiatry in Scotland, which would compare and contrast Laing’s contributions with those of Ian Suttie, W.R.D. Fairbairn, John Sutherland and their lesser known contemporaries. Laing wrote back to say that he found the paper "very interesting", and encouraged me to meet him in May of ’89, during his (last) therapeutic workshop/retreat with Andrew Feldmar on Salt Spring Island.

Unfortunately, I could not attend the workshop, and later wrote to Andrew Feldmar once again to see if he could help me track Laing down. Feldmar wrote me a few days afterwards, informing me of Laing’s recent death. On getting this news, I cried bitterly, and swore to Sharna, my girlfriend (now my wife) that I would write a memorable book about this remarkable, misunderstood man.

As it turned out, in the ensuing years, I wrote not one, but two books about Laing, and a version of this paper finally appeared in 1994, in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis, vol. 3, pp. 205-219. In the intervening period, I have come to think of Laing less as a psychoanalytic thinker, and more as an existential-phenomenological one. Nevertheless, this version, updated for inclusion on the SLS website, has only been changed very slightly from the one he read. And now, I can re-dedicate it:

  "For R.D.Laing, to whom the Serpent spoke."

Despite his indebtedness to Romanticism (Ellenberger, 1970, pp.199-223), Freud was basically an Enlightenment figure. His first published reflections on religion appear in 1901, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and culminate in Moses and Monotheism, published in 1939. However, one striking feature of Freud's writings on religion are the paucity of references to the book of Genesis, and to its first three chapters in particular. Of course, the absence of a published interpretation of Genesis and the myth of the Fall does not preclude the possibility that this motif informed Freud at some critical juncture. Given Freud's immersion in literature and comparative religion, his time, place of birth and ethnicity, it would be more surprising if it did not.

Building on the work of McGuire (1974) and Forrester (1980), John Kerr reminds us that the centrality of the Oedipus complex was not an analytic article of faith until mid 1910 -- if then. Prior to that point, the theme of infantile sexual researches overlapped and occasionally overshadowed the Oedipus motif, and figures prominently in the case history of Little Hans (Freud, 1909), the study on Leonardo (Freud,1910), and a variety of theoretical papers, including 'The Sexual Enlightenment of Children' (Freud, 1907), 'The Sexual Theories of Children' (Freud, 1908) and 'Family Romances' (Freud, 1909). In a discussion of Otto Rank's book, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, for the Wednesday Night Meeting of November 25, 1908, Freud even declared that

' . . . the conflict with the father has its origin not in sexual rivalry for the mother, but in the father's concealment of the facts about the sexual processes concerned with birth (Nunberg & Federn, 1967, vol. 1, p.72)'.

Thus, though the possible universality of the Oedipus complex may have occurred to Freud as early as 1897 in his correspondence with Fliess (Rudnytsky, 1987), the categorical insistence on the primacy of the Oedipus complex as the nuclear explanatory concept was not axiomatic among Freud's followers until Totem & Taboo (Freud,1913).

One feature of Freud's formulations on infantile sexual researches prior to 1911 warrants close scrutiny, namely, their conjoint emphasis on what some have termed the "epistemophilic instinct", but I prefer to call the child's disposition to truth. Prior to 1911, the pathogenic potential of infantile sexual researches was ascribed to the child's predilection for naughty ideas and the adults' desire to suppress them. According to Freud, the ensuing conflict in the child's mind results in a dissociation of the unwanted ideas and affects, engendered by the child's fear of losing their love. But where the child experiences the adult withholding information out of prudishness, or some other ulterior motive, notes Freud, this erodes the child's trust and confidence in his or her adult caretakers. Indeed, between 1907 and 1910, Freud frequently conveyed the impression that the child treated to a fairy tale, rather than a candid disclosure of the facts, feels hoodwinked, and may attempt to retaliate for being ill used. In the case of "Little Hans", for example, Freud took young Herbert Graf's willful and persistent confabulation about the recent birth of a younger sibling as a bitter satire on his father. In Freud's own words:

It is as much as to say: "If you really expect me to believe that the stork brought Hanna in October , when even in the summer, while we were travelling to Gmunden, I'd noticed how big mother's stomach was -- then I expect you to believe my lies (Freud, 1909, p. 70-71).

At this stage of his work, then, Freud implied that the child's rebellion against paternal authority has a rational basis, and is not simply or primarily a reactive response to the an adult's attempt to curb its precocious lust. On the contrary, the child rebels because the adult is deceptive and bent on withholding knowledge . This idea informs his study of Leonardo, who became an exemplary scientist because he 'escaped being intimidated by his father in earliest childhood', enabling him to dispense with reliance on authority in his naturalistic inquiries (Freud, 1910, p.123).

But if Freud's Leonardo caps a series of works that probe children's yearning to discover the truth, Freud did not attribute this lofty quality of mind to children without qualification. In 'The Sexual Enlightenment of Children' (Freud, 1907), for example, Freud speculated that there are two 'selfish' motives originating in empirical observation that trigger infantile sexual curiosity. One is the presumption (among little boys) that all living creatures have a genital like his own. This supposition soon comes into conflict with the observed disparity between the genitalia of boys and girls, which engenders further inquiry and speculation. Another, more momentous motive -- at this point in Freud's theorizing (Lidz, 1988) -- was the desire to fathom the mystery of where new or unwelcome siblings come from.

Finally, Freud cited a third stimulus to scientific curiosity, namely, the scopophilic 'instinct'. In this formulation, the child's 'genuine research interests' and later scientific activities are derivatives of the desire to witness intercourse and/or some other passive sexual aims. Unfortunately, it is difficult to decide how much weight to attach to this idea. In the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), the scopophilic impulse is one of several pregenital impulses at play in the child. While it is accorded considerable significance here -- and again, in Leonardo -- it is later left to languish in relative obscurity.

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"Freud, The Serpent, and the Sexual Enlightenment of Children"
International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 1994 vol. 3, pp. 205-219.

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