For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death
AND THE BIRTH OF PSYCHOANALYSIS
AN ALL-DAY SEMINAR
ON THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF FREUD’S DOUBLE ANNOUNCEMENT
OF THE ‘SEDUCTION THEORY’ AND OF ‘PSYCHOANALYSIS’
TO THE SOCIETY FOR PSYCHIATRY AND NEUROLOGY IN
In this 1996 seminar, we investigated just what Freud’s theory had been, and what exactly were his grounds for subsequently retracting it. A number of internationally known Freud scholars, psychoanalysts, and existential therapists participated; and there was lively dispute about these complex and difficult matters. I argued that the so-called ‘seduction theory’ was rudimentarily interpersonal, while his ‘Oedipal’ retraction of it was ‘intrapsychic’; but both were quasi-medical, natural-scientistic. In the afternoon I tried to lay foundations for an existential seduction theory, starting with analysis of the serpent’s seduction of Eve in the Bible.
In today’s seminar, twenty years on, we note that the ‘seduction theory’ has reached the Biblical age of one hundred and twenty. Today, we shall continue to examine the historical circumstances of Freud’s announcement and retraction of the theory, and their relevance for our practice today. We shall also renew our existential quest, by reexamining the Biblical story of Eve and the serpent; but also, for the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, by exploring Iago’s serpent-like insinuation to Othello that Desdemona was unfaithful.
We shall link these ‘bewitchments of intelligence by means of language’ (Wittgenstein) with the mystifications we have been studying in Laing and Esterson’s investigations of families of ‘schizophrenics’.
The question we shall struggle with in the seminar is: What is seduction? If each person is free, what does it mean for one person to seduce (lead astray, tempt) another? In the primal seduction recorded in the Bible, that of Eve by the serpent, we see the linguistic techniques the serpent uses to mystify and confuse Eve; but God does not accept her defence that the serpent beguiled her, or Adam’s that she offered him the fruit. They are not children, but responsible adults. Was Shakespeare’s Othello responsible for letting Iago seduce him into seeing Desdemona as unfaithful? Were the women labelled ‘schizophrenic’ in Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family responsible for allowing their families to mystify and invalidate them?
We shall reconsider these archetypal seduction scenes, as well as Freud’s 1896 accounts of what he later called ‘seduction’ of children by adults, though in his original so-called (by us, not him) ‘seduction theory’ papers of 1896 he called ‘assaults’, ‘attacks’, ‘abuse’. He later approvingly quoted his colleague and pupil Abraham as saying that children seek their own traumatisation. This set the scene for the psychoanalytic blaming and invalidating the victim that continued throughout most of the twentieth century.
But many psychotherapists, even existential ones, in trying to sympathise with the abused child, do not understand any better the real responsibility of the child, and so patronise both child and adult. Of course, there is no question of suggesting that the child is responsible for the adult’s crime. But the child is, at least sometimes, tempted, seduced, into an ethical self-mystification in order to save the image of the abusing adult as loving, truthful, and good. The recognition and recovery of shame and guilt, a child-appropriate shame and guilt, at having betrayed oneself by thus acting on one’s own experience, even as a child, is crucial. It is vitally important that the therapist should understand and not invalidate this. The child’s self-destructive and self-invalidating act is captured in Mallarmé’s wonderful line (from Prose pour des Esseintes) that so impressed Laing: ‘L’enfant abdique son extase’ (‘The child abdicates her ecstasy’). Abdication is an action, and the child can only achieve rebirth from this existential suicide by acknowledging it as such, maybe decades later as an adult. This, at any rate, is the thesis I shall propose for discussion. The heart of the Inner Circle Seminars is dialogue and debate, greatly valued by regular participants. Your contribution will be warmly welcomed.