Friday, 1 January 2016

Shakespeare, Freud, and Seduction. Inner Circle Seminar 224 (17 April 2016)

William Shakespeare

Sigmund Freud

Shakespeare, Freud, and Seduction

For the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death
(23 April 1616)
and the 120th anniversary of Freud’s double announcement
of the ‘seduction theory’ and of ‘psychoanalysis’
to the Society for Psychiatry and Neurology in Vienna
(21 April 1896)
and the 20th anniversary of the first Inner Circle Seminar
held on the 100th anniversary of Freud’s lecture
(21 April 1996)
Anthony Stadlen
conducts Inner Circle Seminar No. 224
Sunday 17 April 2016
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Twenty years ago, Anthony Stadlen gave a seminar which examined Freud’s ‘seduction theory’, on the hundredth anniversary of the lecture in which he announced it. Here is the announcement of that seminar, which became the first Inner Circle Seminar:




21 APRIL 1896 – 21 APRIL 1996


Sunday 21 April 1996
Morning 10-1  Afternoon 2-5

Freud in his lecture of 21 April 1896 announced a new method: ‘psychoanalysis’. He claimed it revealed ‘repressed’ memories of childhood sexual abuse in 100% of adult ‘hysterics’. This was his ‘seduction theory’.

Anthony Stadlen has for nearly two decades conducted historical research on Freud’s case-histories. He will present some of his unpublished research findings and invite the seminar to discuss what light they throw on Freud’s seduction theory and subsequent retraction. He will invite participants to join him in examining false reasoning both in Freud and in the later literature on the seduction theory. He will propose for discussion an existential seduction theory renewing Freud’s vision a hundred years later.

‘The authority on Freud’s original “seduction” theory, its genesis and its ultimate fate, is surely Anthony Stadlen of the Freud Museum in London.’
John Kerr (1993) A Most Dangerous Method   


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 todays 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 Freuds 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 Shakespeares 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 Adams that she offered him the fruit. They are not children, but responsible adults. Was Shakespeares Othello responsible for letting Iago seduce him into seeing Desdemona as unfaithful? Were the women labelled schizophrenic in Laing and Estersons 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 Freuds 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 assaultsattacksabuse. 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 adults 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 ones own experience, even as a child, is crucial. It is vitally important that the therapist should understand and not invalidate this. The childs self-destructive and self-invalidating act is captured in Mallarmés wonderful line (from Prose pour des Esseintes) that so impressed Laing: Lenfant 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.

Venue:   ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra AvenueLondon N22 7XE
Cost:    Psychotherapy trainees £120, others £150, some bursaries; coffee, tea, biscuits, mineral water included; payable in advance; no refunds or transfers unless seminar cancelled
Apply to: Anthony Stadlen, ‘Oakleigh’, 2A Alexandra Avenue, London N22 7XE
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8888 6857  +44 (0) 7809 433 250
For further information on seminars, visit:
The Inner Circle Seminars were founded by Anthony Stadlen in 1996 as an ethical, existential, phenomenological search for truth in psychotherapy. They have been kindly described by Thomas Szasz as ‘Institute for Advanced Studies in the Moral Foundations of Human Decency and Helpfulness’. But they are independent of all institutes, schools and colleges.

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