Repression or Avidya?Read Now
Recently, I came across Raymond Tallis's glowing review of Why Freud Was Wrong by Richard Webster and shared it with a couple of friends, including Jeff Harrison. I am a great admirer of Tallis and I found his review characteristically wise and perceptive. I happened to read Washington's book shortly after it first came out twenty years ago and like Tallis, I thought Washington had pretty much put the boot into psychoanalysis's pretensions to be a science. Jeff, however, was a bit more restrained in his admiration of Tallis's review (I don't know if he has read Webster's book), though he did largely agree with it. But he felt that repression, a key concept in psychoanalysis, was unfairly dismissed by both writers. I suspect that this is Jeff's bone of contention, Tallis's criticism of Freud's theory of repression: "...the theory of repression is both unnecessary and incoherent. When Freudians talk about the unconscious they are often simply talking about things of which we are conscious but are not yet conscious of reflectively...As Sartre pointed out, the unconscious has to know what it is that has to be repressed in order to (actively) repress it; it has to know that it is shameful material appropriate for repression. If however, it knows both these things, it is difficult to understand how it can avoid being conscious of it." Most therapists, perhaps even many Freudians, would probably agree that it is difficult to understand how people can remain apparently unconscious of their own psychic contents. Yet, most therapists have had ample experience of dealing with clients who can't see what they apparently refuse to see. So does Jeff have a point?
Let's begin with the concept of repression. According to Freud, repression is an unconscious mechanism that prevents disturbing thoughts, feelings and impulses from rising to conscious awareness. The matrix of repression, Freud argued, is the Oedipal complex, which develops when the pre-verbal infant becomes aware of his erotic desire for his mother, as well his murderous jealousy towards his father. Consumed by shame, the infant pushes these impulses out of his conscious thought processes, only to become haunted by them through a variety of psychological afflictions that are carried forward into adulthood by what Freud called the return of the repressed. Repression then, is a defence mechanism that begins as a protective device before it eventually becomes a major source of psychological affliction in itself. But repression is also what Freud's critics such as Webster and Tallis find so unacceptable. To repeat their criticism, how is a pre-verbal infant supposed to know that certain desires are both forbidden and shameful and then repress such feelings without being aware of any of the stages involved in such an operation of consciousness? In fact, scientific research does not support the concept of repression as it was originally conceived by Freud. While suppression, the conscious, selective process of pushing things out of attentional awareness, has been clinically demonstrated to play an essential role in conscious functioning, repression as a completely unconscious operation is impossible to test or verify. A cognitive psychologist, Daniel Wegman, compares it to trying to determine whether the light inside a refrigerator stays on when the door is closed.
This observation leads to another, perhaps even more serious criticism of Freud and psychoanalysis which Tallis expresses with particularly scornful fervour. Psychoanalysands may remember nothing of what they are alleged to have repressed, but on the strength of an unproven theory psychoanalysis presumes to peer into the infantile experiences of its patients with the brazen confidence that the analyst will always know more about their patients than the patients themselves do. Tallis, an MD himself, is particularly appalled by cases in which Freud defended his diagnoses by browbeating his recalcitrant patients into accepting them. In one case cited by Webster, a young patient died after Freud had misdiagnosed her abdominal lymphoma as a case of hysteria. Freud however, remained unshaken in his conviction that not only had he made the correct diagnosis, but also that he had actually cured her of her neurosis. Cases such as these, as well as the suspect foundations of his theories, have led Tallis to dismiss Freud as nothing more than a quack who wrote beautifully in German. Given Freud's stature as the first true psychotherapist, as well as one of the most influential thinkers in modern times, Tallis's verdict may indeed seem unfair, as Jeff maintains. Nevertheless, as Webster's study demonstrates, Freud was seriously wrong about so many important things that it is no longer possible to regard psychoanalysis as anything remotely like an empirical science. But does this mean that Freud was completely wrong and that such flawed ideas of his as repression deserve to be completely forgotten?
While the rigid adherence to the dogma of the Master that once prevailed in early psychoanalytic circles may now seem little more than the beliefs of a bizarre fin-de-seicle cult, it is important to remember that virtually every form of psychotherapy followed from Freud's original vision of the therapeutic encounter. To be sure, many of psychoanalysis's early successors such as Jung, Adler and Rank, were regarded as apostates who became disloyal to both the Master and his creed. But each of these figures went on to develop their own distinctive approaches to psychotherapy which were based on their own original and valid insights concerning human nature, though their theories were hardly any more scientific than Freud's psychoanalysis for that. Over the years, even Freudian psychoanalysis has gradually departed from Freud's colossally vain belief that he had discovered the scientific key to human nature. Jeff points out that Adam Phillips, the contemporary psychoanalyst and essayist, regards Freud's work more as a poetics of the psyche than as a valid scientific or medical paradigm. So it seems that even some psychoanalysts admit that the Oedipal complex is about as scientific as the Greek tragedy that inspired it. Repression, then, may be regarded as little more than a conceit that doesn't so much explain a function of the psyche as it sustains a particular discourse of the self.
Yet, repression, or something very much like it, does seem to affect us all. For we may all fall into a state of forgetfulness about things that influence us, seemingly in order to remain blind to their influence. When Freud wrote The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which details the missteps, the accidents and the slips of the tongue that betray the secrets of a person's inner life, he was surely on to something, even if the dynamic behind such phenomena wasn't quite so automatic as he made it out to be. Indeed, as his critics point out, the flaw in Freud's theory is that by describing repression as entirely mechanical, he deprived it of intentionality. Even so, their objection still leaves an important question unanswered. How could anyone intentionally deceive himself, even assuming that one would actually make such a self subverting choice?
In fact, disguising our intentions from ourselves is not only easily done, it also requires a certain scrupulous self vigilance to prevent it from contaminating our self understanding. For any time we confuse desire for necessity we risk losing a critical perspective that prevents us from mistaking our wants for our needs. The fact that self discovery often does follow from pursuing our desires complicates things even further. For we are prone to think we are most true to ourselves when we cleave most ardently to our desires, even if those desires clash with our better self interests. Alternatively, we might credit ourselves with noble self denial when we simply lack the courage to act on our passions. But perhaps we will always be susceptible to self deception as long as we feel compelled to improvise whatever self understanding we can achieve in the unpredictable circumstances that a capricious world provides. What Freud called repression, then, may be caused by the self knowledge that we cling to, which has the effect of blocking out the deeper, more complete self knowledge that we could have.
The Buddhist concept of avidya, which is commonly translated as ignorance or delusion, may be another useful way to understand our tendency to self deception. Avidya is usually taken to mean ignorance of the truth that Buddhist doctrine or the dharma, reveals. But avidya also has a more particular meaning which is relevant to each individual. It occurs when someone falls into delusion by allowing craving to determine his or her experience of things. This is not repression as an unconscious turning away from infantile shame as in classical psychoanalysis. It is, rather, a matter of our failing to see things as they actually are because of our pre-occupation with what we want or fear to see. But like repression, once the self deception of avidya becomes established, it becomes very difficult to break free of it. Freud may have been wrong about many things. But he was certainly right about that.
2/21/2015 07:44:40 am
Really enjoyed reading this Bob. Another thought provoking blog. Having just finished my second group process I feel that it addressed some of my own burning questions about how far psychotherapeutic enquiry can claim valid comprehension of mental phenomenon. It sounds like, to me, Avidya may be the result of suppression rather than repression. As in, because of seeking desires and solidity of the self image we consciously push some things away and form habits of 'not seeing' that perhaps become harder to see thereafter. If that makes sense.
2/21/2015 04:37:13 pm
Thanks Stefan. Yes, your comments make complete sense to me. The only thing I would say is that avidya relies on suppression as a way of serving trishna, or craving. You raise an interesting question too, about therapeutic enquiry. Hope you've enjoyed the course block.
2/22/2015 12:54:46 am
Yes it was great thanks Bob. Really enjoying my studies and think it is so well run. Having some internal confusion over tariki and jiriki though - I think you may have mentioned that yourself at the process group I was on with you.
4/28/2019 12:20:11 am
I am glad you enjoyed it, Richard. Thanks for reading and commenting.
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