Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

Freud had something of a genius for titles. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is startling and witty; Beyond the Pleasure Principle is intriguing and titillating. The Ego and the Id demonstrates the same mastery. With all the confidence of his forty clinical years, Freud introduced in his title a completely new term, the ‘Id’.

Although it wasn’t quite new. A couple of weeks previously, another book had appeared: The Book of the It. The author was the analyst George Groddeck. Both Freud and Groddeck used the same German term for their ‘Id’ and ‘It’ respectively: das Es. Freud was quite open about his debt: rather shockingly, he announced that The Ego and the Id was ‘under the sponsorship of Groddeck.’ It was shocking because Groddeck was regarded in some quarters as little better than a lunatic.

In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them — homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism — were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: ‘I am a wild analyst.’ This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as ‘wild’ already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.

Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was ‘a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him.’ And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:

I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence ‘I live’ is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: ‘Man is lived by the It.’

Groddeck sent Freud the chapters as he completed them, and Freud sent back letters of encouragement, also revealing the direction of his own thinking on the composition of the psyche. Taking Groddeck’s idea of the ‘It’, along with previous notions of the unconscious, as well as other speculations on the nature of personality, Freud was crafting the model that came to dominate psychiatry in the twentieth century. This was the tripartite model of Ego, Id and Superego, which he set out for the first time in the book The Ego and the Id.

It is important to look at the actual terms Freud used. In German the title of his book was Das Ich und das Es — ‘The I and the It’. It was only in the Standard Edition of Freud’s works in English that the latinate ‘Ego’, ‘Id’ and ‘Superego’ were used. Freud’s Id was therefore, as already mentioned, terminologically identical with Groddeck’s It in The Book of the It (in German Das Buch vom Es). But in analytical practice there were some important differences between It and Id. Groddeck saw the It as the dominant, though entirely unconscious, fount of personality: Freud’s Id was the ultimately subordinate repository of sex and death drives. For Freud, the Ego, although largely controlled by the Id, was in some senses an agency: it had limited powers of will, despite its unhappy position at the centre of pressures from the Id, the Superego, and the external world. For Groddeck, the psyche had no conscious agency at all. The unconscious It regulated everything.

Some time after the publication of both books, on the occasion of Groddeck’s sixtieth birthday, Freud sent him a letter with his best wishes, in a form which neatly encapsulated his debt. It was as if the elements of Freud’s psyche were wishing happy birthday to the single hidden force of Groddeck’s: ‘My Ego and my Id congratulate your It.’

Gay, Peter: Freud: A Life for our Time (Little, 2006)
Groddeck, Georg: The Book of the It (introduction by Lawrence Durrell, Vision Press, 1949)

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