The first of Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is titled “The Sexual Aberrations.” Why should Freud begin a book the main point of which is to argue for the existence of infantile sexuality with a discussion of adult perversions? (After all, the existence of the adult aberrations was not news.) I believe Freud's beginning can be usefully understood as part of an effective argumentative strategy to extend the notion of sexuality by showing how extensive it already was. Freud himself (in the preface to the fourth edition) describes the book as an attempt “at enlarging the concept of sexuality” (1903d, VII, 134). The extension involved in the notion of perversion prepares the way for the extension involved in infantile sexuality.
The book begins, on its very first page, with a statement of the popular view of the sexual instinct:
It is generally understood to be absent in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon the other,- while its aim is presumed to be sexual union, or at all events actions leading in that direction.(1905d, VII, 135)
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives . . .(W. H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud)
Despite distorted understandings of Freud's views and despite periodic waves of Freud-bashing, Auden's assessment remains essentially correct. Freud's influence continues to be enormous and pervasive. He gave us a new and powerful way to think about and investigate human thought, action, and interaction. He made sense of ranges of experience generally neglected or misunderstood. And while one might wish to reject or argue with some of Freud's particular interpretations and theories, his writings and his insights are too compelling to simply turn away. There is still much to be learned from Freud.
The essays here collected focus on some of Freud's masterworks and some of his central concepts, trying to bring out the structure of his arguments and contributions to our self-understanding.
Freud was born in 1856 in Freiberg in Moravia, but after his family's move when he was four years old, he passed almost all of his long life in Vienna. The story of his life is the story of his thought. The great events were most often the occasions of his discoveries and speculations. After his childhood move, the rest of his life can be viewed as a tale of four cities, the psychogeography of which is explored by Carl Schorske. Vienna, embroiled in anti-Semitism, was the ambivalent scene of Freud's professional advances and defeats as well as home to his contented family life.
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