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25th September 2014

Sigmund Freud’s Life and Influence

“Probably no theory evolved by man is as absurd as Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy.” –Esther Vilar in ‘The Manipulated Man’.

The 23rd of September marked the 85th anniversary of the death of the famous Austrian neurologist, author and equally the founding father of psychoanalysis—Sigmund Freud. Freud is often regarded as one of the few seminal thinkers who have had most influence on life and literature of the 20th century. There is hardly an area which Freudian theories haven’t touched or been touched upon. Freud created a completely new approach to the understanding of the human personality, but along with his great influence came great controversy and debate.

Sigismund (later changed to Sigmund) Schlomo Freud was the first of eight children born into a struggling family. But he was soon found to be an outstanding student who thrived on literature, most notably Shakespeare, and it is often remarked that the work of Shakespeare both shaped and influenced Freud’s understanding of the human psychology. By the age of 17 Freud entered the University of Vienna and graduated as a Doctor in 1881. However, after World War One, Freud spent less time on clinical observation and turned his hand to applying his theories to literature, history and art.

In addition to his grand theories of human psychology and psychoanalysis, he was also a prolific writer, publishing more than 320 different books, articles, and essays. As W.H. Auden wrote in his 1973 poem ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’, “If often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion.” Freud remains psychology’s most famous figure and in 2001, TIME Magazine referred to Freud as one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century.

Many of us today think of Freud as an outrageously absurd psychologist—much like Esther Vilar jested to on his theory of penis envy, there is something ironically laughable and nonsensical about his theories. But this isolates Freud from his Freudian views, Freudian views which have now become, much like Auden said, “a whole climate of opinion” in themselves.

While many aspects of Freudian theory are out of date, as is expected of scientific work from nearly a century ago, it is in fact his critics who have been even slower to hit the bar, attacking Freudian views from the early 1920s as if they still have relevancy in their original form. The point is, that along with his title as a revolutionary he has also been an inspiration, whether it be because people agree or disagree with his methods—Freudian theories have changed the way we look at life and literature today.

Freud’s influence on psychology and the sciences is matched in the way it has shaped literature, art and the social movements. One of his most influential works, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, and, equally, Freud’s work on free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious, have been of extensive importance to the Surrealist movement of the 20th Century. It enabled artists and authors alike to liberate the imagination, as people were now encouraged to embrace idiosyncrasy. Later, as Salvador Dali explained it: “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.”

However, while surrealists like Dali himself used Freudian theories to liberate, some of  Freud’s integral thoughts and theses stressed for other members of society to be incarcerated—namely women. Freud’s work is greatly contested over for this reason alone. Feminists can find many faults with Freud’s theory, but again we are back to the theory of ‘penis envy’. The suggestion that female adolescents experience anxiety after realising they don’t have a penis denies women a mature sexual identity. Hence, his work on psychosexual development has caused a catalogue of debate.

Although it is commonly thought that Freud died from cancer, it was in fact two administered doses of lethal morphine by Freud’s friend and fellow refugee Max Schur that eventually ended Freud’s life at the age of 83. Freud’s ashes can now be found resting on a plinth designed by his son in the Ernest George Columbarium. They are stored in an Ancient Greek urn that Freud had received as a gift from Princess Bonaparte many years before his death. Up to the present day Freud is still a household name, his work is both capacious and contested, and it comes without any doubt that Freud and his work have inspired every facet of the modern world.

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