Speaking Volumes: The Ego and the Id

August 11, 1995

Nicholas Tucker on Sigmund Freud's The Ego and the Id .

I first encountered Sigmund Freud's The Ego and the Id as a schoolboy, appropriately enough in Hampstead Public Library. My explosively interesting young English teacher had often mentioned Freud to our class of 13-year-olds (this was, after all, a progressive school). I decided to read the slim volume with its inscrutable title.

I was soon overwhelmingly bored. The vocabulary was often incomprehensible and the style turgid. But its air of total understanding about human affairs had its attractions. If I could crack this code, perhaps some of Freud's magisterial omniscience would rub off? So, fortified by occasional dips into cricket books for quick relief, I ploughed on.

The end result was everything I had hoped for. At last I could stand in superior judgement on my elder brother, parents, teachers and anyone else who occasionally got in my way. They all so obviously needed psychoanalysing. And while I was not as yet qualified to offer such treatment myself, there were at least hints I could now start dropping towards helping them understand themselves better. I copied down some of Freud's statements for further use when impressing friends. "Love," I would intone, "is to be explained by the pre-existence of consciousness in germ cells." Or, "The good are those who content themselves with dreaming about what others, the wicked, actually do." No one was safe from the sweep of my new understanding. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury could be cut down to size by my repeating Freud's dismissive views about religion.

This enthusiasm lasted through school and helped push me into a psychology course at university. Like Freud, I always loved Sherlock Holmes stories, and the psychoanalytic search for the key to explaining different personalities shared some of the excitement of the great detective mysteries. Occasionally I would hear analysts speak at student meetings. They seemed to me God-like in their measured, confident statements: not so much seekers after truth as the personification of truth itself.

It was only slowly that doubts began to form, held back by Freud's canny insistence that such misgivings could always be accounted for by unconscious resistance. For one thing, I did not want to be psychoanalysed myself. There was something wearisome about the way the few analysis users I knew always focused so much upon themselves rather than, say, me. I often saw others leaving an analyst's house two doors from mine, sometimes standing transfixed on the pavement as one more piece of their personal jigsaw presumably fell into place. But those I knew as friends did not change very much over time.

At the Tavistock Clinic, where I later trained as an educational psychologist, the analysts I got to know while amiable enough also had their share of ordinary human frailties. They had little to offer the tough working-class children I first taught and later treated in an east London child guidance clinic. Better housing and a more supportive environment seemed the priority. When it came to studying children's books as my speciality, Freudian interpretations, while sometimes stimulating, could also be maddeningly prescriptive.

I now teach Freud to undergraduates. I still respect his insistence on taking childhood seriously, but dispute his interpretation of what happens in infancy. I like the notion of looking below the surface of behaviour for meaning, but also believe that surface behaviour can be revealing. While thankfully giving up any belief in Freudian omniscience, it was the huge promise of this total belief system that first lured me into psychology in a way that a less absolute system might never have achieved.

Nicholas Tucker is a lecturer in psychology at Sussex University.

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