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date: 02 August 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was born in the Austro-Hungarian empire and lived in Vienna nearly all his life. (He fled to London in 1938, when Nazi Germany invaded Austria.) As a young man, Freud began a medical career specializing in neurology and nervous disorders. He became interested in the problems of hysterics, individuals suffering from debilitating symptoms or behaviors for which there was no obvious physiological cause. Trying first hypnosis and then the “talking cure,” Freud developed his theories that traumatic events repressed from conscious memory nevertheless profoundly affected an individual’s emotions and daily behaviors. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901) introduced his ideas about the powers of the unconscious mind. Dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, habits, characteristic emotional responses—almost any aspect of a patient’s behavior could be used by a skilled interpreter to uncover the past events that caused present suffering.

Freud’s first and most controversial explanation for the childhood traumas that affected adult personality involved the sexual drive—a generalized eroticism or urge for pleasure that he detected even in the very young. The various ways that families controlled such drives accounted for the neuroses so common to adults. But Freud’s ideas changed over the decades, partly from work with patients, partly from controversies with such students as Alfred Adler and Carl Jung, and partly from his observations of the disasters overtaking Europe after 1914. As the selection here reveals, by the 1920s he had come to believe that men harbored an instinct for destruction, a “death wish,” as much as one for pleasure and love.

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. XXI (1927–1931), trans. and ed. James Strachey, 111–15, 122. Copyright © 1961 Hogarth Press.

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