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Religion and Psychology in TransitionPSYCHOANALYSIS, FEMINISM, AND THEOLOGY
By James W. Jones
Yale University PressCopyright © 1996 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFreud on Human Nature and Religion
The Formation of the Superego
Sigmund Freud's narrative of the origin of the superego is, among other things, an answer to the question of how antisocial instincts become civilized. For Freud, human nature begins and ends with pleasure-seeking, biological drives: the building blocks of personality and the source of all human achievement. That starting point forces him to struggle, in the third chapter of The Ego and the Id, with how these antisocial drives of Victorian Darwinian theory are domesticated. Drawing on his theory of depression as articulated years earlier in Mourning and Melancholy, Freud maps the journey from blind instinct to high culture through the creation of the superego.
Freud proposes that when a significant figure dies or is lost in some other way, the image of this object is taken inside the psyche, where it becomes a part of the ego. This internalization of the lost object keeps alive the attachment, although the connection is now to an internal object rather than an external one ( 1960:24). Much of the structure of an individual's personality-the things he fears, the goals she desires-results from the internalization of these lost objects, which have a "great share in determining the form taken by the ego and [make] an essential contribution towards building up what is called character" ( 1960: 23).
Depression requires the loss of an object that is both loved and hated, desired and feared. When such an ambivalent object is lost, it is taken into the psyche in order to hold onto it internally even though it is gone in the external world. The positive feelings toward the lost object provide the motivation for its internalization, but the negative affects are now turned inward against the internal object and the ego of which the internalized object has become a part. Depression, which Freud describes as anger turned against the self, is the result.
The most potent of these object losses is the boy's giving up his attachment to his mother as the oedipal drama is resolved. At first, Freud says, the boy is equally attached to both father and mother, but as his erotic feelings for his mother grow, his feelings toward his father become more ambivalent and take on a "hostile coloring and change into a wish to get rid of his father in order to take his place with his mother" ( 1960:27).
In addition, the boy's ambivalence toward his father is intensified by his fear of castration, the threat the boy assumes his father will visit on him if he attempts to replace the father in relation to the mother. In the "demolition of the Oedipus complex" the boy, fearing castration, gives up his libidinous cathexis to his mother and identifies with his father, internalizing the father figure as the superego or ego-ideal, which is the "heir of the Oedipus complex" ( 1960: 32). In the development of the superego, a lost object "has been replaced by an identification" ( 1960:23). The internalized father figure compensates for the loss of the mother and strengthens (through the internalized fear of castration) the renunciation of oedipal desires and so defends the ego against their resurgence.
But, as Freud notes, "these identifications are not what we would have expected" ( 1960: 28), for the boy does not internalize an identification with the mother, who is, after all, the lost object who has been given up. Rather, the boy internalizes an identification with the father. To resolve this theoretical contradiction, Freud invokes the idea of bisexuality. In the pre-oedipal period both boys and girls have both masculine and feminine inclinations and so have erotic feelings toward both parents. Consequently the young boy has an erotic cathexis to his father. Freud goes so far as to wonder out loud whether "it may even be that the ambivalence displayed in the relations to parents should be attributed entirely to bisexuality and not, as I have represented it above, developed out of identification in consequence of rivalry" ( 1960: 29). This would mean that the psyche's foundational experiences were relational and driven by attachment rather by ambivalence and loss.
Freud quickly abandons that suggestion and returns to ambivalence toward the father driven by oedipal rivalry as the primary motivation for the internalization of the father and the creation of the superego. But because the pre-oedipal boy (and girl) is bisexual, the dissolution of the Oedipus complex requires the boy to renounce his libidinous cathexis to the father, and so, Freud concludes, in that sense the father too is a lost object whose loss must be compensated for by internalization. Thus the explanation of the origin of the superego remains consistent with the theory of internalization as compensation for object loss, as outlined in Mourning and Melancholia. As always, internalized identification replaces a lost libidinous object.
Freud is driven to invoke the category of bisexuality and the tortured discussion of the various combinations and permutations of child-parent identifications (the masculine inclinations of the boy in erotic relation to the mother and in rivalrous relation to the father; the feminine inclination of the boy in erotic relation to the father; the feminine inclinations of the girl in erotic relation to the father and in rivalrous relation to the mother, and so on; see  1960: 26-29) in order to keep the origin of the superego within the bounds of drive theory. Libidinous cathexis and the rivalries they spawn must alone explain the origin of the superego and, with it, the origin of all religion, morality, and culture. Although he occasionally hints that object relations and identifications with others may exist in their own right, Freud consistently rejects this theoretical direction and returns again and again to deriving social relations and cultural institutions from the more primary drives (Mitchell 1988: chaps. 2-3).
A striking implication of Freud's theory of bisexuality is that the Oedipus complex in girls is resolved "in a precisely analogous way" to that of boys ( 1960: 27). This suggestion, implying a fundamental psychic equality of the sexes, was soon abandoned (in Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes, 1925) and replaced by a theory in which the girl is seen as never renouncing her primary attachment (to her mother) or experiencing the fear of castration. Without full renunciation, internalization cannot be complete. Thus the superego, and with it the capacity to create culture, are much weaker in women than in men (see Van Herik 1982 for a discussion of Freud's models of gender identity and their implications).
Freud has trouble maintaining the standard version of the Oedipus complex, in which identification and libidinous object choice are separate, even opposite. Pre-oedipal identification (with the mother) is the same for both genders. The boy must supplant the identification with the mother by a new identification with the father, while the girl remains identified with the primary maternal object both before and after the oedipal or Electra period. For the boy, identification is both the problem (when it is the pre-oedipal identification with the mother) and the solution (when it is the post-oedipal identification with the father). For Freud, pre-oedipal identifications are problematic, and post-oedipal identifications are healthy. Freud downplays the pre-oedipal period and consistently maintains the centrality of the post-oedipal. This dismissal of pre-oedipal dynamics plays a major role in his discussion of religion and morality and motivates his rejection of Romain Rolland's argument for a pre-oedipal origin for religion. For Freud, oedipal processes must remain central.
The boy's post-oedipal identification with the father is profoundly ambivalent. On one hand, the boy is told that he must be like his father, that is, masculine. On the other hand, on pain of castration, he must not be like his father, that is, desirous of the mother. The boy's identification with the father points him toward masculine heterosexuality and lays the basis for normalized, heterosexual object choice. But the same identification potentially intensifies the boy's heterosexual rivalry with the father for the mother. So the father is both the ideal example of masculinity and the feared object of rivalry.
In his discussion of the origin of the superego out of the oedipal struggle, Freud is really describing two intertwined but separate processes: identification with the father and repression of the incestuous wish for the mother. For Freud, identification and repression combine in the dissolution of the Oedipus complex. This dissolution is the source of both social and sexual normalization (through the identification with the father) and of neurosis (through the repression of desire). The formation of the superego represses the oedipal desires and consolidates masculine or feminine identities. The oedipal process is both the repressed and the repressor. Children are originally bisexual. The Oedipus complex is not the result of heterosexual desire but the cause of it. Children become heterosexual as the result of their resolutions of the Oedipus and Electra complexes. As the means of social and sexual normalization, the Oedipus (and secondarily the Electra) complex is the source of heterosexuality, interpersonal bonds, social authority, and religion.
Given the centrality of the oedipal period for later development, the superego (which is the carrier of the oedipal resolutions) assumes a crucial role in mental life. The significance and power of the superego flow from the inescapable dominance of the oedipal drama in the individual's development, which "has introduced the most momentous objects into the ego" ( 1960: 48, altered slightly). The child may internalize many objects, but only the superego, the internalization of the father, has the power to overwhelm the ego and so contribute to neurosis. Although the mother forms the child's first relationship, for Freud the father is the most significant figure in the child's early object world, for an "individual's first and most important identification [is] his identification with the father" ( 1960: 26). The power of the superego in the individual's inner world mirrors the power of the father in the child's early life, for "the super-ego retains the character of the father" ( 1960: 30).
This is especially true when the child is young and the father appears particularly overwhelming. "The super-ego owes its special position [to its being] the first identification and one which took place while the ego was still feeble" ( 1960: 49). The dominance of the father in the family is mirrored by the dominance of the superego in the inner world. Patriarchal family structure has become internalized as psychic structure. The superego "preserves throughout life the character given it by its derivation from the father-complex.... As the child was once under a compulsion to obey its parents, so the ego submits to the categorical imperative of its super-ego" ( 1960: 49). The internalization of paternal authority then, in turn, becomes the psychological foundation for patriarchal culture and religion, and patriarchal culture and religion provide ideological rationalizations for paternal authority.
The child is under the dominion of the father. The internalization of that dominion as the superego becomes the psychological basis for obedience to the laws of culture. The stricter the father and the more authoritarian the culture, the more rigid will be the superego, experienced as the voice of conscience and guilt. "While the more powerful the Oedipus complex was and the more rapidly it succumbed to repression (under the influence of authority, religious teaching, schooling and reading), the stricter will be the dominion of the super-ego over the ego later on-in the form of conscience or perhaps an unconscious sense of guilt" ( 1960: 30). This inevitable guilt is the psychological foundation on which patriarchal religion and culture are erected.
Freud, of course, attributes the entire process to biological necessity. Given the boy's inborn erotic attractions and fears of castration, the oedipal dynamic and with it patriarchal culture follow with a natural inevitability like the planets obeying Newton's laws of motion. For Freud the structures of patriarchal culture express the fixed laws of nature, but his argument can be read in reverse. What Freud sees as the inevitabilities of nature are really expressions of the structures of patriarchal culture. What Freud uncovers in his discovery of the Oedipus and Electra complexes is not the physics of the psyche but the internalization of the structures of patriarchal society as it impinges differentially on boys and girls (such a reading underlies several of the essays in Chodorow 1989). The relative passivity that Freud observed in many of his women patients, for example, may not be the inevitable consequence of an Electra complex whereby women remain identified with their mother in submission to their father and so lay the basis for their own submission to their husbands. Rather, such passivity may result from the internalization of cultural norms. The observed Electra complex is as apt to be the effect of patriarchal culture as patriarchy is to be the natural result of biological law.
All the energy within the psyche comes from the id. The force with which the superego presses down on the id must ultimately derive from the id itself. In the course of the Oedipus complex, the erotic and aggressive energies of the id, formerly directed at the parents, are directed back at the internalized parental image, which is now a part of the ego. Through the formation of the superego, the ego takes the energy of the id and directs it back against itself ( 1960: 33).
Feelings formerly directed at the father are now directed at the ego. The rage at the father is now experienced as the attack of the superego on the ego, which is felt as guilt. "Aggressiveness is introjected ... sent back to where it came-that is, it is directed toward his own ego" ( 1962: 70). The superego sets itself over the rest of the ego and turns the "same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individuals" on itself. This self-generated aggression against the ego "is called by us the sense of guilt" ( 1962: 70).
To this aggression against the rivalrous father is added the fear of the father's power to castrate. This fear on the boy's part potentiates the power of his conscience. Freud repeatedly reminds his readers that the "superior being, which turned into the ego-ideal, once threatened castration" ( 1960: 60).
Excerpted from Religion and Psychology in Transition by James W. Jones Copyright © 1996 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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