The Politics of Loneliness for Sigmund Freud

In Studies on Hysteria, Freud chronicles a hypnosis session with a female patient whose neurosis causes temporary muteness, sometimes for several hours. A detailing of her teenage years eventually unfolds: at fifteen, her cousin is sent to an insane asylum; her mother goes there too; on more than one occasion. Even her former maid-servant has shared a similar fate; she would relay to her, somewhat obsessively, horror stories of life in deprivation. The breakthrough of the session is triggered with Freud’s question about whether the patient herself has ever feared falling insane as well. Thankfully, the hitherto tight-lipped patient acknowledges this fact. Her facial features, Freud would note, become increasingly relaxed when he debunks some of the myths around asylum centers and tells her that she ought not be concerned of folly.

To commentate on the politics of loneliness, a condition that manifests in a lack of speech, it seems appropriate to begin with this case; muteness occupying a central role in the neurosis of the patient. In Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses, a work co-authored by Freud, it is noted regarding a patient who also suffers from severe disturbance of speech that he “denies in a certain degree the faculty of speech, because he is afraid of speaking certain words that might bring misfortune upon him,” (1921, 39). This explanation seems fitting with the female patient whose fear of insanity, of casting out words worthy of the insane, might have indeed, as Freud suggests, stringed her tongue. But what the psychoanalyst doesn’t dwell on as much is the role of loneliness in her speech impairment. It is vivid for the imagination to picture the patient pacing to and fro in her empty house, whispering to herself whether she would follow the path of insanity; having no one else to confide in about this seemingly-scandalous concern.

Speech is the casualty of the fears Freud identifies, but is it not arguable to claim that speech too, in its absence, amid a lonely environment, had not merely been the effect of the diagnosis but its cause; castrating itself with a neurosis of its own blade? Would the patient have been less of a neurotic had she been freely able to express her concerns of insanity? Has her betterment unfolded at the hands of Freud, or in his ears, and is it not testament to the importance of speech, and therefore danger of loneliness, with regards to neurosis? Freud seems to have rarely dedicated exclusive attention to the concept of loneliness. In an online version of Freud’s Complete Works, it is possible to electronically pull up how many times the psychoanalyst uses the term loneliness. Across approximately five thousand pages, loneliness comes up only eight times. Most of these come in a poetic manner; when describing, for example, the loneliness of a small village. The aim of this article is to pull out evocative moments in which Freud does give loneliness its all-important dues and seems to find in it, I argue, a major threat to our mental, biological, and most importantly, political development.

I. A Threat to Our Mental Development

The Question of Lay Analysis is one of those works in which Freud, despite his usual solemnity, takes a firm position: according to him, all laymen ought to become psychoanalysts. An interesting remark on the importance of speech reads as follows:

“Words can do unspeakable good and cause terrible wounds. No doubt ‘in the beginning was the deed’ and the word came later; in some circumstances it meant an advance in civilization when deeds were softened into words. But originally the word was magic — a magical act; and it has retained much of its ancient power,” (Ivan Smith, CW, 4330).

Freud’s endeavor to historicize speech is remarkable. The idea of word as originally a magical act; the prize of a long and hard fought psychical and evolutionary battle; pushes us to seriously consider not merely the importance of speech, but as Freud says, to estimate the extent to which it can redeem its ancient powers. A human being deprived of their ability to speak with others is then akin to a magician without their tricks, without what makes them what they have proudly become; a deprivation that surely brings the human mind back to its more primitive version; a time not merely less advance and therefore less relaxed, but one of utmost savagery and violence. Does this not explain the relaxation of the female patient’s face? It may be no coincidence that the word smile, according to Merriam-Webster, has a similar etymology to the term miracle. The neurotic’s beaming expression to Freud might as well have been a miracle; a psyche which, via the word finally cast out onto the outer realm, narrowly evades the claws of primitive and silenced misfortune and violence.

II. A Threat to Our Biological Development

Freud doesn’t stop at the psychical necessity of words; an argument from Studies on Hysteria involves far more alarming biological reasons. His peculiar observation on the processes behind speech reads as follows:

“Our speech, the outcome of the experience of many generations, distinguishes with admirable delicacy between [two] forms and degrees of heightening of excitation […] An interesting conversation, or a cup of tea or coffee has an ‘inciting’ effect; a dispute or a considerable dose of alcohol has an ‘exciting’ one. While incitement only arouses the urge to employ the increased excitation functionally, excitement seeks to discharge itself in more or less violent ways which are almost or even actually pathological,” (Ivan Smith, CW, 177).

It must be striking, though perhaps logical, to see an interesting conversation or a dispute to be regrouped with substances such as coffee or alcohol. Those to whom the latter are necessary, rather than useful, ought perhaps to push us to devote more attention to a far healthier drug, speech. But there are far bigger implications at stake. Freud’s biological argument stems from the idea that incitement and excitement, two effects of engaged speech, are necessary components of a healthy disposition. It is only with a prolonged deprivation of these excitations that a person’s biological shortcomings seeps through their barriers with the mental or the psychical. If the power of speech; the company of others, the excitations of the flow of ideas; had been a mere luxury — that is, unnecessary, or lacking in function — it would have been understandable for Freud to find underwhelming institutional reaction to reports that three in four Americans struggle with loneliness. Get a dog would have been a sufficient response. But when Freud sees speechlessness as anti-biological, he would have been surprised that it would take more than a hundred years after his warnings till the British government dedicated its own minister for loneliness.

III. A Threat to Our Personal Development

In An Outline of Psychoanalysis, one of the last works Freud has worked on, a reader finds a far more problematic conception of loneliness; one that delves in the realm of the political. After postulating about the lack of unconscious processes in animals, Freud notes how:

“In men there is an added complication through which internal processes in the ego may also acquire the quality of consciousness. This is the work of the function of speech, which brings material in the ego into a firm connection with mnemic residues of visual, but more particularly of auditory, perceptions. Thenceforward the perceptual periphery of the cortical layer can be excited to a much greater extent from inside as well, internal events such as passages of ideas and thought-processes can become conscious,” (Ivan Smith, CW, 4972).

Freud here views speech as a precondition to accessing the unconscious reservoir of our ideas. Yet in this claim lies a most serious implication on our complacency to loneliness. If Freud is right that only via speech can one unlock the treasure of our minds and release new ideas from its dark corners, loneliness then ought not merely be a trivial social affair or burdening health concern — it becomes a political question, first and foremost. There are all sorts of systemic inequalities, but could unequal access to speech be one worthy of our attention? Take two classrooms in New York City: one in Chelsea with eight students, the other in Harlem with twenty-eight. This contrast has sparked debates regarding access to technology literacy — not everyone can get an iPad — but it has rarely brought our attention to the share of speaking time students may receive, as a fundamental need rather than an educational one. Yet for Freud, it seems that genius itself; that miraculous rebel from our unconscious; is directly correlated with our ability to speak; animals, he says above, have primitive cerebral capacities because of their inability to do so.

An environment in which our ability to speak is infringed upon becomes a major political concern to the potential and fair development of all of society. A classroom with a large headcount. An urban hub with little parks. A workplace with short lunch hours. Unless we take loneliness seriously, center in within our legislation process and, more so than Freud, call the beast by its name, we would indeed be complacent not merely in the gradual decay of the mental and biological conditions of our co-citizens but more importantly in the waste of their individual potential for creative flourishment and the forfeiting of own possibilities for collective growth.

Conclusion

Why Freud never properly addressed loneliness despite his profound understanding of its dangers, it is unclear. The psychoanalyst after all seems to steer clear of politics; dedicating all his time to his science. He considered himself after all as a scientist first and foremost; god forbid naming him a philosopher; and surely not an activist. But since he has done the homework for us on the question of loneliness, as a scientist, ought we not, as activists, take the matter up for ourselves?

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