The Revelatory Period (1896 - 99).

"A man like me cannot live without a hobby-horse, a consuming passion - in Schiller's
words a tyrant. I have found my tyrant, and in his service I know no limits. My tyrant
is psychology; it has always been my distant, beckoning goal and now, since I have
hit on the neuroses, it has come so much the nearer."
- Freud to William Fliess, May 25 1895.

As the dawn of the new century approached, Freud became increasingly dissatisfied with his theories. He was worried by the fact that he was approaching middle age but was still a relative unknown, and his emotions varied from euphoria to depression even though his finances and family life were secure. This was possibly due, of course, to his frequent use of cocaine during this period. Freud channelled this nervous energy into his work. As he told Fliess, he felt that he could not live without a "consuming passion" - he had chosen psychology for this purpose and must be its slave. He began to have doubts about the validity of his methods. The cathartic treatment could not deal adequately with the underlying causes of hysteria (1) since fresh symptoms often arose to take the place of those that had been abreacted. In addition, only a small percentage of patients could be successfully hypnotised. Freud also came to disagree with Charcot that hysteria always had a hereditary cause. After one aristocratic patient complained that Freud kept "interrupting" her, he decided to modify his style, leading to the adoption of the free association method from about 1896.

Free association involves the same basic principles as the cathartic method in its attempt to discover the traumatic effect underlying symptoms, but is always under the control of the analysand (without hypnosis). The patient is urged to speak freely with no regard to moral inhibitions and to say whatever comes into her mind. At first Freud would apply pressure to the patient's forehead as if he could extract the symptoms by willpower alone, but later abandoned this device and instead took the role of an observer, occasionally drawing attention to significant memories, which usually appeared spontaneously during the course of the analytic session.

The free association process is often blocked by intensive resistance from the analysand to the analyst's interpretations. Freud came to see this resistance as the key psychological factor since it shows that we always try to conceal in the unconscious things that we find distasteful, and it is often when this repression fails that we become neurotic. Resistance is almost invariably accompanied by transference, meaning that the patient transfers memories from parental figures to the analyst himself. At the same time the patient usually recognises that the analyst is outside of her family whilst offering the love and attention expected of the parents, so often falls in love with him, or in some cases becomes hostile to him if she sees him in the place of a cruel parent. This became known as "hostile transference".

The key to the free association method is self-understanding. In contrast to the cathartic method, where merely identifying the event which had sparked off the trauma was sufficient, the free association method aims to teach the patient precisely why this event should have resulted in a neurosis. Freud would wait until he thought that the patient was capable of accepting the truth, then would reveal what he believed the symptoms indicated. This gave the analysand the opportunity to gain an objective standpoint from which to view his complexes. His personality broke free from the compulsion of the complex and he could take up a new independent attitude towards it as he broke off the transference relationship. From 1896 on Freud would call this new form of treatment "psycho-analysis". Its inception meant the end of a working relationship with Breuer, but he now had Fliess to console him.

Many of these recovered memories seemed to point to the sexual abuse of the patient in childhood. This led Freud to formulate what became known as the seduction theory, in which he argued that this abuse was almost always the cause of the neurosis. It was "forgotten about" soon after it occurred but would return from the repressed to initiate neurotic symptoms some time after puberty: hysteria if the sexual experience had been traumatic, obsessional neurosis if it had been in some way pleasurable. Freud read a paper in 1896 before the Vienna Society for Psychiatry and Neurology on the subject (The Aetiology of Hysteria) - another one of his lectures that was badly received. The renowned neurologist Richard Krafft-Ebing, who specialised in sexual psychopathology, scathingly noted: "It sounds like a scientific fairy tale" (2). Freud realised that the path to discovery would be a difficult and lonely one. Shortly afterwards (though the exact date is uncertain), Freud began to undertake an intense self-analysis (initiated in part by the death of his father in October 1896) that would help to lead him to the discovery of his major theories. He realised that the trauma that sparked off the neurosis often seemed to be based on (unconscious infantile) fantasies rather than a real memory of a particular event. Freud therefore abandoned the seduction theory, having decided that it was not important if the event had actually happened or not; for, as he noted in his later Autobiographical Study, "as far as the neurosis was concerned psychical reality was of more importance than material reality" (3). Freud argued in Screen Memories (1899) that often a trivial memory acted as a "screen" for a significant but unacceptable one concealed behind it.


1) See Studies On Hysteria (1895), Standard Edition II.

2) See Gay, Peter ([1988] 1995) Freud: A Life for Our Time, Papermac, London, p.93.

3) See An Autobiographical Study (1925), Standard Edition XX, p.34.


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ã Robin Tamblyn, 2000.

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