Thoughts on Freud

This is a column about  the news that Pfizer had shelved female Viagra published in the Scottish Herald on 03 March 2004.

I am always rather pleased when I read that scientists have been thwarted in their attempts to reduce this or that great mystery to a few diagrams and a dull explanation. Thankfully, despite the faith our age puts in science and all its works, it still happens quite often. So just as some of the hopeful predictions of the previous generation of scientists have failed to come to pass - the paperless office, the cashless economy, unmetered electricity, to name a few - so reality is intruding on the dreams of the current crew.

Geneticists were going to read the book of life, but found it was rather less illuminating than they had hoped. For a while, they believed it might be possible to reduce human beings to a code which would explain personality traits as well as things such as hair colour. It might even be possible to clone people, they said. But it turns out that human
beings are more than the sum of our parts. The existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, would not be surprised by this as he believed that human beings have an element of choice about who they are and how they live their lives – what is important is to realise the choices that one has, he thought. So Sartre once said that the jazz musician, Charlie Parker, was a better existentialist than he was, because Parker broke the rules: he lived a life predicated on freedom and choice which took him from rural Kansas to the jazz joints of New York, where until he died of drugs and drink aged 34, Parker helped to create a new kind of music. Of course, even if one could replicate his gene code, there could never be another Charlie Parker. Even if you also cloned Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell, they wouldn’t be able to invent be-bop, which grew out of the music of 1930s New York. If every
snowflake is different, surely it is impossibly arrogant to suppose that one could ever create two individuals who were in any sense the same.

It was interesting to read that a study of cloned piglets found that they differed at least as much in appearance and behaviour as siblings, and it is good to see cloning being sidelined by history. Similarly, it was gratifying to read at the weekend: ”The secret to unlocking female sexual arousal is to remain a mystery to scientists.” After eight years, untold amounts of investment and tests on 3000 women, drug giant Pfizer is giving up on the attempt to find a pill that will make women desire sex.

This, of course, has been the holy grail of pharmaceuticals. Although male Viagra is a huge money-spinner, a female version would make King Midas green with envy. Many more women than men suffer from sexual dysfunction or low libido. Whereas men in the presence of naked women usually have erections and want sex, that is not necessarily true of women in the presence of naked men, even today where women are not under
pressure to suppress their sexuality. Women do not appear to have the same responses as men.

Female desire has in the past been seen as a complicated thing but that was going to change. There were going to be little diamond-shaped pink pills which were going to make fufilling sex available on prescription. But researchers have been frustrated. Sadly, they have found that although Viagra is safe for women and can even produce physical arousal, that has little effect on female libido. They say that for women there appears to be a ”disconnection” between mental and physical factors when it comes to desire. This appears to mean that, for most women, wanting sex is not simply physical but has emotional and psychological aspects. A professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University, Dr Marianne Legato, was quoted as saying that connecting arousal and desire
in the female required exquisite timing and a fair amount of coaxing. This particular brick wall would not have surprised the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud.

For him, feminine sexuality was the last great uncharted wilderness of thought and he spent his life trying to answer the question: what do women want? Freud went to his deathbed without believing he had solved it, and it became the ultimate mystery for psychoanalysis. After him, the controversial French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, made an attempt, positing that the answer to the riddle might be ”Encore” – more.

The Spice Girls teased their audience with it: ”I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want,” before copping out with the chorus: ”Zig-a-zig-a.” But for Freud, the mystery and caprice of feminine desire was central to western civilisation. It was that which prompted
all kinds of creative endeavour, undertaken by the male of the species in an attempt to impress, and perhaps undress, the female. So it is just as well, perhaps, that the Pfizer doctors have not produced a pink pill that would reduce female desire to a predictable response, available at the drop of a tablet. Without it, according to Freud, most of the
world’s poetry, art, literature and music may not have existed. Civilisation, too, might lose its impetus and collapse. It would certainly become more boring.


It’s tough, but you’ve got to laugh
This was another column drawing heavily on Freud written shortly after 911 about jokes in the aftermath of 911, from the Scottish Herald on 03 October 2001

I There are so many things you just can’t joke about – at least not in public – as Celtic fan David Munro discovered after his plane imitation aimed at US footballer Claudio Reyna crashed and burned at Ibrox. Munro went far too far: even his fellow fans realised that as they tried to pull him back down into his seat.

It was disgusting and tasteless but not entirely surprising – football fans frequently attack players and opposing fans verbally on the basis of their race, sexuality, religion; you name it. The world really will have changed in the wake of September 11 if chants at football matches are made to conform to the generally accepted rules about taste and decency. I used to work in the bars of Highbury and White Hart Lane, the grounds of Arsenal and Tottenham, the latter of whose fans are presumed to be Jewish. Although they are generally not, they happily adopt this identity at games. When Arsenal fans chant: ”We’ve got foreskins, we’ve got foreskins, you ain’t,” they reply with: ”You’ve got foreskins, we
ain’t.” But that is one of the more printable exchanges – some of the chants stray distressingly into the no-man’s-land of the Holocaust and could not be published here.

Of course, most Arsenal fans aren’t really anti-Semitic, in the same way that most Rangers fans don’t actually hate Catholics. David Munro probably doesn’t hate Americans either. But at games they assume a fictional, tribal identity. The drink diminishes their inhibitions, and songs and chants seem funny to them which even they would find in hideously bad taste in other contexts.

Donald Finlay is not the only Rangers fan who has sung The Sash. But when he was caught on film singing it, he was humiliated and had to resign as Rangers vice-chairman. It almost drove him to suicide, he has said. The things shouted at football matches are like the jokes we tell each other in private. They are like the playground smut that children
giggle over hysterically but would hate their parents to hear.

In offices and pubs around the land this week, people are sharing the usual cracks which appear after every disaster. They spread by e-mail and text message. Their recipients snigger or raise their eyebrows and pass them on. But this is an essentially secret and undercover transaction – nobody wants these things to be made public.

When Queen’s University of Belfast students tried to publish a page of sick Diana gags after the princess died in a car crash, they ended up having to pulp thousands of copies of their magazine, PTQ, because of public outrage.

Freud in Jokes and Their Relation To The Unconscious divided jokes into two categories: the first is the innocent pleasantries which were a play on words with no real target. He quotes a German joke: ”Und weil er Geld in menge hatte, lag stets er in der hangematte” which translates as: ”Because he has lots of money, he lies in a hammock.” It loses a
little in translation, though it may have been howlingly funny in nineteenth-century Vienna.

But this is the category that the printable humour about the American atrocity falls into. The Herald diary has confined itself to one funny – about John Lewis being raided by the Irish SAS looking for bed linen. There are several others along the same lines: isn’t it terrible about the dustman who was accidentally shot dead last week. Apparently the CIA
heard he was bin-laden. Ditto the one about the raid on Battersea Dogs Home – they were looking for Afghans. There is a picture circulating on the internet of Osama bin Laden morphed with Rowan Atkinson called Mr Bean Laden; and another of a familiar dustbin with a large bushy beard – Dusty bin Laden. Few people will find these witticisms, which are simply puns, offensive. They allow one to smile and release a little tension without having any real target.

The other kind of joke Freud identified were those which were aimed at someone or some group of people and needed a third party to share the funny side to make them pleasurable. These are either hostile or obscene, and release something that we have repressed. They are infantile and can have an element of schadenfreude – the pleasure that results from having avoided a misfortune which has overtaken others.
This is the kind of essentially malevolent impulse that lay behind what David Munro did. His parents were quoted calling him a ”disgrace”. He is to be banned for life from the Celtic ground and his season ticket will be withdrawn. Fair enough. Celtic feel that he has brought shame on the club.

But, for reasons that we hardly understand, the sick joke is part of the aftermath of any disaster. It is almost a sign of recovery, a sign that life goes on, the way that weeds quickly spring from bombed-out ruins. And humour can be a statement of defiance, too – as it was for Freud. When questions were asked at Westminster about how the Nazis were treating Freud, the Gestapo raided his home to make him sign something to say he was not being ill-treated. They found him playing chess with his wife. He asked them to wait as he was close to check-mate. When he finished the game, he read the disclaimer and added to it the words: ”In fact, I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”

All from The Scottish Herald