On the 3 Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

Written by Vassiliki Simoglou on 03/07/2011. Posted in Psychoanalysis

On the 3 Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Sigmund Freud, 27.11.02

General points

Out of all of his books, Freud has been continuously revising, completing and up-dating this one, together with the Interpretation of Dreams, for some twenty years after its first publication in 1905. Its last revision, the one of 1924-25, is actually contemporary to the publication of “Instincts and their vissicitudes”. The Three Essays, “one of Freud’s most original and memorable contributions to human knowledge”, (the judgement is of James Strachey) were so badly received that they turned Freud universally unpopular… the legend says that people stopped greeting him on the street! As Jones reports, people thought of the book as immoral and of its author as wicked and obscene. But what was this book about, to launch such a storm?

In fact, Freud, using everyday language – in the first edition “libido” is the only technical word that one can come across – delivers a multitude of shocking propositions: the adult’s sexuality is of infantile character, and the child is a polymorphous pervert. Orifices and surfaces, what comes in and what goes out, contents and envelops, oneself and the other: the child makes a sexual use out of everything, and still, this kind of use can be named love. The purest love opens to a whole world of deviations, the purest kiss is a contact between two digestive mucous glands. Sexual are the sucking of the hot liquid, the progression of the intestinal content, both also considered to be equivalent of masturbation. You see, the infant masturbates, when a baby, but even later on, when sexual excitement, of central origin, comes to it as an itch. Sexual are the joys of play and of swing. Sexual and merciless the astonishing cruelty of the young human being, sexual his taste for masochism. He is a voyeur, lacking of any kind of decency. No pleasure satisfies him, no pleasure will stop him; he’ll be, in turns, a cannibal, homosexual and incestuous. Any activity excites him: move, talk, think, everything is good to him: working as well as sleeping, playing as well as crying. Anything of a slight importance going on in the organism, says Freud, is susceptible of supplying its contribution to the excitement of the sexual instinct. Which means that sexual arousal is actually a marginal effect as it were, it stands for what Freud calls an “internal foreign body”, revealing by this very expression its little logical status, and the fact that it actually is a foreign body internal to logic.

In this brief anthology, another motive of the storm comes into being, because no matter how one reads this book, at one point or another he is confronted to the insistence of an evidence: sexuality does not aim procreation. Human sexuality serves nothing else but itself, it escapes the order of nature. It is, as it were, against nature.

But is all the above capable of explaining the raging fury of 1905? Freud’s account of, let’s say it, obscenity is nothing that sexologists of his time such as Krafft-Ebing or Havelock Ellis, that writers such as J.-J. Rousseau and Emile Zola, hadn’t touched upon, and nothing that parents, nannies and teachers hadn’t always known in a way. We could keep on and on putting Freud on this paradoxical trial in order to show that there’s nothing in all this that he invented really…

So there must be some other reason to the harsh reception of the Tree Essays, and under this new lighting, another evidence appears: the book is transcended by a determination, the determination to attack in order to annihilate all previous widespread and common-sensical knowledge on sexuality. The violence by which the book was received testifies the accomplishment of this goal. With this book, Freud tells the biological science, the religious morale, and the public opinion that they are mistaken and that they hide from themselves in order to calm down social as well as individual likings. And that he claims, not really to rectify, but to destroy and to break with their errors, their inaccuracies and their hasty presuppositions. Because, it is well the public opinion that recognizes sexual instinct only after physiological puberty, and that, as a response to a natural need whose unique object would be the other sex, and whose only objective would be the sexual union. What he says he wants to destroy is these fixed representations. He wants to destroy (1) drive by the sexual aberrations, inherent to human sexuality, almost universal, and whose existence itself destroys every kind of belief that the object and the objective of human sexuality would be pre-established – first essay, destroy (2) “the” sexuality by its genesis, by reconstructing and redefining sexuality through its infantile origins – second essay, and destroy (3) the discovery of the object after puberty by accounting that this finding is actually a “finding again” – third essay.

A main thread runs through all three Essays: the consequences of the sexual instinct on the life and function of the mind: by establishing a contact point between sexual instinct and psychic reality, Freud reveals a reality that will never stop seeming unheard of.

Time went by, and so did the storm. But the reader of the Three Essays, more or less familiar with psychoanalysis or not at all, will acknowledge that this book, in keeping with what it makes an account of, remains extraordinarily free, and at the same time offensive to aesthetics, to ethics, to logic. So what has happened to the scandal? The offensive contact that Freud established between sexuality and spirituality has followed the destiny of amorous encounters: it has become conservatory once the spark aroused, a sanctuary of novelty, the same way a sexual affair between two persons, installs, together with the control of the fire, the possibility of its extinction. And so the scandal within it has become a scandalon, a stumbling block, a trap.

I found very interesting the fact that in the latest French translation of the “Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie”, the title’s translation was modified to “Three essays on Sexual Theory”, replacing the former “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”, which is also still the official translation in English. Loyal to the identity of this title’s words with those of the article on Infantile sexual theories, 1908, where Freud uses the same word Sexualtheorie, the french translator makes a statement: the theory is sexual, the same way the child constructs his own sexual theories in an attempt to answer to the questions over his origins, his conception, his birth, the difference between the two sexes, etc. By this double use of the same word, Freud acts as if he refused to establish a hierarchy, on the name of knowledge, between these two kinds of theorizing. This could also be his way of signifying that the instinct of knowing itself has its source in sexuality…

After this shortcut, let’s come back to the scandalon, the trap announced earlier. In fact, the child is not the oracle of origins, but a mistaken and misled researcher, always wandering within the enigma of the research of himself; the sexual theory, his own as much as that of the Three Essays, reveals that the thinking that explores and moves ahead, our thinking, can deceive: it is also sexual, and before it ever comes to establish any connection, it encounters, fingers, touches; sometimes it focuses, or it turns away. Nevertheless, Freud speaks of the child and not only of the infantile, he speaks of what the child says, of what it does, and of the encounters of what it says with what it does, thus its sexual expressions. He also speaks of ages of infancy, taking care to be precise in the ages given.

It wouldn’t be fair to Freud to support that he is only interested in the infantile; but, equally, it wouldn’t be fair not to see that his development does concern only the infantile: believe that the child is Freud’s object – or the object of Psychoanalysis – would be a total misinterpretation. Because the child is the theoretic myth of the infantile, and Freud deals with it as he deals with the Urvater, the father of the primitive horde, that is as agitators, provocateurs of the theory itself, psychoanalytic and sexual. There is, from my point of view, one of the most important freudian contributions: the fact that Freud operated an irreversible and unprecedented schism between genital and sexual, sexual as in psycho-sexual, a schism to read between the lines in every single page of the Three Essays.

How can the amorous, love-seeking practice of the child, destined to fail, provoke theory? Possessing and using of all sexual psychic functions, the child doesn’t have any sexual somatic function apart from those of preliminary pleasure. Consequently, his research cannot but open to aberrations, abirrung, to loss of track, disorientation, to wandering and enigmas.

Jacques Lacan gave his simplest formula to this enigma, by saying, “it just doesn’t work between a man and a woman”. The child will never cease to be confronted to this enigma, without ever being able to resolve it, because what it is looking for, is what had once worked for it, between itself and its primal object. Finding the object, is, actually, re-finding it, said Freud, only the object to find again is not the object that has been lost, but its substitute by displacement. The lost object is the object of self-preservation, it’s the object of hunger, and the object that we tend to find in sexuality is a displaced object in relation to this first object. That is why it is obviously impossible to ever find the object again, since the object that has been lost is not the same as the object supposed to be found again. This is exactly the trap, the essential illusion from which sexual research originates.

Freud will name and introduce the enigmatic object itself: the instinct, unknowledgeable, otherwise by its representatives and its representations. Instinct is the trap, the scandalon, it’s like a catastrophe between two states that it separates and reunifies, that it will not separate completely, nor will it unify: it’s a border-concept, a contact-concept between body and soul, sexuality and spirituality, psychic and biological reality, a concept of demarcation and a concept of limiting. It misleads the child, but opens up to the theory that succeeded in naming it, without ever ceasing to be driven by it. And, because it is at the same time a contact and a separation concept, instinct allows thinking the link, the liaison, the amorous as well as the theoretic one, in their perplexities.

A theory that is sexual by naming what it is driven by, that’s what Freud’s text is all about, a theatre of the conjunction of what says with what is being said; the theory of kissing, for instance, is put forward in what we could call a “language of kisses”. So, as far as the contact between mouths and lips is concerned, which aren’t part of the genital apparatus but form the entrance of the digestive tube, Freud underlines the enormous significance that is attributed to it, naming it a kiss, an embrace, even by the most highly civilized people. This is a fact, which, he says, allows tying perversion with normal sexual life, and by the same movement it allows establishing a theoretic connection: a movement in which the exception – perversion – ends up carrying away the rule. The exception presuming the existence of a definite drive, of a preexistent normative sexual function, ends up undermining and destroying the notion of biological norm. Sexuality as a whole, or at least infantile sexuality, resumes itself in perversion. Drive as a vital function is perverted by sexuality. Instinct, on the other hand, is, in a purely freudian sense, sexuality.

Two persons’ embrace, as a starting point of an amorous liaison, a love affair, meaning that it might actually work between them, echoes, by the intervention of theoretic language, with what has become, therefore, a liaison, a connection, between conceptual thoughts; and the sign that instinct embraces theorizing itself.


Vassiliki Simoglou

Τα κείμενα που δημοσιεύονται στον παρόντα ιστότοπο εκφράζουν τις απόψεις του συντάκτη τους. Κατά το Ν. 2121/1993 και κατά τη Διεθνή Σύμβαση της Βέρνης (που έχει κυρωθεί με το Ν. 100/1975) απαγορεύεται η αναδημοσίευση και γενικά η αναπαραγωγή των κειμένων, με οποιονδήποτε τρόπο, τμηματικά ή περιληπτικά, στο πρωτότυπο ή σε μετάφραση ή άλλη διασκευή, χωρίς γραπτή άδεια του συντάκτη τους. Παραπομπές στα κείμενα θα πρέπει να γίνονται ως ακολούθως: Σίμογλου, Β. Ν., 2011, [Τίτλος κειμένου], προσβάσιμο στις [Ημερομηνία], από [URL].

The Ego is not master in its own house.

S. Freud


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