Psychoanalysis was founded to discover truths of human nature and to heal by means of truthful discourse. Sigmund Freud, after experimenting with hypnosis, began working instead in the familiar but also radical terrain of human speech. He landed upon the technique of free association after patients, almost all female, pushed back against his leading questions; free association followed from his surrender to the voices of women. It calls in turn upon the patient to surrender all the thoughts that occur to her, without editing, censoring, or concealment, and to yield to their truth in the context of address, of an intersubjective discourse.
Through such socially unconventional conversations, Freud wandered into uncanny territory. It wasn’t only the unconscious that compelled his attention, but also the peculiar signage of unconscious terrain. He named this signage “infantile sexuality” and he recognized it as both utterly normal and utterly perverse.
If psychoanalysis desired a path of least resistance to public acceptance, it couldn’t have chartered a more brilliant means of ensuring its self-defeat. But as Freud and every practicing psychoanalyst since has discovered, the path to resistance is the very path to cure; and every psychoanalysis follows this obstacle-ridden odyssey. This odyssey proceeds by means of encrypted signs that tell a universal story even as they also reveal an infinitely varying trail of singularity. Freud’s genius was to recognize psychoanalysis’s enduring validity as desire’s tale and travails.
How was the infant’s sexuality to be revealed? Infants, by definition, are without language (in-fantem). What Freud intuited early on was the need for a space of speech. A space between speaker and listener, a space between the raw sensual body and its experiential energies, and the psyche’s mind. Somewhere in there, we might say, was the soul—desire’s voice. But it would take the transformation of the patient from mute infant to speaking adult to enfranchise and claim her desire and to emancipate her mind and her body. All by means of winning her freedom to think and to speak, through a signature practice of free thought and free speech.
Freud dismissed and denigrated our draw to illusion and self-deception; but he was not deterred from his goal of translating the energies of what the body spoke. He glimpsed the power of an enlightened speaking subject. He glimpsed but never realized the power of psychoanalysis to democratize desire, to grant human beings their natural and inalienable rights to own their sexuality, libido, and free speech privilege. Revolutionary? At the very least, threatening to the world of encrusted power arrangements.
There will always be resistance. Through speaking (which also includes listening, translating, and interpreting), the patient names and shares unspoken desires and forbidden knowledge, knowledge many will resist hearing. Psychoanalytic cures, like democratic actions, require speaking truth to power, enlisting the voice of the marginalized in the franchise of speech, surviving destruction, liberating desire. The content of that conversation, however sentimental, naïve, and idealized it may sound to say, is one of freedom and truth—but also of hope, compassion, generosity, excitement, love, and a striving toward equality.
The once meek shall inherit the earth through the natural design of human speech and relationship, harnessed through a technique of free association, through a dedicated practice of speaking desire—democratizing desire— in the context as well as under the constraints of transference. Free speech, be it democratic or psychoanalytic, is the lever that redistributes voice and human agency. A truly egalitarian model that Marx and the communist manifesto might wish to claim! But one that has at its core a vision that Tocqueville anticipated for democracy, one that we might envision for psychoanalysis: When “plain citizens … get together in free associations, they have something of nobility in their souls.” Nobility borne of translating the infant’s mute sexual curiosity and natural “perverse” desire into a talking that cures.