My Ill-fated Introduction to Freud

More than thirty-five years ago my early reading of Freud happened to coincide with a dramatic natural event which had the effect of greatly reducing my interest in his work. On the campus where I was a student a fir tree struck by lightning caught fire about thirty feet from the ground, and it took a fire truck over an hour to put the fire out. Almost every summer, many square miles of Oregon forests burn in fires started this way, and these fires require the efforts of hundreds of men and women to extinguish. Seeing even a single tree on fire like this gives you an enormous appreciation of the power of fire in the natural world.

Unfortunately the text of Freud’s I was reading at about that time included the passage below, and even after making all due allowances for the fact that Freud lived in cities all his life, and giving him due credit for putting his conjecture into a rather sheepish footnote, what he wrote is still terribly silly:

If we go back far enough, we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire, and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control of fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement…. Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture – a fantastic-sounding one – about the origins of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came into contact with fire, of satisfying the infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine.  The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upward. Putting out the fire by micturating – a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.  This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire.

— Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents,
tr. Strachey, Norton, 1930/1984.

Elsewhere Freud conjectured that Stone Age women, all too aware of their lack of built-in firefighting equipment, made pitiful, femme attempts to compensate for this deficiency — attempts which, while unsuccessful, did lead to the development of one of the femme crafts: 

“The effect of penis-envy has a share, further, in the physical vanity of women, since they are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority. Shame, which is considered to be a feminine characteristic par excellence but is far more a matter of convention than might be supposed, has as its purpose, we believe, concealment of genital deficiency. We are not forgetting that at a later time shame takes on other functions.. It seems that women have made few contributions to the discoveries and inventions in the history of civilization; there is, however, one technique which they may have invented — that of plaiting and weaving. If that is so, we should be tempted to guess the unconscious motive for the achievement. Nature herself would seem to have given the model which this achievement imitates by causing the growth at maturity of the pubic hair that conceals the genitals. The step that remained to be taken lay in making the threads adhere to one another, while on the body they stick into the skin and are only matted together. If you reject this idea as fantastic and regard my belief in the influence of the lack of a penis on the configuration of femininity as an idee fixe, I am of course defenseless.”

— Freud, S. “Lecture 33: Femininity”, 1933,
in New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Standard Edition,
vol. 22, pp. 136-157; originally seen in Dora, 1901 / 1905
and “The Acquisition and Control of Fire”, 1932.

Thinking about the fire I had witnessed in the light of Freud’s thought, I had a flash of insight: Our ancestors were just too stupid to live.

I imagined a band of cave men gathered around a fire like the one I saw, incontinently and ecstatically squirting their tiny streams of urine in the futile effort to extinguish the raging fire, while at the same time their resentful, feminist wives tried  furiously to weave themselves little fake penises even more useless than the men’s real penises. I became convinced that the human race, deluded as it was, wasn’t going to make it. We are, as a species (like Lewis Carroll’s  “bread-and-butterfly fly”) incapable of survival:

–You may observe a bread-and-butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.
–And what does It live on?
— Weak tea with cream in it.

A new difficulty came into Alice’s head:
— Supposing it couldn’t find any? – she suggested.
— Then it would die, of course.
— But that must happen very often, Alice remarked thoughtfully.
— It always happens, – said the Gnat.


Ever polite, Alice doesn’t even mention the real problem: the bread-and-butterflies’ sugarlump heads would immediately dissolve when they took their first taste of tea.

Of course, there remains the question of where we came from, since our ancestors clearly became extinct before they even had time to breed. But no theory explains everything, and one of the strengths of a good theory is that it leads to questions for further research.