What Freud didn’t understand about sexuality

Sigmund Freud: cautious Catholic approval (Getty)

I recently reread C G Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections, a late series of interviews with Aniela Jaffe, in which he touched on his early life and its influences, his interpretation of many of his dreams and his perspective on the “spirit world.” I put this in quote marks because Jung’s spirituality was entirely gnostic and not to be confused with Christian spirituality – even if he does acknowledge the psychological benefits of the Catholic sacrament of Confession.

Yet, given his long predilection for and experience of dealing with madness, neurosis and psychosis, he could be insightful about other people’s inner tensions, none more so than about his former friend, colleague and mentor, Sigmund Freud. It is well known in psychology circles that Freud and Jung fell out and parted company over what lay behind deep-seated human drives: the sexual instinct (Freud) or wider religious and archetypical bearings (Jung).

In this book Jung records a conversation with Freud in which the latter said to him, “My dear Jung, promise me never to abandon the sexual theory. That is the most essential thing of all. You see, we must make a dogma of it, an unshakeable bulwark.” As Jung reflected afterwards, “a dogma…no longer has anything to do with scientific judgment; only with a personal power drive.”

Jung was puzzled that Freud, a declared atheist, had now constructed a dogma “or rather, in the place of a jealous God whom he had lost, he had substituted another compelling image, that of sexuality.” He asked himself the question, why was Freud so bitter? The answer seemed to be that “although, for Freud, sexuality was undoubtedly a numinosum, his terminology and theory seemed to define it exclusively as a biological function…Basically he wanted teach – or so at least it seemed to me – that, regarded from within, sexuality included spirituality and had an intrinsic meaning. But his concretistic terminology was too narrow to express this idea. He gave me the impression that at bottom he was working against his own goal and against himself; and there is, after all, no harsher bitterness than that of a person who is his own worst enemy.”

For Jung this made Freud a tragic figure. As he put it, “He remained unaware that his “monotony of interpretation” expressed a flight from himself, or from that other side of him which might perhaps be called mystical. So long as he refused to acknowledge that side, he could never be reconciled with himself.”

The Catholic theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand develops Jung’s point in his reflections on the intrinsic mystical nature of married love in his (recently republished) book, The Encyclical Humanae Vitae. Freud, he observed, “was blind not only to the nature of love…but also to the nature of sex; for this sphere reveals its true character, meaning, depth and mystery only when seen in the light of spousal love, as a field of fulfilment of the lasting, irrevocable union in which “two become one flesh.”