THE TERM ‘ANAL’ is often used to refer to people who are obsessively neat, rigidly organized or overly controlling. It’s a word that’s been embedded in our language long enough that most folks don’t know its origin, and accept it like other casual slang, without question. When we stop to reflect, it may seem like a pretty weird label, with no obvious connection to what it has come to represent.
It turns out this is one of many Freudian concepts that has become part of everyday speech and thinking. Like the notion that dreams hold clues about unconscious feelings, or that anything could even be unconscious to begin with. Freud has been much maligned in popular discourse, most often as the butt of jokes about his preoccupation with sex. Those making such jokes have rarely read anything Freud wrote, and lack any realistic appreciation of his massive contributions to our understanding of human nature. This is profoundly ironic, given how many Freudian formulations those same people would endorse if queried, without any awareness that Freud was their author.
Freud devised his theories from within a particular context, as has every person who has ever lived. That includes all other geniuses revered long after flaws in their views were found by subsequent thinkers, who were also operating within the confines of their own cultures, historical periods and a unique set of individual experiential reference points.
Victorian Europe was rife with sexual repression, and this caused real problems for many of those who sought Freud’s help. So, there’s nothing perverse about this having become a focal point of his work and writing. Sexuality, as Freud understood it, was a far broader conceptual domain than what typically comes to mind when we encounter that term today. More on that in a moment. Freud is also often faulted for having a sexist perspective consistent with, and even supportive of that of his era. Such critiques are often based on a cursory survey of his writings, with offense taken at a select few positions; the baby is then thrown out with the bathwater. There is no doubt whatsoever that Freud deserves critique and substantial revision, considering shifts in our stance on gender equality, implicit societal biases, and other dimensions of sociological evolution.
However, this is always true of any historical figure, and in no way makes Freud worthy of wholesale dismissal. It is more remarkable how radically his ideas diverged from the mainstream of his time. The image of a psychoanalyst sitting silently behind a patient recumbent on a couch, interpreting whatever is said in terms of something problematic in the patient’s relationship with his mother, is a ridiculous caricature, far removed from how such work is practiced.
Kernels of truth are nevertheless present, including an emphasis on exquisitely careful listening and the inclusion of early experiences in making sense of later issues. These are widely accepted values in modern thinking about psychological treatment, as pioneered byFreud. For Freud, sexuality (creative, appetitive or affiliative vitality better captures his meaning) was a complex array of bodily sensations and physiological drives present from birth, not just the subject of pornography or a mature romance.
To briefly summarize the progression, the infant begins life with an appropriate focus on activities involving its mouth; feeding is the most important thing it does. In Freud’s system of psychosexual development, this is the oral stage. Next comes the anal stage, when there is tremendous focus on the opposite end of the alimentary canal, as parents employ a variety of strategies to cultivate bowel control in their child. Themes of cleanliness versus filth, neatness versus messiness, pride versus disgust or shame, deliberate timing versus spontaneity, among others, are figural. How parents handle these leaves an impression on the child’s personality.
Although the sources of these impressions are typically obscured by the sands of time, their traces show up later in the patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that get layered upon that early foundation; the same goes for all other developmental stages.
As you tidy up your garage, polish your chrome, change your oil, plan your tour or aim for an apex, you no doubt display remnants of long-forgotten dramas from your own ancient history. Like tire tracks on a dirt road, they reveal features of what came before, but is now invisible. Freud was interested in reconstructing the original events based on what evidence remained, like any good detective. Such inferences can seem far-fetched at first glance, but upon closer analysis, they do make sense. So does our bastardized use of the term, “anal.”
Dr. Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist, in private practice, author of “Why We Ride,” excerpts from 20 years of MCN columns.