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Orality is a major component of the organization of the libido during the first, pregenital phase of its development; it is thus an essential aspect of psychosexuality.

Freud gave his first overall description of the phases of the libido in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). Sucking, initially autoerotic, is the earliest expression of the instincts. It is anaclitically supported by a function necessary to the preservation of life, the absorption of nourishment. Pleasure is therefore linked to an erotogenic zone, the mouth, and more specifically to the mucous membranes of the lips and mouth. This pleasure will later be found again in kissing, in the pleasure of eating, drinking, or smoking, and so forth, and it can become the basis for perverse practices. This excitability may persist throughout life, linkedto some degreeto genitality. Due to the very fact of this link, oral pleasure may be repressed and eating disorders may appear.

In a note added to the Three Essays, in 1915 Freud specified that during the oral phase, "the sexual aim consists in the incorporation of the objectthe prototype of a process which, in the form of identification, is later to play such an important psychological part" (1905d, p. 198). Orality is thus also a mode of relationship to the object. Freud elaborated on this idea in connection with the psychopathology of instances of the ego's loss of the objects it has cathected. "The ego wants to incorporate this object into itself, and . . . it wants to do so by devouring it," he wrote in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1916-1917 [1915], p. 250). At the stage of the oral organization of the libido, love of the object still coincides with the destruction of the object, according to Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g).

Freud's perspectives were slightly modified with his introduction of the second topography (or structural theory). During the oral phrase, he then argued, because the three agencies were not yet differentiated, object-cathexis was still based on identification. "Later on object-cathexes proceed from the id, which feels erotic trends as needs," he wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923b, p. 29).

Since erotogenic masochism is a part of all phases of libidinal development, Freud held (1924c) that the fear of being devoured by the totem animal (the father) emanated from the primitive oral organization.

In his important article "The Influence of Oral Erotism on Character Formation," (1924) Karl Abraham associated envy and jealousy with oral erotism. Adopting Abraham's thesis, Freud in his New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933) distinguished two substages of the oral phase: The first is preambivalent (conflict-free); the second, linked to the development of dentition, is marked by ambivalence owing to conflict between the desire to bite the breast and inhibition of that desire, and is thus described as "oral-sadistic."

Abraham's and Freud's views were the basis for Melanie Klein's theory that premature activation of the oral-sadistic tendencies is the cause of hypertrophied sadism and strongly ambivalent object-relations. More generally, it was with reference to the oral stage of libidinal development that she elaborated her notion of a close bond between destructive and libidinal impulses. She contended that anxiety stems essentially from the instinctual dangers of the destructive tendencies and their repression. This is the source of what later in her theoretical work would become the love/hate opposition marking the earliest relations to the breast, and its fundamental split into good breast and bad breast.

Dominique J. Arnoux

See also: Anorexia nervosa; Basic Neurosis, TheOral regression and psychic masochism; Bulimia; Demand; Eroticism, oral; "Mourning and Melancholia; Partial drive; Phobias in children; Pregnancy, fantasy of; Oral-sadistic stage; Oral stage; Stage (or phase); Stammering; Sucking/thumbsucking; Wish for a baby.


Abraham, Karl. (1949). The influence of oral erotism on character formation. In Selected papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (Douglas Bryan and Alix Strachey, Trans.). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-analysis. (Original work published 1925)

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1916-17g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18; 1-64.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1933a [1932]). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Klein, Melanie. (1932). The psycho-analysis of children. London: Hogarth.

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