Organic Repression

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The theory of organic repression was elaborated throughout Freud's work in order to propose a synthetic, "psychobiological" solution to the problem of pathological repression and the choice of neurosis. Civilization was considered to be built on the model of an "organic" repression of abandoned libidinal zones, for example the abandonment of olfactory satisfactions as hominids evolved into standing upright. Throughout his life Freud tried to find a "psychobiological" solution to the question posed by the psychic organization, notably those of the choice of neurosis and pathological repression (Sulloway, 1979). The same Lamarckian and biogenetic model of human development inspired the earliest, as well as the latest Freudian discoveries, giving rise to an underlying model of psychosexual evolution meant to interpret human behavior. Many of the phylogenetic points of view that Freud promulgated after Totem and Taboo (1912-13a) had been adopted by him as early as the 1890s, as his correspondence with Fliess shows.

A few phases of the evolution of Freudian thought concerning the problem of repression can be distinguished, in the course of which Freud perfected complementary theories, one psychological and the other organo-phylogenetic. The instincts rooted in phylogenesis never stopped haunting his thought (Laplanche, 1993).

After abandoning the seduction theory in 1897, Freud replaced the notion of defense against real traumatic seductions linked to the environment with an organic olfactory theory of repression. He explained the propensity of man toward sexual neurosis by an excessive repression of the affects of pleasure, which were associated with certain infantile erogenous zones, such as the mouth, the nose, throat, and anus (letter to Fliess of November, 14, 1897). He took up this point of view again, in particular, in "The case of the Rat Man" (1909d), who had been a "sniffer" in his childhood, identifying people through their particular odor. In this case study he wonders whether "the atrophy of the sense of smell (which was an inevitable result of man's assumption of an erect posture) and the consequent organic repression of his pleasure in smell may not have had a considerable share in the origin of his susceptibility to the disease" (p. 248). In later writings, Totem and Taboo, in 1912, then Civilization and its Discontents (1930a [1929]), Freud will renew this evolutionist hypothesis of a relation between sexuality, neurosis, and the erect posture of man.

However, even before abandoning his theory of seduction in the autumn of 1897, he had developed his psychological theory of repression, appealing to the notion of "organic" reversal of affect (disgust, shame), associated with certain infantile sexual experiences. In the same "organic" perspective, he connected the acquisition of disgust and shame, in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), to "a development that is organically determined and fixed by heredity, and can occasionally occur without any help at all from education" (p. 178-179).

For a long time, he had been considering the reaction of disgust at excrement as a phylogenetic consequence of the vertical position. He had already discussed this point of view with Fliess, referring to "abandoned erogenous zones": "I have often had a suspicion," he wrote him on November 14, 1897, "that something organic plays a part in repression; I was able once before to tell you that it was a question of the abandonment of former sexual zones. . . . The extinction of these initial sexual zones would have a counterpart in the atrophy of certain internal organs in the course of development" (Complete Letters to Fliess, p. 279).

On November 17, 1909, in the course of a debate at the Psychoanalytical Society of Vienna, Freud explained "that there is no repression that does not have an organic core; this organic repression consists of the substitutions of unpleasurable sensations for pleasurable ones. Probably man's detachment from the soil is one of the basic conditions for [the formation of] a neurosis; the olfactory sense is prone, as a consequence of this detachment, toward repression, since it has become useless . . . the bigger the child gets to be, the further it rises away from ground" (Nunberg, p. 323). This distinction between the organic repression of childhood and the more psychological repressions of the adult corresponds to the later Freudian dichotomy distinguishing between primal repressions and secondary ones (1915d).

Subsequently, the logic of Totem and Taboo amplified the organic theory of repression proposed as first of all linked to odor. Along with the myth of the primitive murder of the father, "the ontogenetic acquisition of remorse, guilt and moral sense now became conceivable to Freud as a phylogenetic precipitate from the primal father complex of early man" (Sulloway, p. 373). At the time of the 1915 edition of the Three Essays, Freud added the following passage: "The barrier against incest is probably among the historical acquisitions of mankind, and, like other moral taboos, has no doubt already become established in many persons by organic inheritance" (p. 225n).

With Civilization and its Discontents, he summed up thirty years of reflection on the question of the sexual etiology of neuroses, suggesting that the propensity of civilized man towards pathological repression should be imputed to prehistory in the following manner. Man was first an animal on four legs, responding to olfactory stimuli. When he adopted the vertical posture, visual stimuli came to replace olfactory stimuli. This giant step towards hominization led to feelings of shame (visible sexual organs), as well as disgust, linked to organic repression of the odors of excrement and of the genitals. Olfactive repression opened the way then to the evolution of civilization toward cleanliness and the first displacements, repressions, or sublimations, leading to the "organic" rejection of strong odors.

Freud completed the biogenetic scenario of the repression founding civilization with the hypothesis of the parricide that founded the human family, already advanced in Totem and Taboo. He linked this phylogenetic point of view to the diphasic development characteristic of human sexuality.

In 1930 Freud wrote one of the most comprehensive versions of his theory, expressing his conviction of the tight ties between sexuality, culture, and neurosis. Ontogenetically, neurosis was conceived as a particular malady, linked to a specific stage of libidinal fixation, to which the libido had to have regressed. The "hereditary" predisposition constituted a basic "scheme" for ontogenetic development, "provoking the fantastic rewriting of many infantile experiences, in conformity to the universal grill of phylogenesis" (1930a).

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Eroticism, anal; Repression; Smell, sense of.


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

. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10 : 151-318.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21 : 57-145.

. (1985c [1887-1904]). The complete leters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (Jeffrey Masson, Ed. and Trans.). Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press.

Laplanche, Jean. (1993). Le fourvoiement biologisant de la sexualité chez Freud. Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.

Nunberg, Hermann and Federn, Ernst (Eds.). (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society (Volume 2: 1908-1910; M. Nunberg, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press.

Sulloway, Frank. (1979). FreudBiologist of the mind. London: Burnett.

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Organic Repression

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