Psychogenic Blindness

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Psychogenic blindness, whether it arises from too great a desire to see or from a refusal to see, had psychological causes for Freud. Here, as elsewhere, hysteria was Freud's guide: it was apropos of hysteria that he broached the subject of conflict between the various visual functions, and he placed the eye (the source of visual pleasure) and the act of looking itself at the center of his thinking.

His study "The Psycho-Analytic View of Psychogenic Disturbance of Vision" (1910i) dealt specifically with blindness that had its origin in hysteria. He noted that hypnosis could be used to induce blindness experimentally by suggesting to the subject not to see anything, but that in hysterical patients the idea of being blind did not proceed from third-party suggestion but arose spontaneously from autosuggestion. Hence his question: when and under what conditions does an idea become so powerful that it behaves like a suggestion and becomes a reality? For Freud "hysterically blind people are only blind as far as consciousness is concerned; in their unconscious they see" (p. 212): the stimuli reaching the blind eye arouse unconscious affects.

Certain ideas associated with vision remain separate from consciousness: they have succumbed to repression because they conflict with other, stronger ideas that dominate the ego. Such conflicts between ideas are simply an expression of the conflict between instincts, especially between the sexual instincts and the ego instincts, both of which use the same organs of the body. Thus the eyes perceive not only the modifications to the outside world that are important for preserving life, but also the characteristics and attractions of the love object. But it is not easy to serve two masters: the more that an organ with this dual function enters into an intimate relation with one of the two great instincts, the more likely it is to refuse itself to the other. This can have pathological consequences if the two basic instincts are disunited, if, for example, the partial sexual instinct that uses the eyes makes excessive demands. These excessive demands disturb the relation of the eyes and the act of seeing to the ego, because the ideas linked to these demands succumb to repression and are excluded from consciousness. This circumstance may attract a counterattack from the ego instincts.

When the sexual interest of sight, Schaulust, becomes too insistent, the ego no longer wants to see anything, and the visual organ, using its power to separate, puts itself entirely at the disposal of the sexual instinct in the unconscious. Because the ego then no longer has conscious control over the organ, the repression miscarries, and a substitute mechanism converts the repression into blindness. This blindness seems to be the result of an implacable psychic logic: by seeking to misuse the visual organ for purposes of sexual pleasure, subjects condemn themselves to see only the sexual on the unconscious stage and otherwise to see nothing.

When Freud tackled the question of the uncanny (1919h), he mentioned E. T. A. Hoffmann's tale The Sandman, in which a character plucks out children's eyes to graft them onto automatons. This story, he felt, lent support to his view that the feeling of uncanniness is directly related to the sight of the female genitals, particularly those of the mother. He stressed the frequent unconscious equivalence between the eyes and the genital organs, and between blindness and castration. Blinding oneself, like Oedipus, is an attenuated form of self-castration, but it also makes one the bearer of a blind eye, which represents the other sex while disfiguring the face. In his theory, Freud, with a single word, übersehen, which means both to look and to overlook, successfully condensed the story of Oedipus.

Blindness is thus the result of a punishment, but what is the nature of the offense? The hysteric's blindness seems to play out the Oedipus complex quite literally. For one, it choses a substitute organ, the eye, which stands at once for the castrated sexual organ and the desired sexual organs of the mother. Moreover, it makes the eye into the special object of the desire to see, as though it were obliged to reduce the sexual organ to the eye and were subject to the autoerotic need for the eye to derive pleasure from the eye.

Jean-Michel Hirt

See also: Castration complex; Hysteria; Look/gaze; Psychic causality; Psychogenesis/organogenesis; Scoptophilia/scopophilia; Visual.


Freud, Sigmund. (1910i). The psycho-analytic view of psychogenic disturbance of vision. SE, 11: 209-218.

. (1919h). The "uncanny." SE, 17: 217-256.

Rey, Jean-Michel. (1979). Des motsà l'œuvre. Paris: Aubier-Montaigne.