For Freud libidinal energy, particularly its need to be channeled and released, was the primary motivator of human behavior. He was attempting to ground his psychological theory in hard science, as outlandish as that might sound now. He was compelled to conclude, based upon the prevalent scientific theories of his time, that all psychological processes were based upon instinctual drives. And what instinctual drive, other than perhaps the drive for self-preservation, could be more important for the individual, not to mention the species, than sex?
When we remember that Freud’s greatest discovery was that human life is determined more by unconscious forces than it is by conscious forces, that what is blocked out of conscious awareness continues to exert a profound effect on behavior, while we also remember that despite his genius he was culturally bound, believing his Victorian society, a society where all things sexual were repressed, was the model for human nature, we begin to see how through clinical observation he was inexorably pulled towards elevating libidinal energies to their central role in his theory.
In a lot of ways Freud’s resulting formulations become more impressive when we take into account the fact that he was always hobbled by the felt necessity to account for human psychology in sexual terms. It would be like running a marathon on crutches.
What Freud did was observe the growing child and note how different regions of the body seemed to take precedence at different stages of development. He came to call these regions erogenous zones, concluding that libidinal energies, always present from the beginning of life and always needing to be expressed, found their release through these various zones. Here are the stages of development in Freud’s psychosexual construct:
Oral – 0-18 months
Anal – 18 months – 3 1/2 years
Phallic – 3 1/2 years – 6 years
Latency – 6 years – puberty
Genital – puberty – adulthood
He saw the healthy functioning adult as having a genital character structure. Dysfunction was due to fixation, having been unwilling or unable to move past an earlier stage, or regression, moving backwards due to stressful circumstances. So, for example, while it would be healthy and normal to show anal character traits anywhere between 18 months and 3 1/2 years, these same traits would be unhealthy in adulthood.
Freud, along with other psychoanalysts of his time, then began to observe and record character traits in adulthood that he grouped under the various psychosexual stages. The ones that still have value today are the oral character, the anal character, and the genital character. When we liberate these character structures from their libidinal bonds we find that Freud was spot on in saying that the oral and anal characters are stunted in their psychological development while the genital character represents the mature, healthy adult. We can look at these characters as being symbolically equivalent to their corresponding erogenous zones.
The oral stage is feeding at the mother’s breast, it’s introjection, where pleasurable things are experienced through the mouth. Freud’s psychological formulation of the oral character in adulthood is the receptive orientation towards the world where all needs are expected to be fulfilled by others and productive activity is lacking. The anal stage is where bowel movements and toilet training become the focus of libidinal pleasure. Some children come to take more pride in retaining feces while others take more pride in expelling it. Freud’s psychological formulation of the anal character in adulthood therefore tends in two directions, anal-retentive, where being overly tidy, parsimonious, respectful of authority, stingy, obsessively punctual, and other ‘retaining’ traits are prevalent, and anal-expulsive, where being rebellious, delighting in cruelty, emotional outbursts, and other ‘expelling’ traits are prevalent.
This is not the article to go in depth into the various character structures but in general terms we can view the oral character as masochistic, as expecting the world to provide for all needs without having to do anything, the anal character as sadistic, as not expecting the world to provide anything at all and therefore actively taking from it, and the genital character as having a healthy and balanced relationship with the world, where love and productiveness are the chosen ways to get psychological and emotional needs met.
When we view freudian characterology at the superficial level we are tempted to laugh it off as nonsense but, like pretty much all of his work, when we dig a little deeper and liberate it from the sexual theory we find profound insights into the human condition that are still relevant today.