Mark Steel: The real significance of Freud

God must have felt like John Prescott when all his departments were taken away
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The Independent Online

Of all the historical anniversaries that pop up, you could forgive people for not bothering with Freud's 150th birthday.

This is the character whose most famous theory is that all men have a hidden desire to have sex with their mothers. Apart from seeming improbable, this is utterly impractical, because even if there was an attraction your mum would ruin it by saying, "Well, all right then, but only if you tidy your room first."

And yet odd bits of Freud have crept into everyday language. For example, he argued that as toddlers we go through an "anal" phase, where we come to terms with our rear bits. And if this phase goes skewiff, then we become "anal", meaning we can't let things go and keep things obsessively in order.

It's often said that a sign of being "anal" is keeping your records in alphabetical order, but surely that depends on how many records you've got. If you have two records and keep checking them, while muttering "Abba, then ZZ Top, that's still right, thank goodness," you've got something wrong. But I've got a room full of records, and thought I kept them in alphabetical order so I can find the one I want, but apparently it means I've got a problem with my arse.

But like so many of the great thinkers, Freud's significance may have been lost, partly because of the distortions of his critics and partly because of the twaddle of his supporters.

From the little I know of him, it seems he was the first person to work out how the mind was made up of different layers, such as the unconscious, where all sorts of anxieties can rest, popping into the conscious mind as dreams. So, just as Darwin removed God from the way humans developed, Freud kicked God away from the mind. If someone behaves atrociously, he suggested, it's because their mind has gone haywire, and not because they've succumbed to the Devil. Most child abusers, for example, were abused themselves, which may explain their behaviour. Whereas presumably the evangelists say, "That must be coincidence. More likely it's the Devil again."

Freud's ideas meant the mind was yet another thing God didn't directly control. Following the motion of the planets being down to gravity and the origin of humans being handed to evolution, God must have felt like John Prescott when all his departments were taken away.

Even worse for religious fundamentalists, Freud suggested that sex drive is a sign of a healthy mind rather than a grubby sinful one, and declared: "Homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of."

When we repress our sexuality we run into trouble, Freud said, and the thing we complain about loudest is often the thing we feel like doing ourselves.

This might be an explanation for that category of blokes who say they find gays "disgusting," but then turn out to be strangely gay. I've heard this a few times, when lads say something like, "I can't stand poufs. Ugh. I mean, it's not like when you pull each other off after rugby in the showers, that's just having a laugh." And you expect them to carry on, "I mean who hasn't, for a laugh, been over Clapham Common around one in the morning, whipped their pants down in the bushes and yelled, 'Over here you stallions,' for a laugh. 'Cos that's hilarious, really funny like. As long as it's for a laugh. Otherwise it's sick."

The importance of Freud in combating religious views of the mind was most obvious during the First World War. As survivors from the trenches lay in hospitals screaming, at first they were written off as cowards. It was only when doctors turned to Freud's theories they discovered what we now know as shell shock, in which patients had witnessed such horrors they'd buried them in their unconscious, but at night the images burst out in dreams. No doubt there were floods of letters to The Daily Telegraph complaining: "In my day, soldiers of the realm had patriotic dreams. When one of our chaps at Sandhurst had a dream in which he led the Ninth Fusiliers without polishing his buttons, he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad, and he was thankful. Shell-shock? It's political correctness gone mad."

The new outlook represented a change from the view that the mentally ill should be put in a straitjacket or locked in the loft with bread and water. The trouble is, while Freud dealt with the truly neurotic, now psychoanalysis seems to be a hobby for the types who bleat, "I had such a thorough session with my analyst last night and I think I'm close to resolving my issue of why I've gone off taramasalata." And the Freud industry doesn't help. One of the events being held in New York to commemorate his anniversary is called "Freud's foreskin: A 150th anniversary celebration of the most suggestive circumcision in history." Are they going to cover it with 150 candles?

There are so many ways that Freud's ideas could be employed, but the most urgent may be to deal with an increasingly deluded government. Give it another six months, and if Blair's asked a question in Parliament about the Housing Bill, he'll reply "I know he's listening, listening, I can see him, he tried to kill me this morning with one of his Budgets, he's from Venus you know," while the Chancellor sits rocking violently beside him, mumbling: "Orderly and stable transition transition orderly and stable."