Psychological Notes: `The penis is itself a phallic symbol!'

Anthony Stevens
Monday 21 September 1998 00:02
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WE ARE coming up to the centenary of the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud. To one who has spent much of his life working with people in analysis on their dreams, Freud's magnum opus now seems very dated. He thought that dreams were repressed sexual wishes which had to be disguised and Bowdlerised so as not to shock the dreamer into wakefulness.

"All elongated objects," wrote Freud, "such as sticks, tree-trunks and umbrellas (the opening of these last being comparable to an erection) may stand for the male organ - as well as all long, sharp weapons, such as knives, daggers and pikes." Another frequent though not entirely intelligible symbol of the same thing is a nail file - probably on account of the rubbing up and down.

Boxes, cases, chests, cupboards and ovens represent the uterus, and also hollow objects, ships, and vessels of all kinds. Rooms in dreams are usually women; if the various ways in and out of them are represented, this interpretation is scarcely open to doubt . . .

"Steps, ladders or staircases, or, as the case may be, walking up and down them, are representations of the sexual act."

How times have changed! I can't remember the last time a patient brought me a dream full of such symbolism. Nowadays, it no longer seems necessary for dreamers to go in for all that nail-filing and running up and down stairs. If they feel sexy in their dreams, our contemporaries make no disguise of the fact. They bonk away in guiltless abandon.

Perhaps this is a measure of the impact Freud has had on our culture. Or perhaps he was wrong from the start. Jung thought he was and his daring to say so brought an abrupt end to a beautiful friendship. Freud was an intellectual tyrant. You either agreed with him, or you were out.

To Jung's mind, Freud's whole way of thinking was grossly simplistic and did not begin to do justice to the human psyche's labyrinthine complexities. We dream, Jung maintained, because dreaming is indispensable to our mental equilibrium. We create symbols because it is our nature to do so. We each possess an innate symbol-forming capacity as a creative part of our psychic equipment. It is immensely rich and reaches infinitely further than mere sexuality.

All the objects that Freud lists in his book can indeed represent the human genitals, but usually after they have represented a lot of other things besides. The trouble with Freud's sexual obsession was that he robbed symbols of all other implications. The phallus, for example, is a symbol of power and fertility as well as male sexuality. "The penis," quipped Jung, "is itself a phallic symbol!" It would seem that nature intended it this way, for the human penis is proportionately three times larger, in relation to body size, than in any other primate, with or without benefit of Viagra.

It is also a symbol of life, death, and rebirth. The Jungian analyst Eugene Monick has coined the term "phallic resurrection" for the recurrent cycles of tumescence after detumescence. Each time the phallus explodes in orgasm, it dies, but it returns to life again and again.

Hence the widespread existence of phallic worship. It could be crudely sexual (as in the worship of Priapus), spiritual (the Lingam of Shiva), regenerative (the maypole), and resurrective (the Djed Pillar of Osiris and the Herm of the Ancient Greeks).

The rapidly emerging new discipline of evolutionary psychology would seem to corroborate Jung's views at the expense of Freud's. Symbol-formation has an adaptive function. It promotes our grasp on reality as well as enriching our appreciation of the miracle of existence.

Anthony Stevens is the author of `Ariadne's Clue: a guide to the symbols of humankind' (Allen Lane, pounds 25)

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