Parenting the breakdown
In Freud’s open letter of 1907, Hans was upheld as a commendable example of unadulterated childhood: his natural curiosity had not been oppressed, and he was able to give expression to his fantasies in an open and ingenious manner seemingly free from phobic anxiety – all of which, broadly speaking, was heralded as the achievement of good parenting. In the full case history of 1909, Freud is equally as complimentary of the Grafs’ parenting approach, insisting that their experiment of letting Hans grow up and express himself without being intimidated went on satisfactorily (6). Yet Hans is now affected by an anxious phobia. The thought I wish to pursue is that Hans’ breakdown does not signal the failure of his research career, but may be one indicator of its success.
When Max Graf informed Freud that his son’s behaviour had regrettably become worthy material for a case history, it was Hans’ growing distress and resistance to the prospect of going for a walk that provoked his judgement. Rather than spend time detailing the intricacies of what is perhaps the most famous case in the history of child analysis, I will underline the principal psychoanalytic coordinates that configure Freud’s intervention in this case, namely the threat of castration which lies within the Oedipus complex. Hans’ ‘street anxiety’, as Freud terms it, revolved around a fear of being bitten by horses, and the desire to ‘coax’ (to caress and to be caressed) with Mummy. Freud informs us that:
When he was three and a half his mother found him with his hand on his penis. She threatened him in these words: ‘If you do that, I shall send for Dr. A. to cut off your widdler. And then what’ll you widdle with?’
Hans: ‘With my bottom.’
He made this reply without having any sense of guilt as yet. But this was the occasion of his acquiring the ‘castration complex’ (1909, 7-8).
As Hans’ subsequent development of the castration complex evolves, so too do the difficulties of his position within his family romance. Freud surmises that ‘Hans really was a little Oedipus who wanted to have his father "out of the way", to get rid of him, so that he might be alone with his beautiful mother and sleep with her’ (111). Much of the case history is spent articulating the various ways in which Hans vacillates from candidly confessing his fantasies in a way that demonstrates his open enjoyment of them (e. g. I shall widdle with my bottom instead), to his deeply felt ambivalences with respect to the Oedipal situation, most conspicuously his desire to usurp his father.
Whilst Freud is clearly committed to identifying the forces that incite Hans’ phobia as the universal forces to which all children are vulnerable, he is also quite explicitly linking these structures (i. e. the castration threat within the Oedipus complex) to what we might term the child’s epistemological deficit. Ultimately, for Freud, Hans’ phobia results from the litany of confusions and unsatisfied curiosities that are the exclusive and often painful province of childhood. Thus the case history illustrates how Hans both enjoys and endures the full gamut of the research projects of children. In addition to the obvious anxieties relating to the castration complex, there are questions about where babies come from, curiosities regarding the differences between the sexes, confusion surrounding the ‘enigma’ of female genitalia, and ambivalent feelings with respect to the excretory functions. What is critical in determining Freud’s intervention (and his thinking more generally on the topic of sexual enlightenment at this time) is that he positions these causes for perplexity and pain as gaps in the child’s knowledge. Freud remarks that, ‘[s]o long as the child is in ignorance of the female genitals, there is naturally a vital gap in his comprehension of sexual matters’ (87). And, as Freud has left us in no doubt, the comprehension of sexual matters is intimately related to the infant’s Wissbegierde. The difficult questions with which children are preoccupied are, says Freud, ‘like all research, the product of a vital exigency, as though thinking were entrusted with the task of preventing the recurrence of such dreaded events’ – the event in this case being the arrival of Hans’ baby sister and her challenge to Hans’ omnipotence (1908, 213).
Freud’s focus on the child’s knowledge deficit is tied up with a possible contradiction between his open letter of 1907 in which he voices a cultural criticism regarding the withholding of sexual enlightenment from children, and the more obviously ‘Freudian’ position whereby the child’s illness is brought about by the sense of conflict that comes from his own conscious and unconscious fantasies. There is a temptation to offer a dichotomous reading of the difference between Freud’s two positions here; one might suggest that in Freud’s writings on infantile sexuality during the Wissbegierde period (1908-1915) he straightforwardly regards the withholding of sexual enlightenment due to ‘customary prudishness’ to be the catalyst for a child’s psychological illness, whereas he would later come to recognise that the child cannot be moved by knowledge or enlightenment alone. To a certain extent, this is the type of evaluation that Strachey offers us when he assigns this shift in emphasis – from the causality of the parenting environment to that of the infant’s unconscious conflict – to Freud’s theoretical ‘sophistication’.3 Strachey is clearly right to point out that Freud’s letter of 1907 to the Hamburg physician stands some distance from his comments thirty years later in which he states explicitly that children are not inclined to renounce their home-grown sexual theories for the new enlightenments that they may receive from their parents and educators. We should also note that Freud does not turn his back on the call for sexual enlightenment expressed so forcefully in his early work, but he does insist that ‘the prophylactic effect of this liberal measure has been greatly overestimated’ (1937, 234). In other words, in much the same way as the analyst would not expect the mere communication of information about the patient’s unconscious to effect a change in the patient’s condition, neither would the provision of an environment in which the ‘truths’ of sex are didactically articulated correct (or cure) the child of his epistemological errors. And yet, it seems to me that the Little Hans case shows very clearly that Freud’s ‘sophistication’ is already in place in 1909. Repeatedly Freud demonstrates that Hans’ anxieties come about from his psychic conflict in spite of the commendable performance of the parenting environment. We might suggest, then, that it becomes more certain for Freud (via the case of Little Hans) that, precisely because of the pleasure derived from the narcissistic research instinct, the infant’s phobia cannot be cured through the establishment of extrinsic conditions alone. Rather, the phobia, as an intrinsic part of the infant’s research activity, will only be resolved through the continuation of the research process.