Dreaming of Animals: The Animal in Freud’s Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year Boy and History of an Infantile Neurosis

Jeremy De Chavez
De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines

Volume VII, Number 3, 2015 I Download PDF Version


This paper examines the relationship of Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory and animals by examining two of Sigmund Freud’s Famous cases studies, Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year Boy (Little Hans) and History of an Infantile Neurosis (Wolfman). Numerous critics have accused Freud of taming the possibly radical figure of the animal in dreams by containing them within the interpretive frame of the Oedipal complex. Conscripting the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, this paper attempts to theorize a more enabling and productive way to think about the relation of Freudian theory with animals.

Keywords: Animals, Freud, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis, Dream-Work

 The importance of animals in myth and fairy-tale is due in no small measure to the openness with which they display their genitalia and their sexual functions to the curious young child.

                                                           Sigmund Freud, Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year Boy

[Wolfman] thought that the position assumed by the wolf in the [illustration to The Tale of the Seven Little Kids] might have reminded him of the position taken by his  father in the primal scene we had reconstructed.

                                                            Sigmund Freud, History of an Infantile Neurosis

[Oedipal animals] invite us to regress, draw us into a narcissistic contemplation, and they are the only kind of animal psychoanalysis understands, the better to discover a  daddy, a mommy, a little brother behind them…

                                                            Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The Animal and Mental Life

In The Postmodern Animal, Steve Baker (2000) claims that there is “no modernist animal” and that “the animal is the very first thing to be ruled out of modernisms bounds.” Using examples drawn primarily from visual culture, he posits that animals in modernism merely show “the human imagining-itself-other” (p. 20). It could be argued that modernity’s emphasis on industrialization and urbanization has weakened the earth’s capacity to maintain life, and this has led to environmental destruction and consequently the constant disappearance of animals. Indeed, it is modernity’s cliché: human advancement has catastrophic consequences for animals and the environment. As John Berger (2009) succinctly puts it, “Everywhere animals disappear” (26).

If Baker is correct that animals are the first “to be ruled out of modernism’s bounds,” then it is through psychoanalysis that they have managed to find a way to creep back in. Sigmund Freud’s discovery of (or, depending on how sympathetic one is to Freud, invention of) the unconscious provided new ways for the animal to come into contact with the human. Animals have returned to “stalk our dreams, slither into our fantasies, [and] haunt our mentalities” (Bleakley, 200, p. 11). Indeed, if there is one lesson to be learned from Freud’s Totem and Taboo it is that the objects we murder (be it literally or symbolically) return as a stronger phantasmatic presence in our mental lives. Freud (2005) writes, “The dead now became stronger than the living; and we can see all of this in human destinies even today” (p. 142). Freud’s most well-known case studies, The Ratman: Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis and The Wolfman: From the History of an Infantile Neurosis, demonstrate the central role that the figure of the animal plays in psychic life. Animals are no longer merely (real or symbolic) objects that are independent and distinct from the human subject, for through psychoanalysis they have also become psychical/imaginal material that organize the human subject’s psyche and structure how subjects perceive and consequently respond to their social reality. For example, Ratman’s fear that a certain Oriental torture technique involving rats boring their way into a victim’s anus was at the root of his complex obsessional neurosis. Part of Ratman’s routine involves the highly elaborate way he goes about performing tasks that involve money. Freud points out the unconscious pun on ratten (German for rats), which is a word that closely resembles raten (German for installments), and then he goes on to show how the word ratten is connected to Ratman’s father who had accumulated a large gambling debt and was referred to, in the slang of the time, as a gambling rat. Freud argues that ratten, for Ratman, has come to be associated with anything that circulates: money, penises, words and thoughts.

However, despite the important role that animals play in the unconscious, psychoanalysis maintains an incongruous attitude towards them. On the one hand, psychoanalysis provides an exclusive space for the animal within the discourse of modernity; however, on the other hand, it viciously regulates how animal presence in the unconscious is to be decoded. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the radical analyst Felix Guattari have criticized Freud for misreading the animal in unconscious mental processes. They challenge Freud’s “oedipalized” unconscious (that is, the way Freudian theory chains psychic matter to representations that are already set by social structures prior the psychic matter’s emergence). In A Thousand Plateaus they write,

“[Psychoanalysts] see the animal as a representative of drives, or a representation of  the parents. They do not see the reality of a becoming-animal, that it is affect in itself,   the drive in person, and represents nothing”. (1987, p. 259)

I agree with Deleuze and Guattari to the extent that animals indeed represent a theoretical difficulty for psychoanalysis, and that Freud had to deal with this conceptual impasse by taming the animal through “oedipalization.” However, rather than negating the claims of psychoanalysis, I argue that Deleuze and Guattari’s project only shows how Freud was unable to fully maximize the use of conceptual tools that have already been developed in psychoanalytic theory (particularly, the emphasis on the analysis of form rather than content). As my comments on Freud’s Little Hans: Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy and Wolfman: From the History of an Infantile Neurosis seek to show, Freud’s theories may be read in such a way that it overlaps quite productively with Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that animals are the embodiment of multiplicity, “fundamentally a band, a pack..[possessing] modes rather than characteristics” (1989, p. 239). In pursuit of my claim that Freudian and Deleuzian theory need not necessarily be opposed on this issue, I turn to Jacques Lacan’s concept of the signifier. I wish to show that Lacan provides the necessary elements to bridge the gap between Freud and Deleuze. Contrary to Alan Bleakley’s use of Lacanian theory to “differentiate between ‘animals’ appearing in the three orders of experience,” which he designates as the biological; the psychological; and the conceptual (2000, p. xii), I posit that the figure of the animal in the psyche is always already symbolic, and therefore is subject to the operations of the signifier. That is, the experience of the animal whether Real or Imaginal will always be mediated by what Lacan designates as the big Other. However, Bleakley is skeptical of the suggestion that there is a symbolic system that mediates between the animal and the human subject because the “self-presentation of animal life is never known directly” (p. xiii) and such obscures the significance of the animal presence in the psyche. This raises important theoretical issues that I will address later in this essay.

Freud Reads Animals

So what do we make of animals that appear in unconscious activities such as dreams and parapraxes? Freud provides us with an answer that looks impressive in theory; however, in practice, he seems to be unable to deploy his theory in all its complexity. Just when Freud is faced with clinical evidence that should be able to provoke him to be theoretically productive, he insists more strongly on his safe yet reductive oedipal framework. This is clear in two of his famous case histories: Little Hans: Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy and Wolfman: From the History of an Infantile Neurosis.

Freud’s Little Hans: Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy is an account of the analysis of the young Herbert Graf (alias Little Hans) who suffered from a phobia: the boy refuses to go outdoors because of the fear that he might be bitten or knocked over by a horse. Little Hans’ father, Max Graf, under the supervision of Freud, conducted the analysis, and it lasted from January to May 1908. With Max Graf’s permission, Freud published this case history in 1909…Full Text PDF

Facebook Iconfacebook like buttonTwitter Icontwitter follow button
Translate »