Hilde looks up from her book—her mother has just called for her to come to breakfast.Instead of going to breakfast, Hilde runs outside, to where the family boat is resting in the nearby bay.Hilde rows across the bay. She’s shocked and surprised by the implications of Darwinism. Furthermore, she finds it hard to believe that Sophie and Albertoare just figments of her father’s imagination. One could also say that she, Hilde, is just a combination of DNA molecules—this is true, Hilde, admits, but it’s not the whole picture.In her frustration, Hilde promises herself that she’ll teach her father a lesson whenhe gets back.
As the book reaches its conclusion, we notice a major conflict in Sophie’s education: the conflict between materialism and idealism. One could say that life is just a collection of “stuff interacting with other stuff,” whether it’s the proletariat competing with the bourgeoisie, as in Marx, or animals competing for food, as in Darwin. And yet Marx and Darwin’s theories of the material qualities of life might be said to neglect the spiritual side of life. There seems to be more to existence, at least in Sophie’s mind, than competition.
In the evening, Hilde begins reading again. In the book, Sophie and Alberto are standing outside the major’s cabin, talking to a naked man—the Emperor. The Emperor acts like a majestic, respectable man, even though Sophie and Alberto can’t stop laughing at him. Alberto ushers Sophie back inside, where he begins telling her about Sigmund Freud.Sigmund Freud (born 1856) isn’t exactly a philosopher, but he’s considered extremely important to Western philosophy. Trained as a doctor, he tried to use conversation and behavioral studies to analyze the human mind—in this way, he was one of the first important psychologists.
Freud, no less than Darwin, instituted a paradigm shift in Western culture, not just Western philosophy or science. He suggested that mankind is wrong to have faith in its own enlightenment and intelligence—there’s more to the mind than its thoughts or even its emotions. Even though most of his ideas are now considered incorrect, one could say that Freud discovered a “new world”—the unconscious recesses of the human mind.
Freud’s great, overarching discovery was that man is not, fundamentally, a rational animal. On the contrary, he’s controlled by a series of irrational impulses. One of the most importance such impulses is the sexual impulse. Freud’s discussion of sexuality was groundbreaking at the time—he proposed that all human beings, even children, felt sexual urges.
Freud was almost as shocking as Darwin, as far as 19th century Victorian readers were concerned. Freud was alsocritical in the development of the modern education system: Freud placed new importance on human development before the age of 5.
Alberto takes a step back to describe how Freud came to his surprising conclusions. As a psychologist, Freud believed in the importance of “digging deep” in a person’s life. He believed that the human brain consists of three parts: id, ego, and superego. The id is the part of the mind that compels someone to pursue pleasure—this is the source of the sexual impulse that we all feel. The ego, on the other hand, is the part of the brain that regulates the id—the part that chooses what to do, often against one’s own impulses. Finally, there’s the superego—the part of the brain that’s concerned with right and wrong, and with abstract moral thought. From childhood to adulthood, all human beings have to learn to balance these three parts of their minds. In a way, all of life is about choosing between morality (superego) and pleasure (id). Freud’s great insight was that the mind is much bigger and more complex than conscious thought would suggest. Our consciousness is just a tiny portion of the mind—just the tip of the iceberg. There is also a subconscious mind, full of desires and impulses we don’t even know we have.
Freud actually made up the word “ego,” which means “I” in Latin, because his English-language publisher wanted his ideas to seem more official and jargon-y—but even if we set aside the names id, ego, and superego, we can tell that Freud changed psychology and philosophy forever. Gone is the alert, forward-thinking consciousness of Descartes, Hume, and Locke: the mind is now a complex, unpredictable thing that can never be fully controlled or understood. And while earlier philosophers tried to control the consciousness by urging humans to follow one particular system of morality (be it Christian, Kantian, etc.), Freud concluded that the mind is always locked in a struggle between desire and morality—a struggle which, contrary to many philosophers’ wishes, will never truly end.
Another important Freudian idea is repression. Because there is a subconscious mind, we may have experiences and ideas that we can’t consciously remember. Freud argued that these experiences and ideas are “repressed” to the subconscious mind. As a psychologist, Freud tried to pry into his patients’ subconscious minds. He had several ways of doing so. One important way was the parapraxis, or slip of the tongue. When someone misspeaks, Freud believed, they’re betraying a repressed thought.Freud gives an example. There was a bishop with a huge nose. When he visited a group of young women, they were sure not to bring up his nose for fear of embarrassing him. But when one of the young women asked the bishop how he took his tea, she accidentally said, “do you take sugar in your nose?”
If the mind is a vast, unpredictable thing, we might well ask, “how can we attempt to understand it?” or even, “what’s the point of trying to understand it?” Freud believed that he could study the mind’s behaviors in order to deduce what the mind was really thinking. Parapraxis is a great example of this principle in action: by studying patients’ slips of the tongue, Freud could attempt to understand what they were really thinking about (and attempting to repress).
For Freud, life is a constant struggle to keep repressed thoughts out of the conscious mind. When someone’s mind works too hard to keep thoughts repressed, that person can be considered neurotic. To cure his patients’ neuroses, Freud encouraged patients to talk freely while lying flat on a couch, a process he termed “free association.” In a relaxed, low-stress environment, patients would gradually open up about their hidden, subconscious thoughts.
One of the great debates about Freud’s thought concerns how Freud wanted people to behave: should they give into their id’s irrational desires, or try to repress them altogether? Most interpreters of Freud maintain that Freud opted for something in between these extremes: he wanted patients to release some of their unconscious urges in a safe, neutral setting (like the psychologist’s couch).
One of Freud’s most important tools for understanding the subconscious mind was the interpretation of dreams. Freud believed that dreams were one of the few times when people’s subconscious minds were allowed a “free reign.” When we dream, Freud believed, our ids concoct stories in which all our wishes are fulfilled. By interpreting patients’ dreams, Freud thought he could come to understand what his patients’ secretly desired, and how they could satisfy these desires in safe, controllable ways.Alberto gives an example: a man dreams that he receives two balloons from his female cousin. Sophie wonders if the dream might be a form of wish-fulfillment, in which the man gives into his sexual desires for his cousin. Alberto tells Sophie that she might be right, although interpreting dreams is a complicated, uncertain process.
Freud’s faith in the importance of interpretation and analysis reiterates the driving theme of Sophie’s World(both Hilde’s binder and the novel we’re reading). Just as Freud believed that bizarre stories could have a serious, even profound point, so too does this novel evoke profundity by telling silly, fantastical stories. The example Alberto gives suggests that much of humans’ thought is sexual in nature (one of Freud’s strong beliefs, and biases). Sophie’s success in interpreting this story, furthermore, might suggest that she’s in touch with her own sexual urges, and is maturing quickly.
Freud’s ideas were extremely influential, especially in the arts. Surrealist painters, such as Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, for example, believed that getting in touch with one’s subconscious was the best way to create great art. Sometimes, Surrealists tried to paint and draw without using their conscious minds at all.Alberto suggests that creativity is a struggle between reason and imagination.
There’s a major debate over how to create art: to what extent should we rely on our unconscious mind? For some, the unconscious was the source of all creativity, but it seems more likely that creativity is something more like a balance between the conscious and unconscious mind.
Sophie notices something outside the cabin—a group of Disney figures, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Alberto finds this sad—he and Sophie are just “helpless victims” of the major. Alberto points out that they’re all the “dream images” of the major. One interesting consequence of this notion is that the major doesn’t necessarily know the meaning of his own creations, just as a dreamer doesn’t necessarily understand his own dreams. Before Alberto can elaborate further, Sophie tells Alberto that she has to be getting home, since it’s late. Alberto tells Sophie that he’s going to “dive into the major’s subconscious.” He asks Sophie to “create a distraction” as she walks home, so that the major will be concentrated on Sophie.
This coda to the chapter on Freud reiterates a point we’d come across in the previous chapter: if Albert Knag himself is conscious of one interpretation of his book, is that interpretation “free” from Albert’s control? One could argue that it is (it exists independent of whether Albert wills it or not), or that it isn’t (Albert created Sophie and Alberto, even if he didn’t “create” interpretations of their ideas). Maybe the bigger point to keep in mind is that Albert isn’t much freer than Sophie—he has no more control of his unconscious mind than anyone else.