“It is not easy in theory to deduce the possibility of such a thing as repression. Why should an instinctual impulse suffer such a fate? For this to happen, obviously a necessary condition must be that attainment of its aim by the instinct should produce “pain” instead of pleasure. But we cannot imagine such a contingency. There are no such instincts; satisfaction of an instinct is always pleasurable. We should have to assume certain peculiar circumstances, some sort of process which changes the pleasure of satisfaction into “pain”.” (Freud 104)
Freud begins his essay on repression with the predicament in the above paragraph. How does this concept work that is linked in with some much else, but complicates it. The concept of repression is a good one to enter into Freud’s General Psychological Theory. It is the concept that ties a lot of the other stuff together. One must deal with the unconscious, instinct, etc. in order to fully deal with the idea of repression. It also is a fairly central concept in Freud’s understanding of the subject. Perhaps the best way of moving would be to contrast the topic with the concept of instinct. At that point, we can discuss the idea of repression itself. The last topic would be to link the idea of repression to the unconscious, and how those two ideas are linked.
The concept of instinct and repression was clearly a troubling one for Freud. After all, Freud has declared that the “satisfaction of an instinct is always pleasurable.” On one hand, Freud has solved this by declaring that repression is not an instinct. An instinct is something that comes “not from without but from within the organism” from a “need” that needs a “satisfaction.” (Freud 85) The idea of repression runs contrary instincts. It shuts off functions rather than to enable and actualize them. On the other hand, repression has the ability to associate pain with the satisfaction of an instinct, which is to be pleasurable.
Repression comes in within very specific circumstances. “We see then that it is a condition of repression that the element of avoiding “pain” shall have acquired more strength than the pleasure of gratification.” (Freud 105) Freud notes later in the paragraph that “the essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness.” It something that occurs because the fulfillment of a desire would be too painful to confront consciously, so that the mechanism moves to push this out of consciousness. This doesn’t mean that it [the desire, the instinct] cannot be fulfilled, just that it must be fulfilled through the unconscious. It also can be expressed through linked ideas that are not directly connected to the idea that is repressed.
Freud sets up a two-part structure to repression. The first part is “a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in a denial of entry into consciousness to the mental presentation of the instinct.” (Freud 106) This first part of repression is very simple. The instinct simply does not exist. But it also has another part to it, which is a “fixation; the ideational presentation in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it.” So the idea doesn’t merely disappear, but it freezes up in a particular form in the unconscious with the instinct attached. It prepares the process for the second type of repression.
The second part of repression, “repression proper”, as Freud calls it begins when “mental derivatives of the repressed instinct-presentation” come into “associative connection” with it.” (Freud 106) This is when the repressive process enters into the unconscious. The processes discussed before of condensation, displacement, etc enter the picture and define the terrain. However this isn’t going to be dealt with until later in the section tying the unconscious with repression. So we should move onto more of the process.
This process of repression is not a fixed one rather it is “not only… variable and specific, but it is also exceedingly mobile. The process of repression is not to be regarded as something which takes place once and for all, the results of which are permanent, as when some living thing has been killed and from that time onward is dead; on the contrary, repression demands a constant expenditure of energy, and if this were discontinued the success of the repression would be jeopardized, so that a fresh act of repression would be necessary.” (Freud 109) The process of repression must continually reinscribe itself. It is an exhausting structure, never quite succeeding in what is trying to do. At times, it is temporarily successful, but never for long.
Repression becomes critical for the process of psychoanalysis. As Freud points out, “repression leaves symptoms in its train.” (Freud 111) Theses various symptoms do not represent the repression itself, rather it “constitutes indications of a return of the repressed.” This return can be seen in a number of different substitute and symptom-formations. It can also be tied into a withdrawal of energy cathexis from the sites of repression. It also can also tied into a “premise of a regression by means of which a sadistic trend has been substituted for a tender one.” (Freud 114) “Failure of repression of the quantitative factor brings into play, by means of various taboos and prohibitions, the same mechanism of flight as we have seen at work in the formation of hysterical phobias.” (Freud 115)
Repression is part of the process of the unconscious. It is that portion of ideas that are not allowed through the process of the pre-conscious. This does not mean that it is the entirety of the unconscious. There is a whole range of ideas that are neither repressed, nor are they conscious. As Freud puts it, “The unconscious comprises, on the other hand, processes which are merely latent, temporarily unconscious, but which differ in no other respect from conscious ones, and, on the other hand, processes such as those which have undergone repression, which if they came into consciousness must stand out in the crudest contrast to the rest of the conscious mind.” (Freud 122)
However, the concept of repression seems to be central to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious, at least the aspect of the unconscious which most interests Freud. This is because it is this part of the unconscious that produces neuroses. It creates the processes of condensation, displacement, and overdetermination, as the forces of the unconscious try to circle around the forces of repression. This leads to the attempt of therapy to try to follow back these traces of the unconscious back to its originary neurotic formation. It also is the side of the unconscious which most ties into Freud’s unstated repressive hypothesis. After all, Freud returns precisely to the idea of repression once he states that it is not the extent of the unconscious.