Sunday 3 July 2011

Slippery Freudian

It is very hot but I have enjoyed my week's holiday. Walking, fishing, and cycling have been the pattern, though today my plan to do the British Heart Foundation bike ride in Swansea is thwarted as the event is axed owing to the tyre fire which is still burning in Fforestfach after three weeks. I suppose this cancellation was absolutely necessary.

So instead I wander up the Towy, slowly as the afternoon sun is quite oppressive, noting the familiar pair of swans who patrol the mouth of the Breinant tributary and, for the first time, a large number of eels (Anguilla anguilla), some 2 ft long, evidently on their way back to the Sargasso sea to spawn.

Actually nobody is quite sure what eels get up to over their life-cycle. Aristotle decided they must be a mutation of earthworms which themselves must have just sprung from the mud. Nobody seriously challenged the Greek polymath until two hundred years ago but there are still lots of unanswered questions about these curious fish (including "Why do people eat jellied eels?" - even Aristotle would have struggled with that one).

But there is no doubt that the common eel played an important - no, vital - role in the development of psychiatry. Sigmund Freud's very first project as a student was to dissect hundreds of eels in a search for their sexual organs. He never found them and so, in disgust, turned his attention to other matters, namely the treatment of neurosis, the study of the unconscious mind, etc. The rest is history.

You have to wonder if Freud's painstaking but fruitless search for the eels' private parts might have caused him to focus obsessively on these matters when he changed over to psychiatry - I mean as a sort of transference or compensation for his earlier failure? Consider this: if his early project had instead involved him looking for the eel's nose then we might today believe that smell rather than sex was the driver at the root of our unconscious mind (forgive the simplistic if not parodic exegesis of the great man's theories). Not a wholly outlandish possibility as the aroma of roast chicken stuffed with whole cloves of garlic wafts up from the kitchen. I'm on my way, unable to restrain my nasal urges.