Freud and the Psychology of Neurosis: John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect

By Plunka, Gene A. | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Freud and the Psychology of Neurosis: John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect


Plunka, Gene A., Papers on Language & Literature


John Guare's Bosoms and Neglect, which was written in 1979 and premiered at the Goodman Theater in Chicago on 1 March of that year, is primarily concerned with exploring how individuals in contemporary society attempt to connect with each other in some meaningful or spiritual way despite the fact that neglect, indifference, and alienation-all symptoms of the modern neurosis that playwrights throughout the twentieth century have depicted sociologically-reflect the norm in human relationships. Guare's play probes the human psyche to explain why individual relationships become superficial rather than spiritually satisfying. Bosoms and Neglect examines how we seek refuge from reality and from our guilt by immersing ourselves in fantasy lives. Guare commented on this motif in his play: "A lot of times 'the answer' is right there under our noses, but we're so obsessed with our own needs that we don't see it. I hope the play makes people ask themselves, 'What secrets are there lurking in our lives that we're not noticing?'" (qtd. in Shewey 11). Guare implies that we need to connect by taking risks as we become emotionally and spiritually involved with a person we love rather than hiding behind self-centered intellectual fantasies that mask our fear of the reality of the modern malaise. He noted that Bosoms and Neglect reflects the notion that "we operate more with the angers of neglect than the passions of acceptance" (qtd. in Kroll 86). As is typical in his plays, Guare demonstrates that lack of compassion and spiritual connection may exacerbate the insanity and violence so prevalent in contemporary life. The angoisse that Guare presents in Bosoms and Neglect is a graphic depiction of the neurotic condition that Freud describes as endemic to modern society in his Civilization and Its Discontents.

Although Freud's mentor during his medical apprenticeship in Paris, Jean-Martin Charcot, was convinced that heredity was a precondition for all neurological disorders, including neurosis, Freud abandoned this notion during his early writings. Freud's clinical investigations convinced him that childhood or adult sexual disorders formed the basis for all types of neuroses-mental disorders characterized by anxiety, insecurity, depression, or unreasonable fears. As early as 1895, Freud, in contrast to Charcot's teachings, wrote, "But where there are grounds for regarding the neurosis as an acquired one, careful enquiry directed to that end reveals that a set of noxae and influences from sexual life are the operative aetiological factors" (Standard, 3: 99). Freud viewed emotional disturbances, physical exhaustion, acute illnesses, intoxications, and traumatic accidents as merely auxiliary causes for neurosis. In his 1896 essay, "Heredity and the Aetiology of the Neuroses," Freud reiterated

that each of the major neuroses which I have enumerated has as its immediate cause one particular disturbance of the economics of the nervous system, and that these functional pathological modifications have as their common source the subject's sexual life, whether they lie in a disorder of his contemporary sexual life or in important events in his past life" (Standard 3: 149).

Freud's 1898 treatise, "Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neuroses," begins with this adamant statement: "Exhaustive researches during the last few years have led me to recognize that the most immediate and, for practical purposes, the most significant causes of every case of neurotic illness are to be found in factors arising from sexual life" (Standard 3: 262). Freud insisted that neurotic behavior was the result of libido deflected from normal activity-e.g., coitus interruptus, abstinence, or unconsummated or repressed sexual excitation. Finally, in lectures that he gave as late as 1917, Freud still defended the viewpoint that if one's sexual history ("vita sexualis") were normal, "there can be no neurosis" (Standard 16: 386).

By the time he had written Civilization and Its Discontents in 1930, Freud reconsidered his views on the etiology of neurosis as a result of his insistence on the instinctive nature of aggression in humans.

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