We are driven by ego, but there appears to be no steering wheel
By mandy wan: literature Columnist
Ask the ordinary person to name a famous psychologist and chances are, they will respond with Sigmund Freud. However laughable that may be to psychology students, who could blame them?
With ideas as shocking as the concept that all boys secretly hate their fathers and are sexually attracted to their mothers, it is understandable why he has garnered much more attention than other theorists. However, the issue with Freud is that there is virtually zero scientific evidence pointing to the truth of his hypotheses. Nevertheless, that has not stopped Western culture from adopting many of his, frankly, fascinating ideas into its literature.
Take Freud’s personality theory (1923), for example. This idea saw the human psyche split into three elements: the Id, Superego, and Ego. In a sense, they are separate entities within the mind whose interactions determine the behaviour of the person.
Firstly, the Id acts on instinct alone and actively aims to fulfil basic human needs like hunger and leisure. In essence, it unconsciously operates on the pleasure principle where every desire it has must be met immediately regardless of the consequences. It has no sense of judgement so it cannot be confined by morality. Likewise, the Id only functions through “primary process thinking”, meaning it is illogical, primitive, and irrational. In popular culture, it can be conceptualised as the “devil on one’s shoulder”
On the other hand, the Superego exists to counter-balance the Id’s constant attempts at self-gratification and acts primarily as one’s moralising conscience. Simply put, instead of zoning in on the person’s intrinsic cravings, it aims to form their behaviour into what is socially acceptable. In turn, the Superego can be seen as the “angel on one’s shoulder” who is adamant in following rules and conventions.
Last, but certainly not least, the Ego is the mediator between the Id and Superego. It is considered as the organised section of the conscious mind and makes decisions on how to act based on reason. In fact, it functions according to the reality principle where it deduces how to satisfy the demands of the Id – typically through compromise or postponement – to avoid the negative consequences of society, as per the Superego’s wishes. Moreover, it utilises “secondary process thinking” thus allowing it to be rational, realistic and practical. Needless to say, the Ego is often pictured as the character whose shoulders the Angel and Devil stand on.
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To see the Id, Superego, and Ego being portrayed in literature as characters we all know and love (or hate in some cases), we need to look no further than William Golding’s esteemed Lord of the Flies (1954). The tale is classic: a group of boys have been stranded on a desert island and must form their own society to survive. However, without the authority of civilised adults to guide them, the children descend into violence and barbarism.
Our protagonist, Ralph, is the Ego. In the beginning, he becomes the leader with his natural charisma and rational manner of thinking. On the most part, he is just and fair in his decisions as whilst many of the boys were initially preoccupied with playing and having fun on the island, he focuses on finding shelter and maximising the chances of being rescued. However, he is still weak to the primal influences that affect us all, as seen when he is caught up in the chaos of a celebratory feast and accidentally ends up participating in the murder of another. Even then, he is the only one who feels remorse or even acknowledges his actions the day after. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Ralph remains the most civilised throughout the tale with his persistent dedication to justice.
Furthermore, Piggy, the deuteragonist and Ralph’s right-hand man, plays the role of the Superego. At first glance, he is socially awkward and uptight – although rightly so as the others waste no time taking a jab at his appearance by assigning him his humiliating nickname. Yet, he is the brains of the group and clings to social conventions over all else. When some of the other boys desert the prospect of humanity in favour of savagery, he reprimands them for their animalistic behaviour. Even when discussing the murder that happens at the feast, he utilises logic (albeit in a dubious manner) to justify their actions by claiming it was the victim’s fault for scaring the group during their celebration.
On the contrary, the primary antagonist of the novel, Jack, most certainly depicts the Id. Former choirmaster and head boy of his school, he is domineering and eager to boss others around with violence. For the most part, he is narcissistic and dismissive of most activities unless they benefit him or appeal to his interests. Likewise, he is sadistic and spiteful with a particular interest in killing the animals of the island. This fascination with hunting only develops his feral nature and ultimately causes him to reject Ralph’s order to form his own tribe of savages. In the end, Jack is purely driven by self-interest to the point where he is willing to kill those who impede his satisfaction.
All in all, whilst many of Freud’s ideas are indeed ridiculous, it is possible that some of our favourite books may not even exist if it weren’t for his questionable theories. So, thanks, Freud.