If Sigmund Freud were alive today he might push for a label affixed to Bibles, something along the lines of, “WARNING: Regular exposure to this book can lead to unhappiness, depression, psychosis, and in some cases, suicide.”
Freud believed that happiness resulted from the fulfillment of sensual desire, particularly sexual desire. As Freud saw it, all of the pathologies that beset man could be traced to repressed sexual expression. Within a few decades, his ideas effected a sea change in thepublic attitude.
Before Freud, the Bible was generally accepted as a reliable guide for experiencing the good life; after Freud, the Bible, with its proscriptions against sexual immorality, became viewed as unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst, to human flourishing.
The changing cultural mores influenced by Freud were reflected in popular media, most prominently in the pre-Code films of Hollywood. Made in the 1920s and ’30s, pre-Code movies included nudity, sexual promiscuity, and suggestive language that even many people today find shocking.
The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 held back the smut for a while, but by the late ’50s it crept back in as Hollywood began taking cues from foreign movies that were not subject to the U.S. Code.
Cinematic sexuality resurfaced in The Tarnished Angels (1957), The Apartment (1960), and Lolita (1962), but it was in the hit film Splendor in the Grass (1961) that Freudian thought was writ large.
Not so splendorous
From the first frame to the last, the message of Splendor is that repressing our sexual impulses will drive us mad, even suicidal.
Starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty, Splendor is about two high school sweethearts, Deanie Loomis (Wood) and Bud Stamper (Beatty), in a 1928 Kansan community who are starving for answers about their sexuality.
Bud is the son of a local oil baron, and Deanie the daughter of parents of modest means. They are in love, a hormone-awakening love that is at once new and confusing. As their sexual tension intensifies, each seeks the advice of parents.
Deanie approaches her mother only to be told that “good girls” never feel “that way” about a man. When Deanie asks her whether she ever felt that way about dad, her mother winces, saying that she “just gave in” (to sex) because a wife “has to,” to keep her husband happy and, oh, by the way, have children. Since Deanie feels “that way” about Bud, she must not be a good girl.
Bud, who is bewitched and bewildered by the fury of his libido, understands what the adults around him fail to: “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Bud tells his dad that he wants to marry Deanie, but his father insists that he first finish four years of college. In the meantime, Bud should find a “different kind” of girl, saving Deanie unspoiled for marriage.
Bud rejects his father’s suggestion, but with his sexual frustrations mounting, he seeks the counsel of a trusted physician. When Bud asks what he should do about these new feelings, the doc shrugs and tells him to come back next week for a sun lamp treatment and dose of iron. Bud rolls his eyes, stands up, and slouches toward the door.
Realizing that being with Deanie only inflames passions that serve to torment him, Bud decides that they should stop seeing each other. Confused and crushed by Bud’s decision, Deanie gradually slips into depression, while Bud succumbs to his father’s advice, taking up with a girl of easy virtue.
When Deanie finds out about Bud’s dalliance, she is inconsolable and descends from depression to despair to an attempted suicide, after which she is committed to a sanatorium. While there, Deanie becomes engaged to a medical student. After two and a half years, she is released from the institution, whereupon she resolves to put the past behind her by seeing Bud one last time. They meet, and she learns that he is married, with one child and another one on the way.
As they muddle through the awkwardness of the moment, it is clear that love still flickers; but the past is the past, and there is nothing to be done, except brave the existential plight of their situation. They part, and in the closing scene Deanie steels herself with a passage from Wordsworth: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind.” Hence the movie title.
Splendor depicts the tragedy of what could have been, would have been, should have been were it not for those harmful Victorian [read: biblical] values: values that are obstacles to true love and the cause of unnecessary frustration and misery; values that, for Deanie and Bud, led to anguish, depression, attempted suicide, and finally lost love; values that should come with a warning label or be “discontinued.”
Following Splendor, Hollywood began making films celebrating the shelving of those values. Tom Jones (1963) and Alfie (1966) were award-winning pictures, along with a string of James Bond hits (1962-67) whose title character betrays nothing of Bud Stamper’s confliction. With nary a hint of restraint, the new protagonists breezily move from scene to scene, following their rutting impulse in free, no-consequence serial bundling.
Summer of love?
By 1967 the foundation laid by Freud, built upon by his apostles, and showcased in film, led to the “Summer of Love,” a social movement that swept through Europe and America, characterized by countercultural rock music, alternative lifestyles, mind-altering drugs, and free sexual expression.
The Summer of Love marked the final break with the moral strictures of the past. As one newspaper put it, it would bring “a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.” But instead of renaissance, the summer ended with violent riots in Detroit and Newark, and problems of crime, hunger, and drug addiction in the epicenter of the movement, Haight-Ashbury.
By the fall of that year, the death knoll had sounded for the “turn on, tune in, drop out” culture, but the Freudianism that gave life to it endured with the social experiments of “no-fault” divorce, abortion on demand, and the increased social acceptance of extramarital sex, cohabitation, and open marriage.
Forty years hence, the legacy of Freud is not the increase of our collective happiness, but of our dysfunction, as evidenced by the dizzying escalation of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and single-parent families, with all of their concomitant side effects.
For example, whereas in 1960 about one in five marriages ended in divorce, today, it is one in two—many resulting in dependent children raised by single moms in fatherless homes. Not only are such children more often victims of abuse, domestic violence, and depression than children brought up by both biological parents; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Department of Justice, and the Centers for Disease Control, they are:
A significant cause of the rise in fatherless homes is the explosion of out-of-wedlock births. In 1960, most pregnant women were either married or got married. But by 2008 the number of children born out of wedlock jumped from 11 percent to 40 percent.
In a congressional hearing, Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institute, testified that the increase in unwed motherhood over the past few decades “can account for virtually all of the increase in child poverty since 1970.”
In roughly the same period, the number of certain sexually transmitted diseases, like genital herpes, shot up by a factor of fifteen. And this despite years of comprehensive sex education and the availability and distribution of condoms in schools.
Most tragically, Freud’s ideas about sex and happiness helped change the maternal instinct to protect unborn life to the maternal right to end it. In the four decades since that right became the law of the land, over 40 million unborn children have been sacrificed at the altar of personal happiness.
Given that most of these pathologies could have been avoided by strict adherence to Jesus’ elucidation of the Seventh Commandment, it would appear that the works of Freud, not the Bible, should carry a consumer warning.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.