Don’t Go Chasing Eel Testicles: A Brief, Select History of Sigmund Freud

If you know anything about psychology, you know the name Sigmund Freud. If you know anything about Sigmund Freud, you know about his theories on the human mind and human development. If you know anything about one particular theory, his psychosexual theory, you know that you are a repressed sexual being that may have an unconscious desire to have relations with a mythical Greek King’s mother. What you may not know, because it’s ancillary to his greater works, is that this theory might have begun in pursuit of 19th century science’s Holy Grail: “The elusive eel testicles.”

Although some annals state that, an Italian scientist named Carlo Mondini discovered the eel testicles in 1777, other periodicals state that the search continued up to, and beyond, an obscure nineteen-year-old Austrian’s 1876 search. Other research states that the heralded Aristotle conducted his own research on the eel that resulted in postulations either that these beings came from the “guts of wet soil”, or that they were born “of nothing”. One could guess that these answers resulted from great frustration, as Aristotle was so patient with his deductions in other areas, but he is also the one that stated that maggots were born organically from a slab of meat. “Others, that conducted their own research, swore that eels were bred of mud, of bodies decaying in the water. One learned bishop informed the Royal Society that eels slithered from the thatched roofs of cottages; Izaak Walton, in The Compleat Angler, reckoned they sprang from the “action of sunlight on dewdrops”.”

Before laughing at any of these findings, one has to consider how limited these researchers were, with regard to the science of their day. As they say with young people, Freud may not have known enough to know how futile this task would be when employed by a nondescript Austrian zoological research station. It was his first job, he was nineteen-years-old, and it was 1876. He dissected approximately 400 eels, over a period of four weeks, and he worked in an environment that the New York Times described as “Amid stench and slime for long hours”. His ambitious goal was to write a breakthrough research paper on the animal’s mating habits that had confounded science for centuries. One has to imagine that a more seasoned scientist may have considered the task futile much earlier in the process, but an ambitious, young nineteen-year-old, looking to make a name for himself, was willing to spend long hours slicing and dicing these eels, hoping to achieve an answer that could not be disproved.

Unfortunate for young Freud, and perhaps fortunate for the future of Psychology, we now know that eels don’t have testicles, until they need them. The products of Freud’s studies must not have needed them at the time he studied them, for Freud ended up writing that his total supply of eels were “of the fairer sex”. Freud did write that research paper over time, but it detailed his failure to locate the testicles. Some have said that he correctly predicted where the testicles should be, and that he argued that the eels he received were not mature eels. The result was that he did not find the testicles, and he moved onto other areas as a result. The question that anyone reading the psychological theories Freud would write later in life, has to ask, in conjunction with this knowledge, is how profound was this failure on the rest of his research into human sexual development?

Most of us had odd jobs at nineteen that have affected us, in a variety of ways, for the rest of our working lives. For most of us, these jobs were low-paying, manual labor jobs that we slogged through for the sole purpose of getting paid. Most of us weren’t pining over anything, in search of a legacy that would put us in annals of history. Most of us had no feelings of profound failure if we didn’t do well in these low-paying, manual labor jobs. Most of us just moved onto other jobs that we found more rewarding and fulfilling.

Was this search for eel testicles the equivalent to a low-paying, manual labor job to Freud, or did he believe in this vocation so much that he was devastated by his failure? Did he slice the first hundred or so open and throw them aside with the belief that they were immature, or were there nothing but female eels around him, as he wrote, or was he beginning to see what had plagued the other scientists, including Aristotle, for centuries? There had to be a moment, in other words, when he began to realize that they couldn’t all be female. He had to realize, at some point, that he was missing the same something that everyone else had missed. He had to have had some sleepless nights struggling to come up with some different tactic. He may have lost his appetite at various points, and he may have shut out the world in his obsession to achieve infamy in marine biology. He sliced and diced over 400 after all. If even some of this is true, even if it was a mere four weeks of his life, we could state, that this moment in his life affected him in a profound manner.

If Freud had never existed, would there be a need to create him?

Every person has a subjective angle from which they approach a topic they wish to study. It’s human nature. Few of us can view people, places, or things in our life, with total objectivity. The topic we are least objective about, say some, is ourselves, and the topic, on which we theorize most, when we theorize on humanity, is most often ourselves. All theories are autobiographical, as someone once said, that we write in an attempt to understand ourselves better. With that in mind, what was the subjective angle from which Sigmund Freud approached his most famous theory on psychosexual development in humans? Did Freud bring objectivity to his patients? Could he have been more objective, or did he have a blind spot that led him to chase the elusive eel testicles in the manner Don Quixote chased windmills for the rest of his career?

After switching vocations to the field of Psychology, did he view the patients that sought his consultation as nothing more than the set of testicles he couldn’t find a lifetime ago? Did testicles prove so prominent in his studies that he saw them everywhere he went, in the manner that a rare car owner begins to see that car everywhere, after driving that rare car off the lot? Some would say that if Freud engaged in such activities, he did it in an unconscious manner, which others could say may have been the basis for his other theory on unconscious action. How different would Freud’s theories have been if he had found what many considered the holy grail of science at the time? How different would his life have been? Would he have ever switched vocations, or would he have remained a marine biologist based upon the fame he achieved with the finding?

How different would the field of Psychology be, if he had decided to remain a marine biologist? Alternatively, if he had made the switch to psychology, for whatever reason, after achieving fame for being the eel testicle spotter in marine biology, would he have approached the study of the human development, and the human mind, from a less obsessed angle? Would his theory on psychosexual development have occurred to him at all, and if it didn’t, was it such a fundamental truth that it would’ve occurred over time, even without Freud’s influence?

We can state, without too much refutation, that many in the world have had their beliefs of human development more sexualized by the psychosexual theory he developed that many now believe disproved. How transcendental was this theory, and how much subjective interpretation was involved, and how much of that interpretation was derived from the frustration involved in his inability to find the eel testicle? Did Freud ever reach a point where he began overcompensating for that initial failure?

Whether it’s an interpretive extension, or a direct reading of Freud’s theory, modern scientific research theorizes that most men want some form of sexual experience with another man’s testicles. If they say that don’t, their lying in a latent manner, and the more a man says they don’t, so goes the theory, influenced by Freud’s theories, the more repressed their homosexual desires are.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a sexual orientation law think tank, released a study in April 2011 that stated that 3.6% of the males in the U.S. population are either openly gay, or bisexual. If these findings are even close to correct, this leaves 96.4% of this population that are, according to Freud’s theory, closeted homosexuals in some manner. Neither Freud, nor anyone else, has been able to put even a rough estimate on the percentage of heterosexuals that have unconscious, erotic inclinations toward members of the same sex, but the very idea of the theory has achieved worldwide fame leads some to believe there is some truth to it. Read through some psychological studies on this subject, and you’ll read the words: “It is possible…” “Certain figures show that it would indicate…” and “all findings can and should be evaluated by further research.” In other words, no conclusive data, and all findings and figures are vague. Vague enough, say some, that they can be used by those that would have you believe that most of the 96.4% that express contrarian views are actively suppressing their desire to not just support the view, but to actively involve themselves in that way of life.

Some label Sigmund Freud “history’s most debunked doctor”, but his influence is witnessed in the field of Psychology, and in the ways society views human development, and sexual development, throughout the world. The greater question, as it pertains specific to Freud’s psychosexual theory, is was he a closet homosexual, or was his angle on psychological research affected by the initial failure to find eel testicles? To put it more succinct, which being’s testicles was Freud more obsessed with throughout his life?

If you enjoyed this unique perspective on Sigmund Freud, you might also enjoy the following:

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The History of Bloodletting by Mark Twain

The Perfect Imperfections of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?

Rasputin I: Rasputin Rises


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