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Special Blog Series on Banned Books: Part VII - Sigmund Freud and the Sociology of

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Many people are in fact truly afraid of certain books to the point that they would like to ban them and prevent them from ever reaching the eyes of the public. This sample essay will take up the deep psychology of banning books. Psychological writing is just one of the broad range of subjects covered by the writers at Ultius.  

Banned Books: Part VII - Sigmund Freud and the Sociology of Banning Books

Through a set of banned book case studies, a conclusion can be drawn that the challenges brought against several banned books have no real merit and are often based on gross misunderstandings regarding the nature and purposes of literature itself. This is particularly evident in cases like J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Nevertheless, the suggestion could still be made that the people who are driven to ban books may be motivated by highly compelling sociological and psychological reasons. This analysis will proceed primarily on the basis of the psychological ideas of Sigmund Freud, and it will contain four main parts:

  1. Part one will outline Freud's general model of the personality.
  2. Part two will connect this model of the personality to the nature of the artistic creative process in general, and the process of producing a work of literature in particular.
  3. Part three will suggest that powerful and controversial works of literature tend to draw from exactly that part of the personality structure that Freud said would need to be repressed in order to protect the social order of civilization.
  4. Part four will reflect on the potential implications of this psychological insight for the future of the practice of banning books. 

Freud's model of the personality

According to Freud's basic model of the personality structure, the human personality develops during childhood and is composed of three interrelated and sometimes mutually antagonistic components: these are the ego, the superego, and the id (Freud, Ego, chapters 2 and 3). The ego refers to a person ordinary, rational sense of self.

The superego refers to a part of the ego that has in a way been cut off from the ego and elevated above the ego, to the point where the superego sits in moral judgment over the ego and condemns the ego whenever it fails to live up to pre-established moral standards and norms of behavior. The superego is usually created as a result of social conditioning, and having a highly intense superego is often identifiable as a cause of neurosis. As Freud has put it:

The sense of guilt, the harshness of the super-ego, is thus the same thing as the severity of the conscience. It is the perception which the ego has of being watched over in this way, the assessment of the tension between its own strivings and the demands of the superego. (100)

This is the basic relationship between the ego and the superego. 

What of the id?

Now, that leaves the id. The id is the part of the personality structure to which Freud assigned subconscious fantasies, animalistic desires, and the like. In its very essence, the id is antithetical to the entire nature of civilization itself: it can be identified as the base of the archetypical chaos that always emerges to disrupt the project of creating order. In his mature psychological theory as formulated in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud arrives at the fatalistic conclusion that civilization always requires the presence of repression, because what is being repressed is first and foremost the id, and if the id were not repressed, its sheer animal power would be enough to bring all of society tumbling down.

Freud's project, then, which initially began with the desire to cultivate freedom, concludes with the notion that freedom and order are in the final analysis antithetical values, and that one would always need to be sacrificed in the name of the other. One can either have total freedom and no civilization, or agree to sacrifice a portion of one's freedom in order to live in peaceable coexistence with other humans. This is the basic fork that is at the heart of Freud's mature psychological theory. 

The Freudian model and the creative process

Now, it would seem that the creative process, as such, taps into the areas of the human mind and side of the brain that is associated with the subconscious and the Freudian id. When a person is engaged in the creative process, for example, he commonly has the feeling that he is not entirely in control of what he is expressing; and the full meaning and value of what he has written only becomes apparent to him after he reads over his own words himself (Iyer 249-253).

Often, a writer—or creative artist of any kind—will have the uncanny experience of reviewing his own work and feeling a vague disbelief that he himself is actually in fact the one who produced what is now being reviewed. According to the Freudian model of the personality structure, then, the suggestion can be made that the creative process by its very nature tends to transcend the limited ego and draw on powers that are primarily associated with the repressed, the subconscious, and the id. 

The creative process: Where did that come from?

Moreover, perhaps the correlation can be made that the more profound a work of literature is, the more greatly it is the result of this kind of channeling process. This would be one explanation, for example, of why works of great genius are seldom appreciated in their own day and age: those works are drawing from a place within the mind that few people are aware of, and which only the broader historical process can reveal to them in due time (see Rank). It can also explain the prevalence of mental illness which is associated with many writers.

The most dangerous works of art are usually the best

This is part of why the adjective "dangerous" is in truth one of the greatest compliments that could ever be paid to a work of art: it simply means that the work has reached a new and innovative frontier within the human mind—a place that strikes so deep into the nature of a contemporary human condition that it may just quite simply frighten the average people of any given day and age who do not look past their immediate contexts or ask deeper existential questions about the human predicament.

The creative process that produces a work of literature does exactly this. And this means that when people call for bans on powerful books, they may actually be putting society in great danger by prohibiting this reasonable avenue through which id can make itself manifest to the ego in a structured, controlled, and even beautiful way.    

Freud on literature and repression

With this psychological context established, it is now time to return to the subject of banned books. In particular, when people call for banning a book, this is almost always done on the grounds of immorality. As Begley has indicated, two of the most common reasons for banning a book are sexual explicitness and vulgar language. These issues would clearly be associated with the part of the personality structure that Freud called the id: both sex and vulgarity call attention to the fact that man has an animal dimension to him, and that all the pretensions of civilization can do nothing to get rid of the basic substratum of human nature.

It would seem that people who call for bans on books are implicitly afraid that representations of the id in literature would encourage readers to get in touch with their own ids, which could be potentially disastrous for the social order as a whole. Moreover, Freud would actually suggest that these people are actually justified in their fears, insofar as the id is in fact more or less antithetical to the project of civilization. 

Freud inadvertently propagates the banning of books

There is of course an irony present in the fact that books that actually support Freud's theory are themselves often some of the most controversial ones of all. Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies, is an excellent example of such a situation. As Rosenfield has pointed out, this work would clearly seem to support the Freudian idea that only the structures of civilization prevent the free reign of the id and the corresponding descent into total savagery.

And yet, people have often called on bans of Lord of the Flies, presumably because Freud's own theory is so dangerous by some people that even its negative confirmation in a work of fiction could potentially help bring about the exact kind of savagery it warns against. The endgame of repression would thus be a repression even of the knowledge put forth by Freud, on the grounds that even talking about the id would be a way of activating the id. A crucial mistake here, though, would consist of the notion that the id would somehow go away just because people stop talking about it. Rather, Freud's own theory would suggest that the more intensively the id is repressed, the more dramatically it will eventually take its revenge.  

Reflection on banning books

An important point that could be made is that the people who call for bans on books generally have no aesthetic appreciation to speak of, they are nevertheless at least partially justified at the sociological and psychological levels:

  1. Sociologically--A book that runs counter to the dominant culture and values of society could be called dysfunctional when seen from the angle of the project of trying to preserve the coherence of that society as a whole.
  2. Psychologically--Powerful works of literature often draw on parts of the human personality structure—the subconscious, the id, and so on—that could be called almost intrinsically antisocial in its very nature, insofar that part of the personality structure is more concerned with the personal pleasure principle than with any more abstract notion of the social good.

In short, when people are afraid of certain books, then perhaps they are psychologically right to be afraid: a book can be a very powerful thing, and it can in fact present a real danger to a given person's worldview or even to an entire society's order of values. 

Does banning books function as intended?

What is still unclear, though, is whether banning a book is a good idea or even a workable way of managing this justified fear. Among other things, the point ought to be made that a free society would be one that is flexible and open-minded enough to take into itself these influxes of the id without thereby needing to feel mortal concern over its own self-preservation.

Freud's theory does not suggest that all of civilization will collapse if people (for instance) openly talk about sex; much the opposite, his theory would seem to suggest that society will collapse if it entirely represses sex, due to the fact that this would create a kind of violent disequilibrium within the id itself—a problem that would ultimately only be resolved by a kind of psychic and cultural explosion. The real point would be that it is necessary to channel the id in some kind of ordered way, or cast its chaos into a kind of order that is more or less commensurable with the project of civilization. 


There are deep psychological underpinnings to the impulse that many stakeholders have felt over time to call for bans on books. This discussion suggests that people have historically banned books because they have been afraid of certain books as a result of having recognized the power of those books. In the contemporary world, though, the practice of banning books has gone into abeyance; and yet, serious writers may now have greater difficulty with reaching their audiences than ever before.  

Works Cited

Begley, Sarah. "Here Are the Top 10 Reasons Books Get Banned." Time. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 4 Apr. 2016. <http://time.com/4059947/banned-books-week-top-reasons/>. 

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print. 

Freud, Sigmund. The Ego and the Id. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990. Print. 

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigree Books, 2003. Print. 

Iyer, Sethu A. Testament: An Invitation to Lucid Romance. CreateSpace: Austin, 2016. Print. 

Rank, Otto. Art and Artist: Creative Urge and Personality Development. Trans. Charles Francis Atkinson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989. Print. 

Rosenfield, Claire. "Men of a Smaller Growth:" A Psychological Analysis of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies." Literature and Psychology 11.4 (1961): 93-101. Print.



Ultius, Inc. "Special Blog Series on Banned Books: Part VII - Sigmund Freud and the Sociology of." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. Ultius Blog, 09 May. 2016. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/special-blog-series-on-banned-books-part-vii-sigmund-freud-and-the-sociology-of-banning-books.html

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