Recently over the Christmas period there has been a predictable and amusing annual ritual taking place in the media.
A teacher or vicar or some other surrogate parent tells the children (in its most recent incarnation, a group of eight year olds) that Santa Claus does not exist. The parents then throw up their hands in horror as if a gross act of child abuse had taken place. This then gets broadcast to the nation through newspapers, radio and television, during which time the miscreant is publicly pilloried and forced to recant. The miserable perpetrator of the crime is accused of taking away the innocence of childhood and breaking the child’s trust in the adult world.
Modern psychoanalysts might say the parents have a point. The realm of illusion is important, and, although growing up entails inevitable disillusionment (you realise you are not the most important person in the world, for instance), the sudden shattering of illusions may be traumatic and damaging.
But I think Freud would have pointed out that it is highly unlikely that an eight year old ‘really’ believes in Santa Claus; and perhaps the lies told by the parents even contributed to the alleged trauma. Children themselves are usually more resourceful and imaginative in their dealings with the ‘grown-ups’. By going back home eagerly to tell their parents the terrible news (‘Mummy, guess what the Vicar said today!”) they are perhaps also rejoicing that the dimwitted parents will at last have had their own illusions shattered, and may be obliged to re-assess their belief in the supposed innocence of childhood.
Illusions are often shattered by someone peddling another illusion. Some people say that Freud’s ideas are illusions; that they have no basis in reality. On more than one occasion Freud asked himself the same question: could his ideas be like a psychotic delusion? Freud answered this question in the negative because he never lost sight of the fact that his concepts were concepts and not physical realities. Concepts like ‘ego’, ‘id’, ‘superego’, ‘libido’ and so on, are there to bring order to the facts of psychology, to generate new ‘facts’ (as all mature theories do) and to offer connections between phenomena which had not previously been noticed.
Nevertheless Freud insisted that basic concepts should always be questioned, just as Einstein and others had questioned the basic concepts of physics. In his analysis of the memoirs of the delusional Daniel Paul Schreber he famously remarked:
“It remains for the future to decide whether there is more delusion in my theory than I should like to admit, or whether there is more truth in Schreber’s delusion than other people are as yet prepared to believe.”
Whether the vicar who doubted the existence of Father Christmas was prepared to turn his sceptical gaze onto that other Almighty Father, the public were not informed.