Freud, Fire, and Pissing

I’m reading Civilization and Its Discontents again; the first time was for a class as an undergrad (on Decadence in fin de siècle Europe and Japan), and this time for a graduate seminar on literary theory. I don’t like Freud, and the things about his writing and thought that make me not take him seriously are all present in this, the best footnote I have ever encountered in any book, ever:

Psycho-analytic material, incomplete as it is and not susceptible to clear interpretation, nevertheless admits of a conjecture – a fantastic-sounding one – about the origins of this human feat. It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came into contact with fire, of satisfying the infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of his urine. The legends that we possess leave no doubt about the originally phallic view taken of tongues of flame as they shoot upward. Putting out the fire by micturating – a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’ Gargantua, still hark back – was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire which was held captive on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of this desire. It is remarkable, too, how regularly analytic experience testifies to the connection between ambition, fire, and urethral eroticism.

(Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, Standard Ed., tr. James Strachey. Norton, 1989. pp. 42-43)

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2 Comments on “Freud, Fire, and Pissing”

  1. […] TOTALLY AWESOME footnote from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (not as good as this one, but still pretty good): One may suppose that the founding of families was connected with the fact […]

  2. Nick says:

    I first read about that explanation from Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae. She uses it in an interpretive way to differentiate the sexes however. I had read Civilization & its Discontents years before, but didn’t notice the footnote about urination and fire. I actually think it’s pretty interesting. Before the invention of language/writing we don’t have any notion what the humans who discovered fire doing let alone their motivations. Also there isn’t a notion of history or even self consciousness without language, so an explanation which relates to the body’s expenditure of energy is the best we have. We can’t project our self reflective ratiocination to past humans. For learning of such a skill foreign to past hominids and primates, the discoverers must have been in a state of safety and relative comfort as well as distance from the fire to relieve themselves. Thus the sexual instinct would have guided their learning for these pre-historical hominids. Also they most likely aren’t in lack of water and sustenance. So it could have been a playful encounter. What’s better and more immediately accessible, and more pleasurable for males to put out fires than urine? Putting out a fire with water would be wasteful, especially in a non threatening situation. I say it’s a phenomenological explanation.

    So in terms of bodily explanations in the pre-historical era, it suffices for me. The benefit of psychoanalysis for these kinds of questions is that we don’t know what really happened that long ago, and we have to infer from remnants of the past. Psychoanalysis can preclude us from projecting our mentality into past humans and look towards the biological as a dynamic force.


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