The Primal Scene in the 21st Century is about Money not Sex

The Primal Scene in the 21st Century is about Money not Sex

The idea of the Primal Scene was given to psychology and 20th Century Culture by Sigmund Freud the father of Psychoanalysis[1]. The Primal Scene is the first time you discovered your parents having sex and understood what you are seeing, hearing or becoming aware of in any other form, even if just through your intuition.

The idea here is that sex, certainly at the time Freud was writing but even today, although possibly less so, was a taboo subject. And certainly the act of coitus between parents was not something that the parents rushed to share with their children, there was, and still is, a strong element of guilt and repression associated with it. Nevertheless the nature of things being what they are, at some point or another the child invariably becomes aware of the Primal Scene; and this awareness naturally changes their perception of their parents (and the nature of life itself) irrevocably.

The articulation, by Freud, of this monumental event in the psychological development of the child, was an act of genius by this giant of the 20th Century, and lies at the heart of psychoanalytic theory.

However I would like to suggest that this has changed in the world today. I suggest that it is no longer the parental act of copulation that constitutes the contemporary Primal Scene; it is rather the act of discovering how much (or how little) money your parents have.

I suggest that the awareness of your parent’s financial clout, their access to, or deprivation of, money, and by extension their social status, has a far greater influence on your developing sense of identity as a child. Furthermore, it is no secret, that our evaluation of our peers, and ourselves, is heavily influenced by that person’s net financial worth. This really goes without saying I suppose, however I think with minimal consideration we can conclude that it is the determining factor in our evaluation of the other.

Let us consider the Holy Trinity: Money, Sex and Power.[2]

Whilst these are the three principal archetypes which govern the world, I think the potency of money in today’s world is greater than the other two, or to put in other words, that power and sex hold court principally at monies pleasure.

As far as I make it out money is still today in the hands of men. Yes of course women have made big strides in the last hundred odd years in the economic arena, but by and large it still seems to be men that hold the money card and woman the sex card. Or if one wanted to be less essentialist about it we could say the masculine plays the cash card and the feminine plays the sex card, bearing in mind that in contemporary society both physical genders have access to feminine and masculine archetypes.

Now I don’t care how sexy you are, seriously you can be Pamela Anderson in her prime on some kind of sex steroids, you’re still not going to be a sexy as the Patek Phillipe Supercomplication Pocket Watch (Value $11 million), Porsche 911 Carrere GT2, The Eclipse Yacht (value $1.2 billion) or a luxury villa in the South of France.

Now don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting that any red blooded heterosexual man would not love to have sex with Pamela Anderson, let alone Pamela Anderson in her prime, on sex steroids! I for one certainly would (assuming Anja gave me permission of course :-)), and I think I speak on behalf on most men, even those too henpecked to admit such a thing.  All I’m saying is owning any one of the items above would guarantee such a high level of sex, both in terms of quantity and quality, that their net sexual worth eclipses (no pun intended) one role in the hay, or even several roles in the hay, with that gorgeous woman known as Pamela Anderson. If you doubt the veracity of this claim ask Mr. Hugh Heffner, the playmates come and go, the mansion remains.

The relationship between money and power is a little less clear. However if we’re talking political power, physical power or influence, then what is clear is that mostly these are for sale; in the Capitalist System money rules the roost.

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic value

One distinction between these three is that money seems to have a principally extrinsic value whereas sex and power seem to have an intrinsic value. Sex and power seem worthwhile in themselves. Whereas, money seems principally worthwhile for its extrinsic or instrumental value, what it can do, facilitate, access, and obtain for its possessor. However I think the argument can be made that money also has an  intrinsic value in the status it so directly confers, money has become valuable in itself, not only  for its extrinsic value. That is to say money is not seen purely as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

My mentor used to say money is to the outside world what memory is to the inner world. These are the currencies with which we have to trade. Their availability speaks directly to our potency in our endeavours, be those endeavours the development of soul or of worldly power and influence.

Slavoj Žižek on money

This Marxist Lacanian philosopher, my personal favourite public intellectual, is a cultural critic and his principal target (predictably) is Western Capitalism. Nevertheless, despite his avowed socialist stance, he clearly recognises the archetypal dominance of money.

He relates a story of a time he was invited to speak at an Ivy League American University. After the talk the faculty and the Dean of the university hosted a dinner in his honour. At the beginning of the evening his host asked everyone around the table to formally introduce themselves. The requested introduction was to include their academic discipline, their specific field of interest, one or two other miscellaneous things and their sexual orientation!

Now it was obviously the issue of disclosing one’s sexual orientation that Žižek took issue with. I won’t enter into the specifics around why this happened or what Žižek said about it because it is tangential to this post. What he did say however, that is very telling, is: if we are going to go that far in the transparency game let us also disclose our respective salaries and bank balances as well.

Only through invoking the issue of financial status could Žižek find an analogy sufficiently telling to point out how offensive and absurd he found this request regarding the disclosure of sexual orientation. The reason that he used this example is not complicated, it is the only thing even more telling than sexual orientation.

Wolfgang Giegerich, Jungian analyst and possibly the most fascinating Jungian scholar alive today, emerged from the Archetypal School as both a critic and collaborator of Hillman’s[3] . Giegerich is critical of the archetypal-pantheistic-mythological form of Jungian thought that dominates the Archetypal School’s approach. Essentially his claim is that the animating spirit of classical Greek and Roman gods has migrated into contemporary forms, which no longer can be helpfully compared with their classical antecedents. As an example of his radical position Giegerich, to the outrage of many Jungians, claimed that the presence of god, in the world, in the second half of the 20th Century, is only encountered in the Atom Bomb. It is only in the shadow of total nuclear devastation that we genuinely encounter the numinous in contemporary culture.

It is in a similar sense that I make this claim concerning money. Real awe, real respect and real fear, in other words our relationship to the divine, is encountered in our relatedness to money.

There is that old cliché about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. And I’ll grant that for the youth, for those young enough to still be idealistic and have a genuine love of spirit and the community of man, the divine may be encountered in this classic archetypal triangulation. I myself felt a deep, if transient, connection with the divine through the culture of the dance music scene as a younger man. But growing up means realising that whilst sex remains, drugs and rock n’ roll are replaced by power and money; and it is money that dominates the mature archetypal triangulation.

Jungians and money

Psychoanalysis, in toto, is an elitist enterprise, and Jungian psychology is certainly no exception to this rule. The path to individuation costs big time if you are hoping to achieve that individuation through Jungian Analysis. You can work on around R500 ($70) a session, with a minimum of one session a week recommended, ideally more. How long does one need to remain in analysis if individuation is the goal (which it always regardless of what any analyst may say to the contrary)? Guess what, there is no time limit!

 I’m willing to bet that no Analyst in the history of Jungian Analysis (including the great man himself) ever said to a patient,

“Hey man, you’re individuated! No more need to see me, why don’t you put the money you’re going to save towards a nice diamond necklace for your wife.”

No Analysis is definitely for the well to do, if you’re poor put aside the goal of individuation.

Christ said, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Well to that the Jungians retort is, it is easier to read the entire Collected Works[4] and understand them, sans assistance, than for the poor man to get into Analysis.

But hey this is not meant as a criticism of psychoanalysis, that is simply the way of the world my brothers and sisters. Life at the bottom of the financial pile is shit, in that sense psychoanalysis simply mirrors life, individuation is a path reserved for those of means. This is not to say that life is so fantastic on top of the financial pile, but simply that those on top of the pile have more time to contemplate the unbearable angst of being and of course have an Analyst hold their hand in the process.

Jung himself knew this only too well. Although he grew up in relative poverty, he soon remedied this state of affairs by marrying Emma Rauschenbach the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Switzerland. His own journey to individuation was made possible through the Rauschenbach’s family wealth. Having the time and means to build stone towers by hand, buy ancient alchemical texts, write the Collected Works and travel around the world is not the province of the working class. No indeed the ethos of wealth is deeply embedded in the Jungian culture.

Freud for this part never possessed this kind of money and indeed his personal ambition never appeared to be wealth creation. However I think this oversight was remedied by the psychoanalytic profession whose fees were never for the faint of heart. In fact, I am speculating, but I think it would not be entirely incorrect to say that a significant factor in the decline in psychoanalysis, in the last twenty years, is partly as a result of insufficient people having the luxury, in terms of time and money, to indulge in the psychoanalytic treatment.

But does money actually make us happy?

I’m not convinced that having money actually makes us happy. Naturally we need a minimum income simply to pay the rent on our life, but it does seem to be a case of diminishing returns, more doesn’t necessarily mean happier. I am speculating though, I don’t personally have the kind of money that I can tell you with conviction it doesn’t make you happier, it is more of a loose observation of the seriously wealthy. You could always ask one of the elite if their money makes them really happy, but I’m guessing you not likely to get an honest answer.

As I see it though it doesn’t matter that an abundance of money doesn’t guarantee happiness, that fact is probably more of an indictment of the aspiration of happiness than a criticism of wealth creation. Happiness, besides being an overvalued commodity in modern life, can never be directly pursued, it is closer to an innate disposition that some posses more than others. The very act of aspiration, for anything not only money, brings with it a degree of unhappiness.

I’m reminded of a social gathering I was invited to once,(people usually only make that mistake once with me,  inviting me to a social function :-)), where this dim-witted narcissist was carrying on unashamedly about how much money he had for the better part of the afternoon. At some point in the conversation he paused and said, thoughtfully, but it  doesn’t make you happy you know, it’s not as if you cuddle up to it at night, you have to get your priorities right and figure out what you really want! It was all I could do not to burst out laughing.

So is money actually a worthwhile goal then?

I think the answer to this question depends entirely on you. What I take as given is that we all agree that we need to make a living and that poverty is undoubtedly the cause of much misery. However beyond that, is being financially wealthy a worthwhile goal?

Let’s put it this way if your personal goal is to endure good Christian suffering, or to be a nice person, or to lead a simple life, or to relate to your fellow man[5] as an equal regardless of his or her financial status, or if you have strict ethical views which you don’t want to compromise, then I suggest money should not be your primary goal.

However if you seek power, status, respect, great sex, nice toys, freedom of movement and time, personal autonomy, the opportunity to travel, to spend the kind of time and energy necessary for individuation, then it goes without saying that a degree of wealth is essential.

Let me conclude by saying I think Capitalism at least in its current form is unsustainable; I totally agree with Žižek and that school of thought in this regard. Furthermore, I think that Capitalism is a morally corrupt system which undermines the basic dignity of the human person, both the Capitalist himself as well as the working class. Whilst Communism has proven an ineffective alternative I pray for the soul of mankind that some form of enlightened socialism becomes the dominant social system at some point in the future.

The above being said, as things currently stand and as long as Capitalism prevails, money is the home of the Fire Phoenix.

Until we talk again,


If you found this post intresting read Anja’s

[1]“ The term appeared for the first time in Freud’s work apropos of the “Wolf Man” case (1918b [1914]), but the notion of a sexual memory experienced too early to have been translated into verbal images, and thus liable to return in the form of conversion symptoms or obsessions, was part of his [Freud’s] thinking as early as 1896” (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis).

[2] My thanks to Clinton Van Winkel for this idea.

[3] James Hillman (1926- 2011) is the founder of the Archetypal School which is one of the dominant schools in the Jungian world today; it emphasises the archetypal and imaginal aspects of Jung’s pioneering work.  Hillman founded the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

[4] Jung’s Collected Works, some twenty volumes at the last count.

[5] This use of the masculine gender is purely in keeping with the convention of the expression and should not be seen as an actual gender differentiation.

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Comments (7)

  • Leon Reply

    I like the statement that money is a case of diminishing returns, makes sense.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:21 am
  • Michael Reply

    Interesting article. I’m reminded of the story related by James Hillman that when a group of Jungian analysts were asked what the ultimate taboo was between patient and client, the overwhelming response was not sex but rather the lending of money

    July 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm
  • Caroline Reply

    Hi after a long while, S

    Yes to most. But (and I expose my have-not middle-class conditioning here) I have not found that the wealthy’s access to psychoanalysis has improved their chances of individuation at all. As you point out elsewhere, the ongoing mutually dependent relationship between a paying customer and his / her psychoanalyst has as its basis an exchange of money, the one side procuring a panacea, the other, selling time. The perpetuation of the myth of money-as-highest-good (in terms of social status) continues to be perpetuated by by the well-healed. Came across the term “poor man’s Porcshe” the other day in reference to a Boxter, and was both amused and sickened.

    Yes, life at the bottom of the financial pile is shitty, is as fraught with social disease as the top of the pile, engages the individual in constant concern with basic survival strategies. The poor man sitting with his back to the sunny wall of his little home smoking (yes, still the luxury purchases) and thinking his thoughts about the machinations of his community is no less individuated than the wealthy man driving to another meeting in his BMW thinking his thoughts about which new car his peers will be most impressed by.

    And my respect for people along the whole continuum comes down to the parable of the talents: what have you done to multiply the benefits of what you are given – the resources that are entrusted to you, material or otherwise. And where in the parable the source of the resources are the Master, to whom, in our context, are those benefits to accrue?

    July 13, 2012 at 5:55 am
    • Stephen Reply

      Hi Caroline

      Thanks for your comment. It’s really nice to hear from you again :-).

      First off just a technical point, although I use the terms psychoanalysis (strictly speaking this is the Freudian school) and Analysis (Jungian) interchangeably, there is a significant distinction between the two. It is Analysis that has Individuation as its goal, for Freud this was misguided- the replacement of one myth with another. Psychoanalysis has as its guiding principle the ‘reality principle’ and is to do with successful adaptation (i.e. to one’s life), rather than Individuation in the Jungian sense. It is in simple terms a more modest goal.

      Regardless of the above, your description of the psychoanalytic dyad is not without merit.

      Consider the case of the famous Wolf man case, Sergei Pankeyev.
      Pankeyev spent close to six decades in and out of psychoanalysis! It was in relation to this case that Freud fist started speaking of the ‘Primal Scene’ in his interpretation of a dream Pankeyev had had, wherein he saw a pack of white wolves, which Freud interpreted as a traumatic memory fragment of Pankeyev having witnessed his parents having sexual intercourse. Pankeyev was never completely cured. He was reported to have said though towards the end of his life, when asked what he had achieved, after so many years of psychoanalysis (and the not inconsiderable sum of money it cost him), that it had made his life bearable.

      To your last point though I cannot agree, the suggestion that poor man is as individuated as his wealthy counterpart, or has the same potential for individuation. The image, of what we used to refer to as a yuppie, fretting over his peers reception of his latest car is not what wealth is really about, that is just the rat race so many of us trapped in. Wealth is about something far more fundamental than that.

      There are a number of issues here, firstly the genuine working class man, which describes the vast majority of the population, whether or not they are currently fortunate enough to be employed, has little time to consider questions such as the ones you pose.

      His time, energy and intellect, his very soul, is engaged in and largely consumed by simply earning a living. Furthermore, he lacks the resources to devote time, attention and money to exploring the expression of his varied talents in the world- which is in sense what individuation is.

      I think the myth perpetuated by the wealthy is not money-as-the-highest-good as you suggest, rather I would say it is the myth that it’s okay that we live in a society where such vast gulfs in financial status exist, where it’s okay for me to buy your soul that your soul is in fact a tradable commodity. The biggest illusion perpetuated by the wealthy is that we are all basically the same; these distinctions in financial, educational and social status are but a little matter not something to fret over.

      July 13, 2012 at 2:31 pm
  • Margaret Reply

    Just this past week, English heiress, Eva Rausing, worth over 5 billiion Pounds, was only found ONE WEEK after her death, in her apartment – isn’t that sad – to be worth so much and no one knows for a whole week? (Even more distressing, despite, or because of, all that money, she was also heavily addicted to drugs!)

    July 13, 2012 at 8:40 am
  • Marius Reply

    Really enjoyed this post. Good thoughts, Stephen, and well-written. I just have to comment on Caroline’s comment about the “well-healed”! I am assuming she meant to write “well-heeled” but “well-healed” is an equally good description of what a friend of mine calls the ‘Prozac Poppies’ of upper-middle class suburbia. That is, suburban housewives who are financially provided for by their husbands, but emotionally and sexually deprived by the same, and so they seek connection and understanding from their (preferably male) psychotherapist.

    Regarding the ability of the unemployed and working class to individuate. I would agree with you, Stephen, that it is a luxury they cannot afford (Maslow’s hierarchy and all). And I would, in agreement with Zizek, place the blame at the feet of Capitalism. The pre-industrial subsistence farmer or pre-historic hunter gatherer probably had more chance of discovering and living out their unique talents and “becoming themselves” than the urban poor.

    As a therapist I have always had the long-term goal of charging people what they make in an hour (before tax!): a truly progressive transaction that would make therapy accessible and valuable to all. But I have to make enough money myself before I can afford to do that…

    July 27, 2012 at 3:09 pm
  • Craig DeLarge Reply

    Good article and enlightening. As to point of working class individuation, I think that this is more possible than acknowledged. I see this greater possibility in better education of this approach to life, focus of spare time on matters of individuation than media driven entertainment and distraction, greater recognition of the opportunity and execution of individuation in ones daily work if only in how one engaged with themselves and others and how one views themselves as the hero in the midst of their own journey.

    August 27, 2012 at 11:19 am

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