Freud, Klein and Dr Seuss

I recently dredged this out and it’s quite funny – one of my undergrad pieces (from 2001, I think), but on The Cat in the Hat. You just have to love it.

I notice that this is getting a lot of views … which is great. I would, however, appreciate it if those of you who read it say hi. It’s here, open for all to read, and to use (so long as you cite me properly 😉 …), and it would be great to know that you’ve at least enjoyed it!

What are the connections between Freud’s idea of sublimation and Klein’s theory of reparation as theories about where creativity has its sources? How does The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss treat the same subject?

The link between imagination and reality plays an important part in creativity, as John Lechte suggests: ‘the literary text […] is simultaneously symbolic and real, a product of imagination and a disguised reality.’ 1 For both Freud and Klein, the roots of artistic creativity were laid down in childhood and derived, primarily, from unsatisfied sexual instincts. Freud considered that these instincts were sublimated, a process which ‘enables excessively strong excitations arising from particular sources of sexuality to find an outlet and a use in other fields.’ 2 Klein, however, considered that the conflict caused by the sexual instinct led to aggressive phantasies – directed initially against the mother – which, in turn, led to guilt and fear. This guilt resulted in the child attempting to repair the damage perceived to be done in these phantasies to re-gain the original mother: reparation. Both theories, however, consider phantasy to be the basis of creative thought. Written for, and apparently by, children, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat also deals with destruction, guilt and the possible reasons for imaginative creation. For Freud, Klein and Seuss, it seems that creative art serves a purpose.

For both Freud and Klein, the phantasy-life of the child lay at the roots of artistic creativity. In ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’, Freud suggests that ‘the creative writer does the same as the child at play.’ 3 While the child invests great emotional energy into play, ‘the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.’ 4 The difference between the creative writer’s daydreams and childhood play is that the child links his imagined objects and the tangible objects of the real world. For, Freud the desire for play never leaves us: ‘whoever understands the human mind knows that hardly anything is harder for a man than to give up a pleasure which he has once experienced. Actually, we can never give anything up; we can only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate.’ 5 We can see, therefore, that ‘the growing child, when he stops playing, gives up nothing but the link with real objects; instead of playing, he now phantasies.’ 6 Unable to give up the pleasure of play, the adult replaces it with phantasy, the root of creative writing which can return him to the child-like state: ‘by equating this ostensibly serious occupations of to-day with his childhood games, he can throw off the heavy burden imposed on him by life.’ 7

Klein broadly agrees, stating ‘The baby who feels a craving for his mother’s breast when it is not there may imagine it to be there, i.e., he may imagine the satisfaction which he derives from it. Such primitive phantasying is the earliest form of the capacity which later develops into the more elaborate workings of the imagination.’ 8 She does not, however, consider that the child’s phantasies come later in life: where Freud talks of a child’s play, Klein talks of its phantasy. Here Klein moves away from Freud, suggesting that the child cannot differentiate between its phantasies and reality: ‘A most important feature of these destructive phantasies […] is that the baby feels that what he desires in his phantasies has really taken place, that is to say he feels that he has really destroyed the object of his destructive impulses.’ 9 For Klein, it is also the baby’s natural frustration, initially at the removal of the breast, and later during the Oedipal conflict, which gives rise to these destructive phantasies, which the baby then believes it has carried out in reality. Where Freud does not, initially, consider the genesis of the child’s play, Klein considers the child’s phantasies to come directly from its sexual frustration.

Klein places the child’s sexual instinct earlier than Freud, at the mother’s breast, leading to conflict with siblings, mother and father due to jealousy, resentfulness and desire. Initial love of the mother as satisfier of desires soon turns into hatred, leading to destructive urges and phantasies of destruction: ‘this first love is already disturbed by destructive impulses […] destructive phantasies also go along with frustration and the feelings of hatred which this arouses.’ 10 Conflict and hatred lead to guilt and fear: ‘the child himself desires to destroy the libidinal object by biting, devouring and cutting it, which leads to anxiety, since awakening of the Oedipus tendencies is followed by introjection of the object, which then becomes one from which punishment is to be expected. The child then dreads a punishment corresponding to the offence.’ 11 The child, now fearing punishment, ‘finds support against these fears in omnipotent phantasies of a restoring kind’ 12, thus, ‘if the baby has, in his aggressive phantasies, injured his mother by biting and tearing her up, he may soon build up phantasies that he is putting the bits together and repairing her.’ 13 This is the basis of Klein’s theory of reparation – the child, having destroyed the mother in his aggressive phantasies, feels guilt and fear as a result of his (imagined) actions and sets about assuaging this guilt by indulging in new, restorative phantasies. This urge for reparation forms the basis for the creative arts: ‘feelings of guilt […] are a fundamental incentive towards creativeness and work in general’ 14.

Freud defined sublimation as ‘the power [of an instinct] to replace its immediate aim by other aims which may be valued more highly’ 15, yet Leslie Hill suggests it is a far from complete theory: ‘Sublimation, then, names a process of displacement that shows little respect for continuity or identity. It functions as an index for the enigmatic [my italics] production of the non-sexual from the sexual, or the cultural from the erotic; but as such […] what it offers is less a theory of cultural productions than a myth of origins. Sublimation, it appears, is more like a fable than a concept.’ 16 Freud explains the need for this ‘fable’ in On Sexuality’: ‘The very incapacity of the sexual instinct to yield complete satisfaction as soon as it submits to the first demands of civilisation becomes the source, however, of the noblest cultural achievements which are brought into being by ever more extensive sublimation of its instinctual components. For what motive could men have for putting sexual instinctual forces to other uses if, by any distribution of these forces, they could obtain fully satisfying pleasure? They would never abandon that pleasure and they would never make any further progress,’ 17 or, as we saw above: ‘What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate.’ 18 Sublimation is the diversion of sexual instincts which cannot be satisfied to other ends, most notably cultural or the urge for knowledge. As Freud noted in the life of Leonardo da Vinci, such aims become a substitute for sexual activity: ‘the libido evades the fate of repression by being sublimated from the very beginning into curiosity and by becoming attached to the powerful instinct for research as a reinforcement. Here, too, the research becomes to some extent compulsive and a substitute for sexual activity.’ 19

Freud does not suggest that sublimation of the sexual instinct must be towards artistic production: it may also be towards ‘a general urge to know.’ 20 Pointing the reader squarely towards his theories of childhood sexuality, ‘the almighty and just God, and kindly Nature, appear to us grand sublimations of father and mother, or rather as revivals and restorations of the young child’s ideas of them,’ 21 Freud also brings to mind Klein’s reparation. Sublimation seems likely to occur around the time of the Oedipus Complex: ‘at about the same time as the sexual life of children reaches its first peak, between the ages of three and five, they also begin to show the first signs of the activity which may be ascribed to the instinct for knowledge or research […] its activity belongs on the one hand to a sublimated manner of obtaining mastery.’ 22 Sublimation of sexual desires does not necessarily lead to creativity; ‘the amounts of excitation coming in from these parts of the body [erotogenic zones], do not all undergo the same vicissitudes, nor is the fate of all of them the same at every period of life.’ 23 Though Freud does not provide a smoothly delineated path between childhood sexuality and artistic creativity through sublimation, he does suggest a credible link, and again both he and Klein trace creativity to the same source: lack of satisfaction of childhood sexual instincts.

Freud suggests of a piece of creative writing that ‘the stress it lays on childhood memories in the writer’s life – a stress which may perhaps seem puzzling – is ultimately derived from the assumption that a piece of creative writing, like a day-dream, is a continuation of, and a substitute for, what was once the play of childhood’ 24, further elucidating the link between childhood play, experience and creativity. The link between past and present is vital: ‘A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work. The work itself exhibits elements of the recent provoking occasion as well as of the old memory’ 25.

Freud noted the connection between past, present and wish fulfilment and his work on neurosis and dreams: ‘there is a class of human beings upon whom, not a god, indeed, but a stern goddess – Necessity – has allotted the task of telling what they suffer and what things give them happiness. These are the victims of nervous illness.’ 26 Here Freud alludes to literature, specifically Goethe, the connection between literature and psychoanalysis often made explicit: ‘Neurosis, we recall Freud saying, is a “failed work of art.”‘ 27

Both in her language and views, Klein followed yet diverged from the Freudian model: the title ‘The Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ highlights this reliance. Klein connects creativity with the desire for possession of the contents of the womb and Oedipal guilt: ‘the epistemophilic instinct and the desire to take possession come quite early to be most intimately connected with one another and at the same time with the sense of guilt aroused by the incipient Oedipus conflict.’ 28 Suggesting that ‘the drive to explore need not be expressed in an actual physical exploration of the world, but may extend to other fields, for instance, any kind of scientific discovery […] the desire to re-discover the mother of the early days whom one has lost actually or in one’s feelings, is also of the greatest importance in creative art and in the ways people enjoy and appreciate it, 29 Klein not only creates a direct link between childhood, the urge to make reparation and creativity, but also to Freud himself, describing his work as ‘the exploration of the unconscious mind (by the way, an unknown continent discovered by Freud)’ 30.

Interpreting Keats’ On First Looking at Chapman’s Homer, Klein repeats Freud’s proscriptively vulgar reading of a creative work – where Freud found Hoffman’s The Sandman riddled with the Oedipus Complex, Klein finds Keats a perfect exposition of the theory of reparation, mapping mother upon continent. Where Freud blurred the boundaries between literature and psychoanalysis through citation, Klein suggests that ‘the sculptor who puts life into his object of art, whether or not it represents a person, is unconsciously restoring and re-creating the early loved people, whom he has in phantasy destroyed.’ 31 Klein’s use of phrases such as ‘puts life into’ not only suggests a connection between creativity and the desire for children expounded in other works, reminds us of Freud’s search for ‘the essential ars poetica.’ 32

Klein’s identification with Freud continued: ‘I wish above all to point out that they [her conclusions] do not, in my opinion, contradict the statements of Professor Freud’ 33. This defence of both her own and Freud’s work, along with he use of the title, definitions and techniques resembling Freud’s, brings to mind his analogy: ‘A. borrowed a copper kettle from B. and after he had returned it was sued by B. because the kettle now had a big hole in it which made it unusable. His defence was “First, I never borrowed a kettle from B. at all; secondly, the kettle had a hole in it already when I got it from him; and thirdly, I gave the him back the kettle undamaged.”‘ 34 Just as these defences seem mutually exclusive, so Klein’s statement both suggests there is no contradiction while alerting the reader to their existence. We can also observe the working of guilt, phantasy, wish-fulfilment and mutually exclusive excuses in the realm of creative writing in The Cat in the Hat

It would not be hard to impose a Freudian reading of The Cat in the Hat, dealing as it does with the themes of phantasy, creativity, guilt, fear of punishment and the transgression. Freud might read the cat himself as ‘His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every day-dream and every story’ 35, while Things One and Two are envoys of the Id. The fish, with its continual references to the fact that the cat should not be here, slips easily into the role of the super-ego. This is, however, not all, for the Things also reflect the automata discussed by Freud in his reading of The Sandman: this story could be a Freudian case-study. The Cat in the Hat also fits Klein’s theory of reparation snugly. The children, resentful at their mother’s absence, destroy the order of the home – itself identified by Klein as a ‘manifestation of [motherly] love for other people’ 36 – through the creation of phantasy figures. The guilt they feel at this destruction, triggered by the mother’s return, causes them to repair the damage in phantasy, leaving them simply to ponder the question of whether they should tell their mother what has happened.

The story deals with creation and creativity more directly, however, opening with a vital detail: ‘The sun did not shine / It was too wet to play / So we sat in the house / All that cold, cold, wet day’ (p1). Not only does the narrator foreground the impossibility of play due to inclement weather, but that he is one of the children. Has he invented this story merely to amuse himself and his sister: ”I sat with Sally / And we sat there, we two. / And I said, “How I wish we had something to do!”‘ 37

The Cat in the Hat, narrated by the child from within the story, is a work of literature which foregrounds its own status as phantasy. Thus the reader, as interpreter, in answering the question ‘does the narrator consider the cat real or imagined’ ends up asking the same question of himself. This is Shoshona Felman’s ‘reading effect’: ‘The scene of the critical debate is thus a repetition of the scene dramatised in the text. The critical interpretation, in other words, not only elucidates the text but also reproduces it dramatically, unwittingly participates in it. Through its very reading, the text, so to speak, acts itself out.’ 38 While the interpreter may ask whether the cat is real, the children in the story do not seem to mind that from its entrance, it is the cat who speaks: ‘Then Sally and I /Did not know what to say.’ 39 It is also this interpretation which Klein reflects when she insists that her theories do not clash with Freud’s.

Freud suggested ‘the child distinguishes it [play] quite well from reality; and he likes to link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world. This linking is all that differentiates the child’s “play” from “phantasying.”‘ 40 Is Cat in the Hat an imagined object that the child do not believe is real? It seems unlikely that this is a real Cat, with a real Hat, who can say to these children ‘”Why do you sit there like that?'” 41 While neither the children in the story nor those to whom the story is being read may believe the cat is real, this does not prevent them from taking him seriously, as a phantasy to relieve the boredom of this ‘cold, cold, wet day.’ 42

The cat’s games are destructive and transgressionary. The fish, commenting on the game ‘Up-up-up with a fish’ 43 states ‘”I do NOT wish to fall!”‘ 44 The inevitable, disastrous fall, which places the fish conveniently in a pot, leads the fish to re-iterate his view that ‘You SHOULD NOT be here / When our mother is not.’ 45 In The Uncanny, Freud stated that ‘in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating dolls like live people.’ 46 Here the fish is differentiated from the Cat and the two Things – whose status as dolls, automata or actual people is opaque – by being included in the family structure.

The cat and the things are phantastical creations, however. It is they, not the children, who are to blame for the mess and the chaos created in the house. On the mother’s return, the fish’s rhetoric changes, as he is scared of maternal retribution: ‘Oh what will she do to us? / What will she say? / Oh, she will not like it / to find us this way!’ 47 The boy’s apparent impotence is now shown as fraud: ‘Then I said to the cat, / “Now you do as I say.”‘ 48 The boy has control over his creations, so his final imaginative act is to clear up the mess, which is, according to the fish, ‘so big / And so deep and so tall, / We can not pick it up. / There is no way at all.’ 49 The cat returns, atop a vivid Heath Robinson-esque cross-fertilisation between a hoover and a tricycle, stating ‘I always pick up my playthings’ 50: the boy avoids the maternal retribution predicted by the fish.

The reader is invited to believe that the whole story has been a phantasy, even though it is presented as real. When the mother finally returns, she asks ‘Did you have any fun? / Tell me. What did you do?’ (p60). The boy asks the reader plainly, ‘Should we tell her about it? / Now, what SHOULD we do? / Well… / What would YOU do / If your mother asked YOU?’ 51 The children are in a position not dissimilar to Freud’s kettle-borrowing man: if they say what happened, they will get into trouble for their transgression, yet surely the mother will not believe them because there is no evidence, and thus the children must be lying, another transgression. The story’s final lines invite the reader to question the nature of truth, phantasy, and culpability.

Centering on art’s reparative function and drawing her theories from the nature of childhood phantasy, Klein suggests that the creative urge stems from childhood conflict and works to allow the adult to re-capture the joy of childhood. Freud suggests a similar link: the sublimation of childhood sexual instincts provides the energy for creativity, while the relationship of adult experiences to childhood ones provides the creative spark. Freud, too, connects childhood play and phantasy with the later creative urge in adulthood. While for Klein art can heal childhood aggression and guilt, for Freud it is a civilising force, allowing the relatively safe dispersal of transgressional sexual urges not allowed in civilised society. Freud connects art and neurosis as a form of troubled expression with their sources in childhood conflict without fully exploring the ramifications, especially regarding the theory of sublimation: it seems enough to suggest that it explains the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Freud, unlike Klein, never fully explores the ramifications of his theory. In The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss allows the reader a glimpse into the creatively imaginative world of the child, drawing lines of distinction and similarity between play and reality, as well as suggesting motives for creativity similar to those put forward by Klein and Freud: transgression, guilt and the desire for self-expression.


Lechte, John, ed, ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader‘ (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Interpretation of Dreams‘, trans Joyce Crick (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Joseph, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 3: Studies on Hysteria‘ trans James and Alix Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 7: On Sexuality‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1991)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 6: Jokes and the Relation to the Unconscious’ trans James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991)

Klein, Melanie ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ (London: Virago, 1988)

Mitchell, Juliet, ed ‘Selected Melanie Klein’ (Harmondsworth, London: Penguin 1986)

Seuss, Dr., ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ (London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1992)

Shoshona Felman, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)’ from ‘Madness and Psychoanalysis

Rivkin, Julie and Ryan, Michael, eds ‘Literary Theory: An Anthology‘ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)

1 ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996) p21

2 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 7: On Sexuality‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1991) p163

3 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ in ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p132

4 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

5 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

6 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

7 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p133

8 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ (London: Virago, 1988) p308

9 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ p308

10 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation’ pp307-8

11 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’, in ‘Selected Melanie Klein’ ed Juliet Mitchell (Harmondsworth, London: Penguin 1986) p71

12 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp308

13 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp308

14 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335-6

15 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ in ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p167

16 Leslie Hill, ‘Lacan with Duras’ in ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte (London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold, 1996) p151-2

17 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ pp259-60

18 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

19 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p170

20 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p225

21 Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ p216

22 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ p112

23 Sigmund Freud, ‘On Sexuality‘ p211

24 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p139

25 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p139

26 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p134

27 ‘Writing and Psychoanalysis: A Reader’ ed John Lechte p117

28 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ p72

29 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp334

30 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335

31 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ pp335

32 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p140

33 Melanie Klein, ‘Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict’ p82

34 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 6: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious‘ trans James Strachey (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991) p100

35 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p138

36 Melanie Klein, ‘Love, Guilt and Reparation‘ FN p312

37 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ (London: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1992) pp2-3

38 Shoshona Felman, ‘Henry James: Madness and the Risks of Practice (Turning the Screw of Interpretation)’ from ‘Madness and Psychoanalysis’ p148

39 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p8

40 Sigmund Freud, ‘Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming’ p132

41 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p6

42 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p1

43 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p12

44 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p13

45 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p25

46 ‘The Uncanny’ in Sigmund Freud, ‘The Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature‘ (London and New York: Penguin 1990) p354-5

47 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p47

48 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p52

49 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p55

50 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p57

51 Dr. Seuss, ‘The Cat in the Hat‘ p61