Eroticism, Deathfulness, and Otherwise Otherness in Psychoanalysis: Cautionary Notes on Disciplinary Exportation and the Method/Theory Distinction
Barnaby B. Barratt, PhD 1
In order to assess the transcultural applicability of psychoanalysis beyond its Eurocentric propagation, the discipline is defined not as a model of mental functioning for therapeutic deployment, but rather as the method of free-associative discourse. This method delivers three of the four coordinates of Sigmund Freud’s theorizing: resistance and repression; the historicity and historicality of self-consciousness; and the fundamentality of our erotic embodiment or libidinality as fueling the life of the psyche. Freud’s fourth coordinate, the oedipal structure of the repression barrier as the intrapsychic rendition of the universal incest taboo, is actually entailed by these three. In this connection, the theorizing of repression is discussed in terms of André Green’s emphasis that the repressed dimension of psychic life involves only “thing-presentations” in the sense adumbrated by Freud in 1915, and in this regard it is argued that the notion of libidinality as psychic energy is essential to psychoanalytic thinking. This notion is briefly compared with that of “Spirit-as-Messenger” in the Abrahamic tradition and with the various notions of subtle energies in Sanātana Dharmic and Taoic traditions. Jean Laplanche’s reading of Freud’s 1920 speculations about psychic energy or libidinality adhering to principles of “lifefulness” and “deathfulness” is discussed, and it is suggested that this potentially leads to a deeper appreciation of the mysterious intimacy between sexuality and death.
Afin d’évaluer l’applicabilité transculturelle de la psychanalyse au-delà de sa diffusion Euro-centrique, cette discipline ne sera pas définie comme un modèle de fonctionnement mental à fin thérapeutique mais comme la méthode de l’association libre. Cette méthode nous fournit trois des quatre coordonnés de la théorie de Freud : la résistance et le refoulement ; l’historicité de la conscience de soi ; l’aspect fondamental de notre incarnation érotique nourrissant notre vie psychique. La quatrième coordonnée de Freud – la structure œdipienne de la barrière répressive en tant que représentant intrapsychique du tabou universel de l’inceste – suit logiquement des trois autres. À cet égard, la théorisation du refoulement est élaborée selon l’idée d’André Green stipulant que la dimension refoulée de la vie psychique implique seulement les
« représentations de choses » ainsi que ce concept a été esquissé par Freud en 1915. Ainsi, il sera soutenu que la notion de libido en tant qu’énergie psychique est essentielle à la pensée psychanalytique. Cette notion sera brièvement comparée avec celle de « l’esprit en tant que messager » provenant de la tradition abrahamique ainsi qu’avec les notions diverses au sujet d’énergies subtiles provenant des traditions taoïques et Sanātana dharmiques. L’engagement de Jean Laplanche avec les réflexions de Freud en 1920 au sujet de l’énergie psychique et de la libido adhérant aux principes de « plénitude de vie » et « plénitude de mort » sera aussi discuté. Il sera suggéré que cette potentialité mènera vers une appréciation plus profonde de l’intimité mystérieuse entre la mort et le sexe.
The contemporary world of “psychoanalysis” is both factionalized and fractious, ideologically confused and confusing. Yet it is also moderately vibrant and, in many areas of the world, its outreach is currently expanding. It thus seems timely, even urgent, to confront (yet again and hopefully this time even more unflinchingly) the question: How are psychoanalytic ideas to enter the cultures of what Enrique Dussel (1977/2003, 2011) called the “periphery”? That is, cultures outside the orbit of the North Atlantic, from whence the discipline has been almost entirely propagated (its effects in South America notwithstanding). And to what extent should we, or should we not, assume the relevance of psychoanalytic thinking to cultures that are, from a North Atlantic or Eurocentric perspective, “other”? To what extent must we explore, yet again and even more thoroughly, the extent to which such thinking might be inherently and irremediably eurocentric?
In these preliminary notes, I begin by discussing the challenge of the ubiquitous resistances to psychoanalysis. Here my argument is that the method of psychoanalytic inquiry, defined as a systematic commitment to free-associative discourse, is of crucial significance to the possibility of a human future. By contrast, the diverse theoretical models of mental function and with their various techniques of therapeutic application (which are often identified as all that the discipline is about) have to be understood as contingent upon their historical and cultural context, and may prove to be of quite arbitrary significance. The challenge of relinquishing our attachment as practitioners to such models will be mentioned and finally I will argue that the distinction between a scientifically poeticizing method versus theoretical models with affiliated therapeutic techniques must be further considered. Sigmund Freud’s method of inquiry may well prove to be a universal and vitally significant key to humanity’s liberation from its barbarous self-destructiveness, but it is unlikely that this will be the contribution of the diverse theories and techniques that are variously affiliated with the project of “psychoanalysis.”
Resistances to Psychoanalysis
The contumacious quality of the discipline that Freud inaugurated and that many others have claimed to follow is one of which everyone interested in psychoanalytic thinking should be thoroughly aware --- and perhaps wary. As is well known, it was always so. Freud dealt with the rather simplistic objections of Alfred Adler 1898-1937 (Stein, 2005), as well as the growing theoretical tension between himself and Carl Jung 1906-1914 (McGuire , 1974; Jung, 1912/2011), even before he made the very serious mistake of ordaining a ‘Secret Committee’ in 1912, imagining that science could possibly be protected by such a clandestine organization (cf, Barratt, 2013b; Grosskurth, 1991). Freud was thus complicit in moving his discipline toward its currently absurd status in which “psychoanalysis” is vulnerable to the charge that it has degenerated into a set --- or, perhaps even worse, a cacophony --- of dogmatically religious and vindictively political organizations.
Bewailing the complex position of his discipline both as scientific, albeit in a special sense, and as philosophically poetic, Freud (1923/1924, p. 103) wrote that “this state of affairs … does not account for the outbursts of rage, mockery and contempt which, disregarding rationality and civility, have characterized the tactics used by the opponents of psychoanalytic inquiry.” Consistently throughout his career, Freud identified the motives for these ubiquitous resistances to his discipline. It is a discipline he defines foremost as the methodical use of free-associative discourse, the sine qua non of psychoanalysis as the poeticizing science par excellence, only by which can humanity understand itself (e.g., Freud 1916-1917, 1923, 1923/1924, 1924, 1937). Uniquely powerful, it is indeed a “dangerous method.” So today, we have to note how many of the self-identified proponents of “psychoanalysis” have all but entirely forgotten the essentiality of the free-associative method (cf, Barratt, 2013a, 2014, 2016c, in press). If indeed the oppositional “outbursts of rage, mockery and contempt” have quieted down, then surely we must consider the possibility that this is because “psychoanalysts” are no longer committed to Freud’s rigorous method of our “unsettlement” (Auden, 1939/1976; cf, Dean, 2013), and have in various ways systematically retreated from his “Copernican revolution,” recentering the subject and reassuring us that some sort of mastery is within our personal potential (cf, Fletcher, 1999, 2011; Laplanche, 1992). However, does any sensible person get agitated over the proposition that every individual event can be interpreted as a compromise between the impulses, prohibitions, and reality (however that is construed) and that interpretation of such compromises might prompt individuals to reposition themselves in ways that are more adaptively comfortable in relation to consensual constructions of reality? Does anyone seriously dispute that individuals might be assisted in maturing from more internally disorganized “paranoid-schizoid” conditions to those that are less chaotic, sadder, wiser, yet perhaps more comfortable? Can anyone get into a rage of mockery and contempt toward those who advocate modes of interpersonal communication designed to help individuals address their needs for security, moderate their capacity for selective inattention, and integrate themselves into their sociocultural milieu? I think not (although I admit that I have, for polemical purposes, just engaged in a bit of caricature).
However, it is --- I think --- indisputable that, only through his commitment to the free-associative method could Freud have discovered three of the four “cornerstones” (which might better have been called coordinates) of his discipline: (i) resistance and repression (that is, the repressiveness of self-consciousness in the structuring of conscious and preconscious representationality); (ii) the historicity and historicality of self-consciousness (that is, the way in which processes of Nachträglichkeit or “afterwardsness” can modify the effective significance of prior eventualities); and (iii) the energetic sensuality or sexuality that fuels the life of the psyche (that is, libidinality or “desire,” as I will elaborate). The fourth coordinate, the oedipal structure of the inner theatre of our representational system, is actually entailed by these three. If the process of free-associative discourse is engaged methodically, these three coordinates are demonstrable. If you accept these three coordinates as provisional tenets, then it becomes evident that the method of free-association is, in relation to the repressed unconscious that animates our psychic life, not optional but essential (Barratt, 2016c). In short, without these coordinates and without this method, there is no “Copernican revolution,” in which it is discovered that we are not, and never can be, masters of our own destiny. Rather, there is a reversion to pre-Freudian philosophies now delivered as one of the “psychoanalytic” models of mental functioning --- models which, admittedly, Freud himself is partially responsible for inspiring.
Surely these interlinked and interlocking dimensions of Freud’s revolution (the method of free-association, the associated four coordinates, and his more or less firm assertion that mastery, or any centering of the universe that inscribes our destiny is not within human reach) account entirely for the provocative process of unsettlement that is at the heart of psychoanalysis? Freud himself seems to have been quite clear that these psychoanalytic discoveries about the human psyche are the very reasons for resistance to both the unique scientificity and the liberatory implications of his discipline (cf, Freud, 1900, 1905/1906, 1923, 1924, 1926). Yet in the past thirteen decades, we have witnessed how readily these coordinates have been lost within the revisionist theorizing and the clinical practices of those who call themselves “psychoanalytic.” The unconscious has been rendered as biological or as a set of innately transmitted, archaic patterns, or as the domain of suppressed representations (that is, either deeply preconscious or merely a matter of “selective inattention”). The center has been restored as “ancestral patterns” chromosomally encoded within the brainstem, as a conflict-free sphere of the ego organizations functioning, or as the self. Sexuality has been revised so that its flesh-and-blood quality as libidinal energy, as the wellspring of our embodied experience, and as the processive substrate of all cognition, affect and motivation is now ignored; the notion is either retained in name only or revised, either as merely a category of body-related behaviors or as the preoccupation of “phantasies” that are about body-parts. Personal history is now depicted as if linear (even if qualitative shifts are conceptualized) and, perhaps most conspicuously, the significance of oedipality is sidestepped in favor of a focus on the events of early caretaking, as if the significance of these pre-symbolic events had not been shown to be retroactively shaped --- Nachträglichkeit --- by the hegemony of the oedipally structured system of conscious and preconscious representationality over the vitally significant events of infancy. The fundamental issue is the essentiality of the method of psychoanalysis has been abandoned. The commonality of all the theorizing that follows Freud (ego-psychological, structural-functional, object-relational, self-psychological, and so forth) is that methods or techniques that be perhaps be therapeutic but that do not allow the voice of the repressed to speak are being advocated, so that pre-Freudian comfort may be restored. Free-association is now demoted to be viewed as just one procedure of “data-gathering” among many, or to be equated with the vicissitudes of the emotional currents between the patient and the clinician, or to be entirely abandoned in favor of other modes of inquiry. Once you fail to understand that free-association is the sine qua non of both the scientificity and the emancipative potential of Freud’s discipline, you can only proceed to misunderstand, among other related issues, both the unconscious-as-repressed and the energetic significance of libidinality (cf, Barratt, 2016c, in press). The provocations of Freudian discovery are covertly ablated.
In relation to the issue of repression, consider here how often in our literature the term “unconscious” is used in a merely descriptive sense. Even Freud frequently slipped into this conflation of the repressed unconscious with representations that are at most --- given that the thought or wish is indeed representable --- “deeply preconscious.” Yet he also caught himself in this error and insisted on the difference between the repressed and that which could be represented, notably in 1915. André Green articulated this clearly, when he insisted that “in the preconscious you have words and thoughts, but in the unconscious … you have only thing-presentations; this is something very important” (Green, 1999, p. 46). Now consider the fact that no Kleinian, nor anyone in that invaluable object-relational tradition that Melanie Klein initiated, has ever responded to Green’s 1974 critique of Susan Isaac’s classic 1948 paper on “unconscious phantasies.” If any object-relationist or interpersonalist has so responded, I have not found it despite scouring the literature. In short, as therapeutically helpful as it may be to understand psychoanalysis as an exploration of the inner theater of object-relations or of relational patterns and so forth, these traditions often seem to have lost sight of Freud’s definition of psychoanalysis as the “psychology of repression” (Freud, 1901). Freud was adamant (at least until the time of the 1914-1918 war) that the repressiveness of self-consciousness --- or of the “ego organization” --- is the central and unique discovery of his discipline and that every other aspect of psychoanalysis rests on this discovery or is in some profound sense related to it (Freud, 1914a, 1918). Yet how many of those who claim today to be adherents of this discipline would endorse this statement, which, in my opinion, no one has seriously refuted. By the way, even though Freud himself posited the structural model, this same complaint may be made about the post-1923 proposition that the “repression barrier” might be located within the ego organization, which leads to several insoluble theoretical problems, including the effective abolition of the notion of Trieb --- as I have discussed in my critique of ego psychology and the entire tradition of Heinz Hartmann et alia that has so entranced North American professionals.
In relation to the issue of the energetic significance of libidinality, we can observe the same sort of tendencies to retreat from the radicality of psychoanalysis and reconfigure the discipline in a manner that renders it entirely more comfortable to prevailing ideologies. Consider how, since Klein, the notion of Trieb --- drive --- is reconfigured not as psychic energy, but rather as an archaic and innate disposition to destructiveness or “primal envy” (and later to ethological notions of Instinkte, as “modal action patterns” with “innate releaser mechanisms” including those that promote attachment). Sexuality, in the object-relational tradition seems to involve a range of phantasies and tendencies about or toward body-parts. The energy and the exuberant fleshiness of eroticism seems to have all but disappeared. Likewise in the North American tradition. Early on, Harry Stack Sullivan and his cohort rendered the unconscious as merely a matter of selective inattention and sanitized eroticism as the fatuity of the “lust dynamism.” The notion of drive, as such, was indeed brought into this American scene by the ego psychologists (who proceeded furiously to debate whether there might be two primary modes of psychic energy rather than one --- a debate that Freud himself engaged and that seems to egregiously sidestep a more intense and critical exegesis of the notion of subtle energies (cf, Barratt, 2015c). In the ego tradition, the notion of Trieb or drive is sometimes retained but, I would argue, more or less in name only, and characteristically sexuality refers only to a set or several sets of behaviors so designated --- as is the case in the interpersonalist and relational lineages.
That is to say, Freud’s notion of libidinality, as psychic energy has been pervasively, even if surreptitiously, ablated. Yet the notion has similarities with that of spirit-as-messenger, which is found throughout the Abrahamic religious scriptures (at least in some interpretations and commentaries), and that is perhaps explicated more conspicuously in Taoic and Sanātana Dharmic traditions. This probably explains the haste --- throughout Europe and North America --- to exorcize, or at least debilitate, the notion of psychic energy from within the psychoanalytic lexicon. If psychic energy can be rendered unnecessary to the theory --- perhaps by dropping the notion altogether, perhaps by rendering it as a disposition that is chromosomally transmitted, perhaps by making it into some sort of ethological concept --- then fundamentally Cartesian dualism is restored and the radical challenge of the free-associative method is evaded. The tragedy of psychoanalysis today is reenacted each time “psychoanalysts” seek to domesticate Freud’s discoveries by translating them into some other discipline: ethology, cognitive psychology, and now neuroscience. Here the example of neuroscience is particularly instructive. If we start with pre-Freudian assumptions of a Cartesian cast or complexion, in which there are neuronal networks (and all the anatomical structures and physiological functions) of the “body” on the one side and the representationality of the “mind” on the other side, and that is all there is, then the psychoanalytic notion of drives can only refer to the “ancestral passions” encoded as the “seven basic affective systems” established within the brainstem (medulla, pons, midbrain). This specific characterization is from Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven’s The Archaeology of Mind, which I have critiqued in papers published last year in the Psychoanalytic Review (cf, Barratt, 2015b, 2015d). There is brain and there is mind, and nothing can be said about the --- entirely presumed --- rules of translatability or non-translatability between the two.
Yet Freud, against all these epigones, was insistent that the notion of Trieb, psychic energy, refers to something operating in a real yet recondite manner between the realms of biology (i.e., “body”) and psychology (i.e., the representationality of the “mind”), and he insisted that it was the very method of free-associative discourse that necessitated his positing this Hilvorstellung or “helpful idea” (cf, Barratt, 2015c, 2016c). The notion of psychic energy in relation to that of “spirit-as-messenger” is well worth our consideration. The messenger brings messages, often enigmatically. “She” thus connects two radically different modes, realms or domains of discourse. But it is never presumed that this movement of energy or “information” can be reduced to the formulations of either realm. That is, surely, why there has to be a messenger; “she” indicates, like a finger pointing to the moon that must not be mistaken for the moon itself, and thus connects different modes of meaningfulness that can never be reduced --- fully and completely translated --- one to the other.
In sum, just as there is no psychoanalysis without the free-associative method, there is no psychoanalysis without the notion of repression and of the energetic libidinality that transmutes and transforms meaningfulness across and around what Freud called the “repression barrier” (cf, Barratt, 2012/2015a). This barrier is oedipally established as the intrapsychic rendition of the universal incest taboo --- a complex matter, which we do not have the time to elaborate here. Our focus should be on the fact that, after two decades of clinical laboring with the method of free-association, Freud formulated very concisely his findings, specifically in the 1915 papers on “Repression” and on the “Unconscious.” From the mid to late 1890s onward, Freud found that free-association unveils the functioning of self-consciousness as rendering some ideas or wishes unknown or unknowable to itself. That is, initially unacceptable contents are suppressed into the preconscious, but then they are repressed (eigentliche Verdrängung, literal or so-called “secondary” repression”). Repression is a process of deformation. Once repressed, previously preconscious contents are no longer in representational form. That is, no longer formulated as verbal- or (quasi)verbal-representations (Wortvorstellungen), they persist and insist themselves upon our self-consciousness as thing-presentations. Moreover (and this is the crucial point), although verbal-representations can be deformed into thing-presentations (as if losing their representational form and becoming mere sparks, waves or “momenta” of psychic energy), thing-presentations can never be, sufficiently or adequately, translated back into verbal-representations. This is why in 1896 Freud defined repression as a “failure in translation” (Masson, 1986).
In short, whereas anything that is suppressed or “deeply preconscious” is other than the representations immediately owned or ownable by the reflectivity of our self-consciousness, the energetic traces or impulses are inherently otherwise than representationality, even while acting insistently and disruptively upon the representational domain.
By 1915, Freud speculated that a similar, yet significantly dissimilar dynamic (which he names Urverdrängung or “primal repression”) must be structurally implicated in the very origins of psychic life. That is, such a dynamic must have a formative role in the originary differentiation of representationality from the energies or forces of Triebe that animate it and that are related to, but never identical with, biological mechanisms. This notion of “related to, but never identical with” pertains both to the connection that biological mechanisms have with psychic energy and to the connection that psychic energy has with the representations that appear to formulate its significance, but only ever do so in a manner that is displaced or deferred --- as the endless process of free-associative discourse surely shows (Barratt, 1993/2016b, 2016c). This point is crucial and pivots on our grasp of Freud’s much misunderstood doctrine of Anlehnung (badly tendered in the Standard Edition) as “anaclisis”). Here we owe much to the post-Lacanians, particularly Jean Laplanche (Fletcher, 1999, 2011; Laplanche, 1992), for his exegesis of the notion of “enigmatic messages” that impact the formation of every human child, emitted from the repressed unconscious of the caretakers, and imposing themselves upon the infant --- thus establishing the earliest demarcation of embodied thing-presentations that can never be adequately or sufficiently translated in the realm of representationality. The infant’s bombardment with such enigmatic messages (imposing, impositioning, and impressionability), irrespective of whether they are benign or “wicked” (which was Laplanche’s post-2006 term for the damaging aspects of such messages), necessarily shapes the terrain, so to speak, for the later establishment of the repression barrier in terms set by the incest taboo.
In sum, we can see here the considerably anti-psychoanalytic implications of abandoning the notion of psychic energy or of thereby confusing repression with suppression (and thus allowing us to think of the unconscious only descriptively). These are the inevitable consequences of a commonplace failure to grasp psychoanalysis as the scientific and liberatory method of free-associative discourse. For it is only via such discourse that we can come to listen, not only to the “other voice” of those representations that we have suppressed, even if very deeply suppressed, but also the “otherwise messages” that are embodied within our experience yet cannot be translated into the representationality of our reflective capacities. Otherwise messages, animatively but disruptively inscribed in our embodied experience as thing-presentations or impulses of psychic energy, are an integral, even if contumacious, aspect of our being-in-the-world. We cannot ignore the repressed unconscious in favor of more comfortably integrated, even if dualistic, depictions of the human condition. This is surely what psychoanalysis is all about; even if it is lost amidst all the theorizations (object-relational, ego-psychological, interpersonal or relational, and orthodoxly Lacanian) that have been developed in the past ten decades.
As we all know well, after the 1914-1918 war, Freud contributed germinally to the development of object-relational models and then, in the early 1920s, he contributed substantively to the formulation of the structural-functional (or ego-psychological) model. However, (i) the method of free-associative discourse, (ii) the discovery of the repressiveness (as well as suppressiveness) of human self-consciousness, (iii) the exploration of the pulsations of libidinal energies, (iv) the distinction between embodied thing-presentations and representations that are potentially available to our reflectivity, and (v) the challenge of psychic life as a perpetual confrontation between messages that are other (messages from the world of other people, other events, other ideas, other aspects of the “self,” including other thoughts and wishes from the suppressed underground of our preconsciousness) … all of these fundamental dimensions of the discipline of psychoanalysis were well articulated long before Freud became preoccupied with the production of objectivistic models of mental functioning.
Yet there is another aspect to my argument here, which concerns Freud’s controversial essay of 1920, translated as Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I used to tell trainees in psychoanalysis that the contemporary world of “psychoanalysis” could be categorized according to how this text is understood. As you may know, many North Americans have tended to dismiss it as Freud’s exorbitant and clinically gratuitous indulgence in metaphysical speculation; most Kleinians have tended to read the text in terms of notions of aggressivity and annihilation, thus licensing their convictions about the humanity’s innate propensities for destructiveness or primal envy. And so forth. Indeed, almost as soon as Beyond the Pleasure Principle was extensively circulated, commentators seemed almost desperate to amend or refute it by offering their quite diverse readings of the text. In 1916, Leonard Blumgart had suggested the term thanatos as a “death instinct” and this concept was increasingly adopted in the 1930s as Europe (and with it the psychoanalytic world) fell apart and Freud’s 1920 thesis was given several simplistic interpretations. It was in the 1930s that Paul Federn--as reported by his son, Ernst Federn (1974) and elsewhere--posited the idea of a “suicidal drive” which he called mortido and Edoardo Weiss (1935, 1957), in a tone slightly different from the one later promulgated by the Kleinians, advanced, quite vociferously, the notion of destrudo as a “destructive drive.”
Again, I believe, we owe much to Laplanche’s close reading of the Freudian texts to extricate us from this conundrum. Laplanche suggests that Freud’s Lebenstriebe, the “life drives,” and Todestriebe, the “death drives,” are not to be understood as “drives” per se, but rather as principles on which a drive --- that is, psychic energy --- operates. From my standpoint, this accords with a much overlooked, but highly significant, backdrop to the writing of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I am not referring to the two brilliant papers of 1914 (“On Narcissism” and “Remembering, Repeating and Working-through”), which presage the 1920 essay. Rather I am referring to Freud’s debt, which he does acknowledge (although rather begrudgingly, in my opinion) to Sabina Spielrein’s 1912 paper, “Destruction as the Cause of Coming-into-Being” or “Becoming.” In that paper, Spielrein, who is known to have consulted Carl Jung on the preparation of her essay, discusses how creation and destruction are partnered in every act of becoming. This seems concordant with Laplanche’s interpretation of the lifefulness principle, Lebenstrieb, as the effusion or repetitive binding of psychic energy to representations, whereas the deathfulness principle, Todestrieb, names the concomitant process of unbinding. This argument is persuasive if you accept Laplanche’s post-Lacanian thesis both that “drive” or psychic energy is never identical with the biological substrate on which it leans, is propped-upon or follows-from (Freud’s notion of Anlehnung) and that it is never fully captured by the representations in which it is invested. The latter point explains how psychic energy so often disrupts --- elusively, excessively and exuberantly --- the logical and rhetorical order of our self-conscious life. Thus, our stream of experience involves a perpetual flow (the lifefulness principle) and ebb (the deathfulness principle) of libidinal energy that perpetually infuses and defuses the representations that constitute every moment or instantiation of our preconscious and conscious being-in-the-world.
There is now a final note of interest. Perhaps this perspective offers us insight into the mysterious connections between sexuality and death --- not death as the conclusion of a life, but deathfulness as the perpetual recession of libidinality from the representational system, the structures and functions of the ego organization, that we identify as “life” --- a recession that occurs in every moment of life, but of which we remain mostly unaware. We do know that humans are fearful of too much erotic intensity and, as both Freud and Wilhelm Reich (e.g., 1927) suggested, this fearfulness is inherent in the genesis of both psychic conflict and psychic inhibition. As Michael Balint (1948) and others have skillfully argued, genitality --- notably orgasmicity --- involves a loss of the illusion or delusion of control, or self-mastery, that is so cherished by the “ethos” or egotistic ideology of the ego organization. It can even entail a transient loss of consciousness. With such intensities of lived experience, not dissimilar to the correct definition of trauma, the “I” of the subject --- as well as the cogency, coherence, and consistency of the ego organization --- is taken to an abyss. I suggest this is, indirectly, one of the greatest insights into one of the most profound fundamentals of the human condition that is offered to us by the blessing of the psychoanalytic method.
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1. PhD, DHS, Training Analyst, South Africa Psychoanalytic Association; Senior Research Associate, WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Witwatersrand. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Second International Congress of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychotherapy in Tehran , November, 2016
These elements that are the results of primal repression lose their capacity to signify any particular object or event, but retain an elemental aura of intentionality . . . they retain the capacity of ‘signifying to’. This often conjures a strange and uncanny feeling. From infancy we are confronted with the enigmatic question of what the other wants from us. To quote Lacan quoting Cazotte, the primal question is: Che` Vuoi? (What do you want?) (ibid, p. 147; Pluth 2007, pp. 69–72).
To quote Laplanche’s mentor, Lacan (1981):
all the child’s ‘why’s’ reveal not so much an avidity for the reason of things, [but] a testing of the adult, a ‘Why are you telling me this?’ ever-resuscitated from its base, which is the enigma of the adult’s desire.
Lacan suggests the metaphors of the hieroglyph in the desert, or of cuneiform characters carved on a tablet of stone. In such cases the signifier may lose what it signifies, without thereby losing its power to signify to. (Laplanche 1989, pp. 44–5; Santner 2006, p. 34). For Laplanche, such enigmatic experiences lie at the core of the subject.
Primal seduction, primal repression and the enigmatic signifier
The vast discrepancy between the complex dimensions of adult communications and the unformed psyche of the child is at the core of ‘primal seduction’. Laplanche describes the interaction with the nursing mother as an example of what he terms ‘primal seduction’. He points out that the breast is an erotic organ, and the mother’s experiences and fantasies are far beyond the comprehension of the infant (Laplanche 1997). The mother often seductively speaks to her baby, perhaps caressing its naked body while meeting its needs (Rotmann 2002). Such interactions are largely unconscious. Empirical studies confirm that infantile sexuality is paradoxically the most unmirrored activity between infants and mothers (Stein 2007, p. 191; Fonagy 2008). Laplanche uses the term ‘seduction’ to include not only erotic fantasies, but also the broader meanings signified by the German noun Reiz, which conveys a sense of provocation, charm, allure and stimulation (Laplanche 1999, p. 227). Laplanche emphasizes that such mother-child interactions are the usual state of things, not aberrations, not psychopathology.
We usually think of repression as what Freud called ‘secondary repression’. This describes the activity of the psyche in putting aside experiences that might create anxiety. However, this secondary repression presupposes psychic structures that can judge and discriminate, that can evaluate experiences at some level and take protective actions. In Laplanche’s view, primal repression is much more significant in the development of the subject (Laplanche 1999, pp. 18 & 85–6; Kinston & Cohen 1986).
Experiencing such enigmas may create dread and anxiety, and the danger of psychic collapse (Stack 2005). The loss of a sense of intactness often results in deep grief and melancholy (Kristeva 1989). On the other hand if one can weather such gaps, transformation and renewal may emerge, with a renewed spaciousness and sense of play. We endlessly navigate and re-translate these enigmas throughout our lives, in our relationships, careers, and creative endeavors. In a related spirit Jung defined a living symbol as one that retains a disruptive element, an unknownness; otherwise, it is a dead symbol or sign (Jung 1971, para. 817).
Laplanche has well-developed ideas about the analytic process (Laplanche 1999, pp. 214–33). He sees the ‘offer’ of analysis as resembling the original ‘seduction’ of childhood, implying a sort of ‘promise’ to resolve the enigma. The analyst therefore tends to be seen as ‘the one supposed to know’. In order for the process to evolve it is crucial for the analyst to remain in touch with his/her own enigmatic core. By refusing to ‘know’—or, more accurately, being aware that he/she does not know— the analyst provides a ‘hollow’ in which the process can evolve.
In this basic ‘hollow’ two, usually intertwined, types of transference come to rest. One is the reproduction of forms of behaviour, relationships and childhood images. This is the transfert en plein, the ‘filled in’ transference. The other dimension of transference concerns elements in the relationship that have an enigmatic character. This latter is the transfert en creux, the ‘hollowed out’ transference. In practice these are usually mixed. The enigma is the means that enables ‘analysis’ to take place—the ‘lysis’ part of analysis.4 The impact of the enigma may create a kind of opening, a gap, a crack, a cleavage plane in the ordinary ‘filled in’ process of things. If not for the enigma, there would be no analytic work and no dismantling of old patterns (Laplanche 1989, p. 160; 1999, pp. 228–9).
4Laplanche repeatedly makes a point about the analytic process as Lo ̈ sung, or ‘dissolution’ (1999, pp. 252–3). It is the enigmatic signifier that makes ‘unbinding’ possible. The defensive ego tries to bind things into a whole. The enigma rescues the psyche from determinism through the ‘lysis’ of—often imprisoning—patterns (ibid, pp. 45, 49 & 252–3).
Analysis may foster a kind of opening up that can be maintained and transferred to divergent fields of otherness and inspiration. This is very different from sublimation (Laplanche 1997, p. 663 & 2002b, p. 42; Kumar 2009, pp. 486–7). Laplanche calls this the ‘transference of the transference’, or ‘the transference to the enigma as such’. By this he implies ‘not some loss of being, but the possibility of being surprised, seized, traversed by the endless questioning of whoever comes to encounter us’ (Laplanche 2002b, p. 50).
Laplanche talks about ‘translation’ rather than interpretation. In his view interpretation implies knowledge of some factual situation. Much interpretation has the purpose of giving us a [falsely] comfortable sense of ‘re-cognition’: rediscovery of what we already know (Stack 2005, p. 69). We can retranslate the enigmatic core of what we are, but we never achieve the final, structural understanding that ‘interpretation’ implies. ‘Translation means that there is no factual situation . . . if something can be translated it’s already a message . . . you can only translate what has already been put in communication, or made as communication. That’s why I speak of translation rather than interpretation’ (Caruth 2001, p. 14).
He sees transference as a general phenomenon, not limited to analysis. The analytic method—the lysis aspect of analysis within the safety of the analytic situation—provides a unique and valuable human experience, but this experience is not generically unique to analysis. Intermittently, ‘windows in time’ present themselves for translation out of the situation of analysis and into cultural forms.5 Laplanche warns that the analyst’s narcissism can block new translations by automatically interpreting such movements as resistance (Laplanche 1999, pp. 230–3).
5Laplanche uses the metaphor of a rocket launch and the ‘windows in time’ during which it would be possible to send a rocket to Saturn (1989, p. 164).
For Laplanche, analysis ends not so much as a ‘termination’, but as a recognition of the deepened capacity for re-translation or ‘transferring’ life into different sites, different relationships. The end of analysis also involves a mourning that is not just about the loss of the object, but includes an awareness that all discourses remain unfinished. It belongs to the analysand to transfer this dimension to another place’ (Laplanche 2002b, p. 50).6
6He describes this as another potential form of inspiration, which sounds similar to the views of Julia Kristeva on the relationship between melancholy and creativity (Kristeva 1989).
Like the basic enigma, transference is never in essence ‘resolved’. He says that theoretically, seen from this perspective, ‘analysis is also interminable’ (Laplanche 1989, p. 164; Rotmann 2002, p. 269).7 In a more poetic moment, Laplanche compares the analytic process to the task of Ulysses’ wife Penelope in her daily unweaving in order that a new weaving may take place tomorrow—so that a new pattern in the fabric of life may appear (Laplanche 1999, pp. 250– 4).8 In a similar sense analysis tends to dissolve old structures, in the hope that new patterns may be created that enable a fuller life.
7In this light, it would be interesting to revisit the disagreement between Tresan (2007) and Connolly (2007) regarding the meaning of time and length of analysis.
8There is a certain similarity to Jung’s depiction of the ‘analytic’ and the ‘synthetic’ aspects of the analytic process (Jung 1966, pp. 80–90).
The following case narrative illustrates elements of Laplanche’s metapsychology such as primal seduction, thing-like enigmatic signifiers, and enigmatic sexuality as they developed in the transference and through the ‘lysis’ of analysis and life events. I thank my patient for allowing us to use his story to help us understand some important psychological processes.
Ralph was in his mid-fifties when I first saw him. In appearance, he was a carefully controlled, stocky man, well dressed in a casual fashion, with a slightly intellectual air. He had already interviewed two other analysts before we met, but found them both ‘too cold and formal’. In contrast, he found me both ‘warm and lively’ and ‘knowledgeable’. He had no previous experience of analytic therapy.
Initially, he was somehow both reticent and confident in his manner. After a brief time, he suddenly broke into anguished sobs. Between flurries of deep emotion he began to tell me about his situation.
His wife of thirty years had died a year and a half before. They had had a ‘companionable marriage’, had raised three children, but he said that there had been minimal spontaneity or passion. However they had been profoundly connected in many ways, and he had deeply mourned her loss. He had been a successful biotechnologist, and had retired after selling his company a few years before. Since that time he had travelled a great deal, mostly alone and usually focused on philanthropic projects.
A few weeks before I saw him, he had suddenly become involved in a passionate love affair with a woman near his own age. It had been the most intense, abandoned sexual experience of his life.9 He insisted that they be together almost constantly because he couldn’t bear any separation. ‘All I think about is her!’ he said. After a time she had apparently found the situation frightening and declared a moratorium, refusing to see him. He felt shattered and bereft, and was sleepless and extremely anxious, constantly beseeching her for some form of contact. Both she and his friends told him that he must seek therapy.
9Helen Gediman has provided a related, fascinating study of the ‘annihilation anxiety’ associated with sexuality. Fantasies of death and longings for rebirth or immortality are often intimately connected (Gediman 1995).
His first dream, reported at our second meeting:
I am in an oppressive, miserable prisoner-of-war camp or maybe a concentration camp, with some family and others. There has been a terrible event, and we are full of sorrow. Then someone or something enables us to tunnel out, to get out to a freer space.
He spoke tearfully of his grief, both for his wife and for the loss of his lover and the ‘new life’ he had experienced. Now these seemed like two catastrophes that had left him feeling sad and alone, and hopeless. He said that a sense of loss and desolation had haunted him his whole life. The surprisingly hopeful event in the dream indicated a positive transference, a shred of hope.
Despite his somewhat distant and reticent manner, I felt a sense of rapport. I said little, but was supportive in my demeanour. He seemed grateful to be able to have the safety and containment of the analytic frame, and continued to easily break down in tears, especially when he fell into a state of near-desperation from his longing to see his woman friend and his fear that he had lost her forever. My schedule was very crowded at that time, but I managed to fit him in three times a week. I regretted that we couldn’t meet even more often because of the powerful emotional eruptions that periodically wracked him.
Early on during the first couple of years of analysis, an important theme appeared. One day he came into the room and sat down, staring at me very intently and silently. I felt a wave of powerful emotions, a kind of primordial awfulness impossible to capture in words. His face was contorted in indecipherable waves of expression, but he said nothing. Moved, puzzled, a bit frightened, I wondered what this inchoate me ́lange of emotions might be. Was it loss, longing, despair, deep anxiety, grief, and anger all bundled together? As came out in time, bits of all these emotions were indeed there, but I later discovered that there was something more. Now I think of this as the presence of the enigmatic signifier, the ‘thing’—das Andere. I was stunned, deeply moved, and somewhat bewildered. The sense of the uncanny was powerful, and evoked my own enigma in the form of a slight sense of panic, and a kind of psychic dizziness. I struggled to stay in touch with unknowing and not reactively close off the emotions.
After a tense couple of minutes—that felt much longer in subjective time— he gathered himself and began to speak about the vicissitudes of his thoughts and emotions regarding his lady friend. Still in a bit of shock from the intensity and ‘otherness’ of the emotions, I interrupted and remarked upon the abrupt turn back to the everyday. He said that he couldn’t stand to be in that place, and he really couldn’t say what ‘it’ was. We sat silently with that fact for a few minutes and then he continued on, remaining closer to the everyday. I had a sense that if I had pressed him there would have been a strong reactive, defensive closure, probably intellectual. I knew that this material was very deep, perhaps dangerous, and that it was crucial to patiently track and articulate its uncanny reality.
This became a theme that appeared intermittently during the first two years of analytic work. Perhaps once a week we would sit in extended silences of several minutes. Over time when I inquired about what he was experiencing, and increasingly at his own initiative, he began to tell me the bits and pieces of what was going on.
His father was a gruff and rather distant scientist who provided little emotional support, and indeed often felt ‘dangerous’ as a result of mood swings and bursts of angry criticism. He tried to get Ralph to play sports, but Ralph was awkward and self-conscious and usually ended up with a sense of injury. He grew to fear sports and groups of rowdy children, and was generally terrified of personal interactions at school or at home. His outstanding intellect brought some sense of self-esteem in the form of good grades and awards, and with much effort he was able to form some relationships. He said that he would ‘latch onto’ a girl as a friend and do anything she wanted in order to maintain the connection. This pattern had persisted throughout his life, including his long marriage.
He slowly became able to articulate small, spontaneous bits of his experience of the gaps. Then one day some words suddenly tumbled forth from the core of his being. Staring at me angrily and accusingly, he burst out in a voice that trembled with emotion, ‘I just couldn’t figure out what you wanted!’ The deep pain was caused by my unknown-ness, my enigmatic presence. I was indeed the other, the enigmatic other whom he could never seem to satisfy.
All his life Ralph had, often desperately, created different translations, different responses, firstly and most importantly to his mother and later to other women, hoping to find something that would be the key. After he was able to articulate some of this to me—and to himself—the gaps continued but were somewhat less fraught with emotion. He felt safer in the container. From this point his presence seemed steadier than before. It reflected, I think, a growing sense of reliable space for his subjectivity. I was ‘other’, but unlike his parents he could trust me to manage my own enigma. I demanded little from him, which left him free to play with his own translations.
Gradually, the sense of infatuation and loss abated, his anxiety decreased, and he began to enter more fully into his daily life.
After about three years of fairly insightful, productive work we had lapsed into a sort of habit of discussing his past relationships. In contrast with the early dramatic process our work had become somewhat routine, a little deadened. In retrospect, I wonder whether I had been relieved that we had successfully navigated a very difficult period, and was reticent to rock the boat.
One day he came into the room and lapsed into a pained silence that felt very different than the silence of the ‘gaps’. Then he suddenly gave me a piercing, angry look and burst out, ‘What in the hell are we doing here?!’ With little hesitation the words sprang from my lips, ‘Fuck if I know!’ I was totally startled by my own words, as was he. It was very tense for a moment, and time seemed strangely suspended. After this pause in some atemporal-seeming space, he flushed and I flushed, and we broke down in mutual peals of deep belly laughter.
Laughter, according to Bergson, ‘removes the mechanical from the living’ (Bergson 2005). In a similar vein, Bakhtin said that laughter ‘degrades’, in the sense of dissolving ‘monogogic’ structure and freeing the dialogical process (Bakhtin 1984, p. 21). Laughter shows that the ‘serious’ structures of things have no inevitability, no necessity (Critchley 2002). To speak in Laplanchean terms, we could say that laughter performs a kind of ‘unbinding’ function, as well as a deflation of the fantasy/longing that the analyst be ‘the subject supposed to know’—‘le sujet suppose ́ savoir’ (Laplanche 1999, p. 49; italics in original).
The unbinding of structure on these levels, the transferential shift and the related shift in subjective processes, both reflected and enabled a creative contact with the core human enigma, the enigmatic signifier in its creative aspects. Over- generalizing a bit, one could say that the experiences of the ‘gaps’ involved the terrifying aspect of the enigma. After repeatedly negotiating the passage through the gaps, a dimension of openness to the other appeared. This is what we shared. Our enigmas touched, opening a space for renewed life in our relationship, and a new spaciousness in his being as a subject. It seemed to involve a shift or partial re-creation of his subjectivity that one could call ‘the transcendent function’ (Hinton 1978).
Having weathered the earlier, tormenting transitions he had developed trust that neither he nor I would be destroyed by his disruptive anger. The result was a timeless moment between us, and a capacity to experience his core enigma as creative rather than merely as a terrifying and destructive gap. It seemed to make possible a mutual experience of the enigma, and an example of what Laplanche called the ‘hollowed out’ transference—the ‘transfert en creux’ (Laplanche 1999, pp. 50 & 111, 214n; Rotmann 2002, p. 274).10
10Levinas describes a moment of ‘otherness’, a ‘subjection’ to otherness, which goes ‘all the way to the laughter that refuses language’ [jusqu’au rire qui refuse le langage]. That is, laughter can be a moment beyond words, an experience of the unsayable (Levinas 1998, p. 8; Wall 1999, p. 36). Wit or humour at their best touch on such dimensions, but are more clearly related to the realities of human culture and psychology. The deepest laughter just ‘takes us over’, takes us to a different space. It is sudden and unexpected, even a little ‘mad’.
This was an important turning point as there was much more flow in our relationship that in part resulted in a quiet humour. There was a subtle increase in his capacity for reflection. We never really ‘analysed’ the laughter and the accompanying emotions, but referred to it from time to time, usually in moments of intimacy, with a few words such as ‘that wild laugh we had together’. The experience did not fall into a distant, unconscious place but continued as a living process both between us and, as became increasing clear, in his interactions with others.
A major dream
Following the above changes, things began to move along. He met a new woman and the relationship worked out well. It came across as dynamic and multi-dimensional, with an intensely sexual component. About six months after the ‘laughter’ incident he had the following series of dreams:
It is a surreal landscape, like a jungly area in Central America where I’ve done volunteer work.11 A young woman is walking along a trail on the side of a hill ahead of me, but suddenly disappears off to the side, like into a cave or something. I plunge ahead, wanting to find her or help her. There is a wall of dry board at the entrance to the cave . . . I break through it, looking for the woman. (Note: I immediately felt a different energy in the room; he had seldom been so directly aggressive in fact or in dreams.) There are claw marks on the wall and I know that there is an invisible monster there in the cave. I felt absolutely terrified!
11For Ralph, these ‘exotic’ places had been full of ‘enigmatic signifiers’, as they have been for Westerners for many centuries (Said 1979).
At this point Ralph looked very apprehensive and somewhat anxiously went into some associations: the young woman reminded him of the photos that he had seen of his mother as a beautiful, happy young woman. ‘That’s the mother I never knew’, he said.
Slowly and seriously he went over his lifelong feelings of loneliness and abandonment, and his ongoing terrors as a child—feelings that we had re- visited many times. He had never been able to say what terrified him. It seemed uncanny and unknowable. The mere thought of it had made him feel paralysed and unable to think.
Then I see some balls, and I think that I can distract the monster. I don’t see it but I know it’s there. It seems like I can do it: distract it.
Then it seems like the monster is different, like it has become playful. The whole mood becomes different.
He said excitedly that it was the first time he had ever been able to hold his own and act in the face of such feelings of terror whether in dreams or in everyday life, that he felt like he’d spent his whole life in activities and relationships to try and make things safe. The anxiety and terror had always been like an invisible presence that—whatever his successes—kept him on edge, vigilant, unable to play. Underneath, he had always felt lacking, like ‘half a man’.
Due to his rich associations I said very little except for non-verbal acknowledgements. The associations were very much in tune with the earlier analytic process. These dreams seemed to summarize much of what had transpired during the course of analysis. He left the session smiling, seemingly enlivened, feeling very good about what had transpired. I shared in the good feeling and wondered whether, too, I was the enigmatic monster of the gaps with whom he could now play.
The analytic process had been precipitated by an intense and highly sexualized relationship, and then he had been ‘abandoned’, left alone in a ‘gap’ with an unbearable excess of emotion.12 This desperate state of crisis, a threat to his very survival, forced Ralph to undertake a process that led to the awareness of his enigmatic core. The pursuit of the young woman in the dream, like all his lifelong pursuits, stemmed from a longing to find the—impossible— key to the enigmatic longings of his unhappy, somewhat schizoid, mother. He had come into being as a subject in his attempts to respond to her messages, to know what she ‘wanted’. This stimulated his subjective development, but the concretization of his fantasies, in particular relationships, had left him endlessly vulnerable to loss and the fear of falling into the ‘gap’. The result was an avoidant, deadened life.
12Ruth Stein has written a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion of the meaning of sexuality and excess. She sees such experiences of excess as frequently being manifestation of the ‘human longings to grasp the elusive, ineffable quality of the sexual other’, to bridge the gap between self and other (2008).
Monsters tend to appear when unnameable emotions and experiences surface (Astrachan 2005; Connolly 2003; Kearney 2003). The analysis had begun from such a situation. We had faced this elemental state repeatedly, until he was finally able to laugh and play with me. A new and more meaningful re- translation of his subjectivity seemed accomplished. The enigma was now a source of not only ‘deconstructive’ terror but also playful creativity.
His intellectual prowess had given him some sense of control and efficacy, and through strong ego development he had been able to bind his terror, to bridge the gaps, alleviate the depression, and lead a life as a creative scientist and businessman, husband and father. In late midlife, with the aid of analysis, he had re-translated the enigmatic core of his subjectivity into an ongoing possibility of creative play, of fantasy and imagination—the essence of the transcendent function (Jung 1971, pp. 106–7; Miller 2004, pp. 46–7).
Heretofore in his life he had withdrawn at perceived slights or rejections. Any new interpersonal context had been fraught with hesitation and anxiety. Now this had shifted. He was still prone to similar emotions, but he was much more aware that these stemmed from him and not the other. As he said, ‘I knew that I projected all over the place before, but now I really know it and it doesn’t control me’.
Another aspect of this was the expansion of the ability to imagine the reality of others, including their unknowability, their own enigma. Such awareness ‘deconstructs’ the tendency to want to make the other a colony that fills one’s lack. In this vein, Ralph described much more capacity for intimacy, and said that he was generally happier than ever before.
The remaining eighteen months of analysis had a different tone. Our relationship was more spontaneous and sometimes playful, and he continued to use the time productively. Ralph discussed his relationship with his new woman friend a great deal. The fluctuating issues with her were often at the foreground. He no longer became mired in long periods of defensive withdrawal from her. He felt it was the best relationship he had ever had.
A simple dream summarized his new situation:
Fish are jack-knifing in paroxysms in a pool—they think that they will die without a mate. Then a cell phone rings, and they get a message of some kind and swim peacefully.
(His association was that was how he felt as he began to get caught up in the old mood, of being abandoned to terror and nothingness if there was a gap in relationship.)
This illustrates Ralph’s emerging reflective capacity in the face of ‘gaps’. He could now recognize and re-translate what had been almost unbearable, inchoate emotion.We mutually agreed that things were going well, and we set a date for ending. He brought me an interesting little object from his travels as a parting gift, and we both shed a tear at the last session.
Laplanche rarely provides us with clinical material in his own writings because of his views regarding the intrinsically defensive nature of most clinical narratives. ‘Histories’ lend themselves to the fantasy that the present is ‘caused’ by the past (Laplanche 1999, p. 141). We must be careful, he says, because ‘there can be no linear causality between the parental unconscious and discourse on the one hand and what the child does about these on the other’ (ibid, p. 160).
However, the richness of his metapsychology does whet one’s appetite for more examples that demonstrate that ‘his structures have legs’ (Copjec 2006). For instance, Charlie Chaplin’s movie City Lights provides a scenario humorously illustrating Laplanche’s concept of the enigmatic signifier. In the film, Charlie accidentally swallows a whistle, and it haunts him. He wants to fit into the ‘sophisticated’ life of the city, but the whistle sounds off erratically from his belly, disrupting his best efforts to be ‘normal’. Such ‘messages’ are eternally disruptive, and yet they rescue us from becoming collective zombies, automated cultural products that are not capable of an ethical stance (Hinton 1978). This scene illustrates how we cannot get rid of the ‘thing’ that is, in part, us.
Some take Laplanche’s emphasis on ‘primal seduction’ to indicate a pathologizing of mothers and infants (Solomon 2002, pp. 282–3). He endlessly emphasizes, however, that this ‘seduction’ is the normal course of events and not pathological. He sometimes uses the German term Reiz instead of ‘seduction’, and this has a broader set of meanings such as allure, provocation, charm, stimulation, or sex appeal (Laplanche 1999, p. 227). However, it might be helpful if he were to discuss the growing capacities of the infant/child and how it can, increasingly, contribute to the dyadic interaction.
To think more broadly, a seductive ‘excess’ may be the basis, the ‘driver’, of personal, cultural and spiritual development (Stein 2008; Kumar 2009). Indeed, creative endeavours of all kinds tend to be filled with sexual imagery, and often entail a quest for the lost object (Kristeva 1989). One could regard the excess of enigmatic stimuli—excessive in terms of what the ego can assimilate—as an upsurge of desire that creates turbulence, but can create new openings in relationships and world. In Jonathan Lear’s terms (1998), we are born ‘overfull’, and what we do with this overfulness expresses the heart of who we become. The enigmatic messages that we meet in everyday life endlessly evoke our responses. To quote Laplanche (1999, p. 224): ‘the cultural [itself] is an address to another who is out of reach, to others “scattered in the future” as the poet says’, and he asks, ‘why does the Dichter Dicht—why does the poet poetize—except in response to an enigmatic other?’
One could, if so inclined, readily make connections with more philosophically speculative theories (Kumar 2009). The thought of Levinas is an outstanding example, especially when he refers to the enigmatic quality of subjectivity as deriving from a ‘trace of the infinite’ that cannot be reduced to personal—or even ontological—terms.
The concrete sense of seduction and enigma in its many dimensions makes Laplanche’s work distinctive. His work expands awareness of the enigmatic core of subjectivity . . . a core that is also, paradoxically, the source of our dignity and freedom.
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My thanks to Michael Horne for his faithful editing and his unfailing dialogical presence.
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