[Laplanche describes] this ‘otherness’ [using] a neologism in French — not just e ́trangete ́, strangeness, foreignness, alienness, but e ́trange` rete ́, stranger-ness, foreign-ness . . . ‘alien-ness’ (Laplanche 1999, p. 47).
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