Freud and the Sexual: Essays 2000-2006


Click Here to Buy:  Freud and The Sexual:  Essays 2000-2006 by Jacques Laplanche, Translated by Jonathan House.

7-13-13  Book Review: Freud and the Sexual: Essays 2000-2006.  by Jacques Laplanche, Translated by Jonathan House, John Fletcher and Nicholas Ray. Ip.books: The Unconscious in Translation 2011.

by Nathan Szajnberg, MD, Managing Editor

Laplanche, a guardian of psychoanalytic words and concepts, a translator of Freud, himself participated in this new translation of his later essays, which was partly funded by the Fondation Jean Laplanche. That is, this book in our hands is a careful transformation from French to English. If “Traduire, c’est trahir,”  “to translate is to betray’ – often given, including by Freud and by Laplanche in the present volume, in Italian:  traduttore, traditore — then we are fortunate to have such guardians overseeing the shift from French to English so that the fundamental concepts that the words try to convey, remain intact.  Laplanche proposes in his chapter “In Debate with Freud,” that good translation, doing justice to a text, means “restoring its contradictions, its weaknesses, its moments of hesitation and imprecision and even its incoherences. (275-6)”

For Laplanche, psychoanalysis  — the method — leads to lucidity and freedom via subversive and even revolutionary activities, the internal revolutions that may upend our previous views of our selves.

Psychoanalysis is “a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are almost inaccessible in any other way ” (Freud, SE 18, 1923, ‘Two Encyclopedia Articles).  I suggest a metaphor based on Laplanche:  the latitude and longitude of that method are free association and transference.

Free association, one meridian, liberates thoughts, which gravitate to points of attraction that are at first unknown to the analysand.

Transference, the latitude, ultimately leads us to speak freely (and resist speaking freely, as we are but human) with a skilled and receptive listener (and ultimately to oneself).

At the intersection of free association and transference, one locates oneself: a sense of how this human was constituted through the original relationships with significant others.  By locating oneself on the map of one’s life, one can navigate to relate more deeply, more thoughtfully to self and others.

Symptoms, that creative construct, as Winnicott suggests, bring the analysand.  But psychoanalysis has a subversive element via free association and transference: via the symptom, we are led to a new version of the self.

This book elaborates several key ideas from Laplanche.  First, “infantile sexuality” is not “infantile,” in the sense of innate to, or originating in the infant.  Rather, it is introduced by the parents via an unconscious seduction as early as the first days of life.  The basics of infant care (feeding, comforting, diapering) are always and necessarily compromised by the adult’s unconscious infantile sexuality.  For instance, breast feeding for the infant represents oral sustenance (and comfort); but for the adult, the breast also has sexual connotations.  While this reviewer might say that these acts are infiltrated by some unresolved parental sexualizing, Laplanche is crisp about this:  all necessary and loving parental acts are infiltrated by, compromised by the adult’s unconscious sexuality, which the child takes to be an enigmatic message. Here is an example from the reviewer’s experience with a non-clinical setting: a mother described with shock how her Persian mother-in-law first diapered her grandson in the American mother’s presence. After a rather vigorous scrub, and just before closing the diaper, the mother-in-law bent closer and planted a juicy kiss on the baby’s penis.  When mother objected, her mother-in-law, retorted, “Well, your husband didn’t seem to mind it when he was a baby!”  (Mother-in-law explained, that this was a Persian custom with boy babies.)

Laplanche posits a “fundamental anthropological situation”: infants are unprepared to understand sexual content of the adults’ communications which thus are partly enigmatic – importantly, the sexual content is unconscious for the adult.  What is enigmatic elicits attempts to understand and it is in this sense and to this degree that Laplanche sees all adult-child interaction as seduction.   Because of the child’s deep dependence upon the mother or father and also because we are fundamentally meaning-seeking and meaning-finding beings from infancy onwards, the baby tries to make sense of the enigmatic aspects of the adult’s communications, verbal and non-verbal, but lacks the capacity (the maturational feelings and thoughts of sexuality) to make full sense of the adult’s acts.  The baby tries to translate the adult’s communication and never fully succeeds; this leaves residues in the mind which becomes both the object and the source of the drive.  The child tries to make meaning of these source-objects, and cannot.  Freud calls these failures of translation, repression (in his 1892 letter to Fliess).  Laplanche weaves together three experiences: a generalized theory of seduction, repression, and the fundamental anthropological situation, which includes the infant’s attempt to find meaning in adults’ enigmatic communication, which in part necessarily fails.  You will hear here how Laplanche revisits Freud’s “seduction” hypothesis, and resurrects it based on more recent evidence from earlier mental states (and observations of parents and infants, I add).

Laplanche’s concept of enigma and source-objects of the drive can be seen in one of our subjects from our thirty-year study (Lives Across Time), which was published as a case history:

Massie, H., Szajnberg, N. (1997). The Ontogeny Of A Sexual Fetish From Birth To Age 30 And Memory Processes: A Research Case Report From A Prospective Longitudinal Study. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 78:755-771.

Here, a thirty-year old is puzzled by his sexual attraction to one-eyed women, an attraction that arose consciously when he was mid-teen, then he acted upon in his twenties.  In our interview, he was able to connect this to his parents’ leave-taking for three months when he was three years old and cared for by a woman who wore an eye-patch.  That is, the child’s sense of dependence, anxiety about parental abandonment and associated sexualization result in a deeply personal enigma for him and one that he felt driven by.

In a later chapter, Laplanche takes on the distinction between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy (or psychotherapies).  He makes a succinct distinction.  Psychoanalysis, as the second half of its name says, promises “analysis,” taking things apart in order to make sense of how they were assembled. By disassembling, we can begin to learn how to reassemble a more robust inner life, no longer ruled by archaic dicta.  Psychotherapy depends on synthesis — putting the person together (or keeping the person held together).  Laplanche admits that psychoanalysis also engages in syntheses, but it is fundamentally analysis.

We know Laplanche from his influential dictionary, “The Language of Psychoanalysis,” written with Pontalis; another essay also translated by House is on “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality.”  As one French scholar noted, “Both are erudite, brilliant, scholarly and thought-provoking.”

Here, House and colleagues bequeath us a gift, an opportunity for those of us who are mostly monolingual to hear the thoughts of a fine French psychoanalyst so that these are less enigmatic to the non-Francophone. This will enrich our understanding both of our patients and at least one school of French psychoanalytic thought.


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