Confusion of Tongues: The Primacy of Sexuality in Freud, Ferenczi and Laplanche (Book Review)

Author:  Van Haute, Philippe, and Toma Geyskens
Publisher:  Other
Reviewed By:  William MacGillivray, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 41-44

Confusion of Tongues is an exploration of three tenets of psychoanalytic thought through the lens of three theorists (well, maybe four, counting Freud twice): Freud (up to 1915), Freud (after 1915), Ferenczi, and Laplanche. Starting with Freud, the three foundational pillars of psychoanalysis are defined as 1) the primacy of sexuality, 2) the radical discontinuity between the child and adult, and 3) the continuity between normality and psychopathology. Why is sexuality primary?

“He [Freud] intrinsically links the primacy of sexuality to the thought of a constitutive and irreversible opposition between (the world of) the adult and (the world of) the child. For precisely this reason, he calls sexuality the weak point in the human constitution: exactly because sexuality — and, according to Freud, only sexuality — is characterized by an essential and irreversible asymmetry between the child and the adult, and the risk of a pathological derailment is always and inevitably present” (pp. xiii-xiv)

As the authors progress through the evolving ideas of these theorists, they trace the ways in which their conclusions support or undermine each of these central pillars. By abolishing any inherent difference between the pathological and normative, Freud advanced a radical notion that the psychopathological illuminates the entire human condition. Psychoanalysis is not merely a form of treatment, but a formula for investigating the human condition. What drives the human condition and leads to psychopathology is the radical difference between the child and adult and resulting ubiquity of repression and the drive. The role of sexuality is primary in establishing this condition of disjunction, since none of the other drives, including self-preservation, have the problematic quality of sexuality.

To anticipate the author’s conclusions, although Freud originally bases psychoanalysis solidly on these three pillars (i.e., normative concept of normality, primacy of sexuality, and radical disjunction between the adult and child), he ultimately retreats from this position after 1915, with a gradual adoption of a biological drive toward genital, “normal” sexuality, undermining the centrality of sexuality, blurring the lines between child and adult, and seemingly defining normality as successful resolution of a biologically driven Oedipus complex. Ferenczi’s and Laplanche’s efforts to “rescue” these central tenets also lead to gaps in their theories. Ferenczi’s concept of the “confusion of tongues” reinstates the radical difference between the child and adult while muting the role of sexuality per se and calling into question the possibility of a psychoanalytic anthropology. Laplanche’s emphasis on the enigmatic signifier restores the radical difference between adult and child and the status of a clinical anthropology, while making sexuality constitute only one (albeit fundamental) enigmatic signifier.

A rewarding aspect of this slim volume is the respectful approach given to the theories and theorists under discussion. In contrast to the more typical pattern, especially in discussions of Freud’s and Ferenczi’s ideas, the explication and assessment of their approaches is addressed without reference to the political and personal conflicts or to enshrine a heroic version of either thinker. Much of the book is taken up with the evolution of Freud’s thinking in his correspondence with Fleiss, leading to the abandonment of the seduction hypothesis, and also to a close reading of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, as Freud continued to refine his ideas and ultimately arrived at conclusions very different from those with which he started out. The concluding chapters are devoted to an explication of Ferenczi’s and Laplanche’s work in refining and opposing certain trends in Freud’s thinking.

The role of seduction is central in tracing the path of these ideas. It had been a founding and foundering concept in the development of psychoanalytic theory and technique. In so many ways, the status of the seduction hypothesis (transformed into questions of trauma or deficit) continues to be central to psychoanalytic politics/praxis today in differing conceptions of the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis, theory of cure, role of conflict versus repair, and so on. The authors, however, do not focus on contemporary versions of the seduction hypothesis, but instead trace its evolution and implications for these three thinkers. They retell the familiar story of Freud’s elaboration and eventual abandonment of the seduction hypothesis in the development of anxiety neurosis and hysteria and make a compelling case that he dropped seduction as a necessary and sufficient condition for the development of psychopathology based upon his evolving ideas concerning sexuality, and childhood sexuality in particular. It is worth recalling that the seduction hypothesis was predicated on the fact that the child knew nothing of sexuality and sexual desire, and the development of the neurosis occurred only after the onset of puberty when the child came to sexual maturity and was able to guess, albeit unconsciously, the true nature of the adult’s seductive overtures in childhood. The symptom was generated by the revival of the repressed memory of events (i.e., not the actual event) that occurred before the child had sexual knowledge, at a time during adolescence or young adulthood, when the patient could guess the implications of what had occurred.

“Only the memory could generate an affect, because the original event took place when the child was not yet capable of sexual understanding or sexual excitement. This discovery of the link between Nachtraglichkeit (deferred action) and sexuality constitutes the nucleus of Freud’s seduction hypothesis. It is important to notice, here, that the asexuality of childhood is essential to the theory of seduction” (p. 13).

As Freud’s ideas evolved, especially as he took up the question of nongenital sexuality and perversion, he came to the conclusion that children did indeed have sexual impulses and feelings, and in fact had a range of polymorphous perverse pleasures that only subsided in later childhood under the impact of a primary repression.

“The affirmation of infantile sexuality is co-original with the introduction of perversion. An oral or anal seduction can produce pleasure in a child, and without infantile sexual pleasure, Freud cannot explain the etiology of perversion: a compulsive nongenital sexuality must be traced back to an infantile pleasurable sexual experience” (p. 18, italics in original).

Freud’s abandonment of childhood asexuality also altered his conception of hysteria. No longer was an hysterical attack a discharge of tension, but it becomes an action “addressed to the perverse adult” (p. 21). With this insight, Freud’s theory of hysteria becomes intersubjective in the sense that the symptom is always produced for another. Quoting Freud’s letter #213 to Fleiss: “Attacks... are aimed at another person — but mostly at the prehistoric unforgettable person who is never equaled by anyone later” (p. 21).

While Freud never doubted that seduction was frequently an important aspect of the clinical picture, it could no longer be determinative in development of psychopathology. This conclusion also established psychoanalysis as a general psychology and a clinical anthropology rather than a theory of pathology. In place of the radical difference between the child and adult based upon the child’s sexual innocence and ignorance, Freud concluded that childhood sexuality is both ubiquitous and universal and can be differentiated from adult sexuality only based upon the development of the unconscious and repression, establishing, through shame, disgust, and morality, the socialized child and (later) adult.

This elaboration of Freud’s ideas in Three Essays is both a summary of his core ideas as well as a testament to the shifting tenor of his thinking as his ideas underwent continual revision. As the authors point out, this text is curious in that Freud shows us how his thinking altered significantly over the years. In particular, they argue, his thinking shifts from a conception of childhood’s polymorphous perversity (and its repression as ubiquitous and universal under the influence of human morality and culture) to a biological conception of progressive zones of sexuality leading more or less universally to normative sexual aims and objects. In his earlier formulations, infantile erogenous experiences are repressed, removed from consciousness, but remain in the unconscious.

“Consequently, human nature does not start simply with an original forgetting that cannot be undone; rather there is an originary and essential conflict between the (lost) child within us and the demands of genital sexuality and culture... For Freud, there is no strict separation or contradiction between nature and culture. The conflict that characterizes human nature... originates in the human sexual drive... humans become human on the basis of a conflict constitutive of sexual life as such” (p. 60-61).

If sexuality and repression of polymorphous impulses are more or less part of normal development, what is the status of seduction in Freud’s theory after the Three Essays? The authors conclude that Freud reinstates seduction as damaging to the child based upon the radical discontinuity between the child’s sexual aims, which are autoerotic, and the adult’s treatment of the child as a sexual object and offering up the adult as a sexual object to the child. In other words, the seduction is traumatic for the child not due to the child’s incapacity for sexual pleasure, but due to the inability of the child to psychically master the adult’s sexual drive directed at the child as an object.

The authors argue that Freud substantially revised his ideas about infantile sexuality after 1920, and tended to describe childhood sexuality more and more along a continuum with adult sexuality. With the development of his idea of the Oedipus complex, Freud began to conceive of the very young child as having the capacity to have a sexual object and that object was the parent of the opposite sex. Repression was based less on the emergence of affects of shame and disgust, as well as morality, and more on the threat of castration (and the fact of the little girls’ castration). As he developed his ideas on the genital stage of psychosexual development, the little child becomes more and more like the adult and the progress from polymorphous perversity to heterosexual desire is based in the transformation of biological drives rather than the inevitable clash between the now-lost child and the adult he/she has become, the adult who cannot “have it all” and who must take his/her place in the social order. Freud does not, however, completely identify sexuality with biology:

“For the most part, he [Freud] seems convinced that infantile sexuality cannot be incorporated into adult sexuality without any remainder. A part of the drive remains irremediably caught in the earlier levels and continues to influence adult sexuality. “Hence the ‘(infantile) phallic prolematics’ will in many cases — if not always — continue to play a role in the relationship between the sexes” (p. 78).

Although Freud does not completely reverse his ideas on sexuality, his later writings tend to undermine the three pillars noted above. If there is no qualitative difference between the adult and child, and what “drives” sexual aims and object choice is more or less biology, then normality and psychopathology are radically different and sexuality does not play a determinative role in human relationships, but takes up its place as one biological drive among many. Although Freud would not explicitly endorse these views, many of his supporters (and detractors) would draw these conclusions from his later work.

Ferenczi and Laplanche, in various ways, take up the issue of seduction and its role in the emergence of psychopathology. For Ferenczi, it is the “confusion of tongues” between the child’s language of affection and the adult’s language of passion that reinstates the seduction hypothesis as core, reinscribed as trauma. The child’s attempts to conform to the adult’s passion results in his/her identification with the aggressor and a false compliance that stifles the child’s authentic sense of self.

“The adult inappropriately responds to the child’s request for tenderness with passion. The child is completely powerless with regard to this “passionate” reaction because it has no responses to the adult sexuality, which aims at orgasm and is imbued with aggression and feelings of guilt. [The child] psychologically adapts itself completely to the traumatic situation: it identifies with the desire of its aggressor... but also introjects his [the seducer’s] feelings of guilt” (p. 90-91).

Ferenczi explains that a core aspect of the trauma is in the reaction of the seducer, as well as with other adults denying the reality of what has occurred. In other words, it is the silence of the adults in the face of trauma that has the most profound consequences for the child’s response to the trauma. Ferenczi’s understanding of trauma is not a return to the “seduction hypothesis,” since he locates the action of the trauma as occurring both in psychic life and relationships: “For Ferenczi, what primarily characterizes the trauma is that phantasy becomes reality” (p. 94). Although this emphasis on the constitutive role of the “confusion of tongues” in development of psychopathology is clinically evocative, as a theory it reduces the central importance of sexuality and suggests a radical disjunction between normality and psychopathology, since not every child will be traumatized by an adult, and not every trauma need be sexual. Although retaining the notion of a radical difference between the adult and child, Ferenczi’s theory would suggest that sexuality is not the constituting factor.

Laplanche significantly expands the notion of seduction and trauma to include the entire range of interchanges between the child and adult, and in particular the fact that the adult may be unconscious of the seductive and coercive messages imparted to the child. This movement from the father’s seduction to the mother’s ministrations as equally traumatic universalizes the role of seduction in what Laplanche characterizes as the enigmatic character of the adult’s communications to the child. Seduction, then, is an inevitable situation in which the adult meets the child and transmits both conscious and unconscious messages (of sexual desire, neediness, aggression, and so on), with which the child must cope at a stage of marked immaturity. As a result, these “enigmatic messages” from the adult constitute the essential conditions that the child must decode, partially at best. For Laplanche, while there are many areas of confusion and inequality between the child and adult, it is in the area of sexuality that the child is unable to effectively adapt, to move toward a position of reciprocity.

“The child attaches itself to the adult, but because this relation is always accompanied by sexual messages, it is always more than and different from a relationship of pure care and attachment. From its inception the relation is, in a structural manner, infected by the intrusion of an element that is foreign to it and escapes both parties” (p. 123).

In this view, the disjunction between the child and adult is due to the child’s “presexual” status. The adult approaches the child with sexual impulses, conscious and unconscious, and the child must cope with these impulses from its position of immaturity. Although the child has experiences of bodily pleasure, the eroticization of the body is imposed upon the child at a time when this in incomprehensible to the child. This is how Lapanche reinstates the radical disjunction between the child and adult.

“The intrusion of the enigmatic sexual messages thus also forces the child to embark on a quest to decipher their meaning. It tries to translate those meanings so that it can assign a place for them in its own world of significance.” (p. 126) The child has to translate or assimilate the enigmatic messages of the other such that they receive a place in his own world of experience and significance. The translation, however, is doomed to fail... There is always a remainder, something escapes” (p. 128).

In effect, both Laplanche and Ferenczi reinstate seduction as central to development of psychopathology, with Laplanche universalizing the notion of trauma to the status of the inevitable. By universalizing trauma to the status of enigmatic signifiers, Laplanche minimizes the difference between the sexual seduction of the child and the child’s encounter with the enigmatic messages received from the generally well meaning adults in his/her life. By this move, Laplanche firmly reinstates a psychoanalytic anthropology, albeit one that is based in the vicissitudes of the social order rather than the drives. (For Laplanche the drive is the effect of repression, i.e., when the body becomes a problem in a relation to another.)

Van Haute and Geysen conclude that Laplanche succeeds in (re)establishing two of the pillars of psychoanalysis but the primacy of sexuality is less secure. The concept of enigmatic signifiers and the traumatic character of the adult-child relationship are not co-extensive with sexuality and therefore the status of the primacy of sexuality has been replaced with the primacy of the child. As an elucidation of Freud’s changing views of sexuality and etiology of psychopathology, this is an informative work. As an explication of Ferenczi’s ideas concerning the role of sexuality and trauma in emergence of psychopathology, this is a valuable and informative summary. As an introduction to the work of Jean Laplanche, the authors are clear and helpful. It has become a truism in the last few years that psychoanalysis has “forgotten” sexuality and the body in its clinical and theoretical focus on relationships, attachment, mutuality, and self-cohesion. Object relations theory, self psychology, interpersonal and relational approaches have tended to minimize the importance of the vicissitudes of sexual desire. This book helps to restore this repressed area of psychoanalytic thought.

Reviewer Note

Bill MacGillivray


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