BACK INTO THE OCEAN
Music, identification, and the oceanic feeling
I. Oceanic Beloved
To write a life is, for a journalist like William Finnegan, to recount a life that has already been lived. One of Freud’s greatest contributions to our ways of describing lives is his discovery that in recounting it to another person the story of one's life becomes indistinguishable from the living itself, lives not being lived until they have been told to someone else. We free associate, Adam Phillips suggests in his fourth life-story to date, Becoming Freud (2014), to find out about the life that we have otherwise only technically, supposedly, been living; analytic patients “tell the story of their lives by saying whatever comes into their heads” (p. 6). Finnegan clearly can write and has written about countless lives embroiled in the brutal struggles, the histories-in-the-making, of many of the most troubled and dangerous regions on the geopolitical map in his long and storied career at The New Yorker, but he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for a book about one of his own lives, “A Surfing Life,” the life lived before and between those perilous, journalistic beats; a life of chasing perfect waves, reading the breaks and tides for news of the day’s fate, for moments of fleeting yet unmistakable divinity in the hollows of aquatic, tubular rushes. This life-telling reveals to Finnegan and his reader (as it did to Freud and his) that there are other lives, more living, in the telling of one’s life than one knows at the outset; that the life conjured up in this telling, the life in the ear of the analyst, who Phillips designates “a new kind of attentive listener” (17) always has more to it than the story one thinks is being told. What is intended, and brilliantly succeeds, as a document of a surfing life becomes, I want to suggest, two other lives as it is told to its attentive analyst-reader. The first is an oceanic life; the second is a life spent with other men, a life of male companionship. (Finnegan is nearly always romantically paired with a woman throughout the life he records, but she is rarely in the water with him.)
Finnegan’s life, or the life that he relates in Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2015), is little more, and needs be nothing more, than a glorious archive of waves, and the surfers with whom he shared them. These men, almost always identified by a single name, are discussed as frequently as the waves themselves; each companion sets the tone for the months or years or life-era they spend together. And while Finnegan uses words like “domesticity” and “sensuality” rather than “love” to describe these relationships, the strength of the bonds is unmistakable and, at times, beyond language altogether. When Finnegan looks back at his mate after catching a particularly sublime surf, the latter’s raised fist is the maximum volume of acknowledgement offered, lest he intrude on the privacy, the hallucinosis, of what Finnegan at one point calls “touching God.” Whenever the mates separate, when their surfing life together is torn apart by those other lives they are writing — starting families, building careers, losing parents — they continue their shared living by post; each section of the book is in fact substantially constituted by these now-retrieved correspondences, the writers’ dedication to which easily recalls Freud’s own epistolary devotion. In fact, I would like to explore the ways in which Finnegan’s intended, surfing life-story was substantiated by these two unintended lives (the ocean life and the life of male companionship), and what these two other lives might have to do with one another, by suggesting that the same could be said of Freud. “There are a few men,” Freud writes in the opening sentences of his late work, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930), “uneasiness in the culture” (better known, through Strachey's curious translation, as Civilization and Its Discontents),
from whom their contemporaries do not withhold admiration...One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded — as it were, ‘oceanic.’ (64)
The oceanic feeling, which features prominently in this opening chapter (and nowhere else in Freud’s writing), is summoned as a representation of boundlessness, feeling which has no limit, an endlessly renewable resource. Freud is possessed by this turn of phrase; it leaves him “no peace,” he tells the French writer Romain Rolland (the ‘exceptional man’ who calls himself Freud’s ‘friend’). Freud is in some sense disturbed; the phrase itself triggers a kind of signal anxiety, at least enough to subject it to some distancing, defensive process; no sooner does Freud introduce the term than he asserts, “I cannot discover this oceanic feeling in myself” (65). Taking this assertion at face value is difficult if for no other reason than how beautifully Freud writes precisely about this category of feeling-experience. After all, what are the laws of the unconscious — condensation, timelessness, non-negation — if not a recipe for boundlessness? What is transference if not a dipping of one’s toe in the semi-permeability of selfhood, the watery depths of infinity? Or to pose the question another way: What happened to Freud’s oceanic feeling? And why does he write a short essay about it to introduce a book about uneasiness, from which it henceforth disappears? Freud’s reader, or a Freudian reader, may perceive, as it were, anxiety talking, an anxiety about the implications for pathology that Freud associated with this part of himself, the part of himself that, among other things, makes deep contact with other people. “[T]oward the outside, at any rate,” he continues on the next page,
the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation. There is only one state—admittedly an unusual state—in which it does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. (66)
Freud is claiming that in a particular state, “the height of being in love,” that precious apex, the ego transcends its own limits, mere moments after declaring that he cannot find this feeling in himself. Surely Freud is not declaring that he has never experienced this “admittedly…unusual state”; his copious letter-writing to his wife, Martha Bernays — to say nothing of their copious copulating (six kids in 8 years) — are indications to the contrary, for starters, to say nothing of the knowingness with which he wrote extensively about the subject. Yet if both of his assertions hold, along with the most basic tenets of his metapsychology, we are left to conclude that in the writing of this passage Freud’s lover-self is being kept out of his awareness; that he is, so to speak, resisting. Something threatening, some uneasiness, is being circumnavigated as it appears and emerges from the depths, not quite breaking the surface.
In the third act of David Cronenberg’s (2011) stirring film, A Dangerous Method, Freud joins his most famous one-time companion, Carl Jung, on the balcony of the ship they are taking to America to lecture on psychoanalysis, pitch-black waves lapping against the side of the boat. Freud is reminded of a dream from the previous night which he starts to report to Jung before stopping abruptly. Jung invites him to continue; Freud demurs. “I cannot risk my authority,” he replies dejectedly. (The men do not appear together onscreen for the rest of the film.) In Cronenberg’s vision, it is fruitfully unclear which of them is put at risk by this temptation to dream-tell, for whose benefit Freud is apparently restraining himself. Part of what is being negotiated between these companions at sea is the relationship between psychoanalysis as a form of asymmetrical dream-telling and psychoanalysis as a form of accompanied dream-making, of communal dreaming. And while Freud takes no issue with the proposition that the oceanic feeling, in all of its aqueous comforts and horrors, is essentially a memory-trace from the beginning of life — the mother having been experienced then, as Winnicott later elaborates, as an unbounded extension of the one’s special or specific action, an effect of one’s imagination — Freud does not apparently allow himself to be aware of any such remnants of this early feeling in himself, let alone to engage creatively with such aspects of his own oneiric life, an activity he famously preferred to do alone.
What Freud does make clear before he ends this remarkable opening chapter is the primacy of this authority-bound restraint, the absolute imperative of this parental limit (which Lacan would eventually call the paternal metaphor) in the structuring of psychical life.
I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for the father’s protection. Thus the part played by the oceanic feeling, which might seek something like the restoration of limitless narcissism, is ousted from a place in the foreground. (72)
One reason this passage is especially devastating is that if being in love is for Freud the ultimate oceanic feeling, the memory of which from one’s infant-mother experience forever reverberates through all subsequent iterations, then the introduction of the “father’s protection,” the ousting of this transcendent involvement with what Laplanche once called one’s “body-mate,” is our introduction to heartbreak. The arrival of paternal authority confers an excommunication, a damming up, of oceanic feeling. Safety from incestuous catastrophe is the first limit, the bounding of infinity, the beginning of the end of love.
The force of these characterizations may alert us to the polarization of the phenomenon they describe, the absence (rare in Freud) of dialectical complexity and contradiction at the launching dock of his notorious, uneasy discontents. And the culprit for this diminishing of imaginative scope may be an anxiety about the ocean of feeling in which (and the men with whom) it would otherwise immerse him; in effect, what Adler, another former Freud fellow, would refer to as ‘masculine protest’ (403), or what Ferenczi (1911) once poignantly anticipated (perhaps in tribute to his then-already-diminished connection to Freud) as “losing the love of friends” (315). Freud is notably unable to imagine here (and elsewhere) a love that is not based on reciprocity across demarcated differences, on giving and taking, frustration and satisfaction; or that the satisfying of bodily (and all its ego-derivative) needs through the supplementing of that which is absent in one’s own body through the loving of another person is only one kind of relatedness, one way to love. This thought-limiting anxiety may partially account not only for the confusion and doublespeak in the discussion of homosexuality in Freud’s writing (to which we shall return) but also for his explicit disavowal of his clearly ample oceanic feeling; the one he shared, like Finnegan, with fellow men.
But thanks to Freud, we know that paradox is not actually a dealbreaker but a natural result of the logical mode of the unconscious; not the end of the conversation, but the beginning of the rest of it. And the paradox here has to do with what people are able to feel with one another and, more specifically, how they are able to love. For child and caregiver — which for Freud tends to be for son and mother — this love, in more than one psychoanalytic description, has to do with the meeting of needs; the bonds of dependence, desire, envy, hate, and gratitude that form between the infant and the “object” that endures this needfulness and, to use Winnicott’s exquisite terms, survives the infant’s ruthlessness. This relationship, we are told, is primary, is first; and yet, in Freud’s remarkable formulation of constitutional bisexuality, it happens both twice and first at the same time, with two people, mother and father, at once. And this other, fatherly love, which he calls “negative,” is, in the same fairy tale, renounced in favor of something called identification, which sounds here like nothing so much as a consolation prize. You can’t have what you want, but you can be like someone (your father) who can. (You can even be like the very someone, your mother, that you actually want, though for Freud this latter option will always bear the mark of incompletion, of femininity, which was a sure way of giving it short shrift.) We get out of heartbreak, in this schematic, by disavowing who we love, who we’ve lost. But perhaps we can imagine a form of identification that is predicated not on disavowal of who and what we want but rather an affirmation of the simultaneity intrinsic to these originary conditions of wanting, the paradox of oceanic love. “Disavowal,” Andre Green (1994) writes in his diligently Freudian book, The Work of the Negative,
cancels out the feeling of the loss of having, whereas identification, itself seeking to make up for this loss of having, pushes for ‘common’ being with the object, now identified as a souvenir of the time when having and being were one. (78, italics in original)
This brings us back to a beginning before the uneasiness of culture, an ontological prologue to the aforementioned infant-mother situation, to something more like the easiness of culture, the pleasure of communal membership, or perhaps what Matte-Blanco would call ‘undifferentiation’ in his reframing of the Freudian unconscious in formal logical terms; what he called, as a surfer might, ‘infinite sets,’ endless curls peeling out of perpetual swells. And if this mathematical description helps us to imagine a kind of Edenic prequel to the more familiar infantile dramas of frustration and envy, we have Laplanche and Pontalis, the great mates of psychoanalysis, and great oceanographers of Freud’s sea-change theory of sexuality, to thank for finding a killer break to which they endlessly return: The abandonment of the seduction theory. As Freud struggled with and gradually relinquished, under enormous pressure, his original idea — that sexuality is introduced to the infant by the caregiver — he was left to rebuild his entire metapsychology on a fantasy of endogeneity; if sexuality didn’t come from the parent, it must have been endowed by nature itself, as instinct. But for Laplanche especially, this move constitutes a crucial error, what he calls a ‘dis-aster,’ a star knocked out of orbit. It’s not that everyone is seduced as a child into a form of adult sex (though tragically many are), but that all contact with adults is excessively, enigmatically sexual, the infant having no way to conduct or integrate the alien psyche-somatic dialect and messages of this domain into a kind of meaningfulness, resulting in what Laplanche calls ‘failures in translation’ — better known, in aggregate, as the unconscious. We will return to Laplanche’s remapping of the ocean floor of psychoanalysis, but the relevant detail here is that the longing we associate with romantic and sexual feelings is not simply, for Laplanche, a wish to get ourselves back to the garden but at its origin is a fascination with one’s mother’s own longing, the reason to leave the garden in the first place. (As the psychoanalyst Michael Levin has noted: The original erotic object is not the mother's breast but the mother’s mind.) For Laplanche, in other words, the generative kernel of desire is found not in the infant’s gaze at the mother herself, but the moment when the infant is forced to wonder what else is going on for her, what is happening for her that isn’t happening for him, what it feels like she’s saying without saying it, without speaking, before speech, in-fans; a message, Laplanche tells us, that begs the question: “What does she want from me?” The answers to this question, at best, will become infinite in their translational potential, oceanic in their vanishing horizonality.
As Freud develops the concept of identification throughout his career — from his early letters to Fleiss through his formulations of narcissism, mourning, the ego, and group psychology — he reveals (and then mysteriously occludes) that there is more that people can do with one another — more specifically, that there is more to want from other people — than to possess them, and to suffer the inevitable partiality and loss of this possession. While the rationing, the very physics, of that which satisfies our instinctual needs is always inherently and imminently depletable, the plenitude of identification potentiates an altogether greener economy. Possession presumes finitude; identification, by contrast, is oceanic.
As the novelist Garth Greenwell (2016) writes in his agonizing novel, What Belongs To You, “Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face” (180). The whole of Harold Boris’ deeply affecting collection, Envy (1994), is devoted to the distinction between the union formed through identificatory experience, which he calls a “pair,” and what he calls “couple” experience, which trades in desire and satisfaction. Whereas the couple moves resources back and forth between its members, the pair moves backward and forward through the world together. Couples compete while pairs collaborate; couples want from each other while pairs want for each other. (Loss in the pair mode feels less like losing another person and more like losing a part of one’s own body.) Both of these modes are at play in all relationships, including the psychoanalytic situation, which Boris describes pithily as “the pair talking about the couple.” In presenting oneself to the patient through the analytic situation — which, both ideally and tantalizingly, the situation is always doing — the analytic frame configures a therapeutic seduction toward what will ideally become a less traumatic, more meaningful experience of previously intolerable coupledom. At the same time, this analyst functions as a conduit for what Peter Goldberg has called the induction of sensory communion, sensing something together, through which any new possibility of self- or other-experience could only ever begin to emerge. When Boris writes that “[t]he analyst is the medium in which the patient happens” (173), he is emphasizing the pliability, the fluidity, that is necessary to cultivate not only the couple but also the pair — what Christopher Bollas (1987) once described as “two fundamental genres of transference” — one to the object, the other a transformation of oneself through a shared environment. “When the surf is big, or in some other way humbling,” Finnegan writes,
the heightened sense of a vast, unknowable design silences the effort to understand. You feel honored simply to be out there. I’ve been reduced on certain magnificent days...to just drifting on the shoulder, gawking at the transformation of ordinary seawater into beautifully muscled swell, into feathering urgency, into pure energy, impossibly sculpted, ecstatically edged, and finally into violent foam. (335)
I have seen a bit of the ocean, but not enough.
Letter from Freud to Fleiss, June 9, 1899
Freud did not feel music either, and this lack of feeling does not elude sympathy. There is music for all of us which cannot be felt. Prior to beginning clinical training — which is, among other things, training in feeling what one is hearing — there was little orchestral or symphonic music that resonated with me in the way in which other music had gripped and fascinated and vibrated within me my entire life. But as I was training to become a therapist I found myself attending performances of what is commonly referred to as Classical music, inspired and supplemented by the writing of Alex Ross, another New Yorker staffer, who in 2013 reviewed for that magazine the premiere of a piece by the contemporary composer and environmental activist John Luther Adams titled Become Ocean, a phrase he lifted from John Cage’s tribute to the music of fellow composer Lou Harrison (who lived in Santa Cruz for many years): “Listening to it we become ocean.” The form of the piece, Ross notes, is a palindrome; at bar 316, roughly 20 minutes in, the music begins retracing, in reverse, the material that has just been played, ending, like Freud’s libidinal subject, where it began.
We are already some distance from another musical ocean, Debussy’s La Mer, where chords peak and crash like so many of Finnegan’s waves -- “quick violent events,” as Finnegan characterizes the latter, “at the end of a long chain of storm action and ocean reaction” (200), throwing him from his board, pummeling him into the ocean floor until he runs out of air…
In contrast to this deep-sea antecedent, Adams’ Ocean is, by and large, a very slow build. The music does not arrive in an instant so much as seep into existence; one does not so much behold it as dissolve into its nautical greatness. Become Ocean develops ever patiently in its epically languid ebbs and flows, layered rhythms, from undulating ripples to glacial shifts, simulating the ocean’s own tidal pulse; three swells forming a single, complete arc in each of its three colossal movements. The harmony of the first movement -- which we will now listen to, or ‘become,’ together -- will emerge from a murky, atonal floor into a bubbling pedal of A major; when a piercing, shimmering tritone breaks through in the strings, like a wave cresting, the bare tension is ecstatic. As the horns and pitched percussion form a clustered fundament in their lower registers, the strings will spell a radiant major-seventh chord, like some water-refracted reflection of Strauss’ famous theme inspired by Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As the movement closes, harps dance glimmering arpeggios across the upper register of the orchestra as it fades into watery oblivion…
Similar harmonic currents flow toward distant waters, transcending genre. (None other than Taylor Swift, for example, wrote a check to the Seattle Symphony, following a performance of the piece we just heard, for $50,000.) There are moments of Barbarian Days, when Finnegan and his mates are staring at the horizon together, that remind me of being in the passenger seat of my parents’ car growing up, either of them and I staring at the road ahead, probably not talking, but almost certainly listening to music, usually deferring to the driver’s choice. These highly pleasurable and foundational musical experiences were recast in my adolescence in the aimless hours spent cruising around with my closest companion of that time. With him, there was only ever one real musical possibility: not whether we would be listening to his favorite band, Pearl Jam, but simply which album we would choose that day. The chorus of the song “Oceans” is more of a cavernous gap where a chorus should be, comprised of an electric pedal point holding the bass while the piercing grain of Eddie Vedder’s croon soars in stacked overtones, as if singing two notes, an octave apart, at the same time, and then overdubbed with a harmony, forming some sonic totem pole of Vedder’s effortlessly masculine musicality:
Perhaps this oceanic mode is more pronounced during latency, when other forms of energy are less accessible, an ebb between flows; the pre-teenage love of being the same as, of being the same with. A deeply distressed and unparented adolescent, who feels himself to be years younger than his chronological age, squiggles with me in our first meeting. He turns mine into a wave and draws two oblong boards in its soft curve. One features, naturally, a surfer, able and upright; the other, a limp body, limbs hanging over the edges into the water. That one, he tells me, is him; he doesn’t know how to surf. To become himself, to catch up with time, he needs help becoming like someone else; not just someone he can be like, but someone with whom he can be like them, with them and like them, having them and being them, at the same time. Like Finnegan and his mates, and like Freud and his (in their living if not always in their theories), identification is not just a substitute for having what one wants; it is the condition of becoming a new kind of wanter, a subjecting of oneself to the apprenticeship of becoming a subject; a transitional process of relinquishing the self one has been through the ocean one is becoming.
Freud makes one explicit appearance in Barbarian Days; a fellow surfer’s suggestion that Finnegan’s board is a kind of phallic object is quickly attributed to the speaker’s being from Argentina — “where psychoanalysis is a kind of middle class religion,” (320) Finnegan quips — and is no sooner mentioned than promptly dismissed. But if the argentino’s interpretation has anything to offer beyond a dimestore decoding of psychical priapism, its value may be may be in the surf itself, the surf-ace of contact between the (phallic) self that is wished to be real, the history that is putatively known about oneself, and the other-self of the watery depths, which the surf keeps, just barely, out of reach. The surfboard here may be a true contact barrier; contact with the downright physical violence of gravity’s interminable drama, barrier from drowning in it. “The apprenticeship for a relationality founded on sameness rather than on difference,” Leo Bersani writes, “must perhaps first of all be a perceptual apprenticeship...in correspondences that participate in a single but vast family of forms in the universe” (44). [Peter Goldberg (2012), following Bléger (1967), has referred to this phenomenon as “sensory symbiosis.”] To surf, to become ocean, is to recapitulate the precarious reaching and holding of oneself through communal experience, which beckons more pursuit, more devotion. (“Inexorable,” Ross notes, is John Luther Adams’ indication at the top of the score.) It never ends. And neither do we, as we become it.
III. Become Ocean
Riding our wave up to the present we arrive on the shores of Southern California where Christopher Breaux has cultivated an oceanic fascination profoundly enough to take its object as his stage name. When Breaux, better known as Frank Ocean, released his most recent work in 2016 (the same year Finnegan won the Pulitzer), he delivered it in three parts: Blonde, the closest element of the triptych to a traditional album; Endless, which he called a “visual album,” the music of which was released only as the soundtrack to a hypnotic film it accompanies; and Boys Don’t Cry, an oversize magazine distributed for free at four select ‘pop-up’ locations around the world on the day of the albums’ release. Frank had rocked the Twittersphere several years earlier with a proclamation accompanying his prior album, channel ORANGE (2012), that he had fallen in love with (and had his heart broken by) a male friend, making him the most prominent hip hop artist, and one of the most famous black men, to ever publicly declare such feelings.
All three works can be understood as a kind of paean to early adolescence — “surprisingly my favorite part of life so far,” he comments in the magazine, which assembles photographs and musings that document Frank’s activities between albums. (Much of Frank’s actual adolescence was reportedly spent in the company of what would become the Los Angeles-based rap collective Odd Future, which included Tyler, The Creator and Earl Sweatshirt among its members, Frank their lone melodist.) The magazine is the most visually explicit of the bunch in its glorification of male forms — primarily of men and cars, usually together, evoking what Jon Caramanica (2016) described in the New York Times as “the eroticism of the automobile” (and which Frank attributes — enigmatically — in the magazine’s opening essay to “a deep unconscious straight boy fantasy”) — more a portfolio or Tumblr-style collection of the day’s impressions than its formal largesse might suggest, a quality which inheres in the albums as well. Those works are not collections of songs as much as assemblies of selves, masterful meanderings through psycho-musical material. [Frank has described his music-making as “an extension of my talk therapy” (Caramanica, 2012).] Almost every musical moment feels as if it blossoms, associatively, from the one before it, proceeding less by traditional album structure than by dream logic. It is as if we, artist and audience, are listening to the same thing, the same otherness, recalling John Ashberry’s famous remark [a favorite of Phillips’ (2012)] “that when you talk to other people they eventually lose interest but that when you talk to yourself people want to listen in” (61).
The album’s final crest, “Seigfried,” is structured in four movements. The first cycles through a four-chord pattern that would not be out of place in harmony or sonority in a quiet, lovelorn pocket of a Pearl Jam record. A lover’s meditations turn painfully into the conflicted, belted desperation of a soul landlocked by the desert of selfhood:
Without warning, we melt into another sonic terrain, a lush string ensemble swelling in crescendo, like some sign-off from the early days of radio, or the final track of the Beatles’ White Album (written by John for Julian). An Elliott Smith quotation drifts in unannounced, surfacing like day residue in this musical dream, echoing reverberating reverie about loss, friend-loss:
Now a new Frank starts flowing in near-klang tongue-twisters, stoner poetry:
We are at the end of the ocean, the horizon of consciousness. And then, two inventively woven vocal lines — two Franks, two men and one man twice — sing one line six times, echoed back on the final two:
This surrender of identity through identification, “anything for you,” at the frontier of communicability, is not totally unfamiliar to those immersed in clinical work; it is often at the edge of a world, that impossible position, “where I can-not,” that creativity takes its hold, that the elaboration of the self proceeds toward its own unforeseen becoming, its odd future. The interplay of foregrounded voices recalls certain exchanges of analytic conversation, the playful sampling of each other’s words, the jam-session, cooperative abandon to the music being unconsciously arranged not so much between two people as before them, within them, both members riding in toward one another and themselves from a distant shore.
Which brings us to what the art historian and Freud scholar Whitney Davis — a specialist in homoeroticism, visuality, and all other things Narcissian — has referred to as ‘so-called narcissism.’ But let us first turn back to Laplanche, who took similar aim at what he called the ‘so-called death drive.’ In a paper by that name, and in many other papers like it, Laplanche interrogates what became of Freud’s metapsychology by imagining an alternate trajectory, a parallel universe in which the seduction theory was not abandoned but rather qualified; sparing us having to posit some other explanation for how we become sexual, like an endogenous or instinctual sex drive that migrates curiously from one erogenous zone to another before settling into its ultimate procreative, nature-driven purpose. Laplanche clarifies the difference between Instinkt, which is selected and transmitted through evolution and found throughout the animal kingdom, and Trieb or ‘drive’ which is uniquely human, and corresponds to the excess of energy, the urgent unintelligibility, that provokes the formation of the unconscious in the first place, and which in turn requires a corresponding human project to meet its challenge: an embodied need to translate the enigmatic sexual messages of the other, to make meaning out of otherwise purely disruptive, untranslated chaos — the so-called death drive.
Freud himself, Laplanche asserts, had made this point clearly in the Three Essays of 1905, in which he framed his present topic, sexuality, in terms of what he called the “popular view of the sexual instinct” which, Freud wrote, “is beautifully reflected in the poetic fable [i.e. that of Aristophanes] which tells how the original human beings were cut up into two halves — man and woman — and how they are always striving to unite again in love (135-6).” To the extent that this search is inevitably imperfect, and goes awry, one’s love becomes discouraged and tainted by the trials, failures, and rejections in pursuit of the other, and returns to the self, battered and bruised, in the form of narcissism. And only after formulating this narcissism does Freud imagine, after the fact, a corresponding state before the fall, a primary narcissism — the “limitless narcissism” of which Freud will later suppose the oceanic feeling must be a reminder (however curiously unable he is to find such feeling in himself) — to which the compromised, injured version is then subsequent, ‘secondary.’
The point of the “new psychical action” that Freud calls ‘secondary narcissism’ is to get from loving ourselves to loving someone else, channeling the now unified instincts toward our social responsibility to procreate — “in return,” Freud (1914) admits in his eponymous essay on the topic, “for a bonus of pleasure” (78). But in that same essay Freud abruptly swerves from this position, asserting that the original imperative to leave ourselves for someone else is not in fact about biology, nor a responsibility to continue the species, but rather a Project-era problem of having too much energy, enough to make us sick: “We must begin to love in order not to fall ill” (85). The idea seems to be that self-love, which he calls “autoerotic,” is primary, the position from which we may “cathect” the other; but, using Laplanche’s course correction, the problem shifts from cathecting the other, over there (Copernican), to translating the other's message, which is already stuck inside (Ptolemaic); to conducting the charge that is already stimulated by the other in the body.
But now Laplanche has showed us how to check Freud’s work. Students of philosophy (or students of the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch) may have already noticed that Freud’s account of Aristophanes’ myth, originally related by Plato in the Symposium, needs some context. In the original myth, what we might now, thanks to Boris, think of as ‘pairs,’ connected back-to-back — man and woman, but also man and man and woman and woman — were severed with bolts of lightning into two by the gods, “scared of our strength and defiance,” as Hedwig puts it. (They cannot risk their authority.) This Greek view of love has nothing to do with procreation — the figures were hardly suited for intercourse — and everything to do with Eros, the animus of perceptual and bodily experience from which difference emerges. This Eros operates in dialectical tension with sexual desire, the latter disrupting erotic continuity, and thus orienting us back toward reunion and rebinding with other humans, the other bodies from which we were originally unbound by volts of violent electricity, which remain within us in the form of the sexual drive.
The theory of narcissism, therefore, like narcissism itself, is a kind of symptom that Freud develops somewhere between 1905 and 1914, exactly the juncture at which Adam Phillips decided to call it a day with his Freud biography. Phillips’ story of becoming Freud, like Frank’s story of becoming Ocean, is primarily concerned with what men do with men, and the life that is generated through the experience of being like one another together, of identification, a story which seems to end abruptly for Freud after the Three Essays (though the concept of identificatory love is revisited on several occasions, most notably in Group Psychology, as a product of, instead of a protection against, narcissism). Just as the list of excommunicated members of Freud’s psychoanalytic brotherhood, in other words, added Adler and Jung to its melancholic ranks, Freud’s theory of love became impossibly convoluted. (In its detailing of his disagreements with these departed friends, “On Narcissism” becomes Freud’s most narcissistic paper to date.) Both the 1908 study of Leonardo and, as Davis (1996) has meticulously traced, the analysis of the Wolf Man, which began in 1910, document the contortion of the love of sameness, or homoeroticism, into the embattled and embittered love of oneself, narcissism. It is in 1910, in fact, according to Laplanche and Pontalis, that the term ‘narcissism’ first appears in Freud’s work, “when it is called upon,” they write, “to account for object-choice in homosexuals, who supposedly ‘take themselves as their sexual object.’” But Freud had already accounted for this form of object-choice differently in the Three Essays, in which Freud uses homoeroticism to formulate a theory of sexualty itself which, he concludes in those essays, is precisely not a pure expression of instinct but a “soldering” of instinct onto object-choice. “Psychoanalytic research,” Freud writes in the Three Essays,
is most decidedly opposed to any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of a special character. By studying sexual excitations other than those that are manifestly displayed, it has found that all human beings are capable of making a homosexual object-choice and have in fact made one in their unconscious. Indeed, libidinal attachments to persons of the same sex play no less a part as factors in normal mental life, and a greater part as a motive force for illness, than do similar attachments to the opposite sex. On the contrary [sic], psycho-analysis considers that a choice of an object independently of its sex — freedom to range equally over male and female objects as it is found in childhood, in primitive states of society and early periods of history — is the original basis from which, as a result of restriction in one direction or the other, both the normal and the inverted types develop. Thus from the point of view of psycho-analysis the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature… (144)
These words constitute a fully Aristophanic Freudian position. Laplanche, in his ‘so-called death-drive’ paper, expresses concern that Freud's theory of narcissism subsumed sexuality as simply "part of the eternal hymn of universal love," of Eros — as opposed to the opposite and arguably more pressing concern: that it was Eros which had been subsumed in service of the sexual drive, as opposed to retaining its status as an equiprimordial force in becoming human.
Freud, for some reason, replaced what he originally, borrowing from Ferenczi, called homo-erotism with what he suddenly reconsidered to be auto-erotism — confusing, to paraphrase Michel de m’Uzan, the same with the identical, the fellow with the self; as Ferenczi predicted, losing the love of friends. (Who wouldn’t feel sick? That would be a true, and perhaps more contemporary, form of illness.)
In Laplanche’s sense, what Freud calls the auto-erotism of primary narcissism is born not of the instinct of the infant but from the ‘allo’-auto-erotism, the sexual unconscious, the narcissism, of the adult caregiver, whose hyperbolic estimation of one’s own infant Freud famously characterizes, in “On Narcissism,” as ‘His Majesty the Baby’; it is this parental excess which provokes in the child, after the fact, a very narcissistic fantasy, a ‘limitless’ valuation of the self. Primary narcissism is therefore, to use Winnicott’s formulation, a deep phenomenon, a psychical reality, as opposed to an early one, actual infancy of course involving substantial suffering, producing a desperate need for ways to conduct oneself in such a way as to diminish excessive disturbance, to optimize relief, which places a premium on the mode of mimetic education that human beings use to transmit their best practices of living a good life. To lose either of one’s parents as a source of amorous identification is to be further left at the mercy of one’s parents as sources of overstimulation. And with dwindling socially-ratified ways of thinking about this loss, the self is left to subsist on its own reflection to try to heal its gaping wound, a state of true narcissistic collapse, an endlessly looping effort to conjure and stabilize a self which merely and only indirectly recalls the qualities of one’s first ambassadors to the human race as a kind of echo, that mythic nymph who loves Narcissus melancholically through the curse of repetition. This is indeed a homosexual problem, or at least a homoerotic one; it is the ‘motive force for illness’ that results from homoerotic failure, from not-good-enough Eros.
The need for erotic unison is profound, both at the level of individual suffering but also as members of the natural world. “Life on this earth,” Adams writes in the liner notes of Become Ocean, “first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.” (“Narcissus,” Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”)
What Freud protested too much in his claim that he could not find the oceanic feeling in himself was nothing less than what Matte-Blanco (1975) nominated as Freud’s greatest discovery: The laws of the unconscious. Perhaps Freud was always in the ocean, which may be why he didn’t know it. Freud may have discovered the unconscious through the analysis of his own dreams, but even this supposedly solitary dream-analysis became a collaborative psycho-analysis — the man Sigmund becoming history’s Freud — only in the reporting of it, as a new dream, to his friend, Wilhelm: A marble plaque announcing the landmark discovery of the secret of dreams, the place where he discovered them. There is no self for Freud — or anyone else, Freud discovered — except the self that we tell to others, the self that is heard together. For Lacan, what eventually gets called a self was only ever an identification, a mirage of selfhood, a seductively coherent version of the broken, barely assimilable bursts of experience, the cloud of data points, that is best fit by the curve of specular subjectivity, the mirror image being a reflection of unity that is approximated but never achieved through living, a hologram of our first experiences of both being gratified by others — namely, our parents — and identifying with them.
Finnegan’s parents figure prominently in his memoir, and nowhere is his hydraulic capacity for deep relatedness — which is to say, in the Freudian system, deep mourning — as evident as in the final pages of Barbarian Days, just after Finnegan’s mother has died. A single, devastating sentence appears mid-page as its own paragraph: “You have to hate how the world goes on” (435).
To write a life is to write one’s longing, to go-on-being in the world less hatefully than if one remains unwritten, unaccounted for to an-other. If biographies, as Phillips suggests, reveal nothing so much as the desire of the biographer, we could imagine, as psychoanalysis does, the same going for all life-writing, for all free speech. When I began writing about psychoanalysis and music, my own analysis shifted to themes of competition and envy, victory and revenge. Was I gaining on him? I asked aloud. Would my need for his powers soon be in excess of their magnitude? Would he, retaliating, put me in my place? He responded after a while that he could tell we were running somewhere, and that perhaps it was easier to imagine gaining on or passing one another up in the race than the experience of running it together. With many waves behind us, and who knows how many in the waters ahead, we look backward and forward, awestruck, and raise a fist.
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