Clinical psychoanalysis at its best: making things clear

Museum of Modern Art, Buenos Aires

Paul Verhaeghe: Beyond Gender: From Subject to Drive (Other Press, New York, 2001) 1


Paul Verhaeghe’s third book (after Does the woman exist? and Love in times of loneliness) is a collection of essays spanning the years from 1986 to 2001, showing, as one would already expect from this author, a threefold scope: in the forefront, the clinical preoccupation, the settlement of exact references through the seminal work of Jacques Lacan, and their articulation –  as accurately as possible – with the original Freudian concepts. This complex network demands not only a highly elaborate and detailed reading of these three perspectives (i.e., the clinical field, the entire writings of Lacan and those of Freud) but also the working through, and correction of the many misreadings, misconceptions and misleading interpretations accumulated from the beginnings of psychoanalysis – even during the post-Lacanian period. As the latter – it may be added – are usually presented with some fine good-humored touches and spicy wit, it’s difficult to resist the book’s charm.

An appropiate example may be found in the first essay – The riddle of Castration Anxiety – where Verhaeghe examines the current state of the Freudian term, and exposes the disappearance either of the concept itself in postfreudianism, or the loss of its meaning in the post-Lacanian development.

The conclusion runs like a red thread through the entire book: sexuality – or rather, phallicisation – is a secondary construction, a phobic signifier attempting to cover the Real. Sooner or later, the attempt reveals itself to be in vain. Most especially so when ethics (of which the analytic dispositive 2 is but a vehicle) are expected to lead to an encounter with the Real.

Being practically the first appearance in psychoanalysis of a theory of negativity, the Lacanian field cannot but find an adequate expression in negative statements (there is no sexual relationship, The Woman does not exist, there is no Other of the Other). Verhaeghe links these with Freud’s more “concrete” illustrations, i.e., the unsolved infantile questions (the primal scene, castration complex, the role of the father); indeed, “concrete” here means the Imaginary side of an underlying structure.

The Real, too, could get nothing but negative definitions trying to encircle an impossibility. However, Verhaeghe attempts to get as close as possible, discussing the core of the subject’s fears: engulfment in the Other’s jouissance, Freud’s “passive” position which is traumatic itself. A historic, unremembered event is yet another illustration of this basic lack, as well as the identification of this position as “feminine”.

The second essay, From Impossibility to Inability – I had expected a literal translation of Lacan’s blunt “impotence” -, on the theory of the four discourses, is one of the best available presentations of this aspect of Lacanian endeavor. If ever these “algebraic” mechanisms are to elicit any movement, a clear presentation such as this one could certainly contribute to it. Verhaeghe successfully explains the basic elements and their applications as well as their advantages and some risks (rather than shortcomings) of their use.

After decades of its extensive use in specific psychoanalytic milieux, it’s still hard to yield an accurate balance regarding how productive or merely repetitive and/or emblematic these formulae are. Probably the first thing to drop is the illusion of their alleged “algebraic” character, in which abbreviations would suffice to dispel any possible misunderstanding. On the contrary, usefulness only seems to blossom when explanations and arguments are developed from the starting point, as in these essays.

The third chapter, Teaching and Psychoanalysis, fulfils this need, as every single element of the engine is discussed again. How can a necessary phase of analytic practice, which is expected and asked for by every patient – i.e., the analyst in the Master position – be overcome? Furthermore, how can psychoanalysis be “taught” at a University avoiding the pitfalls of the University discourse, in Lacan’s conception an abject version of the Master discourse? Must the teacher remain enclosed in this impossibility when signifiers are exhausted, and the pupils alienated in their impotence?

Trauma and Psychopathology in Freud and Lacan brings us back to the issues that had been presented in the first essay – the Real side of the drive being the ‘cause’ of ‘inner’ trauma, any other trauma remaining but a second, ‘external’ edition, and the ever-insufficient attempt to work through it by means of signifiers amounts to a ‘sexualisation’ – again, more exactly, a phallicisation. The important consequences have their incidence regarding the direction of an analysis: the full development of associative paths through the signifiers of sexuality is a necessary agency to elicit the encounter with the Real – and here the analyst falls outside the picture’s frame, allowing the subject to face this ever-insisting, uncanny presence by means of his own creativity.

It would be a hard task, indeed, to review the two central essays in the book, i.e., Subject and Body, which gathers comprehensive remarks on the status of the Body in psychoanalytic theory – as a surface to write upon, i.e., an ensemble of signifiers, or as the body of the Real? – which produces a fine articulation of the Lacanian field with a detailed, literal rendering of Freud’s ‘Beyond the pleasure principle’. And the following, highly condensed Mind and Body, an astonishing working-through of one of Lacan’s most difficult Seminars, ‘Encore’ – both texts, Lacan’s and Verhaeghe’s, should probably be read side-by-side.


Dreams between Drive and Desire transfers these developments to the sphere of the formations of the unconscious, again dispelling some post-freudian misunderstandings which have emphasized the more anecdotical aspects of The Interpretation of Dreams; if not an outright caricature, these may not be necessarily wrong, but still could be regarded as misleading, as the unraveling of phallic signification (the Lacanian αυτόματον) leaves the “kernel of our Being” (i.e., the Real cause of anxiety, in Lacan’s terms, τύχη), untouched. A new goal, indeed, for an analytic treatment?


John Fuseli, The Nightmare (1871, Institute of Fine Arts, Detroit)

Finally, Obsessional Neurosis presents us with a welcome closing to the selection, as it gathers together the book’s main ideas to set them as a foundation to a clinical picture. Symptomatology is certainly not dealt with in the mere psychiatric, descriptive sense (even if this aspect is also carefully considered); rather, all the creative elements to develop within an analysis are pointed to, provided that its goals are kept. Here, Verhaeghe accordingly sees the concluding moment and leaves the remaining task to practitioners.


1 I’m grateful to Prof. Tom Dillingham, Dr. Donald Carveth and Prof. Nancy Freudenthal for their generous help in editing this comment.

2 The term (which does, indeed, appear in some English dictionaries) has become so commonplace in Lacanian writings, that I found it unnecesary to replace it by “setting”.


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