Living Death, and the “psychosomatic phenomenon”

Above: Photography by Sonia Neuburger

Here we call law that which is properly articulated at the level of the signifier, in other words the text of the law. It is not the same thing to say that a person must be there to support the authenticity of the word, as saying that there is something that authorises the text of the law. … This is what I call the Name-of-the-Father, that is to say, the symbolic father.

Lacan, The Formations of the Unconscious 1

   A consultation regarding an in-patient is requested by the Department of Medicine. Her psoriasis stretches from head to toe; her body is a red, bare heap of flesh that she hides beneath the sheets. But there is not a skerrick of anguish: I sit next to her and she receives me indifferently rather than calmly. She already knew I was going to interview her. The person who requested the consultation was her own father, a physician in the same hospital. I knew very little of her up to that moment: she is separated, has four children, lives with them and with her mother and does not work. She has never requested any psychological help; there have been no attempts at treatment. Besides, everything’s fine. Shutters closed, impossible to go forward.

A little later I try once more. Even worse: there is no outright refusal but she just says that she is shivering and needs to cover herself with even more blankets (it was an exceedingly hot day). The staff notes that the only one who occasionally visits her is her father. I telephone him and we make a time to meet.

His willingness to narrate the family history is quite the opposite to that of his daughter: he gives an overwhelming amount of detail. The woman he married had left her former husband as soon as she discovered his bisexual nature. The current couple were married abroad as her divorce had not been legally settled. She then fell immediately pregnant and he asked her to have an abortion. She resolutely refused and the pregnancy progressed, a primordial and nodal event that both their daughters would repeat literally.

The woman studied Law and only had one remaining examination prior to graduating. Her whole family arranged celebratory drinks at the restaurant opposite the Faculty for the day of her graduation-to-be. Hence, following the successful outcome of the exam, the ceremony indeed took place.

Some time later, an acquaintance disclosed to the doctor that, actually, his wife was not a lawyer at all. The party was nothing but a masquerade: the woman had in fact abandoned her studies during the course of the second year.

Following this, bounced checks began to flood in, along with debts, unpaid loans, mortgages, all signed by the wife.

In the meantime, he had perchance come into contact with a very powerful political figure. Hence his career had taken an altogether successful turn since prospects of well-remunerated work had now opened up for him. One by one, he paid off his wife’s numerous debts. This, of course, did not prevent her from contracting yet others. Along the way, however, they lost several properties, items of furniture, and other objects. Finally, he left her and started another relationship. Closing his narrative, he adds that he feels depressed and that he is determined to ask for professional help. Immediately upon leaving the interview, he seeks out a hospital psychologist of his acquaintance and requests a consultation with her 2.

The elder daughter fell pregnant at the age of fifteen to a casual boyfriend of whom her father disapproved and against whom he had advised her. Both men asked her to have an abortion. As we have already anticipated, she refused. The young man immediately disappeared from the scene and the father took charge of the birth and the corresponding expenses. He bought her a dwelling and maintained her (she was not working). In the meantime, she restrained herself neither from contracting loans nor from indulging in debts that she would never pay.

The younger daughter (the in-patient) repeated, point by point, her sister’s career, to which she added the consumption and sale of drugs, whilst multiplying her procreative activity (she had four children). Needless to say, her father also reiterated his each and every gesture as a universal supplier of goods, buying her a larger home each time the family grew (houses that the daughter immediately mortgaged and consequently lost) or running after drug dealers to pay off his daughter’s debts and to keep her free from any danger (i.e. of being murdered by them, amongst other possibilities).

The father had a hobby: game hunting. He was accustomed to visiting hunting reserves and paying to pursue a deer, which he killed. He then carried his trophy home and with it, fed the whole family 3. On one occasion, having sued his elder daughter for fraud, and afraid that his goods would be seized, he asked his younger daughter to keep his rifles for him. These guns were very special, very dangerous, of high calibre, as well as of great monetary value. She sold them immediately. Equally quickly, he hastened to meet the buyer, paying twice as much, in order to get the weapons back, thus buying them for a second time. In regard to the legal proceedings against the elder daughter, the ruling was in his favour, but he made sure she did not incur consequences of any kind: he made sure that every fault was completely erased from all registers.

At the time of these interviews, the elder daughter “worked” as her father’s secretary. He rented an apartment in which she lived alone with her son.

The younger daughter lived with her mother (who never left the building) and her four children, in yet another apartment rented by the father. He supplied money for expenses, but the two women squandered it on everything else, then called him again to complain about the lack of food, electricity or gas (the utilities having been cut off due to unpaid bills). He visited them to bring food packages (sometimes his daughter also stayed at home on account of her psoriatic body).

During a conjoint interview, I was impressed by the younger daughter’s mask of innocence, intermingled with her screaming red body, a feminine version of a flayed Saint Bartholomew.


Saint Bartholomew, Church of San Laureano, Boyacá, Colombia

The father mentions that he attends to her physical disorders as well as those of his grandchildren: should there be any problem with them, she immediately seeks him out at the hospital, interrupts him regardless of whatever he is engaged in at the time. She demands immediate attention: he must comply and postpone whatever he is doing. It never occurred to her that this might be an inconvenience to him, as he never gave evidence of such a thing.

The man utters calm and peaceful protests: he has had chest pains, and the family crisis might physically affect him. On the other hand, his daughter protests vehemently: it is the interview that hurts her, as she clearly understands the interviewer’s exceedingly unjust intention to make her feel guilty. She thus neither wants it to continue, nor to accept any other similar meeting. She is as convinced of her father’s immortality as he is himself: the man’s insignificant physical complaints are deprived of any significance whatsoever. She adds that if she were able to work and lead another life, she would do it. And yet, she does not abandon the place of her identification 4, doomed to be the abortion – a mere heap of raw, red flesh – for which her father wished and for which he continues to pay, forever.

The denial of one’s finitude, the incessant supply of provisions instead of the symbolic gift, is accompanied by the living death of the other, a shapeless and bloody heap. A strange and indeed high price for eternity: Lacan asserts that the neurotic needs to believe in Death 5. But there is one who disavows it and the consequences make themselves visible on the surface of the body. From its very beginnings, the parental union takes on the appearance of a masquerade that veils the “Pavlovian” impossibility, for the child, of interrogating their desire 6. And, as any legal consequence vanishes in a conjuring trick, a deathly paradox ensues: there is neither Law, nor any other Thing.

Freud discusses Vergänglichkeit, or Transience (as Strachey has rendered it), with an interlocutor 7, moving increasingly and surprisingly close to the sentence of Anaximander, which, in turn, has been commented on by Heidegger in a celebrated essay 8. Should we attempt to follow the latter’s thought, it might be possible for the Un-said to survive and thrust itself into the present. But its other possible fate – as we have observed – is to be silenced and to become a monument in the flesh.

Analysis may bear witness to this, even if it remains – in relation to its incidence – an incommensurable Real.


Brueghel, The Triumph of Death (Museo del Prado, Madrid)


My warmest thanks to Michael and Debbie Plastow for their revision of this paper’s English text.

1 Lacan, J. Formations of the Unconscious. The Seminar: Book V, 1-8-1956. Éditions du Seuil,Paris, 1998, p.146

2 This professional did not accept the man’s entreaty: she came to see me afterwards and explained that she clearly recognized the inconsistency of his demand.

The episode might seem controversial. Was it that the man didn’t actually want any help at all (his request being yet another disguise), or did the psychologist lack the “desire of the analyst”?

3 Indeed, red meat seems to have a special significance within this family’s discourse!

4 Up to this point, readers might observe that only one symbolic connection for the younger daughter’s identification is presented (whilst over-determination should be expected from working-through). In fact, this regards the type of analytic work that is usually possible during Liaison-Consultation at a Hospital. The time-lapse of the interviews is limited: an analyst may program all the interviews he needs to carry out, but – only while the patient stays within the Institution. After dismissal, some exceptional cases of follow-up (psychotherapy, even analysis) are possible (e.g.: when specific transference dispositions make referral unadvisable), but the Liaison-consultant should be more like the outer surface of Freud’s ‘Mystic Writing Pad’, always available for new requirements.

As in analysis, further associations could confirm or rule out some hypotheses – if ever the opportunity arises. Liaison-Psychoanalysis is, however, an “extension” of psychoanalysis, certainly not analysis “in intension”: we do not attempt to “analyse” anyone – neither the patients nor the doctors who require the consultations. And yet, as I have tried to put forward, an analytic approach may produce effects of a very different kind, set against mere psychiatric procedures.

Yet another unanswered question could regard the elder daughter: sharing some of the family identification network, had she also suffered any skin diseases?

Even if the interviews mentioned in this paper did not supply any data concerning this aspect, a further, unplanned, spontaneous and unexpected meeting with the father did. He met me at the Hospital’s cafeteria and asked me where he could refer one of his grandchildren to: the child lived with him and showed some signs of distress, anxiety, etc. During this brief encountered, he casually mentioned that her elder daughter did have minor skin diseases, as well as some of the younger daughter’s offspring.

5 Death is of the domain of faith. Of course you have good reason to believe that you’re going to die; that sustains you. If you didn’t believe in it, would you be able to bear the life you have? If one were not solidly supported by this certainty that it will finish, would you be able to endure it? Nevertheless it is no more than an act of faith. The last straw is that you’re not sure. How come there is not a man or woman who could live until the age of 150? But, all the same, it is there that faith regroups its strength … One of my patients dreamed one day that existence would always spring forth from itself – Pascal’s dream – and an infinity of lives followed on from each other without any possible end. She awoke, nearly mad…. Seminar at Louvain, October 13, 1972, Petits Écrits et Conférences, p. 504 (also in: Quarto, Supplément Belge à la Lettre Mensuelle de l’École de la Cause Freudienne, 1981, No. 3, p. 5-20).

As “imaginary links” we could associate with Poe’s Waldemar and Bergman’s Magician on one side, and, on the other, Karel Capek’s short story, The Makropoulos Case, which Leoš Janácek turned into an opera.

Makropulos5Cult copy

Above: Janácek, Več Makropoulos, Salzburg Festival 2011

They all point to the fatal, deadly aspect of undue longevity as a representative of abolished finitude. The composer, attempting to portray this predicament in music, resorted to an aphoristic and hermetically closed style. Only at the very end of the opera, when immortality is annulled, its catastrophic formula destroyed by fire, is lyrical expansion able to bloom again.

6 The few lines that Lacan uses to discuss “psychosomatic phenomena” include a reference to Pavlov’s experiments, in which the animal is unable to question the desire of the one who conducts the experiment. See Le Séminaire, Livre XI, Les Quatre Concepts Fondamentaux de la Psychanalyse, Seuil, Paris, 1973, p. 207 (English edition: The Seminar, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, transl. A. Sheridan, Penguin, London, 1979)

7 Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment (1915). SE, XIV, p. 303.

8 Der Satz des Anaximander (1946), in Holzwege (Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt/M, 1950). Heidegger distances himself from Nietzsche’s translation (1873): Whence things have their origin, towards there must they also perish, according to necessity, as they must pay the penalty and be judged on account of their injustice, in accordance with the order of time – and also from that of Diels, asking himself if these renderings are able to make present die Sache. A translation, he adds, may be literal, but nevertheless fall short of the Letter: the whole effort in the essay is directed towards producing (poiesis) speech in the translation, on which, indeed, the historical destiny of the Western world depends. Resistance to bringing back the Existent (das Seiende) in thought, in the course of the annals of Being, is not without consequences. The same occurs whenever the pulse of the Unconscious is forgotten.

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