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Confusion of TonguesReview - Confusion of Tongues
The Primacy of Sexuality in Freud, Ferenczi, and Laplanche
by Philippe van Haute & Tomas Geyskens
Other Press, 2004
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Dec 8th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 49)

The "Trauma model" and the "Seduction model" are a frequent topic in contemporary psychoanalysis. Many works have recently been devoted to their history, development, conceptual analysis, and clinical applications. What makes the book written by Van Haute & Geyskens worth reading is, first of all, a different perspective. Namely, they address the issue from the standpoint of anthropology and devote the larger part of the book to the scrutiny of Freud's efforts at establishing a clinical anthropology, and the other one to the subsequent reactions to this by Sandor Ferenczi and Jean Laplanche.

The authors claim that "Freud appears to make pathology the measure of what it means to be human in general" (p. xiv), and that Freud's clinical anthropology is built upon three fundaments: 1. the primacy of sexuality (and its perverse origin); 2. the discontinuity between the child's world and the world of the adult; 3. the continuity between normality and pathology. Throughout the book, they examine the changes in the three authors' theoretical positions and different roles these fundaments play for each of them in various stages of the development of their respective theories.

Historically, Freud's work began with his theory of the perverted, nongenital nature of seduction. At that stage of development of his theory Freud maintained that children are unable of experiencing sexuality, so that they become aware of the acts done by a perverted adult through deferred action that occurs in puberty.

However, in 1898 Freud published what he had already written to Fliess: " ... in my experience, children are capable of every psychical sexual activity, and many somatic sexual ones as well" (in Van Haute & Geyskens, p. 18). This change in his understanding made him renounce the seduction theory in favor of biological sexuality and introduce phylogenetic models in psychoanalytic theory. That is precisely, the authors claim, the moment when psychopathology was transformed into a clinical anthropology. Freud gave up the search for specific etiologies and tried to establish innate sexuality and organic repression as universal human phenomena independent of division between pathology and normality. Therefore, he claimed, "sexual disgust is not just a pathological symptom, but must be considered as the first genuinely human affect" (in Van Haute & Geyskens, p. 25).

In the second chapter the authors discuss Freud's revisions in later editions of "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality." The most important one is that "Freud tends to think of infantile sexuality according to the model of adult sexuality" (p. 77). As the authors' careful examination of the text informs as, after the 1915 edition the fundaments of the theory were shaken: since Freud conceived infantile sexuality as closely similar to the adult sexuality, he was forced to introduce a distinction between normality and pathology and to base sexuality upon the model of instincts.

Complete abandonment of the trauma theory is best reflected in Freud's claim that the sexual drive is independent from its object. Henceforth, he conceived the stages of psychosexual development - as well as the Oedipus complex - emphasizing their phylogenetic basis to such an extent that he believed education could make no influence on them whatsoever. So now "neurotic symptoms ... represent the sexual activity of the patient ... (as a) translation of an entire series of repressed psychical processes, wishes, and tendencies that are all connected to sexuality" (in Van Haute & Geyskens, p. 53).

The remaining two chapters are devoted to the works of Sandor Ferenczi and Jean Laplanche. The authors consider that "the work of Ferenczi and Laplanche can be read as a critical answer to this shift in Freud's thinking" (p. 37). It is very unfortunate that these two chapters, and especially the one on Ferenczi, are not equally long and elaborated as those on Freud, since Ferenczi and Laplanche are becoming more and more important and influential in contemporary psychoanalysis.

It is now generally accepted that "Ferenczi restores seduction and trauma to the center of his theory of neurosis" (p. 85). In his famous paper, Sandor Ferenczi claimed that the origin of trauma is in the confusion of tongues between the child's tenderness, imagination and play, on the one hand, and the adult's passion that the child can experience as brutality, on the other hand. In Ferenczi's thinking, sexuality does not have a privileged position, and each act of an adult that shows one "beyond oneself" can have a traumatic effect. Moreover, it is sometimes the denial of the trauma by the environment that has the most traumatic effect.

These theoretical innovations brought changes in Ferenczi's analytical technique. He was critical towards analytical neutrality and concerned that "something in the psychoanalytic technique itself turns analysis into the mere repetition of earlier traumatic events" (p. 88). In his insistence that the analyst should admit his/her constraints, instead of striving for omniscience, we can find the origins of contemporary relational psychoanalysis.

But this approach threatened to turn psychoanalysis into a "mere" psychopathology. Therefore, Ferenczi considered trauma to be constitutive of human subjectivity, thus giving it an anthropological importance.

That claim made by Ferenczi contains traces of a Laplanche's later generalized theory of trauma. Namely, Jean Laplanche asserted general anthropological significance of trauma and saw an intrinsically traumatic character in the confrontation of the child with adult sexuality. The main reason for that is in its enigmatic character for the observing child.

Starting with the critique of previous conceptions, Laplanche claims that Freud is mistaken in believing that sexuality is a process that develops from the inside out without any role of the other but that of a mere catalyst. He also criticizes Ferenczi for his belief that there is more than a gradual difference between the child and the adult. The authors also discuss a detailed study of Laplanche's interpretation of Freud's paper on Leonardo and the idea of the seduction by mother presented in it. They conclude that the seduction Freud first considered inevitably pathological later was understood as a general structure, with only a gradual difference between normality and pathology.

In his theory, Laplanche holds that the traumatic situation is the occasion when the adult sends a message that the child is not yet prepared for intellectually, corporeally, and affectively. Like Ferenczi, he thinks that it is traumatizing not because it is sexual, but because it is enigmatic. A message can be considered enigmatic when a child is not capable of deciphering its meaning. In this way, Laplanche introduces a now widely used distinction between what is symbolisable and what is enigmatic and he considers this distinction the measure of the quantity of trauma. And, again like Ferenczi, he considers trauma to be an inevitable, generalized human experience.

In conclusion, I think that the book by Van Haute & Geyskens will be useful to readers interested in careful scrutiny of Freud's texts and in the history of psychoanalysis in general. The authors managed to contextualize Freud's theory in a wider frame of reference, which is not a frequent case. The book has a very distant and implicit clinical relevance, but the authors have never had such intentions. Therefore, its only major flaw is that it is too short and does not do justice to the other two authors, especially Ferenczi.


© 2005 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic


Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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