The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence


Standard Edition Volume III

Freud’s point of departure in this paper is the contemporary agreement between he, Breuer and Janet, on the idea that in hysteria there is a ‘splitting of consciousness’. Janet’s view is that the split is the result of constitutional weakness, degeneracy, which Janet believes is innate; Freud cites Breuer’s view, in the Preliminary Communication to the yet-to-be-published Studies on that this splitting of consciousness is not innate, that it is a product of, secondary to, what he calls ‘hypnoid states’, and it is these that are the “basis and sine qua non” (p.46) of hysteria.

Freud divides hysteria into three types: Firstly, hypnoid hysteria: this is the kind that Breuer and Janet have different views on; secondly, ‘retention hysteria’: in which there is no sign of a splitting of consciousness. Retention hysteria is instead, Freud argues, the result of a failure to adequately respond to a trauma, and can be treated by a psychotherapy that involves abreaction; and thirdly, defence hysteria, in which “the splitting of the content of consciousness is the result of an act of will on the part of the patient” (p.46). He differentiates this ‘will’ from intention, but states that a “motive [for this 'will'] can be specified” (p.46).

It is defence hysteria that he is going to focus on – it is this particular mechanism of defence that interests him in the neuro-psychoses in general, and he states his belief, in opposition to that of Janet, that defence hysteria is acquired, that it not the result of heredity or degeneracy.

Rather, the cause of defence hysteria in these patients is to be found in “an occurrence of incompatibility [which] took place in their ideational life” (p.47), an idea, he says, which is incompatible with their ego, and is thus dealt with via a mechanism of defence specific to the 3 neuro-psychoses he discusses in this paper. At least in the case of female hysterics, these ideas are usually sexual in nature. But Freud goes further, arguing that it is not just hysteria, but obsession and psychosis as well, which share this same feature, or rather, the failure of what he calls “this kind of ‘forgetting’” (p.48).

Because the ego cannot simply ignore the incompatible idea,  it tries to weaken the idea by “robbing it of the affect – the sum of excitation – with which it is loaded” (p.48). This separation of idea and affect occurs in hysteria, obsession and phobia, but an additional operation distinguishes them individually.

In hysteria, there is a somatic conversion of the affect or sum of excitation – it is detached from the incompatible idea and manifests itself in the body as a physical symptom; the way in which it is transposed to the body will be related to the traumatic experience that has precipitated this process. All that is left of the idea that has been detached from the affect is what Freud calls the ‘mnemic symbol’, a kind of memorial which marks the former presence of the idea; and in spite of the conversion, patients can be plagued by associated ideas linked to the incompatible one that reactivate it by re-establishing links with it, forcing new conversions, new hysterical symptoms, to be manufactured. For Freud, it is this “capacity for conversion” (p.50) that distinguishes hysteria from the other neuro-psychoses of defence he will be discussing.

If conversion might be the defining mechanism of hysteria (and displacement of affect of obsession) Freud’s answer for why these operations are necessary, why the ideas are considered incompatible, strikes us as a little strange, at least nowadays. In discussing hysteria he accepts that conversion in itself is not the cause of the disease, but can only point instead to “a psychical incompatibility or accumulation of excitation” (p.51) that is necessary for hysteria. And what might this be?  Freud proposes that “it is precisely sexual life which brings with it the most copious occasions for the emergence of incompatible ideas” (p.52).

In obsession, we find the same initial operation of the separation of idea and affect, but rather than being converted to the body, the affect attaches itself to another idea that is not incompatible. This act of displacement of the affect onto a substitutive idea results in the substitute becoming the object of the obsession. This is why Freud notes that we find it odd that the obsession focuses on some small or apparently trivial detail, the affect being “dislodged or transposed” (p.54) from an incompatible idea to another.

The discussion Freud gives of phobia is quite short, and here he aligns its mechanism with that of obsession: “I think that it will be possible to show the presence of the mechanism of transposition of affect in the great majority of phobias and obsessions” (p.58). However, he does mention, (footnote, p.57), that certain phobias such as agoraphobia differ, in that the affect of anxiety does not split off from a repressed idea, and that “there are purely hysterical phobias” (p.57-58). Nonetheless, in cases which share the same mechanism as obsession the choice of the substitute idea will have to be suitably related to the incompatible idea. The affect seizes on an idea that is suitable, that might be considered a justifiable focus for a phobia: thunderstorms, dirt, spiders, etc. , the example he uses of a phobic object being the result of a “liberated anxiety, whose sexual origin must not be remembered by the patient” (p.54) appears odd –  why, we might ask, should anxiety as an affect be sexual in origin? Moreover, why does Freud not mention the need for this condition of suitability in obsession proper? Are we to assume it is absent?

The final mechanism Freud looks at is that of the hallucinatory psychoses. Here, it is not that the idea is split from its affect, but that the idea and the affect are both rejected by the ego. This is much more radical solution because the ego’s attempt to deal with the incompatible idea comes at the price of a turning away from reality altogether; as Freud says, the incompatible idea is dealt with by a “flight into psychosis” (p.59).

From a Lacanian point of view, it is interesting to note that Freud believes that each of these three neuroses – and  their corresponding mechanisms – may be found in the same person. In Lacanian diagnosis, hysteria, obsession and psychosis take on the status of structural categories, but in this paper Freud does not differentiate between them as assiduously, even going so far as to propose a category of “mixed neurosis” (p.60).

Additionally, it is important to remember that Freud situates these phenomena not at the level of consciousness: “The separation of the sexual idea from its affect and the attachment of the latter to another, suitable but not incompatible idea – these are processes which occur without consciousness” (p.53). Incompatible ideas are, he says, “repressed” but he does not extend his musings to a discussion of the nature of the unconscious. Here, he only acknowledges that because these processes lack consciousness we can know nothing about them – they can only be inferred.

Freud ends with a remark on the “quota of affect or sum of excitation” (p.60) that he takes to be the variable in these neuroses. Notice how at this point he equates affect with the sum of excitation – there is an interesting discussion on the difference between these two terms in the editor’s appendix that accompanies this paper in the Standard Edition, the conclusion of which is that they should be considered separate, ‘quota of affect’ being a particular manifestation of the ‘sum of excitation’. Even though he acknowledges that it is a keystone in the theory he and Breuer put forward in the Preliminary Communication, (will remain one that Freud carries forward throughout his work) in this paper he only outlines that this “quota of affect or sum of excitation” (p.60) is to be viewed like the electric current spread over a body. Freud doesn’t tell us where this comes from, though almost two years later Freud attempts an explanation with the Project.

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