Reading ‘The Neurotic’s Individual Myth’ – Lacan’s Masterwork on Obsession
‘The Neurotic’s Individual Myth’, Lacan’s masterwork on obsession and the Rat Man case history, is quite rare to find in English. It originated from a lecture Lacan delivered in Paris in the early 1950s, an unofficial text of which was quickly distributed in 1953. A modified French edition under the editorship of Jacques-Alain Miller and with the approval of Lacan was published in the journal Ornicar? in 1979 (available here), and in the same year an English translation appeared in Psychoanalytic Quarterly (48). Currently, the English translation sits behind a paywall online in the archives of the PEP (Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing). However, several copies have made it onto the open web (try links here, here, or here for example).
Despite the preponderance of the contemporary diagnosis of OCD, what Lacan is showing in this paper is that obsession is ingrained in the subject’s life. In other words, it not something you have but something you are. We can say, borrowing the great American poet Delmore Schwarz’s remark about manic depression, that being obsessional is like having brown hair.
Even though he was speaking in the early 1950s, Lacan’s perspective is very prescient for the way that we look at obsession today. He wants to look at the problem of obsession at a deeper level:
Instead, in this paper Lacan looks at what constitutes the structure of obsession. This he frames in Heideggerian terms – the obsessional asks a question about himself, and this question addresses the problem of how to sustain contradictory desires. In the Écrits, Lacan summarises his approach to the problem as follows:
We can read Lacan’s call for a new approach to obsession as a response to Freud’s admission, in 1926, that despite years of work on the subject by he himself and the analytic community, obsession is still something of a mystery to him:
Nonetheless, in the same work Freud also asserts that “Obsessional neurosis is unquestionably the most interesting and repaying subject of analytic research” (SE XX, 113).
But perhaps the thing that makes this paper one of the most fascinating in Lacan’s oeuvre is that it contains a brazen challenge to the centrality of the oedipal relation in the understanding of neurosis. This is extremely radical – Lacan is both challenging the central intersubjective drama, the economics of which animate libido theory, whilst at the same time advocating a ‘return to Freud’.
It’s worth making a few biographical remarks about one of Freud’s most famous patients, who has come to be known by the pseudonym the ‘Rat Man’. His real name was Ernst Lanzer, a 29 year old lawyer who had already taken ten years to complete his law studies at the University of Vienna by the time he came to consult Freud. Born on 22nd January 1878 in Vienna, he was from a good middle class home, the son of Rosa Herlinger from the Saborsky family, one of the most powerful industrial families in the city; and Heinrich Lanzer, from a modest Silesian family, nine years his wife’s senior. Ernst was the fourth of seven children.
Perhaps one of the first crucial turning points in his life comes in 1898, when a woman working for Saborsky makes an advance on him. He avoids it but tragedy results – the woman kills herself. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, in his investigation into the lives of Freud’s patients, Les Patients de Freud, speculates that this confirms Ernst’s idea that his thoughts have the power to kill. Around the same time he falls in love with a poor girl, Gisela Adler, and the idea comes to him that if his father were to die he would have enough money to marry her. His father dies the following year, Ernst inherits 59,000 kroner, but does not marry Gisela.
The pseudonym ‘The Rat Man’ is thought by most to come from the graphic story of an eastern torture method involving rats which he hears from a Czech captain whilst on maneuvers in the army (SE X, 166). However, this signifier rat in German holds a much wider spell on Freud’s patient. That Freud notes its reappearance in the crucial detail of the Rat Man’s story suggests that it was perhaps the reappearance of this signifier that we should focus on, rather than the rat story as such (see SE X, 210, 213 and 215). Nevertheless, almost every analyst and historian to have studied the case has focused on the rat torture.
But not Lacan. He focuses on another, less dramatic, but more complicated story that the patient tells Freud (SE X, 168-169 and 210-212).
Instead of the story of the rat torture, Lacan’s interest is on a far more mundane story from the case history concerning a pair of lost spectacles. The Rat Man loses his pince-nez whilst on maneuvers with the army and so wires for a new pair to be delivered to a military post office nearby. But as he himself is not there to pick them up and pay the charges on them another man, Lieutenant A, who runs the post office, covers this for him. The Rat Man’s problem begins when the Czech captain (the same character who related the tale of the rat torture) tells him that he has to pay back Lieutenant A. This ‘You must pay back Lieutenant A’ takes on the value of an obsessional command for the Rat Man even though, unlike the captain, he knows that duties at the post office had been handed over to a Lieutenant B a few days prior.
From this innocuous occurrence, the Rat Man constructs a whole set of weird and circuitous ways in which the debt can be settled:
However, it was neither Lieutenant A nor B who paid the charges for him, but the girl at the post office. And what’s more, the Rat Man knew this all along.
Just like the more celebrated story of the rat torture, Freud gives this account by his patient a meticulous treatment in the case history, carefully explaining it to his readers in the main text and multiple footnotes, and even inserting a map of the locale around the post office so it could be more easily followed. Nowhere in the DSM-V or other contemporary definitions of obsession would one find the necessity for this much attention to the details of the narrative. Instead, it is easy to imagine how quickly a clinician could misconstrue the key factor in this convoluted story – that the Rat Man was well aware of who to reimburse for the charges – and view the obsessional bind as indicative of a doubt on the Rat Man’s part. Although doubt has always been privileged in accounts of obsession and still is, this story is not about doubt. The Rat Man knew very well that the money is actually owed to the lady in the post office and that she would be out of pocket if any of the above scenarios were fulfilled. Indeed, Lacan notes that when the Rat Man gets into analysis with Freud he just very simply transfers the necessary funds to the lady at the post office (p.414).
What interests Lacan about the Rat Man’s bizarre arrangements is the way in which the themes of repayment of a debt involving a number of different actors within the military mirrors the “elements of the subjective constellation” (p.412) in the Rat Man’s family history. Lacan picks up on two key elements here:
Lacan advises us to look in the obsession for a scenario that has the same elements, reordered, as an event (or more precisely a condensation of events) in the person’s family history (p.413). This is exactly what he finds in the Rat Man’s case in relation to the two key events in his family history described above – the obsession is a ciphering or reshuffling of these same elements. Borrowing an idea from his contemporary Claude Levi-Strauss, Lacan proposes that this is akin to the structure of a myth.
A myth takes an insoluble problem and, rather than presenting a resolution, re-orders its elements into a parallel contradiction. Myths do not solve our problems or answer our questions – they simply transpose them onto another terrain.
Lacan describes the way in which we see this in the Rat Man’s case:
The Rat Man’s obsession over the repayment of the debt for his glasses restructures the two crucial elements in the events of his family history:
This constitutes the individual myth of the neurotic:
But it might be legitimately asked – how are these two events important for the Rat Man? Is Lacan not just taking two seemingly random events in the patient’s history and ascribing them a value on the basis of their fit with the obsession? We can answer this with two points: firstly, that it is the obsession that seeks for an explanation, not the original events. Secondly, that when Freud asks his patient to associate to the key events in his family history it is these that he chooses as significant rather than any others, and we have to respect that fact (a similar point is made by Freud in the Introductory Lectures, see SE XVI, 106). Lacan adds to this point by reminding us that an event’s “significance derives only from the subjective apprehension that the subject had of it”. In other words, it’s not the magnitude of the events, or even strictly speaking the factual accuracy with which the subject grasps them, but how he or she assumes them into his or her own life.
What are the conditions for this assumption? We can note that both events leave something owed – the failure to find the friend to pay back the gambling debt and the status that the Rat Man receives thanks to having married a wife of a higher social station. The important thing is not to try to find ‘the truth’ of what actually happened in the Rat Man’s history, but to recognise that this ‘truth’ is completely subjective and from there to investigate how that history was assumed, given meaning, by the subject himself. Lacan makes this point very succinctly:
But what turns the assumption of an unresolved element – for example, the unpaid debt of the father – into a neurotic constellation? Is it pathogenic merely because something is left owed? For Lacan, the problem for the Rat Man lies in the fact that these debts are on two different levels, and his neurosis is the result of an inability to rectify them:
And it is this impossibility of coincidence that the symptoms of the neurosis – the obsessions themselves – show: “By trying to make one coincide with the other, he makes a perennially unsatisfying turning maneuver and never succeeds in closing the loop” (p.415).
Indeed, we could see this “impossibility of bringing two levels together” which Lacan highlights, behind so many classical obsessional acts – turning lights on and off, opening and closing doors, etc.
With this “impossibility of bringing two levels together” we can also note a structural difference between obsession and hysteria in regard to the subject’s partner, his or her object of desire. In psychoanalysis, a hysterical structure can be thought of as a triangular drama involving the partner – the subject’s ego makes an identification with a third party as a way of asking the question about the nature of the partner’s desire. But, in Lacan’s view, obsession presents a doubling of this partner rather than a triangulation. Lacan uses the term “diplopia”, which refers to a problem in vision where a single thing is seen as double. (See Renata Salecl’s insightful paper ‘Love and Sexual Difference: Doubled Partners in Men and Women’ in the volume Sexuation for more on this.)
But then Lacan goes on to complicate this image:
This quartet is a vehicle for asking a question not just about the subject’s partner, but about the subject’s status, indeed his ‘being’ as such. Lacan says that the obsessional encounters two requirements in life:
But two problems occur whenever he attempts this:
What is interesting is that Lacan describes both of these as “fatal” relations, introducing a reference to death that some Lacanians have forefronted in their understanding of Lacan’s view of obsession (see, for example, Leader’s Introducing Lacan, p.68, and Hill’s Lacan for Beginners, p.99).
To take just the narcissistic relation, why is this fatal? Lacan’s idea is that it has an ambivalence at its centre, a theme that Lacan elaborates in his work on the imaginary register from the 1930s onwards. The mastery of the self that the semblable provides, and the resulting desire to be the semblable, comes at the price of a jealousy of it, a wish to destroy it. This is a massive problem for the obsessional – how can he aspire to be the very thing he wishes to destroy? How can his own unity, his very ego, be dependent on something he has this latent aggressivity towards?
We can see in this an elaborated expression of the contradictory desire of the obsessional – the inability to bring together the two levels that we saw above. It permeates the obsessional’s life:
So in Lacan’s view of obsession we have four characters, four positions to be filled, which constitute this quaternary structure of obsession that he highlights: the obsessional, his double (another man, for example), his lover, and the object of his romantic yearnings. And in the Rat Man’s case history he fills these positions with characters that mirror each other in the lives of both the Rat Man and his father:
Furthermore, in a startling claim, Lacan argues that this quaternary structure is much more appropriate to explaining the life of the obsessional than the traditional oedipal triangulation:
Miss this quaternary, Lacan says, and you’ll screw up the treatment: “To disregard it is to disregard the most important element in the treatment itself.” (p.424).
The established, Freudian oedipal explanation for when something goes wrong and neurosis results is that there has been a failure of the paternal function: the real father, the father as a person, fails to coincide with his symbolic function. In obsession, we see this in the form of a splitting of the father – his actual role fails to match up to the symbolic role that he has to assume. Lacan lists a few ways in which this might happen:
But what Lacan adds to the standard oedipal explanation is the additional complication of the narcissistic relation. It’s this that moves us beyond the oedipal triangle (Name-of-the-Father – desire of the mother – subject) towards the quaternary structure of the obsessional. Lacan’s justification for this move is that the narcissistic relation,
But does this narcissistic relation constitute a true ‘fourth term’ in the relation or just a doubling of one of its existing elements? Here, Lacan draws his second surprise: the fourth element that we should add to the oedipal triangle is death.
Here we see a real fusion of Lacan’s influences that result in his theoretical leap:
Both influences share the common thread of rivalry, a struggle for power, prestige and mastery. Lacan’s trick is to superimpose the one on the other to arrive at his own innovation in the theory of obsession.
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
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