On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love

(Contributions to the Psychology of Love II)


Standard Edition Volume XI

Despite the huge volume of psychoanalytic work that deals with questions of sex, sexuality, and more recently sexuation, an interesting remark by Lacan in the late sixties suggests that in dealing with what we might call ‘the sexual’ we nonetheless encounter a difficulty in pinning down, defining  with positive properties, placing in relation to the subject what we are actually talking about. He writes,

“What is within reach is the fact that sexuality makes a hole in truth…. It is not a hole in a jacket, it is the negative aspect that appears in anything to do with the sexual, namely its inability to aver. That is what a psychoanalysis is all about” (My Teaching, p.21 – 22).

Contrary to the popular belief that psychoanalysis is all to do with sex, Lacan’s remark might also suggest that we be wary of treating sexuality as some kind of window into the soul, the thing that if apprehended in some kind of raw, unadulterated form would provide a master key to the subject’s life. As Lacan puts it in the late sixties, “The reference to sexuality is not at all in itself something that can constitute the revelation of the hidden” (p.18, My Teaching).

However, rather than just refute the allegation that Freud refutes throughout his work – that psychoanalysis is a pan-sexualism – by reminding ourselves of Freud’s argument that two opposing psychical forces are needed to be at work, dynamically operative, to account for neurosis, we can go further and look at what might be said about the nature of sexuality itself from this paper, On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love, published in 1912 as the second of three papers that were written over a seven year period between 1910 and 1917.

First, an overview of the first part of the paper by way of introduction.

Freud opens with a particular but very common clinical problem – that of psychical impotence. He attributes psychical impotence to the failure of the ‘affectionate’ and ‘sensual’ current to unite. However it is interesting to note that neither of these two currents pertain to the drives; Freud retains a distinction between the drives and the sensual and affectionate currents. In addition, we can see that Freud does not intend the ‘sensual’ current to be simply a euphemism for the sexual. Freud says that “The affectionate current is the older of the two” (p.180) but that “From the very beginning it carries along with it contributions from the sexual drives – components of erotic interest – which can already be seen more or less clearly even in childhood” (p.180, my italics). Freud is here employing a very minimal definition of the sexual drives – “components of erotic interest” – but is still distinguishing them from the sensual and affectionate currents, and this passage leads us to believe that the sexual drives precede these two currents. We should also note the use of the plural when Freud refers to sexual drives – they are not a unified thing. We will return to this point later.

Of the two currents, the affectionate current combines what Freud refers to as the self-preservative drive, but with contributions from the sexual drives, understood in this minimal way as “components of erotic interest” (p.180). For its part, the ‘sensual’ current appears at adolescence but fails to attain its intended aim due to the prohibition against incest, a situation that is resolved by the selection of another object in which the sensual current and the affectionate current can be united, an object that is chosen “on the model (imago) of the infantile ones” (p.181).

This first part of the essay might strike us as quite mundane, a kind of ‘just so’ story about how the child relinquishes his mother as object of desire and finds a replacement for her so he can satisfy the demands of the flesh and the spirit. In some ways we can see the rest of the paper as exploration of everything that can go wrong in the path of this trajectory of object choice. When Freud opens the second part of the paper saying that he will go beyond the “medico-psychological” (p.184) explanation he has taken in the first, it leads us to wonder whether Freud believes the first half himself or whether he is just using it as a kind of straw man argument which he can later demolish in the rest of the paper.

In the second part Freud’s attention turns more to the part played by the drive. Cases of psychical impotence give us the impression, he tells us, that sexuality “has not the whole psychical driving force of the instinct [drive] behind it” (p.182). Psychical impotence is experienced because the sensual and the affectionate are at different poles, they simply do not converge on one and the same object. The subject does not feel turned on by the woman he loves, and does not love the woman he is turned on by. Debasing the object is the “protective measure” (p.183) that comes into play when the object evokes too strongly the incestuous one; the object is debased to allow the sensual current expression.

In this second part of the paper it also becomes clear that Freud has used the phenomena of psychical impotence as a way to introduce the larger question of the sexuality in general. If we can explain psychical impotence on the basis of the failure of convergence of the affectionate and sensual currents due to the prohibition against incest, does this objection not do too much? Does it not raise the question of how it is possible that some people do seem capable of uniting these trends and living happy, fulfilled, loving relationships?

Freud’s response is quite sharp. He accepts the idea that we might be able to attribute the difference in these two groups of people to a quantitative factor – “the greater or lesser extent of the contribution made by the various elements which determine whether a recognisable illness results or not” (p.184) – but he says he is not going to abandon his explanation for psychical impotence because of this. In fact, in the rest of the article, he goes entirely the other way by arguing that “psychical impotence is much more widespread than is supposed, and that a certain amount of this behaviour does in fact characterise the love of civilised man” (p.184).

This is something we often see with Freud. He focuses on one small instance, an apparently minor or trivial phenomenon, in order to make a wider point that is more generally applicable. Just as he sees the dream, the slip and the joke as illustrative of the mechanisms and character of the unconscious, so in this paper he uses psychical impotence to alibi a broader discussion on sexuality in general. This is what makes this paper in particular so interesting. The issue of psychical impotence is broadened out from something that concerns some men’s inability to perform sexually, to an issue of why civilisation itself might constrain the experience of full pleasure in matters sexual (the link between the two being their common aetiology):

“If however we turn our attention not to an extension of the concept of psychical impotence, but to the gradations in its symptomatology, we cannot escape the conclusion that the behaviour in love of men in the civilised world to-day bears the stamp altogether of psychical impotence” (p.185).

A debased sexual object appears incompatible with the demands of civilisation to take a respectable wife. The two cannot be in the same place at the same time. This leads to perhaps one of the most shocking statements in Freud’s work:

“It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister” (p.186).

Freud is not exhorting us to sleep with our relatives, but rather saying that we need to confront the prohibition and surmount it as an idea. But what is the nature of this prohibition itself, and is it quite so cut and dry that the source of its continued observance must be laid at the door of civilisation? The crucial question for the Lacanian reading is as follows: is Freud right in blaming civilisation for the failures of our sexualities to bring us satisfaction; or is there a more fundamental, constitutive reason why we can never get full satisfaction? Freud’s conclusion to this essay appears to put the blame more on the side of culture:

“Thus we may perhaps be forced to become reconciled to the idea that it is quite impossible to adjust the claims of the sexual drive to the demands of civilisation…. that the non-satisfaction that goes with civilisation is the necessary consequence of certain peculiarities which the sexual drive has assumed under the pressure of culture” (p.190).

However, perhaps things are not quite so simple, because on the preceding page Freud writes,

“It is my belief that, however strange it may sound, we must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction” (SE XI, p.189)

He gives two reasons why this might be. Firstly, because all our object choices are displacements from the original incestuous object, so with each successive surrogate object a certain amount of satisfaction drains away. We can hear in this an echo of Lacan’s pronouncement that desire is a metonymy, but here Freud suggests that this might be why we constantly seek new stimulations and experiences in our sexual life (p.189), a phenomena that stands in contrast – as we will see later – to the relationship of a drinker to alcohol, where he never gets bored of it, does not have to introduce new fantasmatic situations to heighten the satisfaction he gets from it, and so on.

The second reason Freud proposes to explain why our sexuality might be incapable of providing us full satisfaction is, quite simply, because there is no sexual drive as such. Instead there are only a series of component drives, fractured and developed independently of so-called genital maturation, but which persist as points of fixation (p.189).  It is important to read Freud’s words closely here:

“The sexual drive is originally divided into a great number of components – or rather, it develops out of them – some of which cannot be taken up into the drive in its later form, but have at an earlier stage to be suppressed or put to other uses” (p.189, translation of ‘instinct’ modified to ‘drive’).

There is no original sexual drive – it does not exist from the beginning; it is originally nothing more than component parts, with its source in the body and linked to the vital functions, as Freud will later tell us in his 1915 metapsychological essay on the drives.

Yet nonetheless we retain a fascination with the idea of a sexual drive or a sexual instinct as such, and such terms are accepted as common currency in contemporary culture, even when speaking about psychoanalysis. However the implications of Freud’s remarks in this passage are clear: satisfaction is not complete, because the very stuff of sexuality – the drives – are themselves not complete, not unified. Sexuality therefore is broken up into a mishmash of components, a kind of montage, which Lacan tries to give us an amusing picture of in 1964:

“If we bring together the paradoxes that we just defined… I think that the resulting image would show the working of a dynamo connected up to a gas-tap, a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickles the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful” (Lacan, Seminar XI, p.169).

The implications of Freud’s remark are that sexuality is neither something natural nor basic. It is not a pure, unadulterated instinct, but an amalgamation that has been cobbled together from different partial drives. Because of this, we can surmise that sexuality it is never simply a matter of satisfying a drive, like scratching an itch. It is satisfaction itself that is problematic.

This is not a new idea for Freud. As Alexandre Stevens points out, these ‘paradoxes of satisfaction’ go back to Freud’s early interventions on the aetiology of the neuroses. The question Freud was interested in at the time was what kind of vicissitudes these intricacies of sexuality were capable of producing. The first answer he arrived at was that the active involvement in the sexual act at the root of obsession constitutes an excess of pleasure, while the passive experience at the root of hysteria is also overwhelming, but this time comes from an other. As Stevens puts it,

“In relation to what one imagines constitutes pleasure, Freud therefore underlines that this satisfaction always fails: it is always either too much or too little. It is this paradox of satisfaction that is traumatic, and that is at the origin of the Freudian symptom” (Alexandre Stevens, Love and Sex Beyond Identifications, in Voruz and Wolf (eds), The Later Lacan,  p.215).

Whilst in this paper Freud is content to talk about “the demands of the two instincts [drives] – the sexual and the egoistic” (p.191), and to say that it is “The damage caused by the initial frustration of sexual pleasure” that curtails our later satisfaction (p.187). But perhaps we can also detect the idea of an impossibility of full satisfaction in this text, which would indicate that Freud does not simply heap all the blame onto civilisation.

Freud goes on to tell us that “… at the same time, if sexual freedom is unrestricted from the outset the result is no better. It can easily be shown that the psychical value of erotic needs is reduced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy” (p.187). So it is not simply a matter of blaming civilisation for our inability to find sexual satisfaction. On the contrary, civilisation’s norms and dictates are incorporated into our very mode of satisfaction – we subsume these prohibitions into our sexuality itself; indeed, it is founded on them. On precisely this point writes,

“An obstacle is required in order to heighten libido; and where natural resistances to satisfaction have not been sufficient men have at all times erected conventional ones so as to be able to enjoy love” (p.187, my italics).

So we see that it is wrong to think that there is a purified sexuality waiting to escape the chains and limitations that civilisation puts on us. These chains are not only part and parcel of our sexuality, but our sexuality would not be enjoyed if they were not there.

Freud seems fascinated by the question of why these prohibitions are needed and makes a brilliant comparison to the satisfaction alcohol gives the drinker:

“Is it not true that wine always provides the drinker with the same toxic satisfaction…. Has one ever heard of the drinker being obliged constantly to change his drink because he soon grows tired of keeping to the same one? On the contrary, habit constantly tightens the bond between a man and the kind of wine he drinks. Does one ever hear of a drinker who needs to go to a country where wine is dearer or drinking is prohibited, so that by introducing obstacles he can reinforce the dwindling satisfaction that he obtains?” (p.188)

So what is the difference between the a love relationship and a relationship to drink? It is at this point in Freud’s text that he makes the statement we highlighted earlier:

“It is my belief that, however strange it may sound, we must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction” (SE XI, p.189)

What, then, does this curious juxtaposition of civilisation and sexuality tell us? We might say that, as far as this paper goes, the extent of civilisation’s prohibition on sexual activity is the barrier against incest: no more, no less (though in Totem and Taboo we find Freud extending this argument to account for the origins of civilisation).

The barrier to incest, however good at explaining psychical impotence, does not explain fully the generalised psychical impotence that Freud hypothecates in this paper. For as we saw he himself says that, in a way, prohibition explains too much. It is necessary but not sufficient to account for the generalised thesis about psychical impotence he is advocating. This is why the passage above is so fascinating.

However, perhaps we can detect a divergence between Freud’s and Lacan’s responses to this question of the interplay between sexuality and civilisation or culture. In the final passages of this paper, Freud says that there are parts of sexuality that cannot be civilised, and so will remain unsatisfied:

“The instincts of love are hard to educate; education of them achieves now too much, now too little. What civilisation aims at making out of them seems unattainable except at the price of a sensible loss of pleasure; the persistence of the impulses that could not be made use of can be detected in sexual activity in the form of non-satisfaction” (p.189 – 190).

But what Lacan has to say on this is radical: that the drive is satisfied even if it does not achieve its aim, which Freud says is in all cases pleasure. What Freud underestimates is the capacity of the drive to achieve satisfaction independent of its aim; he blames what he sees as this failure too much on civilisation. The final question for psychoanalysis, however, is not one of whether it is civilisation that is to blame for sexual ‘non-rapport’, but rather in what sense can the drive be said to have an aim, and to what extent is that aim pleasure?

In Seminar XI in 1964, Lacan makes the point that satisfaction of the drive does not mean simply that it reaches its aim, and he points to Freud’s description of sublimation from his 1915 metapsychological article on the drive:

“In this article, Freud tells us repeatedly that sublimation is also satisfaction of the drive, whereas it is zielgehemmt, inhibited as to its aim – it does not attain it. Sublimation is nonetheless satisfaction of the drive without repression” (Lacan, Seminar XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Karnac: 2004, p.165,).

He goes on, “This satisfaction is paradoxical. When we look at it more closely, we see that something new comes into play – the category of the impossible” (p.166-167). It is impossible, he says, to satisfy the drive simply with the object (Freud tells us in the 1915 paper that the object is unimportant):

“By snatching at its object, the drive learns in a sense that this is precisely not the way it will be satisfied. For if one distinguishes, at the outset of the dialectic of the drive, Not from Bedurfnis, need from the pressure of the drive – it is precisely because no object of any Not, need, can satisfy the drive” (p.167).

It is not food that satisfies the oral drive, it is the mouth, and this is why the drive is not an instinct.

Alongside these vicissitude of the drives we can plot the Oedipal process as a process of socialisation, of the subject’s becoming a speaking-being (parletre), his sexuality becomes regulated by the symbolic and the instating of a prohibition, which Lacan calls the Name (nom) or No (non) of the Father. We do not need to understand this as an articulated ‘No’ of the father, or the one who takes his place. Rather, it is an operation whereby the mother is revealed as lacking something, and into that place of the mother’s desire comes the Name (or No) of the Father. It is not the infant’s incestuous desire for the mother that is prohibited, it is the mother’s desire per se. This is what Lacan refers to as the paternal metaphor, a signifying substitution of the desire of the mother for the Name of the Father, with the result that the child takes his place in the symbolic world, albeit with the consequent effect of a curtailment of jouissance, a pushing of jouissance to the margins. In Freudian terms, we can roughly map this process to the movement from polymorphous perversity to the erotogenic zones as the sites of pleasure on the body. This curtailment of enjoyment is the price to be paid for assuming one’s place in the symbolic itself.

If we remember back to the horrifying quotation from Freud’s text, in which he says that we have to make our peace with the idea of incest, we can see that for Lacan the Oedipus complex cannot be reduced to this simple instating of the prohibition on incest dictated by the Father, or the one who incarnates his role. Indeed, the prominent Lacanian scholar Paul Verhaeghe believes that the Oedipus complex is simply an alibi for the impossibility of full enjoyment. In his recent book, New Studies of Old Villains, which re-examines the Oedipus complex, he makes the intriguing declaration that “an original impossibility of jouissance will become hidden behind a prohibition, thus creating an illusion for the subject that she or he might transcend this prohibition” (New Studies of Old Villains, p.53). Verhaeghe’s remarks remind us that jouissance cannot be simply equated with pleasure; that satisfaction is not a matter of following the pleasure principle, insofar as the pleasure principle dictates that the reduction of tension be achieved via discharge. In Freud’s debasement essay, we see the old motif of the Freudian dualism – two warring claims producing conflict and psychical disturbance – recurring. Here this dualism is between the competing interests of the sensual and affectionate currents, and their fixation on the same object; later, in 1920 with the publication of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, this conflict is extrapolated beyond pleasure itself, with the dualism located between Eros and Thanatos. As Verhaeghe illustrates, these two drives have not only opposite goals, but each their own form of pleasure. He writes,

“From this point forward, we can suggest an answer to our question why we don’t go ‘all the way’ [in enjoyment]. We can’t, first of all because there are two conflicting ways, and secondly, because each way has a final price that the subject cannot afford” (Verhaeghe, New Studies of Old Villains, 2009, Other Press,  p.55).

So where does this leave us in our investigation of sexuality? Returning to Seminar XI, Lacan tells us that it is not for certain that psychoanalysis can tell us anything about sex as such. As he puts it, “On sexuality, in fact, it [psychoanalysis] operates very little. It teaches us nothing new about the operation of sex. Not even a tiny piece of erotological technique has emerged from it” (p.266). There is no point in looking to psychoanalysis if we want to know how to have better sex. It is the drive that is of importance in psychoanalysis. But because the drives are silent, what can we know about them, and what can we say about sexuality therefore? We study sexuality as a defile of the signifier, Lacan tells us. “Psycho-analysis touches on sexuality only in as much as, in the form of the drive, it manifests itself in the defile of the signifier, in which is constituted the dialectic of the subject in the double stage of alienation and separation” (p.266). For Lacan then, what we experience as sexuality is nothing more than a vicissitude of the drive, an adventure of the drive from its source in the body through what Lacan calls the defiles of the signifier (E,812).

Lacan’s work is not without a discernible theory of sexuality therefore, and it is important to distinguish between a limit in the theory and a limit in the phenomenology of sexuality itself, which we can discern in both Freud and Lacan’s work. Our guard should rather be against a turn to a single sexual drive to tell us about sexuality, or the temptation to fall back on the catch-all notion of libido, with its pseudo-mythical status in psychoanalytic theory. Whilst Lacan retains this Freudian term, and states unequivocally that he believes libido to always refer to sexual libido, Lacan’s story of the lamella in Seminar XI is introduced to wean his audience away from a conception of libido as a force by presenting the libido as an organ, albeit an organ without a body.

So what is sexuality? In the popular, everyday sense of the term, things appear clear – sexuality is everything to do with sex. But as we have seen, sexuality does not have the status of a concept in psychoanalytic theory. On the contrary, it is a question that leads to a multitude of others, about the drive, prohibition, jouissance, desire, and so on. Surveying Lacan’s comments in Seminar XI, we can say that, for him, sexuality equals the drive plus the signifier. He writes,

“With regard to the agency of sexuality, all subjects are equal, from the child to the adult – that they deal only with that part of sexuality that passes into the network of the constitution of the subject, into the networks of the signifier – that sexuality is realised only through the operation of the drives in so far as they are partial drives, partial with regard to the biological finality of sexuality” (Seminar XI, p.176 – 177).

We can go even further and break the sexual down to the level of the drive itself. Lacan makes the point that the drive is not some kind of constant push. It is composed of four different elements – the pressure, the source, the object and the aim – and these elements have to be considered separately because they do not coalesce to form a unified drive.

“Drive [pulsion] is not thrust [pouseé]. Trieb [drive] is not Drang [thrust]…. Freud says that it is important to distinguish four terms in the drive: Drang, thrust; Quelle, the source; Objekt, the object; Ziel, the aim. Of course, such a list may seem a quite natural one. My propose is to prove to you that the whole text was written to show us that it is not as natural as that” (Seminar XI, p.162).

Notice in this passage how the object of the drive is not its aim – the drive does not aim at the object, as some kind of end in itself; the aim of the drive is not the finding of the object. Moreover, there are a collection of different drives, connected to different parts of the body. As Freud writes in 1908, “The sexual drive – or, more correctly, the sexual drives, for analytic investigation teaches us that the sexual drive is made up of many separate constituents or component drives….” (SE IX, p.187).

To bring this difference between the day-to-day use of the term sexual or sexuality, and psychoanalytic treatments of the question into relief, it might be instructive to look at Freud’s views on homosexuality. Whilst in debates on homosexuality nowadays those opposed to it label it a ‘lifestyle choice’, the distinction that Freud makes between ‘ideal’ homosexuals and homosexual acts in his 1911 paper on the case of Leonardo is extremely tantalising because it raises the question of whether what we think of today as being in the field of sexuality – someone’s sexual orientation – has all that much to do with sex. In his study on the renaissance figure Freud writes,

“… Tradition does in fact represent Leonardo as a man with homosexual feelings. In this connection, it is irrelevant to our purpose whether the charge brought against the young Leonardo [that he had gay relationships in his youth] was justified or not. What decides whether we describe someone as an invert [obsolete term for ‘homosexual’] is not his actual behaviour, but his emotional attitude” (SE XI, p.87, italics mine).

What is extraordinary about this passage is that Freud is completely uninterested in whether Leonardo was gay, because he does not define homosexuality on the basis of the sexual object but rather on the quality of the love involved. We might even take Freud’s point here further and wonder whether what we said about the drives earlier also go for homosexuality: does it really make sense to speak of a homosexual as a person, or homosexual acts? What do we mean by homosexual?

A footnote on the subject of homosexuality added to his Three Essays in 1915 is often used to demonstrate that Freud did not discriminate against homosexuals, that his view on the subject was positively progressive or enlightened compared to some of his time. He writes,

“Psycho-analytic research is most decidedly opposed to any attempt at separating off homosexuals from the rest of mankind as a group of special character” (SE VII, p.145).

Whilst this might indeed be taken as evidence of Freud’s non-judgemental attitude towards homosexuals, does it not also suggest a different reading – that homosexuals should not be treated as a group as such? That there is no cause to give them any status as a group, because the choice of object alone (whether it is male or female for a man or a woman) is not what can define sexuality,  exactly the point Freud makes vis a vis Leonardo.

To conclude by confronting a glaring criticism of the debasement essay: is its focus not unashamedly on male sexuality, with precious little consideration given to female sexuality? This is an attack often levelled against Freud, and even across his work as a whole. It is obvious that male sexuality is clearly Freud’s concern in this paper because of the fact that psychical impotence was for him a complaint of the men who visited his clinic. But Freud also says something interesting about feminine sexuality – or at least the character of feminine love – namely, that it hinges on a secret. Whilst the tendency to debasement is a male trait, Freud finds a corollary in female frigidity, originating in what he sees as women’s inability “to undo the connection between sensual activity and the prohibition” (p.186). “This is the origin”, he tells us, “of the endeavour made by many women to keep even legitimate relations secret for a while; and of the capacity of other women for normal sensation as soon as the condition of prohibition is re-established by a secret love affair: unfaithful to their husband, they are able to keep a second order of faith with their lover” (p.186).

Although Freud’s musings on women often attract the ire of his critics, attacked for narrow-mindedness or even misogyny, this is nonetheless an interesting idea. Perhaps one of the reasons why the film Titanic was so successful, particularly amongst the female audience, was that it depicted precisely this situation. Rather than being a story about a free-spirited girl shackled into a marriage which she could only escape with her doomed lover aboard the infamous ship, we should focus instead on the narration of the now-elderly woman remembering her brief affair. Towards the end of the film she tells us that her passionate tryst with Leonardo di Caprio’s character was a secret she had kept all her life, not telling another living soul, even the grand daughter we are led to assume is a product of this affair. Moreover, her possession of the diamond necklace that is the object of the bounty-hunter’s interest in the ship’s wreck is also kept secret by her, right up to the final scene in which she surrenders it to the ocean. For her, this secret is what demonstrates the truth of her love.

By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com

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