What Does Lacan Say About… Deja Vu?
In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life Freud links the experience of déjà vu to unconscious fantasies. Rather than focusing on ‘here and now’ of the person’s physical or mental state, or what they are doing at the time, Freud detects the influence of an unconscious dynamic stemming from repressed desires. Thus “It is in my view wrong to call the feeling of having experienced something before an illusion. It is rather that at such moments something is really touched on which we have already experienced once before, only we cannot consciously remember it because it has never been conscious” (SE VI, 266). For the sake of full disclosure it should be mentioned in passing that Freud credits the French neurologist Joseph Grasset with a very similar theory of déjà vu but was not aware of his 1904 work on the subject when Freud came to add his remarks on déjà vu to the second edition of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1907.
For Freud then, the sensation of having experienced something before occurs when we encounter a situation analogous to one in an unconscious wishful fantasy. Instead of being conscious of this fantasy we displace it onto a situation that represents its fulfilment, in much the same way as in dreams. The fantasy is unconscious by virtue of its having been repressed, and the displacement at work allows us to think of déjà vu as an effect of the primary processes on unconscious material. So when we experience déjà vu we should subject it to the same associative process that we do for dreams, slips or symptoms.
Freud recounts the experience of a female patient who finds it uncanny that when she visits her friend’s house for the first time she has the experience of having been there before, and feels she knows every room in the house before she walks into it. Rather than focusing on the house itself, Freud focuses on the way the friend’s circumstances mirror her own, namely in the presence in the house of a seriously ill brother, potentially close to death. The woman’s own brother had fallen gravely ill a short while previous to this, and Freud detects an unconscious fantasy of being left as the only child were he to die, which motivates the repression leading to the experience of déjà vu:
“She ought to have remembered consciously that she herself had lived through this situation a few months before [the imminent death of a brother]: instead of remembering it – which was prevented by repression – she transferred her feeling of remembering something to her surroundings, the garden and the house, and fell a victim to the ‘fausse reconaissance‘ of having seen all this exactly the same once before. From the fact that repression occurred we may conclude that her former expectation of her brother’s death had not been far removed from a wishful phantasy” (SE VI, 267).
Whilst Lacan does not specifically refer to this passage in Freud, he clearly has it in mind when he gives a very similar interpretation of déjà vu in Seminar III:
“We could describe the sense of déjà vu, which as been such a problem for psychologists, as a homonym – it’s always a symbolic key that half-opens the mainspring. deja vu occurs when a situation is lived through with a full symbolic meaning which reproduces a homologous symbolic situation that has been previously lived through but forgotten, and which is lived through again without the subject’s understanding it in all its detail. This is what gives the subject the impression that he has already seen the context, the scene, of the present moment” (Seminar III, p.111-112).
However, two years earlier in Seminar I, Lacan does present déjà vu as indicating a forgotten experience thanks to the influence of repression, but suggests that it is, much more radically, one that has been rejected.
Interestingly, the example he refers to immediately prior to his brief comments on deja vu, from the Wolf Man case history, is the same reminiscence the Wolf Man recounts to Freud and that Freud returns to in his 1914 paper on déjà raconté on the grounds that the Wolf Man is sure that he has already conveyed it to Freud before. To recap the Wolf Man’s memory, as Freud does in this paper:
“When I was five years old, I was playing in the garden near my nurse, and was carving with my pocket-knife in the bark of one of the walnut-trees that come into my dream as well [see SE XVII 29]. Suddenly, to my unspeakable terror, I noticed that I had cut through the little finger of my (right or left?) hand, so that it was only hanging on by its skin. I felt no pain, but great fear. I did not venture to say anything to my nurse, who was only a few paces distant, but I sank down on the nearest seat and sat there incapable of casting another glance at my finger. At last I calmed down, took a look at the finger, and saw that it was entirely uninjured” (SE XIII, 204-205).
Freud is sure that the severing of the finger is a disguised representation of castration. This would appear to indicate, if we were to translate it into Lacanian terms, a symbolic acceptance of the idea of castration, displaced in accordance with the primary processes of dreams and symptom formation from the penis to the finger. However when Lacan takes up the Wolf Man’s memory in Seminar I in 1954, it is in response to Jean Hyppolite’s presentation of Freud’s Negation paper, and he argues the exact opposite: there is no acceptance of the idea of castration on the part of the Wolf Man.
In place of ‘acceptance’, Lacan utilises Freud’s term Bejahung, meaning affirmation, from the 1925 Negation paper. Lacan’s definition of this Bejahung is as “the affirmation of what is” (Seminar III, p.82). It is the action that refers not simply to something being perceived, but that it is accepted psychically. In Lacan’s terms, he refers to it as a “mechanism of symbolisation” (ibid, p.83). The point of this Bejahung comes at a kind of subjective crossroads. In Seminar III in 1956 Lacan opposes it to Verwerfung, a rejection:
“At the level of this pure, primitive Bejahung, which may or may not take place, an intiial dichotomy is established – what has been subject to Bejahung, to primitive symbolisation, will have various destinies. What has come under the influence of the primitive Verwerfung will have another” (Seminar III, p.82).
In the Negation paper Freud posits two kinds of judgement: the judgement of existence and the judgement of attribution; the latter, the judgement of attribution, comes down to a question of attribution – whether a thing has a particular attribute or not. To follow Freud’s text, judgement is an intellectual activity that “affirms or disaffirms the possession by a thing of a particular attribute; and it asserts or disputes that a presentation has an existence in reality” (SE XIX, 236). It is a question then of giving something that was at first perceived the judgement of existence, with each successive perception thereby entailing a re-finding of the original perception:
“The antithesis between subjective and objective does not exist from the first. It only comes into being from the fact that thinking possesses the capacity to bring before the mind once more something that has once been perceived, by reproducing it as a presentation without the external object having still to be there. The first and immediate aim, therefore, of reality-testing is, not to find an object in real perception which corresponds to the one presented, but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there” (SE XIX, 237-238).
The Wolf Man has no Bejahung, no affirmation, of castration. But this does not mean that he negates castration, according to Lacan; rather, he rejects it outright. It is not a negation but a non-affirmation. The effect of this rejection, this Verwerfung as Lacan translates it in Seminar I, is that it doesn’t appear in the symbolic register. This rejection of, or foreclosure on, the symbolic leads to ” a sort of immediate external world, of manifestations perceived in what I will call a primitive real, a non-symbolised real” (Seminar I, p.58). In other words, taking Lacan’s famous maxim about delusion, what is rejected in the symbolic returns in the real (Seminar III, p.46). The hallucination is produced because there has been no affirmation of castration – the hallucination comes in the place of the acceptance of the reality of castration and its assimilation into the symbolic.
So, how does this help us to understand déjà vu from a Lacanian perspective? Lacan says that déjà vu “lies between these two modes of relation, the recognised and the seen” (Seminar I, p.59). In deja-vu, as in the case of the Wolf Man’s hallucination, there is a perception without an affirmation.
Returning to Freud’s comment about how in déjà vu is not simply an illusion but refers to something “which we have already experienced once before, only we cannot conscious remember it because it has never been conscious” (SE VI, 266) Lacan is effectively relocating the difference as being not between the levels of the conscious and unconscious, but between the perceived and the affirmed. You may have already had a correlate experience to the one you experience in déjà vu, but it has not been affirmed and given a place in the symbolic.
Thus there appears then to be a close relation between the kind of pre-psychotic hallucination described by Freud in the case of the Wolf Man, and the experience of déjà vu, given that they both stem from the inability to reconcile a perception with affirmation and thereby, in Lacanian terms, produce the effect of a return of the real where the symbolic has been foreclosed, or radically rejected. As Lacan summarises in Seminar III,
“What is the psychotic phenomenon? It is the emergence in reality of an enormous meaning that has the appearance of being nothing at all – in so far as it cannot be tied to anything, since it has never entered into the system of symbolisation – but under certain conditions it can threaten the entire edifice (Seminar III, p.85).
It is striking that Lacan might just as easily be describing the experience of déjà vu in this passage.
Indeed, Freud himself was quick to notice the similiarities not just between déjà vu and déjà raconté, but with de-realisation or de-personalisation phenomena, experiences in which “the subject feels either that a piece of reality or that a piece of his own self is strange to him” (SE XXII, 245). These he describes not as illusions but as failures of functioning and says that like hallucinations they are not specifically psychotic phenomena. Nevertheless, he says that they represent specific modes of defence, that depersonalisation and derealisaation are attempts “at keeping something away from the ego, at disavowing it” (SE XXII, 245).
However, on Lacan’s reading there are in fact two different operations taking place in déjà vu on the one hand, and properly psychotic phenomena on the other. Lacan picks the concept of Verwerfung from Freud’s writings on the Wolf Man specifically so as to make the distinction. Whilst Freud is unclear on the point, for Lacan repression (Verdrangung) does not imply the radical rejection that Verwerfung (or foreclosure) does. Here is what Lacan has to say about it in Seminar III:
“On the subject of Verwerfung, Freud says that the subject did not want to know anything about castration, even in the sense of repression” (Seminar III, p.149).
If we compare this though with the passage in the Wolf Man case which Lacan is apparently quoting from, we see that Freud is a lot more cautious:
“We are already acquainted with the attitude which our patient first adopted to the problem of castration. He rejected castration…. When I speak of his having rejected it, the first meaning of the phrase is that he would have nothing to do with it, in the sense of having repressed it. This really involved no judgement upon the question of its existence, but it was the same as if it did not exist. Such an attitude, however, could not have been his final one, even at the time of his infantile neurosis. We find good subsequent evidence of his having recognised castration as a fact. In this connection, once again, he behaved in the manner which was so characteristic of him, but which makes it so difficult to give a clear account of his mental processes or to feel one’s way into them. First he resisted and then he yielded; but the second reaction did not do away with the first. In the end there were to be found in him two contrary currents side by side, of which one abominated the idea of castration, while the other was prepared to accept it…. But beyond any doubt a third current, the oldest and deepest, which did not as yet even raise the question of the reality of castration, was still capable of coming into activity” (SE XVII, 84-85).
It is clear that Freud is having some difficulty describing what is going on in the case of the Wolf Man – has the Wolf Man affirmed the reality of castration and symbolised it, or has he not? Lacan shares this confusion, saying of the passage that, “Freud’s text, undeniably brilliant, is is far from being satisfactory. It mixes everything up” (Seminar III, p.150). Lacan thus does not find the hallmark of psychosis in Freud’s text as easily as he would like, but legitimately or not, invokes the term Verwerfung for his own theory anyway:
“What is at issue when I speak of Verwerfung? At issue is the rejection of a primordial signifier into the outer shadows, a signifier that will henceforth be missing at this level. Here you have the fundamental mecahnism that I posit as being at the basis of paranoia. It’s a matter of a primordial process of exclusion of an original within, which is not a bodily within but that of an initial body of signifiers” (Seminar III, p.150).
If he is not completely successful in arguing for the implicit presence of this idea in Freud’s interpretation of the Wolf Man’s hallucination, he claims that it is vital for an understanding of the Negation paper, which comes seven years after the publication of the Wolf Man case history in 1918:
“[Verwerfung] is presupposed by this unusual priority that in Die Verneinung [Negation] Freud attributes to what he explains analogically as a judgement of attribution, as distinct from a judgement of existence. There is in Freud’s dialectic an initial division into the good and the bad that can only be understood if we interpret it as the rejection of a primordial signifier” (Seminar III, p.151).
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
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