Lacan’s Take on Obsession – Symptoms, Mechanisms and Structure

‘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:

  • Beyond its various symptoms The symptoms of obsession have traditionally been grouped into obsessional thoughts, compulsions and rituals. The DSM-V, introduced earlier this year, refers not to obsession but to ‘obsessive-compulsive and related disorders’ which, for the first time, it splits into a separate chapter. These include supposedly compulsive or repetitive behaviours such as body dismorphia, hoarding, hair pulling and skin picking. But does this list of symptoms tell us anything about obsession itself, or is it just a list of what we think of as obsessional activity in the present day? To be sure, symptoms are no doubt important, if only by virtue of the fact that certain symptoms appear with remarkable frequency (for example, hand washing) or show certain common features (for example, activities occurring in binaries – turning lights on and off, entering and exiting certain places). Moreover, this frequency suggests that there is something about obsession which is independent of cultural or historical contingencies (and as such are not what Ian Hacking calls in his book Mad Travelers TMIs, transient mental illnesses).
  • Beyond the mechanisms that lie behind these symptoms Generations of psychoanalysts have identified obsession not on the basis of the surface symptoms but on the mechanisms that produce those symptoms (for example, displacement of affect across a metonymic chain of associations) or mechanisms used to deal with them psychically (for example, reaction formations, isolation and undoing).
  • 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:

    “One does not simply need the blueprints to a reconstructed labyrinth, nor even a pile of blueprints that have already been worked up. What is needed above all is the general combinatory that no doubt governs their variety, but that also, even more usefully, accounts for the illusions or, better, shifts in the labyrinth that take place right before one’s very eyes. For there is no shortage of either in obsessive neurosis, which is an architecture of contrasts that have not yet been sufficiently noticed and that cannot simply be attributed to differing facades.” (Écrits, 630)

    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:

    “Obsessional neurosis presents such a vast multiplicity of phenomena that no efforts have yet succeeded in making a coherent synthesis of all its variations. All we can do is to pick out certain typical correlations; but there is always the risk that we may have overlooked other uniformities of a no less important kind” (SE XX, 118).

    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’.

    Who was the ‘Rat Man’?

    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).

    Lacan’s Focus – The Unpaid Debt

    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:

  • Firstly, he asks another officer who is going to the post office to give the money to Lieutenant A. This fails as the man claimed to have never seen Lieutenant A there.
  • Then he finds Lieutenant A himself, but the latter admits – as the Rat Man is fully aware of but at some level chooses not to acknowledge – that it was actually Lieutenant B who paid for it, and that he therefore cannot accept the money
  • He then hatches a plan in which the three men – he himself, and Lieutenants A and B – will all go to the post office together, where A will pay the young lady in the post office, who will then give the money to B. And that then, bizarrely, he will pay the money to A, to fulfil the original (though mistaken) command of the Czech captain.
  • 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).

    Unconscious Inter-generational Transmission

    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:

  • Firstly, that the Rat Man’s father married far above his station, and through his richer wife gains his rank in the military and a higher social status. However, his wife always jokes with him playfully about a poor but pretty girl who was the object of his affections shortly before their marriage.
  • Secondly, a particularly shameful event in the father’s history when he gambled away his regiment’s funds and was only saved from humiliation by a friend who lent him the money to pay it back.
  • Lacan’s Interpretation – Obsession as a Mythic Construction

    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:

    “Everything happens as if the impasses inherent in the original situation moved to another point in the mythic network, as if what was not resolved here always turned up over there.” (p.415).

    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:

  • The repayment of the military debt The obsession of repaying the other officers is a ciphered repetition of the incident from the father’s history where a friend bailed the latter out of his gambling debt but whom the father was unable to trace to repay (p.414).
  • The dichotomy rich woman/poor woman There are two women at play in this scenario: the woman in the post office who covers the fees owed on the glasses (whom we can term ‘the woman with money’) and a poor but pretty girl who Freud zeroes in on in the case history (SE X, 211), a character who Lacan believes “incarnates the poor woman, a servant girl he met at an inn during maneuvers” (p.415). Here we see the same “substitution of the rich woman for the poor woman” (p.414) as with the father, who fell in love with a poor girl shortly before his marriage to the Rat Man’s richer mother.
  • This constitutes the individual myth of the neurotic:

    “This phantasmatic scenario resembles a little play, a chronicle, which is precisely the manifestation of what I call the neurotic’s individual myth.” (p.414).

    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:

    “Myth is what provides a discursive form for something that cannot be transmitted through the definition of truth” (p.407).

    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:

    “The element of the debt is placed on two levels at once, and it is precisely in the light of the impossibility of bringing these two levels together that the drama of the neurotic is played out.” (p.415).

    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.

    The Obsessional Quartet

    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:

    “There is within the neurotic a quartet situation which is endlessly renewed, but which does not exist all on one level” (p.416).

    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:

  • Firstly, he has to claim a place for himself in the sexual realm, accede to what Lacan calls “the virile function” (p.416) and mirror this status in the realm of work, in his professional life.
  • Secondly, he has to achieve “an enjoyment one might characterise as tranquil and univocal of the sexual object, once it is chosen, granted to the subject’s life” (p.416).
  • But two problems occur whenever he attempts this:

  • In relation to the first requirement, the obsessional generates a narcissistic relation with a character to whom he basically cedes control of his life, a character to whom “he delegates the responsibility of representing him in the world and of living in himself” (p.417).
  • In relation to the second aim, achieving this “tranquil and univocal” enjoyment comes at the price of a splitting of the sexual partner. Following Freud (SE X, 211), Lacan sees evidence of this in the Rat Man’s case in the splitting ‘rich woman/poor woman’ – the woman in the post office who pays his debt for him (mirroring the place of the Rat Man’s mother) versus the ‘poor but pretty’ girl at the inn near the post office (in the place of his father’s initial love before marrying his mother). Lacan refers to this splitting as involving an “aura of abrogation” (p.417) – a kind of cancellation, annulation or revocation of the object – which then leads to the appearance of another object which is “pursued in a more or less phantasmatic way, in a style analogous to that of romantic love, and which grows, moreover, into an identification of a fatal kind.” (p.417).
  • 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:

  • Its clinical manifestations can be seen in affective symptomatology – guilt, self-reproach, doubt;
  • and in the mechanisms that animate those manifestations – reaction formations, isolation, undoing;
  • through to the obsessional’s personal relationships – avoidance of a situation of competition in their career, splitting of the object into one that is loved but not desired, and another that is desired but not loved.
  • 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:

    obsessional quaternary

    Lacan’s Two Surprise Moves

    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:

    “I think that this difference [between the oedipal triangulation and the quaternary of the obsessional’s economy] ought to lead us to question the general anthropology derived from analytic doctrine as it has been taught up to the present. In short, the whole oedipal schema needs to be re-examined” (p.422).

    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:

  • Because of the death of the father whose place is then taken by a step-father. Lacan doesn’t explicitly mention it but Hamlet, often held up to be literature’s greatest obsessional, is the obvious example here;
  • If there is an older brother who usurps or challenges the status of the father. Again, Lacan doesn’t spell it out but we can think of Freud’s family circumstances here – the brother from Freud’s father’s earlier marriage was so much older when Freud was born that he already has kids and Freud was born an uncle;
  • Or in the case of the Rat Man, with the figure of the friend that bails the Rat Man’s father out of his gambling debt.
  • 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,

    “… Is decisive in the constitution of the subject. What is the ego, if not something that the subject at first experiences as foreign to him but inside him? It is in another, more advanced, more perfect than he, that the subject first sees himself” (p.423).

    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:

  • On the one hand, we have the theory of narcissism borrowed from Freud, with the crucial modification by Lacan that at the horizon of narcissism is death. The aggressivity in the dual imaginary relation (the fact that, as Lacan summarises in the quotation immediately above, the subject identifies with an image that is more mature and fully-realised than its own in order to obtain corporeal unity, egoic consistency, etc) all point to this.
  • On the other hand, we have the influence of Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel’s slave-master relation. Importantly, Lacan makes it clear that he is not referring to actual death, but rather an imagined death: “After all, in order for this dialectic of the death struggle, the struggle for pure power, to be initiated, death must not be actualised, since the dialectical movement would cease for lack of combatants; death must be imagined” (p.425).
  • 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,

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