The Dora Parallax
Hidden behind the rather unassuming title ‘Presentation on Transference’ deep within the Écrits, Lacan’s seminal work on Freud’s most famous female patient is often overlooked.
It is in reality just the short text of an intervention Lacan made at the equally unremarkable-sounding 1951 ‘Congress of Romance Language-Speaking Psychoanalysts’. But the case of the patient to whom Freud gave the pseudonym ‘Dora’ has excited generations of historians, horrified feminists, given succour to Freud’s detractors, and for many clinicians of the psy- field is a prime example of the utterly forgotten anachronism that was the diagnosis ‘hysteria’.
In the way it is often told, this is an open and shut case. It is the story of a young girl who was seduced by an older, married man, and used as a pawn in a sordid inter-family drama by her adulterous father. Appalled by Freud’s insensitivity to her plight – so this story goes – she flees the treatment when his attempts to force out of her an admission of love for her abuser fail.
And as for Lacan, he doesn’t necessarily disagree with any of this.
To say the case one of Freud’s great failures is no critique: Freud himself admits this (SE VII, 105, footnote and 121, footnote 1) so the real question is why he would publish the case in the first place and advertise this failure?
The simple answer is that with Dora Freud realised that the game had fundamentally changed. It was no longer the diagnosis or interpretation that mattered, but the dynamics of the relationship that he had with his patient. Freud called this the ‘transference’, and it’s this phenomena that prompts Lacan’s intervention.
With the case of Dora we see a very different kind of hysteria from the classical, florid symptomatology of 19th century accounts of patients like Anna O. Here ‘hysteria’ is not a collection of symptoms but a peculiar logic that governs the way in which someone organises the relationships in their life. This is what interests Lacan. ‘Hysteria’ is not a disorder but a way of questioning something about the nature of these relationships. And, as he later says, this question can be boiled down to the formula: ‘Who am I? A man or a woman?’ (Seminar III, p.171). We will see why.
Just as we did last year with Lacan’s masterwork on obsession and the Rat Man case history, this article looks at its ‘twin’ – Lacan’s great commentary on the nature of hysteria.
Let’s start with some biographical details about the real woman behind the case.
‘Dora’ was born Ida Bauer on 1st November 1882 at 32 Berggasse. As if to illustrate just how small a circle Freud’s patients were drawn from, this was just a few doors down from where Freud would later have his consulting rooms.
She was the daughter of Filipp Bauer, a businessman who had made his money in the textiles industry and had two factories in what is now the Czech Republic. We know little about her mother, Katherina (Kathe) Gerber, except that she was obsessively preoccupied with cleanliness, and Freud historian Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen speculates that this is related to the fact that her husband had contracted syphilis during his youth (Les Patients de Freud, p.85). Her brother, Otto, was the high-achiever of the family, becoming a well-respected Marxist theorist and one of the leaders of the Austrian social democrat party in the interwar years. The family left Austria to move across the border and settle in the Italian town of Merano in 1888.
In 1894 Filipp Bauer’s syphilis comes back to haunt him. He has a confusional attack and suffers partial paralysis as a result of the progress of the disease and is advised by a friend, Hans Zellenka (referred to by Freud in the case as Herr K), to go and see Freud for antisyphilitic treatment. When he gets back, Zellenka’s wife, Guiseppina (Frau K) takes care of him. They start having an affair, and in 1896 Hans Zellenka sets his sights on Ida. At this time she is 13 and a half years old. She refuses his advances and the weird family situation goes on as normal, even to the point of Peppina sharing, perfectly openly, details of her own infidelity with Ida’s father.
Then in 1898 Dora develops asthma, a nervous cough, dyspnea (difficulty breathing) and aphonia (loss of voice), and her father takes her to see Freud. Around the same time, the Zellenkas invite Ida and her father on a trip to Lake Garda. Whilst alone together Hans Zellenka tells Ida his wife means nothing to him, at which point she slaps him in the face (the famous ‘scene by the lake’ referred to in the case history).
When she gets back, Ida explains the seduction to her mother, and her father confronts Hans Zellenka with the accusation. However he then accepts the latter’s whitewashed explanation for fear of upsetting the delicate menage-a-trois he maintains. Ida feels as though she has been sacrificed to retain familial tranquility, and writes a suicide note that is found by her parents. After a violent dispute with them about the Zellenkas, she collapses, and at the age of 17, in October 1900, her father brings her back to Freud.
Freud’s view in short is that she repressed her attraction to Hans Zellenka and converted her sexual excitation to the oral symptoms of aphonia, dyspnea, the ‘hysterical’ coughing, and asthma. He cites as evidence that the periods when Hans Zellenka is away are the periods when her aphonia returns, which Freud believes indicates her inability to speak her love for him. The dyspnea meanwhile Freud interprets as a ciphered version of her father’s heavy breathing when he’s having sex with his wife. Ida tells Freud that she finds this all ridiculous and on 31st December 1900 terminates the treatment. But she comes back to Freud in April 1902 complaining of a facial neuralgia; Freud again tells her it is psychoneurotic (more precisely, transferential) as it had arisen shortly after she read about Freud’s promotion to the status of Professor.
Scant details of her life after Freud are available. She marries a musician in 1903, who is supported financially by her father and brought into his business, and has her first child in 1905. This child becomes an accomplished musician. Most bizarrely though, she goes on to remain bridge partners with Peppina Zellenka, who shelters her from the Nazis before she escapes to join her son in New York in 1939, where she dies in 1945.
She has one more chance encounter with psychoanalysis however, when she visits Felix Deutsch (husband of psychoanalyst Helene) for a medical consultation in 1922. Initially complaining of tinnitus and dizziness, when her husband leaves the room she opens up to more personal matters, tearfully bemoaning her wretched love life and her husband’s lack of fidelity. Deutsch lets her go on, and the story she tells about her past sounds familiar to him:
(‘A Footnote to Freud’s Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria’, reproduced in In Dora’s Case, p.38)
So let’s have a close look at what Lacan has to say about the case in ‘Presentation on Transference’.
What is important in a psychoanalysis, Lacan opens by saying, is not an individual’s psychology but a subject-to-subject relationship (Écrits, 216). “Psychoanalysis is a dialectical experience”, he says, and this dialectic is at the core of his interpretation of the case (Écrits, 216). What Lacan says he finds that no one else has before is that “the case of Dora is laid out by Freud in the form of a series of dialectical reversals” (Écrits, 218).
Here, ‘scansion’ refers to the reordering of relations in Dora’s life in the same way that a sentence can be reordered to alter its meaning depending on where the punctuation is placed. The difference here is that Dora is not simply saying something, but living it – it is “the truth” here that is transformed. Then Lacan adds:
In other words, how we think about the case – or, perhaps more accurately, how Freud thought about it – is dependent on how Dora herself thinks about her place in relation to the other people involved in the inter-family drama; the treatment stands or falls on the basis of how successful her shift in reflexive perspective is relative to these other characters.
Lacan structures his remarks by outlining three separate developments of truth, followed by three corresponding dialectical reversals.
The first two dialectical reversals set the scene. They establish two important elements that Freud detects in the case that indicate to him that the story Dora narrates is perhaps not all it appears. Then, with the third dialectical reversal, Lacan goes deeper into the case, before ending with his analysis of where Freud went wrong, and what he should have done.
Dora complains that her father and Frau K have been at it for years and that her father turns a blind eye to her seduction by Herr K, “thus making her the object of an odious exchange” (Écrits, 218). But Lacan recognises that Freud sees there is more going on, and responds with the dialectical reversal: “‘Look at your own involvement’” (Écrits, 219). Lacan’s reference here is to Hegel’s idea of the Beautiful Soul, who bemoans the state of a world which they themselves are the author of. Lacan asserts with Freud that Dora was actually supporting her father’s affair through “her complicity and even vigilant protection” (Écrits, 219).
When he discusses the case in Seminar III in 1956 Lacan draws attention to how deep this complicity goes. Dora takes care to say nothing until the scene by the lake, which Lacan then goes on to put at the heart of his reading of the case:
What makes us think that Dora might not have been quite so much the passive victim, the object of a sordid exchange, as she herself maintained?
One revealing facet of the case is that Dora maintained a weird friendship with Frau K throughout the affair – in spite of the latter’s openness about her infidelity – and even into later life. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen notes that the two remained bridge partners for a long time after she stopped seeing Freud, and Frau K sheltered Dora from the Nazis before her escape to New York (Les Patients de Freud, p.91).
Freud sees that Dora can’t stop thinking about her father’s affair with Frau K. But it’s not simply that she disapproves of it – she is obsessed by it: “Dora’s incessant repetition of the same thoughts about her father’s relations with Frau K” play on her mind all the time, he writes (SE VII, p.54). Whilst she appears jealous of her father’s relationship to Frau K, Lacan again notes that Freud is not duped by appearances. What appears as jealousy is actually an extreme interest in what Frau K means for her father. The apparent rivalry, says Lacan, “conceals an interest in the rival-subject herself” which “can only be expressed… in this inverted form” (Écrits, 220). This is the second dialectical reversal.
This gives rise to the third development of truth, the third admission: that Dora’s complaints about Frau K belies her fascination with her. Freud notes, for example, Dora’s fascination with what she describes as Frau K’s “adorable white body” (SE VII, 61). Why, Freud wonders, does Dora have what Lacan describes as this “loyalty” (Écrits, 220) to her, and why does she so readily tolerate Frau K talking to Dora about the sexual side of both her marriage and her affair with Dora’s father?
The third dialectical reversal then, which Lacan answers this question with, is what Frau K really means for Dora: Frau K is not an individual, but a mystery, the mystery of Dora’s own femininity” (Écrits, 220).
Lacan then makes a sharp turn in his argument to focus not on Frau K but on Dora’s brother.
Freud picks up on the fact that this brother, a year and a half older than Freud’s patient, was for the young Dora “the model by which her ambitions had striven to follow” (SE VII, 21). For his part, Lacan is extremely interested in this figure of the brother, finding in him the key to “what woman and man signify to her now” (Écrits, 221).
What Lacan zeroes in on is an infantile memory that Dora recalls in which she is sucking her thumb whilst tugging on her brother’s ear. Freud relates this memory in the case history:
Lacan sees this as an “imaginary mold” (Écrits, 221) which points to the theory of repetition automatism which Freud would later elaborate. For his part, Freud traces a link between the thumb sucking, fellatio, and the hysterical irritation of the throat (the cough, the aphonia) that Dora presents with. It doesn’t matter, argues Freud, whether she knew at 18 what fellatio was or not because the thumb sucking memory afforded the “necessary somatic prerequisite” for the development of this fantasy (SE VII, 51). We see therefore how on this reading the apparently disparate elements in Dora’s life pivot on the oral dimension which can be traced to this memory.
What does this “imaginary mold” as Lacan calls it, this childhood impression, leave Dora with? To start with, Lacan says that the woman and the oral drive are bound together for Dora so tightly that it becomes part of the very definition of femininity for her – “Woman is the object which cannot be dissociated from a primitive oral desire” (Écrits, 221). The symptomatic complaint that Dora presents when she first sees Freud – the cough, the aphonia – are manifestations of this oral drive. The more the question of femininity is evoked the louder, more prominent, it becomes. Lacan notes that Dora’s aphonia during Herr K’s absence is not tue result of him not being there, but of Dora being “left alone with Frau K” (Écrits, 221). He again highlights this link in his discussion of the case in Seminar III:
There is another consequence to this “imaginary mold” in which Dora is caught:
In other words, understanding herself as a woman, recognising her own femininity, requires that Dora assume her own body as her own. Her failure to do this however is belied by the conversion symptoms – the cough, the aphonia – which, contrary to Freud’s view, are animated less by the desire for fellatio as by the identification with a male figure, in this case, the brother.
Where ‘The’ woman fails, where there is a failure of an appeal to femininity, there is in its place an appeal (perhaps a regression) to an identification with a man – here, the brother.
And this is what Lacan goes on to say. Dora’s relation to her own body is organised around this “earliest imago” (Écrits, 221) of the experience of sucking her thumb whilst tugging at her brother’s ear. Her experience of her body as an ‘enjoying’ body (in Lacanian terms, where the imaginary register is knitted to the real of jouissance) is formed not directly, as it were, but via an identification with the brother’s body. This is fundamental for Lacan because – in line with his mirror stage theory, his major theoretical contribution at the time this paper was published – it constitutes “that primordial identification through which the subject recognises herself as I” (Écrits, 221).
The prominence that Lacan grants to the identificatory bond becomes clear in another aspect of the Dora case which Freud refers to as a ‘transference’ (SE VII, 74). He alights on Dora’s associative chain to her dream that links the three men – Freud, Herr K, her father – and she herself, to smoking,
Freud infers that this link suggests Dora wanted a kiss from him. Lacan however sees this as another aspect of her identification, but one which does not necessarily imply a libidinal link. It’s not about the kiss from Freud or Herr K or any other repressed wish but instead corresponds to what Lacan calls “the twilight stage of the return of the ego. And all her dealings with the two men manifest the aggressiveness in which we see the dimension characteristic of narcissistic alienation” (Écrits, 222). This is something that Freud would only later acknowledge, in 1922, when he noted that it is possible have an identification without an object cathexis, that it is an identification that is primary and that “object choice regresses to identification” (SE XVIII, 107).
Freud kept insisting to Dora that she was secretly in love with Herr K, and unsurprisingly this only convinced Dora that Freud was bad news. Lacan however sees not a love relation but an identification with Herr K. This identification is neither superficial nor fleeting, and as he says a few years later, it has a specific purpose: to allow her to investigate the mystery of Frau K.
Then the following year, in Seminar IV, Lacan goes further and maps the actors in the case onto his famous ‘L Schema’: Frau K and Dora’s father are placed in the symbolic positions; Herr K and Dora herself in the imaginary/identificatory positions.
The key figure in these maps of Dora’s ‘significant others’ is that of Frau K. As Lacanian analyst Darian Leader succinctly puts it,
In order to see herself as an object of desire, to actually understand for herself what it means to be desired by a man, Dora has to find what she is looking for in Frau K. “The problem of her condition”, Lacan says, “is fundamentally that of accepting herself as a man’s object of desire, and this is the mystery that motivates Dora’s idolisation of Frau K.” (Écrits, 222).
For Lacanian analyst Veronique Voruz, Dora’s is a strategy axiomatic of hysteria. Through Frau K Dora can “Learn about what it is to be a woman without putting herself into play in the field of sexuality”, (The Later Lacan, p.162). If, as Lacan later proposes, ‘The’ Woman doesn’t exist – or in Freudian terms, there is no representation of femininity in the unconscious – what is called ‘hysteria’ is nothing more than “an elaboration around this lack” (ibid). Frau K answers this mystery of what it means to be a woman for Dora. Coming back to Leader’s commentary,
This is why Lacan says in Seminar III that Freud’s mistake was that “He asks himself what Dora desires, before asking himself who desires in Dora” (Seminar III, p.174).
This underlying drama also helps us to understand what is often considered the turning point in the whole case, the so-called ‘scene by the lake’. The lake in question is actually Lake Garda, and by its shores Herr K makes a catastrophic remark to Dora – “My wife is nothing to me” (Écrits, 224). She responds immediately by slapping him in the face.
Why does this remark provoke such a violent reaction? Lacan’s explanation – in a brilliant piece of dialectical analysis – is that it undermines the place of Frau K as Dora’s true centre of interest. “If she is nothing to you, then what are you to me?”, Lacan articulates for her (Écrits, 224).
Leader’s comments on this scene illuminate Lacan’s point:
Frau K is not the only figure in the case that incarnates the mystery of femininity for Dora. On a visit to Dresden, Dora declines her cousin’s invite to act as guide in the city and instead goes alone to the art gallery where, Freud tells us, “She remained two hours in front of the Sistine Madonna, rapt in silent admiration.” (SE VII, 96).
This is the picture that so interested her:
As John Forrester points out, Freud himself was enraptured by Raphael’s painting and gushed about it in a letter to his fiancé Martha Bernays in 1883 (Forrester, The Seductions of Psychoanalysis, p.43). So when Dora tells him about how she was transfixed by it herself, his ears perk up:
Rather than seeing Dora’s response as a dead end, the fact that she could find no words for this fascination is evidence itself of the mysterious hold that the question of what it is to be a woman exerts on her. Lacan comes back to this point in Seminar III. “What is Dora saying through her neurosis? What is the woman-hysteric saying? Her question is this – What is it to be a woman?” (Seminar III, p.175).
Freud’s own explanation for the premature collapse of the case points to the nature of the transference, in which the person of the analyst – he himself, in this case – proved to be the blocker to a successful conclusion:
Freud’s explanation at this point refers to ‘transferences’ here, in the plural (SE VII, 116); they are “new editions or facsimiles” of the symptoms that arise as part of the treatment but which “replace some earlier person by the person of the physician” (SE VII, 116). In this sense, ‘transferences’ are simply displacements whose appearance “is an inevitable necessity” which “cannot be evaded” (SE VII, 116). Rather than creating transferences the work of analysis merely reanimates them, and they are a useful motor in the treatment for bringing into relief the unconscious wishes, desires and fantasies which they conceal (SE VII, 117).
Freud accounts for his failure immediately after the analysis collapses by saying “I did not succeed in mastering the transference in good time” (SE VII, 118). At first he thinks the transference is from the father, then from Herr K, but that he wasn’t quick enough in spotting this:
But then later, almost five years after the case has concluded, he changes his mind, coming to the realisation of the importance of Frau K. By then of course it is too late, but he clings to the conviction that there has to be a libidinal dimension to why she interests Dora so much. In two footnotes to the case added in 1905, he humbly admits,
And a few pages later,
This is the footnote that Lacan refers to towards the end of his paper (Écrits, 223), added in October/November 1905 at the time of the case’s publication. All the preceding material in the body of the case history had been written in January 1901, shortly after Dora had broken off the treatment over Christmas 1900. Freud’s failure, according to Lacan, was to miss this connection between the mystery of femininity that Dora found in the painting of the Madonna and the figure of Frau K. He doesn’t make the third dialectical reversal that Lacan describes, in which he could have “directed Dora to a recognition of what Frau K was for her” (Écrits, 222).
But two further mysteries persist.
Firstly, as Collins et al note, Freud’s explanation admission doesn’t quite make sense. “I failed to discover in time and to inform the patient….” (SE VII, 120, n1, my emphasis), Freud writes. But this is not his view at the time. By 1905 Freud no longer believes that you can just point out a transference to the patient for it to be effective in the treatment. A certain blind spot in Freud’s understanding even after the end of the case therefore remains.
Secondly, right at the end of the case we find a further mystery in the reference to another female character, the Zellenka children’s governess. Freud mentions this character only in passing (SE VII, p.105), just before the postscript, but he completely misses the significance of this woman to focus yet again on the presumed love for Herr K on the part of Dora. The fact that this girl had a sexual relationship with Herr K, lived under the same roof as him, and had the same line used on her – ‘I get nothing from my wife’ – as Herr K used on Dora, curiously seem to pass Freud by. But we know – because Freud recounts Dora narrating it to him (SE VII, 106) – that Dora was fully aware of this other woman (indeed, most likely heard the details of her relationship with Herr K from her first hand). Dora also knew that the girl remained in the Zellenka household even after Herr K went cold on her in the hope that he might at some point change his mind. It is curious then that Freud does not give this character more weight – this other woman is in a completely identical position as Dora in the whole drama. She is the other girl for Herr K as well, an alternative to both Dora and his wife.
Lacan is little short of scathing about Freud’s handling of the case:
Lacan even goes as far as implying that treating Dora’s complaints as a hysterical illness suited all the parties in the sordid little affair only too well, “being their response to her refusal to continue to serve as a prop for their common infirmity” (Écrits, 224).
He sees Freud as implicated in, or even complicit with, this state of affairs. Freud was far too biased to Herr K in his view. Lacan notes that Freud “felt kindly toward Herr K for a long time, since it was Herr K who brought Dora’s father to Freud” (Écrits, 223). This is tangible in the case history itself. Freud for example admits that he knows Herr K well, and describes him favourably as “of prepossessing appearance” (SE VII, 29, footnote 3). But most concerning are the remarks that Freud makes at the end of the case, where he suggests that had Herr K pushed it a bit with Dora, even after she rejects him with the slap at the lakeside, he would have succeeded in winning her over (SE VII, 109-110). As Lacan sardonically remarks, “It is because he put himself rather too much in Herr K’s shoes that Freud did not succeed in moving the Infernal Regions this time around” (Écrits, 224, a reference to the inscription which Freud chooses to crown the opening of The Interpretation of Dreams – Acheronto movebo – ‘I will move the infernal regions’.)
Whereas Freud accounts for his failure in terms of the transference, Lacan believes this is in actual fact more like a countertransference, which he defines as “the sum total of the analyst’s biases, passions, and difficulties, or even of his inadequate information, at any given moment in the dialectical process” (Écrits, 225).
But, even more astonishingly, Lacan says that this is “the very same bias [in favour of Herr K] that falsifies the conception of the Oedipus complex right from the outset, making him consider the predominance of the paternal figure to be natural, rather than normative” (Écrits, 223). Just as Lacan ends his paper on the Rat Man case history by questioning the Freudian conception of the oedipal triangle, here too he drops an even greater payload. Could there be a greater challenge to the Freudian conception of the Oedipus complex than for Lacan to argue it is normative, not natural?
Everything starts to go wrong in Dora’s case when the transference arises “at a moment of stagnation in the analytic dialectic, of the permanent modes according to which she constitutes her objects” (Écrits, 225). This stagnation occurs at the point of the third dialectical reversal – a turning point where Lacan believes Freud had the opportunity to recognise the importance to Dora of Frau K rather than Herr K.
So how should Freud have advanced? Lacan’s suggestion seems initially quite enigmatic – that Freud should have “filled the emptiness of this [dialectical] standstill with a lure” (Écrits, 225). Whatever this lure is it matters only insofar as it is a motor for pushing the dialectic onto its next articulation. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, the bait of falsehood catches the carp of truth.
But what Lacan has in mind in practical terms is quite alarming – to suggest to Dora that she thought Freud himself wanted to kiss her, thus putting Freud into Herr K’s position. This is something that Freud himself acknowledges he should have done, though for reasons different from Lacan’s:
Freud’s rationale here is to bridge a gap by which she would acknowledge her love for Herr K. But in Lacan’s view this imputation should be purely a lure: the important thing is not whether this suggestion is true or not; what matters is the vigour with which Dora would surely have denied it. Under Lacan’s suggested strategy, it would have nudged Dora in the direction of investigating her real interest in Frau K. As Lacan puts it:
This brings Lacan back to one of his most well-rehearsed criticisms of the handling of transference by practitioners of his day: that it’s not about what the patient feels or says they feel – “… transference does not fall under any mysterious property of affectivity” (Écrits, 225) – but that it “has a meaning only as a function of the dialectical moment in which it occurs” (Écrits, 225).
Although Lacan’s prescription might seem odd, the point he makes is simple in its lure: that the suggestion that Dora thought Freud might want to kiss her is purely intended to push the analysis forward, rather than being made as a result of the analyst wanting what’s good for the patient.
Lacan ends the paper by elaborating on this point with an appeal to Hegelian dialectics as the model by which to explain the relationship between the analyst and analysand in the clinic. If you want to be a good psychoanalyst, he says, be a good dialectician:
And so we are returned to the meaning of his remark at the start of the paper – “the conception of the case history is identical to the progress of the subject” (Écrits, 218). The Dora case is exemplary in showing us that the work of a psychoanalysis is the progress of a dialectic, Lacan says, because the symptom is ‘on the surface’. Dora’s ego “is transparent enough for there never to be, as Freud said, a lower threshold between the unconscious and the conscious, or better, between analytic discourse and the key [mot] to the symptom.” (Écrits, 226).
Although Freud’s handling of the case may have been botched – by whatever measure, the transference or an inherent bias – what this should nonetheless show us is that where an analytic interpretation has gone wrong points the way to how the path of the dialectic should be cleared. In his powerful final prescription, the role of the analyst should be an empty one: to undertake “positive nonaction aiming at the ortho-dramatisation of the patient’s subjectivity” (Écrits, 226).
By Owen Hewitson, LacanOnline.com
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