It is often said that psychoanalysts should look at structure, not surface symptoms, in order to make a clinical diagnosis. There are two problems with this.

First, the definition of a particular structure has to be rigorous enough to recognise it when you see it. The question is: what characterises this structure, and is particular to it and it alone, to adequately distinguish it from others? How broad can a definition of a structure be before becoming indistinct and unhelpful? Given that the Lacanian community has spent the last 20 years debating how to define ‘ordinary psychosis’ – sufficient to make a differential distinction from psychosis proper, or even from neurotic structure – this is easier said than done. And it is not made any easier in Freud. Obsession in particular, he tells us cryptically, appears as “a dialect of the language of hysteria” (SE X, 157).

Second, obsession in particular appears to undermine this focus on structure. We find an extraordinary recurrence of certain symptoms that seem to persist throughout its recorded history. Whether we’re talking about the ‘scrupulosity’ of the 16th century; the ‘doubting mania’ of the 19th century; the ‘obsessional neurosis’ of Freud’s time; or the ‘OCD’ of today; there is a permanence and recurrence of certain symptoms or symptom-groups, which appear irrespective of time or culture.

These cluster around binaries.

For the obsessional, the light switch must be turned on or off a certain number of times. The door opened or closed. An entranceway or portal must be crossed a certain way to mark the distinction between inside and outside. Repetition, counting, superstition – much of what is usually recognised as symptoms of obsession – all point to the oscillation between these binaries.

This doesn’t necessarily undermine the search for structure, and the presence of an alternance between binaries may be a second-order phenomenon. But it forces us to ask how such recurrent and permanent symptoms can point to something characteristic of the structure itself.

Freud had noticed these binaries in the diphasic nature of obsessional compulsions. The doing-and-undoing of an act – of which the Rat Man’s moving and removing of a stone that sat in the pathway of his beloved’s carriage is the prime example (SE X, 190) – was linked, he thought, to two different attitudes towards the love object. It was a manifestation of a fundamental emotional ambivalence that characterised obsession. This also explained the prominence of doubt in obsession, as if the obsessional reasons ‘if I can’t be sure of my love for you, how can I be sure of anything else?’ (SE X, 227-228; 243).

But there are also two different moments in obsessional acts. The contradiction is first and foremost temporalised in these diphasic acts. The obsessional shuttles between binaries that appear to have little connection to the object, and which take on a life of their own when transmuted into the form of rituals. The turning on and off of a light switch, the opening and closing of a door, may be heavily displaced from the object, but their recurrence in this simple form itself deserves explanation.

So rather than resorting to Lacanian jargon to explain obsession, let’s try to account for the everyday phenomena that is manifested in recurrent symptomatology like these. If ‘ordinary psychosis’ and new forms of hysteria have gotten all the attention in recent years, why did Freud declare that obsession was “the most interesting and repaying” of all clinical phenomena? (SE XX, 113).

The Subjunctive

The subjunctive is a tense more often used in languages like French than English (though its use in English is perfectly correct). It is used after expressions that imply uncertainty – that something may not happen.

In French , for example, instead of saying ‘You have to…’ do something, you might say ‘It is necessary that…’ (Il faut que….) you do it, and then you would use the subjunctive. ‘It is necessary that you be there’, rather than ‘You have to go there’, for instance. The subjunctive therefore expresses a kind of ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ in its implication of uncertainty.  

As a tense, the subjunctive is also about time. It temporalises a possibility that exists between two different outcomes. One of the features of obsessional compulsions is a conditional structure – they are performed on the basis of something that may, or may not, happen. The obsessional feels compelled to perform a certain act or ritual to avert a danger that might befall they themselves or – more often, when probed – a loved one. In the form of rituals these may be ego-syntonic; in the form of compulsions they may be highly troubling. But the conditional structure that indicates the subjunctive is always implicit.

In the life of the obsessional more generally we find a contradiction between two different attitudes that characterise his or her ‘subjunctive’ mode of living.

On the one hand, Lacan said that we can recognise the obsessional very early in life. He or she is the child who has very “fixed ideas” (Seminar V, 14th May 1958). What he wants and what he believes will admit of no compromises. Lacan’s one-time student, Serge Leclaire, noted that “there is nothing in the obsessional’s world that escapes from the constraint of necessity” (Leclaire, ‘Philo, or the Obsessional and his Desire’). Any demand for satisfaction – when he eats, when he goes on holiday, his schedule – is treated as rigidly pressing and is always presented in the form of a need. As Leclaire puts it, “‘It is necessary that’, or ‘I must’, constitute the common denominators of the obsessional’s activity” (Leclaire, Philo).

But on the other hand the obsessional is beset with uncertainty. Doubt, questioning, and a desire that appears eternally unfulfilled or unreachable are well-recognised hallmarks of the obsessional’s character.

Where does this come from?

Serge Leclaire

We will look at two cases of obsession from the clinic of a great psychoanalyst and one-time follower of Lacan, Serge Leclaire.

An unusually poetic and vibrant writer, it is a pity more of Leclaire’s work is not translated into English. But these two cases are an exception, and you can read them here and here. We will refer to them by the names Leclaire chose for the patients at their centre – the case of Philo and the case of Jerome.

Leclaire believed we have to introduce “the category of the possible” into the life of the obsessional (Leclaire, ‘Jerome, or Death in the Life of the Obsessional’), and a lot of what Leclaire went on to say about his two patients revealed the dilemma presented by the subjunctive mode of living the obsessional inhabits.

But Leclaire begins with the origins of obsession. In contrast to many other writers on the topic (including Freud himself), Leclaire thought the key to understanding obsession lay not with the father but with the mother. The “nodal complex” of obsession, as he calls it, is to be found in the way the obsessional responds to the mother’s perceived desire (Leclaire, Philo).

Story time!

What’s the developmental history of the obsessional? Leclaire relates the oedipal schema of the obsessional child which in simple terms we can put like this:

  • In the beginning we can picture a harmonious dyadic relationship between mother and child.
  • The child identifies with the presumed object of the mother’s desire (which, in Lacanese, we call the ‘imaginary phallus’. But that doesn’t matter for now.
  • Then at a certain point it becomes clear to the child that there is something else in the mix – something beyond him that the mother wants but which is not him.
  • It’s not clear what this is, and so it gives an enigma to her desire.
  • What usually happens at this point is a metaphorical operation – in Lacanese, the substitution of the desire of the mother for the ‘Name-of-the-Father’.
  • But this is not – as Leclaire notes – necessarily the substitution of the father himself, or even a living person. Like the grammatical ‘third person’, Leclaire describes how the Name of the Father “appears as a being to whom one refers (to honour or to scorn) and to whom one refers as to a law” (Leclaire, Philo, his emphasis). A ‘law’ in this sense means something that limits or constrains, and hence can put a box around the enigma of the mother’s desire. So a ‘Father’, in Lacanese, operates not as a flesh-and-blood person but as a point of “refusal and of reference”, as Leclaire says.  
  • With this metaphorical operation the child is able to exchange ‘being’ for ‘having’. That is, instead of identifying with the presumed object of the mother’s desire, he is able to recognise it as something he can possess. And so begins the rites of passage journey through manhood that will occupy him for the rest of his life. In Lacanese, we refer to the difference between the ‘imaginary phallus’ and the ‘symbolic phallus’.
  • But this doesn’t happen in obsession, and it’s not clear why. A few of the suggestions proffered by psychoanalysts down the ages include:
    • A ‘weak’ father – Leclaire notes that his patient Philo’s father is a good guy but, as he poetically puts it, this only serves to “muffle a virility that is exercised parsimoniously and with regret because it is considered to be sinful” (Leclaire, Philo).
    • A ‘strong’ mother – in the sense of one who is so overbearing or neurotic as to shift all of her desire to the child and make this fact implicitly clear.
    • The infant’s own ‘choice’ in some respects
  • The upshot is that the young obsessional doesn’t properly move from ‘being’ it to ‘having’ it and therefore cannot renounce the identification with the presumed object of the mother’s desire.
  • So instead, he undertakes a strategy to find a point of identification that might ‘be’ this enigmatic object for the mother… and then seeks to become it himself.

A model for being a man

In later life, we will find the marks of this origin in two contradictory attitudes to ‘being’.

On the one hand, the obsessional will always retain the belief that he is something special, a conviction of his own superiority and exceptional status among others. Leclaire calls this “an unshakeable and secret self-confidence” (Leclaire, Philo) and it’s a hangover from his attempt to incarnate the presumed object of the mother’s desire. What’s more, he will demand recognition from others of this exceptional status, and in so doing assert what looks like the ‘strong ego’ so often noted as a feature of the obsessional’s character. Outwardly then, there’s often nothing wrong.

But on the other hand, the obsessional will harbour a permanent reference to some figure of ‘master’. He will eternally try to put in place a character imbued with what, in Lacanian terms, we call the ‘phallic’ attribute. This is also a hangover from the uncomfortable recognition that there is something outside the mother that he does not have access to, indicating her desire is never entirely for him and him alone.

The inability for the obsessional to actualise a desire of his own is thereby premised on the fundamental idea that another should act in his place. The obsessional needs a model for being a man – whether this is a living figure, or even a character idolised from film or literature. His relation to this master figure will always be a submissive one as he will never be worthy himself. Even if this relationship shows an undercurrent of rivalry, his actions will take place in the permanent shadow of this other man – which is why taking the decisive step on his own is so problematic.

This we see in the Hamletian inaction, doubt, and procrastination that shrinks and layfolk alike have always taken as the hallmark of obsession:

Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is so apt because it encapsulates the permanent to-be-or-not-to-be – the very signature of the subjunctive – in the life of the obsessional. In relation to the master figure he attempts to install, Leclaire rephrases this existential question as “am I subject or object”? (Leclaire, Jerome).

Desire of the other vs desire as such

But Leclaire is not duped. This identification strategy is just a ploy by the obsessional, an attempt to find an object that could be “the illusory support of a sterile desire” (Leclaire, Philo). The obsessional is trying to peg the mother’s desire to an object – to name her lack by locating it in another man.

In his patient Philo’s case, this is a figure from the family history cryptically referred to as ‘Gonzago’. He is a martyred hero, a model for outstanding virtue held in esteem by both the mother and the father. Gonzago creates what Leclaire calls a “hybrid paternity” for his patient (Leclaire, Philo).

But if we follow Lacanian theory we appear to have a problem. It’s not as if the paternal reference isn’t operative, or that the Name-of-the-Father hasn’t been ‘metaphorised’ in place of the mother’s desire. Operationally, everything is in place through this figure of Gonzago. There should be no reason why the oedipal pass is not successfully negotiated.

The key to establishing what turned the young Philo into an obsessional lies in the actual father, Philo’s own flesh-and-blood father. Being himself so enamoured with his mythical ancestor Gonzago, the father fails to perform the one act that is crucial of the paternal function – prohibition.

Lacan intended his Nom-du-Pere to be heard as a homonym of Non-du-Pere, a ‘No’ establishing the prohibition which would nudge Philo onto a non-obsessional course. But without it, the veneration of Gonzago continues, allowing Philo to identify with Gonzago as the presumed object of his mother’s desire. For both mother and son “This desire is a dream in which to commune in the sterile satisfaction of a shared wish”, as Leclaire loftily summarises it (Leclaire, Philo).

And yet, note that it’s not really Gonzago that Philo cares about. His strategy is a crafty one in which the Gonzago character is merely a prop. The real hope is that through a shared identification his mother will reveal to him something even more precious – her desire as such.

“In dreaming of Gonzago, Philo did not expect that his mother would dream with him, but on the contrary, that she would reveal to him what she had found that was better than this dream” (Leclaire, Philo, his emphasis).

We see how important it is to make the distinction between a shared wish for an object (whether a person, either living or dead) and a desire (desire as such).

This is the crucial difference that Lacan highlights in Seminar V between the hysteric and the obsessional (Seminar V, 14th May, 1958):

Hysteric – aims at the desire of the other

Obsessional – aims at desire as such

But what does ‘desire as such’ actually mean? How do you identify it if desire, by definition, surely has an object?

The obsessional’s problem is exactly this. He doesn’t get, or doesn’t accept, that desire means lack (Seminar VI, 10th June, 1959). “Desire as such” for the obsessional entails the destruction of the other as object (Seminar V, 14th May, 1958). It is not a desire for this or that particular man, whether that be the living father or some ancestral figure like Gonzago, but for the secret source that enlivens this desire.

Hampered by this blind spot, the character of desire for the obsessional will forever be marked by a disavowal of this fact that desire means lack. For this reason, he will strive to peg it to an object and never allow it to be unpegged in an attempt to ensure that desire is never permitted to be fully enigmatic. Having a gap where the presumed object of the (m)other’s desire should be is intolerable.

To close this gap, the obsessional does two things:

  1. Conflate desire with demand – insofar as demand entails the insistence on a given, specified object.
  2. Give demand the character of need – insofar as need entails an urgency to satisfaction, like a biological need for food or drink.

“The obsessional’s desire…. Will retain above all else the character of the elementary exactions of need. It will also bear the indelible mark of the dissatisfaction inherent in any demand” (Leclaire, Philo).

But this will also plunge the obsessional into kind of existential ambiguity whereby his desire “is impotent to recover its autonomy and its value as mediator between need and demand” (Leclaire, Philo).

What does this conflation of desire, demand, and need actually look like in the life of the obsessional?

Just as Lacan had noticed the obsessional child will be the one with very “fixed ideas” (Seminar V, 14th May 1958), the obsessional approaches life with an impatient, unassuaged insistence that Leclaire recognised in Philo. All the character traits that in the popular mind are associated with obsessionality – being a creature of habit, sticking to routine, insistence on minor particularities – are marked by Leclaire in his patient, as they are by other analysts in theirs.

Their root in a disavowal of the idea that desire means lack leads the obsessional to an avoidance of points of discontinuity. We see this manifested in certain commonly-recurring injunctions in the life of the obsessional:

  • Cracks in the pavement have to be avoided
  • Light switches have to be on or off
  • Doors open or closed
  • And every moment filled with activity (even if, ultimately, it is to no end).

The obsessional has what we might call a passion for binaries which we can see as a reification of the problem with gaps as indicators of lack, desire as such in its enigmatic form. Gaps signal that there is a question about desire – the same marginal possibility of uncertainty that we find in the subjunctive.

What does a psychoanalytic psychotherapy of obsession look like?

What does all this imply about how we should handle obsession therapeutically?

At the broadest level, the aim is to get the obsessional to realise the register of lack. That is, that lack equals desire, and that lack is part of the mother’s structure. Lacan calls this the “principle of sacrifice” (E822). Let’s not worry, Leclaire thinks, about whatever theory of transference or theory of the ego we would usually have recourse to (Leclaire, Philo). We know already that the obsessional has a strong ego, so there’s no point strengthening it further. And a theory of transference is surely based on a theory of desire which, like Lacan, he believed was lacking in the psychoanalysis of the time.

What we shouldn’t do therapeutically is the caricatured Lacanian gesture of introducing desire as a pure question, throwing in an enigma to the analysis with a clever pun or the sharp cut of the short session. This will just piss them off, Leclaire thinks. The obsessional is not interested in existential questions of the kind this would elicit and will take them as invasive and threatening.

What we should do is actually the opposite – recognise their demand in all its forms. Hear them out, receive their complaints and gripes about the world. But recognise at the same time that these demands are “intentionally confused” (Leclaire, Philo). That is, we should “be attentive to the fact that for the obsessional there is no demand that is not marked with the seal of desire” (Leclaire, Philo, his emphasis). For the obsessional, Leclaire says, wanting to be recognised means not just wanting to be loved but wanting to be fucked. The task of the analyst then is to “introduce a cleavage between demand and desire, between the world of the law and that of the dream” (Leclaire, Philo).

Negativity of absence vs negation of presence

Leclaire has a nice way of putting this. We should separate negativity of absence from negation of presence.

A negativity of absence would refer to everything that puts being in question or is marked by a lack. Death, the figure of the martyred hero Gonzago in Philo’s case, the Rat Man’s dead father, or the figure of the master for the obsessional in general would all be examples.

A negation of presence would refer to everything that puts having in question, encapsulated in a role that exists but does not function. The actual father is indeed there in the family situation, but for whatever reason does not perform the role that would imbue him with a symbolic attribute which would curtail the effect of the enigmatic question posed by the mother’s desire. Of Philo Leclaire writes:

We must distinguish… the negativity of the absence of the martyred hero from the negation of the paternal presence, to distinguish being it from having it, all the while being cognizant of their linkage, not confounding the demand for recognition with the desire to sleep with someone” (Leclaire, Philo, his emphasis).

Death as a junction concept

Much has been made of death as a preoccupation in obsession. We can see it as a junction concept between Leclaire’s ideas of negativity of absence and negation of presence.

Leclaire separates the theme of death from the question of death for the obsessional. Death is never an answer for the obsessional – it can’t provide the kind of finality or full-stop that it does for other folk. And likewise, Leclaire thought, it shouldn’t for psychoanalysts.

The problem was that,

“Psychoanalysts, with the exception of Freud, have been principally interested in the theme of death, as though what mattered was to veil death in themeatising it” (Leclaire, Jerome, his emphasis).

His point was that death can function as a blocker to thinking – as if we didn’t have to think about something anymore once we introduce the concept because death, it is assumed, is the end. This also goes for the Freudian ‘death drive’. It is treated as a necessary assumption in order to make the rest of the theory work. “Even today”, Leclaire wrote in the 1960s, “there are those who believe in the death drive only in the same way that they believed in Santa Claus” (Leclaire, Jerome).

So if death isn’t the end, what is it for the obsessional?

Let’s remember that Freud didn’t conceive of the death drive as a push to the end of life, but rather as an inorganic state.

“In the case of the destructive instinct we may suppose that its final aim is to lead what is living into an inorganic state. For this reason we also call it the death instinct.” (SE XXIII, 148, Freud’s emphasis).

Leclaire follows this precision, recognising in his patient Jerome’s fascination with corpse-like inertia “the force that tends towards the stability of the inorganic” (Leclaire, Jerome).

So why describe death as a question – not just a drive – for the obsessional?

As a student of Lacan’s, Leclaire takes some inspiration from his teacher’s reading of Freud. In Lacan’s hands, the question for the obsessional will be ‘Am I alive or dead’? But it’s worth noting that Lacan treats the death drive less as some kind of inorganic state – as Freud thought – and more as the very excess of life, the exact opposite of inorganic inertia. Here the conceptual field is somewhat muddied by Lacan’s introduction of the term jouissance into psychoanalytic vocabulary, which – like the death drive – he locates at the point Freud specified as being beyond the pleasure principle. There lies what Lacan described as a “super-abundant vitality” (Lacan, Seminar VIII, 18th May 1960). And this is a phenomenon existential in nature – not simply some affect or emotion.

Leclaire grants death this same existential ring. And we shouldn’t necessarily see Freud’s description of the death drive, in terms of an inorganic state, as something we can’t square with Lacan.

Leclaire blends the two cleverly by drawing attention to the curious mix of procrastination and feverish hyper-activity that we find in obsession. This recalls the oft-repeated clinical observation that the obsessional is on the one hand beset by inaction and the inability to do anything truly determinate; whilst on the other being always frantically busy, squeezing vital tasks into last minute slots in a desperate show of productivity.


What’s behind this ambivalent attitude to action? Once again, we can relate it to the obsessional’s more fundamental strategy to escape the confrontation with the question of the other’s desire. At first glance, this seems to work. The obsessional finds the ‘answer’ to his existential question by establishing death as “the perfect Master, uncontested, the one and only” (Leclaire, Philo). In so doing, he can avoid bringing the question of his own action in the face of the other’s desire into sharper focus, thereby safeguarding the sterility of his desire as is.

For Leclaire’s patient Philo, this meant keeping the focus on the mother’s desire, not his own in response to it, and doing so by maintaining the belief in Gonzago as master-figure and object of her desire. This means he can effectively ‘play dead’ while at the same time disregarding the ‘otherness’ of the other – a strategy we find in the reduction of his love objects from being “another warm and living being” to “docile shadows” (Leclaire, Philo).

Whatever ‘other’ the obsessional has in his life, they are not an overly significant other. Instead, Leclaire characterises them as the “fancied other, the illusory support of a sterile desire”, set up in order “To give to the inanimate object the appearance of life, to make it live and die, to care for it, then to destroy it” (Leclaire, Philo).

This is what Leclaire means when he says ““The impossible quest for the other remains the most notable characteristic of the obsessional’s desire” (Leclaire in Philo).  

‘Death’ then, is never simply death. Its function is not to mark the end of life but to give the obsessional a way to maneuver away from the otherness of the other. It’s for this reason that Freud had noted in the Rat Man case that obsessionals need the “possibility of death” to resolve their conflicts (SE X, 236).

Which raises an interesting question – why isn’t the Rat Man’s a case of failed mourning?

This is not simply a question of perspective. Freud detected something odd about the obsessional’s attitude to death that led him to present the case as one of obsession rather than mourning. He had noticed that the Rat Man’s preoccupation with death was much wider, carrying on even after his father had died. Freud records that the Rat Man himself kept forgetting that his father was dead:

“For a long time he had not realised the fact of his father’s death. It had constantly happened that, when he heard a good joke, he would say to himself: ‘I must tell Father that’. His imagination, too, had been occupied with his father, so that often, when there was a knock at the door, he would think: ‘Here comes Father’, and when he walked into a room he would expect to find his father in it” (SE X, 174).

While this isn’t an unusual feature of mourning, it does tell us that the death of the father didn’t mark the point of finality for the Rat Man. Neither can we say that the father’s death was the realisation of a patricidal death wish against the father. There may have been ambivalence – of which the Rat Man’s attitude to death was a manifestation – but, like Hamlet, the father’s death did not lay him to rest.

Death operated neither as a marker of finality, nor a marker of time, for the obsessional.

And yet there is still something enigmatic about this death.

Notice that Freud talked about how obsessionals needed the “possibility of death” rather than death-as-such – whether we understand that term as mortification, inorganic inertia, or existential finality. Death is the place of a question, something that Leclaire realised when his patient Jerome told him that he always found it hard to understand the expression of a judge when passing a sentence of execution: “You will hang by the neck until dead”. Jerome was puzzled because he couldn’t see the difference from saying “You will live until dead”, as if there was a continuity rather than a strict separation between life and death; as if life itself were a death sentence.

But Leclaire saw this puzzlement as pointing less to an impossibility and more to a refusal. In what can be taken as a lesson to many Lacanian commentators of our day, it would be all too easy for Leclaire to throw his hands up and declare death an instance of the ‘Real’, a category beyond thought, something impossible to conceptualise. Leclaire doesn’t do this. Like Freud, it was the possibility of death that he saw as important:

“With these words, Jerome proposes the category of the possible to our analytic experience, and on that basis I will formulate the notion that the obsessional structure can be conceived of as the repeated refusal of one’s own death (Leclaire, Jerome, his emphasis).

‘Possibility’ points us once again to the subjunctive. And we have another reason why death means living in perpetual motion for the obsessional. “For me to keep going, I must turn at 3,000 rpms”, Jerome tells Leclaire. Another one of his patients reports, “If I stop for an instant, I am afraid I will turn to dust” (Leclaire, Jerome). Here we see the dreadful paradox for the obsessional: death equates to the excess of life, animated by a fervent and ceaseless pseudo-activity without (temporal) end.

“I want for once to be up to date; I want to liquidate all the files that have piled up on the left side of my desk, finally to be able to breathe. When I succeed, anxiety grabs me and I have to find another unfinished task quickly. I exhaust myself in catching up on my lateness, the work that I undertake ought already to have been finished. I have no free time; there are no Sundays for me. (Leclaire, Jerome, his emphasis).

Jerome never lives in the moment – always at one remove – something Leclaire connects to his patient’s fascination with immobility, stasis, and petrification. Jerome is fascinated by mummified bodies, which he sees as expressing the “perfection of a realised, definitive form”, like a marble statue. The carrying of a mummy’s body for Jerome demonstrates the “excellence of passive movement, where one is entirely submitted to others” (Leclaire, Jerome).

Time is a Landscape

Then Jerome says something else interesting. He tells Leclaire a story from his holiday:

“‘I was next to a lake’”, Jerome tells me one day. ‘The place was lovely, but I was insensitive to it. Believe me, I am more moved by a beautiful postcard or by the photos of my trip’” (Leclaire, Jerome).  

Aha! says Leclaire. “Time is like a landscape for him” (Leclaire, Jerome). The obsessional marks time like he’s taking photos of a landscape. Why? To immobilise it, Leclaire thinks, like Jerome immobilised the mummified corpses of his daydreams. Spatialise time and you suspend it, like in a photo.

As the name would suggest, Instagram was originally intended as a way to capture the moment, but instead it immobilises it, perfectly realising the strategy Leclaire’s patient is pursuing. That we are ceaselessly harangued by such images is not a sign that everyone is having so much fun, but that every gesture of documenting it is staged, crafted, petrified.

So in obsession, ‘death’ doesn’t mean death, it means freeze-framing. ‘Death’ refers to the spatialisation of time, rather than its end. The corpses keep returning for Jerome; the father’s death is annulled for the Rat Man, as if he doesn’t know he’s dead. Death doesn’t exist in time, at some point in the future or past, for the obsessional. But neither is it in the frame. More precisely, death is the frame itself, the very process of freezing something in a frame. “What he does is to mark time”, Leclaire says of his patient (his emphasis).

“Jerome is convinced that his death will not arrest clock time, and that is what matters for him. He has a truly spatisalised time that keeps life suspended or framed. Within this time, death is the marker of a frontier that has virtually already been attained” (Leclaire, Jerome).

With this particularly astute observation, Leclaire moves beyond the Freudian notion of the death drive as simply an inorganic state. “I am convinced that this spatialisation of time, this freezing of becoming is in part the work of the death drive”, he declares (Leclaire, Jerome, his emphasis).

The question about the death drive is not therefore ‘Am I alive or dead?’. It’s ‘What does it mean to be alive?’

Obsession is a question about life itself.

By Owen Hewitson,

Creative Commons Licence
All content on is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.