Malachi McCoy : Stimulating Impressions and Excitations in a Process of Work between the Physical and the Mental

“Germs of sexual impulses are already present in the new-born child.”[1] Each of the drives reveal at the level of what is mental, an incessant, constant source of arousal of the senses from within. As Freud puts it “instinct is provisionally to be understood [as] the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation, as contrasted with a ‘stimulus’, which is set up by single excitations coming from without[2]; that is, outside the subject’s body. This material is vital if we want to learn from Freud, who, in bringing relief to his neurotic patients, discovered new facts about the unconscious in psychic life, the role of instinctual urges and their subjective scars - so relevant for us today! 


From birth we experience pressures - stimulating excitement. We need to eat. We need to rid the body of its waste product. The body has reversible pathways of mutual influence[3]. We can see and we can hear that childhood is not a simple time of pain-free innocence. It is certainly not a straight-forward pleasurable development in that primaeval period of the individual’s life. Work has to be done. There is a gap between the demands of the body and the impulses agitating satisfaction. There is a gap in the neurotic’s memory; a conscious absence of this decisive, experienced, infantile unconscious knowledge. Why then, is it that the grave, consequential ignorance of these earliest years of life, which determine the path of our psychosexual development, still features with such flourishing popularity? Freud’s essays on Infantile Sexuality and The Sexual Aberrations are pivotal in reminding their reader of these difficult, complex and stimulating years which leave such exciting impressions on the infant’s psyche.  


“The concept of instinct is thus one of those lying on the frontier between the mental and the physical”[4]...the gap between the two. Freud’s use of the German word trieb – drive, was not intended to connote something innate. Nor does it imply instinctual or fixed capacity. The drive doesn’t have a quality in itself. In terms of what is mental, the drive can be regarded as the “measure of the demand made upon the mind for work.”[5] In The Aberrations Freud asserts that his theory of the instincts is the most important portion of psychoanalytic theory[6]; a pressing question needs to be considered; whose desire will position and aim the direction and pathway of her pre-mature, dependent infant? Lacan outlines how psychoanalysis teaches the subject to recognize as his unconscious - his history, the determining turning-points in his existence. In The Function and Field of Speech and Language he writes:


...every fixation at a so-called instinctual stage is above all a historical scar: a page of shame that is forgotten or undone, or a page of glory that compels. But what is forgotten is recalled in acts...To put it briefly, the instinctual stages, when they are being lived, are already organized in subjectivity.[7]    


Each of the drives can be distinguished from one another. What provides each of the components with their specific qualities is the relation each has with the somatic source of stimulation. Its source is a process of excitation occurring in one of the body’s organs. It is the removal of the organic stimulus which governs the aim of each of the particular drives. Freud outlines in our theory of the instincts that, arising from their somatic sources, there is a specific sexual excitation. In his first essay he writes: “...we speak of the organ concerned as the ‘erotogenic zone’ of the sexual component instinct [drive] arising from it”[8]. Each of the components with their motor impulses at source; each organ lending itself for stimuli. The five sense organs: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; the skin, as Freud describes, being the erotic zone par excellence[9].


Contrary to Aristophanes’ allusion in Plato’s Symposium, where it is fabled that the human being’s sexual journey follows an original love story, where man and woman - having been cut into two halves strive to unite once again in love, we remember that sexuality is more diffuse. It is a beautiful illusion shattered by the memories of the polymorphism of infantile sexuality. Contrary to an instinct where the response to stimulus responds in a fixed way, human beings are not born with their sexuality in place.


Reports and descriptions of “irregular and exceptional sexual impulses in childhood, as well as the uncovering in neurotics of what have hitherto been unconscious memories allow us to sketch out the sexual occurrences of that period...”[10] All of the orifices and senses are at the disposition of the child’s polymorphously perverse disposition. In The Partial Drive And Its Circuit Lacan emphasises:


In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud was able to posit sexuality as essentially polymorphous, aberrant. The spell of a supposed infantile innocence was broken. Because it was imposed so early, I would almost say too early, this sexuality made us pass too quickly over an examination of what it essentially represents. That is to say that, with regard to the agency of sexuality, all subjects are equal, from the child to the adult – that they deal only with that part of sexuality that passes into the networks of the constitution of the subject, into the networks of the signifier – that sexuality is realized only through the operation of the drives in so far as they are partial drives, partial with regard to the biological finality of sexuality.[11]                      


The development of the new-born’s sexuality can be interrupted by periodical advances, be suppressed or stalled by his or her individual peculiarities. What is it, the psychoanalyst asks in Infantile Sexuality that goes into the making of constructions, so important for the growth of a civilized and normal individual; or, as Lacan designates – normative individual - where sublimation is realized at the cost of infantile sexual impulses? Perverse impulses, arising from erotogenic zones and activated from the drives can only arouse feelings of unpleasure in the development of the subject. As a reaction to this, mental forces construct reacting impulses to effectively suppress unpleasurable feelings with the build up of mental dams of disgust, shame and morality[12]. In a footnote added by Freud we read:


 ...sublimation of sexual instinctual forces takes place along the path of reaction formation. But in general it is possible to distinguish the concepts of sublimation and reaction- formation from each other as two different processes...[and as Lacan notes in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis[13] the only important thing to remember is in Freud’s assertion that]...Sublimation can also take place by other and simpler mechanisms.[14]      


Freud carefully outlines what is involved in the suffering of the neurotic. His work can help us to understand how the psycho-neurotic’s negative, silent suffering, can be converted into its opposite perversion, revealing the characters which are essential to the departure from the norm and seen clearly in the manifestation of aberrations.


An inevitable consequence of these considerations is that we must regard each individual as possessing an oral eroticism, an anal eroticism, a urethral eroticism, etc., and that the existence of mental complexes corresponding to these implies no judgement of abnormality or neurosis. The differences separating the normal from the abnormal can lie only in the relative strength of the individual components of the sexual instinct and in the use to which they are put in the course of development.[15]    


Freud discovered “symptoms are formed in part at the cost of abnormal sexuality; neuroses are, so to say, the negative of perversions”[16] an idea which was expressed precisely by Freud in 1897, and implied in 1896 in his letters to Fliess.[17] “The assumption of the existence of pregenital organizations of sexual life is based on the analysis of the neuroses, and without a knowledge of them can scarcely be appreciated;[18] it is only in pathological cases that they become active and recognizable to superficial observation.”[19]      


Component instincts play a major role in the formation of symptoms, emerging as pairs of opposites as understood with the scopophilic instinct and exhibitionism, or the active and passive forms of cruelty. To understand that symptoms involve suffering it is crucial to appreciate how this dominates a part of the subject’s social behaviour. With an instinct of this sort, we find its opposite operating alongside it in the unconscious. Therefore, every active perversion is found alongside its passive opposite: the exhibitionist as at the same time in his unconscious a voyeur; with repressed sadistic impulses we can find masochistic inclinations determining symptoms.[20] However, as the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together work can be done to regulate them[21].      


Today it is crucial for us to remember what Freud writes when he says “...we have observed that the presence of both parents plays an important part. The absence of a strong father in childhood not infrequently favours the occurrence of inversion.”[22] Lacan’s insistence in The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious that the true function of the Father is to unite desire and Law[23] commands our attention, once again, to The Ethics and his interrogation of Freud’s Three Essays. Lacan writes:


Freud uses two correlative terms concerning the effects of the individual libidinal adventure: Fixierarbeit is the fixation that is for the register of explanation of that which is, in fact, inexplicable, and Haftbarkeit, which is perhaps best translated by “perseverance” but has a curious resonance in German, since it means also “responsibility”, “commitment.” And that is what is involved here: it concerns our collective history as analysts.[24]      


As Freud’s papers on sexuality clearly demonstrate, the malleability of sexual drives can be regulated through language. He demonstrates that, by virtue of the vicissitudes, the mutability of sexuality can bring about a change in human affairs[25].



Malachi McCoy.

[1] Freud. Infantile Sexuality. Essay II: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. (1905d) S.E. VII.  p. 176. 

[2] Freud. The Sexual Aberrations. Essay I: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. (1905d) S.E. p. 168.   

[3] Freud. Infantile Sexuality. op. cit., p. 205.

[4] Freud. Sexual Abberations. op. cit., p. 168.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid. footnote 2 page 168.  

[7] Lacan. The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis.Écrits: A Selection. p. 52.

[8] Freud. The Aberrations. op. cit., p. 168.

[9] Freud. ibid. p. 169. 

[10] Freud. Infantile Sexuality. ibid. p. 176.

[11] Lacan. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. pp. 176-177.

[12]Freud. Infantile Sexuality. p. 178.

[13] Lacan. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. 1959-1960. Book VII. p. 157.

[14] Freud. Infantile Sexuality. note 2. pp 178-9.

[15] ibid. p. 205 note 1.

[16] Freud. The Sexual Aberrations. op. cit., p. 165.

[17] ibid. Footnote 2. p. 165.

[18] Freud. Infantile Sexuality. op. cit., p.199.

[19] ibid. p.198.

[20] Freud. Sexual Aberrations. op. cit., p. 167.  

[21] ibid. p. 148. 

[22] ibid. p. 146. Footnote.  

[23] Lacan. The Subversion of the Subject and the Ddialectic of Desire in the FreudianUnconscious. Écrits. p. 321.

[24] Lacan. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. op. cit., p. 88.

[25] Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.  Vicissitude: mutation; mutability; change in human affairs.