Dermot Hickey : Becoming stuck on the long path of human development. *

My experience of working on Freud’s Three Essays was like being Alice down the Rabbit Hole: things seem to make sense, then make too much sense before sense melting away. The text itself is circular; beginning and ending on the same topic, namely a discussion of inversion, the sexual aberration which for Freud isn’t an aberration.  It doesn’t follow a temporal structure: the Essay on Infantile Sexuality begins with amnesia, not being able to remember sexual matters, and the period of latency when infantile sexuality is suppressed. Freud’s method is to present a slice of sexual theory, work over it using his concepts and let it fall where it will, resulting in a fragmentary and multi-layered text. The book we have is the result of new sections and footnotes being added over the nineteen years following publication. My preferred English translation of the title is “Three Essays on Sexual Theory” because Freud is also taking the question of theory in hand, the scientific method he believes in, and the result of his researches is that theory does not hold together in this encounter with sex.

The final sentence of the Three Essays reads: “The unsatisfactory conclusion, however, that emerges from these investigations of the disturbances of sexual life is that we know far too little of the biological processes constituting the essence of sexuality to be able to construct from our fragmentary information (vereinzelten Einsichte) a theory adequate to the understanding alike of normal and pathological conditions”1. Strachey translates “vereinzelten Einsichte” as fragmentary information but a more accurate version is “scattered insights”. Of course Freud does use the word “fragment” throughout the Three Essays: The German word Ein Stück: Piece, Play, Bit, Part, Item, Portion, Lump, Slice, Chunk, Stretch, wedge, unit, track, chapter, head, fragment, scrap, snippet, gobbet, snatch, slip.

The question I brought to my reading of the Three Essays for this Study Day was what light they might shed on the increase in the diagnosis of Neurodevelopmental Disorders in children and adults, certainly in the West, over recent decades: Communication Disorders; Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); Neurodevelopmental Motor Disorders, including Tic Disorders; Specific Learning Disorders etc. These disorders are seen to be related, on a spectrum from “normal” to what was traditionally viewed as autistic. This spectrum is characterised by social and communication deficits, heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation and anxiety. These disorders are seen to be fixed in nature, not subject to change or cure. A more recent phenomenon is where neuro-diversity or neuro-divergence has become the basis of personal and group identities.

This Paper does not directly answer the question of why there is an efflorescence in the diagnosis of neuro-developmental disorders but my reading of “The Three Essays” is that a symptom for Freud is always a solution to a difficulty, that these difficulties are sexual and the solutions aim to get rid of the unpleasure sex brings with it.

My initial understanding was that these neurodevelopmental disorders emerge in the period of sexual latency. Latency implies something exists but is not active and Freud stresses the importance of this period of sexual latency in childhood: In his essay on infantile sexuality Freud writes that infantile sexuality is interrupted by the period of sexual latency thus making it bi-phasic. During latency the store of energy produced from sexual excitation contributes on one hand to social feelings and on the other to the building of sexual barriers such as shame, disgust and the claims of aesthetic and moral ideals. Freud links the latency period to the development of civilisation and culture and when latency does not occur to lack of educability. For Freud it is a time of progressive suppression of sexual impulses. There is intensification in repression and sublimation but reaction formations are what are most characteristic, namely what leads to the formation of the individual’s character traits. In a 1920 footnote Freud gives examples of how such character traits developed in latency through reaction formation can be traced to specific erotogenic component instincts, in this case to the anal-sadistic instinct.

Freud does not explain why suppression of sexual manifestations occurs at this time, only that it has to happen both for the development of society and of the individual. What is being suppressed are the sexual manifestations of the first wave of infantile sexuality which Freud describes as a phase of efflorescence of sexual activity (from the age of 2 or 3 to 5 or 6). For Freud the essential characteristics of infantile sexual manifestations during this first phase are:

  • Arise out of a dependence on vital bodily functions
  • Have no sexual object. They are autoerotic. In fact he states that the sexual object recedes into the background during the development of the sexual instinct
  • Their sexual aim is dominated by an erotogenic zone and this can be any part of the body.

These infantile sexual manifestations develop into the component instincts. Freud concludes that there are three possible outcomes, forms of sexual life, this development can result in: perversions, neuroses and sublimations. What he terms fixations. Freud points out that “psychoanalysis makes it doubtful whether fresh pathological fixations can occur so late as this”2 namely after the age of 5 or 6 and so they occur prior to latency. Therefore the “fixedness” characteristic of neurodevelopmental disorders is distinct from the process of fixation. In any case for Freud sexual latency is only ever partial; sexual currents continue in the unconscious and fragments of sexual activity can interrupt, abbreviate or bring to an end the period of latency at any time.

The second wave of infantile sexual development is characterised by the return of the sexual object at puberty but the changes which occur at this time have already been put in place at latency.

A particular quotation from Freud’s Summary to the Three Essays framed my question.  I quote: “Every step on this long path of development can become a point of fixation, every juncture in this involved combination can be an occasion for the dissociation of the sexual instinct”3. The word juncture in German is “fuge” as in the musical term fugue: namely when a short melody or phrase is introduced by one part and successively taken up by others and developed by interweaving the parts. Thus my understanding that the sexual instinct can dissociate into its component parts at any point when something new is added.

In his Summary to the Three Essays on Sexuality Freud reviews the factors which interfere with the development of the sexual instinct and hence to the susceptibility for fixations. He writes that he is left with a question: Why do premature sexual manifestations (temporal factors) or intense instinctual impulses (either dispositional or constitutional factors) or again external factors (seduction), result in neurosis or perversion in some people but “fail to make so deep an impression in others?”4. All these factors do not determine the outcome for the sexual instinct. They may shape the development of the sexual instinct but Freud’s somewhat surprising conclusion that neither these factors nor the sexual instinct itself explain the importance [bedeutung] of all early sexual manifestations for later life.  In the Summary to the Three Essays Freud introduces a psychical factor to account for the persistence of early sexual manifestations, which he terms “haftbarkeit” and that it is of unknown origin. This term is translated by Strachey as pertinacity, the quality of sticking with something no matter what. The German noun “haft” has two main meanings: Imprisonment and adhesive. Early sexual manifestations imprison or stick like glue. Freud does not elaborate on this psychical factor (There is no reference to it in the text of the Three Essays) nor is it a concept he develops in his subsequent writings.

 Strachey less helpfully translates Freud’s German word “Anlage” as disposition, but an exact meaning is system or installation, namely the way the component instincts have crystallised in the individual: The sexual instinct is not only polymorphous it is also polymorphic.  

I believe Freud’s concept of object is key to an understanding of “haftbarkeit”. He writes that the sexual object recedes into the background as the sexual instinct develops only to re-emerge in puberty in a form Lacan designates as the genital object. Of note the term autoeroticism, when the child obtains sexual satisfaction from his own body rather than from an outside sexual object, is the origin of the term autism with the “oerotic” removed. Freud introduces the sexual object as one of the two concepts, technical terms, sexual object and sexual aim, on the first page of the Three Essays. I quote Freud again: “Let us call

the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds the sexual object and the act toward which the instinct tends (drängt: penetrates or pushes through) the sexual aim”5. It is an extraordinary definition. There is no subject in it. Sexual attraction proceeds from someone, some person as an object and the instinct pushes through something towards an act. There are two levels here. To begin with there are sexual objects and then actions the sexual instinct aims at. Freud writes only about the development of the sexual instinct but also notes that the component instincts are not primary. Sex is.  A distinction in German is lost in the English translation; ‘geschlechtliche’ is the German word used in the phrase sexual attraction: sex as stamped and the German word ‘sexual’ in the phrases sexual object and sexual aim: sex as cut. 

Freud’s definition of instinct in the Three Essays: “By an ‘instinct’ is provisionally to be understood the psychical representative of an endosomatic, continuously flowing source of stimulation”6. He further defines it in Beyond the Pleasure Principle: “Instincts are representatives of all the forces originating in the interior of the body and transmitted to the mental apparatus”7.

In his Seminar, La Relation d’objet and Freudian Structures, Lacan explores Freud’s understanding of the concept of object and the misunderstandings about it which had developed in psychoanalysis:

 “The central relation to the object, the one which is dynamically creative, is that of lack. In analytic experience all finding of the object, Freud tells us, is a Wiederfindung”8, a refinding. Lacan goes on to specify the three ways of speaking about the object, or more accurately the lack of an object in psychoanalysis:

1. the quest for the lost object.

2. As part of Freud’s notion of reality: the concept Wirklichkeit, everything that effectively happens derived from Wirkung (effect) and understood as “the whole of the mechanism”.

3. Imaginary reciprocity: “identification with the object as the basis of every relation to it”9. Lacan notes that the fundamental experience of infantile sexuality for Freud is the conservation of the first object, the mother, in memory, unbeknownst to the subject. All later objects will always be lacking but the subject will not know, cannot know, in what they lack. Freud notes in the Summary to the Three Essays that part of the explanation of haftbarkeit lies in another psychical factor: the preponderance attaching in mental life to memory traces [Erinnerungsspuren] (Spuren: traces, tracks, marks) in comparison with recent impressions. The psychical system/mental apparatus drains away the excitation which the organism experiences as unpleasure through the process of representing them as memory traces. Hence Freud’s definition of sublimation in the Three Essays, namely it entails a greater efficiency of the psychical mechanism, better at draining away excitations in the organism. However this process does not work for sexual events.

Freud writes that “at the first beginnings of sexual satisfaction the sexual instinct has a sexual object, the mother’s breast” and again “It is only later that the instinct loses that object, just at the time, perhaps, when the child is able to form a total idea (vorstellung) of the person to whom the organ that is giving him satisfaction belongs”10. The key word here is ‘perhaps’ as he further writes that “an important part (Stück) of this first and most important of sexual relations is left over”11. As Freud noted in his discussion of the latency period, “a fragmentary manifestation of sexuality: (ein Stück sexualausserung: a fragment sexual statement”) which has evaded sublimation may break through in latency”12. This leftover fragment of the relationship with the mother continues to operate from the beginning of the child’s sexual manifestations.     

Lacan points out that Freud’s second use of the concept of object is when reality “is brought into play in the dual principle, the pleasure principle and the reality principle”13, “the object hallucinated against the background of an anxiety-provoking reality”14.   Lacan’s key point is about the confusion which reigns in psychoanalysis about our understanding of “what is really at stake in the operation of analytic reality, is something which represents nothing less than a misrecognition of the symbolic Wirklichkeit”15.

Lacan’s third specification of the use of the concept object in psychoanalysis, identification. Freud notes that the oral component instinct comes to play an important part in identification.


Once more Freud’s technical terms: “Let us call the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds the sexual object and the act toward which the instinct tends the sexual aim”16. A possible translation: Sex proceeds from the Grand Autre and is met by acts of suppression. These operate at two different levels: The first sexual object does not develop, it is fragmentary and we see its traces in the Three Essays when Freud makes reference to the scopic instinct, to the oral instinct and to the anal instinct. That which Lacan develops as the objet a:  the breast, faeces, the look, and the voice. The only reference to speech I found was in a 1910 footnote about the little Hans case which “has taught us much that is new for which we have not been prepared by psychoanalysis: for instance, the fact that sexual symbolism – the representation of what is sexual by non-sexual objects and relations- extends back into the first years of the possession of the power of speech.”17.

What characterises the sexual instinct is action (the word Freud uses is trieb, drive) and Freud’s conclusion is that all fixations (perversions, neuroses and sublimations) are at risk of dissociation because to the impossibility of fixing any sense onto sex. That this can happen when anything new is added points us to what is involved in latency: the suppression of the sexual impulses in the sexual instinct as they are experienced as unpleasureable. The “fixed” characteristic of neurodevelopmental disorders may be a consequence of a greater reliance on reaction-formation and the greater preponderance of these disorders to a decline in social and cultural ideals of civilisation as ways of regulating sex: a shift to the side of imprisonment and away from adhesive implicit in Freud’s concept of “haftbarkeit”.


*This Paper was delivered as a contribution to the Study Day on Freud’s “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” organised by the Milltown Lacanian Association in Dublin on October 16th 2021.

1.  Freud, S. (1905) “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press. p 243.     
2.   Idib. p 154
3.   Idib. p 235.
4.   Idib. p 242.
5.   Idib. p 7.
6.   Idib. p168.
7.   Freud, S. (1920) “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” Volume XVIII London, Hogarth Press. p 34.
 8.  Lacan, J.  Seminar IV (1956 - 1957). “The Object Relation & Freudian Structures”. Translation by the Earl’s Court Collective (2020). p 149.
9.   Idib. p 20.
10. Freud, S. (1905) “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press. p 222.
11. Idib. p 222.
12. Idib. p 179.
13. Lacan, J.  Seminar IV (1956 - 1957). “The Object Relation & Freudian Structures”. Translation by the Earl’s Court Collective (2020). p 28.
14. Idib. p 20.   
15. Idib. p 7.
16. Freud, S. (1905) “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press. pp 135-36.
17 Idib. p 194.