Stéphanie Metcalfe : Perversion and Neurosis: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Perversion and Neurosis: Two Sides of the Same Coin1

 

 

“If analysis has made any positive discovery about libidinal development, it is that the child is a pervert, even a polymorphous pervert.”2

 

 

Lacan reminds us that Freud’s contention that the germs of perversion inhere in all subjects remains one of the most important, if widely refuted discoveries of psychoanalysis. This paper aims to interrogate in more detail the oft-quoted phrase ‘neuroses are the negative of perversions’3. An in-depth examination of the analytic perspective allows us to understand this statement more fully and to grasp how the development of sexuality relates to the emergence of a neurotic position.

 

 

Infantile Sexuality

 

Freud recognised infantile sexuality from his extensive work with neurotic patients as far back as the late 1800s and throughout the whole of his work he was unwavering in his conviction that what is laid down at this very early stage for the child has a determining effect on their later sexual development and the emergence of neurotic symptoms. In a paper entitled ‘Sexuality in the Aetiology of the Neurosis’ Freud appeals to his contemporaries and the wider public in relation to their ability to speak about sexual matters, stating:

 

“…a place must be created in public opinion for the discussion of the problems of sexual life. It will have to become possible to talk about these things without being deemed a trouble-maker…And so here, too, there is enough work left to do for the next hundred years – in which our civilisation will have to learn to come to terms with the claims of our sexuality”4

 

I wonder in relation to this statementwhether we have, indeed one hundred and twenty years later, in our so called sexually liberated society, come to terms with sexual matters. Indeed, have we even developed an ability to speak about them? It is important to remember that Freud parted ways with many of his peers and colleagues,Breuer5 and Jung6,to name two, as they were not willing to remain as steadfast in their belief in the importance of the theory of sexuality. In light of this it is not surprising that Freud would make such an appeal and the question remains regarding what progress we have made. Where are we today in relation to sex?

 

 

 

Perversion and Neurosis

 

In his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud suggests that, in relation to his experience of perversion (and he acknowledges that we are all perverse, the question is whether we remain so7) the subject has three paths open to him: to give way to the perverse instincts in the form of sexual activity, to repress them and develop symptoms (neurosis) or to modify them in some way (a compromise allowing for a more ‘normal’ outcome)8. It is important to highlight that the modification that he alludes to here is a unification or coming together of the component instincts whereby the subject can engage in genital sex. Lacan supports this theory in the following statement:

 

“Before the stage of genital normalisation, first sketched around the Oedipus complex, the child is given over to an entire series of phases connoted by the term component drives. These are its first libidinal relations to the world.”9

 

So, every child is perverse and will either remain so, or will modify their behaviour towards a more normal, genital attitude or will repress their perversion and develop neurotic symptoms. Here we see the development of the well-known theory in question. Interestingly and as we often find with Freud, he had already raised this point in his letters to Fliess years earlier, among them letter 52 where he states “hysteria is not repudiated sexuality but rather repudiated perversion”10. In a much later, fascinating paper from 1908 ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’ he elaborates further on the point, stating:

 

“unconscious complexes…have a sexual content. They spring from the sexual needs of people who are unsatisfied and represent for them a kind of substitutive satisfaction. We must therefore view all factors which impair sexual life, suppress its activity or distort its aim as being pathogenic factors in the psychoneuroses as well.”11

 

He goes on to outline three stages of civilisation:

 

“1. where the sexual instinct is freely exercised

 

2. where all of the sexual instinct is suppressed except what serves the aim of reproduction

 

3. in which only legitimate reproduction is allowed as a sexual aim.”12

 

Take the second aim as stated above, in order to reach this stage, it is necessary that the component instincts of the auto-erotic phase come together to achieve object love, uniting the genitals. If it is not possible for the individual to achieve this there are two outcomes according to Freud – one being positive and one being negative. What he means here in terms of a positive result is that of ‘perversion’ and in the negative sense the outcome is ‘neurosis’. Freud affirms:

 

“I have described the neuroses as the ‘negative’ of the perversions because in the neuroses the perverse impulses, after being repressed, manifest themselves from the unconscious part of the mind – because the neuroses contain the same tendencies though in a state of ‘repression’ as do the positive perversions”13

 

Sublimation

 

It is important to highlight that there is another way open to the subject apart from remaining in the position of acting on perverse drives or repressing them resulting in neurosis. This path is that of sublimation. Quite simply Freud defines this as:

 

“the capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychically related to the first aim…”14

 

He places it during the period of latency in the development of childhood sexuality. This stage is elaborated in the Three Essays and in Freud’s discussion of the Dora case he contends that the perversions:

 

“…by being diverted to higher, asexual aims – by being ‘sublimated’; - are destined to provide the energy for a great number of our cultural achievements.”15

 

Clearly this is a palatable, desirable outcome for as Freud states in his Three Essays:

 

“the multifariously perverse sexual disposition of childhood can accordingly be regarded as the source of a number of our virtues, in so far as through reaction-formation it stimulates their development.”16

 

He also deals with the issue of sublimation in “On Narcissism” which is the second paper in SE XIV, where he states that sublimation is a ‘way out’ that does not involve repression.17 Here, he is referring to the demands placed on the individual by the creation of an ideal and the pressure this exerts which favours repression. So, we must now turn our attention to the following question; if sublimation is regarded as salutary for the subject in what circumstance is it not attainable? Freud states in 1909 that the drive may display an obstinate fixation and may not lend itself easily to this exchange and this will lead to what Freud terms ‘abnormalities’18...These abnormalities will manifest in a sexual or symptomatic way. So, we now see that a thorough comprehension of psychosexual development is essential when diagnosing or treating cases of neuroses because of the intimate link between sexuality and the subject’s mental life. In fact, Lacan states, perversion and neurosis are, in some senses, the same thing. In Seminar V entitled ‘Formations of the Unconscious’ he contends:

 

“…perversion, …, involves exactly the same mechanisms of the evasion of something which is fundamental to him… which are well and truly the fundamental terms that we find in the analysis of neuroses, which are oedipal terms…”19

 

A further look at two well-known neurotic cases of note should help us elaborate this theory.

 

 

 

 

Jouissance in the Symptom

 

As early as 1898 Freud had stated:

 

“Exhaustive researches during the last few years have led me to recognise that the most immediate and… the most significant causes of every case of neurotic illness are to be found in factors arising from sexual life. This theory is not entirely new.”20

 

He will go on to delineate evidence of this in his famous case of hysteria – Dora and his famous case of obsessional neurosis – The Rat Man. In Dora, a case published in 1905, the same year as the Three Essays, he provides clinical evidence to support his theory that “All psycho-neurotics are persons with strongly marked perverse tendencies21.Dora’s symptom of coughing and throat irritation are linked to her phantasies of fellatio. There happened to be a ‘somatic prerequisite’ for this phantasy which was that she had been a thumb-sucker as a child and the habit had to be broken by her father in her fourth or fifth year. In his Three Essays Freud outlines the manifestations of infantile sexuality – one of the characteristics being the feature of auto-erotism and another being the focus on the component instincts which act independently of one another. So, this lingering over a component instinct which provided a complete form of self-gratification, according to Freud’s theory, could become a point of fixation in the form of a perversion or can be turned into its negative in the form of neurosis and hysterical symptoms. We know that it is the latter that happened in her case, but it strikes us as a very fine line. In relation to neurotics Freud states in 1898

 

“in the very description of their symptoms, which they are only too ready to give, they have usually acquainted him (the doctor) at the same time with the sexual factors that are hidden behind.”22

 

For Dora the irritation in her throat, persistent cough, aphonia represent an oral fixation where that particular component instinct takes precedence. In the case of the Rat Man his anal fixation found expression in his phantasy of the rat torture, representing a pathological fear in relation to the people he loved most in his life – his father and the lady. His frustration at being separated from his lady causes him to experience the suicidal thought of wanting to cut his own throat. In fact, he wanted to cut the throat of the ailing grandmother who he blamed for keeping his lady from him and he then wanted to be punished himself for having such an abhorrent thought. Sadism, which is one of the perversions and understood by Freud as corresponding to an aggressive component of the sexual drive is outlined as involving another person as an object and belonging to the pre-genital organisation.23

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt that both Dora and the Rat Man experienced frustration in their sexual lives which according to Freud increases the psychical value a person places on sexual satisfaction.

 

“The damned-up libido is now put in a position to detect one or other of the weaker spots which are seldom absent in the structure of sexual life, and there to break through and obtain substitutive satisfaction of a neurotic kind in the form of pathological symptoms.”24

 

Perhaps, here, we can glean a better comprehension of the complex term ‘jouissance’. In Seminar V25 Lacan reminds us that there is no simple relationship between man and his object of enjoyment. For, if that were the case psychoanalysis would not have to deal with the problems it is presented with. On the contrary, for the subject “everything that happens at the level that we call perverse, consists in the fact that he enjoys (jouit de) his desire.”26 So the neurotic gets a substitutive satisfaction, a jouissance, from desiring and from his frustration. Lacan emphasises: “the subject does not simply satisfy a desire, he enjoys desiring, and this is an essential dimension of his jouissance”27

 

 

 

 

Critique of Freud

 

A common criticism of Freud is that he over-emphasised the sexual element of psychological life placing too much value on its significance in terms of the mental distress it causes the subject. However, Lacan is right behind him in this theory and is critical of how little attention is paid to his momentous discovery. From Seminar I again, he states:

 

“perversion was considered essentially as something whose aetiology, whose cause, is to be specifically referred to the pre-oedipal field. It was from an abnormal fixation that perversion took on its conditioning, its root. This is the reason, moreover, why perversion was therefore nothing but inverted neurosis, or more exactly the neurosis that had not been inverted, the neurosis that remained open to view; what was inverted in the neurosis could be seen openly in the perversion, the unconscious was there open to the skies; what was involved in perversion had not been repressed in the sense of not having passed through the Oedipus complex. This is a conception that nobody gives any weight to today.”28

 

In both case studies outlined above we witness what Freud describes as a ‘flight into illness’29 and this phenomenon he associates with the third stage of civilisation “in which only legitimate reproduction is allowed as a sexual aim”30. What we see represented here is “a conflict between the pressure of cultural influences and the resistance of their constitution”31.The repressed sexual desires and wishes are evident in both cases, as is the inability to successfully sublimate, which, according to Freud will only be achieved by a minority32. The Rat Man faced with the prospect of marriage and his mother’s express desire for him to settle down seems to experience an exacerbation of his symptoms and he is paralysed, unable to move forward in his life. Dora denies her sexuality and finds refuge in her illness. As Freud states in relation to female neurosis “Nothing protects her virtue as securely as an illness”33 until Freud comes along to uncover her true motivations.

 

 

 

Sexual Restrictions

 

The aim of analysis is to uncover what is unknown to us in order to liberate the subject from his symptoms or at least to understand the perverse tendencies that lie behind them. In the Three Essays on Sexuality Freud assures us that

 

“Psychoanalytic investigation enables us to make what has been forgotten conscious and thus do away with a compulsion that arise from the unconscious psychical material.”34

 

It is important to consider the historical context of Freud’s writing in order to deal with another of the criticisms that his theory is called to respond to. What relevance in today’s society? Indeed, Freud asserts:

 

“Anyone who is able to penetrate the determinants of nervous illness will soon become convinced that its increase in our society arises from the intensification of sexual restrictions.”35

 

Is he referring to private or self-imposed restrictions or those felt from wider society? If we supposedly live in a society which has lifted these sexual restrictions, which is much freer in terms of sexual matters, gender, family configurations etc. why is there no reduction in the incidence of neurosis? In fact, perhaps we could say quite the opposite – although the symptomatology looks different – are we living in the age of anxiety and neurosis? Freud’s argument seems to be that the limitations imposed on individual’s sexual freedom, along with their inability to sublimate are the root cause of their issues. Does this indicate that the perception of our so-called progress regarding sexual matters and a loosening of our moral boundaries is some kind of illusion? Perhaps this relaxation of a strict sexual moral code that must be adhered to has only happened on an imaginary plane?

 

 

Conclusion

 

Have we risen to the challenge that Freud poses to us in the following plea?:

 

“…it is in the interest of all of us that a higher degree of honesty about sexual things should become a duty among men & women… This cannot be anything but a gain for sexual morality… It will be all to our good if, as a result of such general honesty, a certain amount of toleration in sexual concerns should be attained.”36

 

Although there is a lot of talk today about the importance of solving sexual problems at the level of physical intervention, what about the notion that, from an analytic perspective, the sexual is always psychosexual and therefore we must look for the remedy of our modern-day problems at the level of the psyche, the mental. In other words, have we neglected the psychical in favour of the sexual as physical or physiological? As always, a return to Freud’s ground-breaking work on how the subject deals with perverse tendencies and drives has proved essential to understanding the relationship between neurosis and perversion.

 

Stephanie Metcalfe

 

 

 

1 This paper was first delivered as part of a study day with the Milltown Lacanian Association and Omar Guerrero on the 28.11.2020.

 

2 Lacan, J. Book 1 Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and Trans. By John Forrester, New York and London, Norton and Company, p.214.

 

3 Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p. 165.

 

4 Freud, S. Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neurosis (1898) Standard Edition III, London, Hogarth Press, p.278

 

5 When we read the preface to the second edition of the Studies on Hysteria we also note that Breuer has distanced himself from psychoanalysis in the quote “I have since that time had no active dealings with the subject; I have had no part in its important development” in Freud, S. Studies on Hysteria (1895) Standard Edition II, London, Hogarth Press, p. xxxi.

 

6 Freud himself in the History of the Analytic Movement will outline his separation from Jung on theoretical grounds in Freud, S. On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914) Standard Edition XIV, London, Hogarth Press.

.

 

7 He states “When…anyone has become a pervert, it would be more correct to say that he has remained one” in Freud, S. Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.50.

 

8 Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.160-172.

 

9 Lacan, J. Book 1 Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and Trans. By John Forrester, New York and London, Norton and Company, p.214.

 

10 Freud, S Letter 52. December 1896 Standard Edition I, London, Hogarth Press, p.239.

 

11 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.186.

 

12 Ibid. p.189.

 

13 Ibid, p.191

 

14 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.187.

 

15 Freud, S. Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.50.

 

16 Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.238

 

17 Freud, S. On Narcissism (1914) Standard Edition XIV, London, Hogarth Press, p.95.

 

18 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.187.

 

19 Lacan, J. Seminar V (1957-1958) Trans C. Gallagher at www.lacaninireland.com. Seminar 13: Wednesday 12 February 1958

 

20 Freud, S. Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neurosis (1898) Standard Edition III, London, Hogarth Press, p.263.

 

21 Freud, S. Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.50.

 

22 Freud, S. Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neurosis (1898) Standard Edition III, London, Hogarth Press, p.266.

 

23 Outlined in Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.156-159.

 

24 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.194.

 

25 Lacan, J. Seminar V (1957-1958) Trans C. Gallagher at www.lacaninireland.com. Session of 26th March 1958, p.229.

 

26 Ibid., p.230

 

27 Ibid., p.229

 

28 Lacan, J. Book 1 Freud’s Papers on Technique 1953-1954 Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller and Trans. By John Forrester, New York and London, Norton and Company, p.115-116.

 

29 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p.192

 

30Ibid., p.189.

 

31 Ibid., p.192

 

32 Ibid., p.193.

 

33 Ibid., p.195.

 

34 Freud, S. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905) Standard Edition VII, London, Hogarth Press, p.189.

 

35 Freud, S. Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness (1908) Standard Edition IX, London, Hogarth Press, p. 194.

 

36 Freud, S. Sexuality in the Aetiology of Neurosis (1898) Standard Edition III, London, Hogarth Press, p.266

 

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