MALAISE, mal-être, ma lettre

by Robert Silhol

April 24, 2012




                                                MALAISE,  mal-être, ma lettre



No doubt, when Freud wrote Das Undehagens in der Kultur, * in 1929, he had in mind what was happening in Germany at the time. His interrogation on evil, however, is quite in keeping with what he had already discovered and made known to the world.  Indeed, his interrogation on ethics is carried out along the very same lines as The Interpretation of Dreams or Beyond the Pleasure Principle and most of the concepts used are familiar to us.


Jacques Lacan, some thirty years later, perhaps because of what he saw happening in France and in the world—just a few years before 1968--, also showed himself concerned with ethics. A keen reader of Freud, he chose « Civilization and its Discontent » as his text and has left us, in his Séminaire VII, l’Ethique de la Psychanalyse, a rich commentary on Freud’s own research.


Now, precisely because of what we have learnt from Freud, and from Lacan, too, it seems we may be in a position to give an interpretation of Freud’s own text which will clarify some of the least satisfactory points in the debate (those touching the superego, for instance) and this may lead to a slightly more convincing explanation of what Freud called our destructive drive, this idea of a Death instinct in us which is still being discussed in many psychoanalytical circles. 




What does Freud say, then, what are the main points of his approach?


To begin with, I think it is not devoid of interest to note that Civilization and its Discontents first presents itself as an answer to Romain Rolland’s question on the nature of what he calls an « oceanic feeling,» « a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic’ ! (64). In the paragraph which follows, the third, Freud confesses he cannot discover this «’oceanic feeling’ » in himself, also wisely adding that « it is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings, » while nonetheless showing interest in his friend’s question.


We shall certainly have to return to those first paragraphs of Freud’s essay, for it seems indeed that they can receive a reading, an interpretation that will reveal a dimension only adumbrated by their author at the time but clearly contained, expressed, in the words and notions used.


Inspired by Romain Rolland’s question, then, who sees in the oceanic feeling mentioned the source of « religious energy, » Freud comes to ask whether the said feeling « ought to be regarded as the fons et origo of the whole need for religion » and thus embarks on his inquiry into ethics.


What opens the debate, next, is an astonishingly clear and concise reminder of the great mental categories which constitute the basis of psychoanaytical thinking:


      Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self,

      of our own ego [ich]. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary,

      marked off distinctly from everything else. That such an appearance is deceptive, and

      that on the contrary the ego is continued inwards, without any sharp delimitation, into

      an unconscious mental entity which we designate as the id and for which it serves as a

      kind of façade—this was the discovery first made by psychoanalytic research, which

      should still have much to tell us about the relationship of the ego and the id. (65-66)


Such a distinction of an outside and of an inside, and the interrogation about the relationship between the two, quite naturally leads to the apparition of the Pleasure Principle in the debate, followed in the next few lines by that of the Reality Principle.  It is easy to see that we are here at the very heart of psychoanalytic theory, and we are not surprised to find in the passage the notion of the « deceptive » nature of an « autonomous » ego, ich, a « façade, » really, although no « sharp delineation » can be found between what is inside and what is not, the ego being « continued inwards. »


This search for a sharp delineation separating the ich and the world, the ego and its object, together with the failure of such a quest, leads to the construction of a paradoxical model in which we have, on one hand, an impassable barrier—I call it the psychoanalytic bar, la barre--and, on the other, the reminder of the persistence of some sort of communication between the two sides of the said barrier. (One may, at this point, also be reminded of W.Bion’s « porous membrane. »)


In their radical opposition, the Pleasure Principle and the Reality Principle tell the absolute character of the Law, the impossibility, to put it simply, to dispense with the separation between subject and object. This, however, is not the end of the story, for in what we may call the « relationship » between what these two concepts represent there appears a third term : indeed, if the impossibility I have just mentioned cannot be lifted, it can nevertheless be—symbolically—trespassed, our two concepts thus forming the paradoxical figure of an interdiction which can be gone around, as it were, with which, let us say, we may come to an arrangement. And this, of course, is sublimation, a concept which I will discuss at length later.


But perhaps I have been reading these first few pages too quickly, and it may be that a closer look at Freud’s very words will help us to understand more fully what is implied in the model he was then constructing. See for instance the terms he uses to describe what we may call the discovery of the object by the infant. He has just spoken of the mother’s breast, and then:


          In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego an ‘object’ in the form of

          something which exists ‘outside’  […]  (67)


and he continues, a few lines below :


          Some of the things one is not willing to give up […] are nevertheless not ego but    

          object ; and some sufferings that one seeks to expel turn out to be inseparable from the

          ego in virtue of their internal origin […] In this way, then, the ego detaches itself from

          the external world. Or, to put it more correctly, originally the ego includes everything,

          later it separates off an external world from itself.  (67)


Naturally, we are here dealing with concepts and not with a person, an infant, capable of decision and in possession of a free will which would enable it to detach itself from this or that. Freud may vaguely have felt this and it might explain his « to put things more correctly » which comes next and the way he somewhat rephrases his statement, returning in fact to the moment, or to the notion, of separation. Indeed, what is being discussed here is a process within the person, a person whose unity, oneness, must have existed before separation, hence the idea added by Freud of a « more intimate bond between the ego and the world about. »


Such at least is the hypothesis Freud makes, that of a « primary ego »—and today I think we may safely speak of a primary state or condition of the person—existing before separation. We shall not be too concerned with the idea that such a primary sate, or « ego, » may still coexist within the borders of the mature ego, but we shall note the interesting opposition between a « narrower and more sharply demarcated ego feeling » and the possible absence of such « borders. » This is indeed a fundamental opposition and I shall return to it later.


But what remnants are there in the « sphere of the mind » of such times when there were no « borders »? Quite naturally, the idea of a « bond with the universe » now leads Freud to a question about the existence of possible memory traces of such a time.


However, having, for over two pages, and with the help of the archeological history of Rome, examined the hypothesis that « in mental life nothing which has been can perish, » he remains most prudent:


          Perhaps we are going too far in this. Perhaps we ought to content ourselves with

          asserting that what is past in mental life may be preserved and is not necessarily





          It is possible, but we know nothing about it. (72)


Obviously, this touches the difficult problem encountered whenever the unconscious, (1) as a concept, comes into discussion. At this point, the difficulty seems to have led Freud to return to Romain Rolland’s original question and to the concern with a possible « oceanic feeling » and its relationship with religious needs. In spite of appearances, however, this is no retreat, and one quickly passes from the topic of religion to that of the infant’s helplessness and to the assertion that the child needs « a father’s protection. » Those are familiar terms, and even though we are here dealing with « intangible quantities, » as Freud writes, we have not left the field of psychoanalytical research. No doubt, this first part, section or chapter, of the essay ends as it had started, and we do not seem to have made much progress. And yet, if we pay attention to Freud’s very words, once again, we feel the answer is there somehow.


         The ‘oneness with the universe’ which constitutes [the oceanic feeling’s] ideational

         content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another

         way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the

         external world. (72)


We are not far, I think, from the « bar » and from the human response to it.






It is to this response that the Second Section of Freud’s text is devoted, and at the center of the discussion we find the opposition of the Reality Principle to the Pleasure Principle. For « the program of becoming happy which the pleasure principle imposes on us cannot be fulfilled ; and yet we must not—indeed we cannot—give up our efforts to bring it nearer to fulfilment by some means or other. » (83)


At this stage however, the radical character of what I have called the « bar » is not clearly envisaged, and indeed Freud rather speaks of an articulation between his two principles, as if the Pleasure Principle had been forced to adapt itself to circumstances, obliged in fact to remodel itself:


          It is no wonder if, under the pressure of these possibilities of suffering, men are

          accustomed to moderate their claims of happiness--just as the pleasure  

          principle itself, under the influence of the external world

          changed into the more modest reality principle.  (77)


For the time being, then, only the various « techniques of fending off suffering » are taken into consideration and it does seem—Freud says so—that there remains the possibility for us to act on our « claims of happiness, » as if the whole matter were simply a question of adaptation, and not the consequence of an impossibility. Indeed, the notion of a fundamental « incompleteness » in man, however mentioned in passing, seems forgotten. As is the idea that « our possibilities of happiness are […] restricted by our constitution,» or even the intimation that none of the « paths » taken  « in order to avoid suffering » can enable us

to « attain all that we desire. » (77)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 


What is considered instead is the fate of each individual, « the capacity of the psychical constitution » of each to adapt to the surrounding world, in an approach which does not distinguish what pertains to the domain of history—the personal history of each man and woman—from the domain of what one may call the human condition at large.


But this is not the end of the discussion, and the temporary conclusion of this second section  is not without reminding us of the existence of  the impossibility I am trying to define. Speaking of the failure of religion « to keep its promise, » Freud adds:


          If the believer finally sees himself obliged to speak of God’s ‘inscrutable           

          decrees’, he is admitting that all that is left to him as a last possible consolation

          and source of pleasure in his suffering is an unconditional submission. And if he is

          prepared for that, he could have spared himself the détour he has made. (85)





Society, however, is also at fault, for it does not seem to have kept its promises either. In the third section of his essay, Freud tries to understand, and explain, the reasons for such a failure:


          It seems certain that we do not feel comfortable in our present-day civilization […]


          It’s time for us to turn our attention to the nature of this civilization on whose

          value as a means of happiness doubts have been thrown. (89)


Obviously, the word « civilization » is to be understood as the process which, through time, has organized the collective life of man in general, whatever the particular laws and customs of each social group at a particular epoch. And yet, one cannot help thinking that behind the concept—general by nature—of civilization quite simply lies a specific reflection on the society Freud was living in, although he never overtly mentions what was happening in neighboring Germany at the time. His argumentation, in any case, remains valid for human societies at large in the world and for Austria and Europe in 1929. It is my opinion, then, that it was the economic and political situation in Europe after the First World War which incited Freud to engage specifically in a reflection on evil. One starts with a question on what an « oceanic feeling » in man could be—which I read as a desire for unity--, and this soon leads to a reflection on the reality of daily life in Europe in 1929 where the fate, the integrity of the members of a particular social group seems in great danger already, after which, one gets back to the general reflection and comes to consider the concept of Kultur, civilization, from the point of view of ethics. (2) Such was, I think, the movement followed by Freud’s reflection, and we are not surprised to discover that his interrogation is developed on two levels, for indeed quite a few remarks in Civilization and its Discontents have a double, though not contradictory, meaning.


What matters for us today in fact is to realize that history—contemporary history in Europe, but also history at large--was being analyzed with the tools of psychoanalysis. Freud, here, has enlarged his object, and the domain of the analysis carried out has become that of anthropology or even, although Freud is always very careful not to mention the word, of philosophy (ethics). From contemporary life to ethics, such seems indeed the direction followed in this third section, which explains Freud’s concern with what governs « the relationships between men »and also his questions on the problem of « individual freedom. »

At this stage of the discussion, the question, for him, is to find an appropriate balance between the rights of the individual and those of society. Conscious that « the replacement of the power of the individual by the power of the community constitutes the decisive steps of civilization,» he examines the particular case of a society where, as was the case in Germany at the time, only a minority--« a caste » or « a stratum of the population » or even « a racial group»--decides of the law and, behaving « like a violent individual,» leaves people « at the mercy of brute force. » History has led to a general reflection on « the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, » should be regulated. And since the « first requisite of civilization » is « that of justice, » one naturally comes to the conclusion that the law cannot « be broken in favor of one individual » or be « the expression of the will of a small community. »


Such principles are undisputable, but beyond them, it seems, the discussion hasn’t made much progress. We have proceeded from history to ethics, but nothing new has been found, as Freud himself remarks:


          […] so far we have discovered nothing that is not universally known. (96)


Nothing new, that is, unless we accept to read between the lines, and, with the help of the « tools » he has left us, interpret Freud’s discourse in his search for a convincing model. For indeed, two ideas emerge from this third section which are worth considering.                 


The first idea is the hypothesis of a « similarity between the process of civilization and the libidinal development of the individual,»(97) while the second amounts to Freud’s endeavor to find « an expedient accommodation,» a compromise in other words, between the rigor of the law and what he calls « instincts, » which, as we shall see, leads to the notion of sublimation : « if one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. » (97)


The parallel between the development of the individual and that of society points to the fact that in both cases one is confronted with an impossibility : whatever its desire for omnipotence, the infant cannot possess the whole world, exactly as, in a given community, a particular group cannot—should not--rule the whole of the community without paying attention to the existence and to the « rights » of others. In both cases, the image of the « bar » helpfully gives a graphic view of the situation.


And at this point it seems we must add a remark to Freud’s observation which may well amount to a modification of his formula.


For indeed Freud sees Kultur—which constitutes man’s access to civilization—as founded

on a  « renunciation of instinct ,» as if some freedom had had to be sacrificed in order to establish civilization, such renunciation becoming the cause of Kultur , whereas I see civilization, culture, as a consequence, an effect caused by the existence of the impossibility I call « the bar » and whose conditions of production have to be sought. This point deserves discussion.


If we agree that the very first law which confronts mankind simply comes from the nature of reality, the world out there--as if « it » were saying to man: « Thou shalt forever remain incomplete, only in your dreams, or in your discourse, shalt thou be able to pretend that it is not so and that the Real can be ignored »--, the idea of a renunciation may not quite be the notion required to describe the situation. For what we have is a « subject, » S, for whom there is no actual passing of the bar but also, and the remark is essential to my demonstration, a Subject who does not stop imagining that this can be managed.


Perhaps this is the reason why we should take all the terms of Freud's formula into consideration, and note in passing his prudence: « If we were to yield to a first impression… »


What I would like to stress, then, is that to be completely satisfactory our portrait of the Subject must not be reduced to its incompleteness, to the fact that it is separated from the Real (Lacan) : in the concept of « desire, » the urge Freud mentions must not be left out and should be regarded as an essential feature in the portrait. Discontent, yes, but  dissatisfaction which must at the same time be understood as amounting to a refusal or a denial, an unavailing option, a tragic impossibility, but, however helpless, a refusal all the same. Confronted with the impossibility we have been discussing, both individual and social group are moved by a desire to disregard it—and it becomes obvious that it is precisely this « desire » which characterizes humans--, an unconscious desire to do as if there were no limits to their omnipotence. Finally, when Freud rightly speaks of a « desire for freedom » in man, on no account must we separate freedom and desire.


Let me repeat all this as simply as I can: because the model, as far as the Pleasure Principle is concerned, implies an irrepressible desire for satisfaction, it can no longer be reduced to two terms only and thus gains in complexity. For indeed, what we have is not simply a desire and the impossibility of its fulfilment--Pleasure Principle vs. Reality Principle--, but the refusal to admit such impossibility. We are not « free » (to do as we please), but we do not want to know!  The formula is not: « I want, » to which a « No » is opposed, but:


                                                                       « I want.


                                                                        -You can’t.


                                  -All right, then I shall find a way to get what I want anyway. » (3)


Not two terms, then, but three, irrespective of the fact that this obstinacy of desire cannot reach its proclaimed goal : quite simply, of course, this explains sublimation, and it also helps  to understand our compulsion to repeat.


It follows that we can no longer simply consider Kultur as a sacrifice, a renunciation, for the obvious reason one cannot renounce what one hasn’t got, what one never had or, to be more specific, what was lost at birth, this totality, this wholeness, which we so unrelentlessly endeavor to recover. When one has lost all, there is nothing left to lose. But if renunciation is inevitable, we do not all the same remain inactive (libido) and desperately look for an issue, for a (magic) solution which might permit us to « go over the wall » of the « real » as it were, « on the other side »: thus can civilization appear as progress, the only response left to us in front of the void (but a response that is « fanticized , » we must realize this). 


 Does this mean that I am forgetting the loss of freedom implied by life in society ? Of course not. Unless one chooses to  live alone, in total solitude that is—something even Robinson Crusoe could not quite achieve--, some of the things of life have to be shared. The problem, therefore, is not about sharing or refusing the minimal exchange without which no collective life is possible but about the terms of that exchange, and we know—Robinson and Friday again—that they are not always just and more often than not unequal. This is a problem for the economist or for the politician, and perhaps also for the historian and, last but not least, for the citizen. For us, in this discussion of the concept of freedom, it is evident that liberty in actual life can only be thought of as contained within certain limits, and that the idea of a liberty that would be total is nothing but a fantasy, a dream of omnipotence for example. None of this is new, and I have already spoken of the limitations with which the infant is confronted at birth: it cannot swallow the breast. In the end, we can narrow the debate to a discussion about the limits mentioned above.


 Freud, naturally, mentions the idea of justice:


          The development of civilization imposes restrictions on [the liberty of the

          individual], since justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions. (95-96),


but the sentence which opens his paragraph forces me to disagree with him as one may have guessed from the above development. He wrote:


          The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. (95)


          (Die individuelle Freiheit is kein Kultur gut.)


The formula, placing freedom and civilization face to face, illustrates an opposition and also rightly suggests a relation of interdependence between the two notions. We know we cannot live without law. But this is not sufficient, for the simple reason that the concept of Freiheit, here, is not given all its scope. As we know, the concept of freedom cannot be thought of outside of its boundaries, more precisely, and however commonplace the statement, these limits are what constitute it. In short, my liberty is defined by the Law. And here we can distinguish two dimensions of the law: my relationships with other human beings, in work and in love, and secondly, given my incompleteness, the particular way I have (as a free human being?) to behave--which means to conduct my life--, in front of the Real. This is naturally a way of saying that the other—without a capital O-- in love or work, is part of what the Real is for me, and it also explains why the Law is so often broken by us as a Subjects


Again, why we so often trespass the law is clearly a consequence of our irrepressible desire for completeness, but since it is the condition for staying alive (libido), we must look in another direction to understand what determines our behavior.  


Thanks to the distinction above, we seem to be in a better position to engage in a research into the conditions of production of our conduct, which is what Freud was doing in examining not only a possible « oceanic feeling» in humans, but also what was happening in Germany at the time.


For we cannot forget that such inhuman, blamable and inacceptable situations do exist: as is well-known, there is no justice on earth, and the «expedient accommodation, » advocated by Freud, an acceptable compromise between humans, seems to remain an unattainable mode of existence. It is precisely this « failure » that Freud set out to understand in his essay and which will eventually lead him to form the hypothesis of an instinct of destruction in humans, indeed of a « death instinct. » 


That civilization has failed, so far, to find a just balance between the rights of humans and to establish a society where evil is banished is no reason to stop our inquiry into human behavior. For if I slightly enlarge the concept of « freedom » and consider now the freedom I experience in my daily life—momentarily forgetting that the difficult question of the relationship between  liberty and determination cannot receive a definite answer--, if I consider, then, the practical freedom I have to engage in action, « good » or « bad, » which for instance includes the possibility to harm, or even destroy my neighbor, in the same fashion as he or she is free to murder me, it seems Kultur, that is to say history, also provides me with the intellectual tools to understand the conditions of production of the law with defines this freedom and therefore, I think, the reasons why this law is so often trespassed. Perhaps because Freud, no doubt understandably, neglected socio-economic determinations, it may be that such a research will lead us to an hypothesis other than that of a death instinct in humans.


Which leads us to a consideration of « the terms of the exchange » between humans and to the very practical question of measuring what is to be gained by the « sacrifice» implied by the law.(This, of course, is a question for the long term which cannot be discussed here. It is a question which certainly belongs to the domain of ethics, but it seems to me it would be dishonest to flourish great moral principles and stop at that because one is convinced, as I am, that history moves slowly, but moves. That there are immediate changes that can be brought about is obvious, and action should be taken, but it may not be sufficient to put an end to our discontent and—this is more important—to succeed in establishing an ethical society.)



Now we have just seen how, although the passing of the bar remains an impossibility and should (4) stop mobilizing our efforts and our hopes, because our model has three parts and not two—and it is Freud’s model—a space is still left us for action, however symbolical and incapable to weaken the imperviousness of the Real such an action is. With Freud, we have called this space Kultur ; it is, as we saw, the area of sublimation (and Winnicott is not far, here). If we go back, then, to Freud’s comment concerning sublimation, this « vicissitude […] forced […] upon the instincts by civilization, » and look up the definition of vicissitude given by the dictionary, we come upon the idea of a substitution: « a change in condition, » and « a mutation,» and this enables us to take one more step.


Indeed, since our original separation, our loss of the One at birth, can no longer be considered as the only evil in men’s lives—and even, perhaps, can no longer be identified with it—, we must look for another cause if we want to understand actual « evil. » For beyond, or rather besides, the fundamental Law which governs the existence of humans, their “separatedness,” their incompleteness, their despair in front of the void, in front of the impassable wall (re)presented by the Real, there comes into the picture the « mutation » mentioned by Freud which most precisely corresponds to men’s response to their fate of beings « separated » and condemned to die. I take it that an interrogation on the conditions of production of such a mutation—sublimation in fact—will lead us to that other law we are looking for. No doubt, Lacan’s « symbolique, » or even his not so clear « signifiant, » show us the way here.


Let me summarize and repeat, if only for clarity’s sake, what the structure of sublimation looks like ; the outline is well-known, Freud uses it to speak of the dream, and we can point out it corresponds to the structure of the metaphor, that is to say in the end of language :


What we have here is a desire—or rather, not so much a particular desire as Desire--, first, then an obstruction that cannot be removed, but also, third, a mutation supposed to suspend the prohibition represented by the bar (a particular desire this time, yes).The diagram illustrates quite well what is at work in the operation of sublimation. It can also be illustrated thus:

which describes the displacement occurring in the metaphor, in a word the trajectory from what is represented to its representation. What opposed the Reality Principle to the Pleasure Principle is still there, but thanks to the illusion implied in the operation it can—in most cases—be tolerated. For once again it is essential to realize that there is no actual suspension of the prohibition, no lifting of the bar, but only the illusion of it even though human action takes place in the concrete world we live in, a world that is real of the reality experienced by each person alive (the lacanian Real, as I have tried to show, being of another nature). So that what we are looking at is a mutation, a « change in condition »--not a change of object, in fact, but a representation of this object only (and we can accept the idea that the « fundamental » object remains the same, most of the time unknown to the subject)--, in short, an operation which enables us to believe the imperviousness I am speaking of is not inevitable. Such a « suspension of disbelief » is a necessary condition of our relationship—acceptance ?—to the world out there, to the void, to the Real. That first Law can indeed not be broken, but the illusion that this is possible prevails, as our dreams, discourse and actions in their symbolical dimension clearly show. Such is the structure of sublimation, and we naturally recognize here the structure of representation:



This particular dimension we find in humans, we can of course, after Freud and Lacan, call language--which the concept of representation perhaps expresses better--; it is the unique ability to replace things with words, (5) includes our dreams, an archetype indeed, and can  be simply described as the ability to symbolize. Such ability we find at work not only in what we say, but also in what we create--probably prompted by history--, and, naturally, in what we do, « good » or « bad, » alas. It is in this « cultural » activity that we shall find that other law I have mentioned, the law which governs the particular response of each of us to the « bar » which Freud somewhat neglected in his essay, intent as he was to demonstrate how civilization amounted to a loss of freedom for the individual. For in his considerations on our « urge for freedom, » he didn't seem to have sufficiently distinguished between what belonged to the inevitable—which no human could alter and was therefore outside the domain of ethics—and what actually limited the field of man's responsibility. In the end, from the point of view of ethics, what matters is how we manage to survive the fundamental and tragic loss constituted by our birth. (6)


That  life in society, the relations between humans, require some renunciation cannot be denied, but the point I am trying to make is that the nature of such a « sacrifice » does not quite amount to what Freud advances in his essay. Once again, « Freedom, » here, demands some qualification.Thus the idea that humans, when it comes to living in society, are confronted with a necessary « renunciation of instinct » or with a « sacrifice, » should be carefully considered, and even reconsidered. Indeed, the compromise we are left with in front of the inevitable sublimation does constitute the domain of civilization and this leads us to an interrogation on the nature of such a representation.


For while, from the point of view of the organization of any given human group, the law (however abstract, but it can also be the law that governs the city) rightly demands of the individual some restraint of his freedom, it does not require a complete disappearance of it, which indeed, as I have tried to show, would be useless since one cannot do away with the fact that we cannot help desiring and dreaming. When Freud remarked that « the development of a civilization » imposed restrictions on each of us and then spoke of the « sublimation of instincts » (97) (die Triebsublimierung), he nonetheless implicitly recognized that the necessary restrictions alluded to did not amount to a suppression of Desire, but to a modification in the desiring process.

Because we cannot give up desire--refusing to acknowledge our original loss--, we pursue an unattainable object—and to speak of an oceanic feeling makes sense here--, but for each individual the object varies with his or her particular history  and it is in this direction that psychoanalysis looks for specific determinations (which of course should include historical conditions). Because the freedom mentioned by Freud in his « formula »--this should be clear by now--is no other than the « liberty » of instinctual man, and that this is in fact no liberty at all but only the impossible desire to have no limits. One will, I hope, forgive the repetition: there is no room for freedom in the formula, or, rather, the freedom mentioned corresponds to an illusion of freedom, a fantasy that there are no actual limits to the realization of desire. In the end, it seems our dissatisfaction cannot be said to be entirely due to « present day civilization, » however inhuman, blamable and inacceptable a given historical situation may be.


In short, it is not because one has irremediably lost « something » that one renounces recovery of it: such drive (Trieb) we do not renounce, however impossible the recovery. Desire and life are one, and what is only possible is a transformation, a compromise. This is another way of saying that civilization does not demand of humans that they relinquish what was implied in the concept of freedom understood as the irrepressible wish to « go over the wall » : the« urge » still keeps its place in the structure, but is of course diverted from its impossible goal. « Kultur » is precisely this mutation.


Following Freud's demonstration in his discussion on the nature of « evil ,» then, we have now two cases to consider : on one hand—in the case under discussion--, we have the collective desire of a given political party or group, on the other the particular mode  according to ,which each individual organizes his or her life. No doubt, the delicate and difficult problem presented by the articulation of the principles which animate a community-- and sometimes a nation--and the individual attitudes of the members of the group cannot be solved easily. For the time being, let us content ourselves with the hypothesis which sees in  the « choices » each individual subject makes in front of a given socio-economic situation a product of historical circumstances, but consider at the same time that such individual responses are also to be understood as the product of the person's immediate environment, however obvious and meaninglessly general such a statement may be.


What matters in the end is that we are confronted with a single structure while the nature of the mutations, the « contents » of the symbolical transformations, are different: same function of representation, that is to say of denial of the impossible—the bar--, but different ways of implementing the said denial. In the case of Europe in 1929: on one hand the desire for omnipotence of a given political party or group and the glorification of brutal force, a collective drive, on the other the individual response of each individual. Naturally, the weight of ideologies—but I still see this as the result, however distant, of socio-economic circumstances—may be so great, invading individual consciences, as to defeat any endeavor to free oneself from its predomination. We all know there are many examples of this. But the argument is not sufficient to make us forget that there exists a second set of determinations which cannot be reduced to economics. Encompassed as it is in a larger one which, for lack of a better word or concept, we may call History, the second, smaller « circle » does seem to keep its autonomy.  Although also a product of history, a product of men's advance in their conception of their unique nature, Psychoanalysis, as a body of new knowledge, like biology for that matter, does possess its own logic, which is the logic discovered in its object.






Undoubtedly, the development of civilization imposes restrictions on humans, but, faced with the concrete, and tragic, consequences of such a process of renunciation, it seems Freud somewhat overlooked a particular dimension of the phenomenon which might have projected another light on it. But perhaps « overlook » is not appropriate, for he seems to have had doubts as to the validity of the thesis he was about to put forth. A close reading of the last paragraph of this third section and of the first few lines of the fourth reveals some hesitation:                


          But if we want to know what value can be attributed to our view that the development

          of civilization is a special process comparable to the normal maturation of the

          individual we must clearly attack another problem. We must ask ourselves to what

          influences the development of civilization owes its origin, and by what its course has

          been determined. (my italics) (97-98)




          The task is immense and it is natural to feel diffidence in the face of it. (99)


We know (James Strachey, Standard Edition XXI, 62-63) that, some years later, in 1937, in a letter to Marie Bonaparte, he appeared to have been « hinting at a greater original independence of external destructiveness » (J .S.) and how, in his next letter, he « begged » her « not to set too much value on [his] remarks about the destructive instinct, and added« they were only made at random and would have to be carefully thought over before being published. Moreover there is little that is new in them. » (63)


And indeed, the idea of an external destructiveness, in other words of a determination or of determinations which could not be attributed to the Subject alone, to its original  « nature, » must have struck Freud, even in 1929, but the hypothesis of a « death instinct » seems to have had such a strong hold on him that he will eventually brush aside all doubts and  proceed with his demonstration.


The same applies to historical or economic factors. As can be seen again, he shows himself quite aware of the influence of history:


          Not all civilizations go equally far in this [renunciation, restrictions of freedom];

          and the economic structure of the society also influences the amount of  sexual

          freedom that remains. Here, as we already know, civilization is obeying the laws of

          economic necessity. (104)


This, however, will have little [effect on his reasoning.] He may have had some doubts-- « It is hard to decide »--and have known an error was always possible-- « Es mag ein Irrtum sein, es ist schwer zu entscheiden » (105)--, but, again, error or no error, this will not deter him from following the course he chose at the opening of his essay.


The balance between the two hypotheses can best be felt in the concluding lines of the passage:


          Sometimes one seems to perceive that it is not only the pressure of civilization

          but something in the nature of the function itself which denies full satisfaction and

          urges us along other paths. (my italics) (105)


Now, at this stage of the demonstration, in the fourth section, the error, I think, was double : first, it consisted in the refusal, or the impossibility, to see in Kultur a progress—we saw how this had its source in the events taking place in Germany at the time--, secondly, the  distinction between civilization and society was not really made. In a way, the second « error » proceeds from the first, is a consequence of it. The equation Kultur equals renunciation led Freud to ignore other determinations and caused him to underestimate the historical dimension of human behavior, although in several places he is quite conscious that he is speaking of the society of our time.


In short, to conclude that man was not « happy » because he had lost his freedom amounted to remaining blind to the original loss humans suffer at birth and this in turn led to the conviction that whatever hindered our progress towards a lost unity--irrespective of the fact that such a quest can only succeed in imagination and is therefore bound to fail—is to be considered as evil. From which it is easy to conclude that such a belief entitles us to wish that this opposition could be removed, such a hindrance destroyed. Freud himself, elsewhere in his works, has interpreted the aggressiveness of the infant towards its mother or the breast in such a fashion, and we know that Melanie Klein pursued her own research in that direction. But here, in Das Unbehagen, Freud takes another route. Perhaps because the thesis on renunciation he has developed so far does not appear sufficient to him to explain evil, he resorts to the notion of  an instinct of destruction (« Todes- oder Destruktionstriebes »), ( 7) a  trait defining our nature as devoid of any external determination. I have quoted above the last lines of section IV; they present side by side « the pressure of civilization » and « the nature of the function itself. » The opposition now takes its full meaning: Freud is gradually working his way towards a « verification » of his hypothesis about a death instinct in humans.





In the next section of his essay, Freud begins his verification, discussing at once love and man's aggressiveness. The theme of the debate is still « Nature vs civilization ,» or rather « society, » this time, yes, but what is more striking is that a change in perspective seems to have taken place. What has changed is that civilization is no longer pointed out as the sole source of evil—the cause of « renunciation »--and it is man himself, his « primary hostility, » which comes to be identified with evil. In fact, such a leap from one line of reasoning to another informs us as to the very nature of the thesis developed in the essay, irrespective of the logical weakness of the argument. Until now, Kultur was responsible for our « discontent,» while now it is human nature which is to be blamed.  Not that the law loses any of its repressive strength, but this time the object of the repression is different. Where we had an obligation to « renounce » desire (which I analyzed as a consequence of an original loss and not as a cause) we are now described as fundamentally aggressive and incapable of good.  Having deplored the repression suffered by our « natural » instincts, Freud, apparently shifting his point of view, now designates the same instinctual nature as the source of evil. It is not the law which is to blame, but our own incapacity to comply with it, incapacity due to our very nature. Thus the commandment « Love thy neighbor as thyself » comes to be  considered as one of the « ideal exigencies of civilized society, » that is to say as an unreasonable demand. « Perpetually threatened with disintegration, » society « has to use its utmost efforts to set limits to man's aggressive instincts, » (112) but because of man's savage nature there are times when these efforts fail, as in Europe in 1929:


          In circumstances that are favorable […] to it [man's cruel aggressiveness], when the

          mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it out of action, it also manifests itself

          spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his

          own kind is something alien. (112)


Based on contemporary events, on facts, the « demonstration, » however, is not sufficient to help us understand the reason why those very facts did happen; there is no analysis, an assertive statement only. In the end, man's natural aggressiveness is the only explanation given. No doubt, this « primary hostility, » this « Aggressionsneigung, » which there is no question of denying and which can be observed everywhere, could have led to interesting developments, as it has in other parts of Freud's works, but this is not the case here and all we have is a consideration on essence. Man is bad and that's all there is to it ! Not a very scientific conclusion indeed!


True, one may have some difficulty in answering the question: « How could I possibly « love » my « neighbor »like myself when he or she is intent on harming me, on destroying me even? » Possibly, the answer is in the structure of the statement. For what we notice is that the subject who asks the question is quite simply projecting his or her aggressiveness towards   his or her neighbor. The reaction is natural, very « normal, » we can grant this, but it nevertheless leaves us without an answer to the question put to us by our own aggressiveness. About to present in full his theory of an instinct of destruction in man, Freud, here, is simply preparing the ground. 


There is a way, however, to understand what was at stake in these considerations on evil, besides resorting to actual historical events, and I find an interesting clue in the presence of Eros on the first page of this section. For before trying to tackle the difficult problem of our relationship to others, Freud speaks of love, and he does so in a manner which immediately brings to mind not only the triangular, Oedipal, structure, but also a desire of fusion :


         In no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making 

         one out of more than one ;  (108)


Thus, before shifting to the question of aggressiveness in the next pages, he mentions the opposition between civilization and sexuality (whose place in the discussion, we must admit, is hardly justified at this point, unless we manage to lift the contradiction implied), (8) and goes on to describe the two lovers (in one) as in no need of a third party which would trouble their intimacy. The fact that he mentions « a child » (9) as a possible troublemaker must not throw us off the track ; what is pictured here is the One, the ideal figure which preceded the triangle, that is to say, the situation where « two »—the Subject and its Object—are menaced of what will undeniably happen : separation. Hence Lacan's term of « the law of the father, » a phrase which describes the passage of the « two » (a two endeavoring to form a desired and impossible One in fact) of mother and infant into the « three » which will be the basis of what will later be the Oedipal triangle. In the triangle, the Subject desires the Object and is prevented from reaching it by the figure that towers on the third summit and whom we can easily identify with the « bar. 


Thus can be explained the presence in these pages of several allusions to sexuality and to the repression society enforces on the individual, a repression which resembles the one exerted by the father of the Oedipal child. This encounter with the « bar, » this reminder of the particular law which rules exchange in the triangle no doubt accounts for the production of the passages about sexuality—and the restrictions it is subjected to—in a debate on aggressiveness. In spite of appearances, between the two topics, there is no contradiction. How could I indeed « love » someone who represses my desire?


That there might be other immediate causes, Freud is of course conscious ; we saw above how aware he was that there existed a great variety of determining factors and a great variety of human groups with a different « economic structure » (104). But even though he describes, in terms that are quite realistic, the practical ways in which societies control sexuality, he will not give up his main thesis about renunciation, thus failing in the end, I think, to make the distinction he had started to make between « civilization » and « society, » the latter not being simply reducible to Kultur or, rather, deserving to be analyzed with other tools than those of psychoanalysis. Having distinctly described in what manner our own society-- « die heutige Kultur »--sometimes represses sexuality, he nevertheless remains faithful to his original model and cannot bring himself to draw any conclusion form the fact that there exists several « civilizations, » thus neglecting to take historical determinations into consideration.


Intent on defending the thesis that there exists an instinct of destruction in man and not deterred by the ambiguity of his conclusion, all he can do in the end is to present side by side the two terms of the alternative—determination vs essence--, showing, perhaps, where his preference goes.


          We may expect gradually to carry through such alterations in our civilization as will

          better satisfy our needs and escape our criticisms. But perhaps we may also familiarize

          ourselves with the idea that there are difficulties attaching to the essence of civilization

          which will not yield to any attempt at reform. [Aber vielleicht machen wir uns

          auch mit der Idee vertraut, dass es Schwierigkeiten gibt, die dem Wesen der Kultur 

          anhaften und die keinem Reformversuch weichen werden.]  (116)   (10)








          If civilization imposes such great sacrifices not only on man's sexuality but

          on his  aggressiveness, we can understand better why it is hard for him to be happy

          in that civilization. (115)


It is in examining closely Freud's thesis on the possible causes of man's discontent, or rather the two hypotheses which constitute his statement, that we shall be able to discern where the error in his argumentation lies.


That man is an aggressive being can easily be verified; facts speak for themselves. Here, the law is meant to keep this aggressiveness under control and this indisputably represents a progress. That man is a being led by sexual desire is also a fact, but his relationship to the law, this time, is not so easy to establish, and the line between what is repressive and what represents a progress is much more difficult to define. No doubt, with sexuality as with aggressiveness, the protection of the other is what should inspire the law, but beyond this principle, the similarity ceases, and this simply because the « sacrifices » required of the Subject are not of the same order. In failing to make a distinction between the two « instincts, » Freud lessened his chances to understand the reasons for our discontent. In both cases, whether we consider sexuality or aggressiveness, what is at stake in the law is the protection of the other (which of course includes the Subject when he or she is the object of his or her other), but in the case of sexuality, the object of the injunction is just as much the pleasure of the Subject as the safety of the other—or more?--in what should be an equal exchange. It seems Freud, in choosing two antagonistic goals, somewhat lost sight of his original quest.


Needless to say, the fact that sexuality and aggressiveness are sometimes so closely entangled, as in sadism for instance, contributed to render his task very difficult.


Hence the hypothesis of a duality in humans in order to account for their propensity to destroy themselves. On one hand the instincts devoted to the conservation of the ego, and on the other the libidinal instincts directed towards the object. The model was naturally inspired by what Freud wrote on narcissism some nine years before (1910, and then 1914 and 1919) and does correspond to what can be observed in actual life : the Subject—Freud says the ego—loves itself and chooses itself as object, invests itself with libido. What is less easy to understand is the reason why there should be an opposition between the two movements: «...thus the antithesis was between the ego instincts and the 'libidinal' instincts of love (in its widest sense) which is directed to an object »; (117) our question will receive no answer; we shall have to be content with an assumption.


And yet, an answer was possible, and the very terms of it were even given by Freud himself when he opposed the Reality Principle to the Pleasure Principle or, and the model rests on the same structure, when we speak of subject and object. And on condition that we do not forget to place an impassable obstacle between the two entities, the model begins to make sense. For the opposition posited by Freud in this sixth section is very real and helps us to understand what a Subject is, a Subject, as Freud explained when he spoke of narcissism and of the ego, which can turn against itself the aggression it destined to the external world—to its other also, hence—whenever the world, the Real, refused to respond positively to its request. All the elements necessary to construct such a model are here, in the list of observations gathered by Freud, but he does not seem to be interested in the determinations at work in the movements which he sees taking place between Subject and object. In the pages under consideration, many remarks point to that direction, but they do not lead to any conclusion. Thus, a correct observation as: « ...the instinct itself could be pressed into the service of Eros, in that the organism was destroying some other thing […] instead of destroying its own self, » (119) is   left without an explanation; nothing is said about the reason why such a diversion of energy and power takes place. In the end, we have an hypothesis, a thesis in fact, the conviction that « ...the inclination to aggression is an original self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man... » (122) the observed facts serving as unique verification.


Not that the task was easy, of course, all these forces operating «silently, within the organism towards its dissolution.» And although that « was no proof, » as Freud admits, we can understand the difficulties of the scientist: the facts are here, undeniably, and the violence, and the horror, and the temptation must have been great to be satisfied with the conclusion that « there must exist » in man an autonomous entity whose function it

is to destroy, such a choice of an autonomous instinct sparing us the trouble of having to look  further for causes, socio-economic and  psychical determinations alike.


          Starting from speculations on the beginning of life and from biological parallels,

          I drew the conclusion that besides the instinct to preserve living substance and to

          join it into larger units, there must exist another, contrary instinct seeking to dissolve

          those units and to bring them back to their primaeval state. That is, as well as Eros,

          there was an instinct of death.(118)


We are not far from a consideration on an ocean feeling in humans indeed, but however valid the observation, what is lacking is an explanation of the phenomenon. The apparently fruitful hypothesis on the existence of an autonomous instinct of destruction in humans is taken for granted, while nothing is said about the possible determinations of such an instinct of death.







Having established there is in man an original and « natural aggressive instinct, » Freud then asks himself how society, civilization, could manage to « inhibit » such « disposition to aggression (and in passing, we shall remark that the repressive aspect of the law, this time, is no longer set forth. Kultur is considered « as pressed into the service of Eros. (119)). The question, which is in fact an interrogation on the efficiency, and also on the nature, of the law, is naturally dictated by the observation of so much violence in the world. Can we, can Kultur, put an end to such violence? And because, as a student of the mind--as a biologist almost—he starts from a consideration on human « nature » and with a general conception of man, in which Eros is opposed to Thanatos, he will end in somewhat neglecting the socio-historical dimension his question could have had. And at this point I cannot help wondering how his research on the evolution of civilization has been transformed into a research on what he calls the instinct of death. No doubt, we can easily understand how a reflection on violence has led to a reflection on “evil” and how one can come to the conclusion that it must be the role of civilization to check such a propensity to aggression, although the question of the relative weakness of the law still remains. Why are there so many transgressions of the law ? And if, like Freud, one interprets these transgressions as the result of a biological given, as the consequence of the struggle in man between Eros and Thanatos, the consequence of a possible progress might be difficult to imagine.


Perhaps this is the reason why Freud now leaves the field of the history of humanity to turn to that of « the development of the individual »? This, after all, is also a chapter of ethics, another chapter, in which all he has collected on narcissism, on sadism and on masochism will be of help, with history, or ideology, no longer in the way.


Now, the question with are confronted with is: « What happens in [the individual] to render his desire for aggression innocuous, » and it is relevant in a research on the nature of evil (even though we shall have to ask later on why is it that the feeling of guilt doesn't always produce an effect).


Already, in 1923, in Das Ich und das Es, Freud had analyzed the relationship of the individual to what we call « the law» and coined the word « Superego » as a representation of the function responsible, among other things, for the feeling of guilt in the individual. Undoubtedly, the superego as a concept marks a fundamental step forward and we can consider it as the very basis of what further progress can be made in psychoanalytical theory. This time, the aggression is not perpetrated on the external world but on the subject itself.


          His [the individual's] aggressiveness is introjected, internalized ; it is, in point of fact,

          sent back to where it came from—that is directed towards his own ego. There it is

          taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets it over against the rest of the ego, and

          which now, in the form of 'conscience', is ready to put into action against the ego

          the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other,

          extraneous individuals. (123)                      


The description is quite precise and corresponds to experience, but we still have to understand the reason why one « portion of the ego » turns against the rest of it. Aggressiveness is internalized, granted, but what is the motive for such a return to the sender, as it were? Freud does not say and seems satisfied to rest with his clinical observation, but the very terms he uses, « sent back to where it came from, » may be useful in our attempt to fully understand his model and might perhaps help us to complete it.


His next long paragraph is even more telling; it not only lends itself to interpretation but almost invites us to proceed with the interpretation. Twice, Freud speaks of « a foreign influence, »-- « Darin zeigt sich also fremder Einfluss »--, and of submission to it»-- « unterwerfen »--, and when he asks what the reason for such a behavior may be, the answer comes to us easily: helplessness, dependence, together with a specific detail at the end which really completes the picture:  «Hilflosigkeit und Abhängigkeit von anderen, » helplessness and dependence on others. 


         What is bad is often not at all what is injurious or dangerous to the ego ; on the contrary,

         it may be something which is desirable and enjoyable to the ego. Here, therefore, there

         is an extraneous influence at work, and it is this that decides what is to be called good or

         bad. Since a person's own feelings would not have led him along this path, he must

         have a motive for submitting to this extraneous influence. Such a motive is easily

         discovered in his helplessness and his dependence on other people, and it can best be

         designated as fear of loss of love. If he loses the love of another person upon whom

         he is dependent, he also ceases to be protected from a variety of dangers. Above all,

         he is exposed to the danger that this stronger person will show his superiority in the

         form of punishment.


Now, obviously, some eighty years later, it is difficult not to see in such a technical psychoanalytic discussion of evil, of anxiety and the loss of love, a veiled and perhaps not so unconscious reference to the dangers menacing Austria in 1929. The idea of our « dependence » and the allusion to « submission » to others can quite simply be taken as already pointing to what was already threatening Freud's country at the time. The mention of « protection » and of a menacing « stronger person » desirous to show his « superiority » completes the picture. What a perfect lesson on the way ideology works!  This being said, there is no reason to refuse the idea that the contemporary scene acted as a catalyst and helped to produce Freud's general theory on aggression and on the condition of the infant. Melanie Klein, after all, did not fail to observe Richard's aggressiveness (but also, it is true, the depression brought about by the refusals encountered by the child). For in the end, it is love, or rather the loss of it, which occupies the center of the demonstration. What we fear, Freud says, is « loss of love,» a fear which, for him, explains our helplessness and dependence. In other words, we submit in order to be loved. Indeed.  And if this seems to correspond so well to the  life of the adult, whether in love or politics, it also, primarily, applies to the life of the infant so dependent on its first « others, » mother and father.


Having spoken of the « danger » represented by the disclosure of the evil act one might have rendered oneself guilty of, and mentioned the « authority » of whoever discovers the said act,  Freud then comes to consider the case of the infant whose bad conscience, « schlechtes Gewissen, » is nothing else than fear of loss of love.


The argument is repeated a few lines further on: « At the beginning, therefore, what is bad is whatever causes one to be threatened with loss of love. » (124), but if we look closely at the words, I think we can see we have changed of subject, for what is alluded to in this second sentence is just as much the nature of evil as the relationship of the child to authority. This re-directing of the discussion does not last long, and the question of authority is quickly resumed, but I nevertheless see in these two lines something in the nature of an intuition worth considering, and at any rate quite in keeping with what I have written in the preceding pages about our encounter with the « bar » which separates us from the Real. Here, what we encounter is not the bar, precisely, but what very much looks like it. Evil, « what is bad » in the English translation, but « das Böse » under Freud's pen—and we know that « der Böse » is the devil--, evil, then, is described as what threatens us with « loss of love, » at the beginning, « anfänglish. » I know Freud is here speaking of our fear of punishment, but because he interprets this punishment as loss of love, I think we can add our interpretation to his and see in this loss if not a direct allusion to an original trauma suffered

at birth, at least the intuition of this.  And it is true it all started with the loss of the One. On second thoughts, however, and considering we are only dealing with two lines in Freud's essay, I must correct my interpretation--construction indeed—and simply state that Freud's account does not contradict the idea, the thesis, I am defending about an original loss at birth. That it was not even an intuition, a veiled « poetic » formulation open to interpretation but which led nowhere in Freud's argumentation, might help us to understand his difficulty in his attempt at encompassing the nature of evil.


And it might also help us in our understanding of the concept of superego, so essential in psychoanalytical thinking. All the actors of the drama are present: the bad conscience, the small child, the parents, the fear-- « Angst »--and the loss of love. No superego for the infant yet, Freud says, and we shall have to wait for the ego to have internalized the « authority » for its superego to be fully constituted.


          A great change takes place only when the authority is internalized through the

          establishment of a superego. (     )


We notice the reference to a« change, » and how Freud then explains that « the phenomema of conscience » have reached « a higher stage, » implying there was no superego before this introjection of an authority:


          […] it is not until now that we should speak of conscience or a sense of guilt; (     )


No doubt, he is thinking of the acquisition of a moral sense by the individual, and of the law as a production of society, Kultur, while in the process what is specific of the infant seems forgotten. And it is true that the organization of the relationships of humans to one another forms an essential part of the law, is the law, but then we are not told anything about our anxiety about a possible loss of love and about our fear of punishment. We would like to know more about the « authority » mentioned and about the great change which occurs when this authority is internalized. Freud must have been conscious there was something missing in his description of the phenomenon, for the second part of his paragraph contradicts the beginning, and the whole explanation seems quite confused:


          […] fundamentally things remain as they were at the beginning. The superego

          torments the sinful ego with the same feeling of anxiety[...] (       )


If the feeling of anxiety has remained the same, and if the superego continues to torment the « sinner, » can one really say that « a great change » has taken place?


I take it there has been no change, and I think that if we carefully distinguish the social aspect of our relationship to the law—or simply our fear of punishment—from what must have operated in the genesis of the superego from birth, we shall obtain a more satisfactory understanding of the phenomenon. My thesis, it must be evident by now, is that what Freud termed « superego, » was installed at the very moment we were confronted with the Real, with the world out there, soon after in any case, which incites me to complete Freud's model and insist less on the need for « renunciation »--which I consider as a consequence of our encounter with the bar which separates us from the Real rather than as a response to it--and more on determination. In other words, our moral, later social, sense was built on a preexisting structure which we can simply call loss of completeness and illustrate as our encounter with an impassable wall.


Thus can we bypass Freud's consideration on virtue and on the fate of the virtuous man, whose sense of guilt is proportional to his virtue (which should be obvious since his virtue is nothing but a product of his superego), and proceed to the next page or paragraph, not without mentioning, however, that even the most awkward or contradictory passages contain enough information--as in between the lines—to enable us to work with the model he has left us. What is being discussed is the genesis of our sense of guilt: (11)


          This [when infortune befalls man when he acknowledges his sinfulness], however, is

          easily explained by the original infantile stage of conscience, which, as we see, is not

          given up after the introjection into the superego, but persists alongside it ; and behind it.

          Fate is regarded as a substitute of the parental agency. If a man is unfortunate it means

          that he is no longer loved by this highest power, and, threatened by such a loss of love,

          he once more bows to the fundamental representative of his superego, whom, in his

          days of good fortune, he was ready to neglect. (126)


There is nothing to add here. Forgotten, it seems, « the great change; » the stages in the acquisition of a moral sense are still mentioned, but what was there at the origin « is not given up. » Thus can we regret that Freud did not adhere throughout to this clear way of thinking. Instead of this, because of his insistence on « renunciation of instinctual satisfactions, » he fails to see (although what he writes amounts in fact to this!) that it is the encounter of the bar which is the primary cause of the whole sequence he so precisely describes:


          Thus we know of two origins of the sense of guilt: one arising from fear of an   

          authority, and the other, later on, arising from fear of the superego. The first insists

          upon a renunciation of instinctual satisfactions ; the second, as well as doing this,

          presses for punishment, since the continuance of the forbidden wishes cannot be

          concealed to the superego.(125)


For, as I have remarked already, we must understand that what « first insists » is not an authority which requires a loss of (some) of our instinctual liberty, since we cannot lose what we have not got, what we have already lost, completeness namely. The « renunciation of instinctual satisfactions » will come later on with the details of the law, and those « details » will be determined by socio-historical circumstances. It nevertheless remains that the chronological sequence Freud distinguishes: the identification of an external authority—which I interpret as the bar between Subject and Real--, and then of an internal one, accurately corresponds to what we can observe.


          These interrelations are so complicated and at the same time so important that,

          at the risk of repeating myself, I shall approach them from another angle. The

          chronological sequence, then, would be as follows. First comes the renunciation

          of instinct owing to fear of aggression by the external authority. This is, of course, what

          fear of loss of love amounts to, for love is a protection against this punitive aggression.

          After comes the erection of an internal authority, and renunciation of instinct owing

          to fear of it—owing to fear of conscience. In this second situation bad intentions are

          equated with bad actions, and hence come a sense of guilt and a need for punishment.

          The aggressiveness of conscience keeps up the aggressiveness of the authority. (128)    


Once again, all is here; but if we replace « renunciation » by original loss, the whole process becomes much clearer.


In the constitution of the superego we can indeed distinguish various moments, a chronology, and if we accept to slightly subvert Freud's description, I think we obtain a more satisfactory picture. When Freud writes that, « originally,» renunciation was the result of the fear of an external authority, I suggest we interpret « renunciation » as the new born child's encounter with the Real, and then see in the « external authority » mentioned the main determinant at work in the constitution of the superego : not yet the parents as such, and quite simply the « bar. » For if the said renunciation finally proves of no avail, it is only because our aggressive response to the original « refusal » makes us fear an equally aggressive response, a reprisal—as an echo as it were--, from what the child interprets as the agent of the original refusal.  The impossibility of « completeness » is read as an aggression on the part of the object. Even though Freud remains exceptionally prudent and seems to hesitate between two conceptions, the model quite corresponds to his observation:


          The relationship between the superego and the ego is a return, distorted by a wish,

          of the real relationship between the ego, as yet undivided, and an external object.


          […] the child's revengeful aggressiveness will be in part determined by the amount

          of punitive aggression which he expects from his father. (130)


          (die rachsüchtige Aggression des Kindes wird durch das Mass der strafenden

          Aggression, der es vom Vater erwartet...)



In the end, however, determinations are taken into consideration, even though, here again, inborn constitutional factors form part of the picture. 



Do we have to explain the reason for the infant's aggressive response to the « No » which is « understood » as opposed to its desire?  Freud explains:


          Here, instinctual renunciation is not enough, for the wish persists and cannot be      

          concealed from the superego. (127)


Yes, this is « libido, » desire to recover our lost completeness, and the concept helps to clarify Freud's repeated phrase about the comparative failure of renunciation:


          Instinctual renunciation now no longer has a completely liberating effect […] a

          threatened external unhappiness—loss of love and punishment on the part of the

          external authority—has been exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness,

          for the tension of the sense of guilt. (128)


Not an exchange, perhaps, but a permanent movement to and fro between Subject and object, a repetition that distinctly points out the permanence of desire, the consequence of all this for the Subject being his incessant fear of reprisal, an aggression symmetrical to his anger, as Freud himself, mentioning determination this time, did not fail to notice when he spoke of « the child's revengeful aggressiveness » and his fear of the father's retortion.


Earlier on, he had remarked that « The aggressiveness of conscience keeps up the aggressiveness of Authority, » (Die Aggression des Gewissens konserviert die Aggression der Autorität. ).


Such is the effect of our arrival into the world, the reason for our incompleteness in front of the Real (which in passing makes sense of Lacan's formula « the name of the father, » since the actual father, by his presence by the side of the mother, and even between mother and baby, embodies the first prohibition we encounter). Later on, this triangular structure will naturally serve as a foundation for the Oedipal situation, when the child has to face a second prohibition, obvious for the little boy, slightly more ambiguous and complex for the little girl.


Does the distinction I have made between « the need for renunciation » and « the encounter with the bar » seem unnecessarily subtle for a questionable result? My hope is that it renders the genesis of the superego clearer and, also, I think it saves us the trouble of having to reconcile some contradictory statements in Freud's presentation. Most of all, this distinction should enable us to introduce the question of determination into the debate. It is a question Freud—in favor, at the time, of a model in which evil was thought of as inborn--seems to have wished to avoid, although many allusions in his essay incite us to look precisely in the direction he eschews.


In short, I think that to re-interpret Freud's « renunciation » and to replace it by « our encounter with the bar » enables us to characterize more clearly the two moments at work in the genesis of the superego, the first one (1a) being universal and similar for all Subjects—beyond history as it were--, while the second belongs to the register of history, collective and individual. Our feeling of guilt, as Freud writes, has two origins, no doubt, but the only Autorität human science can identify—as a determination--, and therefore understand and act upon, is only to be found in the response each individual—through a history that is unique—addresses to the Real. In short again, renunciation occurs as a consequence of the fear of loss of love and of punishment, that is to say in a second stage of the process, and

while it is correct to see in this fear  « a consequence of an external authority, » we must not confuse loss of completeness and helplessness in front of the void--bar or Real--, with the particular fear which is the result of each individual history. In one case (1a), we are dealing with the source of an immense fear, Angst, a nameless fear devoid of any other cause than separation at birth, while in the second case, because the history of the Subject has to be taken into consideration, we are confronted with  the task of assessing—measuring?--what happens  when the refusal represented by the bar is interpreted (1b), which then probably conditions the Subject's retort (2a), itself followed in return by the fear of a reprisal (2b), Angst also, no doubt--and perhaps not very different from a memory of the original loss--, but with an energy, a force different with each individual.


In the end, the « paradox » is not so paradoxical or, rather, there is no paradox: moral conscience is not the consequence of a first instinctive renunciation (a loss not a renunciation), but the consequence of our own frustration in front of the bar.


Finally, none of this is too far from the movement between external and internal authority Freud's observation describes, and we shall note in passing, if not his own doubts as to the validity of his theory about renunciation, at least some hesitation:


          This [the proposition that « every piece of aggression whose satisfaction the ego

          gives up is taken up by the superego and increases the latter's aggressiveness ] does

          not harmonize well with the view that the original aggressiveness of conscience is a

          continuance of the severity of the external authority and therefore has nothing

          to do with renunciation. (129)    


What follows immediately is an attempt at rescuing « renunciation » and at lifting the contradiction in resorting to a « derivation for the first instalment of the superego's aggressiveness, » but this amounts in fact to admitting the existence of another source of the child's aggressiveness.


          A considerable amount of aggressiveness must be developed in the child against the

          authority which prevents him from having his first, but nonetheless his most

          important satisfactions, whatever the kind of instinctual deprivation is

          demanded of him may be ; (129) (my italics)              


In explaining that the original severity of the superego is the extension, the prolongation—« die fortgesetzte Strenge »—of the external authority, and that the relation between superego and ego has been inverted-- « Es ist eine Umkehrung des Situation[...] »--, that there has been a return, something like a reproduction, as we saw, Freud actually describes the Subject's aggressiveness towards itself as the result of a previous aggression directed towards the Objekt , and it is not difficult to understand how conscience originally comes from the repression of an aggression :

A moment ago, there were two seemingly contradictory conceptions, the genetic and the...dynamic, but now they are no longer antagonistic—« sie widerstreiten einander nicht »—for the « child's renvengeful aggressiveness » is said to be « determined » by his or her fear of retortion.


It would seem there is nothing to add ; no doubt determination is only vaguely mentioned—the father, and even the son's guilt after his collective murder--, but the information gathered is so rich it would not take much effort to construct a simple and convincing model from it. And yet, Freud does not seem ready to give up his original idea about the existence of an ambivalent conflict in us, what he calls « the eternal struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction and death. » (132)        







So that for us, now, some eighty years later, the task is to understand how Freud arrived at that conclusion and to decide whether we can accept it or not.


That he still had some doubts is obvious, and his eighth section begins with an apology--even though this may be nothing more than a purely rhetorical declaration:


           Having reached the end of his journey, the author must ask his reader's forgiveness for

           not having been a more skillful guide […]


For he is not prepared to abandon the thesis he has been developing so far :


          [my paper] corresponds faithfully to my intention to represent the sense of guilt as the

          most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price

          we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of

          the sense of guilt […] (134)   


Starting with a question on the existence of an oceanic feeling in humans, the successive elements of the argumentation have been: loss, renunciation, the nature of evil and our sense of guilt.     


I have tried to show how a primal loss at birth ought not to have been considered as a renunciation, for the reason that the said loss occurred before the law. Then I have defined the function of the law as demanding of each of us—without always succeeding—that in our relationships with our neighbor we renounce our (fanticized) omnipotence, but I also pointed out with insistence that although the necessary foundation of the law was our primal loss, le manque, its particular contents were always a production of society, not of Kultur. From which it followed, for instance, that the sexual oppression Freud mentions in his essay was the product of a particular society and, again, not of civilization. The advantage I saw in bringing the conditions of production of the law to the forefront was that this represented a possible basis for action, an opportunity to look more closely into the determinations at work in our lives. For even though it cannot be identified with the Reality Principle,« evil » is a reality on earth, and it is the task of civilization to oppose it.


Which brings us back to Freud's text.  And straight away I notice that Freud's inquiry into the nature of evil (once he has established, wrongly I think, that evil is the « bar ») has led him to considerations on the superego.


Do we need to ask how he articulates this concept with his interrogation on the nature of evil? It seems the whole of the argumentation in Civilization and its Discontents is an answer to this question. The first, central, interrogation was: why evil? And the final question is : why am I filled with fear, with Angst ?  The final answer will be arrived at with the help of that last question. Observation has long verified both man's aggressiveness and the existence of anxiety in humans. Freud's indisputably consistent model is his answer to the two questions above: evil is a consequence of my own aggressiveness, an aggressiveness which I even direct against myself, the proof of this being that I feel guilty whether I have acted « badly » or not. Experience, it seems, verifies the coherence of the model. Except that, as I have argued in the preceding pages, Freud dismisses somewhat too quickly the analysis of the conditions of production of the superego, an effect, the manifestation of an ego « which has become masochistic under the influence of a sadistic superego »:


          The fear of this critical agency […], the need for punishment, is an instinctual

          manifestation on the part of the ego, which has become masochistic under the

          influence of a sadistic superego, it is a portion, that is to say, of the instinct towards

          internal destruction present in the ego, employed for forming an erotic attachment

          to the superego. (136)


As one can see, the superego here under analysis is simply given as a priori « sadistic; » the only explanation one gets is that it is part of an unexplained « instinct towards internal destruction. »


And yet, the lines which immediately follow the above description of the relationship between ego and superego tell us all we need to know on the genesis of the superego, even though this had apparently no influence on Freud's subsequent conclusion.


For « the sense of guilt, » Freud writes, « is in existence before the superego, and therefore before conscience, » and is thus « the immediate expression of fear of the external authority,» « the direct derivative of the conflict between the need for the authority's love and the urge towards instinctual satisfaction, whose inhibition produces the inclination to aggression. » (136)


I take it we have here all the various components of the model I have tried to construct with the assistance of Freud's observations, namely his analysis of the child's aggressiveness (2a, in my presentation).


The precedence in time of a feeling of guilt before the edification of the superego quite corresponds to the anteriority of our encounter with the « bar » (1a), while the aggressiveness

in which Freud sees a response to a refusal—he writes « inhibition »--(2a) brings about the Subject's fear of reprisal and a return of its own aggressiveness » (2b).  The whole process, in which the fear of « an external authority » is transformed  into an « internal authority,  amounts to the elaboration of the superego, and if Freud finds it difficult at first to explain the aggressive energy attributed to this agency it is simply because he leaps too quickly from what he calls the primitive energy of the external authority—which, as we have seen, is none other than the encounter with the Real--to the aggressive energy attributed to the superego, forgetting to include in his model the violence of the Subject's response (2a),  a violence (12 )  which will be « displaced inwards », as Freud says in the following lines, forgetting to explain why such a displacement takes place.


But the answers we are looking for, and this is what matters in the end, are right here, in Freud's text, for his clinical observation enables us to construct a satisfactory model:


          For how are we to account, on dynamic and economic grounds, for an increase

          in the sense of guilt appearing in place of an unfulfilled erotic demand ? This

          only seems possible in a round-about way—if we suppose that is, that the prevention

          of an erotic satisfaction calls up a piece of aggressiveness against the person who has

          interfered with the satisfaction, and that this aggressiveness has itself to be suppressed

          in turn. But if this is so, it is after all only aggressiveness which is transformed

          into a sense of guilt, by being suppressed and made over to the superego. (138)     


The « round-about way » is not so round-about as all that. In fact, the description of the whole process is quite direct: the genesis of the superego is here described with utmost precision and does correspond to the four stages I have imagined, from (1a) to (2b).


But one thing is missing: the reason why the aggressiveness against the author of the prohibition « has to be suppressed in turn. » Did Freud mean that the suppression was only made possible because of its transformation into a sense of guilt? But why a sense of guilt if the aggressiveness is suppressed? He seems satisfied with the idea that a transformation of aggressiveness into a sense of guilt occurred—which is a fact—but remains silent as to the reason for such a transformation. Can we interpret this as a sign he did not wish to look  too closely into the origin of  the prohibition he had described so well , whether we think of the Oedipal triangle or, more generally, of our relationship to the Real ? It seems we can.


In the end, because he prefers to think that it is our aggressiveness which is the first to act—the first « to draw, » as it were—when he comes to describing the transformation he has been able to observe, he tends to underestimate the role of the fear which yet he has analyzed so well. At first, he had asked one question: why evil? This, after a long and, it seems, painful progress, led him to another question: why do I feel guilty for something I haven't (even) done? Clearly, aggressiveness was the link between the two interrogations.


Because he felt the « ego » was the victim of an aggression, and could be destroyed by this, the conception of a vindictive superego came to him. And troubled, haunted by the violence he could observe, the idea of an inborn violence in humans satisfied him as an explanation:


          […] I adopt the standpoint […] that the inclination to aggressiveness is an original

          self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man [...]  


And yet, as we have just seen, his text tells us much more than he wished to theorize, and even sketches the lines of a model we can now complete.


No wonder that his next passage, as a kind of decisive and final argument, calls repression to the stand :


          I am convinced that many processes will admit of a simpler and clearer

          exposition if the findings of psycho-analysis with regard to the derivation of the

          sense of guilt are restricted to the aggressive instincts. […] I am tempted to

          extract a first advantage from this more restricted view of the case applying it to

          the process of repression. (138)     


Fifteen years before, in « Repression » (Standard Edition, XIV, 148), he had written that « one of the vicissitudes an instinctual impulse may undergo is to meet » with forces which make « it inoperative, » and we were then asked why it was so. The answer resulted in a perfect demonstration which indisputably established the concept of an unconscious behavior in humans. But what was lacking there, nevertheless, was information on the forces at work in the withdrawal. In other words, we had the « how » but not the « why » (at least in as much as this why was something other than our encounter with the Real, another cause of unconsciousness). With repression as with Angst, what motivates the withdrawal or the aggression, in the very words of Freud, is a response to the fear of something (the repetition of a loss) and of someone (the Other).






Freud has described the genesis of the superego, the details of its elaboration, the relationship between an outside—the world-- and an inside—the Subject--; what remains to be done now is to find out the conditions of production of our sense of guilt, the determinations which will explain the reason why we feel we must pay a price to avoid anguish, and also, perhaps, one of the causes of our aggressiveness.


For Freud, the whole process was the result of the « struggle between Eros and the instinct of destruction or of death, » but because his essay says much more than this and sometimes not even between the lines, it seems we can dispense with this notion and construct a more logical model which does not have to resort to a mysterious inborn disposition.


As we know, the agency from whom one expects love, the object of desire that is, object a if you wish, also happens to be the giver of the law, the direct cause of our fears.


Needless to say, there is no actual « passing » of the bar, only a transformation, a compromise , but this metaphor of our desire to « go over the wall » is different for each Subject, a direct consequence of its history, its « letter .»


I hope the above illustration speaks for itself : my demand for love is met with by my Other, that it to say my closest environment, and this makes me the object  of the Other's desire  since this Other is also the giver of the law. Because without this law I would have no existence, it is a law I must comply with under pain of guilt and fear. Yes, it is as simple as that, but because the whole process is unconscious, in the Subject as well in the giver of the law—the parents generally--, it makes things very difficult for us, so difficult that it may take years of analysis to begin to understand how it all works! (13)









*I am using The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London, volume XXI: Hogarth Press, 1953-1964.



1.The present close reading of Civilization and its Discontents is a sequence to my article « Freud on 'Repression »' and on 'the Unconscious', » in Literature and Psychoanalysis, I.S.P.A., Lisbon, Portugal, 2005, 79-90 , and « Relire Freud. L'inconscient, » Gradiva, revue européenne d'anthropologie littéraire, Paris, Lisbon : Université Paris VII-ISPA, Volume VIII, N°2, 2005.


2.See for instance: « It is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization. » (86)     


3.Shakespeare's Richard III provides a perfect example of the way aggressiveness comes to be produced: a demand is formulated, a refusal follows, and an aggression concludes the scene (See : scene 1, Act III, Gloucester and York, or scene 2, Act IV, Gloucester and Buckingham).  


4. Should, but does not, it is essential to mark this.


5. I have dealt with this aspect of « meaning » in « C’est à quel sujet ?, » Le Sens, Cahiers Charles V, Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot, 1993, 179-193.


6. A loss that precedes whatever shall follow later in life, so that all other « small » losses, in [nurturing] for instance, may act as reminders of the first trauma.


7.  In his « Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality », 1905, Freud spoke of an « ...aggressive or destructive instinct » ;  he also mentioned what will become the «instinct of death » in « Beyond the Pleasure Principle, » chapter VI, Standard Edition XVIII, chapter VI, 52-5.



8.  «[...] sexual  love is a relationship between two individuals in which a third can only be superfluous or disturbing, whereas civilization depends on the relationships between a considerable number of individuals. » (108)



9.  In a way, this is significant, for the child has a place in the triangle.


10. But of course, it is a bit more complex than it seems, since Freud is not here speaking of the essence of unconscious desire but of the essence of Kultur, that is to say of what he says requires renunciation.    


11. The unnecessary complexity of the passage, and of a few others in these pages, as I have pointed out above, is simply a consequence of Freud's insistence to discuss two different questions at the same time: the repression suffered by individuals touching their sexuality, and the origin of violence.


12. Needless to say, the determinations of the Subject are also socio-historical; I have only discussed what belonged to the domain of psychoanalysis.


13.  One will naturally recognize the direct influence of Lacan's « Graph » in the present model.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "MALAISE, mal-être, ma lettre". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available April 24, 2012 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 12, 2012, Published: April 24, 2012. Copyright © 2012 Robert Silhol