Psychoanalysis and Freedom1

Text-only Preview

Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis Vol. 7, No. 1 Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse
Psychoanalysis and Freedom1
P a r i s , F r a n c e

1. Some History: Freud and Lacan
Freedom is not a psychoanalytic concept. If we are to believe the Index
to the Standard Edition, Freud employs the word very rarely—in The
(1919), and especially in Civilization and Its Discontents
(1929)—to convey the sense of an instinctual urge shackled by the
necessity for humans to live in communities. This libidinal urge proves
to be profoundly ambivalent, always more or less taken up, or domi-
nated, by the death instinct which civilization refuses to accept. In
resuming and deepening the propositions in Totem and Taboo (1913)
on the founding myth of the “murder of the father,” Freud specifies the
two conditions inherent in being human, which limit the absolute
freedom Freud attributes to the individual: namely, the realization of
his desires.
On one hand, there is the need to share satisfactions with the
other members of the community on whom the individual
depends, given his physical weakness and the inadequacy of his
technological mastery of nature.
On the other hand—and this is radical, since no technological
or even moral progress can undo what is best described as the
tragic essence of human life—there is consciousness itself (or
conscience2), which is constituted at the origin, precisely
through a limitation on the freedom of the drives imposed by
repression and censorship, or, in other words, “civilization.”
The text was originally presented to the 24th Annual Congress of the Cana-
dian Psychoanalytic Society in Montreal, on June 19, 1998. The conversa-
tional style of the original French text has been largely preserved. Translation
by Charles Levin.

The last increasingly restricts the realization of desires (and
thus of freedom).
Through censorship, conscience transforms the reined-in desire into
remorse and guilt, but also into self-destruction, in which aggression
takes the ego as its target in masochism or melancholia. Thus,
The liberty of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest
before there was any civilization, though then, it is true, it had for the
most part no value, since the individual was scarcely in a position to
defend it. The development of civilization imposes restrictions on it, and
justice demands that no one shall escape those restrictions. What makes
itself felt in a human community as a desire for freedom may be their
revolt against some existing injustice, and so may prove favourable to a
further development of civilization; it may remain compatible with
civilization. But it may also spring from the remains of their original
personality, which is still untamed by civilization and may thus become
the basis in them of hostility to civilization. The urge for freedom,
therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civiliza-
tion or against civilization altogether (S. E. 21:96).
Let us take note, further on, of the distinction between a “bad” and a
“good” freedom—an instinctual freedom opposed to a freedom associ-
ated with security:
In fact, primitive man was better off in knowing no restrictions of
instinct. To counterbalance this, his prospects of enjoying this happiness
for any length of time were very slender. Civilized man has exchanged
a portion of his possibilities of happiness for a portion of security. We
must not forget however, that in the primal family only the head of it
enjoyed this instinctual freedom; the rest lived in slavish suppression.
. . . In this period however, . . . the instinctual life of primitive peoples is
by no means to be envied for its freedom. It is subject to restrictions of
a different kind but perhaps of greater severity than those attaching to
modern civilized man (S. E. 21:115).
Moral consciousness and its organ, the super-ego, thus impose, from
the beginnings of primitive man, a renunciation of drive freedom,
which Freud partly regrets but must eventually accept as a necessary
compromise in the name of survival.
At one point, in the course of this enquiry I was led to the idea that
civilization was a different process3 working above mankind and I am

still under the influence of that idea. I may now add that civilization is a
process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine isolated
human individuals, and after that, families, then races, peoples and
nations, into one great unity, the unity of humanity. Why this has to
happen we do not know
; the work of Eros is precisely this. But man’s
natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all
against each, opposes this instinct of civilization. . . . This struggle is
what all life essentially consists of, and the evolution of civilization may
therefore be simply described as the struggle for life of the human
species. And it is this battle of the giants that our nurse-maids try to
appease with their lullaby about Heaven.4
I have quoted at length from this unique text of Freud’s on the aporias
of freedom, not only because I know that the North American public,
which is ahead of Europe in the civilization now befalling us, doesn’t
read much—even less the founding texts of psychoanalysis (which
allows me to do some educational work)—but also because Freud’s
later work, far from being an appendage, as has often been suggested,
seems to me to reveal some of Freud’s most daring challenges to
contemporary thought. But these elements still need to be brought to
the surface, where we can examine them.
It is not my intention to underline the claims and paradoxes of
freedom according to Freud, in light of the philosophy of freedom,
whose long history, as stated earlier, derives from pre-Christian
thought and theology, rather than ancient philosophy. I will limit
myself to indicating a few points that might be of interest to psycho-
analysis today.
Freud seems to begin with a naturalistic conception of pleasure: with
the man of pleasure who wants to satisfy his drives naturally. Here we
are not far from a Greek idea of freedom as “I can,” as opposed to “I
want,” which implies an objective state in the body (doing as one
pleases), without a constraint emanating from a master or a physical
force. Remember that, for the Greeks, freedom (éleutheria) is essen-
tially freedom of movement (Freud says pousée, urge, drang)—“Go
where you see fit,” “eleuthein hopos ero.” Very quickly, however, this
freedom comes face to face with the fable of the “murder of the father,”
implying another conception of freedom, which is consecutive to a
commandment. The tyranny of the assimilated/introjected father
becomes moral consciousness, the conscience or super-ego, which

forbids: Thou shalt not sleep with thy mother, and thou shalt not kill
thy father.
However, this biblical resurgence in Freudian thought, which (it is
worth recalling) structures the psychoanalytic conception of the psy-
chic apparatus, is the starting point for what Lacan, reader of Civiliza-
tion and Its Discontents
, calls an ethic “beyond the notion of a
command, beyond what offers itself with a sense of obligation.”5 As
we have just seen in the brief extracts from Civilization and Its Discon-
, desire is not subordinated to a commandment exterior to it. To
state this more positively, moral obligation is rooted in desire itself; it
is the energy of desire that engenders its own censorship. Why? “We do
not know,” says Freud modestly. But “the work of Eros is precisely
this,” he continues, enigmatically.
Now, what if Freud really has an answer to this question, through an
insight that he reiterates throughout the course of his work?—namely,
the emergence of thinking as realized in a shared language that reins in
the drive and commands it
. This “command” becomes, from then on,
intrinsic to the drive insofar as the latter is human (a drive is from the
beginning an interweaving of energy and representation), and raises it
to another level of the psychic apparatus, where the drive becomes
desire. The drive is translated into the code of social communication,
always already structured by language, in which the dialectic of free-
dom can be played out. Drive and desire are caught in the net of
sharable language— what Kant in the Critique of Judgement calls an
“enlarged [mentality]” because it involves “put[ting] ourselves in
thought in the place of everyone else” (fellow being, father, brother,
family, clan, nation, and so on, right up to that expanded totality we
have been calling, since Pascal, “humanity”).6 Insofar as it is thought-
spoken, desire inscribes the urge of the drive first in a representation,
and then in the necessity of accepting the other’s death and one’s own.
Let us pause for a moment over this Freudian discovery about
freedom, that the natural spontaneous freedom of the drive, once
harnessed by thought and language, is caught up intrapsychically in
negotiations with the death instinct. Freud reveals this transcription of
the death instinct into symbolism in his reflections on Negativity
(1925) and also on sublimation in The Ego and the Id (1923). I
recommend the very relevant commentary in Andre Green’s Travail du

negatif (Gallimard 1993). Structured by language, freedom of desire is
given over to two destinies:
First, sadomasochism. This had already been glimpsed by St.
Paul, who was the first to take up the dialectic of prohibition
and desire, “Where the law abounds, there is an excess of sin.”
But it was de Sade who had the last word on this. He knew, like
Freud, that “the super-ego commands: take pleasure [jouis]!”—
to the point of the destruction of thy neighbour, as well as
Then, and perhaps simultaneously, there is the achievement of
sublimation, which culminates in the biblical and evangelical
precept: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” This is an impossible
alchemy, according to Freud, and he is not wrong: how can one
transfer to another, even if she is very close, one’s own auto-
erotic or narcissistic satisfaction, whether libidinal or lethal
(thanatique)? Except perhaps in the experience of maternal
love: since, for the mother, the child—especially the male
child—is not really an “object,” but an “other,” the first (and
perhaps the only?) other toward whom is addressed a drive
inhibited as to aim, and thus deferred and differentiated into
tenderness. Another exception might be the experience of the
mystic, the saint who, like certain contemporary artists,
achieves a total, enigmatic sublimation of perverse pleasures.
I have cited these two experiences of love that, by exhausting desire
in sublimation, end up leaving the place of the other blank. What is left
of our fellow creature, or even God himself, in this jouissance in which
the same is transferred totally to the other? The saint, like the writer, is
alone, in the absolute of Hilflosichkeit (helplessness), awaiting the help
of no one, on the edge of melancholy or . . . atheism. These are the dire
straits of sublimation, which will remind you, no doubt, of the end of
analysis, when the transference counter-transference dependence is
And how does the dereliction of the mother fit in to this schema (that
is, when she does not try to escape through a showdown with her
offspring, in which she reenacts the love-hate of her marriage and,
above all, her relationship with her mother)? We assign her a program
of the “good enough mother”—which is an even more utopian ideal

than medieval sainthood, though we certainly need to maintain it as the
horizon of an optimal psychic life.
Thus, while certain of Freud’s formulations suggest that he believes
in a natural freedom of the drives, the whole adventure of psychoanal-
ysis consists of locating that freedom within the realm of representa-
tion, and making it depend on an internalization of prohibition. In so
doing, Freud is faithful, whether he knows it or not, to the Stoic
tradition and Christianity, which, from Epictetus to St. Augustine,
discovered the interiority of mankind. For the Stoics, this consisted of
“phantasia” and representation, and for Augustine it was the Will. The
West would develop its speculations on freedom on this basis, and not
on the idea of a pure, natural desire. We must recall that for the Greeks,
freedom did not fall into the domain of desire or appetite which, on the
contrary, were thought to subjugate humankind and render all passive.
In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle ranks them among animal fea-
tures, and goes so far as to coin a new term, proairesis, meaning
“choice in the sense of preference between alternatives,”7 to approxi-
mate what would be the Will in the Christian sense—an exquisitely
problematic zone that would eventually provide a philosophical home
for the roads to freedom.8
Thus Freud situates psychoanalysis in the wake of Aristotle, St. Paul,
and St. Augustine. As Lacan, who never shrank from an associative
leap, remarks, “It is odd to find this strange Christocentrism in Freud’s
writings.”9 For in this freedom of desire, the subject (as Freud reveals)
is free to die of it, to offer up his own flesh for the ideal of his father:
the glory and the hell of redemption, through which Judeo-Christian
monotheism acknowledges in a paroxysmal but nonetheless authentic
manner, a universal structure of human desire, insofar as it is caught in
the nets of meaning.
Neitzsche was the first to expose the impasses of this freedom of
desire: namely, that desire, which in a deeper sense is desire for/of
death (désir de mort), is in the last instance a desire for power; and that
this desire realizes the desperate will of man—of the Overman—to
keep himself alive, which remains the sole and unique value of the
dialectic of freedom. Freud says basically the same thing when he
diagnosed the “malaise” of civilization, though, unlike Nietzsche, he
says it in the spirit of disillusionment rather than rage and indignation.

The Heidegerian “Turn” (Kehre) is, of course, a response to the
libertarian omnipotence of this fierce will to be alive. Heidegger tries
to return us to the wandering of Being, to the serenity of “letting go” in
the “historical.” In this way, he tries to resist subjectivism for the sake
of a meditation on the nature of Being, which only the poet’s language
can realize.10 Needless to say, such a perspective rules psychoanal-
ysis out of court, not only because it “biologizes the essence of
man,” but because it succumbs to a subjectivism of desire assimilated
to voluntarism.
Opposed to Heidegger, but still sensitive to his concerns, Lacan
maintains the broadly Christian value of subjective interiority, while
radicalizing it in the extreme. Not only is the subject free, even heroic,
on condition that “he does not give ground relative to his desire;” but,
according to Lacan, “the only thing one can be guilty of is giving
ground relative to one’s desire.”11 Insisting that the contribution of
psychoanalysis is precisely to authorize the subject to discover her
desire and to go to the depths of herself, Lacan proselytizes against the
normalizing tendency in psychoanalysis, which he justly accuses of an
“all-embracing moralism” and of “taming of perverse jouissance.”12
He attributes to psychoanalysis the power to lead the subject to recog-
nize that desire is a desire of/for death, and to establish this distress as
the precondition for all extra-analytic activity.
This position is not only anti-normative, an implicit polemic against
ego-psychology and other behaviourist deviations in psychoanalysis,
mostly North American. It is an exculpating attitude, which rehabili-
tates desire, in the most Freudian sense of the latter’s dangerousness, as
outlined above; it reveals the radical truth of the Freudian discovery—
its uncomfortableness, the principal reason that it meets, and will
always meet, with so much resistance from the moralizing universe of
technics and adaptation.
Lacan’s position also requires the courage to raise the question, not
dealt with by Freud, of the ethics of psychoanalysis, albeit without
resolving it. The theme of your Annual Congress this year, “freedom in
the psychoanalytic process,” is an inspiration to reopen the question.
If the benign neutrality of the psychoanalyst allows the patient not to
“give ground relative to his desire,” it is still true that we greet this
freedom with a certain number of ideals. The analyst doesn’t just let

these desires, “relative to which one does not give ground,” pour out,
purely and simply. His or her way of listening and interpreting
welcomes these desires from the perspective of a moral choice, which
constitutes an ethics. Though these implicit ethics are certainly non-
pedagogical, they are not devoid of communitarian objectives which
frame, when they do not actually restrain, the desires liberated in the
transference. Lacan himself evokes some of these ideals: to make the
patient capable of love, to privilege authenticity as opposed to the “as
if” or the “false self,” to reinforce independence . . . The least one could
say is that this frame imposes a powerful negotiation on whoever “does
not give ground relative to his desire.” But which negotiation? If it is
true that the so-called liberated modern world has created no new
perversions,13 can we have discovered any new responses to the old
and indelible perversity of our sadomasochistic freedoms?
And with this question, we are back at the starting point. Does
psychoanalysis restore to humankind the savagery of its desires, for
which there remains nothing but Redemption, which would turn psy-
choanalysis into a kind of “Christocentrism” without any God apart
from the Signifier? Or does psychoanalysis prefigure a form of atheism
that is thoughtful, perhaps even tragic, but immediately reinstates the
multiplicity of communal bonds, through their possible new begin-
2. Is Psychoanalysis an All-encompassing Moralism?
I wanted to take you down these pathways, which may seem too far
reaching, if not abstract, to some of you, before showing how much
they are implicated in the everyday realities of our practice.
Of the whole range of the “new maladies of the soul”14 offered by
our patients in this closing of the second millennium, I will single out
two categories schematically: those who suffer from having followed
their desire to the end, and those who have yet to find their desire. The
perverse provide an example of the first category: by definition unap-
peased, endlessly indulged by the consumer society of the spectacle,
lacking any point of reference, any sense of limit or value, any relation
to the father. The anorexic (but this could also be the borderline, the
psychosomatic, or the melancholic) belongs to the second: here it is a
matter of restoring access to the patient’s desires in order to free him

from his symptoms. The work of the psychoanalyst consists neither of
releasing nor repressing, but of elaborating and working through the
psyche, to allow a self-renewal at each internal or external challenge.
If the history of psychoanalysis teaches us one thing, it is surely that
the psyche is too complex and unpredictable to know completely in
advance. Freud paved the way for this insight, which has been enriched
by the contributions of many successors: Kleinians, Lacanians,
Winnicottians, Bionians, and so on.
Unique in the history of ideas, the psychoanalytic model is insepara-
ble from the transference-countertransference experience. One can
never say enough about the advantages of this approach compared to,
for example, the structuralist or cognitivist models of mind. That Freud
may not have conceptualized it in precisely this way takes nothing
away from the fact that he discovered it. The task of theorizing and
developing it belongs to the modernity of psychoanalysis. What
emerges of particular note is that freedom—which might well be
termed a sadomasochism of desire, such as psychoanalysis understands
it—is actualized in a paradoxical relation, which is the psychoanalytic
relational bond itself. This real, yet at the same time eminently imagin-
ary, bond invites the reactualization of past experience, of memory, and
especially of traumatic memory, and their re-elaboration. The analyst-
other is not only in the position of the parental function of symbolic
prohibition, but also in the real position of my15 social debt (which I
pay) and in an imaginary position toward which I address my desires
and/or death wishes in the transference—until they, or my imaginary
identifications, are exhausted. The same is true for the analyst, through
and in the countertransference.
A laboratory is thus created in which that “enlarged mentality” dear
to Kant can be experienced, through language, permitting me to uni-
veralize my particularities and to communicate them to the other, to
others. But there is also a concrete relational bond, both sensual and
“worldly,” in the Greek sense of these terms, which Hannah Arendt
interprets as the seed of the political.16 You will note that Lacanian and
Bionian speculations on the unstructuring-restructuring processes of
the subject at the moment of analytic communication (linguistic com-
munication for Lacan, Alpha-Beta for Bion) are concerned only mar-
ginally with the transference-countertransference implications of the

actual desires and fantasies thus liberated. Yet we all know that the
patient’s desire and its derivatives depend on the analyst’s way of
listening. But how? And to what end? There is still much work to be
done toward a better understanding of the role of countertransference,
if we wish to throw more light on the way that the patient’s freedom
unfolds in relation to the limitations of the analyst.
Before trying to answer this question, let me draw certain conse-
quences from the fact that human desire is realized in psychoanalysis
from within a relational bond. The human subject who recognizes
himself there recognizes himself first as a subject of human plurality:17
concretely, the plurality of his family but also that of his analyst and of
other analysands. Thus, with the help of the analyst, the helplessness of
the end of my analysis, i.e., that I expect nothing from anyone (or, as
Chairman Mao used to say, “I can count on nothing but my own
strengths”) is first felt as a shared fate, something in common with the
suffering of others. But this community isn’t really a community, for
no institution will officially embrace this shared experience, this per-
ception of the plurality of the “discarded” (except psychoanalytic soci-
eties for the privileged, but that is another matter).
Moreover, to the extent that my analysis is terminated but not
finished, the suspension of the transferential bond in which a portion of
my drive life and my desires is left unelaborated and unsublimated
incites me to turn my aggression against every unity, identity, norm,
and value: in short, to make myself the subject of a perpetual rebellion,
an incessant questioning, a perpetual analysand.
Ultimately, for this reason exactly—the liberation of my desire
through its elaboration or sublimation—I am in a state of perpetual
rebirth at the end of my analysis. Winnicott says something very new
and incontrovertible on this subject. He seems to hold that birth already
presupposes an autonomy of biopsychological life, making it possible
for the infant to withdraw from environmental impingement and to
avoid the traumatic violence of labour and delivery. This nuclear
independence would be the precondition, in a way, of the later “internal
world,” which Winnicott considers the most precious and mysterious
freedom inherent in being human. Indeed, human being is here meant
in the sense of being, as opposed to doing or acting. Winnicott redis-
covers this freedom equally in the capacity to be alone and in the