Chapter 4: Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud

Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, 296-313, 396-7.

“The Drama of the Psychoanalytic Subject”


Love is a noble selectiveness of sensuality.

Book cover: “Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx, and Freud”

I have kept sexuality in the background thus far, but actually I've been talking about it all along. We can now address it explicitly because the previous discussion establishes the context enabling us to define it in a way that circumvents the characteristic objections that have attended psychoanalysis' contribution to its understanding. Sexuality is at the center of analysis, but irremediable confusion results unless sex is conceived of from the start as a psychological and not a natural or biological phenomenon. Sexual conflict is central to every "neurosis" not for naturalistic reasons but because sex is the primary and most revealing enactment of our "identity." Identity is not a fixed principle to which sexuality later attaches; it derives, rather, from the way we live out the conscious and unconscious conflicts connected with the discovery of our sexual being and the need to fashion a response to this inescapable "fact of life." More than death and taxes, sex is an issue to which indifference is impossible. Even those who would "prefer not" must practice that refusal in their pores. The body is revelatory because it always gives out a more complex text than consciousness anticipates or can comprehend. The commonplace has it that there are no lies in bed, but the truth of the proposition remains unexplored because we have forgotten how to read the signs. As interpersonal beings, we are condemned to live out a relationship to self through our relationship with others. In sex, the truth of both is made manifest in immediate terms. The sexual body enacts the truth of our character; the nature of our engagement with life and our basic attitude toward the duties we face as interpersonal beings here incarnate themselves in their most basic terms. This is the reason why there are no lies in bed — and why we need to work so hard to disguise or escape what is staged there.

The clinical understanding of sexuality — and a correct phenomenological description of any sexual behavior — derives from this line of thought. Its yield can be set forth in a series of propositions that extend, reinterpret, and complicate everything argued in this chapter. But first, an introductory observation. Why, when one sets up the project of grasping the connection (or identity) between identity and sexuality, does one usually confront this situation: men ask for a definition of terms while women already know what the statement means or assume they must possess such knowledge. There is no way one can discuss sex without activating defenses; the hermeneutic engagement here is such that both the discourse and its reception reveal a great deal about both parties.

1.  In sex, body and psyche are joined in a relationship that is misunderstood as long as we remain good Cartesians, invoke natural law, posit biological drive discharge mechanisms, or assume that to understand sex we must reduce everything that goes on in people's heads to the status of an epiphenomenon. Those who so think forget that the mind is the primary erogenous zone, the place where the orgasm dances or where its occurrence is arrested, barred, or requested to provide some strange ticket of admission. Sex is philosophically significant because it holds out the possibility of putting an end to dualism by exposing the inadequacy of both rationalist and naturalistic theories of the subject. In establishing the reality of incarnate mind, sex provides a model for conceiving situatedness in general.

Several striking "facts" suggested such a line of thought to Freud.80 (1) The endless variety of substitutions in the object, aim, manner, and "organ" of satisfaction not only gives sexuality the ability to assume many symbolic meanings, but makes it impossible to disconnect the act from its meanings. (2) There is no single norm or purpose that can be used to legislate the diversity of sexual behaviors. Sexual identity and "normal," "healthy" sexual behavior aren't natural or fixed realities. The proper "posture" is assumed only reluctantly and throughout life occasions strenuous resistance. The cultural, moral, and gender-determined contexts that try to fix sexuality always prove a poor fit. Sexuality is disruptive to any and every logic of the proper, to all attempts to establish what is natural, rational, essential, and lawful in order to measure the marginal and deviant.81 One of the most significant aspects of sex is its ability to call dominant modes of conceptualization into question while exposing their complicity in sustaining sociocultural and ideological realities that wish to give themselves the stamp of the natural and the "eternal." (3) We discharge other "instincts" and are done with them; sexuality seems to begin at the other end of the line. It has its origin in an experience — sensual sucking — that arises only after physical need has been satisfied; it is prolonged for a distinctive pleasure, a near oceanic sense of well-being that transcends bios; and it is pursued, throughout life, for ends that involve far more than physical need. Unfortunately, Freud's natural science framework, especially the economic point of view of metapsychology, forced him to nip all of the above discoveries in the bud.

2.  In analyzing any sexual phenomenon the proper analytic question is: What are the conscious and unconscious conflicts and meanings that are here being enacted? Psychoanalysis has consistently resisted its own discoveries. As George Klein has shown, Freud conflates two distinct and incompatible theories of sexuality, one psychological, the other biological.82 The latter, the drive discharge model, is a reductive attempt to contain the disruptive significance of sex; it is mirrored in experience by those who contrive to live toward their sexuality the kind of relationship it describes.

3.  The identity of sexuality and identity — or, to put the thesis in somewhat weaker terms, their intimate connection — derives from the following condition. Our sexuality has its origin in the precise and usually disruptive way in which our being is affirmed in that prolonged sensual symbiosis that constitutes our first love relationship. This is the original experience that establishes the possibility of experience and its inherently conflicted terms. Mothering is "origin," but no simple beginning. The mother imprints her unresolved sexual conflicts — and those of her current relationship — onto the child. The psychic coalescence or "identity" thereby formed has as its task the mediation of the conflicts that define it. Lichtenstein terms this mediation the primary affirmation of one's "I am," arguing that the adaptional function of sex throughout life is to reestablish and maintain the identity, or identity theme, thereby established. Less reified and more dramatistic terms suggest viewing this experience as the source of the core conflicts that surface in one's subsequent response to sexuality and the problems inherent to intimacy. In founding the possibility of this history, our first love relationship shapes in profound ways the nature and power of our dramatic agency. Those engulfed in destructive mothering begin "already weary of ardent ways," bent on passivity and avoidance; those chosen ones like Freud, affirmed in their being, strike forth boldly to confront life. Sexuality is an identity attained only by living out a relationship to certain conflicts. It is not a natural or biological given but the product of a history.

4.  That history is marked in its origin and development by the inevitability of conflicts that derive both from the complexes of one's family and from the larger sociocultural order. The two, however, are not identical, and reductionism here, while "politically" inviting, levels off the complexity of the phenomena. To avoid hypostatization, the cultural understanding of sexuality in terms of gender and its discontents needs to be dialectically integrated with a clinical focus on specific individual conflicts, because the family is never a simple reflection of society but a conflicted representative where suppressed social conflicts come out — or come home to roost.

In this regard, a word about the French connection. The appeal of Lacan's hypostatization of the Oedipus as symbolic law is akin to the magical thinking of its abstract feminist inversion: by establishing a number of abstract connections — patriarchy, gender, capitalism, and logocentric metaphysics — one confines the disruptiveness of the sexual to the abstract symmetry of the ideological. Thus the utopian potential of such arguments for those who think they can constitute a content for themselves, and liberate a new "identity," by simply inverting the dominant scheme. But in so doing one sacrifices the concrete on the altar of one's need to worship a purified image of oneself.

We abridge the range of dramas open to us whenever we posit a monodrama. The Lacanian hypostatization gives credence to the curious notion that male sexual identity is fixed and stable while the disorders of desire devolve upon the female. But the only thing such a "representation" fixes is the need of males dominated by it to deny their sexual anxieties by propagating such an image. The same can be said for the abstract and equally magical notion that its simple cancellation — through écriture féminine or Gyn/Ecology — will recapture a pristine identity freed of all phallogocentric contaminations, when all such cancellation does is to arrest its adherents at the first moment of dialectics in a sort of anti-Aufhebung in which abstract negation of the given is coupled with its necessary double, flight into worldless abstractions.

The supposedly "natural" language of activity and passivity Freud uses, as well as the sociocultural gender designations to which he ties that language, are both implicated in a larger dialectic in which sex expresses discontents that come out regardless of one's position. Gender provides a perfect stand-in for mutual cruelty. That is the reason for its reductive appeal as an explanatory hypothesis. But the secret of sex is that it always incarnates a complex drama in which there are no secure positions, in which "passive aggressive" behavior, for example, has its finest hour, and in which the one thing certain is that we all know how to get the particular pleasure we crave and communicate the festering message we want to leave behind. One source of sexual inventiveness lies in our cunning ability to devise a way to express our true feelings, whatever our station. The problem of sexual identity cannot be resolved by either an abstract alignment or an abstract inversion of gender designations because it has its basis in a prior order of conflict.

5.  The task of analytic inquiry is to discover the specific values, meanings, and conflicts that sexual experience has had in the motivational history of the individual person. The motives behind the act define it and make sense only when seen as part of a unified history that has a complex and rigorous dramatic structure. This, our most hidden story, is also our most coherent and unified one: that of the relationship we've lived to our sexual conflicts. The analyst's task is to order data so that they tell this story. The same consideration holds for the effort any of us must make to fathom our sexual identity. For that "identity" is one we've achieved by projecting a relationship to conflicts we can't avoid because they define us. The "epigenetic" development of sexuality is structured not by our maturation into prearranged slots, but by our response to the crisis situations in which sexual identity is gained, lost, or put into question. Conflict and crisis are the key experiences because they, bring out all that may lurk beneath the surface of triumphant sexual adjustments and roles. Experience is definitive, moreover, because we can know our sexual being only as it comes to be for, through, in, and with the sexual being of another.

6.  In getting to this drama, there are three distinct ways in which we can experience our sexuality: unconsciously, traumatically, and toward active reversal. In the first, conflict deferred and unmediated accumulates the steadily growing pressure of that avoidance we term normalcy. Through trauma the sexual conflicts we've struggled to avoid — by covertly enacting — become unmistakable. Trauma also brings home the recognition that our very identity is implicated in our sexuality. This is the crucial experience because in it everything significant in one's life comes together. If we take up the burden of trauma, we attain the possibility of an active reversal that is itself dependent upon two things necessarily experienced together: a painful recovery of one's buried sexual history, and the struggle to act toward a new sexual identity.

These three ways in which we can experience our sexuality apply both to the stages (or crises) that make up childhood psychosexual development and to the later dramas in which unresolved conflicts from those earlier experiences are revived and submitted to the possibility of a new issue (puberty, adolescence, adulthood, etc.). In both cases, sexual development isn't a natural and irreversible fruition based on our insertion into prearranged structures that guarantee a secure and substantial identity. On the contrary, sexual development is largely a process of deferred conflicts that refuse to disappear, living on with increased urgency beneath the surface of their apparent resolutions. One of the best examples is latency, that long period of exhaustion before, in puberty, sexual conflicts spring forth with redoubled force. A similar story is the still largely untold one of marital sexuality prior to its endemic crisis. Contra reductive psychoanalysis, the beauty of sexuality is that it is never fixed and its development never guaranteed because its transformation depends on the kind of change which is possible only when one projects a new relationship to one's conflicts. Repetition has its truth because conflicts are never resolved by irreversible ego developm~nts that place us beyond the pale of regression. But repetition is also the defeated, passive relationship to one's conflicts, the dominant human story but not the theoretically significant one.

7.  To understand any sexual experience and expression, we need to coordinate current conflict with all that it revives, collects, and brings to a head. Our sexual history is a complex web of interconnections that make sense only when seen in dramatistic terms. Otherwise wt: lop off the past in the fallacious belief that we finished something once and for all or can begin anew, now that we've gotten something out of our system. However, sexual identity is never secure. This is the key to the anxiety that permanently attends it and its discussion. Fixations and regressions are always possible, as are striking reversals. We are permanently, existentially at issue in our sexuality because we can never be sure experience won't bring our suppressed text into the open, giving the lie to all we think we've achieved. Such is the kind of history to which sexuality condemns and frees us.

The diverse phenomena characterizing human sexuality make sense only when placed in such a context. Inhibitions, symptoms, "dysfunctions," and phobias, for example, refer to unresolved and "unconscious" conflicts over sexuality. They are the ways we express contradictory motives and enact the frustration attendant upon our inability to deal with some specific conflict.. As Schafer argues, we don't have inhibitions; inhibitions are actions we perform.83 Their sexual flavor derives from the fact that, despite apparent avoidance, they mark off an area of deep concern; like defenses, they present desire in disguise. Symptoms elaborate such operations into symbolic actions that, like the dream, represent contradictory desires as unresolved and unresolvable. Just as sexual fantasy stages a garden of sexual conflicts we rarely face, symptoms and inhibitions are statements that epiphanize and hold in lyric suspension the complex drama they arrest. Dysfunctions enact it. Their significance is neither biological nor technological. Premature ejaculation, for example, stages anger, fear, and the need to withdraw quickly from the threat of maternal engulfment in the avenging, castrating female. Its perfect double, frigidity, feeds resentment while inviting the other to take responsibility for one's refusals and failures. The male who lives his sexuality true to the slogan "Wham-bam, thank you ma'm" lacks more than technique; what he persistently enacts is an inability to connect the sexual and the psychological. The female who sees herself as an object, the receptacle of another's pleasure, has taken an equally easy exit from danger and discovery. Such examples — here presented in deliberately abbreviated narratives — reveal sex as an act expressive of complex meanings incarnated, of necessity, in the terms of immediacy. Sex is psychosexual identity made fully present and, in quasi-Hegelian terms, momentarily aware of itself as such.

The beauty of the situation, of course, is that we're in it together. Sex is inherently interpersonal in origin and in each and every expression. The way one conceives of and expresses one's sexuality is always a result of the way one conceives of the sexuality of the other. Those who think/make men brutes or women objects might begin to reverse their paralysis by seeing what that conception makes them and what motives that self-image serves. By the same token, the strength or weakness of one's sexual appetite — and the importance sex or the lack of same has for different persons — derives not primarily from an innate biological constitution, but from the meanings and conflicts that sex has assumed in that person's history. The biggest ruse we've played on ourselves is to impersonalize sex in order to make it, as in Masters and Johnson, a matter of technological manipulation and training. The drive discharge model is the prototype of such a reification, which is not to say it isn't one of the most convenient ways to conceive of and live one's sexuality, since it absolves one of responsibility and self-knowledge in this area. That is why its negation may be the first step toward active reversal. Deprived of the reductive defense, sexual phenomena become again what they've always been, self-revelations of our efforts to mediate the conflicts central to our identity, because those conflicts necessarily announce themselves whenever we engage in that act in which we most deeply express or are most deeply burdened with ourselves. That is the proper analytic focus, and with its attainment all sexual phenomena reveal their secrets as parts of a larger history, that of our struggle to achieve identity or escape the Issue.

8.  The different character types psychoanalysis distinguishes might be most meaningfully defined in terms of the distinct sexual conflicts they enact. Thus we have the hysteric, for whom sex is overpowering, destructive, omnipresent, and utterly familial; the obsessional, trying to maintain control over that which forever slips through one's hands; the narcissist, forever seeking identity in the image of a self-sufficiency projected as the lure to blind others to one's emptiness; the compulsive, bent through ceaseless repetition upon the project of reducing psyche to soma, sexuality to an insatiable yet impersonal mechanism; the passive aggressive, adept at all the nonstatements that force the other to take on the rage underlying them; the manic-depressive, for whom sex is euphoric release from the endless mourning that sits shiva in one's soul. Perhaps the primary motive for sex is that it's the clearest method we have yet devised for making a statement.

9.  Unless one defines sexuality in terms of identity, all the old reductions eventually creep back in. But once we look at it along such lines, certain characteristics that have been persistently overlooked or marginalized come to the fore. Three are worthy of particular emphasis.

First, sex is dangerous. We can lose ourselves sexually because sex touches our intersubjective identity to the quick. The myth of isolated individuality dissolves. The precariousness of "the rational self" is revealed as it succumbs to a more basic drama. Defenses pass from their habitual and unconscious status to impinge painfully on awareness. Identity is always at stake in sex because the other has the power to reveal things we don't want to face or to inflict a wound that will shatter our very relationship to ourself. The sexual wound may, in fact, be the most revealing phenomenon for the attempt to conceptualize sexuality. To put the possibility in quasi-Kantian terms, "What must human sexuality be like for us to be capable of being wounded sexually in a way that may even destroy the very integrity and value of our identity as persons?" As clinicians observe, sex frequently becomes insistent only after a traumatic sexual or interpersonal experience. We seek through sex to restore our self-esteem or to find the identity we just discovered we never had. The erotic upsurge is not that of a drive, but that of motives and conflicts the wound brings into the open. Sexual conflicts that were already present, in deferred or disguised form, must now be faced explicitly. The temporality of this formulation calls attention to the dialectical connection. In sex, we can suffer a psychological wound only because there are unmet conflicts and suppressed meanings already at work in our sexuality. Trauma merely brings out the truth of what is already there. That is why sex is always dangerous: the danger lies in the fact that it threatens to expose conflicts that fester at the core of the personality and that are terrifying precisely because there is no easy way to vanquish them once they've announced their presence.

Second, sex can become peremptory. The peremptory character sex often assumes after a traumatic experience requires the dramatistic connection to render its secrets. The craving for physical contact is not the pulsion of a drive, but the urgency of conflicts that must be expressed, however chaotically, because their centrality to our very identity has announced itself. Sex is sought not for release of tension but as part of a quest to attain a new relationship to oneself which can come only through our relationship to another. Lichtenstein talks about the "adaptational" role of sexuality in maintaining one's "I am." Such reassurance is the sexual quester's primary need. But to work, the affirmation must be of a particular kind. A repetitive urge and a hunger that is often most acute immediately after sexual fulfillment so often characterize the struggle for sexual liberation because the need isn't to compose one's own catalogue aria or find Mailer's perfect orgasm, but to go through a particular order of intimacies in order to mediate one's sexual conflicts in a way that will bring about a completely new intrapsychic integrity. Sexual experience is not a matter of quantity, but the search for a certain kind of quality. Repetitive coupling until one loses count, or gets the notches that assure J magical thinking, won't do the job because mere sex is never what one is after. If there were such a thing we could do it and be done with it. But, as with Hegelian desire, the anguish of sex is that hunger arises in the midst of plenty; and repeated frustration merely weds us to the impossible project of reducing our sexuality to a thing. Repetition doesn't work because it is finally the supreme avoidance: one tries to substitute the act of intercourse for the act of taking psychological action within oneself. Only when the latter is in progress does the sexual act assume the significance proper to it. And only then is sexual experience a possible means of self-transformation. If we try to gain a new identity through sex — and these pages suggest we may have no other way to do so — then our effort must be to express and confront the conflicts inherent in the act.

Third, sex always entails the possibility of self-discovery. The other side of danger is always blessing. Sex is sought and prolonged above and beyond any discharge of instinct because it is a way of communing with the deepest springs of our subjectivity. Unfortunately, sex is often avoided — or abridged — for the same reason it is sought. It must be constrained when conflicts we don't want to face arise in the midst of our attempt to enter a safe haven where we can reduce the problem of subjectivity to the conditions of a drive. Naturally we sometimes use sex just for the release of tension, but we also know when doing so that we are minimizing it. Here too, then, the meaning of the act is what defines it from inception to consummation. That is why touch is of inexhaustible variety.

10. The most important characteristic of sex is its self-revelatory character. We can maintain all sorts of "myths" about our rational identity and our moral character, but in sex we give ourselves away. As with the other forms of great acting, however, De Niro's point holds: it is in the process of disguising our emotions that our true emotions come out. There are no lies in bed, but deciphering the truth of what is staged there is an intensely subtle act of interpretation in which objective observation is impossible. In bed we confront one of the primary situations where knowledge demands that we transcend objectivity. We can know our own body only by incarnating the body of another.

The way we conceive of and, of greater importance, the way we relate to the sexuality of the other are the clearest index of our own sexuality.84 The most significant implication of Sullivan's great insight that "the attitude we express toward others must express the true attitude we have toward ourselves"85 lies in this unexplored area. The beauty of sex is that it brings into the open everything we'd like to deny. If we regard the other as a medium and ourselves as an instrument, or see ourselves as the object taken for another's pleasure, we may find many ways to disguise the truth from ourselves, but what everyday life conceals sex represents in unmistakable and immediate terms. Thus, those who become the perfect object embody both their refusal of the other as subject and their self-contempt for failing to be anything but an object. Frigidity is the perfect realization of such a subjectivity. Those, in turn, who attempt to assert dominance by compelling all relationships to conform to the basest model exorcise anger and fear at a stroke by reducing the other to an object. Premature ejaculation embodies the fear defining such a subjectivity, priapic rigidity its Bergsonian comedy. In either case, the truth of the subject is assured and revealed: thinghood and the use of relations to deny relatedness.

Sex is most revealing when the primary condition for the arousal of desire is the experience of feeling desired. The other's attempt to incarnate my body as pleasure creates my desire. This is the real turn-on or the thing we wait for that never comes. This affirmation or its absence is thus perhaps the most revealing moment for all concerned. The particular way in which I am made to feel desired — and especially what I am desired as — tells me what I am as a subject "objectified" for another subject "objectifying" him or herself through that act.86 The manner of this "interchange of state" is the secret of communication as attribution.

11.  If we can read the signs, our sexuality gives us the clearest insight into the conflicts that are currently structuring our life. The significance of disruptions and changes in our sexual behavior lies in their power to cut through our mutual deceits in order to present the actual terms of our relationship. The truth of our tangled and conflicted history lives on in whatever solution we have imposed to arrest its drama, unless or until trauma brings back, as a continuous whole, the history of all we have. failed to face about our sexual being. Analytic scrutiny is an attempt to discover the truth of the phenomenon — and what that truth reveals about the structure of our lives and the nature of our relationships. We can know ourselves in and through our sexuality if, and only if, we are prepared to see it as the place where we are laid bare rather than as another rat's nest where we can hide.

To do that, however, all sexual behaviors must be interpreted historically by making unmistakable the contradictions of the core conflict that they represent. In the sexual, incompatible desires cohabit. It is nice to regard sex, like the dream of full speech, as the act in which we become fully present to ourselves. But the truth of this presence negates the romantic, utopian, and anti-oedipal glorifications that have obscured its meaning. Sex shows that the dream of presence is best when it gives us over to ourselves not by releasing us from conflicts but by uncovering them. Sex is always disruptive because it touches, however momentarily, on the possibility of a relatedness that transcends mutual cruelty and Sartrean struggle. No doubt that is why the experience has to be truncated or routed into more serviceable channels. We are preoccupied with sex because it is the truth about ourselves we don't want to know. That is why it is so important to develop a new sensitivity to its nuances; as with all phenomena of analytic significance, the truth announces itself only in the breaks, the gaps, the unexpected, the neglected.


The justice of living is that we do unto one another. Relationship is the sole reality. Progress in psychoanalytic theory depends on the conceptualization of relational complexes. Individual personality disorders are always parts of a larger story which is the one we must learn to tell, especially if our concern is "to trace the visionary company of love." The unfinished business of psychoanalysis is thus the development of an erotics of the self. Such a theory of the ego and of ego development would be well worth having as well as one that would give the quietus to much of what goes on under that name. The analytic interaction turns on the telling and deciphering of love stories. No matter how far afield they may range, it is the story of their love that patients insist on telling. And no matter how hard they may try to put the analyst off the track, this is the story that must be reconstructed. Love is not only the key to the transference; it is also the key to the historical reordering and interpretation of everything that happens in the course of an analysis. Learning to tell the story of one's loves correctly may be our primary duty — both in and out of analysis.

Because interpersonal conflict is the bedrock of the psyche, the issue of "personality types" might best be approached, in fact, not in individualistic terms but through a classification of the dominant types of love conflicts. What. Freud termed the "conditions of loving" or of object choice — i.e., the whole issue of whom one falls in love with and why87 — can be understood only if we take them out of the realm of the "solipsistic" and "romantic" and put them into the realm of interpersonal conflict. In a sense, the individual never chooses: we choose one another. The match is the truly concrete phenomenon and holds the key to understanding both psyches. Our surest "instinct" seems to be for finding the one who is worst for us — or best in terms of the conflicts we must project in order to love.

Like happy families, most happy lovers have the same story. One also suspects that they have no unconscious. "Falling in love" may appear mysterious; but the mystery lies in the perfect adequacy of our choice to our deepest needs. We fall when we find that other best suited to whatever relationship we are currently living toward our conflicts. The "course of true love" then brings to fruition what was present in that beginning, for those who have eyes to see. The condition of object choice is that, even when our goal is avoidance, we choose the one who will eventually force our conflicts into the open, even if that openness lies in the vapidity of the successful American couple. Whenever we find the "one who is right for us," what we really find is some hope of mediating our conflicts. Lover's euphoria derives some of its force from the contradictory sparks that go off at the lower registers of the psyche.

Thus far, sadomasochism has been about the only disorder illuminated by the analysis of a relational complex. Seeing the dialectical connection here proved unavoidable given the perfect symmetry of the match. The two projects require and feed off each other. The roles are doubles, and the only thing barring "perfection" is the scope of each party's inventiveness. How can I devise a new humiliation? How can I find a new way to savor my victimage? The primary reason for the hypertheatricality of the sadomasochistic drama is the need to substitute spectacle for action. What Aristotle regarded as the least important component of drama here becomes the whole story. Repetition, accordingly, is the only dramatic possibility. The payoff lies in the dissolution of drama and the reduction of the body to the condition of a thing.

But there are many other ways to make a perfect match. Narcissistic lovers exhaust one another propping up identical absences. The bottomless need for an impossible reassurance defines their coupling. Female hysterics and their male equivalents (Don Giovannis) are made for each other because the protest of one against her sexuality is a perfect match for the insatiable need of the other to reestablish the existence of his organ.88 For both, sex is a weapon, the punishment one inflicts on the other in order to torture oneself. The ironic adequation lies in the fact that the hypersexuality of both is dominated by a body that withholds and denies pleasure. For schizoid personalities, the best relationship, in contrast, is one where emotion is minimized. Feeling always threatens to dissolve a precarious psyche incapable of dealing with conflict. The schizoid project is to turn the other into a model of tranquillity or, failing that, to prove that all ills reside in the angry reactions of those who resist their zombification. In either outcome, success is assured because all psychological disorders are projected, externalized, and located in the other, who can either purge the schizoid's being of anything troubling or bear the stigma of angrily acting out the mutual frustration that defines the relationship. All the above relations are success stories. That's their secret pride. Success lies, however, in embracing a corpse and displacing anger over one's emptiness into a pattern of mutual frustration and mutual cruelty. Finding each other, such lovers lay down as the term of their relationship the refusal to undertake drama and the struggle toward a meaningful identity.

A richer order of conflicted loving derives from the intricate psychological connection between idealization and devaluation. Idealizing lovers invite and feed on rejection. The secret spring of idealization is the need to deny the threat posed by the other. Idealization goes hand in hand with devaluation because splitting is the primary defense mechanism romantic lovers use to avoid facing the conflicts behind their infatuations. Whenever hopes are dashed — or the other fails to conform to the ideal — flight into a new romantic illusion is the only way to displace the aggression that underlies the entire project. As in Hitchcock's Vertigo the attempt to fix the other in the image we project is an attempt to contain our rage over all that we can't control and that would necessarily come out if we had to interact with a real person. Devaluation is the true mother of idealization; for idealization is an attempt to set to rest our beliefs regarding the other's true nature. Need we add that the ever-recurring suspicions and doubts invariably derive from an arrested oedipal drama? The incessant fear of the idealizing lover — Swann, Othello — is that when the beloved is alone, even in her thoughts she's with another man. For convenience, I've used examples featuring male lovers. The same principles hold for women, though usually their perfect object is a narcissistic rake, the payoff being his seduction and betrayal of them or their sacrifice of self-respect as the ritual through which they prove their love. Their jealousy tends to focus its aggression on the other woman, however, in keeping with the oedipal triangle from which it derives.

Idealization necessarily pictures the other in terms of external signs — money, beauty, virginity, etc. — because the other can have no qualities suggesting interiority or otherness. The perfect object has achieved successful externalization and is one with his or her image. But this is also where the whole project begins to unravel. For such a one is open to endless appropriation by others and by the power (itself ultimately monetary) of the images they project upon that eternally blank screen. The condition of availability is the desire of the perfect object to coincide with the image others project to cover over a desperate need to get constant reassurance from others that one is not bad, hollow, or unlovable. Of necessity, anyone who gives love to a perfect object introduces doubt and must be rejected as having been duped by an image, blind to the emptiness beneath. A great play was not written on this subject — its substitute is called After the Fall.

For idealistic love to work, nothing must be said. Everything must remain perpetually suspended. The perfect object must remain "forever young and still to be enjoyed" so that the perfect lover can forever be warmed at the fires of fantasy, like Benjamin's reader warming himself over another's death. Lacking success in the project of mutual reification, the idealizing couple must face the mutual aggression that underlies the attempt to keep each other in a state of perpetual illusion.

The beauty of more complex psyches is that they engender more complicated dramas. With inwardness comes the recognition of ambivalence, guilt, and the need to assume responsibility for experience by internalizing its results. The ghostly peace of repetition is disrupted by the imperative of change. What one did in a situation of conflict now becomes the basis of one's struggle toward active reversal. Such are the achievements of what is termed "the oedipal stage" of experience. Before we celebrate this "development" along the substantialistic and adaptational lines of ego psychology, however, it might be wise to consider quite different directions for the project of loving. Once desire turns on transgression and triangular situations, we have achieved the perfect conditions for perpetual failure. Victory is necessarily defeat since it puts us in the position of the one we earlier violated. When the condition of object choice is that the object belong to another, desire reenacts transgression only to load itself with guilt. Losing the oedipal battle and submitting, under the threat of castration, to the "Law of the Father" may be a harsh fate, but victory may be a harsher one. Victory is, of course, a psychological category: actual incest is not the issue. There are many ways to defeat the older rival or, as parent, to bestow the prize on a favored child. But the price of winning is always the same. The only way to make reparation to the one we've vanquished is by identifying with his defeat and bringing a similar fate upon ourselves. We do so best when we internalize his pain as the very condition that must accompany the experience of our body. If a man wins victory over his father he must become his father's pain, through some self-castrating denial of his own sexuality. The part of the uxorious male is perfectly designed to fulfill this imperative. Or if a woman replaces her mother as the object of her father's desire, she does so at the cost of freezing her pleasure by self-punishment (nymphic promiscuity) or denial (frigidity). In all these outcomes pleasure is impossible because its onset coincides with a feeling of psychic dissolution in which we are flooded with guilt.

The resources of bodily denial are truly remarkable, but a deeper lust compels "oedipal" victors to reenact the crime by structuring their life around situations in which they will find themselves in the role they forced on their initial victim. Adultery derives much of its appeal from motives that have little to do with sex. Driving one's beloved into the arms of another male who, in terms of stereotypes, seduces as a result of greater sexual attractiveness and power, conveniently casts the offended party in the position of the castrated father and also gives him the opportunity to punish the offenders as that father should have. Cuckoldry is an inviting position, serving motives that have little to do with the anxieties regulating male humor. The charm of being cast in the position of "the other woman" draws its appeal from equally complex and convoluted motives. One can renew the attempt to break up the family while assuring that one will get the rejection one deserves. Finding oneself alone again, abandoned by the male, one rejoins one's mother in her pain. The stereotype of gullible women victimized by calculating males conveniently covers motives we'd prefer not to confront.

Sartre loves to demonstrate the proposition "Loser wins," but the truth of the psyche is a good deal closer to the notion "Winner loses." Triangular, "oedipal" desire is not a situation in which one can't win, but a situation in which one had better not win. For the triangle completes its history only when we put ourselves in the slot of the loser. That is why one of the dominant patterns in such loving is the search for the destructive other. The streetcar always stops there. Blanche Du Bois, haunted by a guilt she needs to deny, flees and pursues the destructive other in order to bring the required punishment on herself. Meeting Stanley she knows immediately that "that man will be my destruction" because she has finally found the perfect embodiment of what she's always sought and provoked in men. She can't help making fun of Mitch, whose love appears foolish even as she clutches for it. Her search is for the one who will unravel the psyche. Any other kind of man is necessarily weak and contemptible, an object to play with. Loving her is the proof of one's disposability. Only the destructive other fascinates. That is the person one keeps meeting up with because, going forth, one always meets only oneself. In bringing upon herself the precise disaster she requires, Blanche Du Bois is far from alone.

Perhaps our abiding desire is the desire to open ourselves fully to the other and be rejected.89 Our very being has then been found wanting, valueless. We justify numerous behaviors by calling rejection our greatest fear; but perhaps Freud's notion that what we deeply fear we also deeply desire finds in unhappy love one of its most important implications. Through rejection, the project of loving receives the rebuke that puts us for the first time in a position to discover what it is really about.

Here is one version of our malaise: what Aristophanes didn't know. Maybe what joins us is the desire to be the object of desire for one who has never found a satisfactory love and therefore represents an ideal subjectivity, recognition from which would complete our being. To be that, however, the other must be lacking, in need of an affirmation he has never found and which our love will bestow. Loving will complete both of us. It is the proof of the other's worth, the declaration and perpetual act that will heal the wound that lies at the origin and center of subjectivity. Unfortunately, rather than healing the wound, love reopens it. When we are made for each other we meet under the sign of the unvoiced question that hangs in the air, structuring the relationship: how could I love anyone who loves me? That is why we all find our perfect match ih those who betray a fundamental indifference and need to devalue those who love them. Giving ourselves to them proves our lack of worth, confirming a "truth universalfy acknowledged" since adolescence; the courting of rejection finds its perfect object in the pseudotranscendence of narcissistic personalities.

It also brings us to the more significant fact we must internalize if the pain of love lost is to do its work. Whenever we love we necessarily dramatize our fundamental frustration as subjects. This frustration is the common spring in all our examples and the condition for their dialectical ordering. The beauty of rejection is that it brings the impossible desire at the heart of loving into the open. We need not fear rejection because it is inevitable; we should not because it is the condition for self-knowledge and active reversal. The dignity of tragedy — and of "ordinary human misery" — lies in the act of finally locating the flaw in oneself.

When we love we necessarily reawaken the psyche's core conflicts. Unfortunately, most of us spend the rest of our time together denying or displacing that fact. Loving reactivates our entire history. Unfortunately, for most it does so only by producing an anxiety we flee by trying to avoid the problems that made us unhappy before, which is why they so patiently ready themselves in the wings, anticipating the day when they can spring forth with increased venom. Just as mutual duplicity in the need to perpetuate our deferred conflicts is the thing that brings us together, the coming to light of that fact is the slow march of a relationship toward its point of crisis. Only at that point does the true drama of love begin — but that is a story that is seldom told.

Freud noted a common pattern in which one chooses a partner unlike the parent of the opposite sex only to turn him or her into someone like that parent. One chooses in order to avoid a conflict and ends up creating it. This pattern is but one variation on a larger theme: the intricate connections between one's initial love and the history of one's loving. Many attempts have been made to schematize these connections and to suggest, despite massive evidence to the contrary, irreversible developments. The connections are a good deal more complex than we have yet imagined, however, because there is no secure place from which to begin, either in the mature present or in the archaic past. Nor is there a single model, either of post-oedipal ego development or of cultural law, that can be used to regulate all the conflicts that love activates. The best we can do is stay open to the discovery of unexpected connections in the recognition that nothing is ever lost or definitively sublated in the life of the psyche because conflict does not develop or resolve itself in substantialistic ways. In a sense, we are all like Lear and must be ready at any time to be shocked by all we have still to learn about ourselves. The only thing we can know for sure about conflict is that it matures — as conflict. If we are lucky, when it surfaces it will find us ripe for the struggle with all that it brings to fruition. Let us then attempt the epiphany, the sonnet, the "lines composed in lieu of many moniments," celebrating what love enables us to know. If we strive through erotic love to renew contact with the original sensual affirmation that is the spring of our psychic integrity, we need look no further to see why anxiety, loss, mourning, and grief so often attend us before, during, and after the act. Love brings us into contact not with how far we've diverged from the pristine presence of our origin, but with how deeply we've failed to live out a mature realization of the possibilities and conflicts that it founded. Contra Freud, human sadness is not over the loss of the mother, but over the loss of oneself.


80. This paragraph recapitulates, in a quite different context, the main ideas developed in Freud's Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.

81. This is the thread — via Lacan — that Derrida, Irigaray, and Cixous use as the privileged point from which to construct their theories. Sex is, indeed, a challenge to logic and to rationalist conceptualization. But it is so as an experience. And as such it raises many questions that get short shrift when its only significance is as a contribution to deconstructive logic or écriture féminine. Sex puts us on trial, not in play or on display. For a significant attempt to sustain its dynamic within a deconstructive and feminist viewpoint, see Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York, 1984).

82. George S. Klein, "Freud's Two Theories of Sexuality," Psychoanalytic Theory, pp. 72-120.

83. Roy Schafer, Language and Insight (New Haven, 1978), pp. 139-72.

84. This concept suggests a way out of the current impasse of some feminist theories, since it refers not only to how men conceive of women, but vice versa. In so doing it points to the mutual cruelty and aggression that inform most of the ways we represent and relate to one another.

85. Sullivan, Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, p. 303.

86. This statement both employs and negates Sartre's discussion of human relations in Being and Nothingness by taking the problem that for Sartre convicts all relations of perpetual failure and using it to suggest the bare possibility of another outcome that depends on going through, rather than around, the conflicts Sartre describes.

87. Freud's best discussion of this is in the essay "On Narcissism: An Introduction." Standard Edition 14: 67-102.

88. Clinicians now generally see the Don Giovanni type as the male version of hysteria. As usual, masked behavior acts out the male predicament: fear of feeling, flight from inwardness, and the need to keep everything safely externalized in roles.

89. For different and more optimistic views of love, see Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York, 1956), and Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York, 1970). Irving Singer, The Nature of Love, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1983) traces the philosophic and literary representation of love in Western culture through the nineteenth century.


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Chapter 1: “Hegel: The Contemporary of the Future”
Chapter 4: “The Drama of the Psychoanalytic Subject”

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Toward a Hermeneutics of Engagement   3
1. Hegel: The Contemporary of the Future   8
A Farewell to Epistemology: Reflection on Hegel's Concept
of Consciousness   8
Self-Consciousness: The Spirit That Cuts Back into Life   25
2. Existentialism: The Once and Future Philosophy107
The Experience of the Existential Subject   107
Dialectical Ontology of the Existential Subject   137
3. Subject in a Marxism without Guarantees173
The Dialectic of Subject within Marxism   173
Capitalizing on Inwardness: A Nondialectical Comedy   211
4. The Drama of the Psychoanalytic Subject232
On Catching Up with Oneself   232
Basic Psychoanalytic Concepts Dramatistically Reinterpreted   266
5. Methodology Is Ontology: Dialectic and Its Counterfeits314
Dialectic as Discourse   314
Dialectic as Process   326
Dialectic as System: Its Content and Ground   349