To Believe it or Not
Michael Turnheim

Author's Bio

I’m going to speak to you about the psychoanalytic theory of psychosis. Since I am addressing an Anglo-Saxon audience I thought it might be appro­priate to begin with an Anglo-Saxon reference you find in Lacan’s writings; the first one, if I’m not mistaken.

Lacan became interested in modern Anglo-Saxon philosophy much earlier than many of his compatri­ots. Already in his doctoral thesis published in 19321 he refers to a passage in Bertrand Russell’s book The Analysis of Mind,2 where Russell attempts to answer the following question: What is it which allows us to distinguish between products of our imagination and other contents of our mind which make up the memory of things that have really occurred? Russell thinks that there is a special feeling of reality and that this feeling is, as he puts it, a feeling akin to respect. According to Russell this feeling of respect is necessary if we are to believe in the contents of our memory.

These remarks are of course very interesting for psychoanalysts. But there is a problem: the subject Russell speaks about is not the same subject as the subject of psychoanalysis. For Russell’s subject real­ity is merely everything he perceives. We respect reality, says Russell, and therefore we believe in the traces it leaves in the memory.

Contrary to Russell, psychoanalysis considers the link between perception and memory on the one hand and belief on the other to be rather variable. Freud recognized, for example, that a little boy may very well perceive that a girl does not have a penis, but that hedoes not necessarily respect his per­ception and, for this reason, he will not really believe in the corresponding content of his memory. There can be perception without conviction.

Maybe it was easier for Freud to make this separa­tion between perception and belief because his lan­guage was German. In German there are two differ­ent words for reality. There is on the one hand the word Realität, but there is also another word, Wirklichkeit. Wirklichkeit is connected to wirken, which means that something works. So one can say that there are some perceptions which work, that are efficient, that become Wirklichkeit; and others which work less or not at all.

This distinction is especially important if we speak about the unconscious. The unconscious is a memory structure formed of a limited number of language el­ements, of signifiers. These essential signifiers de­termine the subjective position, they determine the subject’s relation to the Other. Specifically one of these signifiers, the one Lacan called Nom-du-Père: Name-of-the-Father, has the function of modifying this relation to the Other.

If we don’t believe in the existence of inborn ideas, we are forced to think that signifiers must be per­ceived somehow in the outside world. In paraphras­ing Bertrand Russell we can say that, in order for them to work in the unconscious, the subject must respect the signifiers he perceives. This is particu­larly true for the signifierName-of-the-Father insofar as its function is, as I have said, to modify the position of the subject.

The subject must believe all the more in this modify­ing signifier since, according to analytical experience, one never really wants to change the position oneoc­cupies. This is something Freud discovered very early and which he emphasized again when he intro­duced his concept of the death-instinct. One of the aspects of the death-instinct is that man always finds satisfaction; that he even finds satisfaction in suffer­ing. Lacan called this fundamental satisfaction joui­ssance. He even said, somewhat ironically, that man is always happy.

You can, of course, ask why one has to modify one’s relation to the Other. The reason for this is that it is not as subject, but as object that the child enters the world; object of love or object of hate, object of de­sire or unwanted object, but, at any rate, always as an object. In the beginning it is always the Other who reigns, the first Other, the mother.

So you have in the beginning a mythical situation where jouissance dominates and where the child is the object of the Other. It’s only through this special signi­fier which is the Name-of-the-Father, that the sub­ject can modify this initial position. The effect of this signifier is, according to Lacan, to introduce the signi­fication of the phallus. Very generally speaking, this means that a part of the body, the penis, is trans­formed into a signifier. But what is essential here is that this transformation localizes the satisfaction, the jouissance, and, since the signification of the phallus is linked to castration, it modifies at the same time the subject’s relation to the Other.

To understand the function of castration, you have to consider that castration is, according to Freud, in the first instance always castration of the mother — not of the real Mother, but of the child’s representation of the mother. Castration means that the mother is sep­arated from her object; and since the child’s initial position is to be the object of the mother, castration introduces a discontinuity into the relation between the child and the mother.

In the Œdipus complex, it’s the function of theName-of-the-Father to introduce the signification of the phallus. It depends on the efficiency of this sig­nifier whether the child accepts the localization of jouissance; and whether he accepts leaving his initial position of the object of the Other. Lacan baptized this modification produced by the Name-of-the-Father Métaphore Paternelle, the Paternal Metaphor.

One could attempt to formulate this relationship between the subject’s initial position and the Name-of-the-Father by a kind of equation: the belief in this signifier must be stronger than the satisfaction the child gets from remaining in his initial position. The subject has to sacrifice some of his satisfaction, of his jouissance; otherwise nothing will change.

But this equation, correct as such, would neverthe­less be misleading if we understood it as a pure quantitative relation. Belief andrespect do not de­pend on intensity, they arerelated to anotherdi­mension, they are related to truth. The efficiency of the signifier depends essentially on the credibility of the person who should incarnate the signifier. For this reason the question is not whether the father is strong or weak, whether he is nice or not. The ques­tion is whether the father is credible or not in his relation to the symbolic function he has to occupy. And since the mother is the other essential person in the Œdipus complex, the question is also whether the mother's relationship to the symbolic law repre­sented by the father is credible or not.

This means that when you examine a clinical case you always have to distinguish the real father from the symbolic father. Lacan emphasized the eventual paradox produced by this difference: the figure of the father may be particularly inefficient on the symbolic level in the case where he has the function of making or defending the law in real life. It is not rare, for example, for the psychotic’s father to be a legislator, a general, a religious fanatic, and so on. The distance between the father’s conviction that he incarnates law and order on the one hand and his attitude in the œdipal situation on the other may reinforce the child's impression that the father is a liar, that his ideal of integrity is something purely imaginary. Since the efficiency of a signifier is, as I have said, related to truth, the Name-of-the-Father may be completely inefficient in this case.

According to Lacan the etiology of psychosis can be explained by such a deficiency of the symbolic func­tion of the father. As Lacan puts it, in psychosis the Name-of-the-Father is foreclosed. At the place in the structure normally occupied by this signifier, in psy­chosis there is nothing, a simple hole. The psychotic subject has completely rejected this signifier. He does not believe in the Name-of-the-Father. What he found at its place was not credible. In other words, the psychotic has chosen not to sacrifice the satisfac­tion connected to his initial position of being the ob­ject of the Other. The Paternal Metaphor has failed.

Lacan was able to show that one can explain by thisvery simple mechanism all the clinical phenomena of psychosis:depersonalization, hallucination, delusion and so on. But I don’t have enough time here to demonstrate to you the connection between the mechanism of foreclosure and these symptoms. I want to present a clinical example and, to interpret this case correctly, I have to enter the discussion of a particular symptom one finds very regularly in psy­chosis.

Some of you may have read Daniel Paul Schreber’s book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. At the very beginning of his disease, actually even before the outbreak of acute psychosis, Schreber has the idea that it must be very nice indeed to be a woman submitting to sexual intercourse. But it is only at the end of the evolution of his disease that he will agree, after a long struggle against this idea, to become the wife of God.

What does this mean? Due to foreclosure, we have said, the psychotic knows nothing about the signifi­cation of the phallus. But to be a man is not just to have a penis, for, to become a man, this organ has to be coordinated to its symbolic function and to cas­tration. This explains that in some way, let’s call it at the unconscious level, the psychotic cannot be a man.

But why should he aspire to become a woman? In his later work Lacan gave a very sophisticated logical explanation for this very frequent psychotic delu­sion. I will attempt a simplified version of his expla­nation here. The outbreak of manifest psychosis cor­responds to the destruction of the initial identifica­tion of the psychotic, which is, as I have said before, the identification with the object of the first Other, the object of the mother. In his delusion the psy­chotic tries to construct a new relation. Due to fore­closure it will be once again a reduced relation, in which the patient incarnates the object of the Other. And the “adult” version, if I may say so, of being the missing object is to be the woman which men are missing. In the unconscious there is an equivalence between the idea of the missing object and the idea of being a woman.

Now let’s turn to the clinical example I mentioned. I will presentyou a very short sequence of a case. There are two scenes betweenwhich the patient himself does not establishany relationship. Another interesting feature is that this sequence takes place several years before the outbreak of psychosis. It constitutes a sort of condensation between past and future, a snapshot summarizing the structure of the case.

The first of the two scenes is the following: the pa­tient is sixteen years old, he is sitting in his room and gazing at the photographs in Playboy magazine. His fa­ther enters, takes him by the arm and leads him to the bathroom. The father lowers his trousers, shows his son his penis and says: “Look here, if you want to know what a real man is!”

The second scene takes place two weeks later. The patient is alone in his parents' apartment. He puts on his mother’s skirt and his mother’s stockings, stands before a mirror and masturbates. Just to have the experience, to see what it’s like, he explains.

Let’s examine the first of the two scenes. What makes it particularly interesting is the fact that it seems to comprise almost all the elements of the Paternal Metaphor. There is a son who abandons himself to a sort of auto-erotic satisfaction: looking at Playboy magazine. Next, there is a father who seems to try to turn his son away from this satisfaction, to turn him away by showing him what a real man has to be: his gesture seems to mean that a real man is the one who possesses the phallus. Couldn’t we try to interpret what happens as a moment where the son is invited to change position by identifying himself with the father?

Why is this whole scene, however, nothing but a lamentable parody of the Paternal Metaphor? I think we can say that it is because it shows a confusion between the real and the symbolic function of the father; and between the real penis and the phallus as a signifier.

Like the fathers Lacan speaks about, who think that they incarnate the law, this patient’s father thinks that he incarnates the real man. According to him the son would become a real man by being the simple reproduction of his real father. In other words, he proposes to his son a purely imaginary identification without the mediation of castration.

The phallus of the father is of course an essential el­ement for the transformation which should take place through the Paternal Metaphor. But not the real organ; its symbolic function is important, insofar as it symbolizes the object of desire of the mother. The function of the symbolic phallus in the Œdipus situation is to render impossible the child’s identifi­cation with the object of desire of the mother.

What happens here is an excellent illustration of what Lacan calls the father’s imposture. Of course we can’t suppose that this particular event is the cause of the patient’s psychosis. But it certainly illustrates a deficiency he has met from the very beginning. And it must have reinforced what we can call the patient’ choice: the choice to not believe in the fa­ther.

This is confirmed by the second scene. If the first scene resumes the past, we can say that the second anticipates the future. It is a sort of warning. Not be­lieving in the possibility of sacrificing his jouissance, the patient tries a new way of identifying himself with the object of the Other. And, as we have seen before, being the woman missing to men is the typi­cal way of incarnating this object.

The further history of this patient’s psychosis is en­tirely dominated by his interest in feminine sexu­ality and ideas about sexual relationships which ex­clude the signification of the phallus. He thinks, for example, that all woman are lesbians, especially his former girl friend. He goes regularly to pornographic movies, to watch with a mixture of fascination and disgust scenes of lesbian love. And when he speaks of his plan to get married, he specifies that he is go­ing to have children without having to penetrate his future wife.Science makes it possible, he says, there is artificial insemination.

To conclude, let’s return to Bertrand Russell’s Analysis of Mind in 1946. There he underlines the contrast between his “radically mechanistic” orientation and the fact that he was, as we have seen, nevertheless obliged to make use of such ap­parently metaphysical concepts as “feeling of re­spect” or “belief.”3

You have seen that a term like “belief” can be central in the analytical interpretation of a clinical case. Does this mean that psychoanalysis is less materialistic than science, that it is a sort of new philosophy?

Lacan did not think so. Psychoanalysis has to do with a special type of materiality, the materiality of the signifier. That is what I wanted to show you by this clinical sequence.



1. Jacques Lacan, De la psychose paranoïque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité, Paris: Seuil, 1975, pp. 35 - 44 and 214.
2. Bertrand Russell,  The Analysis of Mind, London: George Allen & Unwin, 1956, pp. 157-187.
3. Lacan, “Propos sur la causalité psychique,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966, p. 183.



Facebook Comments