Traumas, Threats and Terrors: Psychoanalytic Sex and the Assaults on the Nervous System
by dany nobus
January 13, 20 and February 3, 10 and 24, 2024
Saturdays: 15h-17h (Lisbon Time) Online (zoom) with recordings
It has been repeated at nauseam over the past hundred years or so that one of the major problems with Freudian psychoanalysis is that it places too much emphasis on the importance of sexuality in the human condition. The criticism dates back to the mid 1890s, when Freud advanced his theory of the sexual aetiology of the neuroses; it was subsequently embraced by Jung, and it has since been endorsed by countless others, including by quite a few people working within the psychoanalytic tradition itself. In the preface to the fourth edition (dated May 1920) of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud defended himself against this accusation of ‘pan-sexualism’ by stating that he had merely expanded upon concepts and ideas that had already been formulated by Schopenhauer and “the divine Plato”, but maybe Freud’s best riposte would not come until later that year, when he argued in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, that sex should always be balanced against death and, indeed, that most of the time sex and death are inextricably mixed in the mental economy of the human drives. My argument in this lecture course is that any commentary on the significance of sex in psychoanalysis must start with the acknowledgement that ‘psychoanalytic sex’ is conceived in a radically different way from all common-sense notions of sex, which tend to portray it as a force or an activity that is intrinsically and unequivocally pleasurable, whether practiced for reproductive or for recreational purposes. A careful reading of the Freudian corpus reveals that, with very few exceptions, Freud emphasizes another, ignored, forgotten or repressed dimension of sex, notably that it is fundamentally traumatic, threatening, terrifying and destructive. This is borne out, for example, by how the child’s discovery of sexual difference impacts upon its mental life: the boy is left with castration anxiety and the girl develops penis envy. Yet it is also present in numerous other Freudian accounts of how sex imposes itself upon the human mind as an alien form of bodily and psychological horror. Although the child is allegedly endowed with a ‘polymorphously perverse’ disposition, which would seemingly equip it with all the necessary tools for pursuing its sex life in a carefree, unrestrained modality of limitless enjoyment, in most cases it enters adulthood with a conception of sex that is associated with guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear and jealousy. Despite its own ‘infantile sexuality’, the child’s first observation of the sexual act, which Freud designated as the ‘primal scene’, generates sensations of terror and fascination, not to mention a haunting impression of a mysterious consensual violence.
In his Seminar IV, Lacan proclaimed at one point that the real scandal of Freudian psychoanalysis is not so much that it purportedly exaggerates the significance of sex, but rather that it demonstrates how human sexuality is inherently problematic. Employing this statement, which Lacan subsequently also captured with the formula ‘Sexuality is always inherently traumatic’, I propose to trace and unpack this ‘other dimension’ of sex, its dark and destructive side—where it shatters the human representational world, where it unexpectedly manifests itself as a non-negotiable disruptive power, where it is being used as a weapon, in short where it becomes a figuration of death. In addition, I shall show that this dialectical underside of sex has been captured for thousands of years by the human cultural imagination, both in literary texts and in the visual arts, and that psychoanalysis may therefore also contribute to a new appreciation of the troubling images of human sexuality, as a fundamentally death-driven and terror-stricken force, in various artistic representations of human eroticism. Indeed, Freud’s observation, in the opening pages of his 1907 study of Wilhelm Jensen’s Gradiva, that “creative writers are valuable allies [to psychoanalysts]” because in “their knowledge of the mind they are far in advance of us everyday people”, does not just apply to the study of dreams, but also and perhaps more importantly to the inherently traumatic, threatening and terrifying dimension of sex. Drawing on a wide range of literary sources—from ancient Greek and Roman times to the contemporary period, from Western culture to the Oriental creative imagination, from Ovid and Apuleius to Bataille and Moravia, and from Thomas Aquinas to Shitao—I shall argue that the “sexual night” (as Pascal Quignard has called it) is effectively a tautology, and that psychoanalysis fractured and ruptured conventional conceptions of human sexuality, in order to bring this inherent darkness of sex to the light of day.
Yet I shall also balance and test ‘psychoanalytic sex’ against contemporary research in (cognitive) neuroscience and, more specifically, against neuro-psychological conceptions of trauma. Two questions will guide this part of the argument: To what extent does contemporary neuroscience allow us to think about the traumatic impact of sex? In what way could neuroscientists shed led on the idea of an eroticisation (and sexualisation) of trauma? Finally, I will offer a model of psychoanalytic sexuality in which the traumatic force of sex is acknowledged in its purest sense, notably at the point where it shatters the coordinates of identity. This model will be based upon a critical exposition of contemporary debates around gender and trans* and will consider the possibility of an experience of human sexuality without gender identity.
Dany Nobus is Professor of Psychoanalytic Psychology at Brunel University London, Founding Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council, and former Chair and Fellow of the Freud Museum London. He has published on the history, theory and practice of psychoanalysis, the intersections between psychoanalysis, philosophy and the arts, and the history of ideas, with special reference to the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Recent books include Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason: Studies in Lacanian Theory and Practice (Routledge 2022), Thresholds and Pathways between Jung and Lacan: On the Blazing Sublime, edited with Ann Casement and Phil Goss (Routledge 2020), and The Law of Desire: On Lacan’s ‘Kant with Sade’ (Palgrave 2017). In 2017, he was the recipient of the Sarton Medal of the University of Ghent for his outstanding contributions to psychoanalytic historiography. He is currently working on a new, in-depth biography of Jacques Lacan.
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