When I wrote my dissertation on Gustave Flaubert’s adolescent writings (The Discovery of Illusion, UC Press, 1971), I found the Freudian “family drama” useful in making sense of these hyper-romantic tales, where the clearly indicated familial roles, including a friend-rival identifiable as Gustave’s friend Ernest Chevalier (and often named “Ernest” in the story), allowed one to trace the development of the configuration up to the point where the “romantic subject”-protagonist was smitten with an extra-familial love, the model for the later heroine of (both versions of) L’éducation sentimentale.
But although the family drama was clearly useful in analyzing the works of a romantic adolescent, my subsequent efforts at literary analysis (Mérimée, Musset, Racine…) were more deeply influenced by the notion of pragmatic paradox introduced by members of Bateson’s “Palo Alto” school of psychology—an encounter for which I will always be indebted to Alain Cohen. Since then, one might say that my intellectual life has been devoted to finding a justification for my intuition that paradox, the bane of logicians, is not simply a clever form of what Irving Massey calls Necessary Nonsense (Ohio State UP, 2018), that is, a frustrating anomaly within the metaphysical mindset for which the raison-d’être of logical propositions—declarative sentences—is independent of anthropological considerations. Once one thus explains away the anthropological nature of language, it is no wonder that one can no longer reflect intelligently on what the origin of language might have been, nor comprehend the paradox inherent in it.
All thinking is really originary thinking. Its effectiveness depends on what one chooses to consider as its originary elements. But we think of its anthropological foundation less critically when we are familiar with these elements from childhood, as in Freud’s family drama, or when, on the contrary, they derive from what appear to be the logical properties inherent in rational discourse. Hegel’s attempt to construct a logic of “everything,” beginning with Being and ending with the human-centered physical universe, whose history reaches its “end” in the revelation of all conceivable categories of being, marks the culmination of the metaphysical age—and the beginning of its deconstruction.
Recorded history and prehistory give us many clues to the origin of the specifically human, but we cannot simply trace them back to this origin. The only procedure that allows one to maintain any degree of rigor is to begin from a hypothesis as minimal as possible. In particular, originary anthropology cannot begin with the child, because the child’s assimilation of culture is a process very different from its genesis.
These reflections bring me back to what was ultimately René Girard’s central intuition, and the one that has influenced me most deeply: that the discourse of religion, however fanciful it may appear in its elaboration, is closer to the essence, the soul of the human than any other. This is quite the reverse of concurring with Auguste Comte—and with virtually all of today’s human scientists—that religion’s truths, having emerged at an early stage of human history, have simply been superseded, like those of ancient astronomy and medicine, by those derived from empirical observation via the scientific method.
This is by no means to deny the legitimacy of “positive,” natural-science anthropology. But as earlier generations of anthropologists intuitively recognized, with respect to originary anthropology, that is, anthropology as centrally concerned with how we acquired what in the human is not shared by our animal cousins, religion cuts closer to the bone than any other cultural practice. Such an anthropology cannot avoid the paradox of transcendence, which each religious discourse conceives in its own culture-bound set of experiential terms. We cannot eliminate these terms without exposing in their nudity the logical contradictions inherent in expressing the “presence” of the transcendent in the natural world. Yet to remain within the vocabulary of metaphysics, where such paradoxical expression has no place, is to forfeit the possibility of understanding the roots of humanity’s différance.
As a follow-up to Chronicles 649 and 651, I recently read Jean Clapier’s Thérèse de Lisieux au risque de la psychologie (Presse de la renaissance, 2010), a book summing up the twenty-odd psychological studies of Thérèse from the 1920s to the present. All of the analyses referred to were respectful of her faith; even the most psychoanalytic did not suggest, with Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, that religious faith was an illusory solution to real psychic difficulties. Yet throughout these analyses, however perceptive, I felt that Thérèse’s own God-centered language was more fundamental than the categories that were alleged to elucidate it. Most critically, her emphasis on love, which was as central to her faith as it is to Christianity (“God is love”), was more faithful to its human/transcendental source than any possible interpretation involving the sublimation of the libido.
I have no quarrel with the idea that Thérèse recruited her somatic emotions in the service of her love for God, and have no particular insight into the sources of such emotions, whether the libido or that quite unlibidinal need for someone to give you a hug. But clearly Thérèse’s love for Jesus is not only cheapened but misinterpreted if we conceive it, as Bernini famously did with her Spanish namesake, as a form of sublimated sexual ecstasy.
One should rather say that human sexual ecstasy, to the extent that it is more than a physical spasm, is informed by our sense of the sacred. Yet the chastity required of the exemplary devotees of Catholicism as well as of many other religions reflects the fact that even with the best of will, the orgasm, in putting an end to (its) deferral during the act of intercourse, cannot—as can the act of communal eating and drinking—be wholly subsumed within culture’s transcendence. Whether one revels in it, like Sade or Bataille, or deplores it, sex is an animal act, an act of mortality redeemed by biology through reproduction, not by the transcendence embodied in the “immortal” sign.
Human love is defined not by the sublimation of Eros, but by the transcendence of resentment. One cannot understand the human by beginning with biology and then tasking the human individual with implementing the transcendent différance that uniquely characterizes us. Beyond the question of language origin, how the child learns to be human, a process whose description Lacan refined from Freud’s series of erogenous zones into the progression of perceptual representation from the (self)-image to the symbolic realm of signs, sheds only an oblique light on the process whereby pre-humans learned to make themselves human.
In the time of Thérèse’s étrange maladie (strange illness) around the age of 10, during which she exhibited quasi-schizophrenic symptoms, she worked out her problems herself, or, as she would have put it, with God’s help. This alternative can be restated as the two possible explanations of the “miraculous” smile of the statue of the Virgin that put an end to this episode on the day of Pentecost, May 13, 1883.
The anthropological truth in the Freudian-Lacanian link between the “symbolic” and the communal domain of the interdictive superego is that interdiction is inherent in language itself. When the child, instead of grabbing for something or screaming to get Mommy to bring it, uses a linguistic sign to obtain it, he is already deferring his appetite for it, thus expressing this appetite as a desire, which can exist only in deferral. However banal the circumstance, to the extent that one uses an imperative, one defines its object as, in its origin, forbidden fruit.
This state of deferred possession arouses in the language-initiated child what we may call primary resentment. It is in overcoming this sentiment that love acquires its transcendent sacrality. And to the extent that we make this process the touchstone of our participation in transcendence, it is difficult to conceive an analysis more fundamental than the Trinitary identification of the sacred with the being that is at the same time sufficient unto itself and also its mortal incarnation, and can be so only by the agency of the “spirit” that communicates between them, which is logos as language itself.
If indeed the child’s primary object of love is not simply the biological mother but the mother become a figure of conscious separation that the child desires to end, then we should not explain as “sublimation” Thérèse’s religious solution to what Clapier refers to as her abandonnique sufferings, beginning with her mother’s early problems in nursing her that led to infant Thérèse’s spending an entire year away from home with a wet-nurse, followed by her mother’s death before she was five years old, and then the departure of her quasi-maternal sister Pauline to the Carmel in 1882, precipitating the étrange maladie. On the contrary, when Thérèse becomes finally confident in offering herself to the Trinitary God, toward whom her moments of doubt had been conquered through an ever stronger love that manifested itself not as a simple act of will, but as the paradoxical one of will to submission to God’s will, this confidence can be understood as the discovery of the originary basis of the human psyche in the revelation of humanity’s need for a transcendent solution to our capacity for self-destruction. Far from an attractive illusion, the originary sacred is the central human truth.
This confrontation led me to reassess the relevance of the Freudian conception of the psyche. Once “religiously” accepted, Freud’s tableau has fallen out of fashion—for to say it has been discredited would imply that some better theory had taken its place. Instead, like all the great syntheses of the 19th century, it has simply been replaced by a general distrust of such syntheses, or “master narratives” (métarécits).
Yet, the sacred element aside, Freud’s map of the psyche is not so very different from the one GA would draw of our psychic constitution. The opposition between Ego and Id opposes our “human” to our “animal” components in the fundamental dialectic of human psychic activity. As animals, we have “instincts” or “drives,” but to the extent that they go beyond physiology to have an impact on the human community, we have a “self” that can re-present them scenically to ourselves in a space of deferral and decide whether and how to exercise them.
Most crucially, to distinguish the human Ego from the consciousness of even the highest animals, which cannot be said not to think, Freud adds the superego. Whether or not “introjected” into the psyche by the Father, the superego corresponds to the internal complex of forces that connects us with the rest of the human community, including as its originary elements not only the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange, but most fundamentally, our sense of this complex as grounded “beyond itself” in the sacred/transcendent. This remains true of our sense of “right and wrong,” whether or not we subscribe to any institutional religious belief.
Lacan’s insistence on the importance of the “symbolic,” of language, makes explicit what Freud’s “talking cure” had always presupposed; that our use of language and related symbolisms was the principal sign of this super-egoistic agency, whether or not we need accept, or even understand, his pronouncement that l’inconscient est structuré comme un langage. Freud’s interest in “the psychopathology of everyday life” is centrally concerned with language, as is his interpretation of dreams. The Freudian unconscious, we might say, occupies the wings of our internal scene of representation.
This is not to deny what Thérèse understood better than any of the psychiatrists who have sought to clarify her psychology: that the dominant presence of the sacred cannot be fully encompassed within the superego. Freudian therapy seeks to permit the individual to liberate himself from his neuroses in order to be able to function in the world, to have a satisfactory affective and above all sexual life. But the one thing we cannot introduce into our relationship to our superego is love.
Reading Thérèse’s passionate yet chaste poetry about her love for God/Jesus, we realize that this Trinitarian “superego” was for her the mediator of all love. The therapy that such as my old friend, the late Rusty Palmer exercised by getting the patient to become aware of and to root out his worldly idol-mediators goes very much in this direction. And by beginning Mensonge romantique with the Max Scheler quote, “Man possesses a God, or an idol,” and ending it with Alyosha Karamazov speaking to his followers of the joys of the afterlife, Girard makes explicit that in genuine conversion, the liberating gesture of negation must be followed by adherence to the one true mediator.
GA is not in the business of telling people how to define this mediator, whether as a divine subject in its own right or a virtual totality like Durkheim’s la société—or as the human paradox itself. But as Thérèse made clear in her life, and as Christianity makes perhaps clearer than any other religion, to love God is to love his creatures, to express our love for “humanity” not in a vague “humanitarian” sense, but concretely in every action of our lives.
This Chronicle offers merely a preliminary suggestion of how the originary hypothesis might be elaborated into a post-psychoanalytic understanding of the human psyche. It is a suggestion that I propose to others to flesh out through research and reflection, in confidence that the originary hypothesis provides the most fundamental understanding of the specific difference that makes us human.