PLATO AND FREUD:
EROTIC SUBLIMATION, TRUTH AND NARRATION
Drawing up a comparison between Freud and Plato on the nature of our erotic life is a project that would require a long and attentive dedication to each thinker’s over-all perspective on human nature. Not being capable of undertaking such a massive enterprise, I propose instead to focus this comparative essay on the relationship between sexuality, sublimation and the human search for truth through narrative.
The comparison between both thinkers is primarily made possible because of the fact that Freud, in different parts of his work, alludes to Plato’s views on the nature of ‘Eros’. For instance, in his Group Psychology the German thinker writes concerning the centrality of sexuality in the overall picture of psychoanalysis:
“By coming to this decision, Psychoanalysis has let loose a storm of indignation, as though it had been guilty of an act of outrageous innovation. Yet it has done nothing original in taking love in this ‘wider’ sense. In its origin, function and relation to sexual love, the ‘Eros’ of the philosopher Plato coincides exactly with the love force, the libido of psychoanalysis” (GP, 119) (See also, 3ES, Preface 4, 43)
According to Freud the libido, that is to say, the “energy regarded as quantitative magnitude …… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’” (GP, 116), is merely a reformulation of the Platonic understanding of erotic longing. However, this claim is so strong that it cannot but puzzle us. This is so primarily because it is not at all clear that Plato has anything like ‘THE’ theory of sexuality within his dialogues. Instead it is of the nature of the dialogues to provide avenues for reflection, but no absolutely clear end roads where human reflection would become an impossibility. Besides, the interaction between the different Platonic dialogues may actually provide varying, perhaps mutually conflicting views, on the nature of human eroticity. Given this multiplicity which Freud seems to overlook, one is lead to ask: when Freud talks of the Platonic ‘theory of love’, does he have in mind the Symposium, the Phaedrus¸ or perhaps the Republic? Or does he mean the three, somehow made commensurable? And even if he does indeed have in mind particularly the Symposium, does he take it for granted that Plato’s views are identical to those of Socrates’ speech founded upon the remembrance of Diotima’s words? If this is so, then what ought we to do with all the other speeches? Why did Plato take the trouble of writing them in that order, with speakers the character of which clarify the nature of their speeches, and moreover, in such dramatic, and lively, fashion?
Having this questions in mind, in order to get clearer on how precisely Plato and Freud stand as regards the transformability of sexuality into ever widening activities, relations and aims, I propose to look at the question of sublimation in general, but particularly as it rotates around the crucially important notion of truth as it appears in each thinker’s view. I will carry this out by dividing this essay into two sections which perhaps can stand as mirror images to each other. In the first I will try to shed some light on the dialogical nature of the Symposium. This involves, among other things, bringing to the fore what I take to be the central confrontation of the dialogue, that is to say, the always indirect battle of positions held between Aristophanes (and to a minor extent Alcibiades) and Socrates. In their confrontation, I take it, lies the most important Platonic contribution to the understanding of the complexities and difficulties one runs into in seeking to comprehend the nature of our erotic longing as human beings, and perhaps even as potential Socrateses. The difficult issue of truth comes to light not in the personal, steadfast, and perhaps even stubborn adherence to one of the speeches, but rather in the critical acceptance of the dialogical interaction between the participants who together let us know that Eros, and the narration of Eros, are two sides of the same coin.
In the second section I will proceed to consider, briefly, some of the issues in Freud’s treatment of the ever elusive concept of sublimation within his work, and its relation to the pessimistic claims which mark the latter writings centering on the status of civilization and its relation to our unhappiness. Having done this, I will proceed to look at how precisely sublimation can, in the specific case of the analytic situation, brings out the ‘truthfulness’ of psychoanalysis as the working through of perplexities and unconscious barriers in order to get clearer, through the dialogical articulation of the participants involved, about the history and meaningfulness of one’s own past. I will claim that by centering on the issue of the narrative character of psychoanalytic truth, i.e., the textuality inherent in case histories, one finds the closest possible linking bridge between the complex and quite different views held by both Plato and Freud.
SECTION I: ARISTOPHANES AND/OR SOCRATES? DIALOGICAL TRUTHS IN THE SYMPOSIUM
The Symposium is a Platonic dialogue. Now, this may seem like an obvious claim, one which truly reveals nothing that is not self-evident. However, this very narrative character of the Platonic writings, a character which varies within the different Platonic periods, is the one which makes of Plato’s work a truly living breathing work. In the case of the Symposium in particular it is this dialogical characteristic which makes it evident that the Platonic understanding of the role of Eros in our lives is not simply identical to that of Socrates. Perhaps we can even find in this dialogue a questioning of the Socratic adventure towards philosophical truth. This is nowhere clearer than in the silent confrontation found between the speeches of Aristophanes and that of Socrates. In order to see exactly what is at stake in their agonistic encounter I will center the discussion upon the words of the Greek comedian. In situating the comedian’s speech within the dialogue, I will try to situate myself within, what I take to be, Plato’s overall intentions.
But before doing so, one ought to keep in mind a parallel that constantly reappears between Aristophanes and Freud. Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Aristophanes shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, “the weak side of this technique of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue.
That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Aristophanes is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech on the nature of the philosophical life not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the “ordinary” erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding:
“first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a).
For the Diotimian lover, the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Aristophanes’s speech, lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Aristophanes’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Aristophanes. In the culminating conversation between Aristophanes, Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Aristophanes , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to continue his contemplative activity at the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is there a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Aristophanes’, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Aristophanes’ speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? If this is so, then clearly Plato’s views on what sublimation and truth might be taken to be, are not so easily identifiable with Socrates’ own words.
The competition between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Aristophanes, is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed, in his youth, not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Aristophanes speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (‘doxa’) (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Aristophanes, of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Aristophanes’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Aristophanes is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”; until the final entrance of Alcibiades), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e); and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Aristophanes’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behavior of Socrates.
Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inactivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Aristophanes rudely interrupts (or perhaps is overtaken) by his bodily activity, thus changing the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Aristophanes reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Aristophanes hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Aristophanes is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present; a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the chance to speak in peace”, he tells Aristophanes (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Aristophanes seeks a truce claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of Eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence. Aristophanes will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are necessary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Aristophanes is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).
In trying to situate Aristophanes’ speech within the whole of the Platonic dialogue, I argued that he and Freud investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Aristophanes’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud:
“ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298).
For Aristophanes, once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.
The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. I propose therefore to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Aristophanes to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’, the issue of human ‘happiness’ and the nature of erotic desire.
Aristophanes claims that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”. According to Aristophanes we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature. Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and the rest of their inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), for us who are the “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek, in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient nature, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we resembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).
And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now, we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities.
But Aristophanes and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, we saw, centers his critique on the loss of the beloved. Aristophanes, though aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Aristophanes makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Aristophanes jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c). But that elusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’ other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.
Nevertheless Aristophanes challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Aristophanes’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od. 315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?
The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even asexual human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that, like it or not, we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” (190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Aristophanes hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it must necessarily be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Aristophanes qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which seems to promise much more that it can offer. Aristophanes laughs, and allows us to laugh at this all-too-human endevour.
Perhaps it is because of this dilemma, characteristic, of our ‘ordinary’ erotic life that Socrates takes a radically different starting point in his search for the desiring value of the beautiful in our lives. Attempting to analyze that speech in full would require taking up too many difficult issues, many of which I am uncertain. Instead, I would just like to, in order to complete this section, show how it is precisely Socrates who stands, in his daily living and acting, as the greatest challenge to the Aristophanean conception of lovers comically seeking to erase their split nature. It is by looking at Socrates’ way of life, a philosophical way of life which questions all others, that another perspective on erotic desire and its role in the achievement of truth becomes possible.
That Socrates is brought to court in this dialogue, though clearly in a different setting than that of the Apology, can be seen from the very start. As we pointed out above, Agathon has promised to take him to court about their wisdom with Dionysus as judge (176a). But clearly Agathon’s challenge seems to have been more forcibly made by he who has Dionysius as his God. It is Aristophanes, silenced throughout by Plato, who carries the greatest challenge to the Socratic philosopher and his demeening view of the body.
This ridiculing of any bodily knowledge is clearly exemplified, for instance, in Socrates ironic treatment of Agathon’s view of the corporeal transference of wisdom (175e). Furthermore the belief that in bodily contact there lies some kind of understanding, as Aristophanes seems to believe, is precisely what Socrates finds troubling in Alcibiades’ love:
“So if, in observing my beauty, you are trying to get a share in it and to exchange beauty for beauty, you are intending to get far the better deal. For you are trying to acquire truth of beautiful thing in exchange for the seeming and opinion of beautiful things; and you really have in mind to exchange ‘gold for bronze’” (218e)
The importance of bringing this to light, is that it is particularly in the confrontation between Socrates and Alcibiades where the conflict between perspectives achieves its highest point. Drunk Alcibiades, who acknowledges his love of fame derived from the dedication to the city and consequent self-neglect, (216a) tells Socrates: “I shall tell the truth. See if you allow it.” (215e). Philosophy, understood as the love of the truth, finds its Socratic response not only in an acceptance of the challenge, but in a demand to do so.
Leaving aside the claims of the beautiful Alcibiades, it is quite obvious that Socrates’ ascent takes place under very different conditions. Socrates, who as a young man was led by Diotima to the most perfect revelations (210a), understands this ascent as one linked directly to the search of a very different kind of truth. It is a truth of unquestionable nature, for as he tells Agathon, “It is rather that you are unable to contradict the truth … since it is not at all hard to contradict Socrates” (201c). Although Diotima doubted whether young Socrates could follow in her lead, it is clear that now Socrates is convinced of the path he was taught by her (212b). What the highest step in the ladder reveals is a contemplative reality which has moved radically beyond the eroticity of Aristophanes’ everyday lovers, and their particular sort of truth. Although it is defined negatively for the most part (211a), and only given to us in a glimpse (210e), it becomes clear that according to Socrates only herein lies full human flourishing and happiness through the exploration of the divine in us:
“only here, in seeing in the way the beautiful is seeable, will he get to engender not phantom images of virtue … but true, because he lays hold of the true; and that once he has given birth to and cherished true virtue it lies within him to become dear to god, and if it is possible for any human being, to become immortal as well” (212a)
In ascending, what was perceived as supremely important in the ascent, is relegated to lower levels of comprehension incapable of grasping the beauty of the whole. And Socrates, the embodied human being in love with philosophy, stands as palpable truth of this transformation both in word and action. He is a human being like no other either present or past (221c-d). Socrates is truly a weird character. Although utterly ugly in bodily terms ——so much so that he is likened to Silenus and Marsyas—— his ‘internal’ beauty (217a), and the speeches that flow from it (215d) are of incomparable beauty and eroticity. This human being ——— with unheard of courage in retreat (220eff), with unheard of capacity for sustained thought (220c), with unheard of lack of bodily necessities, not only in the most sensual of situations (219d), but also in the crudest of winters (220b)——– this human being dedicates his whole life to the undertaking of a way of life which severs ties with the richness and honors sought by the majority (216e).
But puzzled by the presenc of such disparate speeches we are led to ask, if Aristophanes and Socrates present such conflicting perspectives of the role of sexuality in the conformation of our life plans, then who does Plato take to be the ‘true’ path we as humans ought to follow? An easy way out, it seems to me, is to claim that Plato’s love of Socrates obviously leads to the primacy of the speech of his beloved teacher. However, what I have tried to argue is instead that Plato uses the narrative character of his dialogue precisely to allow us to develop the philosophical capacity of reflexive self-awareness. In engaging ourselves in the reading of the work as a whole, what are revealed are not straight unquestionable answers to our dilemmas and perplexities, but rather a presentation of the complexities involved in thinking about the nature of our erotic life. Plato, like Socrates and Aristophanes, loves the agon of words, over and beyond any tranquil acceptance of clear-cut positions.
SECTION II: REPRESSION, SUBLIMATION, AND DIALOGICAL NARRATIVITY
The Platonic and Freudian perspectives on erotic desire touch and differ in multiple places and aspects. On the one hand, one finds that the striking parallels between Freud and Aristophanes can be more fully appreciated if one looks more closely at the pessimism which permeates the former’s writings on the processes and mechanisms underlying civilized institutions and behavior. On the other hand, the parallel with the Platonic dialogue as a way to self-understanding is more closely bound, if one moves beyond the previous tragic perspective, to the liberating therapeutic value of the analytic situation.
As I argued above, the Aristophenean position represented a simultaneous comic and tragic perspective onthe nature of our everyday love affairs. For Freud, it seems at times, the comic aspect is completely overrun by the tragedy of our human condition. An example of this is the troublingly entitled work Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness. Providing us with a diagnosis of the modern condition, and not intended as a text for a particular kind of reformation (CSM, 55), it focuses rather on the characteristic repression of sexuality on which modern civilization, and for that matter any other civilization, is built. According to Freud: “we must view … all factors which impair sexual life, suppress its activity or distort its aims as being pathogenic factor in the psychoneurosis” (CSM, 38). What occurs at the level of the individual, namely, the supression of her instictual drives, is likewise the distinguishing mark of society as a whole which can survive only through an active taming of sexual and aggressive instincts. This suppression, which reminds one of Zeus’ operation in Aristophanes’ speech, involves for Freud, not the possibility of new paths, but instead primarily an impossibility of reaching human fulfillment. For him: “when society pays for obedience to its far-reaching regulations by an increase in nervous illness, it cannot claim to have purchased a gain at the price of sacrifices; it cannot claim a gain at all” (CSM, 54). This pessimistic trend, which hampers directly the human possibilities of achieving a full-fledged happiness, permeates as well Freud’s discussion of religion as it appears in his Future of an Illusion. There he once again reminds us that “the decisive question is whether and to what extent it is possible to lessen the burden of the instinctual sacrifices imposed on men, to reconcile men to those which must necessarily remain and to provide compensation for them (TFI, 186). Civilization imposes sacrifices, and according to Freud, we turn to religion as an illusory compensation for our incompleteness. However, the connection of this burden to the claims to happiness is more clearly explicited in Civilization and its Discontents. There Freud points out the different factors, both external and internal, which make it for us humans easier to realize that “unhappiness (for us) is much less difficult to experience” (CiD, 264). The eventual decay of our body and our death, the indifference and aggressiveness of nature towards us, and the unsatisfactory character of our relations with others, are for Freud the central conditions leading to our modern malaise (CiD, 329). This malaise, built on the repression of our instinctual nature, is made possible because of our experience of guilt. Freud intention, following Nietzsche’s analysis of the rise of consciousness in the Genealogy of Morals, is “to represent the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization and to show that the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through a heightening of the sense of guilt” (CiD, 327). Freudian pessimism reaches its greatest height in the perception of the development of the super-ego which sets itself against the very being which gave rise to it. Its ruthless governing reveals that: “a threatened external unhappiness—-loss of love and punishment on the part of the external authority—has been exchanged for a permanent internal unhappiness, for the tension of the sense of guilt” (320).
However, this pessimism is balanced in psychoanalysis by its claims not only to provide a regressive diagnosis of our condition, but also to provide us with the necessary tools for therapeutic counteraction. This is why Freud writes that “an analytic of such neuroses might lead to therapeutic recommendations which could lay claim to great practical interest” (CiD, 338). Psychoanalysis, which seeks an education to reality (TFI, 233), aims at bringing forth the truth of our condition. Take for instance the reality of death and our unconscious denial of its presence. Towards the end of his short essay on our attitude towards death, Freud tells us that from his investigation, though undoubtedly regressive in some respects, nevertheless comes forth a realization of our human limitations. His analysis thus has the minimum advantage“of taking the truth more into account and of manking life more tolerable for us” (OAD, 89).
The tolerability of this condition can be further enhanced by the possibility of of sublimation. According to Freud through the redirection of instinctual energies, repression is avoided, or at least, somehow rechanneled. Sublimation:
“places extraordinary large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity and it does it in virtue of its especially worked characteristic of being able to displace its aim without materially diminishing its intensity. This (is a) capacity to exchange its originally sexual aim for another one, which is no longer sexual but which is psychologically related to the first aim…” (CSM 39).
By allowing us to reshape the drives towards sexual interaction and aggressive behavior, it becomes possible to move into the realm of ‘higher and finer’ cultural achievements. However, according to Freud this capacity can be actually developed by a few, and even in those intermittently (CSM, 45). And not only this, the transformation of the sexual instinct into these higher activities, such as those of artistic activity, intellectual inquiry, ethical comprehension and religious dedication, is constantly set within the above mentioned condition of inherent supression in the coming about of any civilization. But if this is so, how then can there truly be redirection which is not itself built upon renunciation?
One way of dealing with this problematic question, thus moving beyond its pessimistic overtones, is to retake one of Abramson’s central points, namely the idea that repression “is centrally the repression of ideas; it must be understood as the corruption of meaning as well as damning of energy” (86). Psychoanalysis re-comprehends our condition by bringing to light new ways of comprehending the way we see ourselves. Psychoanalysis leads us beyond repression by paving the way into consciousness and its hidden meanings. It is primarily in the analytic situation where analyst and analysand come to enact psychoanalysis’ truth. It is this truth, which involves the painful search and articulation of a liberating narrative, the one which can also bring us closer not only to comprehending the phenomena of sublimation, but likewise to understanding the most important and immediate bonding element between both the Platonic and Freudian discourses.
Freud claimed that psychoanalysis gave us truth. Getting clearer on what he could have meant by claiming this involves looking at psychoanalytic practice itself. According to Ricoeur, on whom I base the following remarks, psychoanalytic theory “is (should be) the codification of what takes place in the analytic situation and more precisely in the analytic relationship” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 248). One is therefore concerned with specifying what will ultimately count as knowledge for this distinct situation. Analytic ‘facts’, for instance, differ fundamentally from the ‘facts’ of the natural sciences. Ricoeur provides us with four distinguishing criteria.
First, that which can be treated in the analytic situation are those experiences of the analysand which are capable of being said. The object of psychoanalysis is not instinct simply as a physiological phenomena. Desire is accessible to us only in its coming to language. It is in virtue of this that Freud can speak of translating or deciphering the content of instinctual drives. The facts in psychoanalysis are inherently language related; instincts remain unknown in themselves. Freud makes this explicit in his paper on The Unconscious:
“I am in fact of the opinion that the antithesis of conscious and unconscious is not applicable to instincts. An instinct can never become an object of consciousness —–only the idea that represents the instinct can. Even in the Ucs. an instinct cannot be represented otherwise than by an idea. If the instinct did not attach itself or manifest itself as an affective state, we could know nothing about it” (F, TU, Vol 11, 179)
Only what is sayable can become factual in psychoanalysis; by the same token only what the interlocutors in the Platonic dialogue say, can guide us towards a better comprehension of the text as a whole.
The second criteria for facts emphasizes the fact that in the analytic situation two subjectivities encounter each other. Desire comes to language not only for the sake of being said, but more importantly, because it is a saying directed to another. Intersubjectivity is built into analytic facts because desire itself is structured intersubjectively; desire is the desire of or for another. Without the existence of the other, desire would not be spoken. Consequently, the attempt to do away with speech by aiming at pure objectivity:
“misunderstands the essential point, namely, that the analytic experience unfolds in the field of speech and that within that field, what comes to light is another language disassociated from common language which presents itself to be deciphered” (FaP, III, 367)
The importance of intersubjectivity finds its highest expression in the phenomena of transference. The former, coupled with the peculiar character of the analytic situation as one in which the overpowering exigencies of the reality principle are temporarily set aside, allows a repressed desire to be heard. The recovery of this language involves a remembering which in turn is made possible by the curbing of the resistances in the analysand through new energies. It is the liberation of the latter which allow a re-interpretation of past events. (Remembering is not only a crucial factor in Aristophanes myth, but likewise marks the whole of the Symposium).
Here the central feature of transference comes to light. This is so for if desire is addressed to another as a demand, the other can deny this satisfaction. This inherent quality of desire allows the analyst, through he denial of satisfaction, to aid in he reconstituiton of the analyzand herself. Hence Ricoeur tells us: “the constitution of the subject in speech and the constitution of desire in intersubjectivity are one and the same phenomenon” (FaP, 387). This intersubjective reconstitution is clearly portrayed in the agonistic interaction between, but not only, Socrates, Aristophanes and Alcibiades.
A third crucial element in defining the criteria appropriate to psychoanalytic facts lies in the necessary differentiation between psychical and material reality. What the analyst “observes” is not an act, but instead an interpretation of an act which need not necessarily have occurred. The analyst’s inquiry is ultimately based on the interpretative value placed by the analysand on a given experience: “what is important to the analyst are the dimensions of the environment as ‘believed’ by the subject, what is pertinent to him is not the fact, but the meaning the fact has assumed in the subject’s history” (FaP, 364). The meaningfulness of psychical reality reminds us that the analytic space is one in which fantasy is played out. Likewise in the Platonic dialogue it is clear that the discussion of Eros involves many reinterpretations or events which conflict with historical reality. It is astonishing to find that the Symposium tells us erotic readers how Apollodorus conversed with a friend, “which reports a previous conversation of his own, in which he recalls a speech by Aristodemus, who reports (among others) a speech of Socrates, who reports a speech of Diotima, who reports the secrets of the mysteries. (Nussbaum, 167-8).
The final factual criteria in psychoanalysis according to Ricouer, concerns the aim which both the analysand and the analyst strive for, namely, the developing of what is capable of a narrative in the analysand’s experience. This is to say that the primary texts are individual case histories. In this fourth criteria one can clearly see the interdependence of the previous three. Narration is not a given but instead involves a creative process which could not even begin if desire were not accessible to us in speech. Likewise this work towards narrativity is the product of an intersubjective relation. Both analysand and the analyst are active participants in this reconstruction which requires the building up for forces to overcome resistances. The former are made possible by engaging in a process of remembrance through which a re-interpretation of one’s past is made possible. In narration lies self-understanding. I dwell in fantasy to find myself in reality. The Platonic dialogue, as act of the letrary and philosophical imagination, represents one of the most sublime of this recreations, one in which through words the world, and we ourselves, come to life once again.
Having looked at what it is that Ricoeur argues counts as a fact in psychoanalysis, and having briefly compared it to some elemental aspects of the Symposium, we can turn finally to a characterization of the psychoanalytic framework as a whole. Here we touch upon Freud’s tripartite definition of psychoanalysis. He writes in the first of two encyclopedia articles:
“Psychoanalysis is the name 1) of a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way, 2) of a method (based on that investigation) for the treatment of neurotic disorders and 3) of a collection of psychological information obtained along these lines which is gradually being accumulated into a new scientific discipline” (Freud, TEA, 131, Vol. 15)
Psychoanalysis as a procedure for the investigation of mental processes which are always inaccessible in any other way deals particularly with the translation and deciphering of hidden and distorted meanings. This procedure is one which claims to give us a kind of truth of therapeutic value. In order to specify these truth claims, and the criteria of verifiability appropriate to psychoanalysis, Ricoeur returns to the four criteria for facts stated above.
First, analytic experience shows us desire coming to discourse. What is true or false consequently is what is said. Therefore, the truth aimed at is one which involves a saying-true rather than a being-true. Truth is not one that is observe, but one that is heard, In saying-truly the analysand guarantees self-reflection, she moves from misunderstanding to self-recognition. In this, Freudian discourse comes much closer to Platonic dialogue than to Socratic contemplation which, as we saw in the peak of its contemplative fulfillment seems to move even beyond language, the words of which seem inadequate in portraying the presence of a ‘being-true’ which is revealed by philosophical praxis.
Second, desire exists as desire for another. Truth claims are thus necessarily placed within the field of intersubjective communication. Pure objectivity becomes not only unthinkable, its imposition would imply the loss of speech. Both subjectivities which encounter themselves in analysis are engaged in a work which aims at the saying of truth. The joint effort of analysand and analyst aims at giving back a fantastical yet alienated realm to the analysand. The task of the latter is to incorporate this alienation through understanding. And as we saw in our first section, it is precisely this interaction which guarantees that one does not fall into a simplistic understanding of the Symposium, one in which Plato and the Socratic speech are unproblematically identified.
Here we already move beyond the second criteria for truth, namely the recognition of intersubjectivity, to the third criteria for facts of which we spoke before, that is, that what is psychoanalitically relevant is what the analysand makes of his fantasies. The aim of analysis is not the undermining of fantasy, but rather its recovery through self-understanding. The possibility of truth herein lies in something like this. In analytic experience I come to recognize my condition as human being. That is to say, I come to realize that I may not possibly realize the whole of my fantastical life. But at the very least I come to understand the reasons for this denial. By making myself responsible for my fantasy, I acknowledge the force of necessity. In the case of the Platonic dialogue, by realizing the tension between the Socratic and Aristophenean positions (to siganl out only two) I am borught to a realization of the impossibility of holding onto both simultaneously. It seems as though the Symposium is marked by an either/or dichotomy.
This last claim can perhaps be illuminated by looking at Ricoeur’s fourth criteria for facts, and the consequent truth claim appropriate to it. What is developed in analysis is a case history, a history of fantasy. A misunderstood past is made truly historical in virtue not only of my playing out my fantasy, but more importantly, by being appropriated as distinct from the real. Narrativity is critical and thus aims at this specific truth, the reconstitution of a subject through self-understanding. The analysand:
“is both the actor and the critiquer of a history which he is at first unable to recount. The problem of recognizing oneself is the problem of recovering the ability of reconstructing one’s own history, to continue endlessly to give the form of a story to reflections of oneself” (Ricoeur, TQoPiFW, 268)
Ultimately, the truth brought to light in analysis lies in the development of this unique case history. This is so for the fundamental precondition for the former’s existence is that the potential for self-reflection has been actualized. It is this very potential which Plato once actualized in his self-clarifying dialogues, an activity and a task which allows us to see in his dialogues a vivid reflection of his ‘sublimated’ love of words and truth. A passionate love to which the writings of Freud lead as well.
1) PRIMARY SOURCES
Freud, Sigmund, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210. (Edition 1984)
———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pgs 33-55. (edition 1985), “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego”, “The Future of an Illusion”, “Civilization and its Discontents” .
———–Historical and Expository Works on Psychoanalysis, “An Outline of Psychoanalysis, pgs 371-444.
Plato, Symposium, Photocopies given out in class.
——– Phaedrus, Penguin Books, Translated by Walter Hamilton.
2) SECONDARY SOURCES
Abramson, Jeffrey, Liberation and Its Limits, The Free Press, New York, 1984, Chapter 6, “Sublimation: A way Out?”
Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet¸ Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988.
Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989, (1986). Chapter 6 “The Speech of Alcibiades” pgs., 165-195.
Ricoeur, P., Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.
———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pgs 247-273.
Rosen, Stanley, Plato’s Symposium, Yale University Press, New Haven, (1968), 1987.