Ethic 142

Ethic 142

The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Jacques Lacan






It is remarkable that the experience of what goes on in the neurotic caused
Freud to leap to the level of the poetic creation of art, to the drama of Oedipus,
insofar as it is something datable in the history of culture. You will see
this when we take up Moses and Monotheism, which I asked you to read during
our break. There is in Freud no distance from the facts of the Judeo-
Greek experience, and I mean by that those that characterize our culture in
its most modern everyday life.


It is equally striking that Freud couldn’t fail to pursue his reflection on the
origins of morality to the point of examining Moses’ action. When you read
the astonishing work that is Moses and Monotheism, you will see that Freud
cannot help revealing the duplicity of his reference, of the reference that I
have declared to you over the years to be the essential reference, namely, the
No / Name-of-the-Father in its signifying function.


From a formal point of view, Freud makes recourse to paternal power for
a structuring purpose that appears to be a sublimation. He emphasizes, in
the same text in which he leaves at a distance the primordial trauma of the
murder of the father – and without worrying about the contradiction – that
this sublimation emerges at a given historical date against the background of
a visible, evident fear that she who engenders is the mother. There is, he tells
us, genuine progress in spirituality in affirming the function of the father,
namely, of him of whom one is never sure. This recognition implies a whole
mental elaboration. To introduce as primordial the function of the father
represents a sublimation. But, Freud asks, how can one conceive of this leap,
this progress, since, in order to introduce it, it was necessary that something
appear that imposes its authority and its reality from outside?


He himself underlines the impasse constituted by the fact that sublimation
exists, but that such sublimation can only be motivated historically by means
of the myth to which it has recourse. At that point the function of myth
becomes evident. In truth, this myth is nothing other than something that is
inscribed in the clearest of terms in the spiritual reality of our time, namely,
the death of God. It is as a function of the death of God that the murder of
the father which represents it in the most direct way is introduced by Freud
as a modern myth.


It is a myth that has all the properties of a myth. That is to say that it
doesn’t explain anything, any more than any other myth. As I pointed out in
citing Levi-Strauss and especially in referring to that which buttresses his
own formulation of the issue, myth is always a signifying system or scheme,
if you like, which is articulated so as to support the antimonies of certain
psychic relations. And this occurs at a level which is not simply that of individual
anguish and which is not exhausted either in a construction presupposing
the collectivity, but which assumes its fullest possible dimension.


We suppose that it concerns the individual and also the collectivity, but
there is no such opposition between them at the level involved. For it is a
matter here of the subject insofar as he suffers from the signifier. It is in this
passion of the signifier that the critical point emerges, and its anguish is no
more than an intermittent emotion that plays the role of an occasional signal.
Freud brought to the question of the source of morality the invaluable
significance implied in the phrase Civilization and Its Discontents or, in other
words, the breakdown by means of which a certain psychic function, the
superego, seems to find in itself its own exacerbation, as the result of a kind
of malfunctioning of the brakes which should limit its proper authority. It
remains to be seen how within this breakdown in the depths of the psychic
life the instincts may find their proper sublimation.


But to begin with, what is the possibility we call sublimation? Given the
time at our disposal, I am not in a position to take you through the virtually
absurd difficulties that authors have encountered every time they have tried to give a meaning to the term “sublimation.” I would nevertheless like one of you to go to the Bibliothique Nationale, look up Bernfeld’s article in volume VIII of Imago entitled “Bemerkungen iiber Sublimierung,” [“Observations on Sublimation”], and give us a summary of it here.


Bernfeld was a particularly powerful mind of the second generation, and
in the end the weaknesses of his articulation of the problem of sublimation
are of a kind that will prove illuminating. He is first of all quite troubled by
Freud’s reference to the fact that the operations of sublimation are always
ethically, culturally, and socially valorized. This criterion, external to psychoanalysis,
certainly creates a difficulty, and on account of its extra-psychological
character clearly merits to be emphasized and criticized. But as we
will see, this character causes less difficulty than at first appears.


On the other hand, the contradiction between the Zielablenkung side of the
Strebung, of the Trieb or drive, and the fact that that takes place in a domain
which is that of the object libido, also poses all kinds of problems for Bernfeld
– problems that he resolves with the extreme clumsiness which characterizes
everything that has so far been said on the analysis of sublimation.

在另一方面,在冲动的Zielablenkung 的这一面,发生在客体力比多的领域的这个事实也通过各种的困难,对于博费德。他极端笨拙解决的这些问题,表现一切都特色,迄今曾经被说过的有关升华的分析的特色。

According to him, at the point he reached around 1923-1924, we must
start from the part of the instinct that may be employed for the ends of the
ego, for the Ichziele, in order to define sublimation. And he goes on to give
examples whose naivete is striking. He refers to a certain little Robert Walter,
who like many children tries his hand at poetry even before puberty. And
what does he tell us on the subject? That to be a poet is an Ichziel for the
boy. It is in relation to that choice fixed very early that everything that follows
will be judged, namely, the way in which at the onset of puberty the upheaval
of his libidinal economy, which is clinically perceptible although quite confused
in this case, will be seen to be gradually integrated into the Ichziel. In
particular, his activity as a little poet and his fantasms, which were quite
separate at the beginning, come to be progressively coordinated.


Bernfeld thus assumes the primordial, primitive character of the goal set
by the child to become a poet. And a similar argument is to be found in the
other, equally instructive examples he gives us – some of which concern the
function of the Vemeimmgen, of the negations that occur spontaneously among
groups of children. He was, in effect, very interested in this question in a
publication devoted to the problems of youth for which he was responsible
at the time.


The important point to note on the subject is the following, and it is something
that is to be found in all formulations of the problem, including Freud’s.
Freud points out that once the artist has carried out an operation on the level
of sublimation, he finds himself to be the beneficiary of his operation insofar
as it is acclaimed after the fact; it brings in its wake in the form of glory,
honor, and even money, those fantasmic satisfactions that were at the origin of the instinct, with the result that the latter finds itself satisfied by means of


That is all well and good as long as we assume that the already established
function of poet exists on the outside. It seems to be taken for granted that
especially among those whom Bernfeld calls eminent men, a little child might
choose to become a poet as an ego goal. It is true that he hastens to add
parenthetically that, in using the expression “hervorragender Mensch,” eminent
man, he is divesting it as much as possible of all connotations of value
– something that is very strange as soon as one starts to talk of eminence. To
be frank, the dimension of the eminent personality cannot be eliminated.
And we see that, in fact, in Moses and Monotheism it isn’t eliminated by Freud,
but thrust into the foreground.


What needs to be justified is not simply the secondary benefits that individuals
might derive from their works, but the originary possibility of a function
like the poetic function in the form of a structure within a social consensus.
Well now, it is precisely that kind of consensus we see born at a certain
historical moment around the ideal of courtly love. For a certain highly
restricted circle, that ideal is to be found at the origin of a moral code, including
a whole series of modes of behavior, of loyalties, measures, services, and
exemplary forms of conduct. And if that interests us so directly, it is because
its central point was an erotics.



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