Theaters of the Mind: The Psychic Theater and the Psychoanalytic Stage (Part III)
Phobic and Fetishistic Scenario
To illustrate the elliptical nature of these scenarios, I have chosen two examples from what might be considered the “classical” repertory of the psychoanalytic stage: one a neurotic, the other a perverse drama. They are comparable in their psychic function, although the external symptoms appear very different. In both cases, the analysands have attempted to preserve some part of their sexual lives from conflicts due to a complicated oedipal organization as well as an overwhelming internal mother figure. They have found quite different “solutions,” and they are equally puzzled by them.
Madame A. talks about an appointment yesterday with her hairdresser, an event that always fills her with trepidation because of the car trip she is obliged to make. Ever since her adolescence, going out of doors has aroused overwhelming anxiety in her. For the last few years, her husband has fulfilled, more or less well, the role of the counterphobic object in that his presence calms her fears. When she wants to go to the hairdresser, she usually succeeds, using many obscure pretexts, in persuading a friend to accompany her and have her hair done at the same time. If she must go alone, she feels compelled to park her car within twenty yards of the beauty shop in such a way that the car is visible from the hairdresser’s window. In addition, she must also take with her a particular shoulder bag with an exterior pocket in which she places the keys — just in case she feels an urgent need to return to her car. Yesterday she found the right parking place, but the boulevard was completely empty. No friend endowed with protective qualities was there to help her through this catastrophe. Bravely she set out alone, but suddenly in the very middle of the wide boulevard, she was seized with panic. Her heart began to pound. She looked in all directions, and finding no one, she precipitately rushed back to her automobile, jumped in, and raced off at high speed for home.
What is happening here? What is this play about? From the onlooker’s standpoint, there is an air of a detective movie about the whole scene, but too many elements are missing for us to make sense of it. Indeed, it is a child’s story, composed many years ago, when the fantasies that lie behind it were believed to be true.
What is the purpose of a counterphobic object to a person suffering from anxiety?
Like the term implies, a COUNTERPHOBIC is something meant to produce the opposite reaction to anxiety, phobia, or fear. By definition, it is a focal point represented by an object or a person. The idea is that said object or person will be immediately correlated to something that deflects the emotional economy spent on an anxiety episode. According to Donald Winnicott’s 1953 paper “Transitional objects and transitional Phenomena, a study of the first not-me.”
These transitional objects, fetishistic objects, in childhood, could be a protective favorite blanket. It could also be a favored protective soft plush toy or pillow. It could develop into becoming the protective covering of religion based on the belief of an all-loving “God the Father” figure. Religious tokens like wearing a gold cross or some other symbolic form of protection. It could also be the fetishistic object of homosexual desire by a heterosexual male or female, who for all intense purposes is heterosexual except they manifest psychic fantasies based on homosexuality. Thus, the transition objects of childhood are typically something soft, such as a blanket or soft toy, that is reminiscent of the mother’s warm arms and breast. By cuddling the object, they feel that they are cuddling the mother and thus feel comforted. Around 60% of children adopt such objects. Cross-dressing men will typically cling to the tactile soft feelings of silk panties or nylon.
Monsieur B., having recalled during the session a painful professional failure, suddenly recounts an imaginary scene. “I see the little girl again; she’s wearing a raincoat. There are a number of people around watching her. An older woman who looks like her mother makes her kneel down and roughly pulls back her raincoat; the little girl is naked under the coat. The older woman is going to beat her on her bare behind with a whip …..”
He stops suddenly, saying that these fantasies drive him mad. He wants to tell them to me so that we can understand them better, but if he goes on with the story he is afraid he will ejaculate. Here once more is a strangely incoherent and incomplete scenario. The actors are vague, their actions incomprehensible, and the effect of this constricted little drama upon its author is somewhat puzzling to the observer. Yet this scene, with minor variations, has occupied this man’s mind for thirty years. If was first “revealed” to him when he was eight years old, its overwhelming physical and emotional impact filling him with shame and incredulity. Again it is a story imagined by a child and destined to become a psychic script dominating the mind of an adult.
We might well question at this point the relationship between a phobic construction and a fetishistic one, since in classical analytic theory neurosis was always considered to be the “negative” of perversion (Freud 1905) — in other words, the same inner conflict may give rise to a deviant sexual symptom or a neurotic one. What are the similarities between a phobic object and a fetish, and what differentiates them? First, let us note the violence with which these psychic scenarios are imposed upon their authors and then the lacunary aspect of the theme in each case. Both authors, who are at the same time actors in their secret theaters, nevertheless feel acted upon in unfair ways. As their analyses continued, it became evident that these stories, imbued with the terrifying magic of childhood, had been invented in order to assure the continuity of sexual desire while at the same time avoiding the drastic threats of castration they had interpreted parental forbidden prohibitions to be in childhood. But in this immutable text, nothing can now be questioned. Things are as they are, and the missing actors who might have supplied some clue to the unconscious meaning of the plot have long been silenced. Each patient has continued for years to produce these condensed and repetitive scenes, on an imprecise stage, for an anonymous spectator.
The compulsion to repeat these scenes, which causes suffering, paradoxically at the same time reveals one of the I’s fundamental functions, for it demonstrates by its very inexorability the desperate need to maintain, at any cost, the feeling of ego identity. Symptom constructions, like character traits and sublimations, reflect the basic scenarios that make up each subject’s psychic repertory and are an integral part of each person’s narcissistic and libidinal economy; as such, they are part of the system of psychic survival. Surviving, in this context, means keeping one’s sense of self-esteem, as well as one’s capacity to love and care for others, on an even keel. We sometimes can maintain this delicate balance only at the price of symptoms. Thus our analysands, whose symptomatology brings mental pain and a restriction on their liberty to live and to love, fight implacably to keep their symptoms even while asking the analyst to remove these obstructing forces from their inner worlds.
The theater of neuroses, or rather the neurotic sector of the I’s repertory, begins with the oedipal crisis, a double drama with both a homosexual and a heterosexual plot. Every child, in its psychic bisexuality, ardently desires total possession of both parents for itself alone. The desire to be the parent of one’s own sex and possess the other parent is just as keenly matched by the desire to be the parent of the opposite sex and possess the same-sex parent. Children’s possessiveness seeks to obtain the powers and privileges of both members of the parental couple. In everyone’s unconscious scenarios these especially loved and desired people are represented symbolically by their sex.
If the phallus (as distinct from the penis, in that it is the symbol of unity and fertility that belongs to and joins both sexes) acquires its true significance, the child, boy or girl, finds his or her place and gender identity guaranteed. If instead the penis becomes detached from its symbolic significance many dramatic scenes arise for both sexes. The paternal penis, an idealized and coveted object for all children, plays a different role depending not only on the anatomical sex of the analysand but also on the extent to which it has or has not become the symbol of sexual complementarity. This fundamental signifier (Lacan 1966) also determines the way in which the female genitals are represented in the unconscious.
The vagina, because of its invisibility, poses problems for both boys and girls. As long as the representation of the vagina has not benefited in imagination from its phallic significance (that is, the penis is a genital organ that requires the female genital to complete it and give it its sexual significance, and vice versa), then not only does it run the risk of becoming a detached representation but also a limitless and potentially dangerous one. As an ill-defined and invisible entity, this sexual representation henceforth may be displaced endlessly onto every conceivable external space or object: narrow tunnels, open windows, deserted streets, deep water, earth, air, heights, and depths. The choice, like the representation, is limitless!”
The phallic significance of a woman will never be represented as a vagina but as the female pregnant belly. Expansive forms, and expansive space, the Venus of Waldorf. Some fetishistic scenarios involve body expansion (BE) inflation fantasies of others. The majestic caverns of earth’s interior hidden spaces as written about by Plato in his cave metaphor represented her “muted” and “silenced” interior. Pregnancy is woman’s phallic talisman. That her hugeness is the result of a coupling with the male hugeness within the intimate interior of the symbolic space.
When there is no psychic scenario capable of uniting the two sexes in the love act, in which each sex becomes the reason for the existence of the other, then the autonomous penis risks being an object that tears and lacerates in the psychic repertory, while the unlimited vagina separated from its function as a loving and desiring container for the penis becomes an organ that may crush, strangle, and castrate all that it encounters.
Let us now return to our two illustrative scenarios, with their elusive meanings. The whip as a “punishing penis” and the deserted boulevard as a “strangling vagina” is readily detected by the analytic ear. That does not mean that these damaged symbolic objects are easily interpretable in this form, however. Such interpretations would have no impact so long as the characters and crucial events of the past, as well as the effects attached to these significant objects, remained in the shadows and found no spontaneous place on the psychoanalytic stage. The desperate distress of the small child as well as the intensity of infantile wishes must bide their time in order to achieve new meaning in an adult context.
In fetishistic scenarios of Body Expansion fantasies, we see men or women wearing rubber suits attached to a hose that feeds compressed air into the suit so as to become “expanded” in size and disfigured in shape. In these scenarios, I more readily see how it is more like the “deserted boulevard” of Madame A’s neurosis or “strangling vagina” except in perverse script because the person becomes incapacitated and cannot move is similar to the psychoanalysis of a fascinated states of comic disbelief. Although the excitement comes to the bystander watching the body expand and disfigured, the person enjoying the inflation of the body displays a fetishistic scenario of the relic on the psychoanalytic stage of oedipal development of humiliating the mother that was too overwhelming for him to deal with. Here the role is reversed and he enjoys mother’s “incapacitated body.”
There are similar psychotic wishes in individuals who enjoy seeing successful people fail or even play a part in their undoing. Because of issues with competition, females may enjoy the failure of a competitor when it comes to beauty regimes, weight loss goals, and body image failures.
Madame A. had created a neurosis, Monsieur B. a perversion. The phobic object (or place or situation) is, as we know, an object that arouses fear and terror and triggers vigorous action to avoid it. On the other hand, the fetish (which may also be a place or situation) is an object of adoration and excites intense activity in search of it. A period of time is required in psychoanalytic treatment for each object to reveal its ambivalent counterpart. In spite of the divergences, it is evident that phobic and fetishist patients watch their objects with equal intensity. Actors in phobic dramas inevitably come to discover that they are fascinated and obsessed with their objects of horror; fetishistic learn that their beloved scenes and objects, divested of their erotic power when they have served their purpose, fill them with disgust and horror.
Thus the I’s ambivalence in respect to its important objects becomes clearer as analysands gradually discover the reasons for their psychic creations. The ambivalence attached to them mirrors the love-hate feelings attached to the original parental objects. Their interpretation of the parents’ exhortations, prohibitions, and incoherence had aroused mental pain and conflict that led to the creation of the symptoms of fetishism, phobia, and so on in order to ward off the return of these painful emotional states. In the case of neurotic symptoms, the anxiety is displaced onto a new situation or object, and in the case of sexual deviation, the anxiety-arousing situation is displaced onto a sexual act, and anxiety transformed into erotic pleasure. When the inner characters involved in these highly condensed psychic theater pieces come to life again in the analytic situation, the power of the fetishistic or phobic objects diminishes. The analysands are then free to utilize differently the powerful libidinal and aggressive drives that were to a certain extent paralyzed by the symptomatology. Such psychic change permits a redistribution of instinctual investments, allowing not only a richer sexual life but also richer relational and creative activities.
Behind the Oedipal Plots: The Drama of Death
If we think further about the ambiguous objects that have a central role in the I’s psychic theater — the fetishist object, the phobic situation, or the obsessive thoughts — the ambivalence of each creator toward these inventions is manifest. Above and beyond their power to protect the infantile I from the fantasy of castrative punishment (in which the interdiction (prohibiting and forbidden) of all sexual pleasure is felt to be deserved because of childlike incestuous wishes), they convey a succinct message in the final act of this play: the object in question always acts as a link between the subject and someone else. But who is this Other? And why must the I make the lengthy detour of a symptomatic act or thought in order to go about the business of living? It is not my intention to explore the many complexities contained in these individual psychic dramas but simply to show the last twist to each story.
The fetish that permits a certain form of sexual pleasure at the same time protects its inventor in two ways: against oedipal vengeance and also against the fascination of fusional sexual longings that spell psychological death (since their aim is to merge with the mother of infancy but at the price of losing one’s own identity as an individual; the return to the womb is a desire for nothingness — nirvana). In this way, the fetish fulfills the function of a counterphobic object, which magically preserves the individual not only from castration but also from giving in to a terror-and-wish to be devoured, to fuse with the primitive mother-universe.
The phobic object and the terror it inspires are the price to be paid for certain fulfillments. Its construction also acts as a barrier against identical archaic wishes. By its creation, the “I” provides a safe area within which it may circulate, protected from the object or situation that represents the fascination of the mother’s body: heights, cliffs, open and closed spaces all may serve this purpose, provided they symbolize at one and the same time the Oedipal parent and the primitive “breast-mother.”
(1) Joyce McDougall. Theaters of the Mind: Illusion and Truth on the Psychoanalytic Stage. New York. Basic Books. 1985. (pg. 41–50)