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Number 10: Spring 2015

Variations on a Theme: Handling Transference from Freud to Laplanche

Paul Kellett van Leer


The notion of transference is a peculiarly psychoanalytic one; a notion that is quintessential to psychoanalytic theory, and one that demands, one way or another, an ‘accounting for’. Yet, at the same time, the notion of transference—particularly as it is exemplified by the transference neurosis that is manufactured in and by analysis—itself transfers an everyday phenomenon into the rarefied atmosphere of the consulting room; a process that peculiarises the everyday, refocussing it via the lens of psychoanalytic theorising. For is not transference constitutive of what is evoked, what is called up within us in relation to any given encounter whether it be accidental or routine, surprising or commonplace; an encounter such as an ineffably careless gesture (so poignantly portrayed by Kundera, 1984, for example), or the most sublime artistic expression such as, say, a work of music? And while transference may not be the whole truth of what is evoked in these moments, it is surely nothing but the truth that such everyday evocations are ‘the product of the meeting and interpenetration of images, people, events, or things with which I have identified, wanted to identify, or could not help myself from being identified with … all the landmarks in my life, whether I am aware of them or not … all the characteristics which have blended into a new me’ (Roustang, 1984:163). If such is the stuff of human life, then transference represents a fundamental dimension of relating, one that we would not be without, and it can be of little surprise that it has been accorded a privileged place in the psychoanalytic gaze. 

Like other such concepts that have become central to psychoanalytic theorising, transference is one born of Freud’s clinical experience; an emergent phenomenon that required conceptualisation in order to inform a more or less comprehensive model of the ‘apparatus of the soul’. In its surprising nature, transference represents a phenomenon akin to the uncanny of the unconscious—a notion to which it is intimately connected—with its unexpected, decentring manifestation of the return of something forgotten yet familiarly strange. Freud was certainly surprised by the emergence of transferential dynamics in the consulting room, since his early analytic model had not accounted for such a strange haunting, and though analysts since Freud have been forearmed with various theories developed to account for the transference, nonetheless we continue to be taken by surprise when, like a jack-in-the-box it springs forth. How, then, are we to prepare for the unexpected; how are we to handle such an inevitable strangeness?