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Number 12: Summer 2016

Between a Rock and the Deep Blue Sea: Kafka’s Angst—and Ours

Werner Prall


If we turn to Freud and his thoughts regarding the question of anxiety at this point, it is not in order to ‘psychoanalyse’ Kafka but to see whether the evocative power of Kafka’s images might have to do with him capturing something essential about anxiety per se and whether they can therefore contribute to our understanding of it. For Freud anxiety was an enigma from the beginning of his thinking about the nature of neurosis and a problem he returned to over the span of his working life. In his Introductory Lectures he writes: ‘The problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence’ (1916-7, p.393). Whilst his views regarding anxiety changed considerably over time he always thought that it centrally concerned a confrontation with the drives, or, from 1923, the id.

In his first formulation of the problem Freud takes anxiety to be the result of undischarged—or as he once put it ‘unemployed’—libido; i.e. anxiety is the registration of something that appears to manifest purely on the level of the body with psychic elaboration playing no part. ‘Anxiety arises out of libido’ (1905, p.224). In his 1926 revision of his theory of anxiety he summarizes his previous idea thus: ‘What finds discharge in the generating of anxiety is precisely the surplus of unutilized libido’ (1926, p.141). Whilst this is a somewhat reductive account of his first theory, leaving out the fact that he already conceived of anxiety as a transformation of the drive, this is nevertheless the version he now opposes. Whilst we cannot trace here the history of the concept of the ego in the development of Freud’s theory his changing ideas regarding anxiety are clearly an effect of the increasing importance he ascribes to the function of the ego. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, where for the most part he still speaks about the psychic apparatus rather than the ego, Freud conceptualises trauma as the breach of the stimulus barrier that constitutes and protects this psychic formation from what lies outside it. Outside here means two things: what is external to the organism, and what comes from within the organism but is external to the ego, i.e. the drives, against which it lacks adequate protection.

The fact that the cortical layer which receives stimuli is without any protective shield against excitations from within must have as its result that these latter transmissions of stimulus have a preponderance in economic importance and often occasion economic disturbances comparable with traumatic neuroses. The most abundant sources of this internal excitation are what are described as the organism’s ‘instincts’—the representatives of all the forces originating in the interior of the body and transmitted to the mental apparatus—at once the most important and the most obscure element of psychological research. (1920, p.34)

In 1923 the ego becomes the name for this psychic structure, and the tensions that arise at the borders with its outside(s) becomes the focus of Freud’s thinking about anxiety. ‘The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface’ (1923, p.26). It faces outside reality as well as the id which gets constituted as ‘its second external world, which it strives to bring into subjection to itself ’ (ibid, p.55).