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Number 12: Summer 2016

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

Werner Prall

There are two paths by which the contents of the id can penetrate into the ego. The one is direct, the other leads by way of the ego ideal [making the super-ego the third element with which the ego sees itself confronted]. Consequently, we see this same ego as a poor creature owing service to three masters and consequently menaced by three dangers: from the external world, from the libido of the id, and from the severity of the super-ego. Three kinds of anxiety correspond to these three dangers, since anxiety is the expression of a retreat from danger. As a frontier-creature, the ego tries to mediate between the world and the id, to make the id pliable to the world and, by means of its muscular activity, to make the world fall in with the wishes of the id. (ibid, p.56)

However, having identified the ego as ‘the actual seat of anxiety’ Freud struggles to be more precise about its triggers. ‘What it is that the ego fears from the external and from the libidinal danger cannot be specified; we know that the fear is of being overwhelmed or annihilated, but it cannot be grasped analytically’ (ibid, p.56). In ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety’ (1926) Freud revises his earlier formulation of anxiety as resulting from surplus libido. Anxiety is an affect, not an emotion, that can only be registered by the ego, he now states, and its registration has a protective function. Anxiety arises when the ego is alerted to a danger situation – in fact alerts itself to an impending danger; i.e. it is now conceived as ‘signal anxiety’. But what constitutes danger, and how does the ego know it is facing a danger, unless it has some prior experience or ‘knowledge’ of it?

The key trigger is now identified as the experience of helplessness. Freud (following, to some extent, Otto Rank’s idea) views the trauma of birth as the first and prototypical danger situation, a real threat to the infant’s life at the moment of separation from the mother’s body. At this point, that is, before the formation of a psyche properly speaking, the experience can only be envisaged as an ‘economic’ event occurring on the level of the body—an upsurge of energy threatening to overwhelm the organism. Subsequent crises of physical helplessness are alleviated by the intervention of the mother, experiences which, if repeated sufficiently, usher in a shift in the perception of the nature of danger from an economic to a psychological one—i.e. separation anxiety.

When the infant has found out by experience that an external, perceptible object can put an end to the dangerous situation which is reminiscent of birth, the content of the danger it fears is displaced from the economic situation on to the condition which determined that situation, viz., the loss of object. It is the absence of the mother that is now the danger; and as soon as that danger arises the infant gives the signal of anxiety, before the dreaded economic situation has set in. (ibid, p.137-8)

With the advent of the ego there is now a decisive difference to the very first danger situation. Sensing a situation that threatens to plunge it into trauma—that is, sudden, shocking, overwhelming helplessness—the ego alerts itself to such a danger through the affect of anxiety. In doing so the trauma of object loss gets converted into the psychological danger situation of losing the object, a danger which itself undergoes a series of transformations from the loss of the mother, via the loss of the love of the mother and the loss of ‘a highly valued object’, i.e. castration, to, finally, the loss of the love of the ego-ideal.