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Number 12: Summer 2016

Transference Anxiety and the Failure of Our Fathers

Paul Verhaeghe

Neurotic Anxiety and Freudian Analysis 

Classical Freudian analysis is experienced by the hysteric as a test. The patient is the one who takes the exam; the analyst stands in the position of the Other as a master figure. He—notice that the Freudian archetype of the analyst is not only male, but necessarily a paternal male—he is the one who will decide whether the patient gets a pass or a fail. He expects the patient to give him what he demands: a totally free association that will lead the analysis to unexplored fields of infantile memories about repressed sexual experiences, maybe even some trauma, who knows? If the patient does produce what is expected from her, as a reward she will enter the promised land of sexual enjoyment and become free of feelings of guilt and anxiety. Alas, right from the start, the patient does not feel up to the job, and indeed, her anxiety proves to be right: the more she tries, the more it becomes obvious that she does not succeed in producing the expected free association. She does not manage to give what is demanded from her, and because of her failure, she feels rejected and left alone. In most cases of hysteria, the patient will blame herself: she was just not good enough, she still craves to have what is lacking. In a smaller number of cases, she will blame the analyst: he was just not good enough, he did not give her what she desired, and she will start looking for another and better one.

Freud interpreted this failure in terms of castration anxiety and penis envy. In ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’ he formulated a pessimistic conclusion: even a long term analysis does not bring women to the point where they give up their desire for a penis, nor does it allow men to leave the phallic competition behind them (Freud, 1978 [1937c]: 250-252). The anxiety of not having what the other demands and desires, the envy because somebody else might possess it, appears to be insurmountable. It is obvious that Freud situates both affects in the relation of the analysand to the analyst. Nevertheless, he does not elaborate it in terms of an unsolved transference, let alone recognize his own part in it—he is the paternal master who is supposed to possess it, whatever that ‘it’ may be. What Freud describes in that paper is the classic deadlock of neurosis, meaning imaginary castration.

Lacan’s introduction of the imaginary order as structurally different from the symbolic order is one of the major advantages of his theory over Freud’s. The imaginary is the phallic order of meaning and of belief in meaning—if something is lacking, it is by pure coincidence or because someone made a mistake. The symbolic is the order of ever moving signifiers around a central lack – this opens the possibility for creativity and change. Together with his neurotic patients, Freud believed in the phallus as a much-desired biological given. Lacan degrades the phallus to an imaginary object, the dreamt-of perfect object to answer the desire of the Other—but it never does. Consequently, every neurotic relation between a subject and the Other remains endlessly focussed on the search for this imaginary object, and every neurotic subject has their own particular way of taking their position in this relation—which explains the repetitive character of transference.

The accompanying affect does not have to be anxiety, it can be transformed into jealousy and envy (the other has it); it can be depression (I will never have it). There is even a neurotic subject who is very sure that he has the phallus—this is the genital character as described by Wilhelm Reich, a diagnostic category that is far more frequent than its absence in Lacanian theory might suggest. In our clinical praxis, the hysterical anxiety of not having it and not being able to give it, is the most frequent one, because it fits the classic analytical scene best. This is not the case for Reich’s genital character, or for the obsessional subject. The hysterical discourse puts someone in the position of the master, the one who knows. She herself stands in the demanding position—she wants the knowledge that will open the doors to the desired agalma; therefore, she has to be the perfect analysand—but time and again, she fails.