IN MANY CASES, the psychoanalytical talking cure must pass through the stage of TRANSFERENCE, when the patient transfers his earlier psychosexual conflicts (those conflicts that led to his symptoms) onto the relationship between the analyst and the patient (the analysand). For example, someone still trying to work through the Oedipus complex may transfer his or her feelings for the father (e.g., hatred) onto the analyst and thus play them out in the talking cure. Once the earlier conflict is thus re-enacted, the analyst strives to make the patient realize that he is thus transferring his feelings to the analyst (tries to make conscious for the patient what had formally been repressed in the unconscious); the analyst also seeks to guide the patient to an alternative, more healthy solution to the original conflict, thus leading to the removal of the symptom. Two barriers to a successful psychoanalytical cure include: 1) the fact that the libido resists being released from the objects that have been cathected; and 2) "the rigidity of narcissism, which will not allow transference on to objects to increase beyond certain bounds" (Introductory Lectures 16.455).

The fact of transference points to an important fact about the nature of trauma: the compulsion of the human psyche to repeat traumatic events over and over again (hence the term "repetition-compulsion"). This was a difficult point for Freud to make sense of, since it would seem that both the pleasure-principle and the reality-principle would logically demand the forgetting of painful events, since both principles are ultimately committed to gratification. (The reality-principle merely allows for some delay or a modicum of pain to ensure our gratification will happen in the face of real obstacles.) In dealing with patients suffering trauma from the ravages of World War I, Freud also felt the need to point to some principle that was far removed from sexuality. As a result, Freud wrote the important work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he theorized that the human psyche is driven by two major instinctual drives: 1) Eros or the sexual instincts, which he later saw as compatible with the self-preservative instincts; and 2) Thanatos or the death-instinct, a natural desire to "re-establish a state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life" ("Ego and the Id" 709). In other words, whereas one part of the human psyche is seeking gratification, another part is geared to seek a return to the quiet of non-existence: the "death-instinct." This concept of the "death-instinct" or "death-drive" allowed Freud to make sense of the human tendency towards destruction, including sometimes self-destruction.

When it came to traumatic events, repetition-compulsion was, therefore, not so much the libido's efforts to expend its cathexis of sexual energy as it was an effort to come to grips with and to accept the fact of death. Freud decided, in fact, that this instinct was just as important as the sexual instinct in the early childhood development of the psyche (on psychosexual development, see Module 1). The famous example he gives is of a boy aged one and a half who enjoyed playing a game in which he would throw objects out of view while exclaiming "o-o-o-o," which Freud and the boy's mom took to mean "fort" (gone). When playing with a wooden reel tied to a string, the boy would 1) throw the reel over the edge of his curtained cot while exclaiming "o-o-o-o"; then 2) pull the reel back into view, hailing "its reappearance with a joyful 'da' ['there']" (18.15). Freud interpreted this game as the child's effort to master unpleasurable experience (specifically, the departure of his mother, to whom he was especially attached). What struck Freud is the fact "that the unpleasurable nature of an experience does not always unsuit it for play" (18.17). The process of transference in the psychoanalytical talking cure follows a similar structure, Freud realized. Previously, Freud believed that the repetition of childhood impulses in the talking cure (transference) allowed the patient to discharge his or her repressed sexual feelings and, so, must bring a degree of pleasure even when disguised as hate or frustration. However, Freud had to acknowledge that "the compulsion to repeat also recalls from the past experiences which include no possibility of pleasure, and which can never, even long ago, have brought satisfaction even to instinctual impulses which have since been repressed" (18.20). Freud therefore concludes that one must theorize a "compulsion to repeat" that "seems more primitive, more elementary, more instinctual than the pleasure principle which it over-rides" (18.23), that is, the death drive.

This concept of a tension between the death-instinct and the sexual instincts has since been put into interesting use by narratologists like Peter Brooks, who have argued that narrative structure employs a similar tension between the "irritation of plot" and the pull towards the quiescence of narrative closure.Note


Proper Citation of this Page:

Felluga, Dino. "Modules on Freud: Transference and Trauma ." Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. [date of last update, which you can find on the home page]. Purdue U. [date you accessed the site]. <>.







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