Larivière - The Sunland Seminars III - INCESTOCRACY

The Sunland Seminars III




Towards Understanding Transference, Empathy, Self-Disclosure And Mutuality


by Michael Larivière, Ph.D. 

18 June 2005


“If there are to be usefully inspiring psychoanalysts in the future –rather than merely cult figures – they will have to stop trying to have new theories and aim instead just to write interesting sentences; and they should never teach their own work, only the work of others that they value. From a psychoanalytic point of view no writer can be the privileged authority on what he finds he has to say. And above all they must never involve themselves in formal groups – or so-called institutes of psychoanalysis – but simply, like most other people, just try and find people they like talking to (psychoanalysis should initiate people into the more difficult art of informality).”


                     Adam Phillips, The Manicuring of Jacques Lacan.


This is the third time we meet. Or try to, I should say: time alone will tell if we have managed to pull it off – whatever it is we are trying to pull off. That is the very essence of any encounter: not knowing what is at stake, not knowing where it will lead, if indeed it does lead anywhere.


   It would appear that some have decided to leave us already; others might have been, or might still be tempted to do so as well. One can’t help wondering why that might be. I mean: over and beyond the “reasons” this or that person might have for wanting or needing to leave, is there anything one could say that might shed some light on what is at stake in any true encounter and that might begin to approach what is indeed unbearable therein? For there is in every encounter something that is not pulled off, either because it is missed, or because it can’t be integrated, or because it simply can’t be contained. Something, in every encounter, cannot be met.


   So: what?


   What is it that cannot be met? What is it that cannot be integrated, that can only be missed, that cannot even be contained? These questions are at the core of what we are in the habit of referring to as transference. A lot has been written and said about transference. One of the things that is most widely accepted is that transference is a repetition of events which had taken place, of affects which had been experienced in the subject’s distant past. Some even go as far as saying that it is the repetition or re-enactment of the relationship the subject had had with one of his parents. This understanding of transference may not be entirely mistaken but it betrays, in my opinion, a confusion with what Freud called Wiederholungszwang, the compulsion to repeat. I should like to suggest that transference is neither the repetition, nor the reproduction, nor the reminiscence of past events: it is, rather, the resumption of an evolving relationship that had been interrupted, at a given time, for reasons of necessity or because of external pressure. Indeed, any so-called transference that would merely repeat the relationship the subject had had with his father or mother – or nanny, or grandmother, or brother, or whomever, would reveal one thing only: the analyst’s fear of seeing, and therefore his incapacity to let emerge something that might “traumatize” the analysand because it would be new, unknown, unprecedented.


   Might anything unprecedented have taken place here for some? Might anything have taken place, or emerged, that was impossible either to integrate or to contain – and therefore had to be missed? I don’t know and it is for no one to say except for those concerned. But given what was said, I think it has now become obvious that when we ventured on this we had no idea how fraught it was. As Adam Phillips suggests in Terrors and Experts, commenting on Judith Butler’s essay ‘Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification’, it certainly is “worth remembering the cost, the deprivation, involved in all gender identities, not to mention the terror informing these desperate measures.” (p.81) He then goes on to remind us that “in Freud’s view, we become what we cannot have, and desire (and punish) what we are compelled to disown.” This is one reason why relationships are never easy. Relationships are not easy because they require continuity, and continuity doesn’t welcome that particular kind of novelty that is otherness. To welcome otherness is to accept rupture, it is to accept that a challenge be lodged where we felt there was certainty. This is possible only if one is capable of getting beyond the fantasy in which one was immured. This fantasy is, in the literal sense, homosexual. I mean by this that our main unconscious preoccupation is to reproduce sameness, the model of which is maternal. Unconsciously, fantasmatically, the other is most often reduced to sameness. Our world is fundamentally homo. Hence, our greatest difficulty is in overcoming our compulsion to fabricate sameness, to repeat, to reproduce.


   This is where the concept of incestocracy comes into play. The concept is not mine: I am borrowing it from Serge Leclaire, who had introduced it in the course of a series of lectures he had given in Brazil in August 1978. What he had then suggested was that men are fundamentally, structurally impotent. Not sexually impotent: that is secondary. Men’s impotence, he suggested, lies in their incapacity to produce a reliable male model, the only models they are capable of producing being feminine. Hence, their main activity (and power) consists in preserving a particular social and political economy through the fabrication of maternal figures. These maternal figures are the sole guarantees, the sole warrantors of their power – a power that, like all powers, is usurped. The system is well organized. At its core is something both sociologists and psychoanalysts know well; it is something theologians and jurists refer to as an interdict and that is more commonly referred to as either a prohibition or a taboo: incest. The prohibition of incest is the foundation on which the oedipal structure is built. In other words, the oedipal structure is founded on a particular type of relation to the mother which appears to be clear but which is in fact rather ambiguous. It is quite unconsciously that men keep creating, recreating incestuous relationships. Including with their analysts. Analysts, male or female, are not father figures: they are mother figures. That is why Lacan thought that the greatest difficulty analysts have in dealing with transference is not letting themselves get locked into that position. Analysts often unwittingly try to be good-enough mothers – something they can’t be.


   The problem is not the same with men and women. Men can’t stop fabricating maternal images or figures because it is their way of defending themselves against narcissistic anxiety. The problem is, of course, that they do so with the complicity of women. Because they have a penis, men unconsciously believe they own a representation of the phallus. This is an illusion that leaves them feeling anxious. So they invest stereotypes in the unconscious hope of convincing themselves that the little excrescence they are so proud of will not disappear, that it will, literally, hold up. That is what determines their anxiety and that is why they must guarantee their representation. Hence the mother figures they keep creating: in the male system of representation, only the mother has a secure place. To use a pleonasm betrayed wives often use, the “other woman” doesn’t have a secure place. I say it is a pleonasm because “other” and “woman” are indeed synonyms. Hence female homosexuality may very well be a contradiction in terms – but that is another issue.


   Psychoanalysis – the theory and the practice – should offer a space where, having started from an uncompromising and plural erogenous capacity, it becomes possible to question the ways in which we almost inevitably arrive at the narrow sexual alternative we are told is the norm, thenceforth obliged to be a “man” or “woman” in such and such a way. Psychoanalysis should offer a space in which it will be possible to tell the story of the ascendancy, of the hold certain norms of existence, as Sabine Prokhoris calls them, have had on me. These norms of existence compose a sort of grammar of subjectivation: the ways in which I am myself with others. That is why Lacan defined the unconscious as the “discourse of the other”, i.e. the very powerful and forever active ensemble of my earliest bonds to others, bonds all the more strong and vital since they introduced me to the world. These bonds are heavily charged with affects of all kinds – fear, love, anxiety, anger, hatred – which contaminate all the mutual holds people have on one another. Mutual, i.e. engaging those involved with one another in a total if unconscious reciprocal dependence – which doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be exercised symmetrically. And this is one reason why “mutuality” in analysis is never exercised without the risk of unwittingly compounding the effacement of the evidences that put a destiny in chains.


   Those early bonds inevitably give way to misunderstandings: to the fundamental misunderstandings of any existence. It is inevitable to find oneself at cross purposes with those we love, and it is on such occasions, which are at once dangerous and saving, that are revealed the cracks in the norms of existence we have, again unwittingly, made ours. Those cracks are more or less carefully sealed, usually with lies. It is when they begin to perceive how deadly those warping lies are that people come for analysis.




   To do analytical work is to let otherness be, to let it happen that the voice of the other is heard and, in so doing, to give voice to whomever, unbeknownst to us, inhabits us: it is to lift the weight of silence, of forgetfulness and of ignorance that make for the ill-being we rightly or wrongly call neurosis.

   How is this done? What does the analyst do? He brings into play, by his very presence, i.e. by exposing himself to it, what we refer to as transference. That is his way of trying to give a chance to what I earlier called the subjectivation of those who consult him. In order to do this, in order to make it possible for someone to speak in her or his own name and/or voice, it is of the utmost importance that the analyst allows for the unfurling to take place of the various types of mirrors, alienations, reclusions in which the singularity of the analysand will now and again disappear. This implies not engaging in a “from you to me” type of relationship: above all, and this is his most difficult task, the analyst must sustain the absence that will enable the analysand to address the proper interlocutor. In other words, it is important to remember that there are always at least three characters involved in analysis, that the analyst and analysand are never alone together. Analysis never was and never will be a two-body or two-person psychology: the structure is ternary, not binary. No analysis is possible if the setting reproduces the maternal, dual (duel) model.


   When all goes well it is with neurosis that we start out in life. Almost clandestinely: neurosis begins on the quiet, sotto voce. Neurosis is a language and like all languages it needs to be learned, to be made one’s own. The apprenticeship is long, costly, it requires constant effort – and once it is acquired, speaking another language becomes difficult. Analysis can help. The neurotic is someone who will cling to anything that might hinder his desire. These barriers, these bolt-holes, these traps he falls into after having put them in place himself, and which protect him from change, are constructed, elaborated and arranged through that language. In that same language the neurotic will give expression to his rage, to his despair at not being able to avoid constantly engaging in the same impasses. But what he can’t see is that this rage and despair are easier to endure than would be the terror desire inspires him with. That is why the neurotic is terribly tenacious, obstinate even: he needs continuity, i.e. repetition. The aim of analysis is to thwart those mechanisms of repetition. The neurotic seeks analysis – analysis, not psychotherapy – when he is ready (whether he knows it or not) – to run the risk of discovering what it is he wants. In other words, when he is ready to crack the secret which he had kept from himself and in which he had kept himself. There is the real cost of analysis: there is a price for speaking in one’s own voice or name. It is through what he unwittingly says in the transference that the subject gives a new meaning to the story he now begins to make his own. What at last emerges enables him to begin to break with the continuity he had at all cost strived to maintain – most often by engaging in illusory bonds.


   To analyze – analuein – is to unbind. To unbind is to learn a new language. One comes to analysis when the stories one used to tell oneself are no longer either sufficient or efficient, when it has become necessary, when it has become vital to go beyond what one knows by heart and no longer quite believes (even if, as it is most often the case, one doesn’t realize). In other words, one comes to analysis when it has become necessary to speak differently. For the problem is not so much what was experienced; it isn’t the facts that are at the origin of the pathology: it is the discourse in which those facts are embedded and, secondarily, the discourse in which one had incarcerated oneself. In other words, the problem is always the story one elaborates, it is the version one gives oneself of one’s life. That is why analysis is a talking-cure: there is nothing else, nothing other than that version, that story with which to work. There isn’t even memory. Anamnesis is a lure analysts shouldn’t fall for. Freud is very clear on the matter: all souvenirs are screens; and the clearer the memory, the more opaque the screen. The only memory that matters, with which we can work, is unconscious. What matters is what is forgotten. What we call memory is a reconstruction, always, however “accurate” it may be. If anything can save us, it is words, invented words. In that sense, saving oneself means changing languages: to save oneself is to translate. 


 “What does the analysand expect of his analyst? Exactly the same thing he expects of his parent or partner. He suddenly realizes that he is derailing, that he is moving towards the slippery slope of desire. He is losing sight of himself. He is gaining a new awareness of himself as someone he doesn’t know. He realizes he is changing, he no longer recognizes himself and this gives him the feeling he won’t survive. He discovers he is no longer identical to himself.”


            Lucien Israël, Limping Is No Sin (Translation mine). 


   Psychoanalysis – the clinical experience of it – is a field where “knowledge” is for the greater part invented. It is invented, it originates, in transference, i.e. in the mis-taking that is love. It originates, in other words, in other words: in the re-wording by each partner of his or her own story. For there is an element of challenge in every analysis, challenge in the hysterical sense of the term as defined by Freud (a term I believe that monument of arrogant ignorance and abysmal stupidity, the DSM, has more or less done away with.) What does the hysterical subject want? To render the other capable of inventiveness as regards love, through the acknowledgement of his inevitable inadequacy. The plea is: “Recognize that you are not, that you cannot be who you claim to be.” Which is merely another way of saying that one is always loved for what one isn’t.


   The questions pertaining to love and the mis-taking it inevitably reveals, the mis-taking in which it always at least partly consists, which it maintains and fosters, make apparent what Lacan referred to as the factitious nature of our sexual identity. This is something we all, women and men alike, try to come to terms with by way of a confrontation with (the issue of) femininity. I repeat: femininity and otherness are of the same essence; and homosexuality is a male issue, including in women.


   It isn’t by chance that psychoanalysis started with a confrontation with hysteria; or, rather, that it was through this confrontation, that it was thanks to this confrontation that it could be invented. Hysteria is one of the representations of femininity in a phallocentric world. The major hysterical symptoms have been widely described; they are, for the most part, symptoms of a lack of one kind or another: anesthesia, sensory troubles, functional troubles, frigidity for example. In order to hear what those symptoms say, one must have overcome one’s intolerance to need, one must be capable of putting up with desire, i.e. with the impossibility of ever silencing it. For only then does it become possible to hear the desperate (and apparently paradoxical) search for incompleteness those symptoms express: the hysterical subject is in search of a discourse capable of acknowledging and sustaining its own limitations. And that is what every analysand looks for. Every analysand, i.e. anyone truly engaged in analytical work, anyone capable of analysis. Indeed, analysis is not for everyone; and it isn’t uncommon to see, amongst those who have taken up analysis professionally, some who have done so because they have found in the very signifier “psychoanalyst”, as well as in the jargon their analytic family secretes, a comfortable frock, a pseudo-being of sorts. Analysis should lead elsewhere. It should lead to the recognition of the very simple fact that what Freud called “identification” can only be assumed through the letting go of any belief in the possibility of ever coinciding with the gender ideal suggested or imposed first by the parental, then by the social discourse. In other words, and this is something Lacan insisted upon throughout his life, the process of subjectivation is the very process through which each individual is impeded from peacefully inhabiting the illusion  referred to as his “self” or “ego”. The concept of subject as understood by Lacan is neither the subject philosophers talk about, nor is it the subject psychologists refer to: the subject as understood by Lacan is not the focal point of that which organizes the discourse, it is neither an agent nor a cause; it is merely the effect of the discourse. This complicates the issue of mutuality; it even complicates the issue of empathy, as I would now like to try and show you with the story of Scarlett. 


    She was without grace, exceedingly thin, pallid, her hair sparse and badly cut. She was almost wraithlike in her oversized, worn and dirty clothes. Very soon though, it had seemed to me that the unsightliness she imposed on others was something she really forced on herself. It was, I thought, deliberate.


   Her voice was terribly soft, fragile and almost without modulation.

   The very first thing she told me was that she wasn’t there for analysis: she only wanted someone to talk with. I asked her how she had found me; and did she know, really, where she was? Her answer was evasive, somewhat embarrassed: someone had told her about me but she still claimed not to know exactly who I was or what it was I did. I chose not to ask her why then she had started by telling me she wasn’t there for analysis. In fact, I said nothing at all.


   She also kept quiet for a while before telling me, barely audible, that she was in the habit of harming herself.




   “I burn myself; lacerate my arms and legs; I tear my hair out or cut it any which way; I take medication, … and I let myself be fucked by strangers, usually in their car.”


   I didn’t push it further. I asked her instead how she earned her living, whether she lived on her own or with someone. Her answer was somewhat desultory: she was thirty-seven; she had been living with a woman of the same age for the past ten-odd years (this was her first relationship); she had never held a steady job but had never been without work; she had been clandestinely involved with another woman for several years, an affair she qualified as “unusual”: this woman refused all physical contacts but expected Scarlett to enact before her various erotic fantasies.


   This first session had lasted for almost an hour. I told her, somewhat ironically, that if she wished to say more she could do so, but she would have, now that she was in the clear as to where and with whom she was exactly, to make regular appointments. I further told her that I didn’t yet know if analysis was indicated but that I would probably quite soon be able to tell. We agreed to see one another again the following day.



    No sooner had she arrived, she told me about her confusion: she already was in therapy (sic) but had been thinking for some time about leaving (sic) her psychiatrist, because “we seem to have reached an impasse.” I told her I would see her on the condition that she clarify the situation, and I put an end to the session.


   Her psychiatrist called me the next day. He confirmed that things had indeed become impossible for him, that he no longer felt he could work with Scarlett and that he would be happy if she agreed to start seeing me regularly. He added that he felt she could probably do better work with me than she had with him, this because of what he referred to as his “inhibitions”. He meant by that his need to maintain a certain “rigidity” (his word) to the setting, specifically he insisted she use the couch – something Scarlett hated. This rigidity had in fact on several occasions led Scarlett to act out in rather violent ways (she had, for example, set fire to the curtains in the waiting room), to which he had in turn reacted equally violently (he had on one occasion hit her in the face, breaking her glasses). The situation, he said, was definitely out of control.


   I told him I would agree to see Scarlett but I insisted the initiative be entirely left up to her, that he not intervene.



    Scarlett called me back a little over three months after having put an end to the work she had been doing with her psychiatrist.


   During the first year and a half of her work with me, she talked for the most part about two things: her affair and the deadly boredom she otherwise experienced. She would say she wanted to put an end to a situation in which she felt she was being treated as a mere object but feared that once freed from the alienation she had chosen, she would know only boredom. This begged the question: what was it she was hoping to achieve with me? Was she hoping for deliverance from a painful bond, or for the reinstatement of a subjection that she should perhaps acknowledge as a necessary evil? She was inclined to favour the second hypothesis – and she was right: she was prey to a need to submit, and I would have to accept that this might very well be the only way in which she was capable of engaging with others. And nothing allowed me to believe that things might be different with me. I therefore saw myself engaged in one of those relationships where the worst is always sure to happen. As Alice Miller says, Scarlett probably unconsciously thought: “Better to stay ill than to fall cured.”


   And indeed the analysis was to become, in the same way her affair had been, what would negate her: in each case Scarlett had got involved with the sole purpose of destroying herself. With me, she spent most of her sessions repeating the same complaint, in the same terms: “You don’t give me anything, nothing real anyway, since you insist I pay you. Yet I had told you I didn’t want analysis, I only wanted someone to speak with.”


   With her mistress, the scenario remained unchanged: after a meal during which Scarlett was most often put down, they would end up in bed where this woman would stage the offering of pleasure – almost the offertory – she claimed.

   I pointed out to her that it wasn’t absolutely clear which of the two was kept in subjection to the fantasy of the other. For indeed, as Theodor Reik suggested, the masochistic fantasy is in fact a sadistic order aiming at forcing the one who believes to be in a dominant position to adjust his or her pleasure to the fantasy of the would-be victim. The masochist is always the master of ceremonies and no one is better at forcing us to recognize that there is something almost unthinkable, unbearable at the core of sexual pleasure. And so I told this to Scarlett, that it was she who was in charge of the game – with her mistress as well as with me. This remark was decisive – which doesn’t mean I was justified in making it. It only means that as of the moment it was made, Scarlett’s interest in the affair (unless it was in the telling of it…) started waning: it too now bored her, so much so that she was able to put an end to it.


   But the problem was that after the break-up there was nothing left – and old symptoms almost immediately reappeared: the lacerating, the fake suicide attempts, the sex with strangers in their car – all of which she held me responsible for: “You encouraged me to put an end to this affair but you offer me nothing to replace it with.” And from that moment on, it became impossible to bring her out of the subjection to me she had got herself into. I was not to be her analyst, I was to be “a man”, I was to offer her “something real”.


   I agreed to give her  more room : I occasionally  would take her calls, including at my home; I let her use the office space as she wished (some sessions even took place in the waiting room); I sometimes agreed to see her several times in the course of the same day, etc. In other words, I allowed for a certain play on or with the limits and limitations of the setting. It was only when Scarlett attempted to do away completely with those limits that I raised objections: for example, when she tried, as it was to be expected, to touch me, to snuggle up in my arms. As a consequence, and I can only regret it, the analytic situation itself (but one might argue that it had never been, in the “proper” sense, analytic…) became more alienating even than her affair had been, for the physical limits and limitations set against erogenous masochism are indeed more firm and, in a way, more clearly defined than those set against moral masochism.



    Scarlett had early on said that she was in search of someone with whom to talk. Very rapidly though, she said she wanted someone to speak to her. This was easily understandable: she never could avoid identifying with those who had aggressed her – her mother, her father-in-law, as well as this man’s children. She had in a way let these people’s words brand her. The one word she felt best defined her was bitch. “I know very well”, she would often say, “that I am just a bitch; I am filthy.” It is interesting to note here that the only dream she ever told was a dream in which she was on all fours before me, rummaging in a rubbish bin. The only way in which Scarlett ever could find some kind of consistency was, paradoxically, by letting those abusive words annihilate her. The obscenities hurled at her made up the archives of her identity, as well as prescribing her inescapable taint, her inescapable decay. Those obscenities were all that was reliable. How then could she have not begged for what she could not believe in: “something real”? She held on as she could: by reduplicating  the banishment she had had to endure first from her mother, then from her father-in-law and his children.


   Those words – bitch, tart, whore, cow – were her mother’s words: she had always been named by her mother in reference to taint, to decay, to filth. I tried enabling her to see how these words had on the one hand robbed her of any chance of coming into her own and, on the other hand, how they had enabled her to avoid taking the risk of a true engagement with anyone. My hope was that she could let herself be touched by an other discourse, that she could begin to look at herself from a different perspective. I failed. My mistake was, I believe, falling prey to the fantasy that I could have been, as a person, as a man, the other thanks to whom she would become capable of a different type of bond, in other words thanks to whom she would become capable of the ordinary alienation we all live in. My mistake was to let the “analytic” relationship in turn become dual. Had I been able to see more clearly the position she was assigning me, I might have avoided identifying with it, thus giving her a chance to begin inventing other ways of engaging. 


    Scarlett confronted me with the cynical component of the analytic situation, and I couldn’t bear it. Hence my “decision” to give her more latitude. Identifying with what or whom she wanted me to be, I let myself be seduced by the offering and/or spectacle of her distress and desolation. Compassion, empathy are often merely other, more noble terms for the horror his position inspires the analyst with. Showing compassion, or empathy, can be a way of trying to be exactly what the analyst, I suggested, can’t be: a good enough mother. In the position that is his, the analyst should remember he cannot sustain any so-called analytic ideal.


Dr. Larivière was born in Montreal, Canada. He moved to France in 1971 to study Philosophy and eventually earned doctoral degrees in Philosophy, Psychology, and French Literature. He has met and worked with many scholars including Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Lyotard and Dolto. Dr. Larivière speaks (and works) in four languages: English, French, Italian and German. Currently, his practice is in France and he has lead seminars internationally in Italy, Canada, United States and Switzerland.


Dr. Larivière may be contacted at:

7A Rue Turenne, 67000 Strassbourg, FRANCE