The child, his majesty! The challenges of psychoanalysis for the new times

by Marco Aurélio Carvalho Silva*

Since the end of the nineteenth century, thinkers have researched about human suffering in an attempt to figure out what its causes could be. A lot of light has been shed on the reasons underlying human suffering. Let us take a look first at what Freud, one of the most important theorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had to say to contribute to the understanding of the matter. He truly believed that many of those people had to cope with a fight between their innermost drives and the demands coming from the social realm. He came up with a theory of a need for a defense on the part of the ego in order to cast away into the depths of the unconscious the inner desires that would not be acceptable in the external world. The word he used to refer to such a defense mechanism was Verdrändgung, and Freud made a connection between this defense mechanism to sexuality. Verdrängung is the German word for displacement, suppression or repression, and it suggests a counteraction in order to keep the forbidden thought from flooding into consciousness.

Freud understands that most of the conflicts inflicted on the people derived from the sexual repression dictated by a modern society who prescribed what life should be like and how it should be lived. He even pointed out that people in modern times had lost some of the plasticity of antiquity and in fact they had become more drawn to a certain model of satisfaction that did not allow for much freedom. In his 1905 work, Freud wrote: “The most striking distinction between the erotic life of antiquity and our own no doubt lies in the fact that the ancients laid the stress upon the instinct itself, whereas we emphasize its objects. The ancients glorified the instinct and were prepared on its account to honour even an inferior object; while we despise the instinctual activity in itself, and find excuses for it in the merits of the object” (FREUD: 1905. p. 28).

People in antiquity seemed to place more value on satisfaction itself. Somehow modern times influenced people to focus more on the object and its merits to the detriment of sexual plasticity. What may have caused the shift from satisfaction to the object in modernity could actually explain why so many people suffered from sexual repression then. Most of Freud’s first and foremost patients displayed sexual-related symptoms that would hinder their personal lives to the point that they had to undergo psychological treatment. These symptoms were mostly bodily manifestations, whose signs did give Freud a proof of their connection to the sexual realm. Freud would associate a paralysis of a limb with the erection of the penis, for instance. Neurosis, as a whole, would be the result of a repressed sexual desire that would not be easily grasped by the mind but instead felt by the body.

Much has changed ever since Freud came up with the theory of neurotic symptoms as a result of sexual repression. Sexuality took a different course throughout the 20th century thanks to the studies done by psychoanalysis, among other areas, and the consequent sexual revolution that reached its climax in the 60’s. Although sexuality will never be totally grasped by any sciences, one can say that much progress has been made since modernity. People may still suffer from unmet sexual demands; however, such conflicts can be better dealt with in contemporary times. Mind you, a lot of people still look for psychological treatment due to sexual-related problems, but there seems to be a more significant symptom in our times that go beyond the sexual sphere. Neurosis seems to have taken a different course and its connections have less to do with sexual repression but rather more to do with another social illness; namely, people are suffering from Hilflosigkeit, German for helplessness.   

Marcel Gauchet, a French philosopher and historian, has written about the need for psychoanalysis to revise its theoretical framework because of the many changes that society has undergone in the past few decades. Gauchet draws our attention to the fact that these changes have had a huge impact on the family structure and subjectivity. Psychoanalysis placed a lot of emphasis on child development and its possible problems in adulthood. Much has been learned about the importance of motivating children to develop their various skills in order to become a full-blown adult capable of handling most life conflicts.

Nevertheless, in the past few decades children have been granted a lot of rights, and such rights are known to them. It seems that children have earned a lot of respect from their parents and anyone around them. Recently a 10-year-old child in Germany called the police willing to press charges against his parents, for the latter gave them a gift different from what had been promised. Gauchet reminds us that children hold the belief that their lives and desires are the most treasured assets, and that their parents must provide for whatever need they might have. They are called children of desire, who have not learned how to wait and whose demands are boundless.

The question of happiness has also suffered a huge change. People used to rely upon the collective to withdraw the concept of what it was to be happy. One had to look at the legacy out in the world to search for blissful moments. Nowadays, however, the search is inward. Children believe that the idea of happiness is to be found within themselves and pay little respect to whatever comes from the collective. The collective no longer represents the gift left by ancestors, who have ceased to be in charge of a transmission.  Maybe such an inward quest lies in the fact that one’s family history can easily be taken for granted.

The parent is no longer the authority that should be respected above all. The parent can turn out to be an everlasting provider, but his authority is not necessarily legitimate. Children of desire hold rights, not duties. They believe they can be whatever they wish to be, and the parent figure is not supposed to be followed. They do not feel that to carry the name of the parent is an important and highly valued duty. These children are now taught to question any kind of authority foisted onto them. As a matter of fact, authority is felt like an imposition. Carrying the name of the parent could be felt like a burden, and it must be reassessed.

Gauchet highlights that the concept of authority is a key element to the understanding of the changes contemporary society has been going through. Authority used to be incarnated, while nowadays it is represented. And such representation can be doubted and ignored and even eschewed. The acknowledgment of a democratic authority could lead to the exercise of authorship and autonomy, which, in turn, will lead to responsibility. On the other hand, the inability to handle authority may give rise to autocracy, a danger that families face nowadays and that undermines the possibility of a public sphere.

There is a moment in child development in which the baby is regarded, as Freud described it, “the baby, His Majesty”. Freud made it clear that this position had to be toppled. It seems that many families fail to do such a task, and the baby, His Majesty is led into thinking that it does not need to give up the throne.

This fact brings up an important difference between modern times symptoms and today’s. Neurosis seems to be mistaken for psychotic surges due to the refusal to leave the narcissistic stage every baby will experience before stepping down the throne. And this refusal will be accounted for in adolescence, a stage in human development Gauchet considers essential for the individual. It is then when the individual will have to admit he cannot be everything he once believed he could have become. It is then when he will have to show his sexual choice to the collective and respond to it. It is then when he will have to accept the contingencies of life (GAUCHET, 2007 and 2011).

Castration is dealt with earlier in life, but it is in adolescence when signs of how it went will show its features. The longer it takes for the individual to cope with the constraints of castration, the harder it will be for him to overcome it and assume its risks. What strikes as different nowadays is the struggle that many adolescents seem to make to deal with narcissism. They experience it as if they had to deal with it for the first time in their lives. No wonder the symptoms felt by some teenagers resemble a psychotic episode.

The hardships individuals have to go through nowadays show us that they seem to be wrapped up within their own selves. The disregard towards the collective experienced since childhood that the collective may have left them with a sense of deprivation. They cannot find a way to mitigate their pain of existence within themselves. Nor do they trust that the collective is capable of such an endeavor. The ego is divided and everything is felt like a deep wound in the innermost part of their selves. Such symptom leaves them no other choice but depression deriving from helplessness. Narcissism may cloud this condition at times, but sooner or later such clouds will be dispelled and helplessness will come out. In sum, human psyche will not be strong enough to withstand the power of the most human condition, which, in turn, can only be eased by the contact with the other.

Hilflosigkeit was described by Freud as being the legitimate human condition. Gauchet’s theory may help to shed some light on why psychoanalysis regards Hilflosigkeit as the human condition in that he claims that throughout the history of mankind religion has gradually ceased to be the organizer of the social order because of the advent of democracy. Democracy is posited as inversely proportional to religion. Religion used to explain what we were and what we would become. Over time people have become less dependent on religion as their inner organizer, and have tended to look inward in attempt to search for the truth. Consequently, democracy has brought us a life filled with uncertainties and fears that can only be soothed with the help of the collective. Now the question lingers. How can we overcome the hardships imposed by helplessness if the collective is seen as a feeble choice to counteract its effects? Such a collective can only be constructed in democracy as an autonomous project of being-in-society, which would enable to conciliate a movement of liberation of subjectivities with the organization of a space of common liberties.

* Independent researcher at Ateliê de Humanidades and psychoanalyst

Imagem: Ilustração de Gorka Olmo


FREUD, Sigmund (1905). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey. New York: Basic Books. 1962.

_______. (1914) On narcissism: an introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

GAUCHET, Marcel. (2007) L’enfant du désir. Champ psy, 2007/3 n° 47, p. 9-22.

_______. (2011) Pour une théorie psychanalytique de l’individuation. In: Karl-Leo Schwering , Se construire comme sujet entre filiation et sexuation ERES « Santé mentale ». p. 11-28.

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