Après Coup: Retroactive Memory: A Conversation with Jean-Bertrand Pontalis

This conversation between Sergio Benvenuto and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis took place on 13 October 1989 in the latter’s office at Éditions Gallimard in Paris.

Sergio BenvenutoPsychoanalysis is often thought of as a sort of bicorn.  On the one hand it is seen as an archaeology of the subject, and especially of the child; as a historical reconstruction of the subject’s origins.  On the other, it is also a sort of mental experience in the present, a decontamination of the subject’s current relations with the world; analysis offers the model for a restructuring of subjectivity as it develops in the ‘here and now’.  On the one hand psychoanalysis appears to be a historical science, and on the other it seems rather a wisdom technique that aims at depolluting human relations from particular imaginary cramps ‘in the here and now.’

The impression is that the latter aspect – treating the hic et nunc – is prevailing in vast areas of analytic practice.  In Italy, for example, a dominant approach is inspired to Wilfred Bion, an approach that analyzes more the present dynamics of analyst-patient relations and detaches itself more and more from the archaeology of the subject.  Bion himself said that when a patient he’d been following for years came into his consulting room, he had to imagine he was seeing him for the first time…  Analysis then is not so much the reminiscing reconstruction of a web of past traumas, but instead a sort of education towards new languages for relations.

Jean-Bertrand Pontalis.  I don’t personally see an opposition between the two points you describe: that of reminiscence, pushed as far in the past as possible, and that of what you call education, pushed towards the present.  It is true that early on Freud – let’s not forget that his background was in hypnosis – assigned to analysis the fundamental task of rediscovering the past, and childhood in particular.  Soon enough, however, Freud discovered transference – the patient’s strong affective investment in the analyst.  Through transference – which was a discovery that came later than amnesia – the idea emerged that this past is reactualized in the present, it is transferred, we could say, to the present person of the analyst.  Freud’s next step was noticing repetition compulsion, of which transference was substantially a particular case: man’s tendency to repeat experiences.  To repeat them in analysis itself, very often, according to the famous formula “the patient, instead of remembering, repeats (in transference or elsewhere).”

True, in Freud the idea, or rather the hope, that the entire past that marks an individual can be re-evoked, always remained; and the idea that the object of analysis was rediscovering this buried history.  Yet the limits of this remembering process soon became apparent.  It is true that today we’ve gone a bit too far in the direction of analyzing the actual situation of the analytic relation – the so-called hic et nunc – at the expense of historical reconstruction.  It’s also true, as you say, that some psychotherapeutic trends push the analyst in the direction of a pure interaction between individuals.  Repression is something that took place in the past: certain memories have been repressed and will resurface.  But the notion of hic et nunc is interesting because it shows that repression is always active; repression is not exclusively linked to memory; it’s not as if all we need to do is remove amnesia and everything will work fine.  Instead repression is always active, even as I’m speaking now.  In fact, we cannot live without repression.  If we didn’t repress, how many ideas would resurge?  We would be submerged by memories.  The concept of hic et nunc has the merit of showing how repression operates in an analytic session: it’s not only a question of finding the past in the present, but rather to find how something that has never manifested itself before manifests itself in the present.  I do not therefore see a radical opposition between the two points of view.

B. The French psychoanalytical schools in particular have stressed the Freudian notion of Nachträglichkeit, or après coup as it’s referred to in France.  In English it is sometimes translated as “afterwardness,” but it would be more appropriate to call it “retroactive sense.”  Freud noticed that patients sometimes talked about facts that took place during childhood in terms of sexual scenes.  Now, according to this notion, the sexual sense, or in any case the highly significant sense, of scenes that did not manifest this sense when they actually took place, is given nachträglich, afterwards.  Today, on the other hand, in America an authentic witch-hunt is raging, and it is based on the fact that so many people remember as child abuse, as scenes of incest, events that probably did not yet have this sense when they were children.  One wonders why you French analysts have become so particularly fond of this Freudian concept.

P. Lacan was the first to focus attention on après coup.  Nachträglichkeit, however, is not Freud’s concept; in other words, he never constructed a theory around it and it doesn’t belong to the category of his fundamental concepts, though he often uses the word.  The merit of Lacan consisted in noticing the use of this word and asking what the meaning of its frequent use could be (if I’m not mistaken, Freud often underlines the term nachträglich).

It’s ultimately not an extremely original idea.  Historians, for example, always work with the idea of après coup, of posterior effect.  As we’re celebrating the bicentenary of the French Revolution, I shall take the Storming of the Bastille as an example.  The event of 14 July 1789 only assumed its sense, an almost mythical significance, thanks to what came after it.  It could have been an uprising like any of the others that had taken place in Paris in the past.  Only because we see it as the emblematic sign of the beginning of the French Revolution après coup, after the event, do we consider it a great event.  This has to do with the whole historical problem of the “event.”  What makes certain facts events?  We know that only rarely can we know in the present, as its happening, whether an event will be a history-making one.  Unless we consider any event historical, even a football match, every fact will become historical only après coup.  So, this is quite a plain element.  Even the assassination in Sarajevo was in itself no big deal; but because the First World War started soon after it, today we read it as a great historical event, a thunderbolt that apparently caused the War.

The notion of après coup became familiar to me early, thanks to Raymond Aron’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, which showed how history is always written in the present; how historians make one or the other event emerge by reinterpreting the past.

Moving from historiography to psychoanalysis, what does the interest of this notion consist of?  When Lacan, thirty years ago now, first talked about après coup, his intention was to oppose a predominant concept of the psychoanalysis of the time that looked at causes according to a linear determinism: “such an event provokes such and such a thing.”  In other words, the direct influence of the childhood past and the trauma on the present.  This causal model completely lacked any historical perspective: it was a physical causality in which event “a” causes event “b.”  This is where a causality founded on libidinal stages derived from: if the fellow behaves in a certain way, it’s because he’s fixated on a particular stage, oral or anal, that causes that behavior.  Lacan defined himself as in opposition to these two conceptions of causality, the deterministic and the genetic.  The notion of après coup, however trivial it may be in historiography, was useful to propose a new more dialectical and complex conception of time.

B. And where do you situate yourself après coup with regard to Lacan? Where do you situate yourself since this notion of  afterwardness was introduced into the psychoanalytical arsenal?

P. For me the notion of après coup, though it is a great conclusion, does not define the entire Freudian conception of time, it does not sum it up completely.   It is only one of the important elements to take into account to understand what time and temporality are in psychoanalysis.

B. Some, analysts and non-analysts, think that the insistence on après coup serves to remove any pretense of objectivity from psychoanalytical interpretation.  They say it serves to turn it into a purely hermeneutical activity, rather than a historical reconstruction with a requirement for objectivity.  In fact, if we push the notion of après coup rigorously to its extremes, we should conclude that reference to the past in analysis is purely mythical.  What emerges today in an analysis as past traumas, fantasies, crucial childhood relations, ancient experiences, and so on, is apparently only a projection back in time of experiences and ‘facts’ that are actually only of any value today.

P. It seems a false debate to me.  On the one hand we have those who say: “the events are what they are, they’re there and we must try to find them again as they were, with the affects they produced.”  Hence the centrality of the idea of trauma: there was an event that marked the subject’s becoming for good, and it’s there, deposited in the psyche.  At the other extreme there are those with the idea that we can never find an intangible reality: in analysis all we do is tell stories, we just modify the vision we created for ourselves of our stories.  From this point of view, analysis is merely the substitution of one tale with another, in turn replaced by yet another, and so on.  Hence the idea that the subject’s history is a fiction.  According to the latter, analysis is not even a putting into perspective; it’s a tale, a fictional narration, a novel.  This trend is represented in France by Vidermann and his Le disséminaire.  He takes to the extreme, to paradox, this idea of analysis as a tale.  Significantly, Vidermann is very much influenced by historians.  In fact, when we read historians we realize that there’s an indefinite number of possible “histories.”  Fifty or more different histories of the French Revolution are possible; the tale seems to create the reality.  According to this conception, in analysis we actually make things up.  But this means taking the paradox too far.

But in my opinion the two points of view are linked.  There is indeed a pure reconstruction on the one hand, but on the other we must admit to a realism of the unconscious.  Analysis is not pure invention, because this invention starts from what Freud calls mnemic traces: an event isn’t kept exactly as it happened and in its entirety, but only traces of it remain.  And these traces combine in what Freud calls the different “mnemic systems.”  We don’t find in Freud the idea of a global memory or of an integral resurrection of the past, as we do in Michelet.  But not even an idea of memory like in Proust, where, starting from perceptible elements, an entire world can be resurrected.  And it’s not even a computer memory, for which only almost abstract elements are necessary.

In Freud there is a tie to the perceptible, but these “traces” – and I insist on the word, because the concept of trace is very close to that of sign – are signs linked to concrete experiences, but that detach themselves from the latter.  This is what happens with what Freud calls “screen memories”: what we remember vividly about our childhood are things that appear to us completely anodyne, by no means traumatizing.  As we know, by going back element to element we realize that the anodyne memory links to something else that in turn links back to something else still, and so on.

So, I would say: reconstruction is fine, but to reconstruct we need some primary elements.  These primary elements are traces that combine in different ways: a trace can resurge starting from a sign or a memory; another trace may resurge from an emotion.  And this takes us to the debated question of the value of trauma.

B. On the subject of trauma, Jeffrey Masson wrote a book (The Assault on Truth), which we could call sensationalist and in which he argues this: Freud always thought that the foundations of adult neuroses lay in sexual abuse, in particular by the parents on their young children.  Instead Freud sustained the theory that these rapes were the infants’ fantasies, in particular of the daughters, out of pure opportunism, not to upset respectable society.  Now, this quite coarse book was hailed favorably in Italy even by certain psychoanalysts, even quite sophisticated ones; they praised Masson’s effort to come out of a pure “science of the imaginary” and to restore to real relations the importance they deserve, in particular power relations between subjects.  According to his sympathizers, Masson has reminded us of the effective violence, even sexual, at play between parents and children, between adults and kids.  According to them, the remembrance at play in analysis becomes once more a re-experiencing of real traumas in the consulting room and no longer the reinterpretation of mere fantasies.

P. There’s a lot of confusion around the concept of trauma.  In Freud’s primitive idea on trauma – in which we also find the après coup – we already find a very interesting idea: an event “one” becomes traumatic only thanks to an event “two.”  In other words, there are two stages in trauma.  During that period of his research, Freud still considered, according to classic models, sexuality to begin with puberty.  There’s a scene, a small scene during childhood, which will only take on its sexual value après coup, when the child has grown up and will have started to experience sexual emotions.  The process therefore takes place in two stages.  Scene two may even be entirely anodyne, insignificant – for example, it could be the memory of someone touching you.  This touching, which for the adult is a sexual fact, will reawaken a first scene, an older pre-sexual one that had had no visible impact when it occurred in childhood.  Only in a second moment, après coup, the first event, the childhood one, will take on its full value.  Then the second scene will take on a traumatic value only because connected to the first.

And even after Freud discovered childhood sexuality, it’s important to note that he maintained the idea of the two stages.  For example, a child of one assists to coitus between his parents, but at the time he doesn’t have the means to realize what it is; only several years later will he be able to give the scene a specifically sexual sense.  The trauma consists in these two stages.  This is clear in clinical experience: some events that appear to be objectively traumatic may not have any real effect on certain people.  People’s responses, the intensity of the responses of individuals, are extremely different.  For example, let’s take the death of a mother.  It is never in itself a trauma, each individual will respond to it in very different ways.  Let’s also take seduction scenes: they always take on their traumatic effect afterwards.

B. Freud always conceived psychoanalysis a cure through truth.  At first, as you say, he interpreted this ‘truth that cures’ as a truth of memory, a remembering.  At the time it was a question of recalling more or less forgotten childhood fantasies connected to the present-day symptom.  Today, however, it would seem that some psychoanalytic trends aim at disconnecting the ethics of “the truth that cures” from the archaeological truth of the subject, from memory.  In this way the Freudian archeological concepts are reinterpreted simply as metaphors of a subjective authenticity unlinked to the truthful reconstruction of a past.  The truth that cures is instead conceived more as an authenticity and a freedom found again by the subject.

P. I went from Sartre to psychoanalysis.  In Sartre there are some illusions that should be criticized through psychoanalysis.  First of all the illusion of transparency: that consciousness can be transparent to itself.  Another illusion is that of totality, i.e.  the idea that we can totally understand a person: the openly confessed project of The Family Idiot, his study on Flaubert.  Finally, the illusion of a subject who can be totally free, who can completely determine his world.  Determine it from a determined situation, of course, but able to completely take control of this initial situation and freely determine himself.  “The Roads to Freedom,” basically.

Now, it’s a matter of fact that the word ‘freedom’ appears very rarely among psychoanalysts.  And this rareness is striking.  Analysts will say “less dependent on,” “more creative,” and so on, but they’ll never mention “freedom.”  Why is that?

In actual fact Sartre never acknowledged the idea of a permanently active unconscious (like in repression); he never acknowledged a Freudian unconscious that we can never take control of.  “First comes the id, and then the ego”; but the free je (ego) can never completely free itself from the attraction of the id, of the unconscious.  This is the basic point that Sartre doesn’t acknowledge.  Sartre would acknowledge that there are things of the self that we know not, and which we must recognize.  He never acknowledged the very foundation of analysis, i.e. that “the subject is not master in his own home” and never will be.  And I would add: luckily so.  There’s always something devilish in man.

A fairly vague idea of “authenticity” can however be found in psychoanalysis in other forms.  For example in Winnicott, who never even read Sartre, we find an analogous opposition, between what he maladroitly calls “true self” and “false self.”

B. Followers of Melanie Klein have strived for the acceptation of the idea of a precocious Oedipus.  In other words, the idea that a baby only a few days old already experiences the classic Oedipal conflicts.  Some wonder, however, whether this idea of anticipating Oedipal relationships is the sign of a question that could even be called philosophical, insofar as it concerns the underlying question of subjective time and remembering.

P. In any case, we can talk retroactively of a precocious Oedipus only insofar as the Oedipus exists.  Let’s again take history as an example.  As there was a Revolution (the Oedipal Revolution), let’s then go back and look for its antecedents, retrospectively.  For example, today the term Ancien Régime, in France at least, has entered common language, but people often forget that the monarchic regime pre-1789 was not experienced as the Ancien Régime of the future, not even as a regime, in fact.  This is often forgotten when talking about French history.

Now, what’s the relation between the Ancien Régime and the Oedipus?

I agree with Kleinians when they say that there are precursory stages of the Oedipus in earliest childhood, but I would organize them starting from the posterior Oedipus.  I can’t imagine a newborn, even if a patient of Melanie Klein, who after a few days of life can already say “that’s daddy and that’s mummy.”  Other objects are at play in that phase – breast, titties, milk, and so on – and not father and mother in the Oedipal sense.

Take a case that I’m following.  At one point this person says to me that he was a desired child, before and after his birth.  I then said to myself: “But how would he know?”  Let’s suppose his parents said to him “You don’t know how much we longed for you to be born!”  But even in this case there’s an illusion.  The illusion in this case consists in the fact that they didn’t desire his birth, that of the subject in question, at the most they desired the birth of a child.

How is it possible to know whether we were desired as ourselves?  Yet this illusion is constitutional of all us subjects.  Only après coup, given the desire the parents nourished to have a child, can we transfer this to ourselves: “I am the one my parents desired.”  It is in the retroactive recovery of our existence that we constitute ourselves, for example, as “the desired children of our parents.”  And this is based on the fact that it is very difficult to think about a time when we didn’t exist.  This is an exemplary case of après coup, linked to the illusion that is constitutional to our selves.

Publication Date:

December 2, 2018

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis