Freud and Masochism


Freud’s reflections on masochism are here reconsidered and situated within the general project of Freudian thought, described in terms of a metaphysical anthropology based on the Lustprinzip, the pleasure-desire principle. The author provides a detailed analysis of Freud’s “The economic problem of masochism”, and of moral masochism in particular, since this latter constitutes, to a much greater extent than the other forms of masochism, an apparently insurmountable problem for the Lustprinzip-based theory. In keeping with the more mature Freudian view, the author proposes setting aside the primacy of the Lustprinzip in favor of providing an opening for the crucial role of ethical experience, understood as a basic erotic relation to the other.

As is well known, masochism was a problem for the mature Freud. It was not only a problem of an “economic” nature, but it was a puzzle for his general project of a new type of science: it was for this reason he often wrote about it.
The very ambitious author—which Freud certainly was—concentrates on those very themes that create the most difficulty, and are at odds with the puzzle of the research program to which he adheres. Masochism was enigmatic for psychoanalytical theory–and it still appears to be so, as shown by the title given to a recent book on the subject, The enigma of masochism (André 2000).

But what is the enigma of masochism for Freudian theory? What is the essential point of this theory that creates the most friction with the multicolored reality of the various masochisms (since there are more than one)? In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to have first answer another one: what is essential in Freudian theory? This theory is certainly a complex and intricate construction, which evolved over time. But what is the basic presupposition upon which Freud constructed this labyrinthine monument?

1. Freud’s Focal Thought

Heidegger said that every great thinker constructed his work around a single focal thought. Thus, if Freud was a great thinker, one has to ask what the focal, or essential, thought of his work consisted in.
For me, the whole of psychoanalytic theory is a system of explanation founded from the beginning—but, as we shall see, no longer at the end—on what was for Freud the essential truth of human beings (and basically of every living being): die Lust. Freud left a lasting mark on the century that just ended with a decision of a metaphysical nature: the fundamental force that moves human beings, the force at the beginning and the end of their vicissitudes, is Lust.
In English, this term is usually translated as pleasure, in French as plaisir, in Italian as piacere, in Spanish as placer, etc. But in German, Lust has an erotic connotation that is not found in the English pleasure: Lust derives from Vollust, as in the English “lust” or “concupiscence”. And in a polysemantic way it means desire and pleasure, concupiscence and enjoyment. In German one can say, for example, Ich habe Lust zu schlafen, “I want to sleep”. Lust is thus not only pleasure, but that which incites one towards pleasure, the pleasure of tending towards pleasure, the unpleasant sting of desire which seems pleasurable in as much as it leads us towards pleasure. I would thus tend to translate Lustprinzip in English as Lust Principle.
Due to this very ambiguity of the term, Freud was at the beginning reluctant to adopt it. After having proposed the term libido in Three essays on the theory of sexuality, he added a footnote in 1910, stating: “The only appropriate word in the German language, Lust, is unfortunately ambiguous, and is used to denote the experience both of a need [Bedürfnis] and of a gratification [Befriedigung]”. And yet everything leads us to believe that Freud later adopted the term, not despite this ambiguity, but actually because of it, even though the adoption of the term, over time, made it impossible for him to remain faithful to the conception that motivated his project: utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is the theory—elaborated above all by British philosophers—according to which human beings have two masters: one for obtaining pleasure and the other for avoiding pain. This was clearly summarized by Jeremy Bentham (1970, p. 1) in his famous maxim:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.

As can be seen, this principle is inherently ambiguous: it establishes at the same time what we do (in being: the fact that humans always try to maximize pleasure and minimize displeasure) and what we should do (having to be). But that which should be, for this very reason, in some way is not. For any science whose object is the human being, integrating being and having to be is problematic. If seeking pleasure is the common goal of every human being, then this aim is an integral part of its being—indeed, it is its essence. In other words, the being of man, in as much as he is a living being, consists in having to enjoy. Thus, from the utilitarian point of view, the ethics from one period or geography can greatly differ from that of another time or place, but all of them in some way prescribe the subject to “enjoy”. The only essential obligation, universally present in every human being, is to enjoy. Single individuals in specific cultures and periods are “free” to determine their own modes and conditions for enjoying and being happy, but they are certainly not free to decide the essential obligation of every human being: that of enjoyment and/or happiness.
The two sovereign masters of utilitarianism—the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure–are condensed by Freud (the consequences of which won’t be analyzed here) in a single Herr, or master: the Lustprinzip (henceforth, LP).
In fact, for Freud pleasure is equivalent to the reduction or annulment of displeasure, and displeasure just is aimless, unsatisfied desire (Trieb, drive, libido). In Freud’s view, however, pleasure and displeasure are affective effects of Lust as the essential cause of psychic life: they are the affective side-effects of psychic energy. Displeasure corresponds to an increase, and pleasure to a decrease, in the quantity of free energy.
Freud often returns to this Herrschaft (lordship, mastery) of the LP. For Freud, the LP is our master because the sensations of pleasure and displeasure, which manifest this energy, are for us “imperative” and “imperious”. But the LP is precisely Lust as a Prinzip or, in other words, as the aim (and thus as the hoped for end). The LP is that which regulates psychic life—it’s both the rule and measure of it.
The psychic apparatus is governed by the LP in so far as the former tries to maintain the quantity of excitement present within itself at the lowest level possible, as well as the most constant level possible: this is its aim. But Freud’s Ego has two externalities: excitements come from both the external world and from the subject’s organism. These excitements–disturbances of equilibrium–appear to the human consciousness as Spannung: unpleasant tension. The LP as pleasure is Lust as a final cause of psychic life, while the desires (libido, drives and tensions) are Lust as its efficient cause. In other words, Freud initially posits the subject not as a simple tabula rasa, but rather as a tense tabula rasa, which must therefore learn how to get rid of this tension.
But the picture becomes complicated because desire in the living being is not homogeneous: it’s arrayed in a myriad of drives (which are divided between drives of the Ego and object drives), in a confusion of often contrasting or contradictory desires that are never truly consistent. For this reason one’s drives often enter into conflict, leading to the need, on the part of the Ego, to select among them, which means repressing (verdrängen, displace) some of them.
The repressed representations of the drives nevertheless return, in the sense that they press towards the outside, they seek to be ex-pressed, and in expressing themselves they’re satisfied, even if only surreptitiously. It does not suffice to say that Freudian theory is one of conflict: a conflict can be expressed in various ways, and can be resolved by destroying one or more competitors. Instead, for Freud, repressed drives are always satisfied anyway: it could not be otherwise, since the LP dominates and directs them. Lust, the final aim and end of everything that lives in the living being, commands every Trieb to satisfy itself all the same. However, when this satisfaction is ego-dystonic, it is perceived by the Ego as Unlust. For example, neurotic symptoms, persecutory beliefs or anxiety dreams produce Unlust within the Ego. Lust, in fact, is manifested within the Ego not only as lust, but also as Unlust. Hence, the essential libidinal tension, the Unlust that it represents for the Ego, obeys the LP, and thus becomes Unlust.
To summarize: the application—the phenomenology, as we might define it—of the LP leads to sensations that are both pleasant and unpleasant for the Ego. Using Aristotelian terminology, we could say that pleasure is the final cause of psychic processes; displeasure is instead the efficient cause. But the displeasure of the Ego is also an effect of the conflict between drives, each of them regulated or ruled by the pleasure principle: Unlust is also, one might say, the price paid for a pluralism of drives. The Ego is like an executive power at risk of being paralyzed by the conflicts of parties within the parliament. Even the Ego—the executive subjectivity—tries to protect the organism from an excess of enjoyment that could lead to its death, meaning the cessation of every form of enjoyment.

2. Beyond the Subject Principle

The fact that this single, or circular, truth of human beings (the LP) is defined in terms of effects and affects is rooted in the ambiguity of Lust. This ambiguity consists in the fact that, according to Freud, pleasure and desire are, on the one hand, the same thing (Lust), and on the other hand, contradictory, since desire is the displeasure that causes in us the desire for pleasure, while pleasure is the aim (and the end, the death) of desire. Desire is the psychic form that the unpleasant Endogene Reize (internal tensions) assume, and these always seek to be discharged. When the desire has in fact no aim, is unbound and ill-timed, it is perceived and cognized (but not recognized) as anguish (Angst)—anguish is an urge, Lust, that the Ego is unable to bind, it is an im-pertinent and idle desire. Thus, in as much as the aim of Lust as desire is its own end in Lust as pleasure, Lust should tend towards its own extinction. This fundamental tendency of Lust to limit itself and, in the end, to annul or destroy itself—to reach Nirvana—is later interpreted by Freud himself as the expression of a drive that regulates Lust’s rule: Todestrieb, the death drive.
We therefore should not be surprised that the LP very often appears in one’s life as the deferment of pleasure sine die, or even—for example, in masochism—as the quest for pleasure by means of displeasure. Thus, Lust can take as its own goal its very opposite—and in certain cases, Why not? It may express itself as the desire for desire itself.
Freud’s great challenge thus consisted in showing that precisely because every living thing tends towards pleasure, even when the subject quite strangely seems to be inflicting displeasure upon himself, the mastery of the Lust principle is still being affirmed. For example, this is the case of neurotic symptoms, paranoia, inhibition and anxiety, and perhaps also of masochism. Almost all of Freud’s famous “discoveries”—the theory of the dream as the imaginary satisfaction of a desire, of neurosis as an expression of a conflict between the drives of the Ego and sexual drives, of psychosis and melancholia as narcissistic regressions, etc.—are basically rigorous inferences from his principle according to which die Lust is the beginning and end of psychic life.
Anxiety and neurosis, if they derive from a supposed trauma, are thus to be explained as the effects of a drive to mastery that, by internalizing the trauma, make the senseless and alien trauma subjective. However, once the subjectivating function of this mastering drive has been shown, the problem remains: is this drive toward mastery in turn subject to the LP, or does it escape it? Freud was mainly interested in knowing whether the repetition compulsion, once its function of psychic Bindung (binding) had been recognized, completely obeyed the lust principle, or if it manifested an automatism that could not be reduced to it.
Freud’s final reply—somewhat unpalatable for nearly all psychoanalysts—was that even the Bindung (the subjectivization of the trauma through anxiety) is irreducible to the LP: the binding manifests the life and death drives, ever interconnected—drives that, in themselves, are not at all subjective (but rather, “biological”). Because the death drive leads to the annihilation of the subject, while that of life leads every subject towards the other, both of them thus lead the subject out of himself. In the end, something emerges—which post-Freudian psychoanalysis has tried at all costs to discard—which decentralizes every subjectivity, which binds every subjectivity to something that’s not subjective. In other words, at the very heart of a rigorous theory of the subject there emerges a transcendentality that displaces every subject. This transcendentality, or ecstasy (ekstasis)—the decentralization of the subject outside itself–is paradoxically both the condition of the analytical bond (which otherwise would be reduced to an interpersonal strategy, a “cognitive therapy”) as well as the limit of, and what lies beyond, analytical power.

3. Ethics and the Lust Principle

But what is the relationship between this LP that Freud posited as the foundation of his work and that which we call ethics?
We know that Homo sapiens sapiens is different from the “lower” species since the latter act according to programs of behavior that are rigidly determined by their genes. When mating season arrives for birds, the mere sight of an individual of the opposite sex is enough to trigger the execution of the program: ritual courtship, behavior patterns that automatically lead to copulation, nest building, the raising and care of the young, etc. With the right external stimulus, the sequence proceeds until it encounters the endpoint, written in the bird’s DNA. These animals’ ethic, if we can call it that, is an automatism with minimal subjectivity.
Over the course of evolution, increasingly open programs are set up, in which genetic determinism becomes weaker. Higher mammals do not possess an inexorable program that assures their reproduction: for them, there is the strategy of pleasure. This does not predetermine, for example, a series of sexual behavior patterns; rather, it’s limited to motivating the animal. The individual must invent the ways and means for reaching coitus. The pleasure principle is therefore an expedient that pushes each primate, in particular, to come up with the strategies that make it possible for him or her to reproduce. But in the end, can the behavior—also the sexual behavior—of Homo sapiens be reduced to strategies of pleasure?
It is a fact that human beings do not always seek pleasure. Does even the ascetic who lives alone in the desert, or the suicide terrorist who voluntarily sacrifices his life for the Islamic cause, yearn for pleasure? The answer is not so obvious. Lacan distinguished between pleasure and enjoyment in order to show that even in actively seeking displeasure, one enjoys. Some would say that with anthropos evolution has taken a step closer towards flexibility, which at one time was called liberty. According to them, in going beyond pleasure, seeking more than pleasure, and doing without pleasure, the human being is basically searching for happiness. This is a state of mental well-being that is less bound to sensory enjoyment, something more ethereal than pleasure. The state of happiness is seen as being “higher” than the pleasurable sensations because it presupposes a liberty that animals, apparently, do not enjoy to the same extent. It is seen as a sign of the fact that human beings are partly free from the dominion or domination of pleasure. Pleasure is thus more connected to the realm of the senses, while happiness is more connected to the realm of the intelligible.
The Greeks discussed the connections between edoné and eudaimonia, between pleasure and happiness. Is eudaemonism a more “liberal” form of hedonism? For the eudaemonist, Don Juan and the hermit of antiquity who lived in the inhospitable Thebaid desert have something essential in common: they both aspire to happiness. Each of us may search for happiness in the most diverse and opposite forms compared to others: but no one can do otherwise than yearn for happiness. Thus, if man is not always a slave to pleasure, he is nevertheless always a slave to happiness. The search for happiness is therefore something essential to humanity.
If being happy or enjoying is the only true duty of human beings (if having to be happy or enjoying is the essence of his being), then the quest for happiness or enjoyment expresses the essence of a universal ethic, which is impossible to escape.

4. Enjoyment as Consolation

We could, however, see the relationship between ethics and pathos in a rather different way. Is ethics only an economic calculation for maximizing pleasure or happiness? The argument of the utilitarian is: “Whoever performs his own duty, even at the price of his own life or of great displeasure, does so because not doing it would lead to even greater suffering: thus the pleasure and/or happiness principle guides him in any case, even in the supreme sacrifice”. For this reason, the inevitable quest for happiness usually consists in avoiding being too unhappy.
But this point of view neglects an essential part of the ethical content: what counts for the utilitarian is that the ethical subject escapes a worse suffering, and not the fact that the subject is willing to pay a price for that enjoyment rather than for another. The utilitarian puts everything on the same plane, he levels the differences. He takes it for granted that the happiness the libertine enjoys after an orgy is basically the same as the happiness of one who sacrifices himself in an altruistic action; but does the fact that today we give a common name to these two sensations imply ipso facto that they are the same? Don’t we risk identifying two separate things simply because we have decided to give them the same name? Aren’t we confusing homonymy with an identity?
In reality, utilitarianism takes as an absolute goal something that is only a consolation: happiness and/or pleasure console us because we did what we had to do. In Naples, the phrase “me song’ cunsulato” (“I have consoled myself”) is used to express having enjoyed something—enjoyment consoles us of the pitiable condition in which we usually live. But is the fact that doing our duty—if the duty is worth something to us—gives us pleasure or happiness enough for us to conclude that we do our duty only in order to attain pleasure and happiness for ourselves? Rather, aren’t pleasure and happiness a prize for having done what we had to do? Hence we do not do our duty in order to be happy, even though doing our duty often makes us happy as a result. We could say, like the behaviorists, that pleasure and happiness reinforce our ethical mode of behaving.
The pleasure attained by the ethical act is not the aim of this act, but a reward, a treat. The ethical person aspires to do what should be done: a certain thing has to be done, even at the price of risking one’s own life. The sense of intimate satisfaction derived from carrying this out is a possible reward.
When we have carried out our duty, we feel satisfied in so far as we have conformed to our nomos. Nomoi, the norms, can differ from one person to another, from one culture to another, and from one period to another. But the question is whether every nomos can in turn be reduced to the principle of pleasure and/or happiness. This is the question that Freud asked himself, and it is the one truly great question—the rest is mere detail.

5. Beautiful, Sublime, Dada

Can we thus say with certainty that every human being, without exception, always necessarily seeks pleasure? Could there not exist at least one Kantian man—or a Kantian corner in every human being—who obeys the categorical imperative in the Kantian sense, and not the conditional imperative of pleasure?
Not coincidentally, Freud, starting from the utilitarian idea that the LP totally dominates human existence, was strongly impressed by masochism: does this not in fact contradict the assumption that human beings are slaves of pleasure?
Freud distinguishes three types of masochism: erotic, feminine and moral. Erotic masochism is the sexual perversion. Feminine masochism—which attains pleasure, even orgasm, by means of displeasure, which is a means and not an end—is found more typically in men than in women. Neither poses any serious problem for the theory, in as much as they are both ways, albeit contorted, of procuring pleasure for oneself. It is moral masochism, as we shall see, that is the real serious problem.
Kant had already dealt with an analogous question in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, albeit in an aesthetic context: in his analysis of the sublime as being distinct from the beautiful. By sublime Kant meant certain Romantic works of art that broke away from the criteria of the “fine arts”, such as the representation of tempestuous seas, and generally anything immense and without a precise form. The sublime covers the field of the unpleasant pleasure and the pleasurable displeasure. Kant distinguished between the “mathematical sublime”, which provokes a pleasure that displeases, and the “dynamic sublime”, which provokes a displeasure that pleases. We can say that perversions and neuroses are to “beautiful normality” just as, for Kant, the sublime is to the beautiful: triumphs of pleasure that nevertheless have to make room for an irreducible will to displeasure. The mathematical sublime, an untimely and impertinent pleasure, is the sublime that’s particular to neuroses: the pleasure experienced in fantasy leaves a sense of guilt, and thus displeases. The dynamic sublime is instead recognizable in masochism (and in perversions in general): here, the repetition of the unpleasurable act becomes the only condition for true pleasure.
But much more disturbing—and more difficult to explain by means of the lust principle—is moral masochism (MM). Here, it is not a case of obtaining the usual final pleasure by means of the winding and complicated route of pain—instead, it reveals a radical, unshakable bent towards unhappiness even more than towards displeasure. MM thus seems to go beyond the sublime–it appears rather more similar to Dadaism, which was intended not as sublime art, but as a form of anti-art, a non-art tout court. MM tends towards a breaking with the LP: it is a Dadaism of pleasure.

6. “The Economic Problem of Masochism”

Let us see how Freud confronts the radical challenge of MM in an essay of a dozen pages, The Economic Problem of Masochism (1924). He clearly says here that the enigma of masochism consists in the fact that masochistic displeasure is no longer a means for reaching pleasure, but is itself an aim: “the Lustprinzip is paralyzed—it is as though the watchman over our mental life were put out of action by a drug.” It should be noted how the LP is described here, not as a master of psychic life (later in the essay Freud says it’s a master of life in general), but simply as its watchman (Wächter): that which preserves and protects it. Biological life is protected by LP, which, like every watchman, is wise. And so this guardian is drugged and paralyzed: but by whom, and for what purpose?
Freud presents as the primary example of MM the negative therapeutic reaction: the refusal to overcome a neurosis despite analysis. For these patients, “the suffering entailed by neuroses is precisely the factor that makes them valuable [wertvoll] to the masochistic tendency” . The moral masochist does not simply renounce the pleasures of the flesh, nor does he wear a hair shirt in order to reach, like Saint Francis, the state of perfetta letizia (“perfect joy”): he secretly yearns for unhappiness. I would emphasize secretly: the subject does not know that he is seeking unhappiness, since he consciously continues to invoke the LP. As long as one keeps happiness as one’s ultimate—compulsory—aim along the path of displeasure, the LP is reaffirmed: but in the case of MM, it is precisely the aim of letizia (“joy”) that is missing.
Freud seems nevertheless to attempt to bring enigmatic masochism back within an economy of Lust, while vainly trying to defend his position within the psychical dialectic. In other words, he attempts to bring MM back to the erotic and feminine forms of masochism,–so tries, once again, to locate it within the LP. But he himself, just a few years earlier, had admitted that not everything in the psyche is subject to the principle or prince of pleasure. Isn’t Freud here backtracking with respect to the position he had already taken? Not exactly, because until the end Freud always tried to appeal to the mastery of Lust as much as and as far as it could be valid: what’s beyond the LP always remains a limit, a margin, something that exceeds. Freud therefore never renounced his own paradigm based on the LP: that which goes beyond it emerges as a limit or paradox of pleasure, and not as something that completely passes through it, breaks it, hinders it. Freud always keeps the LP as his fundamental interpretative rule: the beyond—the drives of life and death—always appears hiding between the lines. “The beyond” (the non-subjective) always remains an explicative ultimatum, never a primatum.

In fact, the moral masochist is not one who seeks pleasure through displeasure, but one who arranges things so as to be forever unsatisfied and unhappy. The mm is one for whom everything goes wrong, “the unlucky one”–for whom also analysis goes badly. “What matters is suffering in itself”, as Freud says:

I pointed out the sign by which such people [masochists] can be recognized (a ‘negative therapeutic reaction’)…. The satisfaction (Befriedigung) of this unconscious sense of guilt (Schuldgefühl) is perhaps the most powerful bastion in the subject’s (…) personal gain from illness—in the sum of forces which struggle against his recovery and refuse to surrender his state of illness. The suffering (Leiden) entailed by neuroses is precisely the factor that makes them valuable to the masochistic trend. It is instructive, too, to find, contrary to all theory and expectation, that a neurosis which has defied every therapeutic effort may vanish if the subject becomes involved in the misery of an unhappy marriage, or loses all his money, or develops a dangerous organic disease. In such instances one form of suffering has been replaced by another; and we see that all that mattered was that it should be possible to maintain a certain amount of suffering.

How can we once again locate these forms of life that aspire to suffering and not to happiness within the principle or mastery of Lust?
Freud’s first reply is that this suffering in some way satisfies something or someone in the subject. This suffering thus produces an enjoyment somewhere else: it satisfies an unconscious sense of guilt. But immediately after having proposed this term, Freud regrets it: the sense of guilt is in fact a feeling, an affect, and hence something conscious. The specificity of the mm consists, instead, precisely in not being conscious of this sense of guilt: how can one have a feeling of which one is not conscious? For this reason Freud prefers the term need for punishment (Strafbedürfnis): the need is something less subjective, indeed, something biological. MM nevertheless satisfies a need, but is this need ruled by the LP or not? And if it is ruled by the LP, why is it a case of need and not of desire or drive? And where does this need for punishment come from? In other words, who is the subject of this need?
Freud replies that this need for punishment can be divided into two needs. One is the sadistic need of the Super-Ego to punish and humiliate the subject; the other is the masochistic need of the Ego to be punished and humiliated. In this way a sado-masochistic idyll is created between two sides or instances of the subject: that famous meeting between the sadist and the masochist–which for Deleuze is impossible–is finally realized within subjectivity itself. MM would thus be a kind of perfect perverse love! In this way, once again, the scandalous search for suffering is brought back under the aegis of the LP: the final product—suffering—is the result of the composition of two enjoyments, one sadistic and the other masochistic.
This hypothesis allows Freud to say that MM is not moral at all: it is instead a sexualization of morality. Unlike perversions, it is not so much a way of using moral norms to obtain sexual pleasure, as an enjoyment of moral punishment as if it were a sexual satisfaction. In this way Freud tries yet once again to bring MM back within the rubric of perversions, even though it is not a case here of sexual behavior but of ways of being: according to Freud, precisely because the moral masochist avoids sexual satisfaction, he sexualizes his own life. He is thus a moral, rather than a sexual, pervert, precisely in so far as morality is here sexualized.
But for which fault must the Super-Ego—as the representative within the subject of the parents’ strict commands—punish the Ego? And what must the Ego, which masochistically enjoys being punished, atone for? Freud is reticent regarding this fault—supposed, imagined or unequal to the punishment, whatever it may be. One might say that it could be anything. Freud takes up a widespread conception typical of the positivist culture of his time. Like Jean Rostand (1983), he seems to think that “the moral is that which remains of fear when it has been forgotten”; in other words, the moral consists of the interiorized prohibitions of adults. If, when you were two years old, a parent shouted at you because you were making too much noise, this, too, is a fault to be expiated. In fact, the faults that appear trivial to adults can be perceived as capital sins by the child. But if this is the case, why don’t we all become moral masochists? What subjective quality is needed for a human being to continue, throughout his life, to atone for faults that are not even imaginary—Freud does not tell us whether this need for punishment is necessarily connected to specific fantasies—but that are instead trivial or even inexistent?

7. The Masochist’s Fault

How can we interpret today Freud’s silence regarding all of this? Personally, I think that by this silence Freud intended to have us think something that he perhaps could not say, which is that the true fault that the masochist must atone for is… being subject to the blows of morality. As in the case of Herr K., the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, the moral masochist is thus punished for a mysterious, perhaps inexistent, fault.
But is it true that the moral masochist is not guilty? Is a compulsion to repeat the original punishment—that which the parents inflicted on the child—enough to explain this entanglement, perhaps for a whole lifetime, despite many analytical treatments, in this self-punishing strategy? Is the reliance on the repetition compulsion—and thus on the death drive—not an elliptical way of saying that this repetition cannot be explained? Isn’t turning repetition into a drive an explicative mask for the fact of not being able—and perhaps not wanting—to explain masochism? In fact, the repetition drive also pushes us to repeat pleasure, perhaps also under compulsion, as in the case of drug addiction and sexual activism at any price. But in the case of MM, why does the repetition compulsion prefer to repeat the suffering? If renewing the same pleasure is itself sufficiently pernicious, why is this deadly repetition aggravated in some people by the reiteration of displeasure?
Perhaps we can try to break free from the impasse in which Freud finds himself by supposing that, possibly, the moral masochist really atones for a fault. In this case there would be no need to resort to the arbitrary sadistic enjoyment of the Super-Ego— a sort of deus ex machina that makes the theory work out satisfactorily, that brings the LP back to work. In fact, we see the punishing Super-Ego speaking in the first person in melancholia: the depressive subject who reproaches himself for terrible offences or inabilities, speaks from the position of a severe and pitiless judge. In melancholia, the Super-Ego is not unconscious, but speaks out loud: and we are also able to sense its enjoyment because something within the melancholic subject certainly enjoys maligning itself—it is the only enjoyment left to him.
Is MM thus an unconscious melancholia? Is it the neurotic form of melancholia? In this case, in fact, the Super-Ego does not speak out loud: Freud reads its supposed traces only in behavior. He posits the force of a sadistic Super-Ego that does not express itself in the first person. Yet, there is a dissymmetry between depression and MM. Freud tries to explain why, in melancholia, the Super-Ego attacks the Ego: it is because the latter has taken the place of the disappointing object, and so the Super-Ego attacks the object, the one who has disappointed the Ego. Somewhere, then, there has been an offence: depression is thus simply a mistake of identifying the subject of the offence and the object of punishment. In MM, instead, an offence, or fault, is not so clearly seen: one can only see sadistic and masochistic enjoyments. MM is Kafkaesque: the punishment can be seen, but not the crime. Where then could it be sought?
The following observation can put us on the right path: the moral masochist does not experience any remorse. The remorse and shame over the fault are the affective traces of repentance and thus of the offence which one regrets. Even the melancholic subject, in his own way, feels remorse, although it is rather the impassioned zeal of the censor that appears up front. It is as though the moral masochist never repents: he does not cease being punished, but he does not repent. After all, what should he repent for? But if Freud’s line of interpretation is nevertheless correct, what does the moral masochist not repent for? Clearly, a fault, even though we are perhaps unable to say what this might be in each and every case: it is therefore necessary to analyze them individually. But, for the cases in general, what characteristics must this fault have in order to become the cause of masochistic self-punishment?

8. The Fault is against the Other

We must therefore ask ourselves: what essentially is a fault, beyond the differences between our moral codes? A question of this nature is complementary to another philosophical question: what is, in general, a moral norm for a subject? One who is guilty or sins is one who does not meet the standards of the norm, whether it be one’s own or that of one’s social group.
All of the commandments that we consider to be ethical—for example, the Ten Commandments—turn, in fact, on a single, essential point: the other person matters. The animal automatisms of the lower species—precisely because they are not subject to the LP—are basically schematic relations with others of our same species. But in human beings, besides such automatisms, there is not just the LP: there are also moral rules, because ethics essentially regards my relationship with my fellow beings. In some cultures the fellow being is my countryman, in others it is every human being, and in yet others also animals. The Law tells me that, if the other is a fellow being, I must not kill him, rob him, or use him sexually without his consent; I must not harm him by bearing false witness, nor desire his woman or cow; I must not insult him/her if s/he is my father or my mother. If the other is God, I have to recognize that He is mine, that I cannot worship others, that I must not use His name in vain, and that I must honor Him on the holy days. Ethics always regards the other and the Other: it tells me that his/her subjectivity (that which loves and hates, that which thinks and wishes) regards me. Hence, to be guilty, in any culture, always means lacking respect towards the other: using him as an object, an instrument, and not treating him as the other-than-me with whom I maintain normatively reciprocal relationships.
But how should we consider the “Puritan” commandments, such as those prohibiting fornication or masturbation? Where is the concern for the other? Even in the these norms that concern only the subject—from which modern ethics is trying to free itself—the interest in the other and for the other is nevertheless evident: for the Judeo-Christian culture of the Ten Commandments, in fact, sex does not belong to the individual, but rather, to the wife and the husband. In their austere moral systems, certain erotic activities are forbidden, not in order to make life more difficult for the single person, but because they conceive of the body as essentially belonging to God and loaned, so to speak, to the spouse. To use our sex selfishly is to defraud the other, the legitimate owner of our sex. In fact, sexual fidelity is also required in our modern secular culture of free love, which remains essentially monogamous. Not by chance do we still say, when one part of the couple is unfaithful, that s/he cheated on the other: simply being a couple implies a right to sexual exclusivity. Thus, in every culture the limits and territory of the other vary, but the ethical quality of a command or norm always implies a relationship to the other.
In the essay, Freud writes, “the super-ego is as much a representative [Vertreter] of the id as of the external world” . However, this external world (Aussenwelt) is above all the world of others, the social oikos in which we dwell. The others, the external world, the social life—of which our parents are the interpreters—are what limit us from the outstet, are what oblige and constrain us. In the end, we are “good persons” to the extent that we adopt the moral rules of our environment as our own. In other words, what Freud calls the Super-Ego is the eroticized figure of the other’s transcendentality, with whom we accept to share a social bond.
Freud gave the name of Eros, or the life drive, to this transcendental inclination of me the subject: this going towards the other, not considered as an instrument for my own satisfaction, but in order to make me one with him. Eros is making the other the finality of my subjectivity. Eros—the primacy of the other—is the genuine Beyond of the LP because at this point my subjective enjoyment ceases to be my own rule: “Make the other enjoy” now becomes my rule. Clearly, it is precisely this that is lacking for the moral masochist: he is not able to enjoy because he lacks erotic transcendence, he does not live in relationship to the other’s enjoyment. He lives only in the LP, and so he does not have a “cause” to live for. From this derives his inevitable suffering.
What Freud sees as a moral machine—the Super-Ego that punishes the Ego—is probably the cost that the subject has to pay when he renounces… doing what he has to do. When a subject’s norm concerns only pleasure, without considering the fact that doing what one has to do gives pleasure, then one is hurrying towards death, and from this derives Freud’s idea that masochism is revelatory regarding the death drive. The moral masochist “atones for” the fact that he does not do that which he has to do, which is to live in a world in which the other is my cause. Because only if the other counts for me, can I count as an other regarding myself: only in this case can the subject count on himself since he is the other who counts for himself. Let us call this importance given to others—including oneself as another—having a cause. This is a significant term: the cause that causes us to live—whether it be redeeming the world from misery or ardently desiring that our favorite football team wins the cup—is the cause, both efficient and final, of our pleasure in living. MM is not being the subject of a lost cause, but having lost any cause.
Is the suffering that the subject inflicts upon himself an unwitting form of punishment? But the language of punishment is a “partisan” language: in fact, the punishment is recognized as such only by one who has repented. He who does not repent—since he does not recognize his actions as blameworthy—does not belong to the same side or part, to the same party; instead, he experiences the punishment as a form of abuse on the part of others, or as a misfortune, a mere price to be paid. The moral masochist, in fact, does not feel punished: he lives like one damned. In other words, for him the punishment is not lived: it is like an automatism. But what does this automatism consist in?
Let’s first ask ourselves a question: What, on the contrary, makes us happy? We usually feel happy when we feel in harmony, in a relationship that accords, with the nomos we adhere to: when we feel that we are doing what we have to do. Even for the smallest things: if I have decided that shaving myself every morning is my duty, the mere fact of carrying out this duty gives me a certain satisfaction. If I am an Islamic fundamentalist, following the jihad at the risk of being killed gives me satisfaction: I have done what I had to do. Even if I allow myself some pleasures I can be happy, for example, if I have sex with the person I love: I have again done what I had to do. But, in all of these cases, this nomos implies the other: I have to do that which I have to do for others. The tranquil happiness that implies conformity with a nomos, which means living to make the other happy—including the other which I am for myself—is for this very reason excluded in MM.
Erotic masochism stages one’s exclusion from coitus, and thus from the enjoyment of others. The scene of this painful exclusion becomes the erotic scene par excellence for the masochist. The moral masochist instead brings onto the scene his own exclusion from the relationship with others: but the repetition of this exclusion only gives him marginal enjoyment; it only gives him a paradoxical moral triumph.
We can therefore understand why the moral masochist cannot escape suffering: he basically does not recognize this nomos. Ethical happiness is forbidden to him, and so he experiences it as suffering. When he is not in fact troubled by real problems, neurosis takes their place. But the neurosis consists in the very fact that, for him, the other does not have any meaning: he or she has no ethical weight. In short, the moral masochist atones for his excessive fidelity to the LP. He does not abandon himself to Eros, which is the risky opening of oneself to the other: an opening which delays death, though often at the risk of bringing it closer.

9. Subject to Ethics

Human ethics substitutes genetically determined animal automatisms: it is not only pleasure, but also ethics, which make men and women do what they have to do, in order to be like other animals. Ethics, in Homo sapiens, compensates for the excessive liberalism of his DNA, and in this sense it is itself an effect of this very DNA. If the search for enjoyment leads us to seek food and urges us to copulate or to fight territorial invaders, the ethical nomos regulates our relations with others. Ethics thus turns out to be, in the final analysis, almost as efficient as genetic programming in subjugating the individual. Homo sapiens needs the complex machine of language and cultural and ethical symbols in order to reach the same result, to become… an animal. Human beings are not only slaves to pleasure and happiness, but also to ethics. The Freudian theory of the Super-Ego is moreover a cunning device for connecting Lust and ethics; for demonstrating the lustig origins of ethics and for demonstrating how Lust becomes ethicized.
From this perspective, the Super-Ego should therefore be seen, not simply as an instance that expresses more or less pressing moral norms, but also as the fundamental principle that expresses the principle: “Others exist!” After all, isn’t this what our own parents said to us, whether explicitly or not, when they reprimanded us for our various mistakes? “Pay attention to the kind man! Don’t disturb the lady! Don’t make your little sister cry!” The Super-Ego certainly represents the repressive violence of the outside world, in the sense of Sartre’s famous phrase “l’enfer c’est les autres”: “Hell is other people.” It is in living with others, in relation to others, aiming at others, that we recognize our lives as infernal—even though, thanks to this hell, we can get some enjoyment. The moral masochist is he who tries to escape from this inferno: he who refuses to be determined by others.
This probably explains the checkmate of analysis in the case of MM. Those persons whom Freud called moral masochists are probably those who were later classified as narcissistic personalities: subjects for whom the other is not a norm. Analysis fails with them because the analyst needs to be ethically invested as Other: the analytical relationship in fact needs to become a shared nomos. But this is exactly what does not occur with the moral masochist: the other does not count and hence analysis does not count either.
What I have stated has, on a concrete—or perhaps symptomatic—level, a certain correspondence to the changes in analytical practice today. In psychoanalysis we can see various signals of an increased awareness of the limits of interpretation (which is inseparable from the LP), of representative phantasmagoria, of language: in short, of a subjectivist vision of subjectivity. The predominance of interpretation—according to which the analyst is one who interprets analytically—was theoretically justified by the prevalence of a hermeneutic mentality, of the idea that Homo sapiens is above all an interpreting animal. Thus, the analyst interprets neither more nor less than does any other subject, or unconscious, or culture. He does nothing other than let good interpretations intrude upon the bad interpretations of neurotic existence. The key to Freudian interpretation was nevertheless Freud’s original metaphysical assumption: the LP. Interpreting thus meant leading the subject to recognize how certain factors, certain desires, were satisfied—how they became subject to the LP.
It seems to me that the growing skepticism towards interpretations originates from the fact that the human being is also considered an ethical animal; that is, that Homo sapiens does not limit itself to playing strategies of mastery in order to tame the real, the traumas, the other, the object, gaining as much pleasure as possible (or minimizing the displeasure that all this could inflict upon him). Mankind also has an ekstatic inclination towards the real. The real, as horrible as it is—above all when it consists of man’s fellow beings—seduces him, and this is what Freud tries to say by means of ancient figures. Eros is the Platonic name that Freud gave to the ethical impulse because, beyond the various historical vicissitudes, what we today call ethics is just our “realization” of the other in as much as he is truly other, in himself and for himself, and thus incapable of being reduced to our own representation. Interpreted today, the Beyond of the LP is just this: even if a part of our subjectivity tends to transform the real and the other into representations (in order to appropriate it, make use of it, enjoy it, dominate it), there is, however, something in us that cannot be content or satisfied with this. There is something in the subject that puts it outside of itself—in enjoyment and/or in horror; and these sentiments are interesting in as much as they mark this care (Sorge) for the other to whom each of us, some more and others less, feels consigned.

English version in collaboration with Tristram Bruce and Marcel Sima Lieberman


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