The Unpleasure Principle: Freud’s Early Itineraries of the Symptom


This paper considers the staying and straying of early Freudian itineraries of the symptom, as they pass through the brambles of the classically delineated neuroses of defense – obsessional neurosis, paranoia, and hysteria. The author hypothesizes a relationship between the current DSM diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and the hysteric’s reckoning with the rim of the traumatic void via boundary ideas, and concludes with a hope for a poetics of the return that would swerve out of the fast lane of pathological aberration, to meet and greet the late aromas of the thorn roses of historical contingency.

In “Draft K: The Neuroses of Defence,” Freud presents a refreshingly parsimonious structural basis for the diagnosis of neurotic conditions.  If the acronym for the DSM could time travel back to 1892, it might come to retroactively stand for something like a Dialectical Structural Modality.  Through a painstakingly precise, elegantly brief presentation of three preponderant pathological deviations from normal affective states – obsessional neurosis, paranoia, and hysteria – Freud concludes that ultimately “the course taken by the illness in neuroses of repression is in general always the same” (Freud, 1892a, p. 222).  If the course stays the same, and if we in turn stay the course, what gives when normal, harmless affective states steer into the wilderness of pathological aberration – when self-reproach turns to obsessional neurosis, when mortification turns to paranoia, and when conflict turns to hysteria (Freud, 1892a, p. 221)?  For Freud, the difference that twists and braids the otherwise abstractly monovalent, isomorphic course (the running of the drome of the syndrome) can be accounted for by the “way in which repressed ideas return,” and the “fashion in which the repression is accomplished” (Freud, 1892a, p. 223).

While it can be difficult to identify the agency responsible for the return of the repressed, the “fashion” of the repression, or more simply, the choice of illness, can be attributed to the conscious pilot of the suffering subject.  Freud insists that while ‘“gradations between the normal and extreme case” can be attributed to heredity, “the choice of the particular defensive neurosis” cannot be unilaterally determined by genetic codes (Freud, 1892a, p. 221).  Choosing one’s illness is an overdetermined process that involves historical contingencies that impinge upon genetic determinations in surprising ways. Freud’s emphasis on the elective fashion of accomplishing the task of repression enables us to chart the destiny of the symptom as an idiosyncratic solution to the problem of affect, rather than as a categorical description based on clusters, such as we find in the current iteration of the DSM, which is more diagnostic than dialectical, more statistical than structural, and more manual than modal.

Freud begins his structural elaboration of the neuroses by mapping out the generic four phases of the pathological excursion which is held in common in all cases of neurotic illness.  First, there is an unpleasant, premature, infantile sexual experience. This inaugural experience of unpleasure, however, remains within the range of normal affective experience.  It is not yet considered harmful or worthy of traumatic response.  Freud confesses that he is incapable of definitively accounting for the etiology of the experience of unpleasure, and suggests enigmatically that the “neighborhood” of the sexual organs is “naturally” conducive to experiences of unpleasure.  The inevitable incursion of unpleasure is simply a matter of having been allocated bad real estate by capricious nature.  Sexuality’s gloomy, mysterious neighbor would later come to bear the stain of conscience, and still later, it would come to be cast in the shadows of the looming, whip wielding superegoic taskmaster.  From the get go, sex and shame, genitals and fig leafs, were bedfellows unhappily ever after.  The softest double bed they could to find to accommodate their eternal embrace was the bedrock of castration, complete with an adjustable navel of indeterminacy. Freud similarly leaves the question of the chronological relation of primary experiences of pleasure and unpleasure as an unripe riddle that can be solved only by allowing it to remain a riddle, with the following proud, disclaimer: “The clinical determinants and chronological relations of pleasure and unpleasure in the primary experience are still unknown to me (Freud, 1892a, p. 226).”

Nevertheless, the subprime real estate of the sexual organs alone does not suffice to deliver sexual experience to the fate of pathology.  Freud assures us that so long as the memory or thought of this first experience of unpleasure is not refreshed with a further experience of unpleasure, it will remain innocuous.  Time needs to pass for trauma to take effect and for the emergency troops to be rushed to the scene of a scream that is seen.  We heard it, at first, but we didn’t see it, so we couldn’t say it yet.  The seen scream of the scene triggers anxiety’s 911 hub to dispatch fear rations. We shift from parasympathetic feed and breed to sympathetic fight or flight.  There is no time to dwell on the sagging loveseats of cozy conjunctions. It’s you OR me.  Speak now or forever hold your violent piece of non-violent peace.  Speech or guns in the service of periodic emergency? Speech, I beg of you, as guns would bestow upon periodic emergencies a chronic status, with no vanishing point of refreshment in sight.

Once a fresh, contemporary experience of unpleasure becomes associated with the originally unpleasant infantile sexual experience, thanks to manual puppetry masquerading as randomized lottery, it becomes a sick enough candidate for repression.  Only then, on the occasion of the second instance of unpleasure, are the Oedipal byproducts of “shame and morality” proudly officially deployed by the surgically cruel, perversely vindictive superego – the lovechild spawned of road rage at the crossroads and incestuous wishes in the court (Freud, 1892a, p. 221).  With unabashed indignation, the superego flagrantly casts a persecutory shadow on the arc of traumatic memory and forces the ego to bear this shadow as a perennial stain, subjecting it to the curse of the unconscious from which no spot shall ever be bleached into oblivion; it was fashionably late to the party, and it is going to make the shriveled ego pay for it.  The superego will salvage something from its fear of missing out on the traumatic action, and display its loot as trophy.

The upshot of the superego’s party pooping, shadow-stain drama is the forcing of the ego to assume a cozy masochistic role that would complement its brash sadistic role. As partners in crime, the comorbid shenanigans of the ego and the superego paradoxically support the present of an illusion – the semblance of a law that keeps the idiocy of the id in check. The ego’s masochism takes on the subtle, surreptitious form of the repressive function – otherwise benign unpleasure is transformed into intolerable disgust, and disgust is dismissed with disdain. Disdain with regard to disgust memorializes ephemeral experiences of unpleasure by erecting a litigious monument in the conflictual space afforded by the interval of traumatic time that stretches uncomfortably between shameless and shameful unpleasure.  This vexed monument simultaneously announces and represses, swallows up and spits out, the content of the original experience.

What is the purpose of erecting phalli in honor of the epic arrival of the superego who was already in bed with us from the time of the cradle, who will walk us through trials by fire of adolescent crucibles, and finally escort us to the grave on the other side of the mirror?

Repression makes a deliberate layer cake of a spontaneous torte, and constitutes the second phase of the course of the neurotic illness, during which the primary symptom forms.  Of this second phase, Freud states that “its (the original experience of unpleasure) repression on some later occasion arouses the memory of it; at the same time the formation of a primary symptom (Freud, 1892a, p. 222).” Freud will once again refer to the primary symptom when he describes the third phase, to which he attributes “a successful defence, equivalent to health except for the existence of the primary symptom,” which forms in excess of health.

The primary symptom serves a dual purpose as both a first line of defense against a passive primary experience of unpleasure, and the first marker of a “pathological aberration” from “normal psychical affective states.” Here we might pause to consider the implications of Freud’s qualifications of a primary state of passivity, and normal states of conflict, self-reproach, mortification, and mourning.  He explicitly associates passivity with the feminine position, and one might infer that he correspondingly associates normality with the masculine position – pitting feminine vulnerability against epic masculine conflicts ranging from hatred of the humiliated self to mourning of the lost other.  In order to not stay a woman, we must become a crippled man.  We shall never fully achieve the manhood of the boss, the godfather, or the father of the primal horde.  We are fated to succumb to the ordinary neurotic misery of endlessly laboring to man up, against the fear of womanning down.  The loftiest goal of a woman might be to paint away her pores.

And yet, aside from serving as a defense against the failure of a woman to become a man, the primary symptom simultaneously serves as a marker – a diligent bookkeeper rendering suffering legible.  By calculating the fall out of damages incurred by way of a falling together, the symptom affords its host the power to ascertain the presence of otherwise nebulous threats, and enables the ego to channel thoughts into defensive action in accordance with what it is inclined to believe is favorable to its survival as an idiomatic constancy caught in the drift of worlding.  The ego strives to resiliently utilize inevitable “alterations of the ego” in order to minimize the risk of malformation.

In the fourth and final phase, the repressed ideas return and in “the struggle between them and the ego, new symptoms are formed which are those of the illness proper: that is, a stage of adjustment, of being overwhelmed, or of recovery with a malformation (Freud, 1892a, p. 222).” These new symptoms include three further species of symptom beyond the first primary symptom: “Compromise symptoms of the return,” “secondary symptoms of the defense,” and “symptoms of the overwhelming of the ego (Freud, 1892a, p. 228).”

In the case of obsessional neurosis, the first three species of symptom manifest in response to a primary experience of self-reproach: “(a) the primary symptom of defence – conscientiousness (b) the compromise symptoms of the illness – obsessional ideas or affects, (c) the secondary symptoms of defence – obsessional brooding, obsessional hoarding, dipsomania, obsessional ceremonials (Freud, 1892a, p. 225).” Obsessional neurotics are spared the fourth species of symptom, though they are cursed to eternally repeat the cycle from primary, to compromise, to secondary symptom and back again – forever encircling the trivialized surrogate for the repressed idea – multiplying the number of secondary symptoms of defense indefinitely – leaving the subject to fend the fending – hopscotching frantically along the “chain of inference” – in the throes of a diffuse “general doubting mania (Freud, 1892a, p. 225).” The surrogacy that is the hallmark of obsessional neurosis entails a both chronological displacement and a distortion of ideational content and affective tonality.

By contrast, in the case of paranoia, the symptom travels by means of transposition, rather than by means of surrogacy.  In “Draft H: Paranoia” Freud describes transposition as “the abuse of the mechanism of projection for the purposes defence,” and notes that “the subject matter remains unaffected; what is altered is something in the placing of the whole thing (Freud, 1892b, p. 208).” The outward transposition of the whole results in a new delusional recrystallization of the same subject matter, which is maintained with “the same energy” previously dedicated to the original crystallization.  Still, “something” is altered in the “placing” that is not merely the placing itself, or the organization of the parts in relation to the whole.  There is a gestural transformation such that the delusional ideas, having been transposed from the originally distressing, subsequently repressed ideas, allude, rather than refer to their corresponding subject matter.  Consequently, attention toward insinuation via gesture and tonality are particularly significant to the sensorium of the paranoiac.

To the extent that the primary experience of the paranoiac is that of withholding belief from self-reproach, belief is relegated to the “full command of the compromise symptoms (Freud, 1892a, p. 227).” Where the obsessive neurotic experiences alienation from the obsessive ideas, the paranoiac, by contrast, reinvests the belief the obsessive maintains in relation to his primary experience of self-reproach, in the transposed delusional ideas.  The primary symptom transposes from self-reproach of the self, to distrust of the other, or what Freud euphemistically, parenthetically refers to as “sensitiveness to other people (Freud, 1892a, p. 226).”

The compromise symptoms, constituted by the return of the repressed in the form of delusional ideas, manifests as visual and auditory hallucinations, where visual hallucinations correspond to repressed ideas, and auditory hallucinations correspond to suppressed affects.  Freud notes that the auditory hallucinations are particularly prominent for the paranoiac, and tend to occur as threatening voices with shifting diction and an “indefinite” quality.  By contrast, obsessional ideas occur beneath a film of apparent indifference – as if they had no motive or meaning (Freud, 1909, p. 184). The secondary defense manifests as “assimilatory delusions,” which are “hostile to the ego” but “friendly to the defense (Freud, 1892b, p. 211).” The paranoiac experiences these assimilatory delusions as if they were fully integrated with his ego.  By contrast, the obsessional remains alienated from the flitting obsessional ideas he skates precariously upon.

The fourth species of symptom – the “symptoms of the overwhelming of the ego” – which is markedly absent from the obsessional neurotic’s repertoire, manifests as “alterations of the ego,” the seeds of which are planted by the “assimilatory delusions.” These alterations of the ego are damaging, and culminate in either the shriveling of the ego in melancholia, where the belief which had been withheld from the self-reproach of the primary experience conveniently attaches to the distortions of the compromise symptoms, or the “protective delusions” of megalomania, where the ego undergoes complete remodeling (Freud, 1892a, p. 227). Whether the ego subtracts itself from the delusional palace of distortions, or occupies this palace as its incumbent king, the scaling up or scaling down of the ego results in a rigidification of the retained subject matter in its conflation of content with magnitude.

Finally, in the case of hysteria, “the primary symptom is the manifestation of fright accompanied by a gap in the psyche (Freud, 1892a, p. 228).” The tension caused by the primary experience of unpleasure is so unbearable that the ego is incapable of resisting it by means of the formation of any species of psychical symptom.  This experience of fright in the gap resembles what Freud would later theorize as the “anxiety equivalent” in his 1895 paper “On the grounds for detaching a particular syndrome from neurasthenia under the description ‘anxiety neurosis.’” Here Judith Mitrani (1992) elaborates on Freud’s “anxiety equivalent,” emphasizing the distinction between the unmentalized non-psychical somatic symptom of an actual or anxiety neurosis, and the conversion symptom of hysteria which involves a “physical representation of a psychical transformation”:

In the case of the anxiety neurosis, or “actual” neurosis, the somatic symptom results from physical sensations which have been denied access to the psychic apparatus – sensory experiences which have failed to be mentalized – whereas in hysterical conversion, psychic stimulation induced by conflict is repressed, i.e., banished to expression in a physical organic symptom.  In either case, Freud cited “a psychical insufficiency, as a consequence of which abnormal somatic processes arise.” He suggested that in both, “instead of a psychical working-over of the excitation, a deflection of it occurs into the somatic field (Freud, 1895).” The distinction Freud makes here is of paramount importance, in that hysterical conversion is seen by him as a subtype of repression in which the organic symptom is a physical representation of a psychic transformation, while the organic symptom of anxiety neurosis is understood as a direct expression of unmentalized somato-sensory excitation (p. 71).

While a distinction between actual or anxiety neurosis and hysterical conversion is useful, I venture to propose that the anxiety equivalent applies to both, to the extent that it forms the nucleus of the hysterical disorder and inaugurates the trajectory of the symptom which begins, rather than ends, with the overwhelming of the ego.  In this moment of fright, it becomes impossible to establish psyche-soma border control as psyche and soma are indistinguishable in this gap of “psychical insufficiency.” The ego is overwhelmed before it even has a chance to put up a fight against fright.  What we have instead of a psychical proliferation of obsessional or delusional ideas is what Freud refers to enigmatically as “the intensification of the boundary idea.” Where there might have been border control, there is instead an accentuated boundary which simultaneously belongs to the ego and the “undistorted portion of the traumatic memory.” This is the compromise symptom of the hysteric, and is experienced as a displacement not of content, but of “attention along a series of ideas linked by temporal simultaneity (Freud, 1892a, p.229).” If in anxiety neurosis there is no access to psyche, at least in hysteria the formation and intensification of a boundary might foster the development of a language of the body by means of attention to a cartography of the time of primal trauma.  Perhaps the DSM diagnosis of borderline personality disorder could be viewed as an attempt to reckon with this transition from the anxiety equivalent to vigilance at the rim of the traumatic void.

Having tracked the itineraries of the symptom through the neuroses of defense, I am left to wonder how compromise symptoms constituted by obsessional, delusional, and boundary ideas might swerve out of the fast lane to the malformation of the ego, and freely forge sublimated detours that would tear through obsessive brambles, paranoid edifices, and hysterical fences, promising no return on the ego’s masochistic investment in compensatory mastery.  Perhaps a poetics of the return, an idiomatic bearing of reminiscences, could take root as an ad hoc species of compromise formation that would refrain from donating its fossilized body to the ceaseless shadow puppetry of an eternally impoverished ego.


Freud, S.:

–  (1892a) Draft K: The Neuroses of Defence from Extracts from the Fliess Papers.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, I (1886-1899): Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts, pp. 220-229.

–   (1892b) Draft H: Paranoia from Extracts From The Fliess Papers.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, I (1886-1899): Pre-Psycho-Analytic Publications and Unpublished Drafts, pp. 206-212.

–   (1909) “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis”,  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, X (1909): Two Case Histories (‘Little Hans’ and the ‘Rat Man’), pp. 151-318.


Mitrani, J.  (1995) “Toward an understanding of Unmentalized Experience”,  Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 64, pp. 68-112.

Publication Date:

November 24, 2019 

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis