What Has Been Lost
In a clinic of child loss, Freudian and Lacanian principles orient the psychoanalyst. The death drive, is heard quite clearly in listening to a mother who mourns her lost child. So too are these signifiers of death; especially a death that represents a loss of potential, of the future. There is no cultural reference for the sudden and unexpected loss of a child in a parent’s life. So too this is true in cases of war; in Freud’s time and ours; life proves itself to be defined by its transience.
Freud’s 1916 paper, “On Transience”, takes place in the midst of a time of mourning during what was then called the Great War. At the time, two of Freud’s children were serving in the war, on the side of Central Powers, in the service of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Freud (1916) writes of a conversation with a friend of his, an unnamed poet. Freud sets the scene as follows:
Some time ago, in the company of a silent friend and a young, already well-known poet, I took a walk through a flourishing summer landscape. The poet admired the beauty of nature around us, but without enjoying it. He was bothered by the thought that all this beauty was destined to die away, that it would have vanished in the winter, but so would every human beauty and all the beauty and nobility that men have created and could create. Everything he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him devalued by the transience for which it was fated.
In a clinic of the loss of children, this transience comes to bear quite suddenly. The death of an infant, a still birth, a miscarriage…though the span of the life of these may be measured from months to moments, each moment is remembered painfully, and with clarity; perhaps burning all the more brightly in the minds of the mother who still treasures this lost child, no matter how brief her time as a mother to that child was. As Freud (1916) states: “A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely.”
Today, our world rages with war again, in which the lives of people’s children will be forfeit to state politics. Sergio Benvenuto (2022) writes in “Psychoanalysis in the War: A Debate with Russian Colleagues”, of the current situation of the war between Russia and the Ukraine that:
Psychoanalysis is not done on the moon, but on the earth. The psychoanalyst is also a citizen, and lives in the same society as his analysands. Furthermore, I’m convinced – in the wake of Lacan – that psychoanalysis is not a neutral technique of treatment, but is based on an ethical approach to subjectivity. Psychoanalysis is first of all an ethical cure, and in this sense it has a political dimension.
Psychoanalysis is of course an ethical cure, but also one subject to politics; in the case of psychoanalytic politics, it is the politics of transference, and of social bond with other psychoanalysts, as Jacques Lacan laid down in the foundational documents of the School.
I recently spoke with a friend and colleague who is a native of Russia about the aforementioned paper, and some of the other’s recently published by the European Journal of Psychoanalysis. This colleague is also a psychoanalyst in the Lacanian orientation, and, though a member of a different Lacanian association than the one I am, we find common cause and fraternity. I let him know I was writing such a response to these papers, and he expressed interest in my response noting that: “It would be interesting to read a piece by an analyst with actual military service” (Personal Correspondence, 2022).
This is perhaps a unique position to occupy in terms of the recognition of the transience Freud speaks about. As an analyst who directs psychoanalytic cures in a clinic of grief, and loss I am accustomed to hearing about the untimely and unfair death of people’s children – very often children that are not even given the chance to live. Much of the response to this is of trauma, of questioning symbolically-why me? Am I a bad mother to allow my child to die? This is one way I orient myself in viewing the war between Russia and the Ukraine. There has already been, and will continue to be, many mothers lamenting the unfair and premature death of their children, taken senselessly – not by an accident, or a faulty biological response, but by the blind idiot fury of war.
Intersecting this is the idea that one serves in the military at the direction of the state; and that though that service may have been taken up for reasons Freud (1921) named in his Massenpsychologie, of service to the flag or leader, it is just as often to provide for one’s family, or for some meager educational or social benefit to be rendered at the completion of service. There will always be the zealous patriots who are happy to do the master’s bidding in any army; but just as often it runs on the blood of young men and women whose only crime is wanting a better life than the one they had in the rural American South, or the Khrushchoba’s of Russia, themselves both troughs of intergenerational poverty and violence, where the only way out is in a pine box or a uniform. Sometimes the difference is not so clear, in the end.
It is in this way that these two intersect; in the end the price of state conflict is the blood of the young on each side, so unfairly taken before their time; everyone is someone’s child, and, as such, was once the object of their mother’s desire in some way.
From the unconscious knowledge that death is the end of all things, two impulses can emanate. The first is the impulse of the young poet in Freud’s paper; engendered by a certain weariness with the world…a living death. In many ways this has become more common since the First and Second World Wars that ravaged the globe; a major disillusionment of those who have fallen away from the social bond of life which has become generalized today. This in turn gives rise to the conflicts we see again today.
The other impulse is to deny that one’s loved objects (and oneself) are transient, and finite. “No,” Freud writes, “it is impossible that all these glories of nature and of art, …should really melt into nothing” (1916). It is the seeming senselessness of these conflicts that is tempting to give into today, a kind of resignation, and a derecognition of the humanity of the other; of the one who stands across from you on the battlefield. We see this play out in the micro level in the splits of various schools of thought within the Lacanian orientation, and, far more tragically, in the wars that play out not just today in the Ukraine, but in Palestine, and Yemen.
I will return once more to Freud’s remarks in “On Transience”, about the Great War, but which are applicable in these cases of mourning and grief, as well as perhaps today.
Mourning, as we know, however painful it may be, comes to a spontaneous end…when once the mourning is over…we shall build up again all that has…[been] destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before. (Freud, 1916)
Benvenuto, S. (2022). Psychoanalysis in the war: A debate with Russian colleagues. European Journal of Psychoanalysis.
Freud, S. (1916). On transience. SE 14: 305–307.
Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE 18.
Michael McAndrew is a Lacanian psychoanalyst in formation from Denver, Colorado. He is a member of the Colorado Analytic Forum of the Lacanian Field, and a member of the School of Psychoanalysis of the Forums of the Lacanian Field. Michael is currently a fellow in psychoanalytic thought at the Greater Kansas City and Topeka Psychoanalytic Center.