Interview with Sergio Benvenuto by Natalia Ulko

For issue 1 of the Russian Edition of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, edited in Kiev, Ukraine

Carried out in the International Institute of Depth Psychology, Kiev, December 2012


Second part


Natalia Ulko. There is an idea that our society is narcissistic by nature. The motto of such a society is: I have to be in his/her place and all those desires that he has should be my desires, I should enjoy in the same way as the other enjoys. The epoch of the so-called “Blue Bird” (the dream) – this is a very typical Russian and Ukrainian expression – was replaced by the era of the “Golden Calf” (money). The subject does not want to wish, the subject wants to enjoy.Do you think that there is a threat of satiation with pleasure for society? Is this the reason for the growth of various psychopathologies, or for chronic depression?Which is it: the subject cannot wish or the subject is angry with himself for the loss of the possibility to wish?


Sergio Benvenuto. In fact, since American essayist Christopher Lasch’s book The culture of Narcissism of 1979 – that draws on psychoanalytical theories – many have claimed that today’s Western society is fundamentally narcissistic.

Nowadays, many philosophers and psychologists claim that contemporary culture is very permissive, that it advocates an immediate enjoyment of goods. We often quote an expression by Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: the liquid society.  Many think we no longer have any solid bases and values to orient our lives, this is why our basic commandment today is “enjoy!” Many denounce that in this liquid society we have emptied Eros – desire. Personally, I believe this is a cliché. I would say that our society is only in appearance liquid: we all have a very solid faith in liquid assets…

If we take into account Plato’s Dialogues, for instance, we will see that, even back then, the philosopher reproached common people because they experienced too much enjoyment, while the philosopher – and the élite of superior spirits – instead of enjoying, would always desire. Socrates said of himself that he was always in love – but he would not have sex with the boys, eromenoi, he desired.

For centuries we have thought that we can get enjoyment from four possessions: money (“the liquid”), sex and/or love, power, knowledge. The superior man, since Ancient Greek times, was he who could give up enjoying all these things, including knowledge, since the philosopher can only know what he does not know, that is, he always courts the truth, but never captures it.

Furthermore, I am not sure whether people from present day Western societies are more neurotic or depressed than in the past. Some studies, historical as well as epidemiologic, seem to refute this widespread idea. Certainly, in our society we can detect a pervasive uneasiness – sometimes indefinable – described by Freud in his essay “Civilization and its Discontent”, Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. Incidentally, it seems that this is Freud’s most read essay in the world. Freud’s explanation of this Unbehagen, this discontent, or uneasiness, is no longer convincing nowadays. He says that this discount was linked to a higher repression of sexuality, but we now know – also thanks to Freud’s book – that this is no longer the case. And we no longer believe, as was thought in Freud’s time, that Kultur, Civilization, is something different from uncivil or wild or barbarian societies. Our anthropological relativism has convinced us that all societies, even the most primitive, are Kulturen, “cultures” we say in English. This is why Freud’s essay should be re-named today Das Unbehagen in der Gesellschaft, The Society and Its Discontent. This is the real key for the historical success of this Freudian paper: here Freud’s subtext says that the mere fact of living in a society gives us a certain kind of dissatisfaction. This is why psychoanalysis cannot promote a society where we can all obtain happiness and satisfaction. Psychoanalysts actually takes care of the wounded members of all societies, even of the happiest ones. And each society wounds, injures certain kinds of its members. I would not say that analysis cures the rejects or outcasts of the Kultur – because real social rejects never even arrive to an analyst – but what refuses itself to the Kultur in ourselves. Analysis cures what opposes social idealization.


As you say, today our Super-Ego no longer admonishes that “If you use your penis I will chop it off! If you give your vagina to a man, you will become ‘a whore!’”, but commands instead: “Enjoy!” For Lacan, however, this is the essential commandment of the Super-Ego – or of the Other, as he calls it – in any epoch, not only in ours: “Enjoy!” But in our modern society the command of enjoying has become explicit, apodictic, despotic. I would say that hysterics – thanks to whom psychoanalysis was invented – were and are subjects who resist and object to this social command to enjoy at any cost.

If people nowadays complain, even if they live in rich cities (at any rate, in very poor cities psychoanalysis does not exist) – cities where people no longer starve to death – it is, rather, because they say “but we never get enjoyment here”! It is well known that no ultimate and uncontroversial enjoyment can be achieved by accumulating power, sex and love, money and knowledge. We would like to enjoy, but we cannot. In this respect, I do not agree with your idea that today “desire” is in a state of crisis, silenced by wellbeing (for those who have it): people desire to enjoy more and more. But it is precisely because we desire to enjoy too much – because this is what the doctor has prescribed us – that we never enjoy. And so we look for an analyst who can unveil this embarrassing mystery.


N. Ulko. You said that psychoanalysis does not tolerate dictatorship and develops only in the democratic countries[1]. In your opinion, what is the reason for the popularity of psychoanalysis in post-Soviet countries, particularly in Ukraine? Is this a result of the lack of Soviet promotion? Is this a result of the formation of a new era with a bright future? Is saying “psychoanalysis will help us” the same as saying “the West will help us?” Or maybe is it an opportunity to overcome the anxiety resulting from the transition from collectivism to individualism: an attempt to “capture/seize” reality and fill the emptiness?


S. Benvenuto. Actually, I did not say that psychoanalysis does not tolerate dictatorship. I rather said that dictatorships do not tolerate psychoanalysis. When, in the 1970s, Argentina was under a military dictatorship, hundreds of psychoanalysts were imprisoned or killed precisely because they were psychoanalysts. Conversely, when in the 1930s, Germany and Austria fell under a despotic regime, many analysts did all that was in their power to continue practicing, even if this meant “collaborating” with the tyranny. But they did not succeed, psychoanalysis almost disappeared in countries ruled by Nazism.

I believe, however, that psychoanalysis cannot flourish within dictatorial regimes, even when the authorities do not ban it. Some years ago, I met in Cuba young Cuban psychoanalysts convinced that psychoanalysis could develop in their country – I would like to go back to Cuba to see if they were right. This is a matter of fact that can be explained in many ways, I have myself proposed a few explanations. Some believe, for instance, that a precondition for the spread of psychoanalysis is not a pluralist democracy – which implies freedom of expression through the media – but the Christian or Jewish roots of the country. Yet one could argue that psychoanalysis is popular also in Japan, which is neither of Christian nor Jewish culture. Another condition for the subsistence of psychoanalysis appears to be the achievement of a rather high GDP per capita, thanks to capitalism. In India, a country that has been enjoying democracy for a long time, psychoanalysis does not enjoy a considerable development precisely because it has been, so far, a poor country. Will the current Indian economic boom lead to a flourishing of psychoanalysis? This is very likely.

You ask why the collapse of the Soviet system coincided with the start of the spread of psychoanalysis. I think you are in a better position than I to answer this question correctly. Could it be because people feel worse off today than they did in the collectivist regime? Is psychoanalysis a ‘side effect’, as one says in medicine, of capitalist individualism, since with individualism we become more anguished, less ‘glued’ to the Community? Frankly, I do not know. I can only try to formulate a few hypotheses.

If it is factually true that the development of a wealthy capitalism and of pluralist democracy is the precondition for the flourishing of psychoanalysis, then capitalism and democracy must have something in common (even if we had and have countries which are capitalist but not at all democratic, like China or Singapore today). Capitalism is grounded on the competition between several companies and corporations, which are free to enter the market; pluralist democracy is grounded on the competition between several alternative parties. Capitalism dies with economic monopolies, democracy dies with a single party state. In both cases, general competition is promoted in the name of freedom. Significantly, all the terms that refer to democracy and capitalism evoke freedom and liberty: liberalism, civic freedom, libertarianism, free market, etc. I believe the passage from the Soviet regime to the capitalist-democratic one entailed for individuals the feeling of being finally free. Free to compete and enjoy.

Yet it is precisely when freedom is not only conceded but also elevated to the status of founding ideal of the social bond that individuals realise that subjectively they are not free at all! They complain of inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety (we should here bear in mind the title of Freud’s essay “Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety”) precisely because they understand that they are not free to enjoy. “I would like to… make a lot of money, achieve the apex of my career, have sex with many men or women, know all there is to know… but I can’t!”

I suppose that during the Soviet regime people did suffer as much as they do today (I know, for example, that alcohol addiction in males has always been a serious problem in Russia, even in Soviet times), but these ailments did not emerge as ‘symptoms’, that is, they were not experienced as obstructions to one’s freedom to compete. I suppose you had a first-hand experience in the Soviet regime, thus you should be able to tell me how a hysteric was treated; for instance, an hysteric who could not walk, during the Soviet era. I suppose – correct me if I am wrong – that either she was given psycho-medicines, or, if the hysterical paralysis prevented her from going to work, she was blamed as if she were a slothful, a parasite. I think that the “psychopathology” was reduced to either an organic problem or a socially sanctioned laziness. After all, people could always say to themselves “I suffer because there is no freedom of expression! I suffer because I cannot enjoy the goods which Westerners can!” Now, however, these alibis are over: perceiving oneself as “symptom bearer” means acknowledging that, in the end, we are not free. It is only when we get out of prison that we become aware of the immaterial prison we carry with us. Because this is the symptom: the Ego, which believes itself free, must reluctantly admit that it is not at all free from its unconscious. Because the unconscious is not only the despotic Other that imposes on us ‘Enjoy!’ It is also the Id (das Es, I would prefer to call it in English “the It”), forms of enjoyment that elude surveillance from our ideals. It is in a regime of free competition that the so-called psychic ailment assumes a different colour: it is no longer the product of an injustice we have suffered at the hands of others or because of our body, but it is an inflexible ‘other’ enjoyment that dominates us. The unconscious is not democratic; it is rather despotic.

Lacan used to say that psychoanalysis is a symptom; a symptom, I suppose, of our social asset. A symptom from which we could recover. Psychoanalysis, then, would be a historically limited practice, with a beginning and an end. But a symptom of what? In my view, psychoanalysis is the symptom of freedom. It is the cost – even literally economic, since it is an expensive cure – of political and economic freedom. Maybe it is for this reason that when Freud – legend has it – sailed by the Statue of Liberty, ready to disembark in New York, he said to Jung travelling with him: “They [the Americans] do not know that we are bringing them the plague!” Yet the plague was already in America, and its source or hotbed was the thing of which the famous statue in front of New York harbour was a representation.






[1]This was said in the first part of the conversation. Editor’s note

Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059