|J E P - Number 12-13 - Winter-Fall 2001|
The Emergence of the Unconscious in Western Though (1)|
Keywords: Cartesian cogito - Schopenhauer - Nietzsche - Freuds Unconscious - Phenomenology of Life
Sergio Benvenuto: Prof. Henry, you have written a book, The Genealogy of Psychoanalysis(2), which is in fact a book about the emergence of the unconscious in Western thought.
Michel Henry: The idea of the emergence of the unconscious in the West had its origins in my phenomenological work, since phenomenology does not reflect on different phenomena but on what makes each one of them a phenomenon; that is on phenomenality, on that which at a certain moment in classical philosophy became called consciousness. Now this is a fundamental problem because, whether one thinks of it explicitly or one lets it intervene without paying attention to it, it is phenomenality that acts as a support for phenomena and ensures that something shows itself to us in such a way that we can talk about it. In relation to the unconscious, phenomenality is a paradoxical theme or affirmation. In fact if one takes as a criterion the classical definition of phenomenality in terms of consciousness, this definition seems to purely and simply deny this phenomenality, this appearing, without which there is nothing: there is, for us, no experience. And so what is left? What can we talk about if nothing remains, if is no giving left? For phenomenologists, who think that every philosophical discourse should be based on some piece of giving, the very affirmation of an unconscious leads to a sort of aporia. What does it mean to speak, to think, if nothing reveals itself? That is why I wanted to clarify the paradox of the unconscious starting from the phenomenological presuppositions of my philosophical thought.
Benvenuto: You start your analysis from the cogito of Descartes, which you consider as a source of this thought of the unconscious.
Henry: The Cartesian cogito seems far removed in relation to psychoanalysis and 20th century thought. But it is a source that cannot be hidden, for reason that not only the unconscious of psychoanalysis, but every form of thought in the 20th century has questioned the cogito of Descartes. And with this calling into question of the cogito, phenomenality was called into question. In this way one wanted to say not that phenomenality does not exist-because that would be impossible-but that it is an appearance, that it is deceptive. That is why, instead of considering it as a sound and safe basis for our thought and for our intellectual practice, it is necessary to cast doubt on phenomenality. It was the famous age of suspicion, as Ricoeur expressed it: that is, the contestation of a moment in which, on the contrary, philosophy would have liked to be grounded on an indubitable phenomenality, because fundamentally the cogito is this: it is the affirmation of a phenomenality, of an absolutely incontestable appearance, upon which one can rely.
And so when Le Senne proposed his I suffer, therefore I am, he was not really so far from Descartes. However Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams says the same thing: that the sentiment in a dream is never interpretable; the latent and the manifest coincide. The images in the dream can be interpreted: that which is seen, but not the feeling-which is always authentic. If in a dream a beautiful scene provokes anguish in me instead, the scene should be interpreted in such a way as to make my anguish comprehensible.
This is a thesis which I sustain in The genealogy of Psychoanalysis. The problems raised by Descartes, which have not really been understood, open the modern age, as much as they are valid, just as much as they are false. What does Descartes doubt? He doubts representation, which is that which one sees. And that which we see is always that which is put before us, that which is in front of us, such that we can see it, thanks to its distance, both with the eyes of the body and with the eyes of the spirit, with the intellect; as when we see that the radii of a circle are all equal, which is a rational truth. Here we are dealing with representation. Western thought believed only in representation, while Descartes was basically the first to call representation in question. This means that the Heideggerian interpretation of Descartes is completely false: I think actually means everything except I represent to myself. And from the moment in which Descartes casts doubt on representation, then phenomenality, falsely identified with representation, becomes the unconscious.
And so we should return to the emergence in Western thought of this essential theme of life and the world-of-life. We should go back to what was behind Freud-to Kant and Schopenhauer-to see how this growing centrality of the theme of life and thus of sensation develops in the thought of the twentieth century.
Your question is essential, because this theme has a history. The unconscious did not suddenly break upon the scene in the moment when the cogito was not understood. It is a historical fact that, at the moment of its formulation, the great Cartesians did not understand the cogito: neither Malebranche, nor Leibniz nor Spinoza understood the cogito. Precisely because it was very difficult for them to understand it, they believed that the cogito was evidence and was thus a representation. And again Heidegger criticizes this way of understanding it, when he says: " I think means I represent to myself", I present myself to myself, I present myself in front of myself, exactly as I represent the things of the world. Here there is a massive contradiction.
One can say so. And in fact in the further evolution of Schopenhauer's thought there is a moment in which he says so. But the important thing for the formation of modern thought is this extraordinary chiasmus: on one side the unreal which is the light and the visible, and on the other side the real which is immersed in the unconscious. This great chiasmus is taken up by Nietzsche, who should be seen as an intermediate reference point, between Schopenhauer and Freud, although Freud is much closer to Schopenhauer than to Nietzsche. So in Nietzsche there is an effort, which we see as pathetic and movingly passionate, to save life. To simplify things a little, Nietzsche basically accepts the thesis of Schopenhauer regarding representation. There is a world of representation, which in his mythological universe he adopts, is the figure of Apollo. Apollo is the realm of visible forms, the realm of beauty, and he is also the realm of everything that is revealed before us and that can have a cheering or placating function. Placating because there is another realm, that of the will, which for Nietzsche becomes the will to power. But one should note that Nietzsche more often defines this other realm in terms of pathos: it is the realm of Dionysus, and Dionysus is essentially our life seen as suffering...
And enjoyment too!
... but which is at the same time enjoyment. And here we encounter one of the greatest intuitions of Nietzsche. You are right to underline it: it is the ambivalence of the sentiments in our own depths, an ambivalence that can be understood. In The Essence of the Manifestation I have tried to propose an explanation which is able to make this ambivalence fully intelligible. Nietzsche is content, one might say, with giving some particularly pertinent historical examples: cruelty, for example. What is cruelty? It is the pleasure of inflicting suffering. Nietzsche insists on showing how, as much in primitive Greece as in the Middle Ages, there were ceremonies whose purpose was to offer the pleasure that the suffering of others gives us. In the Middle Ages public executions were great festive events. People went there not only to see someone being hanged, but also to see him tortured. The masses went to see spectacles that for us in the modern world, sensitive to pity, would be intolerable. Now for Nietzsche the strength and the greatness of man consist in the fact that in him can be found the pleasure of suffering. And so, in Nietzsche the connection between suffering and pleasure is extraordinarily interiorized, which prefigures Freudian themes. Not only can I obtain an extraordinary pleasure from the suffering of others, but I can also in a certain sense be the sculptor of myself and, to make myself suffer, cut and engrave my own flesh. From this derive the great phenomena of the bad conscience, of self-disgust, in which I am pleased with myself despite everything, because they contain their own joy. But in conclusion the problem that Nietzsche did not deal with and which it is not necessary to tackle here and now, is that of the internal comprehension of suffering and joy. Why does this connection exist originally within life? This is one of the great problems that we have inherited from the moment in which Schopenhauer formulated the antinomy between unreal representation and this dark world which is ours.
In what sense do you mean it when you say that Nietzsche saved life?
The great merit of Nietzsche was that of having given back to life its phenomenological dimension. Because basically the affirmation that life is unconscious has no meaning. Living is above all having the sensation of oneself [séprouver], feeling oneself. This is true even for the most simple modality of life. If one considers an impression of pleasure, what meaning could a pleasure have that one does not feel? The armchair, which does not have the sensation of itself [ne séprouve], does not feel either pleasure or pain, even if we give it an axe-blow. That is why pushing the affirmation that life is unconscious to its limit is nonsensical. Therefore the merit of Nietzsche is immense, in as much as he did not give a phenomenological definition of life in terms of representation-that is of the putting things at a distance thanks to which the gaze of observation becomes possible-but rather he gave a definition of phenomenality in terms of feeling, of pathos. A figure such as that of Dionysus, who suffers and enjoys at the same time, is essentially that of a living being, because pleasure and pain are in my opinion the primary modalities of life. Life is above all pleasure or pain, it is need, but need is painful; it exists only on the affective level. If need were not felt, it would not be anything.
I do not agree with this interpretation, that Deleuze gave as a solution to a Nietzschean problem which we have still not alluded to: that of the strong and the weak. For Nietzsche in the strong-since life is the will to power, and this is his difference from Schopenhauer-there is no lack, but rather a sort of super-abundance, which takes enjoyment from itself, a form of happiness. Thus one must think that the strong are happy precisely because they have the feeling of fullness which is life. And so why do the weak exist? At this point the interpretation of Deleuze intervenes, because for him there are quantitatively different forces; and when a stronger force meets a weaker force, the weaker force becomes reactive towards the stronger force, and so resentment is born together with all the various reactive processes. It is a celebrated interpretation, because Deleuze's book had a very favorable reception in Paris when it came out, but which I do not agree with, because it does not really explain the weakness of the weak, because there are some beings in whom the force is supposed to be present in a lesser quantity than that which is present in the strong. Well, in Nietzsche the force, in the very fact that it is such, is never marked by weakness. Then in Nietzsche there is another extraordinary analysis of weakness: that of the ascetic priest. In fact it is true that there are for Nietzsche both the strong and the weak, and one can consider this as a given fact, a mysterious one moreover; but since there are two forces also in Deleuze's discourse, weakness cannot derive from anything other than a decision of life, of the vital force, to turn against itself. And why should life turn against itself? Because it suffers. And thus weakness get itself into strength, in the moment in which strength, instead of accepting suffering, turns itself against it with a suicidal attitude so as to destroy itself. At this point weakness is created: this is not a primary datum, but a metaphysical attitude, which derives from the fact that life turns against itself. Thus in the ascetic priest we find this extraordinary fact: the ascetic puts himself at the head of the flock of the weak, because what is most extraordinary in the weak is that they continue, despite everything, to fight. One of the most abyssal affirmations of Nietzsche is that at the bottom of weakness there is a strength, infinite in itself. Thus the weak enter into conflict with the strong with this infinite force, of which the ascetic priest is the depository. For this reason they have to invent various strategies: they have to lead the strong to believe that what they do is evil, that strength is bad and that the weakness of the weak, of the sick, is good and that they should be cured. This is the inversion of values which the weak operate, but once they have effected it, that which permits them to defeat the strong is the fact that the strength which remains deep within them is in some way stronger than in the strong, because it is menaced. At this point the deepest instincts of life act in such a way that in reality the weak get the upper hand over the strong. This is one of the paradoxes of Nietzsche. One should be able to enter deeper into this extraordinary description.
And so Freud arrives. Does Freud also want, like Nietzsche, to save life?
Freud's attitude is equally ambiguous. But a precise reply to his question can only be found if one consults the famous Project for a scientific psychology of 1895. It is an extremely interesting project, because in it Freud proposes a scientific explanation of psychic activity, which in reality is a description of the neuronal system. In this sense it is truly modern, and can be connected with certain modern trends in neurosciences. Here Freud says that the neuronal system is divided in two: Psy system and a Phi system. What characterizes the neurons is that they are of two types. One type experiences external stimuli which determines a series of behavior patterns intended to favor flight from external danger-because one can flee from it one can escape from its action, and there are many ways of doing so. But the real danger for Freud, as for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, is interior. Unfortunately there are other neurons whose characteristic is self-excitement, in the sense that they undergo an excitement which is no longer exogenous, but endogenous. And this interior excitement is terrible-there is nothing to be done. And this determines entropy for Freud. For him there is an excitement of the neuronal system which itself tends only to liquidate excitements. Since excitement is troublesome the neuronal system tends towards a quantity of energy Q = 0, that is towards a state of inertia or of death. As a consequence the whole theory of psychic activity built on the neuronal model is centered on the flight from excitement, because, according to Freud, excitement produces a suffering in the neuronal system, and thus in the psychic activity, the malaise of need as Schopenhauer would have called it, the malaise of desire; the libido, which gradually becomes unbearable as the quantity of excitement increases. What should be done then? Liquidate excitement, and in order to do this it is necessary to try to bring the neuronal system-and thus the psychic system which is its reflection-towards the state Q = 0. Basically it is necessary to liquidate the excitement which provokes malaise in us-this is Schopenhauer again-and to liquidate the malaise it is necessary to suppress the excitement. But basically to not feel malaise it is necessary to be an armchair or pair of shoes-it is a system of death. That is why I believe that in the end the apparition of the death impulse in meta-psychology is not a chance event, and it is exactly this aspect of Freud's thought that I do not accept. Confronted with this Freud, I have the same reaction-if you will allow the comparison-of Nietzsche confronted with Schopenhauer. I believe that life is good and therefore that it is not a case of liquidating our affections. The opposite is the case, as it was for Kandinsky: that of making life become more intense, such that it ever increasingly has the sensation of itself [séprouve elle-même]. I believe that all great works of art have the effect not of permitting life to liquidate its libido, but on the contrary of increasing by degrees its happiness and joy, which tend towards a sort of absolute beatitude.
One could however object that this liquidation of the libido corresponds for Freud to its satisfaction; it corresponds to an enjoyment. For Freud the fact of liquidating the libido is pleasurable.
You are right. There are two moments in Freud's reply, since he himself gave a reply to his own question. There is the moment in which enjoyment is the attenuation of excitement, and thus it does not suppress it-Freud says that it is impossible to suppress it. Enjoyment makes it return to a stationary state, according to the principle of constancy, not that of death, and as a consequence it has to satisfy, as far as possible, the impulses and needs. At this point a sort of equilibrium is found, preferable to desire. This is a first reply. Then there is another very different one, which intervenes at the end, upon which especially Paul Ricoeur reflected in his fine book on Freud: Eros suddenly arrives. In this world in which the death impulse reigns, in which its dominion expands, suddenly Eros arrives-we know neither where from nor why-to re-activate life and to re-animate the scene. Eros is love in all the meanings of the word, who gives back to life that character of activity which, despite everything, is inherent within it. Here Freud is correct without any doubt; but it is also true, as Ricoeur noted, that here there is an error or fault [faille] in the Freudian discourse, in that the principle of Eros falls in a certain sense from heaven.
Nevertheless, in your opinion, does Freud truly constitute an overcoming or superseding of the classical philosophy of representation, or is he rather a compromise between the rediscovery of life as a positive fact and the classical vision? Perhaps Freud is halfway between classicism and dionysism?
I believe that Freud is very close to Schopenhauer. In him there is the decisive affirmation, which I fully agree with, that the basis of our being is not of the order of representation, that representation is a non-reality, and that our reality is to be found in the depths of the unconscious. But at the bottom of the unconscious there are two things in conflict. On one side there is the affect, which Freud said-in a marginal note which to me seems magnificent-is never unconscious, in the sense that the affect feels itself [séprouve]. But on the other hand there is in Freud a theory of the unconscious which remains on the side of representation. Since basically, in the texts of 1912 and 1914, it is through unconscious representation that the unconscious regains its right of citizenship. While as regards deeper reality, there is also in Freud a contradiction: on one side there is an unconscious that, at its limit, is absolute; and on the other there is an affect that is for him, as it is for me, the basis of life. In the last formulation of analytic therapy, a story of affects is in question. In this context Freud had some intuitions of admirable profundity, for example in his theory of anguish. He puts anguish on the same plane as all affects. Every affect, before becoming realized, in the moment in which it still has not found its fulfillment, when it is in some way abandoned to the simple weight it exercises on itself, turns into anguish. And the anguish is not overcome until love finds a new incarnation. Here Freud, in relation to classical philosophy, has explored an essential dominion.
Philosophically speaking, what is in your opinion the essential difference between Freud's anguish and that of Heidegger?
The anguish of Freud seems to me much closer to reality. It is much closer to the anguish of Kierkegaard than to that of Heidegger-or, if you prefer, I feel much closer to the Kierkegaardian description of anguish than to that of Heidegger, because for Heidegger anguish puts us into the presence of the world, while for Freud, as for Kierkegaard, anguish arises from the relation of self [du soi] with itself. More precisely, it arises from pure suffering, in which life gives itself up to itself and in which the suffering of malaise gives itself to itself. The weight of need, when it becomes intolerable, leads to the arising of anguish. Thus in Freud anguish is born from the relationship of the ego with itself. In some phrases Freud says it explicitly: the ego cannot bear itself-while in Heidegger anguish puts me in relationship with the world. But I do not believe that this relationship with the world truly provokes anguish in people, such that this phrase of Heidegger - anguish puts me in front of the void-is taken up by Kierkegaard, in whom it however has a completely different sense. I said the void, because Heidegger, like Hegel, identifies the world with the void. The world is this horizon of visibility in which there is still nothing and in which things reveal themselves. And so here there is a complete shifting away from the anguish of life, which is that of Kierkegaard and of Freud, towards an anguish of the world, which to me seems less pertinent.
But one could object that also for Freud anguish is relation with an object. Especially when he speaks of phobic anguish: there is a phobic object, an external object is a source of anguish.
Yes, but in Freud anguish, in order to become relieved, searches for an object. The phobic object, which has nothing to do with the real situation, is simply a way to project outside oneself the unbearable weight of anguish. Thus the phobic object is a sort of deceit into which anguish leads itself in order to flee from itself. But it is not the phobic object which allows anguish to free itself from itself. Only an authentic transformation of the affect on the same level as the affect allows anguish to become free from itself. It is a self-transformation of life which can unblock the situation-for example being able to love again, without deceitful projections. In these projections consists the illness. This illness that tries to flee anguish in the world of representation is curious, and it shuts itself off in a street with no exit and will remain closed in there until it finds the true way which Freud indicates in treatment: the abreaction of the affective traumatic event. It is necessary to start again from this traumatic event in order to find the solution in the context of life and reality, accepting the plane of reality, rediscovering on the plane of reality a reason to live, that is an actualization of our affective power.
A less philosophical question now: Does your sympathy for the thought of Freud extend also to the modern practice of psychoanalysis? Would you advise a close friend who had some problems to go to an analyst?
Psychoanalytical practice has gone down two paths. It has gone down a first path which was the same path of Western philosophy, the way of the Greeks: the way of knowledge, of the awakening of awareness. It was believed that the subject, by becoming aware of the traumatic event, would have been able to liberate himself from it. And during the work of analysis it was realized that becoming aware of the traumatic event, which was often in fact only made up and imaginary, sometimes invented by the analyst or by the person analyzed, did not lead to anything. As a consequence the work of analysis has in reality completely changed its nature, as has been pointed out by Michael Dvorák in his remarkable works on Freud. It is precisely in analytical treatment, on the plane of the affect and thus of the reality of life, through a modification of the affect and not by working on representation, that the treatment can advance rather than becoming blocked. This is my way of understanding psychoanalysis.
You have worked for a long time also on Marx. Can you tell us something about the affinities and difference between Marx and Freud?
The same contradictions are expressed regarding Marx as those for Freud. Marx has been assigned to the age of suspicion, as Ricoeur said. Like Freud, Marx is a thinker who leads us to treat our discourses as suspect. The solution, for Marx as for Freud, is to be found on the plane of reality. For ten years I did nothing other than read Marx. And instead what I found remarkable in Marx, and what I discovered by chance, is that at the root of reality he places a subjective body. He says it not only in his youthful writings, but also in his last manuscripts, which are admirable, and which went to make up Book III of Das Kapital. For Marx all explanations start from work; which is a mode of corporeal activity-here we re-encounter Schopenhauer. But this work is understood as subjective and not unconscious work; because after all if above all the work of the 19th century-physically very hard-was painful, then it was not unconscious. Computers and machines do not work. One can make them work as much as one wants, but in another sense.
Translated from the French by Tristram Bruce
(1) Conversation held in Paris, January 30, 2001, at Michel Henry's apartment.