Arnon Grunberg



On knowing an unknowing – George Prochnik in TLS:

‘Reviewing the story of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (the enduring power of which Freud ascribed to the ubiquitous dynamic of jealous hostility toward fathers and incestuous desire for mothers), Tallis states that Oedipus’ tragedy “arises from unknowing”. By positioning the Oedipus complex “as the cornerstone of psychoanalysis, Freud is reminding us that without self-knowledge we are psychologically vulnerable”. This is of course correct, but it’s also the case that, to varying degrees, this vulnerability is a universal predicament, which psychoanalysis can make us more attuned to without thereby eradicating. Oedipus’ tragedy is produced because his “unknowing” is a structural feature of his identity. He is fated by the gods, or their chromosomal counterparts, not to attain self-knowledge until it’s too late for this awareness to do more than consummate his catastrophe.’ (…)

‘In cases where a symptom could be dispelled by tracking it back to a proscribed desire that the analytic process brought to consciousness and then helped to psychically integrate, the remedial utility of Freud’s method was evident. But, especially in his later years when Freud began to focus on conflicts between aggressive biological drives and constructive cultural activity that had no clear solution, the therapeutic application of his theories grew hazier. Like Oedipus’ fatally belated self-discovery, these latter revelations constitute unactionable forms of self-knowledge, which are sometimes contiguous with the limits to awareness as such at death’s threshold. They point towards more enigmatic aspects of Freud’s undertaking correlative with his caveat to Zweig that “Truth is unobtainable”. In works like Civilization and Its Discontents, the insurmountable agons of our condition find expression as profound, shared secrets. Instead of a path to healing, or an assimilable truth, Freud offers readers trans-temporal solidarity.’


‘Freud’s statement that “biographical truth does not exist, and if it did we could not use it”, might initially suggest the Saturnalia of unprintably scandalous thoughts and memories rampaging around people’s brains; but this censorious view would accord ill with Freud’s own published oeuvre and theoretical disposition. Perhaps, if we take him literally, we can instead surmise that Freud meant to highlight the fact that “biographical truth” would have to encompass the vast realm of the unconscious driving much of our behaviour, which must be rendered conscious in the act of writing about it, thereby altering its properties, like a chemical substance undergoing metamorphosis on exposure to light. “The unconscious is the true psychical reality”, Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, “in its innermost nature it is as much unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is as incompletely presented by the data of consciousness as is the external world by the communications of our sense organs”.
We can’t depict the unconscious in its active state because occlusion is intrinsic to this operation. Even projecting a broad panoply of socially unacceptable wishes across its terrain won’t cover the expanse of this genuine “psychical reality”. Despite his occasionally hubristic claims for psychoanalysis, Freud acknowledges that even his most cherished methodologies will only penetrate so far into this innermost realm. “There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure”, Freud writes in one extraordinary reflection.
This is because we become aware during the work of interpretation that at that point there is a tangle of dream-thoughts which cannot be unraveled … This is the dream’s navel, the spot where it reaches down into the unknown. The dream-thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought. It is at some point where this meshwork is particularly close that the dream-wish grows up, like a mushroom out of its mycelium.
In this notion of dream-thoughts, which by their nature continue unfolding without ever reaching a definitive conclusion, we find another indication of what psychoanalysis still offers, apart from the prospect of a straightforward “cure”: a framework in which myriad threads of self-reflection can be traced and interwoven into more and more elaborate autobiographical portraits. On this level, a patient’s ongoing verbalization of their interior existence becomes a Scheherazade-like form of survival through storytelling – a deferral of death, or at least the death-like emptiness that can ensue when a life story is deemed complete. If truth is unobtainable that’s not to say it can’t be endlessly pursued, in part by this sort of nearly inexhaustible narration with its shifting registers between dream-thoughts and recollection.’


‘In a passage from his Autobiographical Study concerned with the Oedipus complex, Freud notes that children “fail to solve the problem of sexual life (the riddle of the Sphinx – the question of where babies come from)”. Freud’s blithe rewriting of the Sphinx’s riddle is often overlooked. He changes the puzzle from a question about the ineludible arc of human mortality (effectively the question of where babies end up) into a question about human reproduction – the primal act of generative fertility. As Tallis notes, Freud overstressed “the importance of sex as an aetiological factor in mental illness”. Could this focus have functioned partially as a defensive screen before the view of what really scared him, a matter about which psychoanalysis had next to nothing to say: the inevitable encroachment of age? Even the notorious death drive might be understood as preemptively neutralizing the terror of impending annihilation. It turns death into a proactive, primal yearning rather than a fate we must simply wait to be consumed by, as the Sphinx invariably consumed those who failed to answer her question.’

Read the article here.

It’s not desire that keeps us alive, it’s not desire what we are, it’s fear that we cannot desire anymore, and probably at least as important, that we cannot be desired anymore.

Another interpretation of euthanasia, which usually is defended, and for good reasons, as an attempt to stop unnecessary suffering, would be; to keep the desire alive till the end, instead of waiting to be consumed by death Another question is whether we are consumed by desire, which is needless to say not only sexual desire.
Psychoanalysis has almost nothing to say about the question: how to get older gracefully? To make this hole invisible psychoanalysis had to overemphasize sexuality, suggests Prochnik.
We don’t die, we just stop fantasizing about out naked fathers and mothers or substitutes for them.

We are not tools for our genes, as Dawkins famously stated, we are tools for our fantasies, which are not really our own fantasies. The biggest illusion is that our fantasies belong to us.
Where the sphinx comes in is a whole different subject. Or maybe not.

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