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Stein, C. (1984). Being Alone with One's Mother: The Horror of Incest. Psychoanal. Inq., 4(2):269-290.

(1984). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 4(2):269-290

Being Alone with One's Mother: The Horror of Incest

Conrad Stein

The following pages from L'Enfant imaginaire are a translation of the bulk of Chapter 7, entitled “L'Horreur de l'inceste,” and two short fragments from Chapter 8, entitled “Le Désir incestueux.” They seemed to me sufficiently autonomous to satisfy the requirements of an issue of Psychoanalytic Inquiry devoted to the clinical work of French analysts.

To tell the truth, for some time now I have failed to see any merit in the traditional distinction between clinical and theoretical work in the field of psychoanalysis. With the introductory and concluding episodes here set aside, my study concerns three consecutive sessions with the same patient. As such, it might be characterized as “clinical.” But in what does it consist, if not an elaboration of interpretations? Interpretations initially of particular application, which emerged either in the sessions themselves or after the event in the process of writing and on the basis of which I have risked what Habermas has called “general interpretations.” If it is true that to interpret is to theorize and that interpretation is the only mode of theorizing specific to psychoanalytic thinking, then this study would earn the characterization “theoretical.”

I am convinced that a psychoanalytic study, even when it is not explicitly cast in a literary style reflecting the fact, is efficacious only to the extent that it evinces something of the work of interpretation. Taken as a whole, Freud's oeuvre is, in my opinion, of just this sort. I am equally convinced that the body of general interpretations left us by Freud — those comprising what is usually and unhappily called Freudian theory (thus permitting the view that they constitute a causally governed system) — is inapplicable as a resource for guiding one's practice. If knowledge of this corpus is indispensable, it is only because the work of interpretation in particular cases rests on its recurrence in the form of reminiscences. In other words, with respect at least to the essentials, it seems to me that a psychoanalyst can only rediscover for his own purposes what Freud discovered before him, that his route can consist only in retracing that of Freud. The reader should not be surprised, therefore, to find here a fragment that awakens in him Freudian reminiscences, enough so that, notwithstanding the fact that only the most casual reference is made to Freud's texts, he shall recognize it without difficulty as a Freudian labor.

Shortly after being named to the Teaching Commission of the Institut de Psychanalyse in Paris, I suddenly realized, confronted with the necessity of accounting for the fact that my patients' sessions with me permitted them to progress in their analyses, that everything I had learned as a student was worth scarcely more that the explanations given by Sganarelle in Molière's Le Médecin malgré lui that ended in the celebrated line: “This is the reason why your daughter is mute.” L'Enfant imaginaire, a study of the psychoanalytic process, is the result of this crisis. Old slates had to be wiped clean and a fresh start made from scratch; and through this effort I came to understand that, while deliberate references were sterile, reminiscences proved themselves fruitful.

Wanting to submit Freud's statements to evaluation by confronting them with new experience is just as vain as regarding them as directly applicable to one's practice. In such matters, one must break with traditional views all the more entrenched because initiated by Freud himself, but nevertheless contrary to the real genuis of the discipline Freud promoted. It makes no more sense to seek to understand Freud's works in terms of their truth or falsity, their validity or superannuation, than it does to impose these categories on Shakespeare's plays. Precisely because of his concern to demonstrate and to enlist the support of reason, Freud's oeuvre is teeming with pitfalls, oddities, logical difficulties, and contradictions; the effects of truth can emerge only from a reading that interprets all these pecularities from the point of view of their necessity and, in this way, accounts for their genesis. The commentary so conceived is not the only evidence of the fecundity of the reading, however. Following the critical work that comprises the commentary, the text returns on the sly in the subsequent work of the reader.

In this respect, revising the following pages for translation held some surprises in store for me. Apart from a brief notice in his Draft N of May 31, 1897, Freud seems to have mentioned the horror of incest only in Totem and Taboo and in a few subsequent passages having reference to this book. Why would I have thought of Freud's “attempt at applying the point of view and the findings of psycho-analysis to some unsolved problems of social psychology” (1913, p. xiii) while I was studying three sessions with a patient? Indeed, I don't remember having thought of it. A few years before, however, I'd devoted a rather long study to Totem and Taboo. There, I had tried to highlight the interpretation of mother-in-law taboo that crowns the book's first chapter, “The Horror of Incest,” and to show that this interpretation, although inapposite as formulated from the viewpoint of contemporary social anthropology is, nonetheless, inspired in another respect. I had further emphasized the fact that the book departs from the horror of incest to arrive at the murder of the father and ambivalence toward him. As I look back on it now, the step I took in writing what follows seems in certain

respects similar to the one taken by Freud. In addition, I was unaware that in affirming that it is not for fear of punishment by the law that men generally abstain from having sexual relations with their mothers, I was urging the exact contrary of one of Frazer's theses to which Freud had attached great importance (1913p. 123). The relevation of these facts, the product of cryptomnesia, has opened new perspectives for me on an entire series of Freud's texts. I will have to resume their commentary.

To avoid any misunderstanding, I should point out that, again drawing on Freud in Totem and Taboo, I here employ the term “incest” exclusively to designate sexual relations between a son and his mother.

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