Freedom from the Compulsion to Repeat

Part of what it means to forge peace is to arrive at the promise of the peace of mind offered in the New Testament. This is not a project isolated from the overall peacemaking effort. It is integral to peace but it is also a distinct realm with its own peculiar manifestations of the disease that disrupts peace.  The next series of blogs will walk through (in the spirit of “Walking Truth”) the realities of the disruption of the mind identified in both psychoanalysis and theology and will propose both diagnosis and a potential cure from a psychotheological perspective.  I am working in the basic framework laid out in my research and book which will not be repeated here but which will be applied to particular forms of the human predicament most clearly explained in this light.

Perhaps this series needs a warning and encouragement.  We may imagine that the peculiar neurosis which plagues us is so shameful, so private, that our immediate reaction is to withdraw from examining it in an objective light.  Or we may have a peculiar attachment to our disease, such that we imagine that it is what makes us unique but also in our private enjoyment of the masochistic pleasure it entails. Part of the curative power of theology, largely lacking in a psychoanalytic framework, is its ability to so frame the problem that it is understood as an integral part of what it means to be human.  What is broken about us needs to be identified, and can be identified using theological resources—being understood as a necessary part of our humanity, but one which is malfunctioning.

Psychoanalysis is simultaneously examining the disease to find a cure and to be able to say what it means to be human.  The diseased or failed form of humanity is really the only frame fromwhich to begin to identify the various aspects of personhood.  Freud considered neurosis, and rightly so I believe, an accentuated form of the underlying reality which has somehow gone wrong.  He was largely working blind, though, and psychoanalysis continues to work blind when trying to identify—or even say if there might be—a normal function for a particular trait. In the physical body, it is easy to see that just because a broken liver leaks bile that does not mean that livers are bad because they produce crap.  The human psyche is much more complicated than the physical body, yet psychotherapy lacks a roadmap which would allow for the identification of the psychic equivalent of the lungs, liver, and heart.

In being broken particular functions show up—not as part of a healthy individual’s creativity but only in the banality of disease and evil.  There is a dull almost mechanical aspect in the condition so that even Freud grew tired of the pervasive neurosis he discovered. When asked to psychoanalyze Dostoevsky, he explained that it would be a boring undertaking as addictions and problems reduce to the same thing and have nothing to do with the creative genius of the man. The danger is that the condition of sin and disease would be made definitive of human possibility.  Psychoanalysis can identify the nature of what is malfunctioning but has no means to identify how that which is broken is a necessary part of human individuality and creativity. I hope to demonstrate that theology, given the recovered psychoanalytic perspective which I have proposed, is able to identify the healthy necessity of traits and forces to which psychoanalysis can only assign a negative role. The first topic dealt with below is a demonstration of how this is the case.

The experiential frame which embraces nearly every form of neurosis is so pervasive that Freud assumed it arises as a result of a cosmic force: Thanatos or the “death instinct.”  The compulsion to repeat, the way in which the death instinct manifests itself, identifies the basic form of neurosis but it also describes how the neurotic experiences his problem. The compulsive repetition may be the inability to dislodge a thought.  Freud’s patient, later dubbed the “rat man,” cannot rid himself of the image of rats chewing through parts of the anatomy of his father and future wife.  Freud linked this to a chain of causes going back to his being traumatized by the patient’s domineering father. The trauma and the symptom have no apparent similarity as the symptom is itself already a repetition of some action or thought that acts compulsively and repeatedly to deny or displace the trauma. Little Han’s fear of horses biting him is likewise traced back to a fear of his father (SE 10:42). In each instance the trauma is taken up in the form of a symptom in a futile effort to resolve or displace the trauma by repeating its effects and repeatedly denying its cause.  The compulsion to repeat, is then, a self-binding effort in which the aim to save the self is the very means through which destruction takes hold.

It was watching his grandson play with a spool and repeating the same activity of throwing the spool and dragging it back into sight that Freud connected the compulsion directly to loss (the loss of his mother leaving and of his father dying) and the attempt to master that traumatic loss through the repetition. As he plays the game he begins to speak his first words: he declares the presence (“da”) and absence of the spool (“fort”).   Perhaps on the same day or in the same period, looking in the mirror, the child realizes he can make himself appear and disappear just as he had made the spool appear and disappear. Language functions to let him reflexively identify himself, but at the same time creates his own image as an object. To attempt to identify the self through the symbolic is to be put into the bind of pursuing this object, but the very medium of the pursuit creates the loss (thus Freud arrives at the death instinct).

The compulsive rituals become the fixed point or the attempt to arrive at a fixed point in which, through the repetition, control is exercised over loss (with the ultimate loss being death).  Life and death and the length of life become attached to the ability to repeat as the repetition attempts to inhabit the static frozen order of time turned into space. The compulsive takes the Cartesian cogito literally: “if ‘I think, I am’ and if I do not think then I am not.’”  The attempt to think the self into existence, or the attempt to fuse thought and being, mortifies being through a thought that is fixed or stuck.

Žižek describes the repetition compulsion as a kind of living death and a pure form of the death drive (Plague of Fantasies, 89).   According to Lacan, “Man aspires to annihilate himself there in order to inscribe himself there in the terms of being.  The hidden contradiction… is that man aspires to destroy himself in eternalizing himself” (Seminar VIII, 122).  Lacan refers to this process as “corpsification” or the “cadaverizing” of the subject through the mortifying effect of the symbolic/Other.  Mortality and immortality cross over into one another as the mortal or death itself is immortalized through the symbolic.  As Žižek explains,

Within the domain of psychoanalysis, the compulsive neurotic provides an exemplary case of the reversal of relationship of life and death: what he experiences as the threat of death, what he escapes from into his fixed compulsive rituals is ultimately life itself, since the only endurable life for him is that of a “living dead,” the life of disavowed mortified desire. (Plague of Fantasies, 123)

For Lacan, where the unconscious is “structured like a language” (Ecrits: Selection, 243) the compulsion to repeat can be understood as “simultaneously non-being and insisting to be” (Seminar II, 326).  There is the pursuit of being, but language disrupts this being.  The compulsion to repeat might be described as the drive to establish or find the self in the symbolic order of language.  It is the attempt to “freeze becoming” through the signifier.   It is the “symbolic order in travail” as it insists on being realized (Seminar II, 326).   The subject that would establish herself as an object in and through language has involved herself in the contradiction or bind that is the death drive.  The “insistence of the signifier” or the “insistence of the signifying chain” is to repeat and so obtain that which by definition is denied in language.

Lacan notes (though he does not work it out in detail) that his description overlaps with the biblical picture of sin in that the language of the father which the child takes up is the medium of sin.  “The father, the name-of-the-father, sustains the structure of the law – but the inheritance of the father is that which Kierkegaard designates for us, namely, his sin” (Seminar XI, 34).  The discourse into which the child is integrated is the discourse of one’s father.  In taking up the language of the father the course is set

In so far as my father made mistakes which I am absolutely condemned to reproduce – that’s what we call the super-ego.  I am condemned to reproduce them because I am obliged to pick up again the discourse he bequeathed to me…because one can’t stop the chain of discourse.  (Seminar II, 89)

So, repetition in psychoanalysis describes the frustration of attempting to establish the self in and through a medium (language/the symbolic) that requires continual reiteration and this accounts for and coincides with the biblical picture of sin. The basic project of the psyche is set to a task at which it is bound to fail, as language is continually in flux and so the human project of repeating the self into being is impossible.  This is about as far as psychoanalysis can go.  There is the possibility of manipulating repetition or reorienting the self through repetition but even with this possibility repetition is a negative force from which there is no relief.

Repetition with a Difference

God, in Genesis, is pictured as bringing the world into existence in and through his repeated commands. When he creates man the repetitions multiply in the breath he breathed into the breathing creature under the tree of breath (Gen. 2:7-9).   There is a creative open-ended repetition, not of the same thing, but a repetition with a difference.  The poetic form of Genesis points to the necessity of God’s sustaining presence being repeatedly suffused into creation.  Creation is not a repetition containing God but it requires the pulse of his repeated presence creatively unfolding not just in the initial act of creation but in human life.  The fall from life and presence is pictured as a fall into an alternative knowing in which, as Augustine describes, the circulating system of signs (good and evil) refer only to one another.  The repetition of this word contains no life but only emptiness and death.

Access to God and to life are equated in Scripture and this access is ultimately provided through the Word of life.  The form and function of this Word in the life of the believer is not simply the repetition of the same words but through Scripture there is the possibility of repetition with a difference. Paul says “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8 NASB).  Paul’s words are themselves a repetition of Moses (Deut. 30:14); both are advocating the repetition of a word from God in order to be saved.  Paul enacts his theology of repetition inrepeating with a difference passages such as Habakkuk 2:4 “The righteous shall live by faith.”  The original context of Habakkuk is a hopeless situation of death and destruction.  Paul’s repetition of the passage (Rom. 1:17) is a proclamation of hope in God’s righteousness in the face of seeming impossibility, yet fulfilled now in Christ. His repetition of Scripture, transforms a future tense into a present active tense.  For example, Isaiah’s, “I shall not be ashamed” (Is. 50:7) is repeated, but becomes “I am not ashamed” (Rom. 10:16).  Shame in Scripture, has to do with the shame or dissolution of death, while Paul’s claim repeats Isaiah’s hope in the present tense realization of the resurrection of Christ.  Paul seems to acknowledge the form of repetition in his employment and description of it.  In Romans 7-8 he describes not only an empty repetition of empty words but the life-giving repetition of taking up the Word and walking as Jesus walked (a description for following blogs).

Where psychoanalysis seems to have accurately described the form of thought or being, it has also considered this form as inherently flawed.  The form determines the function of the content in cases of neurosis (a sign of the flaw in the description). Content, for Žižek, seems only secondary—as any content will display the form; the pornographic, the operatic, Christ and the devil are reduced to the same level.  Repetition as a form is deadly.  The death drive rules through repetition and while it might be manipulated, the form reduces everything to the same.

Paul in enacting repetition in his use of Scripture demonstrates and acknowledges the inter-textual or intra-linguistic nature of human subjectivity but this is not an obstacle to his freedom.  While Scripture literally makes up his speech and pervasively informs it, his repetition always comes with a creative difference.  For Paul there is nothing else to think and no other way to be other than through the living Word, but to be left with the form of repetition without the content or without the proper ground is for him, as Lacan and Žižek have both noted, a living death.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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