I can swim like the others only I have a better memory than the others. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it my ability to swim is of no avail and I cannot swim after all.


When H.G. Wells accused Henry James of having sacrificed his life to art James replied, with characteristically artful indignation: ‘I live, live intensely, and am fed by life, and my value, whatever it might be, is in my own kind of expression of that. Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance.’ James’s value, he asserts, is in his expression of what he is fed by. Life, lived intensely, feeds him; and he makes something of it, something of his own, called art. What he is describing is both the privilege of the artist, and the necessity of the ordinary person. We cannot help but transform our experience – Freud’s emblem for this is dream-work – and we cannot help but express ourselves. Whether we like it or not we are making something of what we are given, even when we are merely making do.

People come for psychoanalysis when they are feeling under-nourished; and this – depending on one’s psychoanalytic preference – is either because what they have been given wasn’t good enough or because there is something wrong with their capacity for transformation. In James’s terms, they are the failed artists of their own lives. They have been unable for whatever reason to make something sufficiently sustaining out of what was supposed to nourish them. They cannot make interest; the kind of interest, James intimates, that might make one love life. And in the light of this there are, one could say, two kinds of psychoanalysis; or rather, psychoanalysis comes under one of two possible descriptions. One kind of psychoanalysis aims to make good – if only by reconstruction of the early environmental provision – an environmental deficit. At its most extreme this is analysis as a corrective emotional experience. The other kind aims to restore the artist in the patient, the part of the person that makes interest despite, or whatever, the early environment. At its most extreme, for the artist of his own life, it is not so much a question of what he has been given – no one chooses their parents, but everyone invents them – but of what he can make of what he has been given. The psychoanalytic model here is the dream in which reality functions more as a hint than an instruction, setting the dreamer and the child off on the work of inner transformation.

In his letter of self-defence to Wells, James is both privileging the notion of self-expression – the idiosyncratic privacy of transformation – and taking it as inextricable from, of a piece with, living intensely. For James life was not sacrificed to art nor was art an alternative to life: they were integral to each other. It would be like saying of someone that he sacrificed his life to dreaming by going round in the day looking for day residues to use.

By the same token, the artist in James is not divorced from what we might call the ‘materialist’. James’s subtlety always invites us, indeed provokes us, to note the crudely literal; in actuality it is sex that makes life (James had no children); and James’s art did give him importance – the power of a place – in the highly competitive turn-of-the-century market for novels. And, of course, in the pun of my title, the interest that art made for him was also the financial return on his investment (to be interested in something or someone is a gamble with uncertain returns). Art makes interest; it is a way of investing something that might be called Life or Experience – it is a species of risk. Interest may or may not accrue; but art, James intimates, is a version of stocks and shares; the market fluctuates. Something is transformed – work is done on it – in the service of making interest, sustaining curiosity, keeping one’s appetite alive. If James’s novels don’t make interest in the reader come alive they won’t read on, they won’t buy them. The writer’s appetite has to incite the readers appetite.

Psychoanalytic theory – in all its various versions – is a set of stories about this process of transformation that James calls Art (with a capital A) and we can call the art of everyday life; it is a set of stories about how we can nourish ourselves to keep faith with our belief in nourishment, our desire for desire. What every so-called patient speaks about is the appetite (and care) that kept him going at the very beginning, ineluctably complicated into the source and the saboteur of their confidence. What we now call desire is both hope and doubt about hope: a belief in the future and a fear of it. So how do we become sufficiently interested in our lives to want to go on living them if, as James believes, interest is something we make – and despite the fact that, at least in day-to-day language, the opposite of making interest is losing it? Ordinary language assumes, in other words – as did Freud, at least in his earlier work – that interest is something we’ve already got. We start, as it were, from a position of interest.

All our ways of pathologising people have to do with attributing to them a loss of interest in the appropriate things. It is both commonplace and wishful to take interest for granted. Every depression, every act of psychic deadening bears witness to the risk of interest and curiosity. ‘Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real,’ James’s brother William wrote in his Principles of Psychology, knowing how much we can fear the real.

Psychoanalysis is the art of making interest out of interest that is stuck or thwarted. It doesn’t, in other words, believe that the football fan isn’t really interested in football: it believes that he is far more interested in football than he can let himself know. In psychoanalysis we treat the objects of interest as clues, as commas that look like full stops. Every object of desire is an obscure object of desire, leading us to ask both, ‘why this rather than those?’ and ‘why anything at all?’ Free-floating attention itself, as a method, is a tribute to the vagaries of interest. Evenly-hovering attention wants to land. There is, that is to say, as Freud implies, a will to interest that can usurp a capacity for it.

Indeed, to talk about the unconscious is to refer to the fact that we are interested in things despite ourselves; we have more or less conscious preferences or affinities, but we find ourselves living out alternative, often puzzling interests. I go to meet a friend but I find myself doing some shopping on the way; I fall in love with a woman but she reminds me of my father. Like sunflowers whose suns are hidden, we see ourselves turning in all sorts of directions, often at once. This is what psychoanalysis formalises for the patient: a repertoire of tropisms, of idiosyncratic drifts of attention called unconscious desire. In psychoanalysis we track the way the patient makes and breaks interest for himself. And we implicitly or explicitly persuade him that some interests are better than others. That it’s better, say, to spend one’s time looking at art rather than at bodies; that conversation and relationship are better than inner delirium; that the sense that nothing connects with nothing is dispiriting rather than reassuring. Every analyst will have his own – mostly unconscious – repertoire of suitable interests for a good life. So it is worth considering, from a psychoanalytic point of view, what we are doing when we are interested in something or someone; what our preconditions for interest are and how they work. Both how the patient got to be interested at all, and how they got to be interested in whatever they got interested in. It is a question of the relationship – which is at the heart of erotic life – between incitement and excitement.

One of the first words in psychoanalysis for what I am calling ‘interest’ is ‘curiosity’. For Freud infantile sexuality was a kind of apotheosis of curiosity, both its origin in the individual, and the paradigm for all its later forms. The child as described by Freud in the early works – pre-1910 – seems almost to be lived by, or live through, his sexual curiosity: what Strachey translates as the ‘sexual researches of children’. The Index of the Standard Edition has more references under that heading than under any other sexual subject. What, in Freud’s view, united the artist, the scientist, the lawyer, the teacher was that they were all interested, in however disguised a form, in the sexual questions of childhood. Psychoanalysis was distinguished by being curious about curiosity; about its provenance and function in a person’s life. The child’s profundity, Freud believed, lay in the quality of its curiosity. When, in the Three Essays, he says of children who have been told the facts of life but go on believing their own sexual theories that they ‘go on worshipping their own idols in secret’, he is paying tribute to the child for being unseduced by reality, unimpressed by other people’s truths. It was the relentlessness of the child’s questions – the sense that his curiosity was his destiny – that Freud took to heart. The child knew what he was interested in: where babies come from, the difference between the sexes, his parents’ relationship. These were the child’s inspiration: they weren’t options – the child was not casting around for a hobby or standing in some supermarket spoiled for choice – they were urgencies. And what the child’s curiosity highlighted was his need to know, and his difficulty in finding satisfaction. A parody of theoretical or epistemological man, the Freudian child is driven by questions and doesn’t believe any of the answers: he is addicted to what he doesn’t know. But his well-being, if not his actual future, depends, Freud said, on his sexual researches, his making up his theories. The child’s sexual life was his theory-making; the child lived intensely his sensual life, out of which he made his necessary art. In identifying with the curious child Freud left us with a picture of the analyst and his patient as two children exchanging their sexual theories. In ‘On the Sexual Theories of Children’ Freud explicitly likens the child’s fantastic sexual speculations to the theories of the adult. ‘These false sexual theories,’ Freud writes, ‘have one very curious characteristic. Although they go astray in a grotesque fashion, yet each one of them contains a fragment of real truth; and in this they are analogous to the attempts of adults, which are looked at as strokes of genius, at solving the problems of the universe which are too hard for human comprehension.’

Freud gives us a theory of theorising that puts all theory, including his own, into question. The origins of the child’s theories, he writes, ‘are the components of the sexual instinct which are already stirring in the childish organism’. The child is not exactly what we might call an empiricist; he simply uses so-called real things as food for thought, as what Henry James calls in his Notebooks ‘germs’ for stories. What we might think of as the elaborate coherence of a theory Freud refers to as ‘going astray in a grotesque fashion’. Knowledge for the child, as for the adult, is a sexually inspired project; as in the dream-work, out of a fragment of truth, of something real like a day residue, peculiar personal truths are woven out of unconscious desire. In Freud’s scenario the ‘fragment of truth’ in the child’s own theory comes from the biological facts of life. But if reproduction was not the project, or the purpose, what then would correspond to the fragment of truth? Once Freud has positioned himself as the one who can identify the fragment of truth in the child’s theory he can differentiate himself from the child, see the child’s position as naive, absurd or merely wrong. If no one’s theory can be made to look ridiculous how are we going to tell our theories apart (the notion of truth in this context makes humiliation both possible and necessary)?

All curiosity, in Freud’s view, ‘reawakens the traces, which have since become unconscious, of this first period of sexual interest’. And these traces are traces of both knowledge and method, of what the child made (made up), and of how he went about making it. We have acquired official and unofficial habits of enquiry. Our preconditions for loving are bound up with, informed by, this first period of sexual interest.

What is clear in Freud’s account of children’s sexual curiosity is that he saw it as a form of appetite. It has to be satisfied, but by a fantasy, a story, as though the child’s instinctual life partly takes the form of a hunger for coherent narrative. (But coherent by the child’s always strange, personal criteria.) Often stimulated, as Freud frequently points out, by the birth of a sibling – and other people, of course, were beginning to participate in Freud’s psychoanalysis – these fantasies, whether sexual theories or the more sophisticated family romances, were the medium of the child’s struggle for psychic survival, of his attempts, however forlorn, to refind a place in the world. Theory, Freud intimates, is intrinsically rivalrous; it is about being better placed than someone else. The child’s curiosity and theory-making are, in a real sense, about how he came to be there, and in what sense he was still there after the birth of the sibling. And this means that in a sense he is not still there: he has been displaced. He is elsewhere. Wishing, wanting things to be otherwise because they are not as they are supposed to be, is a sign of loss. That the child lives his curiosity is itself an acknowledgment of loss.

And yet despite our hunger for knowledge as elegy, the child’s discoveries, in Freud’s equivocal account, are not quite or always as reassuringly painful as the by now familiar – at least to psychoanalysts – talk of lack, disillusionment and mourning might suggest. Psychoanalytic theory has become obsessional about loss. For Freud there is also an imaginative plenitude, a manifest exhilaration about the grotesque fashion in which children go astray. It is the child’s always paradoxical resilience – the inventions born of apparent insufficiency – that Freud is taken by. But it was Freud’s version of the child’s formative helplessness that was taken up in different ways by Lacan, Winnicott and Klein. For each of them the child is someone for whom something essential is missing or lost or about to be destroyed: the unified image in the mirror, the potential wealth and solace of the mother, the father’s entitlement, the parents’ sexual relationship – whichever way it is construed, the child is essentially the maker of invidious comparisons, as though its strongest wish or deepest desire were to grow up, to become more sexually or intellectually competent, to not be a child. In other words, a potentially non-linear theory is underpinned by a simple myth of progress.

Whether or not we try to escape from our question marks, psychoanalysts are committed to the idea of a life as organised around absence. From a psychoanalytic point of view, we are the animals for whom something is missing, and for whom what is missing is always privileged. And what is absent, ironically, is what is there for us to be interested in. Our curiosity depends on a receding horizon. Unsurprisingly, these stories of profit and loss are bewitching. And yet when we describe children, or adults, as insufficient we might wonder, insufficient compared to what? Why, for example, hasn’t the death of God been the death of our preoccupation with ourselves as lacking? It is our fantasies of plenitude that make us look ridiculous and it is in the child that these muddled preoccupations get located. The theoretical vogue for lack and insufficiency has become a perverse wish.

If there is a vividly frustrated child at the heart of psychoanalysis – a child who has stolen the show with his anguish, a child whose abject resourcelessness is somehow exemplary – there is another child whom psychoanalysis mislaid. Not merely the satisfied child but the child with an astonishing capacity for pleasure; with an unwilled relish for sensuous experience that often unsettles the adults who like to call it affection. This child who can be deranged by hope and anticipation – indeed, by an ice-cream – seems to have a passionate love of life that for some reason isn’t always easy to sustain (it is glib to say that growing up is merely a process of disillusionment). But whatever it is, this childhood relish – I would call it a kind of ecstasy of opportunity – does not fit easily into the ordeal of psychoanalytic development. Because it is easy to sentimentalise the visionary qualities of the child, this part of the legacy of Romanticism has been abrogated by psychoanalysis. Freud’s child as sexual theorist, ‘astray in a grotesque fashion’, is a version of the visionary poet of Romanticism who is neither innocent nor, in any sense, conflict-free. Or to put it more straightforwardly, children say some very strange things. They seem to care a lot about what is going on. And they are very interested in bodies.

Unfortunately, the child of psychoanalysis usually only has two genres available to him: romantic comedy or tragedy. In tragedy his curiosity ennobles the hero and kills him; in the comic romance his curiosity makes a mockery of him. It is the fate of what I am calling interest, in these genres, that it either invites agony and posthumous fame; or mild, but enchanting humiliation. The child as Oedipus or the child as Don Quixote. And yet in his great paper ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness’ Freud suggests, in his description of infantile sexuality, a quite different destiny for the child’s curiosity. Or rather, he suggests that the fact that the child knows exactly what interests him – that is, sexuality – makes curiosity itself a scandal for culture. His curiosity can only take the form of sublimation; he makes up theories, in fantasy and language; but the theories are always about sexuality. It is a kind of sublimation, in other words, that is always refusing to play the game; that keeps, as it were, pointing at bodies, and what they might do for pleasure.

Freud believed, Philip Rieff wrote in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, that psychoanalysis could not make people happy, but it could make them less miserable. And yet in Freud’s description of the child, the child represents the refusal of stoicism. The sublimation it practises is a form of hinting – words to get us back to bodies.

Hence the importance (as Plato says) of having been trained in some way from infancy to feel joy and grief at the right things: true education is precisely this.

Aristotle, Ethics

In ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness’, Freud makes a simple and still astonishing assertion: ‘The sexual behaviour of a human being often lays down the pattern for all his other modes of reacting to life.’ Integral to the sexual behaviour of children, indeed constitutive of it, is their curiosity about sex. One could almost say that their curiosity is their sexuality. And yet it is their very curiosity about sex, Freud suggests, that creates in them a fundamental conflict with what he calls the ‘ideals of education’. Children want to know about sexuality but the grown-ups tell them they need to know about something else; and they need to know about something else – call it higher culture – to distract them from what they are really interested in. Education, Freud implies, teaches the child to lose interest in what matters most to him. Interest has to have some thing added to it, called education, to make it acceptable. Freud goes on to describe the debilitating effect of what is referred to in inverted commas as ‘civilised’ sexual morality. ‘In general,’ he writes,

I have not gained the impression that sexual abstinence helps to bring about energetic and self-reliant men off action, or original thinkers or bold emancipators and reformers. Far more often it goes to produce well-behaved weaklings who later become lost in the great mass of people that tends to follow, unwillingly, the leads given by strong individuals.

Sounding rather like Wilhelm Reich here, Freud is quite clear that civilised sexual morality, with its injunction to abstinence, ironically undermines all the culture’s most cherished character ideals. Indeed, if we read this paper prospectively we could think of what Freud calls ‘civilised sexual morality’ or ‘ideals of education’ as forerunners or bearers of what he will later call the death instinct; that it is the function of culture to kill curiosity; or to effect that subtler muting, or diverting, or distracting, of curiosity – which he refers to in this paper – called sublimation. Through sublimation we can have it both ways. Or that’s what we need to believe.

‘We may well raise the question,’ Freud concludes his paper sombrely, ‘whether our civilised” sexual morality is worth the sacrifice which it impose son us, especially if we are still so much enslaved to hedonism as to include among the aims of our cultural development a certain amount of satisfaction of individual happiness.’ Why, Freud seems to be asking, have we bothered to include among our ideals a bit of satisfaction for the individual? Why haven’t we dispensed with individual satisfaction altogether? Why not, after childhood, just lose interest in happiness? There is a simple – and to some people, an obviously simplistic – logic here. Children, Freud suggests, are hedonists, preoccupied by the erotics of pleasure. Civilisation wants to foreclose the child’s real interest. Education – like much development theory – offers the child a new religion: the religion of substitution. Symbol formation, transitional phenomena, the Law of the Father, the Oedipus complex, the shareable sublimations of art: the message to the child is the same – there is no substitute but you must find one. You must give something up with no guarantee that what you will get in its place will even be sufficient, let alone as good or better. You must lose interest in order to find it; this is the gospel of development. You must mourn your hopeless passion for your parents, your imaginary, idealised identification, your absorbing sensuality; you must acquire language. How can we possibly imagine development – or indeed a viable life – without the idea of substitution? And yet this is exactly what Freud is asking us to do in ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’. We are, he says, by nature interested in sexuality, indeed fascinated by it, and then civilisation invites us to remake our interest, to fashion ourselves into educable creatures. The cost of losing interest in what interests us is, he writes, ‘an increase of anxiety about life and of fear of death’, and a susceptibility to strong leaders. In other words, we are radically imperilled by our gospel of substitution, by our willingness to be initiated into abstinence.

We may not know what sublimation is, but we all get a bit agitated, or suspicious, if someone suggests, as Freud does here, that it may not be such a good thing. We prefer the barbarity of culture to the barbarity of nature, even though we usually can’t tell them apart. No one can be pastoral about sex now, and to talk of an uncultured sexuality is a contradiction in terms. In a certain sense, there is no sexuality without culture. And yet in this paper – written when he was in his early fifties – Freud offers us his instructive romance, so much against the grain of most of his own writing, and of the psychoanalysts that were to follow on. ‘In man,’ Freud writes, ‘the sexual instinct does not organically serve the purposes of reproduction at all, but has as its aim the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure.’ This was the real scandal of what Freud called infantile sexuality. Not only that it is a (thwarted) warm-up for adult life – and therefore that children are prototypically sexual creatures – but that infantile sexuality, with its sole aim of ‘gaining particular kinds of pleasure’, is the fundamental paradigm for erotic life. The counter-Darwinian implications of a human sexuality that is untied from procreation, or even anti-reproductive, are shocking. It may not be that children can’t wait to grow up and have proper reproductive sex – a comforting belief for the adults; but that, in Freud’s view, children have discovered, thanks to their immature sexual constitutions, one truth about sex: that it is about the giving and getting of certain pleasures, and that civilised notions of relationship and family obscure this. Sex, as for children in this unlikely Freudian pastoral, issues in nothing but sensual delight, in appetite regained.

‘Sublimation,’ the American psychoanalyst Hans Loewald begins his book on the subject, ‘to the psychoanalyst, is at once privileged and suspect.’ As, one might add, it is for the child. The child does not have to be seen as either a tragic or a comic hero or heroine; he is an ecstatic, an aesthete who sublimates in order to set limits to sublimation; someone who believes, in Loewald’s sublimated abstract language, that ‘differentiated or “further advanced” modes of psychic life’ are defensive, even illusory in nature, concealments or more or less intriguing, fanciful embellishments of the elementary, the psychic reality of instinctual-unconscious life.

Of course, to try and describe an unsublimated life would itself be a consummate act of sublimation. There is an irony built into theorising sexuality: we are always talking of degrees of sublimation. But Freud’s story in ‘Civilised Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’ confronts us rather starkly, almost as a kind of parable, with a more immediate, less abstract question: how do we – or can we ever – tell the difference between what we are interested in and what we should be interested in? The child in Freud’s story represents a capacity for absorption or affinity; a willingness to be lost in something or someone. What Freud calls civilised morality, the ideals of education, in this paper, I would redescribe in Winnicottian terms as ‘compliance’: that which I do because not doing it is too dangerous. How do we know the child is interested in sex? Freud wonders. Because he or she, at certain times, is endlessly asking questions about it, and secretly making up stories about it that Freud pointedly wants to call theories; formulating, in fantasy, unconscious wishes. The child’s interest is in the stories (what James referred to as making interest through art). Language is the child’s best way of being this curious, keen, theory-bound hedonist. And like all serious hedonists – it is the problem of hedonists that they are always serious – the child is not a crude literalist. He is not a pornographer; he is committed to the erotics of subtler mediation; of doing sex partly with words. But he won’t settle for a diet of words: words are his route back to bodies.

All psychoanalytic theory celebrates and encourages the child’s developing ability to extend the range of his interests beyond his body and the bodies of his parents, in relation to each other. Indeed, what else could it propose? The child must acquire, at least officially, a rather more occasional interest in his and other people’s bodies, and a spellbound commitment to the language and character ideals of his culture. And yet Freud implies here that the inevitable, and necessary, wild goose chase of culture – of which psychoanalysis is a part – can be both depleting and radically dismaying for the individual, who at the same time has nowhere else to go. He can only know his most private or recondite preoccupations in the public language of culture. His privacy, at best, is a public life in secret.

In describing infantile sexuality in these remarkable early papers, Freud is describing that which it is impossible for us not to be interested in: what it might be – what it was once like – for our curiosity to be irresistible; the kind of artistic vocation that Picasso was referring to when he too famously said: ‘I don’t seek, I find.’

Children, in James’s terms, live intensely; and their art – the making of sexual theories – ‘makes life, makes interest, makes importance’. In Freud’s view their sexuality, in one sense, is their art. Their lives are not sacrificed to theory-making but rather, are made possible by it. Their ‘importance’, which their parents’ sexuality threatens, is literally sustained by their family romances. One could say that with the concept of sublimation – at least as applied to children and their sexual researches – Freud dissolved the distinction between Art and Life. Instead of the supposed choice between perfection of the life and perfection of the work, there is, Freud suggests, only one thing we cannot help but do, and for which children are our exemplary models, and that is sublimate. Children are exemplary for Freud in these early papers because they make of their sexuality an interest in sexuality. So the question posed by James’s defence of his art, and Freud’s account of children’s sexual researches, is not: to sublimate or not to sublimate? but: what is a good-enough sublimation? What makes a sublimation – like psychoanalysis itself, say – work sufficiently well for us? What are our individual criteria for this and where do they come from? These are clearly moral questions about the roots and consequences of our most impassioned interests (morality being our decision about what to praise). And interest, as Freud shows, is never innocent and always morally ambiguous. What Freudian descriptions of a life make plain is that we have official and unofficial interests, and that we are often unaware of the difference. A crude Freudian – a not uninteresting thing to try and be these days – could say that people who come as patients for psychoanalysis are suffering from not having made good-enough sublimations. That they have got further and further away from those things that – for whatever reason – matter most to them. That their official interests – what Freud called ‘civilised morality’, the ‘ideals of education’ – are spellbinding, their unofficial interests hidden. Their official education has extinguished their unofficial education.

If, for example, we think of ourselves when we are doing psychoanalytic or any other training as being like Freud’s children engaged in their sexual researches, we are immediately confronted with a puzzle. Each of us, by virtue of the idiosyncrasy of our history, our present life predicament, what Freud might call our libidinal stage, has specific, private preoccupations. And yet we are encouraged – it is a training requirement – to read quite a broad range of relevant theory. On any given day can this page of Lacan, that paper by Sullivan, this concept of Klein’s be meaningful to me? The more diligent self I need for my official education may read it all, week in, week out. From the point of view of my unofficial education – my affinities rather than my duties – it can only be intermittently and unpredictably interesting. We are continually being told the facts of life – the canon of essential psychoanalytic texts – and yet only some of the facts seem at all nourishing; we can copy them – remember them and reproduce them – but we can’t make anything sufficiently our own with them. They are, in other words, small-scale traumas; not subject to inner transformation. It is the anti-transformational objects that are the most dispiriting: those objects we have no interest in transforming – and so are of no interest; or those objects that demand that we do not transform them, but merely abide by them. Absolute obedience is a fear of interest. A trauma, one could say, is a set of bewildering unconscious instructions. A good interpretation, by contrast, is something the patient cannot help remaking.

Yet anyone reading all this talk of the vocation of art, of the Freudian child as our originary artist, of the wonders of passionate curiosity, might feel a certain weary déjà vu, as though we were re-entering the twilight home of the Sixties, the nostalgic graveyard of certain versions of the Freudian Left. And if we want to be contemporaries how can we talk about the child – or indeed the adult – having real interests when Freud’s sense of the human subject is as a site of competing projects, of what Richard Rorty calls ‘a plurality of sets of beliefs and desires’, none of them intrinsically more valuable or real than any other except by our making them so? The whole notion of sublimation only makes sense if there is something to sublimate. Something real or fundamental. And yet our description of whatever this is – sexuality, aggression, perversion – is itself a sublimation; a cultural, shareable construction. If we are essentialists of one sort or another, we can say: our childhood selves are our essence, and as children we were essentially interested in sex; or to put it more scientifically, in our biological destiny. Indeed one version of what Freud is saying is that we are born essentialists struggling to be more plural; to be pluralist. In this sense the essentialist – the so-called pervert or hysteric or obsessional or narcissist – is immature; has kept himself simple. Optimally, our development entails unpacking our sexuality into more satisfying forms; what is called pathology is always a narrow-mindedness of one sort or another.

What I am calling ‘interest’ is a word for what in psychoanalytic language might be called good-enough sublimation. Sublimation in which the body is only forgotten in order to be better remembered, as in any unselfconscious performance. When we free-associate we forget ourselves in order to speak. As we understand ourselves more through analysis we know ourselves less. We forget who we thought we were; or who we thought we needed to be. As one becomes more attentive to the contingencies and determinations of one’s life, one’s future selves become definite only in their unpredictability. The future will be like the past, not in the sense of repetition, but in the sense of having been uncalculated. So, one of the aims of analysis is to free people to do nothing to the future but be interested in it. It is the difference, perhaps, between two kinds of interest, the foreclosed and the genuinely prospective. The difference between a conviction and a possible surprise. The now familiar difference between the essentialist and the pluralist.

So what I want to make out of Freud’s early papers about the child as theorist – the child who is an artist because he wants to be a failed scientist – is a simple proposal: that we should all be essentialists trying to be pluralists, and pluralists trying to be essentialists. That we should want to commit ourselves, as persuasively and eloquently as possible, to both sides of the line at once. That we should sustain the conflict inside us and not be trying to resolve it. Children are essentialists, contemporary adults don’t have to be. There is no way of having it without having it both ways. If we don’t we may, like Freud’s civilised children, simply lose interest, lose heart. Become too eagerly too old for pleasure.

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Vol. 18 No. 17 · 5 September 1996

I found Adam Phillips’s article (LRB, 20 June) the usual mixture of the baffling and the thought-provoking. The topic of sublimation, and of an ‘interest’ that is not simply prompted by an adult translation of childish sexual curiosity, is one that needs thinking about.

One of the problems with Freud’s concept of sublimation is that it seems to presuppose an original form of instinctual and unsophisticated psychic drive, whose main aim is physical (‘sexual’) gratification, which we learn, painfully, in the course of education and acculturation to redirect towards ‘higher’ and less immediate pursuits – intellectual, scientific or artistic work. At the same time, sublimation seems to entail some qualitative transformation of these original drives. In this way Freud’s concept comprehends the two aspects traditionally associated with sublimation (in alchemy, for example): an upward aspiration combined with the refinement of a base substance. ‘Interest’ could then be seen as a form of psychic investment that is no longer simply driven by instinctual need, and that has something optional about it (as the financial analogy implies).

However, this model of sublimation just doesn’t seem to match up with experience. As we grow up, or at least older, the nature of our appetites – even the ‘basic’ ones for food, shelter, company or sex – gradually becomes more and more sophisticated. In other words, they are increasingly complicated by a weaving together of our personal experience with cultural and social influences. This happens unevenly: some people’s sophistication in matters of food is greater than in matters of sex; in some cases it seems hardly to have happened at all; and in others it gets taken to the kind of extreme in which particularity and perversity of taste are almost indistinguishable. But at no point can we, as adults, draw a line on one side of which is ‘raw’ need and on the other a completely sublimated derivative of it.

With ‘Art’ the problem is that there is a more or less evident ‘jump’ between the kinds of investment we make in forms of conversation, conviviality and decoration, and the rather different ‘interest’ we derive from those forms of art (literature, music, painting) that are in some way set apart from the everyday textures of life. This jump seems to match Freud’s concept of sublimation, because it implies a special kind of transformation or ‘work’. Take Freud’s famous comment about a group of avant-garde artists: ‘Meaning is but little to these men; all they care for is line, shape, agreement of contours. They are given over to the Pleasure Principle.’ One way of making sense of this is to suppose some failure of sublimation because these artists had got stuck at a preliminary stage of narcissistic and hedonistic pleasure and had not done the transformative work necessary for a ‘proper’ work of art. Staying with this example, we can infer that for Freud successful sublimation was intimately connected with a process of conventional refinement. But when the gap between immediate pleasure-yield, lusty curiosity, transformation and interest begins to close, as it does in many forms of modern art, it becomes increasingly difficult to sort out a conventional model for the sublimatory process: indeed it was one of the Surrealists’ tactics to aim at works of art that were anti-sublimatory in their effect.

David Maclagan
Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, Sheffield University

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