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The Sphinx's Riddle

What goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening?

 The Sphinx asked traveller's his riddle , killing those who failed the test. Oedipus answered 'man' and passed through.


Human life is lived through pairings of desire & death, dependence and independence, loss and possession; infancy and maturity. Sigmund Freud discovered that these conflicts begin from the earliest stage of life, where the body's needs and desires begin to find expression and representation through their encounters with deprivation and satisfaction with another (initially mother). He described this process as the unconscious conflict between the pleasure principle through which  our desire and needs seek expression and discharge -and the reality principle, where our essential demands come into conflict with external reality and the demands of surviving in a particular social situation. This is often experienced in relation to fathers, but is an inevitable experience where the 'paternal function', or the third 'other' who comes between us and direct desire and merger with mother as our possession is encountered.This is the defining experience Freud discovered with the 'Oedipus Complex'.

How we manage this encounter with internal desire, conflict and external reality determines whether we achieve (when young or in retrospective structuring) robust identities which allow us to become adults able to enjoy both independent lives, and to be able to fullly engage and establish full relations with others, including the possibility of loving sexual relationship, achieve satisfactory gender identities, and appreciate difference and generational otherness.

Gender, sexuality, ethnicity and culture all overdetermine the form in which this essential experience of individuation takes place, but they do not change the essential nature of it; the need to become oneself in relation to others. Nor is this a socially conforming theory, indeed in a highly authoritarian society or one with a high degree of expectation of conforming to social norms, a highly individuated individual who had achieved an understanding of otherness and a satisfactory compromise with unconscious desire, external reality and self awareness might well be considered to harbour social deviant attitudes and a tendency to wrong thinking.

The need to struggle with internal conflicts in relation to the external is uncomfortable, and can be wished away by locating what is really internal conflict and ambivalence outside of oneself, perceiving it instead as external opposition to identity or desire. Shame or conflict about them, becomes something then felt to be pushed into oneself by cruel others in the external world. The ambivalence is then not known about in oneself, so that wishes can then be kept and conflict denied. In highly ambivalent states of mind, this can be a way of avoiding feeling overwhelmed and taking flight into suicidal feelings, but at the cost of a fragile sense of self a loss of self awareness and possibilty of growth.

French Psychoanalysts consequently consider that a secure and confident heterosexuality is achieved through struggle, when a primary bi-sexuality is encountered and allowed, permitting both receptivity and assertion, quite different from a fragile blown up masculinity which defends against internal alarm at homosexual and feminine feelings and desires, or a hysterical femininity which both sexualises every encounter , while denying sexuality.

Moreover, the need to engage with own's own desire and conflicted identities remains. For psychoanalysis, the question at issue is not social conformity or particular social choices, rather it is about how thinking and coming into Being occur. In this sense, the satisfaction a baby has with her mother does not establish an independent understanding of self and other; it is only the first presence and then absence of mother which forces the mind to work. The lack of fulfillment is what then gives rise to desire in relation to something which is for the first time then experienced as other and absence; thus constituting the other and desire. This Freudian understanding of how the thinking, desiring mind and self comes into being through lack and the negative was particularily developed by Bion and in France by Lacan and more recently Andre Green, Gregorio Kohon and Rosine Perelberg.

This process of struggle internally, and in relation to the external world, is not a once off developmental achievement, but a life long task of coming into being. It is quite possible to become more fragmented, unable to think, and overwhelmed by a need to experience internal desire and struggle as attacks coming from ouside, leading to high anxiety and paranoia. This is not to say outside attacks may not at one and the same time be real; but it does make one unable to distinguish between the inner and outer reality and to respond to it.

The real protection against the vississitudes of being and living comes from engaging with what can be called 'truth'; not the adoption of what we would like to think and be, but staying with and following the internal struggle and what its tells us about ourselves. Being more of oneself does not assure happiness, although it does help with resiliance and freedom to act and be. Freud consequently responded to a Jewish father of a son facing the hostility of antisemitism whether to change his name and hide his identity, by asking why he would wish to deprive his son of the advantage conveyed by adversity. He also spoke in sardonic terms in a short film still shown at the Freud museum about how his psychoanalytic discoveries had 'caused him a great deal of trouble'. A consideration that is less amusing when the external consequence of being both jewish and the father of psychoanalysis being that he had to flee the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. 

Our dependence on others and the external world means that the environment, other people and the world around us, must be understood as vital as the water is to a fish. Neverthess, as we develop, how we experience the world and events that effect us increasingly depend on our internal world and how we percieve and can manage external demands.

From the start then we find ourselves with an inner and outer life which we explore through our relationships with others, sometimes finding satisfaction and joy and sometimes experiencing the pain of frustration, deprivation and loss.

This struggle to express and find ourselves in another shapes our personality, identity and sexuality. Too much frustration or deprivation can lead us to turn away from life and experience the outer world as persecuting and excluding beyond the reality of what may still be possible. Encounters with people and events, some traumatic, from inside as well as out bring feelings of  vulnerability, anger, pain, grief and loss as well as passion and love and are the content of  human experience. This does not mean that suffering has to be managed alone or a reduced life too readily accepted.

There are many forms of help that focus on particular difficulties in relationships or behaviour which has become self-destructive. Psychoanalytic treatment offers a very different experience of an intensive encounter with another which brings to life these essential conflicts which have formed us, offering the possibility of real and transformational change. There is time, space and a setting to allow a real sense of self to develop, and curiously it is being with another who is able to wait that allows us to face the inner reality of who we are.

The space of psychoanalysis and the person of the analyst becomes something that is neither fully outside or entirely internal. Internal reality and fantasy becomes more evident and available to be understood and known in the profound way in which this unconscious life and underlying reality is cast like a shadow before us, determining and effecting our perceptions and choices.

Psychoanalytic work has developed over a hundred years to help the analyst and his patient establish a relationship which allows and initiates the vississitudes of internal life, becoming a journey which changes both participants, and is led by the movement towards the truth and becoming of patient in the analytic couple enabling a process of development and change.

Psychoanalysis seeks to go beyond therapeutic progress in improving  life in ordinary terms. It is directed towards the discovery of the truth of an individual life, in the sense of unravelling desire, defence, inhibition love and hate in an alive interconnection with the psychoanalyst. A 'good' analysis can result in a greater understanding of oneself, including  the discovery of desires which conflict with who we would like to be. This process develops self understanding of ourselves allowing greater choice about how to behave, as well as accepting the need to live with the frustrations of wishes. 

A psychoanalytic consultation provides a safe, confidential space in which to begin to think about desire, hate and love and how to live and die.


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