Separation and Anxiety

The birth of the other we know is not just biological. It is psychological, depending on the forming of attachments and identifications and the modification, even dissolution, of these. One mechanism is separation – the necessary – un-cleaving – of foetus from the womb, neonate from the breast, developing infant from his or her omnipotence.

Without effective separation there is no subject, no entity possessing an individuated desire. And without desire of this kind, a child is invaded by jouissance. This is hinted at in the etymology. Separation has its root in the Latin se-parare–parare-to prepare – to make ready. In Seminar X1, Lacan renders it as engender – to put into the world: By separating we put ourselves into the world. It is, as Lacan notes in Seminar X1 a law and therefore a social operation.

Separation, then, like desire, involves the other; implying, not just a lack on the part of the subject, but an urge to be recognised by the other, who it will turn out also lacks.

We need to separate but it is a painful process. Made up, as we are, by what we have loved and lost, separation is a necessary castration, one that can be resisted, but only at the cost of a failure of subjectivity, what Freud refers to as the shadow of the object falling across the ego. Let me explore this retrospectively, by referring to a young man whose suffering-from one perspective – can be thought of as the outcome of a childhood failure to effectively separate from parental representations.

He wishes to address persecutory childhood memories, recurring thoughts that centred on ambivalent feelings about parents. He does not want  to be like them. But he cannot separate from them because to do so would – in his terms – be not to care about them. The suffering he brings then is severe depression, as Freud predicted in Mourning and Melancholia. The dilemma here can be thought of as involving identity. He has, you could say, solid identifications but no identity-as his identifications are in conflict and thus a burden.

There are a number of ways of approaching this scenario. For many post-Freudians separation is linked to anxiety and said to contribute to a condition, one defined as the tragic fear of finding oneself alone and abandoned. This is thought to be the case where anxiety is excessive. Rather than a spur to desire, such anxiety, one adduced to failed separation, becomes mortifying. In his book, The Taming of Solitude, Kleinian analyst, Jean-Michel Quinidoz, sees such separation anxiety as something to be tamed, not by eliminating anxiety, but by placing it in the service of life.

In this way of thinking, separation anxiety can be both a reflection of the distress that accompanies the perception of the transience of human relations, and a structuring emotion for the ego; the latter being a way to make the subject aware of her own singularity – and thus forming the foundation of identity – and a knowledge of the other.

Separation-the word is usually associated with temporary interruption–but when this is permanent, or felt to be so, separation can be conflated with relentless loss. Neurotics learn to defend themselves against the resulting anxiety by repression. The idea here is that becoming conscious of the unconscious origins of such anxiety, may, when re-lived in the transference, help to resolve the symptoms.

There are two words here – separation and anxiety. As indicated, some schools of analysis link them to talk of separation anxiety. Freud, who like Lacan, spoke more of anxiety that separation, as early as 1893 (Letters to Fliess) believed the anxiety associated with separation arose from libido – sexual excitation – that could not be properly discharged. This was Anxiety Neurosis- similar to hysteria, but with physical rather than psychic symptoms.

Freud’s ideas on anxiety, as we know, underwent change. From his second topography anxiety is seen as an affect experienced by the ego. In Inhibitions Symptoms and Anxiety 1926 he ascribes anxiety to fantasies of the fear of separation and object loss – a state of helplessness when confronted with a threat of danger – one that evokes an infantile fear – the absence of the mother. This could be seen to render the fear of separation a prototype of anxiety. We can think, for example, of the three year-old boy afraid of the dark, where what’s feared is not so much the dark but the absence of a loved person, (Three Essays on Sexuality, 1905); the grandchild playing with the reel (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920) and, anxiety having its origins in fear of separation and loss, both for children and adults, (Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, 1926).

Separation anxiety is, however, most associated with the work of Bowlby and Winnicott, with separation said not only to cause distress at the time it occurs or unhappiness later, but to be the cause of specific outcomes, especially depression. Bowlby sees such separation as the institution of mourning processes at an age when the child is too immature to complete them, leaving her, as it were, “stuck” in the phase of despair. This schema has gained traction because it lends itself to statistical calculation.

But, for a range or reasons, such apparently measurable results are not as clear-cut as they may seem: Separation only being ascertainable in obvious ways (hospitalization for example) and not easily calibrated with maternal deprivation, which can occur without physical separation. Nor does such a model take into account what Lacan highlights – the misleading nature of an explanation that is based on a model of frustration-regression-aggression.

For Lacan, what Bowlby sought in ethology – Harlow’s young monkeys reacting to maternal deprivation in a similar way to children – only served to indicate that what was specific to the human child was being overlooked.

Without denying the obvious fact of the primacy of the biological and emotional bonds linking child to mother, Lacan argues, after Freud, that biology and emotion are secondary to an identification peculiar to human beings, and even more so to the social laws which govern the institution of the family into which the child is born. This shifts the attention away from the mother to the father, the symbolic father of the law, and to desire, that which for Lacan is an antidote to anxiety. As he says in The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire, the true function of the Father … is to unite desire with the Law, not to oppose it,”. This applies to the young man mentioned earlier, whose father is too much a Primal Horde father, leaving his mother terrified and overly needy – the result being that the son struggles to formulate any desire.

But let’s go back to Freud for a moment, and his theories of anxiety, which mostly focus on a reaction to trauma—an experience of helplessness in the face of an excitation that can’t be discharged (1926). Here trauma is thought-to-be precipitated by ‘situations of danger’ like loss of the mother, loss of her love and, above all, castration. Freud is distinguishing between ‘automatic anxiety’, when the anxiety arises directly as a result of a traumatic situation, and ‘anxiety as signal’, when the anxiety is reproduced by the ego as a warning of an anticipated situation of danger.

He identifies (1926) two fundamental sorts of anxiety –separation that develops pre-genitally and corresponds to a dyadic relation – and castration, which corresponds to a triangular relation characteristic of the Oedipus complex.

This was hinted at in Mourning and Melancholia: The child must first differentiate and distinguish her ego from the (m)other to accomplish the transition from narcissistic identification to the identifications characteristic of the resolution of the Oedipus complex. At this time, 1917, Freud felt that depression originated with the introjection of the lost object in a split-off part of the ego. A few years later in Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety, he, as noted, opted to attribute anxiety to a fear of separation and loss.

According to the neo Freudian model then, the recognition of self and object depends on working through narcissistic defences, which may involve a wish to possess the object. A move away from such narcissism necessarily produces anxiety – as it requires the child to differentiate from his or her object. It is an anxiety that is likely to be excessive unless the subject has actually encountered the object, a process that locates psychoanalysis as Thomas Mann said -as a form of melancholy knowledge.

The young man speaks of anxiety, but more of an apparent nihilism characteristic of melancholia. As stated earlier, he conflates separation from parents with indifference and cold rejection. He could be said to have failed to separate but equally it is possible to think of his dilemma as incomplete alienation. Not used by Freud, the term is employed by Lacan, notably in Seminar X1 to denote the inevitable consequence of the process by which the ego is constituted by identification: making the initial ego an alter ego, ‘I is an other’.

Lacan coined the term extimacy to define this alienation, in which alterity inhabits the innermost core of the subject – to tolerate this alterity is to have accommodated loss –

For Lacan, then, alienation is not an accident that can be put right but essential. The subject is fundamentally split, alienated from himself; there is no escape from this, no possibility of the ‘wholeness’, which patients very often imagine as the goal. In his investigation of Seminar X, Roberto Harari, uses the term “separated” to describe the loss that sets the scene for all other losses-that of object a, Lacan’s  “invention” – and one that subverts analysis by pointing to an ”internal separation in the arena of “ek-sistence”. (ek-tacasy – outside himself, needs an object).

Initially, Lacan saw anxiety in the threat of fragmentation with which the subject is confronted in the mirror stage – later arguing that such fantasies of bodily dismemberment gather around the penis – giving rise to castration anxiety. He also linked anxiety with the fear of being engulfed by the devouring mother. This Kleinian tone marked a departure from Freud, for whom anxiety is caused, at least in part, by separation from the mother.

But Lacan insisted it was a lack of separation that induced anxiety. This has important clinical consequences. In the case of the young man, it suggests that it wasn’t the absence of mother but mother’s intrusion in the gap where a desire might arise – that played a crucial role in suffering. So, while loss is implicated in the anxiety present in neurotic structures, notably phobia, it is the loss of a loss, which is critical. Lacan explores this in the case of Little Hans in which anxiety arises at the moment Hans is poised at the imaginary pre-oedipal triangle-suspended between a point where he no longer knows where he is and a future where he will never again be able to re-find himself.

Hans would have been saved from this by the castrating intervention of the real father – that is, by a limit being placed on the mother’s intrusiveness – but this does not happen-the father fails to intervene to separate Hans from his mother, and he develops a phobia as a substitute. It is thus not separation from mother which prompts anxiety, but its failure. Castration then, is what prevents anxiety. As noted Lacan sees anxiety as a way of sustaining desire when the object is missing, with desire cast as a remedy for anxiety, easier to bear than anxiety. Desire then, comes from lack; anxiety from lack of a lack.

This does not mean, though, that anxiety is without an object (something Freud reserved for fear); it is just that it involves a different kind of object, one that can’t be symbolised the same way as others. This is object a, the object-cause of desire – anxiety appears when something arises in place of it-when the subject is confronted by the desire of the Other and doesn’t know what she is in that.

So where does this leave those suffering anxiety? One way to proceed is to think of a sense of identity emerging through a work of mourning. In Kleinian terms, this would be to gradually recover aspects proper to the ego that constitute identity -a process that will be painful because it means unpacking what’s been confused with her attachments. Interestingly though, it is the dropping of these identifications that, for Lacan, is necessary for the end of an analysis. Such an uncoupling of the master signifier Lacan called separation.

In the later Lacan, where the emphasis is on the real, we could locate anxiety in the interior of the body, when the body is overcome by phallic jouissance. Here, ‘the essential object is not an object any longer, but something faced with which words cease – categories fail; the object, you might say, of anxiety par excellence’.

To consider someone suffering as psychotic in structure is to think of an unraveling of the Borromean Knot, wherein lies the total terror – total jouissance of the Real. Because this is un-symbolizable, it can’t be transferred and transformed the way signifiers may be. But as the Real too is tied to the Borromean Knot, could it too be affected by the symbolic and imaginary? I wondered about this in regard to melancholia where there is something un-symbolized that forms a ‘sticking point’ in the subject’s functioning. Could this bit of the real be addressed via symbolization (verbalization on the analyst’s couch, free association)?

The terrifying thoughts of those suffering extreme anxiety can often be marked by the intercises where the stitching points between signifiers and signifieds come apart. What is remarkable is that when psychosis strikes, it may be at the point where some few remaining stitch points are still holding – where there is still a little contact between the threads of Symbolic and Imaginary. It is as if, as the knot unravels, the Subject clings, by means of symptom, to the final weakening, but still recognizable shreds of meaning.

This threatens to annihilate a subject whose priority is to preserve himself and can be thought of as a kind of acting out upon the points at which there is still some attachment between the rings of the un-ravelling knot and may account for the “meaningfulness” (in the literal sense) of psychotic symptoms. In this case it would be useful to locate what triggers a collapse, so that it might be avoided, perhaps through finding a Sinthome.