The Abstracted Mother in The Piano Teacher
First, a summary statement: Zizek’s psychoanalytic interpretations tilt away from analyzing object relationships to emphasize their defensively-constituted replacements. Instead of illuminating members of the cast of characters in the subject’s “psychic theater” (in Joyce McDougall’s useful phrasing),1 Zizek describes points of fixation, or fascination, that replace failed object relationships. Zizek’s method, with its unarticulated emphasis on the subject’s narcissistic injury and their reified struggle to regain illusory plenitude, encourages us at the level of theory and method to join the subject in their fascination. This seriously limits the potential contribution psychoanalysis can make to either the understanding of inindividuals or social processes.
To illustrate, I draw on his reading of the psychodynamics driving the plot of the film The Piano Teacher. Zizek introduces his discussion of the film in Welcome to the Desert of the Real this way:
…if the true opposite of the Real is reality, what if, then, what they [people who cut themselves] are actually escaping from when they cut themselves is not simply the feeling of unreality, of the artificial virtuality of our life world, but the Real itself which explodes in the guise of uncontrolled hallucinations which start to hunt us once we lose our anchoring in reality? 2
What is the Real that they seek to escape? Zizek illustrates:
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (France/Austria 2001) helps us to negotiate this conundrum. The film is based on a short novel by Elfried Jelinek, the story of a passionate but perverted love affair between a young pianist and his older teacher (superbly played by Isabelle Huppert): it draws on the old cliché, from fin-de-siecle Vienna, of a young sexually repressed girl from an upper-class family who falls passionately in love with her piano teacher. Today, however, a hundred years later, more than just the respective gender roles are reversed: in our permissive times, the affair has to be given a perverted twist. Things take a fateful turn and start to slide towards the inexorable tragic ending (the teacher’s suicide) at a precise moment: when, in answer to the boy’s passionate sexual advances, the ‘repressed’ teacher violently opens herself up to him, writing him a letter with a detailed list of her her demands (basically, a scenario for masochistic performances: how he should tie her up, force her to lick his anus, slap and even beat her, and so on). It is crucial that these demands are written – what is put on paper is too traumatic to be pronounced in direct speech: her innermost fantasy itself.
When they are thus confronted — he with his passionate outbursts of affection and she with her cold, impassionate distance – this setting should not deceive us: it is she who in fact opens herself up, laying her fantasy bare to him, while he is simply playing a more superficial game of seduction. No wonder he withdraws in panic from her openness: the direct display of her fantasy radically changes her status in his eyes, transforming a fascinating love object into a repulsive entity he is unable to endure. Soon afterwards, however, he himself becomes perversely attracted by her fantasmatic scenario, caught up in its excessive jouissance, and, at first, tries to return her own message to her by enacting elements of her fantasy (he slaps her so that her nose starts to bleed, kicks her violently). When she breaks down, withdrawing from the realization of her fantasy, he passes to the act and makes love to her in order to seal his victory over her. The consummated sexual act which follows is, in its almost unbearable pain, the best exemplification of Lacan’s il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel: although the act is performed in reality, it is – for her, at least – deprived of its fantasmatic support, and thus turns into a disgusting experience which leaves her completely cold, pushing her towards suicide. It would be totally misleading to interpret her display of fantasy as a defence-formation against the sexual act proper, as an expression of her inability to let herself go and enjoy the act: on the contrary, the displayed fantasy forms the core of her being, that which is ‘in her more than herself,’ and it is the sexual act which is, in effect a defence-formation against the threat embodied in the fantasy. [emphasis added]
In his (unpublished) seminar on anxiety (1962-63), Lacan specifies that the true aim of the masochist is not to generate jouissance in the Other, but to provide its anxiety. That is to say: although the masochist submits himself to the Other’s torture, although he wants to serve the Other, he himself defines the rules of his servitude; consequently, while he seems to offer himself as the instrument of the Other’s jouissance, he effectively discloses his own desire to the Other and thus gives rise to anxiety in the Other — for Lacan, the true object of anxiety is precisely the (over)proximity of the Other’s desire. That is the libidinal economy of the moment in The Piano Teacher when the heroine presents to her seducer a detailed masochistic scenario of how he should mistreat her: what repulses him is this total disclosure of her desire. 3
The general coordinates of the Real are “the threat embodied in the fantasy,” against which Erika defends. What is this threat that is papered over by Erika’s desirous proposal?
Let’s turn to the film and look at the proposal more closely than Zizek does. We immediately see that Zizek has not referred to the involvement of a prominent third party in Erika’s proposed scenario, Erika’s mother.4 In the film, Erika’s letter to Walter proposes that he tie her up in proximity to her mother:
“…Hands and feet tied behind my back and locked up next door to my mother, but out of her reach behind my bedroom door, till the next morning. Don’t worry about my mother, she’s my problem. Take all the door keys with you from the apartment. Don’t leave a single one here. Hit me if I disobey… Ask me why I don’t cry out to mother, or why I don’t fight back. Above all, say things like that so that I realise just how powerless I am.”
The adjacent clip is remarkable in at least two respects: Erika and Walter begin their tryst by barricading the mother outside, and then Erika slumps into passivity. Her arms hang at her side as Walter tries to kiss her, and as he reads the letter she sits and listens expectantly as he reads out loud her instructions on how he is to dominate her: she has given herself over to her own script more than to a relationship with him. Erika’s posture dramatizes an oscillation between her active formulation of the scenario over the years preceding this encounter, and her current hope to appear to be subject to it.
To understand this hope, and the import of Zizek’s omissions, we need to reprise the film in a way that at least outlines Erika’s mother’s place in Erika’s psyche. In the first scene of the film we have seen Erika’s mother attacking Erika for purchasing attractive clothes, leading to an undoubtedly routine fight in which Erika slaps her mother and then profusely apologizes before going to sleep in a single bed next to mother’s. From this and other indications of their entanglement, it is not hard to at least superficially grasp why she has incorporated her mother in her sexual fantasy. Erika’s fantasy script – first revealed under the mother’s siege – enlists Walter as her accomplice in an act of transgression. But Erika’s proposal, emphasizing her powerlessness, deliberately mutes her avowal/admission of her desire, replacing it with the belt and slaps of her accomplice, who in the fantasy imposes his will on her. Erika’s encounter with Walter does not have a center of gravity lying between them, so to speak. It is pulled toward her mother, in a scene to be enacted before the mother’s eyes and ears. Her mother, standing at the door, has been irresistibly pulled into the scenario as well.
Erika’s psychic landscape is in the neighborhood of analysands described by Torok and McDougall in the “Madness is not the only option…” essay located elsewhere on this site. Like McDougall’s Professor K, who set up his core sexual fantasy to deceive the observing paternal Other, Erika organizes hers to keep mother at a distance that allows a truncated relationship with another person and some sexual satisfaction within it, but the fantasy remains bounded by concern for the mother’s reaction. As with Professor K, the sadomasochistic nature of the fantasied bond between the lovers reflects a repetitive working over of narcissistic rage and a forestalling of the developmental movement that would carry them beyond preoccupation with the fantasied relationship with the parent(s) to more distinct relationships with peers.
And so, when Walter reacts with disgust to Erika’s proposal and leaves, Erika goes back to bed next to her mother. Mother terms Erika’s behavior with Walter “shameless,” and plays the sighing martyr. Erika responds by throwing herself on her mother, kissing her, exclaiming “I love you!” Mother struggles against her, calling her crazy and filthy. Erika begins to sob and falls back on her bed, and the two of them lie next to each other in an exhausted state akin to that following sex. After a period of breathlessness, Erika tells her mother “I saw the hairs on your sex,” and the scene ends. Erika has negated the movement away from her mother, and her sexual desire fluidly accommodates a return to her. However, and not surprisingly, Erika’s mother is shocked and will not reciprocate. This likely leaves Erika stuck in the position of a foul little girl, condemned to an asexual existence of pleasing mother with her artistic skills.
Zizek is right when he says “It would be totally misleading to interpret her display of fantasy as a defence-formation against the sexual act proper, as an expression of her inability to let herself go and enjoy the act.” But this is true only in the relatively trivial sense that as Erika fantasizes, she cannot ignore the relationship with her mother by formulating an act of simple pleasure for herself. 5 Erika simply has not yet attained that degree of autonomy that would allow her to formulate a fantasy in which pleasure at least appears to be hers to shape, to “let herself go” sensually and centrifugally.
As an alternative formulation Zizek suggests that we regard the sexual act itself as “a defence-formation against the threat embodied in the fantasy.” But this poses an unnecessary dichotomy between the “sexual act proper” and defence-formation. Instead, the sexual act is always part of a compromise formation,6creatively balancing the ensemble of motives that press upon Erika. Defenses — mental mechanisms, or maneuvers, that parry, blend, block, invert – are part of how the compromise unfolds. The compromise has become the “core of her being,” in the sense that it manages to represent and express, albeit in a very contorted way, the subjectively contradictory, powerful, and frightening impulses that work on her. Erika is desperately trying to have it both ways, to form a relationship apart from that with her mother, and at the same time to show her mother that she is loyal to her.
At this point, then, I am suggesting that the Real, in all of the insurgent, hallucinatory disruptiveness that Zizek attributes to it, becomes most manifest when the compromise that Erika has scripted fails to “contain” it. Echoing Bion,7 by contain I mean the structuring afforded by Erika’s script, as well as the fact that she presents it to someone else to experience with with her. When this fails, Erika is left facing her own hatred, fears of abandonment, bodily injury, and annihilation, as did the analysands discussed in the “Madness isn’t the only option…” paper.
Zizek’s occlusion of the mother’s place in Erika’s fantasy is paralleled by his depleted account of Walter’s reaction to Erika’s presentation of her fantasy:
“It is she who in fact opens herself up, laying her fantasy bare to him, while he is simply playing a more superficial game of seduction. No wonder he withdraws in panic from her openness: the direct display of her fantasy radically changes her status in his eyes, transforming a fascinating love object into a repulsive entity he is unable to endure.”
Zizek explains the repulsiveness of a too direct display by citing Lacan to the effect that the true aim of the masochist is not to generate jouissance in the Other, but to “provide its anxiety,” and it is this “(over)proximity” that generates anxiety. However, by obscuring the object relational elements of the fantasy, and the interaction of relational elements between fantasies held by different people, this formulation slides towards simplistic trauma theory. In that view, Erika is “too much, too fast,” for Walter. She quantitatively overwhelms, or overstimulates him, and this appears to be what Zizek means when he says “what repulses him is this total disclosure of her desire.”
However, Erika is not simply “providing anxiety” through “total disclosure.” Again, Erika’s compromise formation-based role for Walter has him “accepting” anxiety that she associates with being more responsible and culpable for their liaison. Erika is afraid of her mother’s reaction to her transgressive desire for Walter, and she seeks to resolve this anxiety by putting Walter in the active, “dominant” position, brutalizing their encounter via an anal rendering (both in the sense that she is “forced” to stick her tongue in Walter’s anus, and that she is sticking her tongue into him, not his penis into her). This formulation of her desire is radically nonreciprocal with and threatens to overwhelm Walter’s own compromise-determined fantasy. Indeed, it is likely intended to do so, in order to remain within her mother’s orbit, as Erika demonstrates when she approaches her mother sexually, thereby undoing her encounter with Walter. Erika’s compromise formation brooks no compromise with Walter’s.
Erika destroys Walter’s hope of a more-or-less conventional form of sex, likely haloed by his idealization of Erika (with its maternal undertones): the woman he idealizes wants him to treat her like shit. Zizek regards this as “returning her own message to her.” But Walter eventually dispenses with Erika’s script by raping her, treating her like shit in his own way, carrying out her deidealization on his own terms as he impersonally frames it in the jargon of “what a man needs.” Although the film offers little detail of Erika’s understanding of this act, it seems likely that his destructive assault leaves Erika feeling that there is no possibility of a relationship based on the compromise formation that she has concocted. Thus, along with the rage and degradation immediately associated with the rape, she would be left facing the failure of her creative attempt to begin to move beyond the relationship with her mother. Suicide becomes her only escape.
The Unmirrored Mother
Why does Zizek treat Erika’s fantasy script in such summary form, leaving out reference to salient object relationships and overlooking the destructive interaction of fantasy systems? Theoretical emphases of Lacanian theory that reduce object-relational scenarios to condensed representations are relevant. While all psychoanalytic schools recognize that reductive representations are part of psychic reality – for example, within the dreamwork “condensed” representations of object relationships prevail – referring to them analytically tends to “unpack” those representations into the object relationships they represent, as I have begun to do above. What holds Zizek back from this analytic step?
Lacan’s paper on the mirror phase offers us a clue.8 There Lacan postulates a phase in child development, occurring as early as six months until 18 months, in which the child, upon seeing his or her image in a mirror, apprehends a complete representation that forever after serves to represent a longed for ideal of integration and wholeness.
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject.
In subsequent passages it is remarkable how Lacan, in glossing early child development, fades out the ongoing interaction with the mother9in his explanation of why the child would be drawn to this coherent representation of itself. While interaction with the social world doesn’t completely disappear as an element of early development, in the paper his most developed thoughts refer to the infant’s immediate physical experience of weakness, uncoordination, and fragmentation.
In man, however, this relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor uncoordination of the neo-natal months. The objective notion of the anatomical incompleteness [of humans] and likewise the presence of certain humoral residues of the maternal organism confirm the view I have formulated as the fact of a real specific prematurity of birth in man….
The mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation – and which manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development.
As Lacan would have it, the child maps the inescapable experience of dependent helplessness onto a sense of physical incoherence. When confronted by an integrated external image in the mirror, the child is forever entranced by this ideal.
How does the child come to experience her body in this way? Lacan’s emphasis on anxieties grounded in the unmediated experience of a helpless, disaggregated body, and their resolution through an alluring integrated image, is strongly at odds with all other psychoanalytic accounts of child development. Those emphasize the pervasiveness of the mother’s mediation of the child’s experience and sense of self; Winnicott’s dictum “There is no such thing as a baby…[only a] nursing couple,” is at most a rhetorical overstatement of this consensus.10 In brief, the mother’s ongoing and routine ministrations to the infant’s bodily needs imbue the infant’s body with a sense of physical and inter/intrapersonal coherence. Bodily needs, and the potential for the experience of being at odds with needs and body, are drawn into routines of care and concern by the mother that promote a sense of integration, of “being together.” These start, of course, at birth, and by the time the infant reaches the time frame of the mirror phase she experiences and “knows” herself within an interpersonal matrix (understood as an interplay of conscious and unconscious representations). Thus the mirror encounter does not occur before spectral objectification “in the dialectic of identification with the other,” but in the midst of it.
So, while – to recall Freud’s phrasing that seems to guide Lacan – “the ego is a body ego,” in its turn the body ego is inevitably constituted via the interaction with the mother.11 From this standpoint an analysis of the sense of fragmentation demands reference to an ongoing failure by either parent to – putting it very generally – acknowledge and “contain” the child’s experience. Thus a sense of fragmentation results from – again generally – the parent’s unwillingness/incapacity to more-or-less coherently and adequately represent the child to herself. Instead, to cite one variant of failure, they use the child to resolve their own experience of incoherence. For example, the child will be the parent they didn’t have, or achieve the success they didn’t achieve. Otherwise, the child doesn’t exist.
In the adjacent clip from American Psycho, Bateman’s voiceover accompanying his self-ministrations initially seems to reflect nothing more than a shallow wish to preserve his looks against aging. Then recitation of his cosmetic regime abruptly darkens as he tells us he is “only an enitity, something illusory,” and that though the grip of his hand and the sense of a shared lifestyle make himseem real, “I simply am not there.” Next come bright shots of skyscrapers and the cheery pop music Bateman pours into his head with his Walkman as a coworker compliments his tan. His sense of “not being there” is a screen experience of absence or emptiness warding off direct experience of the hatred most explicitly directed at his victims. 12
Bateman’s handsome face and physique – the “specular image” he can “jubilantly assume” – represents more than just an integration of his disaggregated body. It registers an interpersonal wish and fantasy: he sees the image of a boy his mother should love (Shengold describes an analysand with similar dynamics here). In maintaining a yuppie lifestyle and a pornstar physique, ideals which he both subordinates himself to and wields as a merciless critic of the shortcomings of others, Bateman preserves hope for love even as he imagines himself powerful enough not to depend on it. His hope has been transformed narcissistically — this is Lacan’s “assumption of the armour of an alienating identity” –- and Bateman tries to exchange his own approving gaze and that of an endless series of random others for his mother’s. But his attempt to triumph at life on the specular surface fails. He remains vulnerable to more direct experience of the infantile needs his narcissism seeks to bind, and thus is compelled to faecalize and dismember the women he encounters because they still threaten him with denigration, even as he preemptively denigrates them. Their subjectivity, their capacity to have their own thoughts and feelings about him, is intolerable.
Considering the Real from this standpoint draws out how subjects flee from fully experiencing their object relations in all their contingency. Instead of accepting a more open-ended play of their own needs within a reciprocal encounter with another, subjects in the grip of the Real regiment themselves and their interactions, each striving for omnipotence in their own way. Erika is compelled to submit to her own script, while Bateman emulates porn scenes and then starts up his chainsaw.
The Real and Political Analysis
Recall the introductory quotation from Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
…if the true opposite of the Real is reality, what if, then, what they [people who cut themselves] are actually escaping from when they cut themselves is not simply the feeling of unreality, of the artificial virtuality of our life world, but the Real itself which explodes in the guise of uncontrolled hallucinations which start to hunt us once we lose our anchoring in reality?
So instead of “What is it about Erika’s relationships with her objects that leads her to cutting?”, Zizek asks “How does cutting manifest her struggle with the Real?” The metaphor of an “anchor in reality,” mundanely plausible when reality is opposed to virtual reality – a parent reminds their child playing Grand Theft Auto that they have homework – doesn’t effectively orient us to what is most significant about Erika’s state. Prior to her encounter with Walter, Erika’s strivings are represented in a hodge-podge of artistic success, visits to porn stores, fights with mother and self-mutilation. Instead of being anchored, she lives in a state of diffusion, her object strivings disorganized and explosively tense. Whatever hallucinatory potential she faces stems from the mounting pressure to reorganize her object world by breaking away from the relationship with her mother. This she attempts with her script.
It seems to me that the reservations I’ve raised concerning the shortcomings of Zizek’s Real-oriented analysis of The Piano Teacher apply to any use of the concept of the Real to understand social processes. Consider the occasion for Zizek’s courageous intervention, the attack on the World Trade Center. Doesn’t critical analysis of that attack demand overcoming nationalistic stupefication in order to give adequate representation to the, if you will, field of object relational conflicts that have brought about the disaster? Zizek himself sees this, as many passages in the book make clear. But the contribution of Lacanian theory to this level of critical analysis is tenuous at best. This is because, as I argue in the “Madness” paper on this site, the Lacanian concept of the “sinthome” (here is a definition) pulls Zizek to affirm narcissistic structures as psychologically essential and, going much further, as offering a form of authentic jouissance that psychoanalysis should affirm.
Framed in these terms, a Lacanian analysis of the World Trade Center attacks would acknowledge how for both attackers and attacked, the World Trade Center came to acquire tremendous symbolic potential, a prism that could refract a kind of social Real, formed out of the tremendous strain that had developed in a highly stratified world society.
But then what? Paralleling my sketch of an object relational analysis of The Piano Teacher, we could draw attention to the vital narcissistic functions the World Trade Center came to serve. Briefly: for the attacked society, it was a condensed, tangible representation of their triumphant, elated conviction of socioeconomic preeminence, a conviction made all the more necessary by the painful instabilities attendant to consumer culture and occupational vulnerability. For the attackers, the towers provided a way to demonstrate both the vulnerability of the system and their own moral omnipotence, thereby absolutely transcending their subordinate “Third World” status. And, we could also note how the American president responded to the attacks with a gush of faith-rendered narcissism, inviting his constituents to join him in a Crusade against stereotypically magnified and denigrated Evil.
This line of analysis can point toward an analytic (or political-analytic) deconstruction of these narcissistic structures. However, to the extent that Zizek’s political conclusions are regulated by the sinthome concept, this straightforward analytic follow-though does not occur. Instead Zizek would be pulled in the direction of not only acknowledging, but actually affirming the attacks as an available conduit for representing and expressing the distorted relationship between attackers and attacked, in much the same way as Erika’s scenario is her sole formulation of a “way out.” This endorsement of barbarism is absurd, and also completely dissonant with Zizek’s overall effort. But that effort is weakened by a conception of psychoanalysis that obscures object relationships in favor of their substitutes. Indeed, to recall Leo Lowenthal’s acute phrase, that is what “psychoanalysis in reverse,” not psychoanalysis, is all about.13
4. In the following I address the exclusion of Erika’s mother in Zizek’s analysis. Erika’s father also undoubtedly plays a large role in her psychic reality, but the film presents so little about him that I’ve chosen to not try to reconstruct his position.
5. “For herself” carries us in the direction of an impossible ideal of sexual freedom. We are never truly free to formulate our pleasures, they are inevitably caught up in our past and, indeed, draw on it to constitute pleasure. In this sense, Erika’s fantasy is remarkable for its apparent renunciation of will, its rigid disavowal of conjugal intent.
6. “To say that everything in mental functioning that is of interest to us in our work as analysts is a compromise formation means that the mind regularly functions in such a way as to achieve as much pleasure as possible from gratification of sexual and aggressive wishes of childhood origin and, at the same time, to avoid as much as possible the unpleasure associated with those wishes.” Brenner, C. (1999). “Charles Brenner on Compromise Formation.” J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 47:875-876, p. 875. This raises and answers the question, of course, of whether all sexual behavior is to be construed as organized within a compromise formation.
8. Lacan, J. (1977). “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience.” In A. Sheridan (Trans.), Ecrits: A selection (pp. 1–7). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1949). Sections from the paper can be found at this site here.
9. In what follows I will tend to refer to the mother’s relationship with the baby. Other caretakers can and inevitably come to exercise a powerful, similar role, and for reasons of brevity their contribution will be only erratically noted.
10. Winnicott, D. W. (1975). Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis. Int. Psycho-Anal. Lib. , 100:1-325. p. 99. See also Margaret Mahler’s The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant and Daniel Stern’s The Interpersonal World of the Infant which, despite significant differences, are in accord regarding the early formation of the interpersonal matrix of infant development and thus the impossibility of the unmediated experience of bodily fragmentation postulated by Lacan.
11. “In psychoanalytic theory it is generally taken for granted that the ego is a body ego, that is to say, the whole structure of the personality is built up on body functioning and the fantasy that accompanies body functioning.” Winnicott, D. W. (1987). The Spontaneous Gesture. p. 123. The mother’s attentions, in all their conscious and unconscious dimensions, profoundly shape the baby’s fantasies of their bodily functioning. For example, the sheer onslaught of hunger, a bodily state first experienced by the baby as an overwhelming horror, rapidly becomes interwoven with the more-or-less reassuring respite offered by the mother’s feeding. Subsequently, reassurance comes not only with feeding itself, but with the sounds and smell of the mother, her soothing verbal response; eventually, her presence, and then her remembered presence suffice. Similarly, the child’s first steps, seemingly a hallmark of autonomy and physical self-possession, are mediated by the gaze of the delighted/anxious/threatened parent.
12. Lucy Lafarge has written an excellent paper on the experience of emptiness as a defense against anxiety-evoking affect. Lafarge, L. (1989). Emptiness as Defense in Severe Regressive States. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 37:965-995.