Original interview available online here

Interview taken by Dmitry Gielen, 01.07.2019.

Translated into English by Ignas Gutauskas.

Edited by Eugenia Konoreva.


Higher School of Economics published the book “The Paternal Metaphor and the Desire of The Analyst. Sexuation and Its Transformation in Analysis” by the philosopher and the psychoanalyst Alexander Smulyanskiy. One of the themes raised in the book explores the development of psychoanalysis as the sublimation in relation to Freud’s desire which eventually turned into the desire of the analyst – the instance hitherto regarded as one of the analytic instruments. We asked the author of the book about this and more.

 Short Introduction.

One of the reasons why psychoanalysis is still regarded with suspicion, besides the dissimilarity of its theoretical apparatus from that of science, are the circumstances of its birth. First and foremost, the suspicion is triggered by the fact that rather than emerging as the result of the centuries-long crystallization, as it happened with sciences which enjoy their authority today, the entire discipline emerged practically out of the blue and thanks to the work of one single man.

For many the emergence of psychoanalysis remains a rather obscure story, whereas the clarification efforts made by theoreticians and Freud’s biographers still appear to be unconvincing. In his book Smulyanskiy does not tell this story from the biographical or socio-historical position, instead he uses the language of psychoanalysis itself – in his view, this is the only way to get to the bottom of this story.

The author relates the emergence of psychoanalytic discipline with Freud’s desire directed to a particular object which appeared for the first time in Freud’s office. This object is the speech of the hysteric who has been given a complete freedom to speak. Owing to this speech, Freud, to his surprise, discovered that the hysteric’s difficulties does not only concern her personal problems, but are rather addressed to the problematic character of the male desire. It is the domain of this desire that she indented to expand by giving the man the gift of enjoyment which he himself did not dare to encroach upon. In this way, she was aspired to revolutionize the realm of desire per se.

The original and quite agitated Freud’s desire to demonstrate to the hysteric the futility of her intentions eventually transformed into the more civilized “desire of the analyst”, manifested in  a tendency to keep a certain distance with the analysand. Moreover, the desire of the analyst played an important role in the emergence of the analyst’s toolkit. These and other broader psychoanalytical questions became the subject of our conversation.


Dmitry Gielen: Psychoanalysis has a dubious reputation today: many people do not trust it and consider it to be something esoteric. Does psychoanalysis dream of becoming a science today as Freud wanted? 

Alexander Smulyanskiy: The thing is that in Russia, the situation with psychoanalysis develops quite specifically. Traditionally, it is the so-called practical psychology which is closer related to the sphere of esoteric knowledge. It shows, for example, by the prevalence of depth psychology, various constellation practices and testing which always touch beyond the psychology of personal self-determination at the inquiry into the so-called fate. If today something limits esoteric knowledge, if something distances from it, in the Russian situation it is precisely psychoanalysis.

DG: Is the situation in the West different?

AS: Yes, indeed, at some times in history analysis was extremely close to the esoteric knowledge, in particular, when Freud already managed to introduce analysis into the professional field. Yet, he could not shield it against the influxes on the side of the contributions of some of his students, e.g., Carl Gustav Jung.

Therefore, each time psychoanalysis requires certain efforts realizable in two steps: firstly, it is necessary to repel what allows the subject to expect some mystical gifts from the fate as a result of his analysis – e.g., a belief that his life is influenced by certain archetypes. Secondly, along with that analysis, oddly enough, has to reject all the potential support from science.

Indeed, for a quite a while, Freud placed his bet on scientific knowledge but eventually he realized that there is a domain from which science seems to be much closer to mysticism than it may appear. That domain is precisely psychoanalysis. The very emergence of science from various sorts of arcane knowledge including marginal spheres of philosophy; science’s claim to take for granted the data obtained at its current stage of development – from the perspective of the discipline discovered by Freud, all this demonstrates that science has much more in common with esoteric practices than it is usually believed.  

DG: Is Freud’s original desire to be on the side of science associated with its special status at the time? Was he afraid of being mocked?

AS: Yes, Freud was really anxious about it. For some time he tried to strengthen his position with the help of science.

DG: Is there a great difference between what analysis was for Freud and what it has become today?

AS: The thing is that today the term “psychoanalysis” does not mean anything unless an analyst declares what sort of orientation his practice refers to. There exists the so-called classical psychoanalysis – the psychoanalysis of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). This clinical practice is based on such postulates as the work with countertransference, the control of the purity of the psychoanalyst’s position, the stake on empathy and the resolution of unconscious conflicts, etc.

These practices have little to do with Freud.  Historically, the practice initiated by him got buried under psychoanalytical psychotherapy and is actualized anew thanks to additional infusions, one of which is the contribution of Jacques Lacan. The latter considered himself a “Freudian psychoanalyst”.

DG: Now, let’s talk about the book: on several occasions you unmask certain opinions on particular issues established in psychoanalytic circles suggesting that Freud meant something different. It gives the impression that Freud was some sort of prophet who bore the only true knowledge. Don’t you regard psychoanalysis as a field of knowledge with an unpredictable vector of development that possibly could not be thought of by Freud?

AS: The point is that what is at stake is not Freud’s uprightness but what could be named public resistance to psychoanalysis. Introducing psychoanalysis Freud foresaw the areas where it would be met in the most unkindly way, as well as the questions which would provoke the most anxiety; the retreat to smoother versions of therapy happened precisely at these points. What Freud foresaw was not only due to his sheer insistence on his uprightness or his prophetic geniality but merely due to his clear understanding of the extent to which the public and the colleagues would be capable to meet his teaching.

DG: But in general, can psychoanalysis develop along some unforeseen trajectories? E.g., in physics, we saw a long-term reign of Newtonian mechanics, and then suddenly it was the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, etc.

AS: The question at issue is that in the long run we start regarding the achievements of science as something if not predetermined by previous accomplishments, but at least settled in a certain conception, even if it is a revolutionary one. Perhaps in a while, the theory of relativity would not seem such a great achievement for us. Likewise, even though it shocked the community at the time, today we hear more and more often that its emergence was in fact inevitable.

In general, the same goes for psychoanalysis. There are certain analytical postulates which are hard to perceive and which seem revolutionary not because they contain particularly innovative and profound knowledge but because the subject resists them. The difficulty is aggravated by the fact that psychoanalysis is a discipline located on the subject’s territory – in this sense psychoanalytic discoveries are doomed to induce anxiety.

Whereas today physical sciences do not evoke any anxiety, which secures their quick advancement in our time, what is at stake in psychoanalysis touches the subject directly. Therefore, it is in his interest that certain domains of psychoanalytic knowledge are  conquered as slowly as possible. For this reason, if something new awaits us it will be related to overcoming the resistance to psychoanalysis, but not to some unpredictable turn in the discipline. Strictly speaking, nothing more innovative than what was proposed by Freud could be invented.

DG: In the book you claim that the aim of psychoanalysis is not to cure. This being said, could the desire “help” the patient to damage analysis?

AS: The analyst does not wish to help or to carry out anything specific. The desire of the analyst is something that should be considered a function. As it is with any desire ­– and this is the basic thing to know about desire from Lacan’s point of view – the desire of the analyst does not have any specific object. By means of clinical technique it captures certain domains of the psyche, but we cannot claim that it aims at accomplishing a specific task. In this respect, the desire of the analyst is not a desire to inflict something on the subject; rather it is a pursuit to maintain a certain kind of vigilance.

DG: Is there a fundamental distinction between the desire of the analyst and that of the patient?

AS: The desire of the analyst is something that does not function without the patient. As I said above, it involves, firstly, an aspiration to keep vigilance and, secondly, the desire to convey to the analysand in one way or another that this vigilance has consequences. In this sense, the desire for recognition – including the recognition from the patient’s part – is not as far from the desire of the analyst as it might be expected.

I would say that it is that part of the analyst’s desire that stems most closely from Freud’s own desire and in this sense it bears quite a mundane character, i.e., it is closer to passion than to method. Likewise, not only this part cannot be eliminated from the desire of the analyst, but it allows to retain the specific appearance of “desire” without being reduced to the analytic technique.

DG: In the book you separate the desire of the analyst from Freud’s desire; you say that the latter lies at the heart of the birth of psychoanalysis, yet it has nothing to do with it. What does it relate to then?

AS: There is a certain inclination to pass over in silence certain peculiarities in the emergence of the psychoanalytic practice. On the one hand, it is indirectly required by the psychoanalytic tradition itself which never speaks of them because it shares and wishes to inspire others to reverence psychoanalysis which requires respective reticence. On the other hand, there exists the so-called tabloid press which voluptuously relitigates various details of Freud’s life, including rather traumatic ones that, ostensibly, could have led to the emergence of psychoanalysis.

Moreover, there have been attempts to literally “analyze” Freud: there are psychoanalysts-biographers (e.g., Ernest Johnes) who purposefully organized their narration about Freud in such a way that a reader herself could make proper conclusions by locating Freud’s lack, i.e., what drove him in his desire. But from my perspective, even this slightly more proper method is not an adequate way of reasoning about the analytic apparatus and the origins of its emergence. Since it is necessary to think about this apparatus exclusively by its own means, therefore a biographical genre or naïve historical narration is not well suited for this task.

In this sense, it is necessary to analyze not Freud but the source, the point of the birth of the psychoanalytic discipline. What I mean is this: there exists a very specific story in which Freud got entangled at the beginning of his psychiatric practice and which radically differs from the events of his daily life. Obviously, this story of female hysterical patients can only be told by analytic means because it is a story of the relationship with a specific object which Freud discovered in the hysterical patient – the object which interested no one but Freud.

Like any psychoanalytic story it requires reconstuction, and Lacan got closer to this  reconstruction than anyone else. He was about to make the results public but eventually he never took a step in this direction, whether because he thought it was not the right time or because he got carried away by other things.

DG: What kind of object is it?

AS: It is the object of potential satisfaction which the hysteric intended to bring to someone whom she found in a state of distress due to the fatal shortage of enjoyment. This someone was the man of that time with whom the female hysterical subject usually got acquainted under the guise of her father. In this sense, the history of the great European hysteria which began shortly before Freud, is a history of the hysteric’s discovery of the man in the sense of the limitations imposed on his desire. From the perspective of the hysteric, the man is the subject for whom nothing is permitted in the domain of desire satisfaction, except for a very narrow range of means. Hence the rigidity and restraint inherent to him which in the eyes of the hysteric appears to be the result of these unfear restrictions.

Therefore, the question which the patients asked themselves and which was at the heart of their symptoms was the question what they could do for the man. Freud found the hysteric literally on the brink of her aspiration to make a revolution in the sphere of desire, i.e. in the sphere of becoming a creature of a certain sex. This revolution is different from what we consider it to be today – it is not a sexual revolution. What the hysteric wanted to undertake is the cardinal extension of man’s possibilities not as much in the question of sexual satisfaction, but in how he is allowed to desire in the situation conditioned by his sex.

DG: But why does she need this?

AS: This is a very complicated question and Freud confronted it in full when he attempted to understand what the woman actually wants. In the general sense it is precisely the analysis of hysteria which allows to answer this question: the hysteric wants the man to have a phantasm different from the one that he has.

DG: All right, but how to understand that she needs this?

AS: First of all, there exists certain literature that today we refer to as the “women’s” literature, although from the contemporary perspective it is not so. There are various incidents in the history of the contemporary women’s desire which could have been a part of political history but they are not for the reason which is hastily reduced to what is referred to as man’s domination today.

In fact, the hysteric’s desire involved something that should not have been brought to light ahead of time. In part, it remained hidden for the reasons related to neurosis itself but there was also something that the hysteric chose to conceal herself. Therefore, what characterizes the hysterical patient at the time Freud takes her into treatment is the shame for her own intentions – the shame for the fact that the man would not need the offering of this object, the object of satisfaction that she prepared him.

Freud interacts precisely with this offering, at first attempting to convey in one way or another to the patient his opinion on the subject. His desire was involved in a specific way at this point; the desire which without doubt was not the psychoanalytic desire, since it does not resemble that regulated form of the desire of the analyst which is found today in the analysts’ offices.

DG: How could his desire be characterized?

AS: It was the desire in a sense of what we usually take for desire - something that leads the subject to those levels where he intends to take an action for which he eventually does not take responsibility. This is precisely what Freud eventually named “the unconscious”. This is an action which, on the one hand, would serve the foundation for the subjective experience and, on the other hand, would give rise to an explanation, a history in which this desire would be told differently.

Freud told his story in the form of an exposition of the postulates of the analytic practice requiring the subject to refuse the enjoyment from his symptom for the sake of curing his neurosis. In many respects it could be claimed that this practice really became a successful sublimation in relation to Freud’s original desire. But at this point it is pertinent to recall that in analysis we consider sublimation not so much a a replacement of initial desire by another more fruitful and socially approved one, but primarily as an invention of another path, overlapping the direct path of the initial desire but not erasing it altogether.

DG: And what would be the direct path in Freud’s case?

AS: Freud got dangerously close to the direct path when he tried to demonstrate to the hysteric as effectively as possible that her expectations are not justified, that she is not entitled to require from the man what, as it appeared to Freud, she required for herself not knowing how to satisfy the man in the form inherent to him. In other words, in the course of analysis development there was a moment when Freud made a typically male decision regarding how to deal with the hysteric. The unselfishness of the latter in carrying out her mission completely eluded Freud during that time.

This is exactly why there was a risk that Freud would take up a mission to educate the hysteric, thereby reducing his desire to that of a doctor who at the time was busy preparing the hysteric for a “normal” life with a man. Nevertheless, in the end Freud successfully avoided this risk. The very originality of the object which he discovered in the hysteric and her symptom, the object whose recognition was inaccessible to the doctor, led Freud to come to terms with its presence, instead of requiring the hysteric to renounce it as an obstacle to analysis and her recovery.

Meanwhile, he was developing a series of measures to prevent the realization of the intentions related to this object. This is what today we are familiar with it in the form of the setting - a number of restrictive rules that define the framework of the analytic process. The whole psychoanalysis is, in fact, a history of handling with this object, a history of its development and simultaneously its avoidance on the part of the analyst.

Recommended literature:

  1. Sigmund Freud “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”.
  2. Jacques Lacan “Seminar V: The Formations of the Unconscious : 1957-1958”.
  3. Alexander Smulyanskiy “Paternal Metaphor and Desire of the Analyst. Sexuation and Its Transformation in Analysis”.