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Wo es war

This is a paper I did for my Intro to Lit Theory class.  It began as a classroom discusion, and now its this...


Where Lacan Was, There Freud Shall Be

Jason Helms

October 27, 2004

ENG 741 Dr. Paulson

Lacan was first and foremost a Freudian. He appropriates Freud’s smallest jot or tittle as the point de capiton of psychoanalytic or linguistic theory. However, there is often something lost—or added—in the translation, and, more often than not, Lacan’s Freud is not the same man we find in the Standard Edition. Perhaps Lacan’s most (in)famous filching from Freud, wo Es war has become a sine qua non of post-lacanian psychoanalytic theory.

Freud first penned the words, "wo Es war, soll Ich werden," as the penultimate sentence to his thirty-first Vorlesungen (included in the English New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis). Strachey translates it "where id was, there ego shall be," which, while being quite literal, misses something of the original. Quoting the surrounding sentences here may provide a modicum of context.

Nevertheless it may be admitted that the therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen a similar line of approach. Its intention is, indeed, to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super ego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be. It is a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee. (Freud XXII 80)

Freud’s lecture to this point has been an effort to distinguish between three parts of the psyche, which he terms the ego (das Ich), super-ego (das ▄ber-ich), and id (das Es). At the risk of being reductive, let us trace his argument. The ego becomes a part, and therefore not whole, of the psyche through splitting into the super-ego and id, thereby becoming an object and no longer pure subject. The super-ego takes on the role of conscience, as well as other functions, and keeps the ego "in check." The id is an entirely unconscious aspect of the psyche, completely unknown to the ego, yet controlling it through various drives and desires, which are subsequently repressed by the ego in an effort to appease the super-ego. Now Freud is telling us, at the culmination of all this, that id is our destination. Where "Es" was, there "Ich" must become.

It may also be added here that there is a certain allusive play resonant throughout the lecture. In speaking of the split nature of the psyche—the ego’s seeking to please both id and super ego—Freud glibly remarks, "we are warned by a proverb against serving two masters at the same time." (XXII 77) The proverb in question is found in Matthew 6:24 when Christ, warning of the dangers of greed, says, "no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." This is a clarification of his previous point, "where your treasure is, there will your heart be also," (v. 21) which Freud picks up for his conclusion. If your heart is your ego and your treasure is your id—and I think Freud would approve of this designation—then "wo Es war, soll Ich werden," is a decidedly telling mÚconnaissance of Christ’s words.

We English speakers differentiate between the indefinite singular pronoun "it" and the "id," but Freud’s German makes such a distinction difficult at best. "Es" could be variously translated as either. "Ich" provides similar issues being either "I" or the "ego." Lacan points out in his essay, "The Freudian Thing," that a tentative distinction can be made by employing Freud’s use of the definite article "das." (128-129) Where Freud writes "das Es" or "das Ich" we may translate, respectively, "the id" or "the ego." Where Freud omits "das" we may translate as "it" or "I." It is interesting to note here that the German definite article serves not only to become the English "the" but also to trade English pronouns for their Latin equivalents, giving them a somewhat academic air.

In light of these varied semantic glosses we see the ambiguity of the German. Freud’s original "Es" may refer to the id or to a noun of the previous sentence—in context making it either the id or psychoanalysis as both are mentioned in the antepenultimate sentence—, or to some nebulous, hitherto unmentioned concept. The third option presents itself more obviously in the German, as "Es" can also "denote that the subject of the action is vague, mysterious, [or] dreadful." (Breul 185) This meaning of "Es" recalls Freud’s reason for choosing that word to represent that vague, mysterious, dreadful unconscious area of the psyche behind the Ego (Ich). Consequently, "Ich" may here refer to the ego or to Freud himself.

When Lacan picks this sentence apart he sees the play inherent in it and uses it to his full benefit. Lacan’s explication reads thus,

The true meaning would seem to be the following: Wo (Where) Es (the subject—devoid of any das or other objectivating article) war (was—it is a locus of being that is referred to here, and that in this locus) soll (must—that is, a duty in the moral sense, as is confirmed by the single sentence that follows and brings the chapter to a close) Ich (I, there must I—just as one declared, "this am I," before saying, "it is I") werden (become—that is to say, not occur (survenir), or even happen (advenir), but emerge (venir au jour) from this very locus in so far as it is a locus of being). (128)

Lacan further explains his translation, revolutionary as it is, of "Es" by "the subject" by employing "the homophony of the German Es with the initial of the word ‘sujet’ (subject)." (129) If we allow this paronomasia to carry into his "Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," essay, we see the humor behind Lacan’s seemingly monotonous algorithms.

In his "Agency" essay Lacan calls "wo Es war," "the end that Freud’s discovery proposes for man." (Lacan 171, Adams and Searle 753) This lofty position allows us to insert it into the algorithms of the essay’s previous sections. Lacan portrays Saussure’s sign as,


the signifier over the signified. His second algorithm,

f(S) I/s

gives us the effect of language upon the subject, separating the I from the real. Now, if we were to draw an arrow between the two showing the progression, thusly,

S/s Ó f(S) I/s

we might teasingly describe that arrow as a graphical representation of "wo Es war, soll Ich werden." In no way should this paronomasian sign—for it is just that: a pun and nothing more—be confused for the action which Freud and Lacan use wo Es war to describe, the end of man. Instead, it is a play on words and signs. If we read S as "Es," using the homophony Lacan pointed out in his "Freudian Thing" essay, this second equation fills in the original position of the "S" (Es) with an "I" (Ich). For, where "S" was, there "I" shall be.

The "S" represents Language, and not just a specific signifier, and this connection now reminds us of Lacan’s famous retelling of the psychoanalytic experience as the discovery that "the unconscious is the whole structure of language." (Lacan 147, Adams and Searle 739) Language is therefore more intimately associated with the unconscious than previously suspected, and the "S" of the algorithm more closely fits das Es than we might have guessed. So "wo Es war, soll Ich werden," can represent in a way the moment of passage through the mirror stage. When the child sees the image in the mirror and is first introduced into the symbolic order, the "Es" (S) represents language and the destination of this now splitting subject. As the subject splits, though, the "Es" becomes the unconscious id, the goal after which the subject will strive for the rest of its life. "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden," is a mirror reflecting the human condition, or as Lacan put it,

Being of non-being, that is how I as subject comes on the scene, conjugated with the double aporia of a true survival that is abolished by knowledge of itself, and by a discourse in which it is death that sustains existence. (Lacan, 300)

For, is that not the end result of the mirror stage? We realize that we have been paradoxically, parasitically living off of language, and when we look into the mirror as the vampires we are we can no longer see our own reflection, and have an insatiable desire to step through the looking glass.


Works Cited

Adams, Hazard and Searle, Leroy. "Agency of the Letter in the Unconcious or Reason Since Freud," Critical Theory Since 1965. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986.

Breul, Karl. Cassell’s New German-English Dictionary. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1939.

Freud, Sigmund. "New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud vol. XXII. London: Hogarth Press, 1964.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Internet.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977.

Copyright (c) 2004 Jason Helms.
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