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10min of reading

Psychoanalysis has, for several reasons, always had a privileged relationship with the theme of the double. First, as a result of its foundational claims, as at the heart of Freudian metapsychology the subject is theorised as being divided from its inception, riven in everything it does, even its most rational actions, by its unconscious “double”. The entire history of psychoanalysis could even be considered as the construction of a technique by which one can enter into dialogue with this double, to exorcise it by allowing it to speak.

Secondly, and slightly more technically, for psychoanalysis the subject, the Ego, is developed by an interplay of identifications and constructions of doubles. The small child who, at the age of 16-18 months (1), looks at his image in the mirror goes from a morcellated and indefinite vision of his body (especially as concerns differentiation from the body of his mother) to a unitary and dis- tinct vision. In the formation of this unitary “I”, two elements are essential, as Lacan reminded us : on the one hand the image in the mirror is perceived as frozen despite the movement (which remains invisible as such) of the child. On the other hand, and this element is crucial, the image appears to the child “under a symmetry which reverses it”. If the fixity of the image guarantees the mental permanence of the “I” (that feeling of permanence which means that, despite all my images of the “double” I can apprehend myself in time as a single subject) the inverted symmetry “prefigures the alienated destination” of the I. In effect, the image in the mirror is meant to be the image that another person would see of me, I see myself as another would see me qua “other”. Merleau-Ponty wrote “the mirror’s phantom draws my flesh into the outer world” (2), it “throws” it into the world, it exteriorises it. But, this image of me is not exactly that which the other sees, because it is reversed in its symmetry. Thus the subject, since its formation, defines itself as that which is lacking, that which exists thanks to a non-coincidence with the self, a gap.

1. Lacan J., “The Mirror Stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic expe- rience” (1949), now in Collected Writings, Paris, Le Seuil, 1966.

2. Merleau-Ponty M., Eye and Mind, Paris, Gallimard, 1964.


But, beyond the image of the mirror and narcissistic phenomena, psychoanalysis also concerns itself with the double as an artefact, as an object technologically produced. Freud’s essay The Uncanny identifies in these objects, in so far as they provoke doubt around the animate and the inanimate, one of the sources of the feeling of the Unheimlich, a concept which for Freud is linked with that which generates fear and anguish. Freud refers, in particular, to the impression created by “wax works, dolls and automata.” In order to explore this feeling, he analyses one of the fantastic stories of ETA Hoffmann, The Sandman, which is about “l'amour fou” (the expression here is fully justified) of Nathaniel for the enigma- tic Olympia, who turns out to be an automaton, conceived by the villainous lawyer Coppelius and his disquieting double, the optician Coppola. These two characters both have a strange relationship with eyes: the lawyer Coppelius, mysteriously implicated in the death of Nathaniel’s father, is as a result, suspected of being the sandman: “an evil man who comes to children who do not want to go to bed and throws sand in their eyes, which subsequently pop out of their head, all bloody.” As for Coppola, he is an itinerant Italian optician who sells “pretty eyes” (which turn out to be glasses). Famously Freud links the anguish aroused by the double figure of Coppelius, who tears out eyes, to the anguish caused by the castration complex. This character therefore embodies that other who tears away from me the possibility of fully appropriating my own image, as seen above, to render me a subject perpetually in a state of lack. For Freud and, following on, Lacan, the castration complex is one of the phantasms, which, according to the theory of infant sexuality, explain sexual difference. But more generally, in psychoanalysis the castration complex indicates the child’s unconscious recognition of the fact of not responding entirely to the desire of the mother and thus, the appearance on the scene of a third figure, who possesses what the child lacks. This lack, lack of being which becomes lack of having, prompts the subject to look for compensatory forms which are invariably inadequate and which accordingly open him up to his capacity for desire. What is interesting, however, in relation to our theme is that he who tears out eyes is also the creator of doubles, starting with his own double Coppola and of automata (the enigmatic Olympia) As if the double were at one and the same time a condition of and a compensation for the lack of infantile omnipotence. And indeed Freud continues the analyses of Otto Rank, who observed how the double originally represents an expedient for protecting oneself from the disappearance of the Ego: “an energetic disavowal of the power of death.” And, he adds, “it is likely that the immortal soul was the body’s first double.” (3) But the double, which originally therefore had a positive connotation, is transformed, undergoes a semiotic shift and “from being a guarantee of survival, it becomes the uncanny herald of death.”

Automata and avatars are not the only manifestations of doubleness which can evoke the feeling of the Unheimlich. Other phenomena – twins, telepathy, identification – are also mentioned by Freud as sources of uncanny strangeness in so far as “it becomes impossible to hold on to one’s own self, or rather a stranger usurps the self – thus the self is doubled, divided, permutated...” (4). The doubling which the modern world imposes through constant recourse to digital avatars is in truth a phenomenon which we experience, in silence, on a daily basis, in our incessant interaction with the other which occurs through the multiple psychic identifications that nourish the Ego. At least, this is often the experience which is most striking for the therapist, who, used to speaking to someone who presents with given characteristics and attachment styles, suddenly discovers quite new ones. What has happened ? How is it that, for the duration of our session, another has replaced our patient ? (5)

3. Ibidem, p. 237.
4. Freud S., The Uncanny and Other Essays, cit., p. 236.
5 On a related note, see the wonderful book by De Mijola A., Les visiteurs du Moi,, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 1996.

This process is exacerbated in the context of the analytic psychodrama, in which the patient enacts, with the therapist, certain situations or experiences from their life, assuming either their own role or that of another person (or even that of an object or feeling; in the psychodrama all roles are available). In short, they become their own double or that of one of the people or objects in their history. In that setting I met P., a timid and introverted man of 23 years old, who nonetheless had very conflictual relationships with others. He regularly suggested enacting certain conflicts between his parents (especially his father) and his grandparents. Unusually, he never suggested playing his own role, and always wanted to take on the role of his father or of another authority figure (the director of an institution, or the professor treating him for example). The expression “take on the role” is not quite correct, however, for on every occasion one had the impression that the patient was in fact cannibalizing the authority figure in question. Indeed, even when it came to his own character, played by a co-therapist, P. seemed to disappear entirely under the rigorous paternal injunctions around which his life was completely organized. When he interpreted one of these figures, the patient underwent a radical transformation: from being a shy, inhibited boy he became a kind of domestic tyrant or intransigent director thwarting everyone with a system of rigid and partially unintelligible rules for the group of therapists. On one occasion when we were attempting to enact a scene in which the father and grand-parents confronted each other, the patient became very angry and began to repeat in a mechanical way: “I tried once, but I won’t try a second time”. The co-therapist playing the mother tried to counter this point of view, pointing out that in a family efforts have to be made, and made over and over again, but the patient did not want to hear this and barricaded himself behind his mantra: “I tried once, but I won’t try a second time.” The negation of the possibility of a second time intrigued us. What did the complete adherence to “one time only” mean for the patient ? For this young man, there was an enormous identification with the father. It seemed to be a narcissistic identification, where only the superegotic qualities are incorporated (and not introjected), thereby destroying the psychic autonomy of the patient. As Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok remind us in their magisterial work, The Shell and the Kernel, introjection corresponds to a process – one essential for the formation of the Ego – whereas incorporation corresponds to a phantasm. In the case of P., the father seemed precisely to have been incorporated: when P played the role, nothing remained on his own identity; there was only metaphorization, symbolization, elaboration... the ideal of the father cannibalized the patient. According to Abraham and Torok the fantasmatization which comes out of incorporation is an attempt to repair -- on the level of the imaginary – a real wound which affected the ideal object. The aim of psychodramatic work with this patient is to lead him to accept, through the transference enabled in that space, the loss of the damaged ideal object and the possibility of integrating it through a work of symbolization and metaphorization, through language and transference.

Psychoanalytic clinical practice bears witness to the plurality of psychic entities inhabiting a single individual, which collectively come to constitute what for convenience’s sake we call identity. Psychoanalysis always prefers the term identification, since the Ego is thought of as a dynamic and mobile entity, the result of several identificatory processes, as well as an interplay of introjections and projections which is always complex and never closed. Given this, it is wise to be suspicious of any knee-jerk appeals to “our identity”, be it personal, national, religious or political.

Translated into English by Sara & Emma Bielecki



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