Brick by Brick

Freud’s oft-cited case study on hysteria (the well known case of Dora) was published in 1905 and titled Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. His early Studies on Hysteria (1895) was less well received, it’s probably for this reason that Lacanians seldom quote from it. In any case, within the first section of the Fragments Freud provided something like an aphorism that I’ve long found fascinating:

Let us imagine a workman, a bricklayer, […] who has fallen off a house and been crippled, and now earns his livelihood by begging at the street-corner. Let us then suppose that a miracle-worker comes along and promises him to make his crooked leg straight and capable of walking. It would be unwise […] to look forward to seeing an expression of peculiar bliss upon the man’s features. No doubt at the time of the accident he felt he was extremely unlucky, when he realized that he would never be able to do any more work and would have to starve or live upon charity. But since then the very thing which in the first instance threw him out of employment has become his source of income: he lives by his disablement. If that is taken from him he may become totally helpless. He has in the meantime forgotten his trade and lost his habits of industry; he has grown accustomed to idleness, and perhaps to drink as well.

Freud used this example to demonstrate that there are motives for feigning illness in even the most minor cases of hysteria. The example is striking because it brings to light the dependence that some patients – and by extension many of the people we meet in our own lives – have upon the imaginary. The poor bricklayer sutured himself to a particular blueprint of himself, an a’, and subsequently built, brick by brick, a new life for himself according to those coordinates. In the case of Dora, several symptoms developed, one of which was a dry and unpredictable cough. Freud’s speculation was that Dora’s cough was present only to the extent that her father remained friends with Herr K. She wanted to control her father’s relationship to Herr and Frau K. In fact, Freud believed that Dora’s cough, and suicidal inclinations, would have swiftly disappeared had that relationship in fact come to an end. Freud claimed that anybody who tries to make the hysteric well without patiently allowing the her to come to understand her symptom on her own will come up against intense resistances — precisely because the illness is anchored to the her mental life. Analysands – as much as analysts – are passionately wedded to their symptoms. For his part, Freud provided a rather hasty interpretation of Dora’s symptom and thereby provoked Dora to break the analysis.

As revolutionaries of all kinds we should let this be a lesson for us. Our professors, families, friends, etc., are wedded to their symptom. Professors have spent a life time building up their systems of thought and when you introduce a change of the very form of their thinking we should not be surprised if they show intense resistance. If you smash a window during a demonstration and make a family unable to dine at their favorite chain restaurant for a day, you should not be surprised if they hate you for it. If you tell your loved ones that you don’t believe in god or that you don’t want to work for some stupid company, you should not be surprised if they disown you for it. They built up this life for themselves, brick by brick, and if you try to change them without allowing them to change themselves they will all walk out on you just as quickly as Dora walked out on Freud.


One thought on “Brick by Brick

  1. A brick model seems good, because there is lots of room for repetition. Each layer of bricks can represent a phase or stage where the entire model is recomposed from another perspective. You seem to be telling this from a level where bourgeois attachment is the pathological symptom, which the healthy revolutionaries overcome. But doesn’t the overcoming of any symptom just lead to a new symptom formation? It seems that subjectivity moves through a series of phases where it gets attached to different symptoms. My preference is to oscillate between revolutionary and bourgeois symptoms – where there is no way to overcome either of them once and for all. This is an infinitesimal process (self, other, self, other….) that leads us into the sinthomatic. So I think brick-laying naturally advances beyond the one-sided attachment to revolutionary symptoms. I just read a brilliant short article called Epithemic by Reza Negarestani which provides some excellent terms for conceptualizing this sinthomatic undulation.

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