Adolescence, a Syndrome of Ideality
The recent centennial celebration of Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905)has brought to my awareness a major fact likely to shed light on an experience familiar to parents and to psychoanalysts : « polymorphous perversity » of the child has overshadowed adolescence.
Of course Freud’s successors have not failed to highlight the characteristic traits, particularly the difficulties and the suffering that occur at adolescence both in the development of a given subject as well as for his or her family. Added to this is the impact of adolescent malaise on the culture of a society and its era. It nevertheless seems to me that our approaches are sidestepped by the two extremes of the psychosexual chain : to begin with the narcissistic polymorphism of the new-born childincites epistemophilic curiosity; and at the end, the paradigm of neurosis with its optimal completion in genitality.
We know only too well how fruitful this schema has been. The narcissism of the “polymorphous-perverse-and-theoretician” child has supported both the Kleinian revolution, which at the same time distanced itself from the Freudian model to develop the idea of cruelty in relation to a “precocious Oedipus complex,” endowed with an “object” even if only partial, and the subsequent exploration (in the wake of narcissistic disorders) of « false-selfs », « borderlines » and psychosis with its lack of psychic representation. As a result of all this, psychoanalysis today has become not only an exploration of desire, but also a way of treating thought. As for the neurosis paradigm, it has established the importance of object relations, which is perhaps the sole foundation for the ethics of psychoanalysis. For indeed, whatever the theories of object relation may be, is it not an optimization of this relation that the psychoanalytical cure aims to achieve, and is it not by this creative bond with others that we are able to determine when the cure is finished and the well-being of the patient himself attained?
We are forced to notice, however, that this framework is disrupted by the adolescent crisis: I would even say that adolescence explodes it, exposing its shortcomings and opening up as a consequence new problematics that could perhaps help us supplement the classic Freudian framework.
In light of the adolescent malaise and the psychosexual development model in Three Essays which I’ve just summarized, I would like to posit the following binary schema in which my reasoning will play out today : let us oppose the polymorphous perverse child dependant on partial pleasures, who “wants to know” and whose thought develops thanks to his sexual theorization with the adolescent who idealizes the object relation to the point of succumbing to what I call “the malady of ideality” which pushes him to relish both the fantasy of an absolute Object as well as of the fantasy of its vengeful destruction. The polymorphous perverse theoretician vs. The adolescent believer : the dichotomy I’m proposing obviously obeys heuristic objectives for clarity but, most often, the two models overlap.
Let me be more specific. Polymorphous perversity is dominated by instinctual drives that are inevitably polymorphous hence dependent on the satisfaction of erotogenic zones, on the primary incestuous relationship (maternal seduction or the mère-version) and on the ultra-precocious oedipal challenge (père-version). The drives’ agitation is satisfied and perlaborated by denial-Verneinung (« I don’t want mother » = « I want mother ») type fantasies, and it’s in the continuation of this negativity thus liberated that Freud maintains that language is constructed with its grammatical synthesis and logic. This construction of language leads the way to questioning (« who am I ? », « where do I come from ? », « what do I want ? »). The founder of psychoanalysis long explored the emergence of representation as an act of denying drive. Though he didn’t leave us with any specific study on questioning, Three Essays provide us with an essential explanation : the polymorphous perverse child, wondering where he comes from, creates sexual theories based on the key question: « where do children come from ? » Questioning and thinking are simultaneous activities here.
In short, polymorphism is at the crossroads of the auto-erotic drive and the quest for an object relation – the object of desire becomes an object of language and thought; the polymorphous perverse child is a subject of epistemophilic curiosity ; the polymorphous perverse child is a seeker of knowledge, a little researcher, we could say.
The case is very different at adolescence, or more exactly, the “polymorphous perverse seeker” is overshadowed by a new type of speaking subject who believes in the existence of the erotic object (object of desire and/or love). He only seeks because he is convinced that it must exist. The adolescent is not a researcher in a laboratory, he’s a believer. We are all adolescents when we are enthralled by the absolute. Freud did not preoccupy himself with adolescents because he was himself a firm non-believer, the most irreligious human that ever existed. Faith implies a passion for the object relation : faith is potentially fundamentalist, as is the adolescent. Romeo and Juliette are excellent examples of this; I’ll come back to them later.
However, because the sadomasochistic nature of these drives and desires is inevitable, the belief that the Ideal Object Exists is continually threatened. Thus the passion for the object relation is reversed, giving way to punishment and self-punishment. Accompanying the passionate adolescent in his procession is the triad disappointment-depression-suicide, or a more regressive, somatic form such as the anorectic syndrome or even, if the political context is ripe, the destructive tendency of the self-with-the-other which I call the kamikaze syndrome.
I will assert then, that the adolescent is a believer of the object relation and/or of its impossibility. Thus formulated, the question implies a parameter that we have trouble taking seriously despite Lacan’s efforts: this parameter is ideality (Lacan calls it: the signifier).
2. What is the ideality syndrome ?
The adolescent Oedipus complex is violent because it operates on the carrier wave of idealization. The adolescent subject whose statute is rooted in polymorphous perversity, separates from the parental couple by replacing it with a new model. In doing so, the narcissism of the ego, tied up with its ideals, overflows the object giving way to the amorous passion specific to the drive-ideality intrication.
Freud wrote that in idealization, « the object is treated as the ego proper and that therefore in amorous passion a large amount of narcissistic libido overwhelms the object. » I myself hold that the intensity of this new satisfaction is procured thanks to something not sufficiently brought out in Freudian theory, which is to say the overlapping drive/idealizationsplice and the inclusion of the object in narcissism in the guise of belief. The subject thus acquires the certainty that the id exists – the « id » : a satisfaction acquired by the joint means of purity and transgression; the « id » : an elation experienced as an absolute destiny which erases the original Oedipus complex, a rush towards new paradises. Images, ideologies, different forms of knowledge and existential models are all brought into play to shore up an idealized narcissism unfurling over others and which surpasses in strength all former ideals.
Ideality dominates the adolescent unconscious : adolescent drive is structured not only as a language but as an ideality. It concerns a decisive moment in the construction of the speaking being whereby the ideal of the ego and the superego take the regredient path and permeate the unconscious drives to the point of dominating them. This permeation of the drive by ideality culminates in the idealization of the satisfaction due to the ideal object.
Melanie Klein pointed out that idealization from very early on in life is defensive because it cleaves the « good » from the « bad » objet, in order to defend itself against the latter and the ego’s aggression accompanying it. I will add that as defensive as it may be, adolescent idealization nevertheless induces a perverse type of exponential pleasure. Indeed, the growing dynamic of idealization stimulates and increases the pleasure the subject feels on both sides: « you will take pleasure in the good and the bad », dictates the ideality syndrome.
Let me sum this up as follows : departing from a biological and cognitive evolution, the polymorphous perverse child is capable of a decisive mutation: this is the junction between his libidinal drives and the fantasy of absolute libidinal satisfaction derived from a new object on which he projects his narcissism supported by the ego’s ideal. This junction is accompanied by the belief that the parental couple must be surpassed and even abolished so that the adolescent subject can escape into an idealized, paradisiacal variant of absolute satisfaction. The Judeo-Christian paradise is an adolescent creation : the adolescent takes pleasure in the paradise syndrome, which conversely, can also become a source of suffering if absolute ideality turns into cruel persecution. Because he believes that the other, surpassing the parental other, not only exists but that he or she provides him with absolute satisfaction, the adolescent believes that the Great Other exists and is pleasure itself. The slightest disappointment of this ideality syndrome casts him into the ruins of paradise and heads him towards delinquent conduct. Here, the polymorphous perverse subject takes back the reins, but « under the lash of pleasure, that pitiless tormentor » (to paraphrase Baudelaire) ; all childlike innocence gives way necessarily to sadomasochistic satisfaction which draws its violence from the severity of the ideality syndrome itself and which commands the adolescent: « Your pleasure must have no limits ! »; as we say in French “jouir à mort”.
We understand that, structured by idealization, adolescence yet constitutes the malady of ideality: either the adolescent lacks ideality or in a given context his ideality fails to adapt to his post-puberty drive and thus to his need to share with an absolutely satisfying object. Adolescent ideality is necessarily demanding and in a state of crisis, for the drive/ideality intrication is constantly in peril of disintegration. Adolescent belief inexorably mixes with adolescent nihilism. Why?
Remember that the adolescent escaped from childhood when the subject persuaded himself that there was another ideal for him , either a partner, husband or wife or a professional-political-ideological-religious ideal - an ideality already established in the unconscious. The adolescent unconscious is an ideality. An absolutely satisfying other must exist – and does exist: such is the adolescent’s faith and unconscious passion. But, in reality, there cannot be an absolutely satisfying other. Clearly, adolescent fanaticism doesn’t resist reality’s trials or the assault of the adolescent’s own drives which at best weaken the belief and at worse, turn it inside out. Because that exists (for the unconscious), yet « he» or « she » disappoints me (in reality); thus I have no choice but to be angry with « them » and seek revenge : vandalism is what follows. Or else : because that exists (in the unconscious), yet « he » or « she » disappoints me or I miss them; thus I have no choice but to take it out on myself, which explains why mutilation and self-destructive behavior follow.
This fanatic belief in the existence of an absolute partner and absolute satisfaction stabilizes the subject while thwarting the movement of psychic representations amongst the diverse psychic registers that characterize what I’ve named the « open structure » of the adolescent, due to a softening of the superego under the pressure of his desires. This stabilization is, however, very dangerous if it is true that belief, according to Kant, is a « sufficient form of consent only from a subjective point of view, but which we hold as insufficient from an objective viewpoint ». This is much like saying that a belief is a fantasy of maximal satisfaction and of inexorable necessity; it can even be fatal (a recurrent term in fiction concerning adolescent passion) from the subject’s perspective. In other words, situated half way between the imaginary scenario enacted by desire and madness, the belief is not in itself delirious but harbors madness as a potentiality. The disentanglement of drive and ideality under the pressure of an increased drive frustration encourages this potentiality for madness. It does not come as a surprise that the adolescent, structured by this propensity for belief, is easily carried away by enthusiasm, romanticism and even fanaticism. He can fall prey to the defensive explosion of mad speech and acts leading to schizophrenia, not only because of this relaxing of psychic authority but even more so because of drive stimulation fueled by the ideality syndrome.
And yet, while we can see a failure of the ideality/drive splice, normally the adolescent invests this splice and uses it, I would say, trivially, necessarily by projecting himself body and soul into his stabilizing belief in the existence of an ideal Object. His belief in it is as solid as a rock, nobody believes more than he that the ideal Object exists. The adolescent is a mystic of the Object.
When this fantasy fails to direct the subject toward a process of sublimation (school, profession, vocation), the failure of the paradise syndrome inevitably leads to depressivity which takes the form of common boredom: « If I don’t have Everything, I get bored » ; and opens the way to delinquent conduct rooted in polymorphous perversity, which attempts to relieve the boredom. Polymorphous perversity thus regains its rights “under the lash of pleasure, that pitiless tormentor,” who instigates the delinquent behavior. But this conduct is merely the flip side of the malady of ideality, since the need for ideality persists and supports the aggressive behavior; it in no way signals its abolition or its on-going destruction.
Thus drug addiction abolishes the conscience but fulfills the belief in the absolute of orgasmic regression within the experience of hallucinatory pleasure.
Anorectic behavior breaks with the maternal line and reveals the young woman’s battle against femininity, yet this auto-destructivity, this death-wish operates to the benefit of an over-investment of the “hard-lined” body, which echoes back to the fantasy of an absolute spirituality. Through this fantasy the entire body disappears in a Beyond, heavy with paternal connotations.
On the other hand, the perpetuation of the paradise syndrome, notably in the bourgeois couple has become a pillar of the established order maintained by hackneyed television « soap operas » and magnified by « gossip » magazines. These spectacular variants both commercial and commonplace of an excessively secularized paradise conceal an intrinsic religiosity; they make up the visible, secular face of a deep-rooted need to believe, nourished by adolescent culture - a religiosity inherent to social organization which lay in abeyance until the recent crisis of ideologies and conflicts in the Middle East. In the conclusion of my “Feminine Genius” trilogy I tried to show notably with Rousseau, how the « couple » became the miracle formula intended to create a bifaced subject guaranteeing both the parent-child and state-citizen bond. This Rousseauian ideal is, of course, untenable, but it can only be contested through debauchery, perversion and crime – as in the case of Sade. In his own way, the adolescent attempts the same when the paradise complex fails and pushes him towards gang rape and vandalism.
Although ideality permeates the id in the adolescent psyche, this idealization differs from one individual to another in response to familial and cultural contexts: we’re familiar with the super-ego-like severity of certain adolescent models and how this is a source of guilt. We also know about those who suffer from a lack of frameworks in which to orientate themselves, which leads them to regress and transgress. Yet whatever the differences, the biopsychic clock inevitably determines in all of them a particular phenomenon which I will stress: the shadow of the ideal cast on the adolescent drive crystallizes the need to believe. The ideal because impossible couple such as Adam and Eve; Dante and Beatrice at the firmament of heaven and Romeo and Juliet – is a prime example of this ideality, which has punctuated our civilization. And despite the fact that these couples suffer and grow weak, they continue to contitute the adolescent ideal.
I’ve already suggested that such an idealization of satisfaction due to an ideal object is elaborated and lived out as a revenge against the Oedipus complex and the parental couple. The ideal adolescent couple constructs itself in the place of the parents. In our culture, Shakespeare’s (1564-1616) Romeo et Juliet (1591 or 1594) is the paradigm of this fantastical construction.
The mutual idealization that two adolescents share is experienced as a rejection of parental authority: Romeo and Juliet’s love for one another is all the more fueled by the fact that they defy the Montague and Capulet clans who hate one another and engage in a merciless feud. This young couple’s ideal is defiant and secret as all adolescent acts aspire to be. Moreover, the reciprocal idealization of the two lovers is perceived by all as a « fatality ». What is fatality ? I suggest we consider the inevitability of this pleasure fulfilling attraction which we call “fatality” to be precisely ideality’s permeation of drives and the domination of polymorphous perverse drives by one or more models proper to the ideal Ego. The result of this is that the adolescent believes that his or her pleasure is legitimate and justified. Several lines of these Shakespearean adolescents resonate with Marlowe : « We cannot love or hate of our own free will. For our will is governed by fatality. »
Nevertheless, as Shakespeare’s genius powerfully reveals, the belief that the Ideal Other inevitably exists is fragile and has a difficult time withstanding the assaults of the adolescent’s latent polymorphous perversity remaining from childhood. Here are two examples, which serve to prove this. Firstly, beneath the exalted discourse of the lovers one perceives sadomasochist desire. Juliette literally cuts up Romeo’s body at night fall: « Come, gentle night/come, loving, black-brow’d night./ Give me my Romeo; and when he shall die/ Take him and cut him out in little stars … » (III, II, 9-25) As for Romeo, his jealousy emerges as a fatal pleasure in stabbing his male rivals : « O I am fortune’s fool! », he cries out as he stabs Tybalt and Paris. In the end, this paradisiacal ideal of the couple turns out to be impossible. Romeo and Juliet die : in 1591 or in 1594 Shakespeare was no longer an adolescent. He had left his wife Anne Hathaway and his son, Hamnet, had just died. « Romeo and Juliet », his ninth play in the second cycle of his lyrical masterpieces (along with A Midsummer Night’s Dream) reads as an adieu to the adolescent belief that the Ideal Object exists.
A trap for the analyst
It is here that the analyst gets caught, for many analysts tend to stop at the erotic or thanatic symptom forgetting ideality, which controls the symptom from the unconscious. How do we take into account the fact that the unconscious of the adolescent believer is constructed as a high-risk ideality?
Civilizations commonly referred to as primitive have long used initiation rites to assert symbolic authority (divine for the invisible world, political for this world here) and to justify the acting out of what we would qualify today as perverse by condoning initiatory sexual practices.
In our Western culture, notably in medieval Christianity, mortification rituals and excessive fasting channeled the anorectic and sadomasochistic behaviors of adolescents, and in doing so, either downplayed or glorified them.
In yet another way, this time secular, what seems to me to be an imaginary elaboration of the adolescent crisis is the birth of the European novel shaped as it is around the adolescent character. The young page serving his Lady is a recurrent trope of the courtly romance in which a complex range of homosexual relations, more or less developed, are played out. Does psychoanalysis innovate, and if so, how does it avoid the pitfall of stabilizing the couple in marriage, that temporary happy end of the bourgeois novel? Even today, popular literature continues to draw from this narrative logic developed during the Renaissance. Even hard-core sex fails to break out of this logic and is easily assimilated into it.
Compared to the diverse ways of dealing with adolescents that have preceded us, we might wonder if psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on attentive listening and transference, innovates. And if so, how?
It is the analyst’s job to listen to the adolescent’s need to believe and to confirm it: if adolescents come to us it is because they need us to recognize their ideality syndrome. We must articulate and share our understanding of it if we are to comprehend and accurately interpret the delinquent behavior of the adolescent in his crisis as a source of extreme jouissance – simili- paradis. Only later should the analyst attempt to point out the negative aspects, the Oedipus or Orestes type revolt, of this behavior.
In other words, only the analyst’s capacity to see through the idealizing course of adolescent drives will allow him to provide a credible and effective transference – and thus be capable of metabolizing the need to believe not through acting out but through the pleasure that comes with thinking, questioning and analyzing. Sharing the ideality syndrome specific to the adolescent gives the analyst the possibility of weakening the patient’s resistance and guiding him through an analytical process against which adolescence generally rebels.