Michael Kinnucan

The Short End of the Stick: Gender Pleasure


ISSUE 20 | DIFFERENCE | SEP 2012

Let’s start off with a joke:

God comes to Adam and Eve in the Garden and says, “Well, my children, I have made you in my image but there are still two gifts I haven't distributed among you. Adam, I made you first so you get to choose first—that’s only fair. So here are the options: I can make you able to pee standing up, or—” Adam leaps up and says “Yeah! Pee standing up! Awesome!” God says: "Very well, Adam—you can now pee standing up! Eve, I’m sorry, but all I have left to give you is—multiple orgasms.”


Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

This is a joke about penis envy. Adam takes a boyish satisfaction in the sweet things his body can do—he wants a “tool,” he's eager to use it, it has its uses. The male body is often figured as useful—it can lift heavy objects, write its name in the snow, it can take the “active” role in sex, etc., and for all these reasons it's the object of great narcissistic satisfaction among men. Adam is probably pleased with his choice and excited about how jealous Eve will be of his new toy. Eve seems likely to get the “short end of the stick”—she doesn't even get to choose, she just takes whatever's left over once the penis is gone. But the joke’s on Adam: we all know she got the better deal. She didn’t get a tool, of course: she got something useless. Pleasure is always precisely useless. Cultural discourse surrounding female sexuality is fascinated by this uselessness: if the male orgasm is predictable and unitary just because it’s so clearly linked to a reproductive "end," the female orgasm is multiple and unpredictable precisely because it’s not tied to a goal; if the penis allows you to pee standing up, the clitoris is famously the only sexual organ devoted exclusively to pleasure. Men only want one thing, but what does a woman want? (Naturally all this relates only quite indirectly to the thousand ways people of both genders actually live their bodies, sexually and otherwise—this is just the way we talk.) The place of feminine sexual pleasure in our culture is in some ways parallel to that of gay male sex: its failure to subordinate itself in any direct and obvious way to the “end” of reproduction renders it potentially “endless,” and this unteleology makes it the object of fascinated revulsion by the cultural right and enthusiastic politicization on the cultural left. The right tends to think that without the carefully socialized and brutally enforced subordination of sexual pleasure to nuclear-family heteronormativity, the whole of traditional society may well collapse into an ecstatic non-teleological orgy; the left just hopes that they're right.1

Zeus, Hera and Tiresias

According to Greek myth, Zeus and Hera once got into an argument about who had more pleasure in sex—men or women? Hera argued vehemently that it was men who got the best deal, while Zeus maintained that women were having all the fun. Despite their status at the head of the pantheon, they just couldn’t settle the argument on their own: just as neither men nor women can settle this issue, neither gods nor goddesses possess all the relevant facts. So with that combination of omnipotent transformative power and childish spitefulness which makes the Greek gods so dear, they chose a mortal man—the prophet Tiresias—and made him into a woman. Tiresias did some experimenting and sided with Zeus’s claim (that is, with Hera’s pleasure): “of ten parts [of pleasure] a man enjoys one only.” That's right: according to the legend, women are having nine times as much fun.

But before we get to the resolution, let’s pay some more attention to the argument. Zeus and Hera are a couple, they share the secret every couple shares—but they also hold a secret for each other. “What’s it like for you?” is a question no one can answer. Hence each party is manifestly unqualified to judge the issue—that's why they have to consult Tiresias. Yet each is convinced that he or she knows the answer. Who gets the most pleasure? Not me! There’s no evidence of “penis envy” here, the envy is strictly mutual: pleasure is elsewhere, it's what someone else gets.

Maybe this conviction tells us something about what pleasure is like. Pleasure flees reflection—at the moment when you can still or once again ask whether it’s pleasure, it no longer is. Where pleasure is, words aren't, and the self-conscious ego isn't either. This of course is one of the pleasures of pleasure—it penetrates and dissolves the solid unity of the ego like that of the body, it lets the self dissolve. It's also the source of the ambiguous proximity of pleasure to pain: pleasure, too, can be “unbearable,” frighteningly too much, a threat to the integrity of the self. Hence even one's own pleasure is always elsewhere—not at the place from which one says "pleasure," the place from which one says “I.” (Perhaps this explains why our most vivid images of happiness are so bound up with the past, the lost, the might-have-been: we can reflect on happiness and comprehend it only as what is lost. Pleasure is, and thought is, but they are irremediably set apart; thought grasps pleasure most deeply in the sense of longing which measures their distance from each other.) Maybe this is why Zeus and Hera each feel that the pleasure they take in each other is not theirs, is “somewhere else.”

And where else but in the lover’s body? In the erotic gaze the lover’s body is a tissue of pleasure, a whispered promise of bliss in every scent and strand of hair; the lover's body shimmers and overflows with this promise. Even when the lover “gives himself,” he does not exhaust the source of this pleasure—luckily, or our affairs would be brief and disappointing. One drinks of the lover and would drown in him, but it cannot be—the attempt must be repeated. What could be more natural than the inference that the lover, source of endless pleasure for you, experiences this joy for himself—that unlike your body, mostly merely an instrument for your will, his is an ecstasy of delight? Some such judgment—desire become envy of the recalcitrant lover who in giving, always holds himself back—perhaps lies behind the gods' symmetrical judgment: it is not I but you who enjoy most.

All this is quite symmetrical between the genders. It’s Tiresias who breaks the symmetry: he announces that Zeus is right and Hera is the lucky one. Naturally we can’t take this answer seriously as a statement of fact—the question is by its nature undecidable. But what does it mean to answer the question this way? Recall that Greek society was vastly more oppressive to women than our own: men possessed all power and authority, women were tightly controlled. When Socrates thanked the gods for three things, the first was that they had made him a man and not a woman. In such a society “penis envy” would be only too natural: men had it all, male genitalia conferred all the goods the culture had to give. Yet this myth suggests not penis-envy but an inverted image of it: pleasure-envy. Visible male social authority to act, seize and possess is countered by a secret feminine pleasure which men can never take. We might suggest that in the (no doubt masculine) fantasy articulated in this myth, power and pleasure, like thought and pleasure, cannot occupy the same place.

Penis Envy and/or Castration Anxiety

Where does all this leave “penis envy”? Freud’s theory of sexual difference, centered on the penis and who’s got it, might be thought of as a modern version of the Zeus-Hera debate: it poses the question of who in the sexual dyad is “winning,” who’s got more. But few aspects of Freudian doctrine are more universally rejected today than this one: penis envy is considered at best a laughable product of masculine narcissism, at worst a misogynistic attempt to interpret women as mutilated men. In either case, it is widely thought that whatever truth the theory may once have contained has surely been eroded by women’s liberation and the concomitant global transformation in gender relations. No doubt there’s some truth in all this, but to pronounce on the subject requires a closer examination both of penis envy and of its strange masculine twin, castration anxiety.

So what is penis envy, in Freud’s view? It certainly isn’t a little girl’s natural relation to her body. Freud is clear on this: small children of both genders discover in their bodies sites of wide and varied pleasure. They have fun with every orifice. The biologically nonsensical view that a vagina is a missing penis certainly is not written into our genes. Penis envy is introduced through a social event: children of both sexes sooner or later wind up seeing someone of the opposite sex naked. When this happens to girls, according to Freud, they think: “Where did mine go? Who took it, and why?” They develop penis envy. When it happens to boys, they think: “Where did hers go? Who cut it off, and what was that a punishment for?” They develop castration anxiety.

Let’s acknowledge it: Freud’s theory seems, on the face of it, bizarre. How could such a strange reaction be so universal and so intense as to form the traumatic core of either gender’s psyche? I’d like to suggest that after all, it’s not so very strange, because this is not by any means children’s first experience with gender. They’ve been surrounded by gendered pronouns, different bathrooms, different clothes; the first words they heard (without understanding them, of course) were “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” They’ve been praised for masculinity and mocked for femininity, or vice versa. Most of all, they’ve brought the immensely subtle attention of small children to the speech patterns and power relations among those who have raised them: they know a good deal about what it means to be a husband as opposed to a wife, a mother as opposed to a father. Gender is surely among the most constant mysteries of a small child’s life: what could be more natural than to understand this physical difference as its key, the truth to which all these clues were pointing?

We should note that this truth takes a very particular form in Freud’s theory: it’s a matter of potential and actual, and also of crime and punishment. The little girl does not merely think: “ah, I was fated biologically to become a woman”; she thinks “I could have been a man, but the penis was withheld or removed from me.” The boy’s position is even stranger: he does not think, “Lucky me, I have a penis!” but “I might lose it! It could be taken away, as punishment! For what crime?”2 For both boys and girls, in other words, orientation toward the present or absent penis means orientation toward power, the father’s power to punish and withhold. Penis envy in women means the potential to be male (but only at the pleasure of the father); castration anxiety in men means the potential to be made female (if one risks the displeasure of the father). Freud’s theories about penis envy and castration anxiety aren’t about the way biological sexual difference prefigures and grounds social differences of power; quite the contrary. Anxiety and envy tell us how social difference, in the form of power and punishment, theft and gift, come to invest and inhabit a body which, before their advent, was the site of polymorphous pleasure.

If penis envy is often derided as a Freudian fantasy these days, castration anxiety is a mainstay of our culture’s thinking about masculinity, from sitcoms to self-help to high literature. Men are constantly worried about being emasculated, they’ve got to perform masculinity and avoid weakness, they’re afraid of powerful women, etc. Freud is generally read as offering women a shit deal: they’re the damaged, lacking ones, whereas men have got it. But it’s worth remembering what Freud certainly never forgot: “lacking it” (penis envy) is rough, but “having it” (castration anxiety) is certainly no picnic. If women are condemned to live in desire, men are fated to live in fear. Freud notes in “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex” that the Oedipal boy is caught in a double bind: to love his mother as a man means to risk castration at the hands of the father, while to love his father as a woman requires that he already be castrated. His “proud possession” and his fear of losing it block every road he might take.

In the anxiety/envy paradigm, the place of the penis is a strange one: everyone wants it, but it’s not good for anything. It’s a sign of power, withheld from women and given to men—but it’s not a source of power: even men get it only on condition of good behavior, only as subject to a higher power. The penis is merely a sign: it’s not good for anything, pleasure least of all. For this reason it’s not surprising that Freud, in “Analysis Terminable and Interminable,” recognizes castration anxiety and penis envy as the twin dead ends of psychoanalysis: men will never accept castration anxiety, and women will never accept penis envy, hence analysis will never be complete. Why would they accept a situation in which power is always elsewhere, and pleasure nowhere to be seen? Psychoanalysis, it would seem, is a shell game with no pea.

It would appear that Freud, instead of taking a side in the debate between Zeus and Hera, shifts the focus of the question: sex is not primarily a matter of pleasure, but of power. On this ground, men are offered a kind of victory, but an ambiguous and problematic one, as we have seen. But that doesn’t quite exhaust the issue, because pleasure isn’t entirely absent in Freud’s theory—it’s merely blocked by sexuation. The infant’s body is a locus of pleasure; it’s the question of castration that marks the body’s pleasures as banned. Which brings us back to the joke we started off with: the penis as a fool’s gift. You may possess it, as a tool, a power, a sign, but on condition that you do not enjoy. You may have possession or pleasure, but not both. And from this perspective doesn’t Freud’s doctrine suggest that those in the feminine position with respect to the penis are closer to pleasure, just because they “have nothing”—and nothing to lose?

Schreber, the Modern Tiresias

That vexed relationship between gendered power and sexual pleasure lies at the heart of another and more recent instance of divine sex change—the famous and fearsome case of Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911). Schreber was a solid husband and a highly successful and respected German jurist until around 1893, right after he’d been appointed to an exalted judicial post, when one morning, still lying in bed half-asleep, he wondered to himself whether it might not be very nice to experience copulation passively, as a woman. So began his decent into a decade of madness, during which he would be institutionalized for years, tormented by God and dozens of other souls, mocked daily by the sun itself, and transformed, slowly but surely, into a woman.

Schreber never “got better,” exactly—he remained “delusional” for the rest of his life—but he recovered to the point where he could participate normally in social life; by the end of his hospitalization he was dining regularly with the family of the mental hospital’s chief psychiatrist. He penned an account of his experience, Memoirs of my Nervous Illness (1903), which served the double purpose of convincing the authorities to let him out of the mental hospital and informing the world of the many theological truths which had been revealed to him. This book was widely read in German psychiatric circles, and its interpretation by Freud in his 1911 “Psychoanalytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia” has made it the locus classicus for psychoanalytic interpretations of psychosis. It still makes for fascinating reading.

Schreber’s illness, on his account, occurred in two broad stages. In the first, he was the victim of an attempted soul-murder by one Dr. Flechsig, who had treated him during an earlier bout of hypochondria and who was in charge of the institution in which he spent the first years of his illness. This Flechsig—an expert in the mysteries of the nerves which, as Schreber has discovered, contain the essence of each individual’s personality—wished to destroy Schreber’s soul for some unaccountable purpose, perhaps in exchange for great power, perhaps as the final act in a war between their families which had been going on for centuries. Flechsig had plans for Schreber’s body, too: it was to be “unmanned” as well as unsouled, transformed into a woman, then delivered over to someone (perhaps Flechsig himself, perhaps his attendants) for purposes of sexual abuse, to be “used like a strumpet.”

Such vile iniquities, so contrary to what Schreber calls the Order of the World, cannot be practiced without the most dire consequences. Schreber comes to believe that God will punish it: that the world will end, as it did in the Flood, then that it already has ended, and the people he sees around him are not humans but “fleeting-improvised-men” produced to deceive him. He feels his body rotting, his organs decaying; he is tormented by voices which mock him (“So this sets up to have been a Senate President, this person who lets himself be f-----ed!”) and invite him to kill himself.

During this phase of his illness Schreber (who was an atheist before his illness) believes that God is on his side—that the destruction of the world shows God’s disgust with Flechsig’s actions, and that if God does not prevent Flechsig’s abuses it was simply because “He was in great straits as regards Professor Flechsig.” But in or around November 1985 he began to suspect an apparently more terrifying hypothesis: that “God himself had played the part of accomplice, if not of instigator, in the plot whereby my soul was to be murdered and my body used like a strumpet.” To understand how this might be, we must inquire into the nature of God. God, like the human soul, is made of nerves (though His nerves are infinite in number and extent); He resides behind the sky, and in the Order of Things he encounters human souls after they die and rejoin their makers. Schreber’s nerves, however, through their prolonged excitement, had become especially attractive to those of God; God’s nerves, or some of them, had entered into him, and now they could not get out. Furthermore, God really did not understand living human beings (as in the Order of Things he had no need to). Hence the torments to which God subjected Schreber were the product of a great misunderstanding: he was trying to get out of Schreber, to withdraw, and he did not understand that such a withdrawal would kill Schreber.

This new interpretation—an ignorant God is bound to Schreber, and this state contrary to the Order of the World has done untold damage to the world’s very fabric—allows Schreber to understand his mission. He is being transformed into a woman in order to be impregnated by God and bear the seed of a renewed, restored humanity. “I became clearly aware that the order of things imperatively demanded my unmanning, whether I personally liked it or no, and that no reasonable course lay open to me but to reconcile myself to the thought of being transformed into a woman.” Such an elaborate miracle will no doubt take decades, maybe centuries; in the meantime, Schreber’s job is to keep God’s nerves happy inside his flesh.

And what does this entail? Schreber explains (and invites scientific investigation of the subject to demonstrate his point) that there is a special type of nerve in the human body devoted to pleasure, and that whereas in men these “sensuous nerves” appear only on the genitals, in women these nerves underlie the entire surface of the skin. While the transformation of Schreber’s genitals is proceeding only gradually, he already possesses this complete network of sensuous nerves. Now, God’s natural state is one of continual voluptuous pleasure, so his exile in Schreber entails a painful denial of this pleasure. Hence in order to render his body acceptable as a temporary home for God, Schreber must spend a certain amount of time every day touching himself voluptuously while imagining himself a woman.

No sooner, however (if I may so express it), am I alone with God than it becomes a necessity for me to employ every imaginable device and to summon up the whole of my mental faculties, and especially my imagination, in order to bring it about that the divine rays may have the impression as continuously as possible (or, since that is beyond mortal power, at least at certain times of day) that I am a woman luxuriating in voluptuous sensations… God demands a constant state of enjoyment … and it is my duty to provide him with this in the shape of the greatest possible output of spiritual voluptuousness. And if, in this process, a little sensual pleasure falls to my share, I feel justified in accepting it as some slight compensation for the inordinate measure of suffering and privation that has been mine for so many years past.

This, indeed, was the sole remaining visible mark of his madness: “The only thing which could appear unreasonable in the eyes of other people is the fact… that I am sometimes to be found, standing before the mirror or elsewhere, with the upper portions of my body partly bared, and wearing sundry feminine adornments, such as ribbons, trumpery, necklaces, and the like.” On the condition that he kept this up, Schreber could live a perfectly normal life, engage in conversation and reading, play the piano, etc. Outside his bedroom, he appeared perfectly sane; he did not even feel the need to convince others of his Messianic mission.

There is something enormously touching about the tenacity with which Schreber clings to reason, and even to reasonableness, in all his experiences; about his humble desire that we, too, should understand the religious and scientific import of what he has come to know. Think of his suffering: his organs were destroyed and remade inside him, he was abandoned by everyone and mocked by voices no one else could hear, he spent a decade in mental hospitals which were no doubt even less humane than they are now, he lived through the end of the world all alone. When he applied to be released his wife opposed it; she did not want him back. One can’t help but pity him. At the same time, one can’t help but feel that things worked out for him extraordinarily well in the end. Not only was he able to reenter society, but he had become a devotee of a God whose only command was that he love himself as a woman; what began with the terrifying thought “wouldn’t it be nice to experience copulation as a woman” ends with that thought, stripped of its terror, as a divine and quotidian duty. When one compares him to Freud’s neurotic patients—caught between fraught pleasures and terrifying punishments, tormented by their superegos and distended by their ids, full of ungodly hatreds and unspeakable loves—his fate begins to seem almost enviable. Even Freud is impressed: “In the final stage of the delusion a magnificent victory was scored by the infantile sexual urge; for voluptuousness became God-fearing, and God Himself (his father) never tired of demanding it from him. His father's most dreaded threat, castration, actually provided the material for his wishful phantasy (at first resisted but later accepted) of being transformed into a woman.”

Schreber’s delusion seems to take Zeus’s side in the old argument: It is the woman who enjoys more. The “sensuous nerves” which cover a man’s penis and drive him to copulate, cover every inch of a woman’s skin; the pleasure she experiences is God’s eternal bliss. Our modern Tiresias agrees with the ancient myth. But to grasp the import of this we’ll have to understand Schreber better.

Schreber in the Doctor’s Hands

What does Freud have to say about Schreber? His first point—and if this is unsurprising to us, we have Freud to thank—is that Schreber was, you know, at some level, a little bit gay, and that he had daddy issues. His doctor, Flechsig, reminded him of his father (who had also been a doctor); some unknown experience or disappointment in Schreber’s life forced him to face his incestuous homosexual desire, and his illness arose out of the profound inner conflicts this entailed. As Freud drily remarks, “in pointing this out I must disclaim all responsibility for the monotony of the solutions provided by psychoanalysis.”

But as Freud recognizes, this interpretation does not even begin to answer the questions posed by the case. After all, everyone’s at least a little bit gay, and most of us are quite fixated on our fathers; Freud never met a patient without daddy issues of one kind or another. Most of us deal with it through such sensibly neurotic tactics as ritual hand-washing and obsessive guilt. Why in the case of the paranoiac does it lead to persecution-fantasies, megalomania and apocalypse? Why, in Schreber’s case, the Messianic sex-change?

Freud’s answer to this question turns on the link between repression and regression. A repressed desire is one which ought to have been renounced in childhood, but never quite was; the return of the repressed is also a regression to its point of origin. The question of the nature of paranoia, then, is the question of where the paranoiac is regressing to. Freud argues that the paranoiac regresses toward infantile narcissism. Narcissism is a normal developmental stage, halfway between infantile autoeroticism (which entails many and varied pleasures) and the Oedipal (and eventually adult) stages of object-love. The narcissistic child takes his own body as his love-object, and enjoys it. An individual whose repressed desires are narcisstic tends toward homoeroticism: he or she loves bodies like his or her own.

Freud argues that Schreber’s illness must be understood as a defense against this sort of homosexuality: his paranoid delusion about Flechsig is a repressed expression of love. In Freud’s terms, Schreber negates the phrase “I (a man) love him (a man)”—he transforms the love into hate, and projects this feeling onto his doctor. “I do not love him—I hate him, because he hates me.” As the cliché has it, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference: Schreber’s hatred and fear betray his desire. That Schreber believes that Flechsig will unman him in order to turn him into a “strumpet” shows this all too clearly.

So clearly, indeed, that the repression was unsuccessful: transformed into a terrifyingly powerful persecutor, Flechsig became all the more central to Schreber’s world. This failed attempt was to have apocalyptic consequences.

Now the battle of repression broke out anew, but this time with more powerful weapons. In proportion as the object of contention became the most important thing in the external world, trying on the one hand to draw the whole of the libido on to itself, and on the other hand mobilizing all the resistances against itself, so the struggle raging around this single object became more and more comparable to a general engagement, till at length a victory for the forces of repression could find expression in a conviction that the world had come to an end and that the self alone survived.

According to Freud, Schreber was forced to replace his original repression (“I do not love him—I hate him”) with a new and more radical one: “I do not love him—I do not love anyone, I love only myself.” His capacity to achieve such a total withdrawal of libido from the world was a consequence of his narcissism, but its consequences were dire indeed. Deprived of his love, the world came to seem empty and desolate; the figures who continued to appear there were mere “fleeting-improvised-men” intended to fool him. Schreber remained convinced even after his partial recovery that the world had ended in the 1890s; he acknowledged the lack of evidence for this, but nonetheless suspected that some profound inner transformation had taken place. Freud argues that, in a certain sense, he was right: deprived of all love, desire, interest and meaning, his world really had ended.

To summarize: the paranoid delusion of persecution is a defense against unacceptable homoerotic desire. Paranoid megalomania, the delusion of apocalypse, is the same defense taken to its limit. The paranoid subject flees his desire by fleeing the world.

Freud’s interpretation explains a great deal of Schreber’s illness—but what of subsequent developments, his unmanning, his “transformation”? It is this that really interests us. On this point Freud offers a hint: “The delusion-formation, which we take to be a pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction” [italics Freud’s]. Delusion is not the illness itself but an attempt to recover. The paranoiac, who has fled a world too frightening to face, attempts to reestablish a connection of some form with that world—to rebuild it.

This theory raises the question: which delusion, under what conditions, can perform this work of reconstruction? If delusion is to be read neither as defense nor as symptom, but as cure—then what is the cure? What set of beliefs could make a previously unbearable world habitable?

Concretely, in Schreber’s case: the man let his entire world fall apart rather than accept a homosexual desire for a father-figure. Yet his final, stable delusion, by which he recovers his freedom, seems to entail precisely this—at least according to Freud. On Freud’s account, Schreber’s God is simply another version of his father; Freud says that Schreber conceives of himself as God’s “wife,” and copulates with him accordingly. If Freud is right here, then Schreber has simply changed his mind about how bad having sex as a woman is, and we can only wish for his sake that he had done so sooner, before he was institutionalized. The cure for a paranoid relationship to homosexuality would simply be to accept homosexuality of a certain kind and have done with it. Such a reading is superficial and explains little. I will argue that Schreber undergoes a more profound transformation than Freud understands, and that this transformation has something to teach us about sex, gender and the nature and uses of pleasure.

Schreber’s Delusional Cure

To understand Schreber’s “cure” we must grasp his disease: what, in his homosexual desire for Flechsig, was he so afraid of? To be sure, homosexuality was far more harshly repressed in his day than it is now—but it was hardly unknown, after all, and no mere threat of social opprobrium could provoke Schreber’s terrible fear. What was he threatened with? He thought Flechsig would do two things to him: (1) steal and destroy Schreber’s soul (“soul-murder”), and (2) use the de-souled, unmanned Schreber as a sexual plaything. Freud argues that for Schreber, “soul-murder” means castration.

It would be imprecise, I think, to say that Schreber fears his homosexuality. Rather, he fears what he takes to be the consequences of realizing it. The woman whom he will become if Flechsig gets his hands on him will be castrated, empty, and passive; she will be the toy of others’ desires, utterly powerless. To be a woman, in his judgment, is to be truly fucked—and yet, at some level, he wants this. He desires a pleasure which cannot be experienced directly—to get that, one must lose one’s soul. No wonder he is so afraid.

Do Schreber’s inferences concerning his homosexual desire seem bizarre? I suspect they’re not so uncommon, even today: they seem like the formula for modern homophobia. To be a woman is to be castrated and fucked; to desire this is barely tolerable even in women, and in men it is simply revolting. Even the relationship between the “soul,” the mind, self-control and the penis remains with us: female desire, like gay desire, is uncontrolled and uncontrollable, beyond the power even of the one who experiences it. The woman Schreber will become will not be able to choose sex; it will be done to him, he will be “used” by a father-figure, a powerful man.

If Schreber’s delusion in its final form seems similar to his initial fears, the similarity is superficial: everything has changed. If Flechsig was a father-figure—threatening, controlling, extraordinarily crafty and possessed of immense power—Schreber’s God has none of these characteristics. He is not omnipotent: he cannot even leave Schreber’s body, he’s stuck there. He is not omniscient: he does not understand what’s going on with Schreber or Flechsig, he does not understand human beings at all and does not judge or condemn them. And most importantly, he offers no commandments. Schreber’s voluptuousness is not “God-fearing,” as Freud claims; it’s not a duty to a king, but a favor to one who cannot help himself. Schreber’s God, for all his glory, is like nothing so much as an infant: he cannot understand what’s going on around him and cannot bear unpleasantness. Schreber’s voluptuousness is his way of taking care of God.

The economy of sexual pleasure in Schreber’s God-delusion is likewise an inversion of his relationship with Flechsig. Flechsig needed to soul-murder Schreber in order to enjoy him; Flechsig could take pleasure only insofar as Schreber was destroyed. Schreber’s God, in contrast, can enjoy only through Schreber’s pleasure; pleasure is no longer a possession (to be stolen), it is necessarily intersubjective and shared. The relationship between God and Schreber is not that of man and wife, as Freud suggests: God does not take pleasure from Schreber but feels pleasure “in” him. Schreber, we might say, is not God’s woman but God’s clitoris.

Schreber’s delusion might be read as an inversion of Christianity: the Christian God gives us souls in order to judge us, while Schreber’s gives us bodies in order to enjoy us. The Christian God organizes his relationship to man through suffering and punishment; Schreber’s relates to humans only in pleasure. The Christian God offers a choice: either love yourselves or worship me. Schreber’s God says the opposite: only in loving yourself can you worship me. One can’t help but wonder what a Schreberian faith would look like: no sin but suffering, no prayer but bliss.

We can begin to understand why Schreber’s delusion “cured” him, at least to the extent of allowing him to reenter the world. At the beginning of his illness, his homosexual desire meant passivity, castration, and death; he could choose pleasure or the power which banned it, but he could not have both. His final delusion does not represent, as Freud seems to think, an acceptance of this alternative, but its transformation. Pleasure is not a possession but shared; to be enjoyed is no longer to be destroyed. In his delusion Schreber “overcomes” the Oedipus complex and comes to terms with castration. We can also understand why this cure took so long and cost so much. Given the profound resonance of this complex in Judeo-Christian culture, the omnipresence of debt, sacrifice, judgment, power and possession, of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers, he can do so only by changing the nature of God.

Further Reading

Schreber’s illness is eminently “psychoanalyzable,” and incomprehensible on any other basis. His “cure,” however, is “beyond” psychoanalysis—beyond Freud’s core concepts and beyond his ken. It is not a symptom, it is not a repression, it contains no fathers and no sons. It must be read otherwise. Freud almost acknowledges this; he barely tries to read Schreber’s delusion, and he sees no hope of a psychoanalytic cure here.

What does this say about psychoanalysis? The accusation that Freud’s doctrine is bound up with bourgeois mores and Judeo-Christian morality, that it reproduces and deepens the guilt and anxiety it claims merely to analyze, is an old one. Fifty years ago conflicts on this point were at the center of intellectual debate. Marcuse’s challenge to the Freudian paradigm, taking its stand on a rather empty nostalgia for the pre-Oedipal, has not stood the test of time, but Foucault’s archaeology of truth-desire and Deleuze’s vindication of the schizo were far more formidable. Lacan’s late work on the question of feminine sexuality and an “other pleasure” point in the same direction. These varied and profound critiques, however, coincided with a blunter and far more effective attack on psychoanalysis from another angle entirely: the advent of the psychopharmaceutical. The philosophical effort to move “beyond” psychoanalysis was preempted by a scientific consensus that psychoanalysis had become obsolete, or had always been so. A few decades later, the polemics of the sixties and seventies read strangely for this reason: we are still not “beyond” psychoanalysis, but for a long time now we have been “after” it.

It’s no surprise, then, that efforts to rehabilitate psychoanalysis have come to seem as properly leftist today as attacks on it were fifty years ago. The most prominent representative of this trend is of course Zizek, but the phenomenon is broader: young intellectuals suspicious of the politics of modern psychiatry or dissatisfied with its ethical superficiality these days are almost without exception drawn to Freud. The dominant psychological theory in a society like ours, insofar as it is institutionalized, will always be reactionary; the normalizing tendencies of cognitive-behavioral therapy and pharmaceutical psychiatry are as evident today as the normalizing drive of psychoanalysis were when it was dominant. Most people seek psychological treatment, after all, in order to get by in society, to render their work and family lives tolerable, not to transform them. Psychology treats the failures and pathologies generated by a social form merely in order to rearticulate and reinforce that form. Hence a leftist critique of “mental health” (of its unspoken ideals, its institutional power and its relation to the broader economy) is a perennial necessity.

I would like to suggest, however, that the critique of psychoanalysis has other stakes, broader if not more important than these. Psychoanalysis is a psychology of late and decadent Judeo-Christianity, to be sure; its central concepts (guilt, repression, parricide, castration and unspeakable desire) are bound up with the God we no longer believe in. Alas, that makes it not out of date but all too contemporary: psychoanalysis is the psychology of us. From anorexia to OCD to obsessive work to sexual pathology to the many and mostly guilt-ridden depressions so ubiquitous in our society, nothing could be more evident than that Freud’s concepts are our own. The stakes of the end of psychoanalysis lie here: to overcome psychoanalysis would be to have done with the Christian God. Which brings us back to Schreber. Schreber overcame psychoanalysis not in theory but in practice; he did so by reinventing God. Would it be perverse to recommend him as an ethical ideal?

Perhaps it would be. There is something impossibly ridiculous about this retired jurist, sitting nude in front of a mirror, stroking himself. But there are others to choose from, like him but more beautiful. Blake, Woolf, Joyce, and Nietzsche (a partial list of course) share so much with Schreber, in their disease if not in their cures: hypochondria, paranoia, gender ambiguity and homosexuality, the sense of apocalypse. What would it mean to read their work from this perspective, as “delusion” in the sense Freud gives it—not as disease but as cure? I’m not suggesting that we “psychoanalyze” them, but that we read them as ways out of psychoanalysis, efforts to invent gods other than the God of Abraham and Christ, attempts to escape or rewrite the Oedipal tragedy. They could be our saints.

What might this have to do with the debate between Hera and Zeus about sexual pleasure? It’s hard to say. Schreber’s case, his “castration,” suggests this much, though: it is not abjection and lack which block our path here, but our fear of loss. Like Adam in the joke, the Freudian man is a fool: he accepts a gift of power which can only serve to bind him. We might well measure our success in this field not in how much we can gain and hold on to but by how much we’re willing to give up on, how much we can give away.

1Judging from the experience of the last forty years—homosexual pleasure recaptured for the nuclear family in the politics of gay marriage, female pleasure transformed into merely another genre of obsessive Cosmo-article-fueled feminine body anxiety—both right and left may well have overestimated the significance of pleasure.

2 The place of the potential in Freud’s theory of sexuality renders his categories profoundly unstable: a woman is always maybe a man, a man always could be a woman. Throughout his work, from the earliest case studies onward, we find biological men playing at womanhood and biological women in masculine roles. Hence Freud’s theories, far from condemning each of us to a single gender grounded in instinct (as evolutionary psychology now seeks to do), reveal a gender system which is radically and fundamentally unstable. Even the belief, now widely held, that gender is “socialized,” a matter of habit, presents us with a far more limiting picture than Freud’s: habits are limits on our choice and hard to change, whereas in Freud’s theory the ever-present possibility of becoming-other constitutes sexuality for men and women alike. Freud’s theories are perhaps better understood as describing a masculine and a feminine position with respect to sex than a persistent psychology of men and women as such. We can always switch positions, and we often do.