Trying to Defeat the Compulsion to Repeat

Reflections on The Repetition Compulsion and Lacan’s Seminar XVII

What follows now is speculation, speculation often far-fetched, which each will according to his particular attitude acknowledge or neglect. Or one may call it the exploitation of an idea out of curiosity to see whither it will lead.

—Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Chapter IV, Par. 1

Francis Bacon: Figure with Meat


One of the most philosophically beautiful contributions of psychoanalysis is the compulsion to repeat. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud describes, in almost mystical terms, the fundamental principles that guide our psychology. The simplest of them all is the life drive, which controls our desire to pro/create, to live, to relate with other people. The question, then, is the nature of this opposite, the death drive/s.

The question addressed in this book of metapsychology is a simple one: Why do we as humans do things that hurt us? At the simplest, most naïve level, we assume that a person must act according to his or her own interests, the pleasure principle. And yet we can observe other people, and indeed ourselves, many times committing acts that in fact hurt us rather than benefit us.

The question appears to be almost mundane. The Aristotelian answer is that we mistake what is bad for good, and thus although no person ever desires what is evil, they nonetheless commit evil because of ignorance. However, there are many instances in which this does not hold. Consider, for example, when people continue to eat, despite being full. They even when consuming food becomes painful rather than pleasurable. They know the consequences of their actions, and yet they persist.

In addition, the other day, I and a group of friends were discussing love in the most typical manner: That is to say, we were discussing the best way to resolve a dilemma. My friend, C — , was having trouble with his girlfriend. She has been complaining about him, about how he doesn’t love her the way he used to, &c., &c.. When he says that, if that’s the case, they should break up, she then says that she doesn’t want to.

This paradoxical behavior, especially in the field of love, outside the field of knowledge, is typical of human psychology. The knowledge is entirely visible. There is no gap in the knowledge presented here that makes ignorance culpable for the dilemma. Something else, which has to do with the way we engage other people and make choices, as well as the way we understand what we want, is at work.

My friend M — had an interesting proposition. We shouldn’t judge, she says. He should stick with her. We cannot know, in fact, what happens in love, and so he must ignore the signs and go on: That is to say, she does not avoid ignorance. On the contrary, she is well aware of the situation and tries to impose it.

The Aristotelian idea that knowledge presupposes what is good therefore fails, but in a specific way: Even if knowledge does entail the good, we humans do not necessarily seek it, either because we believe that knowledge does not necessarily entail what is good or sometimes we desire what is bad, what is painful (cf. Lacan, XVII, 18).

In the words of Freud:

In that event, however, it must be affirmed that it is not strictly correct to speak of a supremacy of the pleasure-principle over the course of psychic processes. If such existed, then the vast majority of our psychic processes would necessarily be accompanied by pleasure or would conduce to it, while the most ordinary experience emphatically contradicts any such conclusion. (BPP, Chap. 1, par. 5)

Here, we come across the question of pleasure: What, exactly, does it mean to enjoy? In the framework of the “pleasure principle,” which seeks pleasure, and the “reality principle,” which defers pleasure according to restrictions of reality (such as from limitations imposed by rules, by laws, by cultural conventions, by physical possibility), enjoyment does not seem to be a straightforward derivative of both processes.

When we try to enjoy, without the interference of the reality principle, we put ourselves in danger (BPP, Chap. 1, par. 6): In this regard, we have the paradoxical notion of Lacan that the pleasure principle (as it function with the reality principle), in fact, ensures that we enjoy as little as possible.

We can thus ask ourselves: What is making us so confused, when it comes to pleasure and to enjoyment? Why are my friends giving so bad advice — indeed, why can we never give good advice, when it comes to love, so that we are either always wrong or ignored?

Lacan says: “…the path toward death is nothing other than what is called jouissance” (XVII, 18).

Andy Warhol: 25 Colored Marilyns


Humans exhibit what is called the repetition compulsion: The compulsion to repeat previous events. Freud talks about how victims of trauma usually relive their trauma, in dreams and in flashbacks in waking life, in direct contradiction to how the pleasure principle is supposed to function. Shouldn’t they be consoled by more immediate pleasures, the very least of which is the fact that the traumatic event has already passed and is not taking place at present? (BPP, Chap. 2, par. 1).

He comes to the conclusion that we relive past traumas so that we can master them or, in some way, augment the way that we perceive them. In this way, the reality principle successfully mitigates immediate gratification (there is no way to turn back time and “undo” the traumatic experience) while still satisfying the pleasure principle (the trauma is relived and “controlled” or “mastered” in the present).[1]

My two friends were demonstrating such a compulsion when they refused the idea that C — must part with the girl, no matter how unpleasant she and the relationship had become. Our discussion had become something of a living memory: They were enacting not only previous traumas with regard to their love life but, more importantly, their relationships towards their parents in the Oedipal drama.

According to Freud, people are

obliged rather to repeat as a current experience what is repressed, instead of, as the physician would prefer to see him do, recollecting it as a fragment of the past. This reproduction appearing with unwelcome fidelity always contains a fragment of the infantile sex-life, therefore of the Oedipus complex and its off-shoots… (BPP, Chap. 3, par. 2).

I have analyzed neither of them and would therefore not be capable of delineating the nature of their Oedipal traumas here, but during the conversation I did remind M — of her previous relationship, which was emotionally abusive, and her boyfriend had a habit of ordering her around. At the time, I reminded her of what was taking place, but she didn’t only seem to accept it, she enjoyed it. And in sharing her advice with our friend C — , she was in fact offering advice that she obtained through the workings of her own compulsion.

It bears noting that that M — had lived her entire life without a father. Thus, the first question would be to ask: How can she relive the trauma of what is supposed to be an overbearing, demanding father if she never had the father to begin with? The answer would come easily to an analyst. M — was not repeating her relationship with her father. She was reliving her relationship with her mother. She had identifier with her mother (having no father with which to identify) and came to repeat what she had perceived as her mother’s subservience to her father.

Although we have been removed from our desire to possess the ultimate prize — life, once again, as completely embedded within the Other, desiring nothing — our constitution as lacking/desiring beings supplies us in turn with substitute satisfaction, with consolation prizes, in the form of enjoyment.

What do we enjoy, then?

We enjoy the symptom, the particular way in which we derive substitute satisfaction according to the particular nature of our Oedipal dramas, according to the specific and individual account of our castration. Thus, the death drive and the pleasure principle are intimately connected. Although the pleasure principle commands us to enjoy as little as possible, the death drive demands that we push the limits of the pleasure principle so that we may enjoy.

In fact, given that the Oedipal drama partially resolves through the enjoyment of the its own debris, and the superego is the result of the Oedipal role of the father who brings about the child’s entrance into the symbolic order, then Lacan goes on to say that the command of the superego is not “don’t do this” or “don’t do that.” Rather, the superego’s injunction is: “Enjoy!” That is to say, to indulge in the enjoyment, the obscene, repetitious, aimless enjoyment of jouissance that takes place within the Symbolic but is the Subject’s continuous attempts at regaining the transcendent pleasure that once was.

The compulsion to repeat and the death drive derive from our traumatic infancy, and our continuous attempts at recreating it, even despite, on in spite, of ourselves and our well-being.

Hokusai: The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife ( 蛸と海女)


One of the most important considerations in psychoanalysis, when studying in unconscious, is the interpretation of dreams. Lacan’s developments of the Freudian clinical discoveries, the main parts of which are found in The Interpretation of Dreams, exhibit more advanced notions of dreams that go beyond their function as fulfillments of a wish (ID, 147). Lacan’s development even goes beyond deciphering the structure of an analysand’s unconscious through the elements present in the dream (ID, 187).

For Lacan, dreams are

…a certain knot, an associative network of analysed verbal forms that intersect as such, not because of what they signify, but thanks to a sort of homonymy. (MT, 28).

This statement is notable for its linguistic treatment of the interpretation of dreams. Lacan in facts notes in the same book that his “teaching is in fact quite simply language, and absolutely nothing else” (26).

Thus, dreams express intersecting “verbal forms” or signifiers that are intersect because of their similarity. The result, when interpreted at the ordinary, received level, normally leads us to the manifest meaning of the dream, the meaning that is most apparent to us.

Usually, the manifest meaning of dreams emerge from three sources, according to Freud: (1) Impressions of preceding days; (2) waking memory; (3) impression of our childhood, even those that we thought we’ve forgotten (ID, 187–189).

However, it is the latent content of the dream, rather than the manifest content, that reveals the structure of the subject according to his sexual trauma, libidinal economy, and symbolic relationships.

Thus, Lacan continues:

It is when you come across a single word at the intersection of three of the ideas that come to the subject that you notice that the important thing is that word and not something else. It is when you have found the word that concentrates around it the greatest number of threads in the mycelium that you know it is the hidden centre of gravity of the desire in question. (MT, 26)

The split between the manifest and the latent is created and made possibly by the “slippage” of signifiers, each of which could mean many things (through their definitions) and are associated with each other in an almost infinite manner (through their evocative or metaphorical relationships).

This interconnectedness is what forms, for Lacan, the “knot” that is the dream. Moreover, according to Freud, “The study of dreams may be regarded as the most trustworthy approach to the exploration of the deeper psychic processes” (BPP, Chapter 2, par. 2).

Frédéric-Théodore Lix: Illustration for Poe’s The Purloined Letter


According to Lacan, the signifier — and the enjoyment derived from the signifier (XVII, 65) — is an unsent letter addressed to the Other; and the Subject receives his or her own message in inverted form (“Seminar on the Purloined Letter”).

When we discuss love, although we attempt to display our visions of what we think love is within us, it is actually the reverse: We are displaying, reenacting, repeating what love is according to what the Other has shown us.

This is, as it were, what we talk about when we talk about love.

To put it another way, when we talk about love, we never speak of it in the ideal sense. We only speak about it in terms of trauma, in terms of how we can never reach the ideal. And our experience in this regard originates not only in our previous conscious experiences. The ultimate template for our traumatic love-experience is the Oedipus complex, when we are divorced from the mOther in a repressed phantasmic, primordial drama.


But according to Lacan, “no metalanguage can be spoken” (quoted in Evans, 113; see also XVII 61, 190). That is to say, there is no position outside language so that one can view it in full and evaluate its truth: Discourses are interwoven like a fabric, and all discourses, including this one, say not all the truth.

And so although I speak of these events, I too am overwritten by my own Oedipal attachments, my own biases as a result of my own repressions, plagued by my own inhibitions, wracked by my own guilt. . .

He and I were in a casino at 2 AM. And we were talking the Truth. He was drunk, and so in fact he could not stop talking about the truth.

And he said that the worst thing that I’ve ever done to him is to make him lose faith in God. I don’t remember doing anything like that, although it sounded like me.

I sat in silence for a long time, and he spoke at length about many things. I don’t really remember what he said. But I remember feeling thankful to the God who does not exist that I was there, at that place, with him.

When we finally had enough, the sun was already out.

I drove back home singing along to the radio, like some stupid person.

And after that day, I never really saw him again.

I don’t know what Lacan would say about it.

[1] The repetition compulsion also comes into play during analysis, when the pleasure principles tries “to avoid the ‘pain’ that would be aroused by the release of the repressed material, and our efforts are directed to effecting an entry for such painful feeling by an appeal to the reality-principle” (BPP, Chap. 3, par. 4).

Evans, Dylan. An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. London New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle (BPP)., 2010, Accessed 3 July 2017.

— . The interpretation of dreams (ID). New York: Basic Books A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2010. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. My teaching (MT). London New York: Verso, 2008. Print.

— . “Seminar on the Purloined Letter., 1997, Accessed 3 July 2017.

— . Seminar XVII: The other side of psychoanalysis. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.