- The Testament of the Other: Abraham and Torok’s Failed Expiation of Ghosts
Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.—H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.—Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Shell and the Kernel
Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok may be best known for advancing a theory of transgenerational haunting. According to this theory, repressed secrets are passed from one generation to the next if they are “encrypted” as unprocessed and traumatic information. Before Abraham’s death in 1975, he and Torok saw their analytic role as reparative: Encouraging their analysands to mourn repressed secrets, they hoped to transform their analysands’ perspectives on family history.
Abraham and Torok quickly became known for expanding Freud’s emphasis on the subject’s conflicting desires and identifications. From 1968 on, when Abraham published “L’écorce et le noyau” (“The Shell and the Kernel”) as an extended review of Laplanche and Pontalis’s The Language of Psychoanalysis, he and Torok published their claims in cheerful defiance of Freudian orthodoxy, acquiring a reputation in France—and, later, in England and the United States—for shattering such “doctrinaire” elements of psychoanalysis [End Page 3] as the Oedipus complex and death drive, penis envy, and the primal scene, as well as for criticizing Lacan’s alleged stranglehold on psychoanalysis in France and much of Europe. 1 After publishing L’écorce et le noyau (1987), a collection of their essays (many coauthored), and a radically new interpretation of Freud’s patient “the Wolf Man,” Cryptonymie: Le verbier de l’homme aux loups (1976; trans. The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonomy), Abraham and Torok were championed in Europe and the United States by theorists delighted to see a “poststructuralist” critique of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Ironically, Abraham and Torok’s work received almost comparable support from analytical philosophers eager to denounce Freud’s “unscientific” precepts.
Now that the first volume of Abraham and Torok’s essays has appeared in translation, non-Francophone readers have an opportunity to assess what Abraham and Torok contributed to psychoanalysis and to revisit the debates they staged with Freud and Lacan in the 1970s and—posthumously for Abraham—in the ‘80s. Reviewing this collection is not a simple task, however, because its conceptual interests are so diverse and because Torok’s coauthored work with Abraham differs radically from the essays and book she published recently with Nicholas Rand, editor and translator of The Shell and the Kernel. Rand’s interventions confirm Torok’s latest arguments but they also, occasionally, misleadingly frame the older work in terms of the new. Readers may therefore see Rand’s editorial notes and introduction as guides to how he and Torok now view Torok’s collaboration with Abraham. We can only speculate whether Abraham would have interpreted the collaboration the same way. 2
How does Abraham and Torok’s account of psychic “encryptment” differ from Freud’s model of repression? Assessing their revision of Freud’s metapsychological project, Abraham and Torok declare, “It would be presumptuous indeed to allege that we have reached our goal. Yet it would be false modesty to deny our suspicion that we are finally entering an open road” . 3 Echoing Freud’s conviction that in dreams he had discovered “the royal road to the unconscious,” Abraham and Torok encourage a comparative reading of their psychoanalytic “road” and Freud’s. The following essay undertakes this reading, but it also speculates on what Freud’s and Lacan’s emphasis on [End Page 4] psychic...