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  • An Interview with Jean Laplanche
  • Cathy Caruth

Jean Laplanche has long been recognized as a leading French thinker and psychoanalyst. His pioneering work on Freud’s early writing first revealed the temporal structure of trauma in Freud and its significance for Freud’s notion of sexuality. In his later work, Laplanche has elaborated on this understanding of what he called Freud’s “special seduction theory” in a “general seduction theory,” which examines the origins of the human psyche in the “implantation of the message of the other.” I interviewed him in his home in Paris on October 23, 1994.

I. Trauma and Time

CC: The seduction theory in Freud’s early work, which traces adult neurosis back to early childhood molestation, is generally understood today as representing a direct link between psychic life and external events.1 When people refer to this period of Freud’s work in contemporary debates, they tend to refer to it as a time in which Freud still made a place for the reality and effects of external violence in the human psyche. In your understanding of the seduction theory, on the other hand, the theory does not provide a simple locating of external reality in relation to the psyche. As a matter of fact, your temporal reading of seduction trauma in Freud’s early work would rather suggest a dislocating of any single traumatic “event.” You say specifically, on the basis of your reading of the seduction theory, that there are always at least two scenes that constitute a traumatic “event” (Problématiques III 202), and that the trauma is never locatable in either scene alone but in “the play of ‘deceit’ producing a kind of seesaw effect between the two events” (Life and Death 41).

Would you explain what you mean when you say that in Freud, trauma is never contained in a single moment, or that the traumatic “event” is defined by a temporal structure?

JL: This question about the seduction theory is important, because the theory of seduction has been completely neglected. When people talk about seduction, they do not talk about the theory of seduction. I would argue that even Freud, when he abandoned the so-called seduction theory, forgot about his theory. He just dismissed the causal fact of seduction. When [Jeffrey] Masson, for example, goes back to the so-called seduction theory, he comes back to the factuality of seduction, but not to the theory, which he completely ignores. To say that seduction is important in the child is not a theory, just an assertion. And to say that Freud neglected the reality of seduction or that Freud came back to this reality, or that Masson comes back to this reality, is not a theory.

Now the theory of seduction is very important because it’s highly developed in Freud. The first step I took with [J.-B.] Pontalis a long time ago, in The Language of Psychoanalysis, was to unearth this theory, which has very complicated aspects: temporal aspects, economic aspects, and also topographical aspects.

As to the question of external and internal reality, the theory of seduction is more complicated than simply opposing external and internal causality. When Freud said, “Now I am abandoning the idea of external causality and am turning to fantasy,” he neglected this very dialectical theory he had between the external and the internal. He neglected, that is, the complex play between the external and the internal.

His theory explained that trauma, in order to be psychic trauma, never comes simply from outside. That is, even in the first moment it must be internalized, and then afterwards relived, revivified, in order to become an internal trauma. That’s the meaning of his theory that trauma consists of two moments: the trauma, in order to be psychic trauma, doesn’t occur in just one moment. First, there is the implantation of something coming from outside. And this experience, or the memory of it, must be reinvested in a second moment, and then it becomes traumatic. It is not the first act which is traumatic, it is the internal reviviscence of this memory that becomes traumatic. That’s Freud’s theory. You find it...

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