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  • The Haunted Delimitation of Subjectivity in the Work of Nicolas AbrahamTranslator's Preface
  • Tom Goodwin (bio)

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"What use is the dual unity?" asks Nicolas Abraham (1919–75) in "Seminar on the Dual Unity and the Phantom."1 His response, reconstructed posthumously from fragments of notes following his untimely death in 1975, reflects on and utilizes a number of central concepts from two decades of work. Notions such as anasemia, metaphor, introjection, trauma, and the crypt, developed in earlier texts, are used to elaborate more fully the mechanisms of self-formation as the always incomplete separation from a maternal context. This allows Abraham to explore different forms of this separation when the complexities of a child's transition to individuation is complicated even further through the presence of what he names a phantom. This metapsychological figure is the culmination of a unique theoretical project, written mostly in collaboration with his partner Maria Torok (1925–98), to rethink the development and boundaries of selfhood alongside a similar interrogation of the psychoanalytic institution whose concepts and practice framed their work.

Considering the formation of self as inseparable from a notion of trauma and its symbolization, Abraham and Torok's ideas emerged in one of the most turbulent yet fertile periods in the history of psychoanalysis, when Jacques Lacan's incendiary thought was fracturing the French psychoanalytic scene. Working apart from the schisms and infighting that were paralyzing the accrediting institutions of psychoanalysis in France, they produced a theoretical corpus that unrelentingly challenged the dogma of the prevailing discourses of the day.2 Cultivating this marginal position, they navigated more freely the liminal space where psychoanalysis borders associated disciplines (for example, philosophy, literature, and translation), attracting the attention of other radical psychoanalysts, philosophers, and theorists of literature. The seminars that they regularly held at their Paris apartment from the late 1950s were attended by many of the prominent intellectual figures of the day, including most significantly Jacques Derrida. Suspicious of institutions and increasingly estranged from their intellectual milieu, Abraham and Torok embodied a spirit of psychoanalytic confrontation that characterizes their work.3 This provided momentum for them to challenge conceptual frames whenever they were inadequate to their object, while also promoting free dialogue in the face of constraint and preconception. These values were never more important than in their continual encounter with the question of trauma; a question profoundly traced into their personal histories as Jewish survivors of the Nazi "final solution" in their native Hungary.4

Trauma is an ever-present motif in the work of Abraham and Torok and the mechanisms of phantomic haunting developed in the Seminar are their last collective steps in investigating its impact on the individual. In a radical departure from the typical Oedipal models, they return to the origin of the psychoanalytic concept of trauma in the early work of Freud and the debates over its nature that were reignited in the 1920s and '30s by their compatriot and key influence, Sándor Ferenczi.5 Following Ferenczi's explorations in Thalassa, Abraham and Torok extend the idea of trauma beyond a simple pathological designation and connect it to the operation of the symbol that, for them, characterizes human existence. In their definition, trauma has nothing to do with the properties of an intrusive element—its strength, duration, internal or external source, etc.—but is instead [End Page 5] determined by its effects on the subject. It is any experience that, for whatever reason, resists symbolization and cannot be transformed into a bearable aspect of being. Defined in its opposition to symbolic existence, it is thus the genesis and unrelenting motivation of all human activity. Synonymous with the constitution of the psyche, all symbolic manifestations therefore carry within them dispersed traces of repressed, life-threatening disasters, whether wounded at the time of an event or through a deferred action.

It is in response to this conception of trauma that Abraham first defines the dual unity as a clinical concept whose purpose is to provide a supplement to analytic listening where established frames are lacking. He draws on the metaphorical function of the analytical process to describe the symbolic operation at the heart of self...