The Anus: An FAQ, Part Two

When it is held back for too long and too forcefully, badness has a way of finding an exit, and in the most unseemly of manners.

The Anus: An FAQ, Part Two

“The brightest rooms are the secret domain of faeces.”

Theodor Adorno


Part One of The Anus: An FAQ is available here.

Q: What is it to retain the stool? What is it to expulse the stool?

Anality is often comprehended in the binary distinction between anal-retentiveness (as displayed by obsessive pedants) and anal-expulsiveness (as displayed by careless sadists), a distinction we owe to Freud’s younger colleague Karl Abraham. Abraham assiduously noted that the pleasure involved in excretion—the pleasure of “losing” or “destroying” the object is quite different from the pleasure of holding back one’s feces until the proper moment, and that the second implies a reining in of the first. He thus found it rather confused to say, as Freud and other colleagues did, that the primary pleasure is to be found in holding back and thus accumulating one’s stool, as the desire to “control” the object is clearly secondary to the desire to “destroy” it. The retention of feces is thus only pleasurable after children have learned to associate “goodness” with holding it in until the proper time and “badness” with being unable to; it is, in other words, a feeling that one learns to find pleasurable only insofar as it is pleasing to the other and displeasing to oneself. Sándor Ferenczi calls this “sphincter-morality.” The disgust at feces is then, for Abraham, primarily a disgust at our own previous pleasure.

Like Andreas-Salomé before him and his analysand Klein after him, Abraham would emphasize the positive effect of this rewriting of history: in his view, the dividing line between the first anal-expulsive phase and the second anal-retentive one is “where ‘object-love,’ in the narrower sense begins, for it is at this point that the tendency to preserve the object begins to predominate.” In other words, it is only when the primary sadistic urge to eliminate is replaced with a secondary urge to control that we enter something like “reality,” a place where we recognize the otherness of others and where we are not constantly trying to get rid of anything that is unclean. In a disturbing self-contextualization that brings out the stakes of this transformation, Abraham notes, in 1924, that “in the military reports and dispatches which appeared on both sides during the late war…, places were ‘gesäubert’ (‘cleaned’) of the enemy, trenches were ‘aufgeräumt’ (‘cleared out’); in the French accounts the word used was ‘nettoyer’ (‘to clean’), and in the English, ‘cleaning up’ or ‘mopping up’ was the expression.”

To be anal-retentive is thus a real accomplishment: the ability to retain an “unclean” object is also a capacity to bear uncleanliness in oneself. The problem—perhaps the problem for psychoanalysis—is that this control and mastery of one’s own sadism can easily be taken too far. Excessive retentiveness, i.e., caring too much about pleasing others and too little about pleasing oneself, is always unstable. In Abraham’s words, an “exaggerated docility and an excess of ‘goodness’” always go hand in hand with an alternating obstinacy and cruelty. When it is held back for too long and too forcefully, badness has a way of finding an exit, and in the most unseemly of manners.

Q: What happens when it’s held in for too long?

None of Freud’s case studies demonstrate the instability of anal-retentiveness better than that of the “rat man,” so-called thanks to the precipitating events that led him to analysis. While in the army, the patient had encountered a sadistic captain who told him one day, with some relish, of “a specifically horrible punishment used in the East:” the criminal was tied up, a pot with rats was turned upside down on his buttocks, and the rats bored their way into his anus. Upon hearing of this punishment, the rat man instantly imagined it being applied to his father and to a romantic interest of his, and then just as quickly attached the realization of this possibility to his failure to repay another officer who had paid postal charges of 75 cents for him: “If I do not repay this overwhelmingly insignificant debt,” he told himself, “rats will bore into the anuses of my father and my love.”

While helping the poor man articulate this obsessive thought that so tormented him, Freud could not help but notice that “while he was telling his story his face took on a very strange, composite expression,” which was interpreted as “one of horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware.” This mixture of pleasure and terror was Freud’s first clue in uncovering the root conflict from which this obsession sprouted: by his own admission, the rat man became subject to obsessive thinking in his twenties, around the time that his father, an overtly likable man prone to bouts of severity, had arranged for him to marry a woman of repute and money. The rat man, however, had already fallen in love with a lady of lesser social stature and who furthermore, on account of a gynecological operation, could not bear any children. Torn between his father’s wishes and his love, the rat man succumbed to obsessional neurosis; that is, instead of making a difficult decision, he fell ill.

The decision itself, however, was only an occasion for a number of pre-existing currents of ambivalence to finally manifest. For reasons that are understandable given the details of the case reviewed thus far, the rat man simultaneously loved and resented the two people that he considered the most important in his life. With the pristine image by which many fathers judge their sons, the rat man’s father did not hesitate to dole out punishments for activities that disappointed his expectations, and the conflict between those expectations and the rat man’s sexual appetite had some history. As a young boy, he had been “soundly castigated” by his father for masturbating. Thus, though greatly loved, his father was also, both as a child and as an adult, an obstacle to the rat man’s desire, and thus a despised rival in addition to being an admired benefactor. The love he felt for his lady was similarly marred by hatred: not only could she not bear him children, but she also stood in the way of his father’s wishes. While caring for her once when she was “lying seriously ill in bed…, there crossed his mind as he looked at her a wish that she might lie like that forever.”

Adding to the mix his early sexual inclinations, his fear of his own sadism, and his childhood worry that other people could hear his thoughts, it is easy to see why the rat man would be conflicted, and even why he would invent a fantasy for himself that would allow him to avoid dealing with reality. But why the particular fantasy of rats? The obsessive thought seems to have been overdetermined (Freud says that the word “rat” for his patient was a “complex stimulus-word” [Komplexreizwort]). For one, his father had a bit of a gambling problem, and the rat man would refer to him with the colloquial German term for gambler: Spielratte. The rat man also paid Freud in regular installments (Raten) and recounted saying to himself once, in reference to Freud’s fee: “So many florins, so many rats.” Furthermore, the woman he hoped to marry (heiraten) could not bear him a child, and as a child, “he himself had been just such a nasty, dirty wretch, who was apt to bite people when he was in a rage,” much like a rat. Finally, it should come as no surprise that the rat, a carrier of dangerous infectious diseases, should also be associated by Freud with the penis (a carrier of syphilitic infection, a disease the rat man greatly feared).

For Freud, the case was now closed: in the simple image of rats burrowing into the anuses of the two people he cared most about in the world, the rat man was able to punish his father for his expectations and his love for her insufficiencies, while at the same time pleasuring them both with the penis that was himself (and in so doing, giving them syphilis). Unable to confront the hatred mixed in with the love he had for these two people, he invented a fantasy in which his hate found expression but which he could prevent from becoming reality through the simple act of paying back a small debt. Put differently, his pleasure in anal-expulsiveness—in “destroying” the object, according to Abraham—was too severely repressed by his desire to please others, others whose own desires were in conflict. Retaining too much and expulsing too little in reality, he was forced to expulse too much and retain too little in fantasy.

As with many psychoanalytic case studies, the rat man is a testament to the perils of trying to love too much and to be too good. In making his ambivalence inadmissible, i.e., in repressing any trace of frustration or hatred toward the people he loved, the rat man became someone who exhausted himself with trivialities in order to avoid his own aggression. His neurosis was not, to be clear, his alone to bear: would it not have been better to risk being displeasing to his father and married the love of his life? Wouldn’t challenging his father’s expectations, thus forcing his father to confront him as the man he is and not the man he is expected to be, only have improved their actual relationship in destroying their fantasied relationship? No doubt it’s a good thing that the rat man did not act on his murderous impulses, but if he allowed himself the audacity of expressing even the slightest discontent toward his love objects, he might not have had these “death wishes” at all. The lesson here is not that we should let it all out (or conversely, that we should hold it all back), but rather that love and hate always come together, and that we try to purify one of the other to the detriment of ourselves and the people around us.

In Part Three of “The Anus”: the drive to amass wealth and use-value for others. Available here.

Paola Domínguez-Sosa is Sándor Ferenczi Professor of Mutual Analysis at the Sociedade Brasileira de Psicanálise and the author of Ñao entre no buraco, translated as Walk, My Friends, in the Light of Day (Johns Hopkins, 2014).