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Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana


Going murderous on an inextricable link.

Individual and collective attempts to clean up once and for all

Wolfgang Lassmann

(Wien), Full Member of the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse ( Viennese Association of Psycoanalysis)

In the Tarantino film Jackie Brown (1997), Ordell, the head of a gang of criminals, expects two of his people back from an assignment. To his suprise, only one person shows up. “Hey, where’s Melanie?”, he asks. The other, Louis, replies, “She’s been talking the whole time. She was driving me completely crazy” “So you left her there”, Ordell suggests. “I shot her,” Louis says.

The way Louis deals with his need to maintain his distance to Melanie is not only shockingly brutal, but also deeply dumb. Louis employs particularly inept means to disintangle himself from Melanie’s obnoxious presence. Doing so increases his difficulties exponentially.

At this point we can profitably draw on César and Sára Botella’s thoughts on Freud’s concept of representability. Representability is not just the ability to present things to others: before this can happen they have to be figured out by the subject. Louis does not really get very far in this. He loses his inner “face” and therefore cannot even explain to himself: what the hell made him shoot Melanie?

This is a situation that Claude Balier would have understood very well. As a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, he was for a long time in charge of prison psychiatric care in a prison near Grenoble. A patient who talked about what he had done told him one day, “That was me, and yet, it wasn’t me.” The person who talks has limited access to the person who acted.


When the inner frame breaks, it is sometimes an outer corset that temporarily holds the broken parts together. But this helps only to some extent. At one point in Brasilia in 1975 (see Bion, 1994, 17), Bion takes up the words of Cyril Connolly:

Imprisoned in every fat man, a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out (Connolly, 1944, 58).

Perhaps this is also true in another form: In some dumb people, there may be a smart person desperately trying to break out.

In one famous story, a young prince leaves his palace for the first time, and is confronted with old age, illness, and death. What he sees shakes him so much that it causes a turnaround in his life. Posterity knows him as the Buddha.

But, deeply enshrined in tradition, there is also the story of another prince. One day he understood that he did not really belong to the ruling family, but to a people who did slave labour outside the gates of the palace. Venturing out to find out more, he saw an overseer brutally mistreating a slave, looked left and right to see if anyone was around, and killed the official: Problem solved. But there had been witnesses after all. He was forced to flee and had lots of time to reflect on how little his act had benefited anyone.

Then, one day in the desert, he came upon a bush that was burning, and yet was not consumed by the flames – a symbol adopted centuries later by persecuted minorities, who could not afford the luxury of giving in to righteous anger at the spur of the moment.

Back to the prince turned outlaw: his anger had urgently been in need of a pause for reflection. Only now could the story produce a sequel that was not just a continuation of what had happened before.

In a certain way, it all started with the subjective impossibility to remain calm in the face of outrageous oppression. Would it really be wise on our part to recommend philosophical indifference, as the gold standard of mental health in comparable circumstances?

Claude Smadja, a French psychoanalyst who has worked with patients who were unable mentally to process what was befalling them and, instead, developed all kinds of bodily ailments, suggests that some people might be suffering from a lack of aversion, not a lack of patience. Lacking sufficient cohesive density as a subject, as it were, they do not find it in themselves to put up enough resistance to a world failing them in a major way.


Moses, the wayward prince, turned out to be quite a disappointment to the ruling family in which he grew up. What his flare of uncontrollable rage revealed was that he could not remain an unconcerned bystander, shielded by his rank. Crossing lines, he left what and who he was, so as to become someone he was not familiar with yet.

On closer inspection, things are probably even more complex. Moses’ name would also have been a good fit for a non-Hebrew male at the times. Even if we lack the historical certainty to assume, with Freud, that there was an Egyptian Moses, the story of Exodus takes us to zones of endangered identity.

We know stories of toddlers who were taken away from their parents regarded as dangerous subversives by the Argentinian military dicatorship to be raised by officers’ families trusted by the regime. All memory of their original families was to be erased. When, at a later stage, the true story emerged, seeming benefactors turned out to have been perpetrators. Only by radically reinterpreting their memories could those abducted at an early age protect themselves against identification with the wrong side: with those who had violently “disappeared” their parents.

At least one commentator on the Exodus story suggested that a comparable burden cannot be shouldered by one person alone. Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th-century French rabbi, inferred from the context that Moses’ highborn foster mother himself seems to have converted to Judaism, providing thus external support for the young man’s identity.

Subsequently, at any rate, the name of Moses was to be inseparably linked to the command to make important distinctions, and the injunction to remember well.

Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, [….] But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence (Deuteronomy 24:17.18)

As an old man, Bion returned to his World War I experience that had scarred him for life. The resulting book – A Memoir of the Future – is a frontal attack on the reader abducting him/her into a traumatic dream turned fiction.


Freud, living as a non-religious Jew in a Vienna that was becoming more and more anti-Semitic, for his part, also resorted to a novel form to deal with traumatic experience. His book on Moses approached the story by presenting it in a way that must ultimately remain science fiction: we might perhaps call it A Memoir of the Past, different from Bion’s ‘novel’, but disturbing in its own way.

Jacques Press, drawing on his reading of Freud’s book on Moses, but also taking into account Ferenczi’s thought, has suggested that there are always traces of a stranger in us who cannot be permanently integrated, and with whom we never cease to struggle throughout our lives.

Christophe Dejours has come to a similar conclusion. In each person, he writes, there are split off compartments where experience that could not take shape has been deposited. This creates zones that remain mute and cold.

The Danish docudrama: Your Neighbour’s son: the Making of a Torturer (1982) shows how the Greek military dictatorship trained ordinary recruits to become torturers and let loose political prisoners. They were subjected to extensive humiliation and torment until they were given the chance to change sides. What had been done to them, they were to inflict on others. It usually worked. What we find here is a reversal of the instructions handed down in Deuternomy, quoted above : We find here a reversal of Moses’ instructions in the quoted tradition into their opposite:

With the blessing of the authorities, do unto others what you are afraid of.

Even if things don’t usually take such an extreme turn, Christophe Dejours suspects that there is a potential for it dormant in all of us. In peaceful times, they do not stand in the way of an inconspicuous normality. When the times themselves are out of joint, a terrifying capacity for cruelty suddenly emerges from among previously ordinary citizens.

Sometimes, even in quiet times, we get an inkling of some normally contained tension just under the surface. When my wife was traveling alone with our small children many years ago, she needed help with getting on the tram, which caused an outbreak of fierce hostility from an older woman. In rage, she remembered that she used to have to do everything on her own, with no help from anyone. By turning her anger against someone in a similar situation, the inner connection to the idea of having been helpless could be anesthetized.


In a paper, Gilbert Diatkine describes what he experienced in Zagreb in 1992 in the middle of the Yugoslav-Croatian Balkan war. There was, he heard, a new method of punishment that Serbian soldiers used on captured Croats.

They nail a living prisoner to the door of a house, cut his tracheal artery and pull out his tongue through the orifice just created in the form of a cravat. … The agony is prolonged, painful and infinitely agonising. (Diatkine, G. ‘The Croatian Cravat: The narcissism of small differences and the process of civilisation.’, in Reading French Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 2014. p. 543)

His local contact said that after experiencing this torture several times, young art students began to inflict it on Serbian prisoners. A psychopathological approach had become an export item.

Having done deeds like this may weigh heavily on the mind of some of the perpetrators. That is why there will always be attempts to re-interpret the deed. When the inner judgment does not please, the verdict is appealed to a court filled with more carefully picked jugdges. “Alternative facts” are adduced: The object of hatred is not really a human being, but just vermin. There is no mass murder, we are looking at a sanitory measure. One does not attack: it is only self-defense.

Committing atrocities for a supposedly good cause is an inner state that has, for various reasons, difficulty aging well.

If reparation is to happen, fantasy must first be separated from reality, and unsuitable means must be clearly identified in their harmfulness. Falsely flattering memory must be deprived of community support.

Only then can the dance around the golden calf of orgiastic de-differentiation, which turns the other into a grimace so that one does not have to meet the grimace inside, gradually come to a sober end: only now can one see how things can somehow continue.


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Wolfgang Lassmann, Vienna

Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse


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