Nothing I know matters more / Than what never happened.
John Burnside, ‘Hearsay’
Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. In comedies people get something of what they want, but in tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted. Indeed, both what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero and, of course, his enemies and accomplices. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose, to put it as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like – of wanting to displace a king, of wanting vengeance for one’s father, of wanting a special daughter’s love announced. Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical.
Given that we live in a state of permanent need; are, as the psychoanalyst John Rickman said, ‘instinct-ridden’, always found wanting, what is it that makes desiring tragic, dire rather than amusing, full of dread rather than full of life? Isaiah Berlin, in a famous pronouncement in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, offered the liberal position: ‘If, as I believe, the ends of men are many, and not all of them are in principle compatible with each other, then the possibility of conflict – and of tragedy – can never wholly be eliminated from human life, either personal or social.’ We always have competing wants, they are often incompatible, so in making choices essentials are sacrificed. Lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss. What can be described as tragic about the Oedipus complex, named after a tragedy, is that the child, in the Freudian account, in desiring one parent turns the other into a rival, and ultimately has to relinquish his need for his parents in order to be a wholeheartedly desiring adult. You have to give up being a child, for sex; and that, of course, may not be all you have to give up. The quest, one might say, is the finding out whether it is worth it (it is a variant of ‘you must lose your life in order to find it’). Because, in Berlin’s terms, our ends are many, and often enough incompatible, devastating losses are sometimes entailed. Shakespeare’s King Lear wants to divide his kingdom into three, but he wants one third, Cordelia’s, to be more ‘opulent’ than the other two; he wants to relinquish his crown but sustain something of his power; he wants his daughters and sons-in-law to collaborate with him in being his accomplices; he wants to live as he wants, in other people’s houses. He loses everything he wants, and everything he needs.
The pragmatist would say that the art of life is in rendering incompatible wants compatible; redescribing them such that they are no longer mutually exclusive (Lear might say to Cordelia, ‘OK, put it in a way that works for you’). The liberal realist would say that this is to misrecognize the nature of human needs. For the pragmatist we make our lives impossible by making up impossible choices. In reality we can have, say, justice and mercy, be children and have adult relationships. The liberal realist would say that, often – and particularly in the hard cases like, should we let ex-Nazis lead pleasurable lives? – mercy and justice are compatible only when they lose definition. Both these positions, we can see, are, whatever else they are, different solutions to the same problem: the problem of frustration. The trials and tribulations of wanting are born of frustration; to choose one thing may involve frustrating ourselves of something else. So a lot depends on whether we can bear frustration and whether we want to. If we were creatures less convinced and convincing about our so-called needs we would suffer in quite different ways. Tragedies begin with a person in an emerging state of frustration, beginning to feel the need of something; and at the beginning, for the protagonists, they are not yet tragedies.
Tragedies begin with a dramatic scene in which an urgent frustration unfolds, seeking first definition and then solution. At the very beginning of a tragedy everyone is a pragmatist; people have answers and believe that solutions probably exist. The first English dictionary, Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall of 1604, has, for the word ‘frustrate’, ‘make voyde, deceive’. ‘Make voyde’, in seventeenth-century usage, also meant ‘to avoid’ (as in Coriolanus: ‘for if/ I had fear’d death, of all the men i’ the world/ I would have ’voided thee’ (IV.5), as well as the more familiar meaning of ‘to get rid of’, ‘to empty out’; and ‘deceive’ in this period meant not only ‘to trick’ but ‘to disappoint’. Avoidance, of course, is a getting rid of, but coupled with the word ‘deceive’, ‘to frustrate’ seems to have more to do with lying and cheating than with simply depriving someone of something they need; more to do with guile and cunning and calculation than with meanness. To frustrate someone in this seventeenth-century meaning is to knowingly mislead them. There is something underhand about it, something illicit.
As it happens Cawdrey was a man, as far as we know, not given to evasive behaviour, but to plain speaking, a man in trouble with the authorities. He suffered what was for him the tyranny of Elizabeth’s established Church (for ‘tyrannize’ he has in his dictionary ‘use crueltie’); he was a Puritan Nonconformist priest who was known for ‘speaking divers words in the pulpit, tending to the depraving of the Book of Common Prayer’, and ‘not conforming himself in the celebration of the divine service and administration of the Sacraments, but refusing to do so’ (The First English Dictionary) (for ‘conform’ Cawdrey has ‘to make like unto, to consent’). We might now think it entirely appropriate that a future lexicographer would be ‘speaking divers words in the pulpit’ before losing his living as a priest. ‘To frustrate’ in Cawdrey’s sense is not straightforwardly to refuse someone something; it is, in that strange phrase, to ‘make voyde’ – literally to make something into nothing, to deceive – literally to cause someone to believe something that is false. It is, one might say, a form of magic, a conjuring trick; something there is not there, something false is true.
In a famous scene in King Lear (IV.6) – probably written a year or two after Cawdrey’s dictionary – in which Edgar is supposedly helping his blind father, Gloucester, to jump over the cliff, we find again these twinned meanings of a now all too familiar word. Unable to deliver himself from torment by suicide, Gloucester invokes the common theme of the play – the loss of props, of cultural forms to contain conflict, the present impossibility of conciliating rival claims; that there are things that can neither be avoided nor banished:
Alack, I have no eyes.
Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit
To end itself by death? ’Twas yet some comfort,
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.
What you do with proud wills, in both senses, is the play’s issue. In the first act Lear, in his tyrant’s rage at Cordelia’s apparent refusal – and one of the questions the play asks is, in what way is Cordelia frustrating her father? – accuses his daughter of deception: ‘Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her.’ Her pride, he says, will have to be her dowry, and get her a husband. Pride means knowing, intractably, what you want. There are many enraged tyrants in this play, and the play keeps working out what we should do with them, and what it is that makes them tyrannical. Gloucester here adds death to the troop of tyrants, but strangely he looks back almost with nostalgia to a time when suicide was an option – even, perhaps alluding to Cleopatra, a noble option – but acknowledging at the same time that the only thing you can do with tyrants is deceive them: ‘’Twas yet some comfort,/ When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,/ And frustrate his proud will.’ The point is reiterated; beguiling the tyrant’s rage means cheating it, as does frustrating his proud will. Someone is seemingly omnipotent and then, as if by magic, they are not. Their power is void (as is Lear’s). It is evidently a paradoxical point that you can cheat the tyrant Death by killing yourself – you win by losing – or by identifying the enemy. Gloucester could deprive Death by dying. In what sense has the tyrant been frustrated?
A tyrant is someone who wants something from us that we don’t want to give. And in this sense Death could be described as a tyrant. So we can say, by way of an initial proposal, that a tyrant can be someone we want to frustrate, or even need to frustrate. Our lives (and, indeed, the best lives of others), as Cordelia shows, might depend upon our being able to do this. And given the nature of tyranny, the omnipotence it aspires to, this is going to require some trickery, some invention, some deception. Or, rather, something that can only feel like deception to the one who is being refused. Cordelia is speaking plainly but to Lear she is speaking with pride; from the tyrant’s point of view, not to be given what one wants is indeed to be deceived. And it is a deception because Lear assumes, rightly or wrongly, that it is within Cordelia’s power to give him what he wants. A tyrant is someone who believes that what he demands is available and can be given (to be entitled is, by definition, not to question the reality of what it is one is entitled to). So, a familiar situation arises: Cordelia is not deceiving Lear, but Lear feels deceived by her. Cordelia is not giving Lear what he wants, but she is not deceiving him (in her view she would be tricking him if she complied, as her sisters do). In Cawdrey’s terms she ‘makes voyde’ his claim, his demand; Lear feels he is being tricked. What is it to frustrate someone? To make void what they want, but not necessarily to deceive them. What is it to be frustrated? To feel deceived because, it is assumed, the person has whatever it is that you want from them (it is in their gift). This assumption is sometimes true and sometimes not; it would seem more hopeful to assume that they are withholding something that they could give you, but if this turns out not to be true then your hopefulness is under suspicion (frustration is optimistic in the sense that it believes that what is wanted is available, so we might talk about frustration as a form of faith). When you feel frustrated you are, like Lear, the authority on what you want. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be a tyrant and you wouldn’t be in a rage.
If you are the frustrator, like Cordelia – the one who in this instance refuses to be complicit with the demand being made, the demand for exorbitant love – you are a different kind of authority; you are the authority on what you are realistically able to give (‘I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less’ (I.1). Or, rather, perhaps, the authority on what you want to give. Giving Lear the other thing that Goneril and Regan give him would, we might say, turn her into something she doesn’t want to be; would be a way of making a world for herself that she couldn’t bear to live in. And put in this way, of course, the frustrator sounds more morally interesting, in a more complex predicament, than the one who is frustrated. Lear is an old man having a tantrum and Cordelia, who will not abide by her father’s injunction – ‘Mend your speech a little,/ Lest you may mar your Fortunes’ (I.1) – loses her family in speaking her truth.
And yet there is something symmetrical about Lear and Cordelia; they both, at the beginning of the play, know exactly what they want. And I don’t think we solve this problem by saying, in one way or another, that what Cordelia wants is better than what Lear wants. It certainly isn’t worse, but it is no less intractable (John Berryman, in Berryman’s Shakespeare, writes of ‘the exquisite matching of a slight excess in Cordelia (an excess of contempt for her sister’s extravagant replies over her filial emotion) against a decided prematurity in Lear’s ungovernable rage against her’. Lear, we might say, even if it is on the basis of it-takes-one-to-know-one, is not completely wrong in implying that there is something tyrannical – though not enraged – about Cordelia’s position. Neither, in the opening scene, can change the other’s mind. ‘The cause of tragedy,’ Stanley Cavell writes in his great essay on King Lear, ‘The Avoidance of Love’, ‘is that we would rather murder the world than permit it to expose us to change’ (Disowning Knowledge). We would rather destroy everything than let other people change us, so strong is our memory of how changed we were at the very beginning of our lives by certain other people; people who could change our misery into bliss, as if by magic, and which we were unable to do for ourselves (all we could do was signal our distress and hope someone got the point). In the first scene of the first act it is Lear, not Cordelia, who would rather murder the world than expose himself to change. Cavell intimates that we are always looking for an alternative to changing, to being, as he puts it, exposed to change. The frustration scene – which goes back a long way – is the scene of transformation. Everything depends on what we would rather do than change.
To frustrate, then, is to, in one way or another, make void a demand made on oneself; to avoid it or to make it as nothing; and it is to deceive the other person either if you have what they want and won’t give it, or if you can create the illusion that you have what they want but are merely refusing to give it. And to be or feel frustrated is to be maddened by having one’s demand negated or avoided or tantalized. In this picture it is as though a contract has been broken; as if one person always has what the other person demands of them and the only question is how to get it (God, of course, can be this other person, or the state). In the optimistic version of this story the only question is a pragmatic one: I want to get from A to B, I just have to find out how to get there, and how to get the wherewithal to get there. I want my favourite daughter’s love for me declared, so I ask her to speak. This assumes, of course, a preconstituted subject, a person without an unconscious; a person who, because he knows what he wants and needs, knows what he is doing, and so only has to work out how to get his satisfaction; and, if need be, as the Lear story shows, how to bear not getting what is supposedly wanted (it is frustration that makes us inventive, resourceful, at our best and at our worst). Clearly the demand for love, the demand that love be articulated, is something of a special case. As is what can be asked for between parents and children, who are continually having to work out what is possible between them. So the issue of entitlement between parents and children, or between lovers, or between friends, can never be straightforward. The entitled are always too knowing.
Knowing too exactly what we want is what we do when we know what we want, or when we don’t know what we want (are, so to speak, unconscious of our wanting, and made anxious by our lack of direction), or when we are so fearful of what we want we displace it on to a known object in a state of militant certainty (if we say that at the beginning of the play Lear is in a terrified state of not knowing what he wants at this stage of his life, or is testing what kingship entails, his reaction to Cordelia’s response can be seen in a different light). Knowing what one wants is a way of not exposing oneself to change (or of taking change too much into one’s own hands, subjecting it to one’s will); and, by the same token, taking up Cavell’s point, is prone to make us murderous. So it is tempting to say that we can be at our most self-deceiving in states of frustration; as though frustration were an unbearable form of self-doubt, a state in which we can so little tolerate not knowing what we want, not knowing whether it is available, and not having it that we fabricate certainties to fill the void (we fill in the gaps with states of conviction). The frustration is itself a temptation scene, one in which we must invent something to be tempted by. Satisfaction is no more the solution to frustration than certainty is the solution to scepticism. Indeed, it may be misleading to think of frustration as a question; or it may be a question with no answer; or with only approximate answers, like Lear’s ‘Tell me, my daughters …/ Which of you shall we say doth love us most?’ (I.1), which reminds us that it is all in the saying, and that the saying is as close as we can get. The play asks us to wonder, in other words, about what we do with our frustration and what our frustration does with us; it being one of the starker facts about the experience of frustration that it raises the question of agency, of whether, quite literally, frustration is something we can do something with, or can ever avoid doing something with. Or whether what we think of as our agency – or our will, or our capacity to make choices – is something invented, called up, by this primal experience of frustration (the idea of the self as a self-cure for our first helplessness in the face of our need, like bravado in a storm). As the British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion writes in Second Thoughts, as we shall see, everything ‘depends on whether the decision is to evade frustration or to modify it’.
Frustration is always, whatever else it is, a temptation scene; something we are tempted to get rid of, something we crave false solutions to, something that lures us into the more radical self-deceptions. So there are two propositions I want to consider: first, that the frustrator is always, whatever else she is doing, wanting to change the person she is frustrating (she may drive the person crazy, or away, or be getting someone to face the facts, but a change is being sought; the malign and the benign frustrations are transformative). And second, following on from this, it is extremely difficult to feel one’s frustration, to locate, however approximately, what it might be that one is frustrated by (or about). And there is an obvious, indeed logical, reason why this might matter. Without frustration there can be no satisfaction. Frustration that is unrecognized, unrepresented, cannot be met or even acknowledged; addiction is always an addiction to frustration (addiction is unformulated frustration, frustration too simply met). What, then, is the relationship, the link, the bond, the affinity between frustration and satisfaction? How do we find ourselves fitting them together or joining them up? There may, for example, be something about frustration that makes it resistant to representation, as though our frustrations are the last thing on earth we want to know about. We might prefer spurious frustrations to real satisfactions, or avoid or attack the link between frustration and satisfaction. Frustration, to put it simply, is something we cannot be indifferent to even if indifference can be one of our attempted solutions to it (we pose and boast in the face of our frustrations). The fact that there are frustrations seems to imply, of course, that there are satisfactions, real or otherwise. The fact of frustration has, that is to say, something reassuring about it. It suggests a future.
But it would be sensible to believe that if we have misconstrued the whole notion of frustration – or if our frustrations are difficult to construe – we might have misunderstood the nature of satisfaction: had the meaning but missed the experience. In our frustration we muddle through, or what we do with frustration is make a muddle of it (as if, when it comes to frustration, clarities are available, but not for us). There is, though, one ineluctable fact, one experience that is integral to our development, something that is structural to human relations right from their very beginning; and that is, that if someone can satisfy you they can frustrate you. Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration. This, one can say, is something we have all experienced, and go on experiencing. You know someone matters to you if they can frustrate you. It was because Lear, as he says so poignantly, ‘loved her most’ (I.1) that Cordelia most distressed him; and by the end of the play is his most fully realized loss (‘Nothing really happens to him,’ Barbara Everett writes of Lear in Young Hamlet, ‘except that he learns that Cordelia actually exists’). It is the satisfaction that leads to frustration which links us to Cawdrey’s useful early definition. If the mother, at the start, can make the child feel alive by satisfying his wants, she can, by the same token, make him feel void by her absence; and if the mother is able to make the child feel so good she must surely be deceiving him when she fails to do this. She must be refusing, she must be withholding. Which of them is the tyrant, the mother who doesn’t deliver, or the frustrated child? What are the preconditions for tyranny? How does it become such a handed-down misery? Does the proud will frustrate, or is it the product of frustration, pride being a state of mind, a way of being organized as a self-cure for certain kinds of frustration? It is to this first deception and making void that we need to turn, with the tyrant’s rage and the frustrating of a proud will in mind as one picture of what might be at stake.
The first scene of King Lear can’t help but make us wonder what the demand for love is a demand for. Lear is asking Cordelia to articulate her love, and it is a kind of deal, both with her suitors and with her father. If she says the right thing she will get a better dowry than her all too willing sisters. ‘What can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.’ Cordelia’s famous nothings comprise an unwillingness and an inability; there is nothing she wants to say to draw a more opulent third – which would no longer be a third – and nothing she is able to say to such a request. In this drama of excessive demand – excessive from Cordelia’s point of view – Lear assumes he knows what she wants, a more opulent dowry than her sisters and all that that entails, and assumes he knows what he wants, her wholehearted cooperation. Her nothings make his demand void, which precipitates his rage and banishment rather than, say, some reconsideration of their respective needs, which in Cavell’s terms would be exposure to the possibility of change. Lear’s image suggests that Cordelia has a well of desired words that she might draw from for his and therefore her satisfaction. ‘The doomed man,’ Freud says of Lear in ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’ (1916), ‘is not willing to renounce the love of women; he insists on hearing how much he is loved.’ It is not clear that Lear is contemplating renouncing the love of women rather than, say, enacting something of the symbolic role of king and father; though it is clear why Freud would want to read it this way because he is preoccupied by what modern individuals are doing with and about the love of women. And there is a difference between renouncing the love of women and insisting on hearing how much one is loved. Freud implies in his account that because Lear is approaching his own death, which he in some way experiences as an enforced renunciation of women’s love, he insists on hearing about it. Lear can’t live without the love of women, and he can’t live with the way in which he demands love from them. The demand for love is always a doubt about love; and all doubt begins as a doubt about love.
All love stories are frustration stories. As are all stories about parents and children, which are also love stories, in Freud’s view, the formative love stories. To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will be when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing – nothing comes of nothing – but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognize them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have been quite literally expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies. But one thing is very noticeable in this basic story; that however much you have been wanting and hoping and dreaming of meeting the person of your dreams, it is only when you meet them that you will start missing them. It seems that the presence of an object is required to make its absence felt (or to make the absence of something felt). A kind of longing may have preceded their arrival, but you have to meet in order to feel the full force of your frustration in their absence.
You might say, before you met the man or woman of your dreams – or indeed any of the passions of your life – you felt a kind of free-floating diffuse frustration; and what you did by finding the miraculous object was locate the source of your frustration. Falling in love, finding your passion, are attempts to locate, to picture, to represent what you unconsciously feel frustrated about, and by. In this sense we are always trying to find, to get a sense of, what is missing, what we need, what, in Lacan’s terminology, we lack. The sources we seek are the sources of our frustration. It would be logical, but only logical, to think – instrumentally, pragmatically, sensibly – that the point of finding out what is missing is to recover it; that at least the first stage of making up for a deprivation is to discover just what it is we are deprived of. That we need to know, or to sense, what we have lost in order to refind it. The finding of an object, Freud says in a famous pronouncement about the erotic life, is always a refinding of an object. And yet Freud also questions – in a way that was taken up by later psychoanalysts – the reality of these lost and found objects. He intimates – and states outright – that we may never have had this object in the first place, and that we can’t recover it. That the object, the person we are looking for, and can never refind because it never existed, was the wished-for one. We never, in other words, recover from our first false solution to feeling frustrated – the inventing of an ideal object of desire with whom we will never feel the frustration we fear. The ideal person in our minds becomes a refuge from realer exchanges with realer people.
After Freud, psychoanalysts have tended to say, either we did have something – call it the experience of sufficient mothering, the rivalrous pleasures of the Oedipus complex, of competing for the affection of both parents – and we can recover something of that something; and indeed that is what our lives are, a project of recovery and restitution; or we have to ironize our always wanting to get something back that we never had and that never existed anyway (Lacan, in the hyperbolic version of this, said love is giving something you haven’t got to someone who doesn’t exist). What I think we should be interested in in these accounts is not what they say about love, but what they say about frustration, love’s more recondite twin, love’s secret sharer. Perhaps what these psychoanalytic stories suggest, at its most minimal, is that there are (at least) four kinds of frustration: the frustration of being deprived of something that has never existed; the frustration of being deprived of something one has never had (whether or not it exists); the frustration of being deprived of something one has had; and, finally, the frustration of being deprived of something one once had, but can’t have again. Clearly these forms of frustration flourish in the same hedgerow, and can’t always be told apart. But classified, put as starkly, as schematically as this, one thing quickly becomes self-evident: that these are different experiences with different consequences. They bring with them different possibilities, they inspire different futures, they call up different defences, they generate different kinds of unease. And they are applicable to groups, to societies, as well as to individuals. They are also, of course, all contentious. Lear could be said to be suffering from all of them.
Indeed, in terms of the play, or tragedies in general, it may be useful to classify the frustrations as those that turn to revenge – ‘to murder the world’, as Cavell puts it – and those that do not. Lear is vengeful, though that is not all he is. Cordelia is not; she delivers, Michael Long writes in The Unnatural Scene, ‘the Desdemona-like speech of resistance which stirs up vengeful repugnances in [Lear]’. There is the frustration that is turned into revenge, for which revenge seems like some kind of solution, and the frustration that is turned to a different kind of account. And this is a story Freud wants to tell; about how the individual’s fate is bound up with what he can make out of frustration. In Freud’s ‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning’ (1911) he reiterates and elaborates on how ‘the state of equilibrium in the psyche was originally disrupted by the urgent demands of inner needs’. It is a picture in which the psyche is taken to be in a state of equilibrium, a state of relative balance, until it is disturbed by desire; it is an image if not of violation – what the French psychoanalyst Laplanche famously called the ‘attack of the drives on the ego’ – then of the creature unsettled by her wanting. What Freud calls ‘the urgent demands of inner needs’ means what is called up by a felt sense of frustration, of something needed: ‘At this stage,’ Freud continues, referring to both the stirrings of desire and, possibly, the baby’s early experiences of need,
whatever was thought of (wished for) was simply hallucinated, as still happens every night with our dream-thoughts. It was due only to the failure of the anticipated satisfaction, the disillusionment, as it were, that this attempt at satisfaction by means of hallucination was abandoned. Instead, the psychic apparatus had to resolve to form an idea of the real circumstances in the outside world and to endeavour actually to change them. With this, a new principle of psychic activity was initiated; now ideas were formed no longer of what was pleasant, but of what was real, even if this happened to be unpleasant. This inception of the reality principle proved to be a momentous step.
Freud is describing a simple process: you are hungry, you fantasize a delicious meal, this fantasy doesn’t satisfy you, doesn’t nourish you or fill you up, and you start working out how in the world you can have this meal that you imagine. You begin by hallucinating, that is, fantasizing, and you end up trying to get the wishedfor meal in the real world, which will at best be only an approximation of the one you wanted, but has the advantage of being one you can actually eat. It is the failure of the anticipated satisfaction, its non-arrival once fantasized, that is crucial; it is disillusionment that leads the desiring individual to reality. His first recourse, faced with his frustration, is to attempt to satisfy himself, in fantasy, with a perfect, non-frustrating figure; when this fails his only recourse is to reality. The failure of an initial wished-for satisfaction leads to the possibility of a more realistic satisfaction. Once satisfaction by means of fantasy breaks down, then, Freud says, the individual has ‘to form an idea of the real circumstances in the outside world and to endeavour actually to change them’.
There is a world of difference between erotic and romantic daydream and actually getting together with someone; getting together is a lot more work, and is never exactly what one was hoping for. So there are three consecutive frustrations: the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasized satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasized satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.
It is what happens when it doesn’t work that prompted Wilfred Bion’s theory of thinking; thinking being, in his view, the only way of, as it were, productively working out the inevitable experience of frustration. ‘The model I propose,’ he writes in Second Thoughts,
is that of an infant whose expectation of a breast is mated with a realization of no breast available for satisfaction [the infant is hungry and no feed is there]. This mating is experienced as a no-breast, or ‘absent’ breast inside. The next step depends upon this infant’s capacity for frustration: in particular it depends on whether the decision is to evade frustration or to modify it. If the capacity for toleration of frustration is sufficient the ‘no-breast’ inside becomes a thought and an apparatus for thinking it develops. This initiates the state, described by Freud in his ‘Two Principles of Psychic Functioning’, in which dominance by the reality principle is synchronous with the development of an ability to think and so to bridge the gulf of frustration between the moment when a want is felt and the moment when action appropriate to satisfying the want culminates in its satisfaction. A capacity for tolerating frustration thus enables the psyche to develop thought as a means by which the frustration that is tolerated is itself made more tolerable.
Thought is what makes frustration bearable, and frustration makes thought possible. Thinking modifies frustration, rather than evading it, by being a means by which we can go from feeling frustrated to figuring out what to do about it, and doing it; what Freud called ‘trial action in thought’ – and what we might call imagination – leading to real action in reality. The ability to think, Bion says, will ‘bridge the gulf of frustration between the moment when a want is felt and the moment when action appropriate to satisfying the want culminates in its satisfaction’. It is, we should note, a gulf between wanting and actually doing something about it; thinking is the link, the bridge, and not an end in itself, as it is when it becomes a bolt-hole of daydream. And the choice, we should also notice, is, in Bion’s language, between evading frustration and modifying it. If thinking is the way to modify it, then attacking one’s capacity to think would be an evasion; failures of imagination would be the unwillingness to bear with frustration. And Bion is very interested in the ways in which parts of our mind can attack other parts, sabotaging the satisfactions we seek by preventing us finding out what they might be. But what is at stake in these problems and solutions is contact with reality. And reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us. We are tempted, initially, to be self-satisfying creatures, to live in a fantasy world, to live in our minds, but the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating; but only in the sense that they are disparate from, not in accord with, our wished-for satisfactions (the most satisfying pleasures are the surprising ones, the ones that can’t be engineered). In this picture we depend on other people for our satisfactions. But the quest for satisfaction begins and ends with a frustration; it is prompted by frustration, by the dawning of need, and it ends with the frustration of never getting exactly what one wanted. How could we ever be anything other than permanently enraged?
Perhaps we are permanently enraged, taking revenge on ourselves for not being sufficient for ourselves, and taking revenge on others for never giving us quite what we want. And yet for Bion it is the evading of frustration that is catastrophic. Evasion of frustration, he continues, ‘involves the assumption of omniscience as a substitute for learning from experience by aid of thoughts and thinking’. If you can’t bear frustration, can’t bear the dependence on and involvement of others that satisfaction entails, you have to precipitate yourself into a state of already having and knowing everything (the theological form it takes is, does God need His creation, and if so how can He be a god if He is in need?). The self-cure for frustration is omniscience, the delusion of omniscience (there must be a figure somewhere who is exempt from frustration, and this is God; we need to be able to imagine someone who doesn’t have to feel frustration). Learning from experience means finding ways of making your need compatible with living in the world. Bion thinks we do this by thinking our needs through, observing what the world is like, and trying them out. Finding your place in the world means finding or making a place where your needs work for you.
For Freud and Bion satisfaction takes thought; we have to digest our frustration before we can digest our food. And the stories they have to tell us are about the struggle for satisfaction, that it doesn’t come naturally to us. Indeed, even if we are lucky enough to have had good-enough mothers, good-enough parents, who have helped us contain our frustration and enabled us to think, we are precipitated in this developmental story into the Oedipal world of forbidden desire; the frustrations of the law – our being faced, eventually, with forbidden desires after we have survived the unforbidden ones – follow on from the frustrations inherent in the psychic apparatus’s registering and processing of desire. How does anybody ever get any pleasure? Does anybody ever get any pleasure? And if they do, is it worth it? Psychoanalysis tells us that we can understand satisfaction only by understanding frustration, and that we are prone to find frustration unbearable. In this picture frustration may be the thing that we are least able to let ourselves feel; and by not being able to feel it, to think it, or not being able to feel it or think it enough, we obscure our satisfactions. To be a little more rigorous-sounding, we could say that our satisfactions are inaccurate, or not as accurate as they might be; or not as satisfying as they might be. Not realistic enough. After all, what pleasures could the omniscient be seeking? To take Bion seriously, if we can’t think our frustrations – figure them out, think them through, phrase them – we can’t seek our satisfactions. We will have, as they say, no idea what they are.
Neither Freud nor Bion doubt that there are satisfactions to be had; what they do doubt, paradoxically, is our capacity, perhaps our desire, to know what they might be and to try to find them. We should remember Cawdrey’s 1604 dictionary definition of ‘frustrate’, to ‘make voyde, deceive’. We frustrate ourselves by what we do to our frustration; we use our frustration to deceive ourselves. We are, at least for Freud and Bion, frustrated of frustration; we empty it out, we evade it. We even avoid it by turning it into a pleasure, or fob ourselves off with pleasures that are knowingly unsatisfying; there is, Freud tells us, a wish to frustrate ourselves that is as strong as any wish we have. But if frustration becomes our pleasure we are further than ever from satisfaction. Our frustration would seem to be our commonest experience; and yet Freud and Bion show us both how and why there is nothing more opaque about ourselves than our frustrations. That if it is our first nature to need, it is our second nature to obscure our frustration; that we don’t want to really think or speak because we don’t want to know the nature of, know the experience of, our fundamental frustrations. We prefer our satisfactions without their requisite frustrations. But if it is frustration we hate, it must be satisfaction that we hate even more. In this sense it is not desire that is the problem but the frustration it discloses. You can’t have a desire without an inspiring sense of lack. What we do to our frustration to make it bearable – evade it, void it, misrecognize it, displace it, hide it, project it, deny it, idealize it, and so on – takes the sting out of its tail.
We need to bear with, to know about, our frustrations not simply to secure our satisfactions but to sustain our sense of reality. In the psychoanalytic story, if we don’t feel frustration we don’t need reality; if we don’t feel frustration we don’t discover whether we have the wherewithal to deal with reality. People become real to us by frustrating us; if they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy. The story says something like: if other people frustrate us the right amount they become real to us, that is, people with whom we can exchange something; if they frustrate us too much they become too real, that is, persecutory, people we have to do harm to; if they frustrate us too little they become idealized, imaginary characters, the people of our wishes; if they frustrate us too much they become demonized, the people of our nightmares. And these, we might say, are two ways of murdering the world: making it impotent, or making it unreal. If this was quantifiable we would say that the good life proposed by psychoanalysis is one in which there is just the right amount of frustration. It is, however, rather like Lear’s kingdom, not quantifiable. But it seems as though it is all the wrong kinds of frustration that make our lives what they are; that so much depends on what each of us makes of the too much and the too little we get. As Lear says, ‘The art of our necessities is strange’ (III.2). There are tragic solutions to frustration.
For ‘satisfaction’ Cawdrey has ‘a making amends for wrongs, or displeasures’; it is something, that is to say, to do with justice. If to frustrate was to deceive, to invalidate, to satisfy is to repair a misdemeanour. In a replicate scene, at the beginning of Lear, in which the love between parents and children is in question – ‘Lear’s shadow is in Gloster,’ Yeats wrote in his essay ‘The Emotion of Multitude’, ‘who also has ungrateful children’ – Edmund tries to prove his brother Edgar’s treachery to their father, Gloucester; to prove it in the guise of attempting to disprove it. Edmund suggests to Gloucester that he will ‘place you where you shall hear us confer of this, and by an auricular assurance have your satisfaction’ (I.2). We can hear ‘oracular’ in ‘auricular’, and Kenneth Muir in his Arden edition glosses the word to give us its religious connotation: ‘Shakespeare,’ he writes, ‘would know the expression “auricular confession”.’ There is a violation – possibly a desacralizing – of privacy in this treachery; the satisfaction Gloucester will get will not make amends for his suspicion. The satisfaction accruing from the scene will be neither just nor true; nor will it put Gloucester in contact with reality. Satisfaction, here, is one of the forms that frustration takes. One of the ways we frustrate ourselves is through our self-deceiving satisfactions. Gloucester will be frustrated by Edmund’s procured satisfaction. One of the ironies, if that is the right word, promoted by Freud and Bion is that many of our satisfactions are forms of frustration. That we are radically inadequate pleasure-seekers because we are unable to countenance our frustration. We are prone to auricular assurances; we fob ourselves off; we are satisfied by privation; we fail to make amends for our frustration. We avoid making better pictures of the exchanges that we seek. True satisfactions, real satisfactions, satisfying satisfactions – it is difficult to know what the phrase is – should be the key to our frustrations, the clue from which can unravel the nature of the felt deprivation.
Even if, as the psychoanalytic story suggests, all satisfaction is approximate satisfaction – and that is the point and not the problem – frustrations need to be acknowledged. And yet what characterizes what I am calling tragic solutions to frustration is that, almost by definition, they are ineluctable; as if what these darkening tragedies show us is that some frustrations have only tragic solutions; that there are frustrations – or certain people when faced with particular frustrations – that are intractable. And they are intractable because their satisfaction is too exactly imagined. They are frustrations for which no liberating redescriptions are available. As though certain kinds of frustration have their own momentum, their own inner logic. A person who is hungry needs to eat, but not all needs are like hunger; and we may wonder why (or how) they are not. ‘Knowledge liberates,’ Isaiah Berlin writes in his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, ‘not by offering us more open possibilities amongst which we can make our choice, but by preserving us from the frustration of attempting the impossible.’ The frustration of attempting the impossible – if such a statement is to be intelligible – may depend more upon our knowledge of frustration than on our knowledge of what is possible. The frustration in attempting the impossible is guaranteed; when it comes to wanting, is there liberating knowledge of what is possible?
Possibility can only be born of experiment, of risk. Both Lear and Gloucester ask their (favourite) children for something – for love and for death – and they are both refused. Both their claims – for special love and assisted suicide – are felt to be impossible by Cordelia and Edgar. Clearly, parents and children want the impossible from each other. This is the tragedy of everyday life. And yet Freud, followed, among others, by Bion, is asking us to imagine something that is seemingly wildly improbable: that there can only be unrealistic wanting, but that unrealistic wanting can only be satisfied by realistic satisfactions; everything else being frustration in disguise, rage and vengefulness, what Cavell calls the murdering of the world. We need, in other words, to know something about what we don’t get, and about the importance of not getting it.