Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

‘For Beauty Is Nothing but the Barely Endurable Onset of Terror’: Outline of a General Psychoanalytic Aesthetics

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

‘For Beauty Is Nothing but the Barely Endurable Onset of Terror’: Outline of a General Psychoanalytic Aesthetics

Article excerpt

'For Beauty is nothing, but the barely endurable onset of Terror, which we admire so because it serenely disdains to destroy us'

(Rilke, Duino Elegies, 1999)

The question of a psychoanalytic aesthetics

In this paper, I will be attempting to portray these lines by Rilke in psychoanalytic language. They seem to me to convey something about the structures of art and its capacity to give a form to conflicts and traumas - the terrors of psychic life - that enables the subject to deal with them while avoiding traumatic destruction. Intuitively we understand in these words a deep recognition of the demands of the aesthetic process. But how can we account for this process in psychoanalytic terms? Even in his later work, Freud states that "psychoanalysis, unfortunately, has scarcely anything to say about beauty" (1930, p. 82). What metapsychological concepts do we use to describe beauty? What are the 'laws of beauty' to which Freud refers (1913, p. 187)? How do they transform our psychic functioning to make us receptive to the deep impact of art? And in what form does beauty in art simultaneously represent terror?

The term 'aesthetics' is cognate with aisthesis (meaning 'perception' in Greek). Beauty is a perceptual phenomenon. The precondition for a psychoanalytic aesthetics is therefore a psychoanalysis of the perceptual function. But here we encounter a glaring deficiency in the development of psychoanalytic theory. In no psychoanalytic dictionary does 'perception' appear as a headword (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973; Hinshelwood, 1989; Evans, 1996). From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, then, what is perception and under what conditions does an object of perception become an aesthetic object?

I think it is necessary to remedy this deficiency and develop a psychoanalysis of perception that can provide the basis for a psychoanalytic aesthetics. I summarize my attempt to carry out this task using the concept of kinaesthetic semantics, with which I describe a system for generating and transforming meaning that exists outside language, that is, outside lexical semantics (Leikert, 2012). Kinaesthetic semantics works from the premise that perceptual processes are organized into a signifying system, close to affect, in which, as in language, experience is shaped, processed and communicated. There is nothing new about the insight that the pre-verbal domain plays an important role in psychic life. Nevertheless, perception has always so far scraped a rather humble living in psychoanalytic thinking. It is no mere coincidence that this field has only so far been described in negative terms as pre-verbal or non-verbal because this actually encapsulates the problematic. The hegemonic structure in psychoanalytic thinking is the linguistic order; what lies beyond it appears as the negative aspect of language. So the perceptual domain as what lies beyond this order is constantly shrouded in the suspicion of disorder, chaos and inundation. The sensory is considered as a danger to be overcome by language.

With the concept of kinaesthetic semantics, I am proposing a positive concept for the sensory domain and painting a different picture. The distinction between perception and language - aisthesis and logos - as the two basic capacities of psychic functioning implies that both domains should be regarded as complex and variously structured. Each domain has its own arrangements, is regulated by its own specific mechanisms and has a distinctive impact on the uniqueness of the object-relationship being established in it.

For the psychoanalytic reader, adopting this perspective means expanding our habitual thought patterns. As psychoanalysts we tend to suppose that psychic life can only assume sense and meaning within the system of language. Freud went so far as to connect the function of consciousness with the link with word-presentations. He certainly concedes that "The process of something becoming conscious is above all linked with the perceptions which our sense organs receive from the external world" (1940, p. …

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