The timeline of the subconscious

On the psychoanalyst's couch, the unconscious follows its own timeline, which has nothing to do with the duration of the present.

by Matteo Bonazzi

Science 16 March 2020

It all begins with the dream of the revolution, the dream of another time. “The following dream of Maury’s has become celebrated—wrote Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams. He was ill in bed; his mother was sitting beside him. He dreamed of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution and witnessed some terrible murder scenes. Finally, he was brought before the Tribunal. There he saw Robespierre, Marat, Fouquier-Tinville, and all the sad heroes of those terrible days. He answered their questions, and after all manner of incidents which he eventually forgot, he was sentenced to death. Accompanied by an enormous crowd, he was led to his execution. He climbed up on the scaffold; the executioner tied him to the plank, it tipped over, and the blade of the guillotine fell. He felt his head severed from his trunk, and he woke up with terrible anxiety, only to find that the headboard of the bed had fallen, and had actually struck his neck vertebrae just where the blade of the guillotine would have fallen.

What happened first: The dreamed event of the guillotine or that of the headboard in reality? Freud hypothesizes that there is another time other than the one to which consciousness is accustomed. A non-linear time, which does not run like the first one, with a now and a then, from the past to the future. An underground time, that writes its record without us knowing about it and that decides for us without us realizing it, marking the passages due to which suddenly we find ourselves elsewhere, different, changed, infinitely others. It is thanks to this dream that Freud achieved his revolution, quite different from the one that the French revolutionaries imagined they could reach by their reorganization of time, with their pagan calendar made up of Brumaire, Fructidor, and Ventôse.

The Freudian revolution, is based precisely on the subversion of the modern subject who hoped to make the revolution, who hoped to force change upon the world, on itself and on others by an act of free will. Freud’s discovery of the unconscious tells us that this is not the case: we are not free to change: not because there are external forces that prevent us from doing so, but because we ourselves prevent it from happening. We tend to maintain balance, not to change, to see continuity on our horizon: I will be what I am and what I have been. So we dream of changing the lives of others — while we tend to keep going on with the same life as ever.

Behind this debate, Freud discovers another scene. While we tend to preserve ourselves and dream of Utopian changes, something happens without our knowing about it. That’s how the change occurs: once it happens, we find we are already elsewhere, all of a sudden, without knowing why. Freud’s revolution, after all, consists of acknowledging that real change takes place blindly.

Maury’s dream revealed to Freud that, behind our naïve perception of linear time, there is another time that acts instead of us. We are divided, crossed by a wound that consigns us into the hands of a master — the unconscious, in fact — who decides for us without us realizing it. However, this master is removed, so he can work in disguise, and let himself be seen only on the sidelines, between the lines, in the recesses of that conscious plot that we assume to be our life. Therefore, it is not so much a matter of chasing time that flees, or recovering lost time, but rather of knowing our own inner division and understanding that the life and times we dream of are, in fact, already here. And this occurs provided we listen to what the unconscious can tell us between the lines, always in an indirect, obscure, enigmatic way. The Freudian way is not that of understanding oneself, but rather that of the traumatic encounter with our obliterated and removed origin, whereby each of us is precisely what we are, never being able to understand it fully.

There is another world in store for us. However, it is a matter of ceasing all waiting since, due to its structure, it always comes from behind us, suddenly, without any possible prediction. Here’s the point: the time of the unconscious cannot be predicted, it cannot be forecasted, planned, or organized.

Illustration by Elisa Setzinger

What matters most is, therefore, not set in our past, nor could it be set in a hypothetical future. On the other hand, returning to our French revolutionaries, what could they know, while they were engaged in the revolution, about the revolution they were to hand down to history?

That’s why we do a lot to remove the removal by continually attempting to master time: we chase a time that always eludes us, we never have enough, we always seek more of it. It is the insatiable logic of desire, which drives us to request more time or to complain about the time wasted. All of this to avoid facing our own time, for which we cannot hold anyone else responsible except ourselves. A responsibility that anguishes us, because it involves deep loneliness.

Time, in analytic experience, is not the chronological, abstract, indifferent time that moves our clocks, for which — as Bergson said — every minute is the same as all the others. But it is also not the time experienced by the intentional consciousness, the subjective one that in contrast makes a day of joy seem to fly away in an instant or half an hour of waiting for a late train give us the impression of never ending. Unconscious time has nothing to do with duration; it does not depend on the perception that the conscious subject has of it. It is, instead, characterized by the anonymous and impersonal, but always singular dimension of incursion and surprise.

A good example can be taken from the experience of music. The rhythm and time of a musical composition are marked by an objective order, set by a metronome which can be divided according to the duration of the individual notes: eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and quarter notes. Then there is the expressive duration: The accelerando, the tempo rubato, and the rallentando. But then there is yet another time, which is neither subjective nor objective, neither expressive nor metronomic. A time that depends on the harmonic structure, that points out where the process is going. This is the time that characterizes the real passages of writing music: when the music breaks the silence, with its attack, or when its harmonic tension unexpectedly falls into a new constellation. It’s time as an event. This concerns psychoanalysis: a time that satisfies us.

Let’s take another example, one which is also famous, from Lacan. On March 6, 1963, Lacan ended his lecture on the theme of anxiety by evoking an anecdote about an orgasm: “How often have you been told that a subject had one of his first orgasms when he had to hand-up in a great hurry the copy of a scholastic composition or drawing that he had to finish quickly?” In the instant in which the other person awaits our “work,” our task, drawing, essay, just then the lack of time has a dizzying effect on the subject: “The collection of the copies: at that precise moment he ejaculates at the high-point of anxiety.” An extreme paradox, obviously, but real. Just when there is no more time, the other person’s demand causes in the subject an effect of enjoyment that is confused with the strongest and most unbearable anxiety. It is this affective bottleneck that affects the use of time that becomes the object of the analysis: not the chronological time, in which the minutes available for the task are precisely set and equal for all, nor that of the subjective duration, in which the task can last more or less depending on the perception that each student has of their difficulty. It’s the time that tightens around the instant that no longer has any duration, no minutes or seconds, dizzyingly plunged towards nothingness, between my offer and the other’s demand, in the midst of what starts to quiver: There, the anxiety is channeled towards what we care most about. An instant that at the same time is empty and infinite, in which the subject reaches its own satisfaction, a time that develops along a bottleneck, on the contingency of an unpredictable event.

Sixty years after Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, Lacan offered another interpretation of time — an act that cost him the excommunication from the International Psychoanalytical Association. It was in the early ‘60s; the analytical practice Lacan refounded precisely to remain as faithful as possible to the originality of the Freudian discovery was accused of heresy. Louis Althusser, the famous Marxist philosopher, offered him shelter at the École Pratique des Hautes Études. And all of a sudden Lacan found himself before a new audience: not only fellow psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, but also young philosophers. The revolution had a second chance here: the Marxists were attending the heretic psychoanalyst’s lectures.

How did this encounter translate into the logic of the cure? Through the originality with which Lacan changed the traditional technique of the duration of the sessions. The only real instrument to meet reality is time. It is not the meaning, it is not what we say, but it is its interruption that produces a revelation, an encounter, a surprise.

Illustration by Elisa Seitzinger

For Freudians, standard sessions have a fixed duration. Whether the patient says something, shuts up, sleeps, cries or shouts, the inexorable analyst, like a dead man, offers him his ear for exactly 45 minutes, then sends the patient off. On the analyst’s side time is chronological, on the patient’s side it is that of his experience, which can make a session seem longer or shorter. However, there is no contact with real time. To provoke this encounter, Lacan brought a peculiar innovation into the technique, which can only be supported through a very precise ethical rigor: the session does not have a standard duration, the time under analysis is not the dead time of a watch, but the time that is full of desire. Whose desire? That’s the key question. The desire of the unconscious, which for Lacan is not the patient story nor the psychoanalyst’s analysis, but rather a “different” dimension that opens up precisely because, between you and me, the transference has produced a new desire. There is no time in analysis without desire.

The session no longer has a standard duration because each time could be the last one. So it is from the first session, in fact, that something has been produced and has ended up in the background: a secret that supports the transference of the cure. Until it’s taken care of. Something that can occur at any time. In fact, to be more precise, in every session you always have to deal with this enigmatic aspect that can revitalize the analytical work or end it. Therefore, the time under analysis is neither the dead time of the clock, nor the living time that imaginatively is that of the consciousness of the patient or of the analyst. It’s the time that is eroticized by the analytical transference. There is “an erotics of time” — as Jacques-Alain Miller calls it — that animates the cure, punctuating its outcomes, surprises, and subterfuges.

The duration of the session is therefore variable: neither the analyst nor the analysand can know it in advance: it will depend on what arises during the dialog. It tends to be short, however. Short because time must be given its weight, or stated another way, short because there is no time to waste. The analysand must feel that he or she is being tended to and that time is running out, only by doing so can he or she also focus the conversation on the aspect that is felt to be most important? It’s a matter of grasping it. Except that, due to its very structure the thing we are trying to grasp is always elusive.

And this prompts a new question. How do we signal to the subjects that the time they dream of, and constantly search for, is right there where it apparently escapes them? Exactly how can we tell a subject that the unconscious is never where you expect it to be, but always a bit further away, from where it looks at us with a grin? How can we tell that subject that after all, what matters most is precisely what manifests itself for an instant and at the same time immediately disappears? Lacan’s invention of cutting the session time must be interpreted this way. Like a Zen master — said Lacan as early as 1953 — the analyst must “interrupt the silence with anything — with a sarcastic remark, with a kick,” suddenly cutting the session and dismissing the patient. Without an interpretation, without attempting to complete the sense of the patient’s speech. On the contrary, to show him that the time he has dreamed of is the empty instant of satisfaction at the limits of meaning. In a moment we understand each other, and there is satisfaction, of which laughter is direct evidence, but not mutual understanding. The important thing is that it remains a mis-understanding, a difference, a nonsense, which is the basis of the exhilarating effect. So even when cutting the session, the analyst gives the patient a chance to seize from that instantaneous interruption the best possible way of dealing with the other. The unconscious has the rhythm of stumbling, falling, oversight. Better yet, surprise.

There is, therefore, a way that the analyst must master to properly cut the duration of the sessions. In this sense, the art of the analyst is closer to surgery than to interpretation. The cut is not an imposition, violent, and arrogant, it involves absolute responsibility and a good dose of courage. The art of analysis is, after all, knowing how to deal with time. To act at the right time, not earlier or later, but on the point of onset, where the sense opens up, leaving behind the nonsense. For the subject this dialectic, this intermittent aspect, and this rhythm represents the opportunity to regain contact with the elasticity of his life that the symptom, with his or her aspirations or nostalgia, had contracted into an eternal present.