A symbol written in the sand of the flesh: an examination of self-mutilation as symptom

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Byrne, May
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Higher Diploma in Arts in Psychoanalytic Studies
Dublin Business School
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The area that shall be discussed in this dissertation is the area of self-harm, specifically self-mutilation. The question central to this dissertation is whether self-mutilation is a symptom as the term symptom is understood in psychoanalysis. As the symptom is so intimately connected with the drive, it will be necessary, for the purpose of gaining an understanding of the symptom to analyse the drive and the affect it has on the symptom. The path by which this will be accomplished is an investigation of Sigmund Freud's and Jacques Lacan's theories of the drive, and leading from that, an analysis of their theories of the symptom. A statement made by Paul Verhaeghe has been taken as a starting point for this investigation. He says of self-mutilation: ‘It is an unlocalised drive that spreads through the whole body without being able to tum on the usual escape valve, so that the jouissance increases to the point where in utter despair an emergency exit has to be cut out’ (Verhaeghe, 1998, p.166). He goes on to say, when these patients talk about it: ‘They give the impression that they are trying to describe something that cannot be expressed in words, either at the moment which they act, or afterwards and that the self-mutilation was the only remaining possibility. They describe a condition of physical tension that suddenly erupts and spirals up until it becomes a maelstrom in which the ego becomes liquid, empties, and disappears, so that the body is at risk of bursting at the seams, subjected to an indescribable experience - and the next moment the last remnant of the ego cuts into the body until the blood flows. The tension disappears, calmness returns and there is a sense of relief in the victim, of being back’ (ibid). This statement forms the basis for an examination of the symptom. As stated above the question of the symptom is central to this dissertation, this investigation endeavours to answer this by way of an examination of the return of the repressed as formulations of the unconscious in the form of symptoms. The symptoms which are themselves being engineered by the psyche for the very purpose of hiding the repressed from the conscious. Before entering a discussion of the symptom, it will be necessary to examine the drive, as a symptom is an attempt to satisfy the drive, the drive being a phenomena which lies at the very core of the symptom.