Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto




Ritual, obsessional  neurosis and bureaucracy are all responses to a situation of mistrust towards the Other.  By mistrust the author means the opposite of the religious faith, but not this alone: it is not the certainty that the other is lying, but the doubt and diffidence towards the other, with the consequence that one does not know if he is lying or not.  Bureaucracy becomes exasperating when it is based on a prejudiced mistrust towards the citizen, and it expresses a reluctance to concede any gift.  Obsessional  neurosis puts a fundamental mistrust towards the loved other (but to what extent is s/he loved?) into play, which leads the subject into perplexity regarding the debt which he should or should not pay to the other.  Ritual, in the final analysis, both expresses and tries to resolve the mistrust towards the Other, since one does not know if the Other wishes to concede the fundamental gift of his friendship and benevolence.




1. Efficacious Act


          I recall a television interview with an Italian trade-union leader while he was leading a demonstration of workers in the ‘70s.  There had just been a terrorist attack in Italy and the trade-unions had replied with the usual strike and march in order to express the disapproval of the proletariat.  The interviewer threw a question in the trade-union leader’s face: “don’t you think these strikes and demonstrations are just rituals?” The trade-union leader denied this in annoyance, saying that they were in fact concrete political acts.

Even in this brief exchange one can find the essence of the theoretical problem of ritual.  Ritual is always connected to a suspicion that when certain types of repeated acts should be efficacious, but there are serious doubts whether they really are, then we are dealing with “just rituals”.  The trade-union protest was being proposed as a pragmatic action.  But was this really the case?

          A possible difference arises here between rite and ritual, which I will not deal with here.  In the present common + linguistic use of these two terms, we define a rite as something which is above all an act--usually religious, but not always--which is believed to explain and display an action, while the ritual is simply the external form of the rite[2].  From this derives the negative connotation that is often, in our daily language, associated with the term “ritual”: as the pure and simple exteriority of the rite.  We will therefore seek here to define a theory not of rites, but of that which is ritual in every rite.

In effect, those who believe in a rite usually imagine that it is an efficacious act.  The Catholic Mass comes to mind.  For the believer it is certainly a ritual, but one which every time becomes a miraculous act: the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  But is it really transformed? Or is it, in the interviewer’s words, only a ritual?  The believer would say that the rite of the Mass makes a transcendental event possible; the non-believer instead would say that the event is the rite itself[3].  Here again we find the same doubt and suspicion that we referred to in the trade-union protest.


2. The rite designates a passage


          The human being, according to Wittgenstein (1967), is “a ceremonial animal”.  Thus every attempt to explain ritual as a form of ceremonial life cannot ignore the fact that ritual, as the form of a rite, is always connected in a problematic way with an act--magical, miraculous, political, spiritual, or other--which is presumed to be efficacious.  A ritual is an act which has its meaning in another act of which it is supposed to be the condition, the frame or the external expression.  Every ritual is an ante-act or a pre-act or cum-act.  It is something halfway between the utterance and the act--or, if one wants, between music and magic, even though there is magic in music, and magic itself can be actuated with musicality.

One may ask oneself why the efficacious act (or the one which is presumed to be so) has to be preceded and accompanied by a precise ritual.  Why can the act not be produced without the ritual premise, which therefore seems to permit the act? And what does this act consist of, which requires the ritual in order for it to be carried out?

My impression is that the act celebrated by every ritual is always a passage.  It can be a passage of time, or a change of marital status, space, or ownership, but we are always dealing with a passage.  For example, the rituals following the according of a degree mark the passage from being student to graduate, a wedding from single to married, a funeral from life to death.  The Catholic Mass is the ritual marking the passage of a substance from bread to flesh.  This conference opened with a video of the swearing-in rite of George Bush Jr. as President of the US: a passage from one presidency to another.

In so much as they mark (always? almost always? in the majority of cases? frequently?) a passage, rituals therefore have a hermetic nature.  Hermes, for the ancient Greeks, was above all the divinity of passage, of everything that alienates itself and thus changes: of the passage from life to death, from sleep to waking and vice versa, of commercial exchanges, of travel and movement, etc.  Hermes is also the divinity of the fork in the road and the crossroads, where one shifts from one road to another.  The rite, in as much as it indicates a passage, has this hermetic quality.

However, as we all know, participating in the celebration of a rite has a significance which is in some ways opposed to change: it reaffirms the fact of the participant’s belonging to the ritual community which, through the rite, persists and is reaffirmed.  Those who take part in a Mass, for example, also take part in the dramatic passage of the Eucharist, but by doing so they confirm and underline their belonging to the Catholic community.  In this way the rite reaffirms the divinity who for the Greeks was the exact opposite of Hermes: Hestia, the hearth, who later became the Vesta of the Romans.  She was the immobile goddess-virgin, the centre of the home and of the city, the assurance of a permanent stability[4].

          Ritual thus essentially has a double face, which the Greeks expressed in the simultaneous complementariness and opposition of Hermes and Hestia, of change and persistence.  Ritual is a ceremony which, while it marks a hermetical change, nevertheless also confirms the continuity and permanence of the Community which absorbs and integrates the change.

          But the idea of passage as a change always implies a doubt, both on the part of who is passing but also of who is accepting and welcoming the “passer”: will s/he be worthy of his/her new status?  The ritual, by permitting the passage, evokes, as IN CONTROLUCE, everything which is opposed to this passage: first of all the immaturity of the subject who changes his social or marital status.

For example, the modern day wedding ritual--although now somewhat reduced--evokes all the (at one time serious) difficulties that need to be overcome in order for the wedding to take place.  For example, the father’s leading the bride into the church shows his assent, which was fundamental at a time when a wedding was the result of a negotiation process between two families.  The bride still wears the virginal white dress and thus attests coram populo to her purity.  The honey-moon allowed the newly-weds a brief flight from one’s own society to enjoy a sexuality without restraints and responsibilities, before setting into matrimony, which implies a greater degree of social commitment, of integration into their society, and the raising of new citizens.  It is as if the ritualization brings into play precisely that which might impede or resist matrimony, so that reducing the impediment into a sort of game would deprive it of its destructive power.

Rites thus help in carrying the passage from one social state to another.  This dynamic has a traumatic face, as does every change.  But the rite, by repeating itself identically every time, blunts the trauma and absorbs the dynamic: the change, softened, ceases to be a radical event.  By ritualizing important changes the ritualizing community reaffirms its continuity or its (dream of) immobility.  Hence the double face of the rite, which on the one hand ratifies change by symbolically representing that which opposes it, while on the other hand reabsorbs the change in the context of a continuity of atavistic social customs.


3. To supplicate and permit


But the ritual does not only mark a passage.  It also often places a halo on three specific acts: the magical performance[5], the cult or praise of the Other, and the prayer addressed to the Other.

          To pray or to implore the other--be it a human being or a god--is a fundamental transitive and intersubjective activity which is particularly apt to be ritualized.  Prayer and supplication are not simply ways of asking for something: they are persuasive actions, the other must be convinced to give me what I, as a supplicant, am asking for.  For the ancient Greeks persuasion was personified as a divinity, Peithos.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most ancient tragedy that has come down to us is The Suppliants of Aeschylus?  In this tragedy we see Danaus and his fifty daughters engaged in trying to convince, with able rhetoric and ethical and political arguments, Pelasgus, the king of Argos, so that he might defend them from the persecution of the fifty sons of Egypt.  In this tragedy the supplication appears ritualized, as it indeed was in that epoch.  It was obligatory to conduct it according to the accepted forms, by bringing olive-branches wrapped in bandages of wool.  Moreover, here the supplicants choose as a place of prayer the altar of the agonal gods (Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo and Hermes), since that sacred place makes their requests more convincing.  But, apart from the ritual setting, it is still necessary to persuade the other with rational arguments or move him to compassion, with efficacious words or with the attractiveness of the body, so that he might concede the gift or act of grace (kharis).  Even today supplication is a political act: in fact as I write, the world’s newspapers are speaking of Nelson Mandela’s entreaty to the rich countries to help badly stricken Africa.

But when and why does the act of prayer become ritualized?

          During the ‘70s I took part in the ceremony in the Cathedral of Naples which concludes with the miracle of Saint Gennarius, consisting of the liquefaction of some mysterious coagulated blood inside a vial.  I was struck by the fact that--despite the sincere fervor of so many of the faithful--it was all very highly ritualized: a leaflet was handed out in the church containing the prayers which everyone was asked to recite together in a loud voice, in a prescribed and specific order.  The miraculous event in fact became no more than a part, virtually relegated to the end, of the ritual itself.

Prayer probably becomes ritualized to the extent that the dramatic act of supplication loses its value.  If I pray to the other with codified words which are thus devoid of illocutionary force, then I do not succeed in persuading him.  Why, then, do religions so often reduce prayers to a simple execution of predefined sentences?

Evidently, it is because there is not a great deal of trust in the persuasive power of prayer.  This is for various reasons.  One is that the grace (the gift) will be granted in any case by the divinity, so that the prayer takes the form of a bureaucratic certificate, which it is sufficient to display in order to obtain what one wants.  In fact, the miracle of Saint Gennarius is repeated regularly twice a year and the patron saint of Naples never disappoints the faithful.  Another reason for ritualization, the inverse of the first, is a lack of hope (even though it is hard to admit) to obtain grace--perhaps because deep down there is a doubt regarding the existence of the Other who is supposed to concede it.

In many cases, is the ritual no more than a decorative act?  But this decorative function--to give solemnity to the act--is the aesthetic face of a function which I would call permissive: to make the act possible, to give it a perceptive and public form.  Even the ritual of St. Gennarius seemingly gives permission for the act (the miracle) to take place.

This rite’s function of permission can oscillate between having a strong significance and a weak one--strong when the act requires the ritual as a conditio sine qua non for taking place, and weak when the ritual is just an optional, since the act would take place anyway, with or without it.  However, the weak ritual of permission may simply be a weakened form of the strong one.  Our secularized society--which in fact deprives rites of their power, and reduces the ritual to a merely aesthetical façade--tries to remove from the ritual the power of permission it enjoyed in archaic societies.  Undeified modernity tries to deprive ritual of its performative force.  We can indeed say that modernity, in general, precisely because it is ever increasingly performing, is ever less performative.

          The performative act--as John Austin (1962) said--does things through words[6].  Nowadays, every ritual--even when it is reduced to a purely decorative re-evocation--seems to still carry a performative force: the ritual is a sequence of signs which do something.  In certain cases they do something directly: for example, in the rite of the Mass they cause the miracle of the Eucharist to occur.  However, in the ritual of the wedding ceremony in Italy, for example, the act of the wedding is not identified with the ritual which accompanies it, although it is precisely this ritual that allows the act (which is the change of civil status of the bride and groom) to take place.  It is as if every ritual were saying “by doing such and such you will be allowed to become this...”


4. The ritual substitutes the act


          But the ritual is a particularly permissive act: it consists of a well-defined, regulated and often rigid sequence of acts (linguistic and otherwise).  A ritual implies some rules, a liturgy.  These liturgical rules are like a syntax: they prescribe the correct concatenation of the acts-signs, in a pure syntagmatic articulation.

In as far as the ritual is a series of acts, verbal or gestural, which permits (or facilitates) an act--an ante-act or cum-act--what matters is not whether it has a meaning or not, but that it has the right form.  But this syntactical sequence has an active meaning: it permits a social act.  In the case of magical rituals, this act claims to have an influence also upon physical reality.

          And yet when, in many cases, this permissive function seems ineffective, the ritual then does not seem to permit the act, but rather to substitute it.  This is what the journalist was saying to the aforementioned trade-union leader: “a political ritual is being substituted for political anti-terrorist action”.

As we shall see, this temptation to substitute the rite for the act which it should permit sometimes takes an unavowable course: the ritual is actually resolved in the inhibition of the act, which is just the opposite of what every ritual is supposed to do.  In the so-called obsessional  ritual, as we shall see, a “morbid” function of rituality prevails: to put off, or make impossible, the very act which it is supposed to permit.  Moreover, the ritual gives permission to the act precisely because something is inhibiting or trying to inhibit that act.  There would be no need to permit something if this something were not in some way forbidden.  But--and here is the surprise--sometimes the inhibition that the ritual has to overcome in order for the act to take place... is the ritual itself!  In this alarming dialectic, perhaps, lies the key to the ceremonial life of human beings.


5. Bureaucratic rituals


          Perhaps the nature of rituality can be clarified if we put the ritual into relationship with two things which it is not: certain aspects of the obsessive-compulsive neurosis and bureaucracy.  Psychiatry talks precisely of “obsessional  rituals”, although we never think of the bureaucratic procedures necessary to obtain something as a ritual, and yet there are some clear analogies.  Religious rituals, bureaucratic procedures and obsessional acts are certainly not identical, but they are related.  In Wittgenstein’s words, between all these things there is a “family resemblance”[7].  There is thus not a genetic priority of one form over the others, but all three of them are in some way connected, in the same way that—by their common traits and differences--individuals united by a family relationship are connected.

Like the ritual, the bureaucratic process also is based on a correct articulation of signs--it has a function of permission.  And yet we know that bureaucracy in reality also has a tacit, unavowable function: the substitutive function. 

          I recall Italian manager Mario Schimberni being interviewed about his experience--substantially a failure--as general manager of the Italian state railways in the ‘80s, where everything--he complained--was paralyzed by an asphyxiating bureaucracy.  He described the infamous pratiche motrici (procedures of moving), which, despite their name, had nothing to do with real movement: they were instead sources of non-action and immobility.  In effect the various sequences of documents in the bureaucratic process were all derived from a single procedure of moving: a source-document which gave the impulse of movement not to trains, but rather to trains and convoys of heaps of paper, which almost never ended up as practical acts.  As in certain rituals, bureaucratic degeneration leads the substitutive function to prevail over the permissional function.

          The bureaucratic apparatus exists because the state (or the various institutions and authorities which require certificates) mistrusts its citizens.  The less the state--or bank, or company, etc.--trusts you, the more it forces you to supply the proof of your reliability and genuineness.  It is no coincidence that the countries where corruption prospers the most are also countries devastated by a bogged down, pedantic and muddled bureaucracy, for two reasons which reinforce each other:

(1) diffidence towards the citizen, given the multitude of tricksters and swindlers, pushes the state to increase its requests for documents of guarantee,

(2) this bureaucratic cover permits corrupt functionaries to take advantage of the situation (by “oiling the wheels”), and permits swindlers to manipulate the bureaucratic machine, which has become blind, to their own advantage[8].

Thus at the root of the bureaucratic machine there is a feeling of mistrust towards the citizen who is asking for something--whether it be a gift or an exchange-- from the authority.  Mistrust, diffidence, doubt, feelings also found in the obsessional  phenomenology.

          It is no coincidence that in Italy the recent adoption of self-certification was seen as a revolution in the bureaucratic system.  In effect, by accepting the practice of self-certification, the state decided to trust the citizen and his declarations a priori.  It has finally been realized that the tight bureaucratic control typical of the past--a sub-product of mistrust--costs the nation more than the frauds and deceptions that self-certification facilitates.  The fact that the documents and declarations demanded by the state from its citizen are called certificates in various languages says a lot about the fundamental need of every bureaucracy: to banish the doubt, the uncertainty.  Bureaucracy is “Cartesian”: it wants to be certain of the citizen.  In effect, with Descartes, philosophy began to give a central place to the need for certainty and thus for dissolving all legitimate doubts regarding the reality of things: “I think, therefore I can be certain that I am”.  But a bureaucratic system goes from being permissive to becoming inhibitive--and so becomes paralyzed--precisely because there is always the need for something more in order for certainty to be assured (but it will never be assured).


6. Obsessional  ritual and debt


          Mistrust is again the key when we pass from the bureaucratic “ritual” to that “bureaucracy of the soul” which is obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

For Freud obsessional  acts are made up of various psychic acts: “wishes, temptations, impulses, reflections, doubts, commands or prohibitions”[9].  Here we will deal above all with doubts, because they are the aspect which is most closely connected to ritual.

Freud sees obsessive compulsions, which often assume repetitive and standardized forms, as an effect of opposing feeling-- love and hate--towards a single object/subject.  The obsessional symptom makes it possible to alternate in expressing this ambivalence[10].

Freud himself, in a short essay[11], proposed a comparative analysis of obsessional  rituals on the one hand and of religious ritual practices on the other: it is appropriate to describe “neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal obsessional neurosis”[12].  In both cases rituals--whether the individual rituals of neurosis, or the collective and socially shared rituals of religious practice--have the function of protecting the subject from inconvenient impulses which either his Ego or society in general cannot accept.  The difference between “individual religion” and “collective neurosis” can be seen in the fact that while the neurotic protects himself essentially from inadmissible sexual impulses, the pious person instead protects himself essentially from egoistic and anti-social impulses.  This thesis--the protective function of ritual--at first sight appears rather different from the one I have proposed in this paper, which underlines the permissional function of ritual.  We will see however that the two approaches are not as exclusive as it might appear at first sight.


One of Freud’s patients was the so-called Ratman, a 29-year-old man[13].  His real name was Ernst Lanzer and his obsessive syndrome had practically started following the death of his father, some years before--the neurosis appeared in the form of an unresolved mourning.  Put briefly, Freud explained the obsessional phantasmagoria of this case with the irresolvable ambivalence of the patient towards the two persons he loved most; his dead father, and his cousin Gisela whom he had loved for many years.  They were both objects at once--and to an almost equal degree--of Ernst’s love and hostility, also because--for reasons that Freud partially explains--the father and Gisela appeared to be incompatible[14].  Ernst was therefore torn apart by contradictory sentiments towards the same persons, but also by the contradiction of loving both.

          In one episode Ernst spies a stone on the street where he knows a carriage with his beloved will later pass by.  Afraid that the stone could cause an accident, and to protect her, he throws it aside.  Afterwards he regrets this gesture as puerile and absurd: he goes back to the place and puts the stone back in the middle of the street[15].  This could be the beginning of a genuinely obsessional  ritual.  Freud explains it as a way of giving vent to the two contradictory tropisms he feels towards Gisela: on the one hand lovingly protecting her from, and on the other punishing her by exposing her to accidents.  The obsession is like an oscillation between black and white, without ever resting in a grey area.

          We should point out that, in this case, the father and cousin as objects of this ambivalence, are placed in competition in relation to something regarding father’s past.  When he was a young man, Ernst’s father had loved a poor girl, but instead married a rich woman from a good family, who became the mother of the “Ratman”. Gisela is also poor and probably, also, sterile: Ernst is tempted to follow in his father’s footsteps and renounce his beloved in order to accept the socially convenient match that has been proposed to him.  In his imagination, his father is a swindler who does not pay his debts to his friends, a womanizer and a dowry hunter who is unable to be faithful to his romantic desire--and the son seems to be tempted into following this model.  The death of this father who has not paid, so to speak, his (romantic, financial and moral) debts, makes his drama still more acute, as if he had inherited the debt from his father, and this is the source of the neurosis.

          In general the obsessional form of life seems to rotate around a debt that the subject feels he must pay--usually a debt not his, but belonging to a parent or some other ancestors--and which is impossible to pay.  This debt in turn refers to a sort of mistrust towards the other--in this case towards the father.  It is as if the obsessional person were eternally in debt due to his mistrust towards the other.

          For example, Ernst had sent off for a pince-nez and had to reimburse the postal fee to the female employee of the local post office where the pince-nez had arrived and who, without knowing him, had trusted him and had paid on his behalf.  Then, however, a certain captain mistakenly had told him that he had to reimburse the sum to a certain lieutenant A.  This mistake threw him into a terrible crisis and he was unable to pay his debt.  In effect, although he had to reimburse the post office employee, he felt that the literal command of the other (“pay the debt to lieutenant A.”) should nevertheless be honored.  It is an impasse.  On the one hand he feels compelled to trust the captain, who tells him to pay lieutenant A.; on the other he must live up to the trust of the post office employee.


          Let us now pass from this famous Freudian example to a personal example of my own.  Ever since I was a child my next door neighbor was a seriously obsessional  woman.  “Tonina the nut” was well known in the neighborhood for her obsessive “rituals”: every time she had to pass through a doorway--whether it be that of a shop, a building, an elevator or, above all, her own apartment--she stopped to carry out a very long series of enigmatic gesticulations and mumblings, which sounded like private prayers, and which were accompanied by various attempts to go through the doorway, as if a tug-of-war were going on, until in the end (often with someone’s help) she was able to go through.  All this did not however take place when leaving her home.

I often spoke with Tonina, and I noticed the enormous degree of ambivalence she felt towards her father, with whom she lived (her mother had died when she was a child).  An only child, she reproached him in particular for not having allowed her to marry.  But she alluded to other “sins” of her father: she almost made insinuations that he had sexually molested her.  Whether this was a fantasy or reality, the fact was that her interminable rituals of entry seemed to express the struggle between two equal and contradictory impulses: the impulse to enter the apartment where her father lived, and the impulse to run away--a conflict which flared up every time she had to enter a doorway.

Once again we find the ambivalence that feeds obsessional symptoms--although ambivalence is not a specialty of obsessional persons alone--but above all we find mistrust towards the other.  “Shall I go in or not?” seems to be connected to a sort of double face (real or imagined) of the father, a respected teacher of mathematics at a school in the town, but regarding whom his daughter insinuated her suspicions.  The dissent which was expressed in the symptom seemed almost to testify to a fundamental uncertainty as to what her father could say or do.


7. The letter which certifies


          A fundamental element of obsessions makes them very similar to rituals: the important thing is not the meaning but the letter.  The fact that Ernst did not owe the money to lieutenant A. is much less important than the literal pronouncement of the other who told him to pay the sum.  It is as if the meaning of words and signs in general were eclipsed, leaving all power to literality.

For example, an obsessional patient in analysis had been engaged for many years to a woman--without ever making the decision to marry her, a delaying style which is very obsessional. This woman, despite being a girl from a conservative family, had had a child from a casual relationship many years before.  Until he was 16 years old, he was told that his grandmother was in fact his mother and that his real mother was actually his sister.  The young mother had managed to obtain a certificate from a sympathetic doctor which attested to her state of virginity.  The obsessional  patient knew all the details of this story, but the remarkable thing is that he himself used this extraordinary certificate of virginity on various occasions, as if he believed it.  He showed it to his mother, for instance, who was perplexed by their relationship.  It was not so much a case of deceiving others--for whom the virginity of his girlfriend was not very important--but rather of deceiving himself, i.e. of believing and not believing the truth, like every obsessional.  Between the letter and the truth there is often a contradiction, and the obsessive subject--despite knowing that the letter contradicts the truth--oscillates between the two poles of this contradiction.  Between the letter and the truth the obsessional remains uncertain: he remains in doubt whether to believe in the fact or to “believe” in the words (commands, prohibitions, prophecies, promises).  This is what I would call the splitting of the obsessional Ego, which seems to always repeat to itself--as in the case of a superstitious person--“it is not true but I believe it”.

          But why does the letter predominate over meaning (or have the same weight as the meaning) in the obsessive personality, even when the two are opposed to each other?  Probably because the subject lived a catastrophic discrepancy between words and facts during his childhood.  To put it briefly, at least one of his parents lied to him: there was a dramatic gap between words and truth.  But how can a child doubt the words of his parents, since these words, for a child, are the very criterion of truth itself?  The child believes them not because he thinks that they always tell him the truth, but rather because for him the truth is that which his parents tell him.  The lying of adults can lead an immature subject into a genuine epistemological crisis: the priority that we all attribute to truth over falsehood, to meaning over literality, is disturbed from the very beginning.  Between signs and things there is the obsessional sea[16].

It is not by chance that the patient using the certificate of virginity identified himself deeply with the young son of his single mother fiancée: as if he too were the victim of a lie regarding his place in the chain of life.  He was deeply affected by the boy’s reaction when the truth about his mother was finally revealed to him and he said: “it is my business what I should believe or not”.  It was as if the boy were claiming his autonomy to believe the facts or not, independently of the objective truth itself.  We all feel obliged to believe the truth[17], as though we assume that believing in a demonstrated truth is one of our fundamental moral duties (although how many times this duty has been disregarded!).  It is not so for the obsessional subject, who always doubts whether he should feel obliged to believe the letter or the truth.  For him, epistemology and ontology do not necessarily imply each other: one can believe in something while knowing it is not true--and one cannot believe in something while knowing it is true.

          Usually an obsessional personality loves accounts, numbers, calculations, and likes mathematics.  This is because, as is often said, “mathematics is not a question of opinion”--in other words, only mathematics is certain.  Like the bureaucrat, the obsessional person yearns for certainty.  But it is a derisory certainty: one can always make mistaken calculations (a computer does not make mistakes, but I can always make a mistake in giving it the wrong data).  It is like the hyperbolic doubt hypothesized by Descartes in the Meditations: the malign demon can always deceive me, even when I resolve a simple equation or count the angles of a quadrilateral.  Even the numerical calculation, the last bulwark of certainty, can be corrupted by doubt, which becomes so abysmal.  The obsessional always doubts his accounts--and so he calculates them over and over.  Obsessive-compulsive neurosis is a lived hyperbole of uncertainty.

          For this reason the compulsion to count is one of the most characteristic symptoms of obsessional  persons.  For example, Ernst Lanzer felt compelled to count the seconds between a lightning-flash and the crash of thunder.  As Freud points out, this can be explained by the impulse to “certify” what is uncertain, in this case the succession of the crash of thunder after the lightning.  Because, if it is true that usually the thunder follows the lightning, it is also true that one does not always hear the thunder and then one cannot say how much time will pass between the lightning and the thunder.  A dangerous space of uncertainty opens up, a fault-line in one’s knowledge, which the computational compulsion both expresses and blocks at the same time.


8. The compulsion to not understand


          Freud wrote this about Lanzer:


After [his lady’s] departure he became a prey to an obsession for understanding which made him a curse to all his companions. He forced himself to understand the precise meaning of every syllable that has addressed to him, as though he might otherwise be missing some priceless treasure. Accordingly he kept asking: “What was it you said just then?” And after it had been repeated to him he could not help thinking it had sounded different the first time, so he remained dissatisfied[18].


Freud links this compulsion to an argument the patient had had with Gisela.  Ernst had interpreted certain words his girlfriend said as if she wanted to contradict him, but then she had convinced him that he had misunderstood her words: her intention was not at all to deny or contradict what he had said.  From this stemmed a fear of continually misunderstanding the words of everyone.

          There are two things that one can understand well or misunderstand: literal words or their meaning.  The patient had misunderstood the meaning of the woman’s words, not the words themselves.  But here the compulsion seems to be attached to the letter of the words, thus escaping the risks and the uncertainties of the meaning.  It is as if the concentration on the letter--the decisive trait of the obsessional  neurosis--had the function of certifying that which by definition is subjected to the hazards of interpretation: the signifying intention of the other.  The obsessional  subject clings to the letter in order to escape from the doubt regarding the meaning intended by the other.  Why does Ernst continue to doubt the words of his beloved?  He believes that he believes what she has said to him, which is that he had misunderstood the meaning of her words--but does he really believe this?  In a part of himself, Ernst continues to feel denied and disavowed by his beloved.  Within him there is still the struggle between a trusting self and a self which does not trust in the words of the other.  Should he trust his own reading, according to which those words suggested mistrust towards him, or should he trust the reading of his beloved, according to which those words intended to make him more trustworthy?  Should I trust myself or the other, the letter or the meaning, the interpretation of the letter or the interpretation of the meaning?

          This compulsion to understand--or rather to not understand--reminds me of the obstinacy of many bureaucrats who are never satisfied with the documentation that you have brought to them: something is always missing, or the order of the documents is not the right one.  In effect, if the bureaucrat accepts the documentation you have brought, you will receive the “grace” that you are requesting; if the certification is insufficient, the grace is postponed /delayed.  The obsessive or sadistic bureaucrat does not trust you (or in any case does not love you, and thus does not want to help you), and so he requires more certification.  In the same way that Ernst with his “what did you say?” expresses his diffidence towards that which the other says, also the bureaucrat expresses his diffidence towards you the postulant by hinting: “basically you do not deserve grace, and therefore I will not do you the grace of accepting your certification, since in any case it can never certify definitively”.

          But this prevalence of the letter over the meaning also occurs in the religious ritual.  Paul Claudel advised the unbeliever: “pray according to the correct forms, and in the end you will believe”.  The relationship between faith and prayer here appears to be inverted: the ritual of prayer edifies faith, it is not the other way round.  In other words, the letter seems to certify the truth.  The ritual is therefore a psychological and not an epistemological certification.

          In fact, like the obsessional  subject, also the homo ritualis does not trust his own faith.  He does not trust the fact that the Other--whether it be a divinity or an earthly power--can concede the grace, the gift.  The event that the ritual allows and introduces might not take place--from this derives the uncertainty.  The ritual therefore expresses and at the same time goes beyond the uncertainty, the doubt: if it is not certain that the divinity will gratify me, I certainly gratify the divinity with my rite.  Before considering myself indebted to the divinity who has given me the grace, I bind the divinity by making it in some way indebted to me: the ritual is thus like a net in which I believe that, in a certain sense, the Other gets entangled.


9. Doubts of the disappointed wife


              Freud offers us an extract of obsessional symptoms regarding a woman who lived separated from her husband, while still remaining faithful to him[19].


Another compulsion which she started—of writing down the number of every bank-note before parting with it—has also to be interpreted historically. At a time she was still intending to leave her husband if she could find another more trustworthy man, she allowed herself to receive advances from a man whom she met at a watering-place, but she was in doubt [Benvenuto’s italics] as to whether his intentions were serious. One day, being short of small change, she asked him to change a five-kronen piece for her. He did so, pocketed the large coin and declared with a gallant air that he would never part with it, since it had passed through her hands. At their later meetings she was frequently tempted to challenge him to show her the five-kronen piece, as though she wanted to convince herself that she could believe in his intentions. But she refrained, for the good reason that it is impossible to distinguish between coins of the same value. Thus her doubt remained unresolved [Benvenuto’s italics]; and it left her with the compulsion to write down the number of each bank-note, by which it can  be distinguished from all others of the same value.


I am struck how ill-suited this example of compulsive behavior is to Freud’s thesis, in this essay, regarding the obsessional  neurosis: that compulsive forms of behavior are the measures with which the subject protects him- or herself against temptations of a sexual nature.  What inadmissible temptation could be expressed in the ritual of writing down the number of every banknote?  The woman admits her desire to find a man to replace her husband, since she seems, without too many scruples, to have led on the man who was courting her.  Of course the context of this compulsion--like that of the others of which Freud speaks regarding this chaste lady--is imbued with an amorous scent, but it is hard to see what guilty impulse is being manifested in this case.

And yet Freud himself inexplicitly suggests the key when he writes that there is a doubt here: “has that gallant fellow really kept my banknote or not?”  How much can she trust the male with his romantic advances?  Also in this case, the symptom seems to want to ensure a certainty--that it is really the five crown note that had belonged to her.  We thus apply the Freudian theory of displacement, according to which, in obsessions, actions which are affectively very significant are displaced onto anodyne, foolish and secondary actions and objects.  And so we can say that the impulse to identify every banknote is the effect of the displacement of a more essential question: “for this suitor, am I an exchangeable woman, or do I mean something to him in so far as I am just myself?”  This is a question which women often ask themselves while being courted.  This doubt becomes radicalized in the obsessional  subject, and spreads o situations which lie far from the original doubt.

          Freud underlines the lack of trust that the obsessional person has in himself--that is to say in his own capacity to resist ethically inconvenient drives.  But what appears to be no less essential in the obsession (both of the neurotic and the religious type) is the lack of trust towards the other; in the specific example it is a mistrust of the capacity of the male’s desire to truly distinguish her from every other woman.  Banknotes are objects of exchange and it does not make sense to keep them.  Even our genitals are something we exchange with the other; these organs can be seen as our physiological currency.  That which we do not ever exchange however is our individuality, which is what distinguishes each one of us from another: it is this which comes into play when one speaks of love, beyond the mere sexual exchange.  Love is not an exchange, but devotion to the uniqueness of the other.

          This lady who is unable to evade an unhappy marriage seems to be particularly interested in issues of distinguishability and individuality.  For example, as Freud tells us, she was only able to sit on a particular chair, from which she was able to rise with difficulty.  For her this chair signified her husband.  The phrase she herself used was “it is so difficult to separate oneself from something [husband, chair] on which one has already sat down once.”  What this lady seems to refute is thus the common point of view according to which any one chair is exactly like another, just as a banknote is worth the same as another of the same monetary value.  But does the common point of view also affirm that any husband is worth any other… and that any woman is worth another who is equally young and pretty?  Freud himself quoted the phrase of George Bernard Shaw: to be in love means to excessively exaggerate the difference between one woman and any other[20].  Freud does not tell us a great deal about this patient, but we can suppose that the doubt that gnawed at her was directly concerned with the authenticity of love (one’s own love, as well as that of the other): in what sense is true love the love for someone else in as much as he/she is not at all exchangeable?

          Freud reports two more obsessive symptoms of this woman.  During meals she had the habit of leaving the best part of the food in her plate, and she ate only the marginal parts of every dish.  This bizarre behavior went back to the day when she had refused to have sexual relations with her husband.  For Freud the symptom meant “I have to leave aside the best part [of the plate, of the marriage]”.

Another bizarre compulsion also appeared in connection with sexual intercourse.  This lady would sometimes run into a certain room and re-arrange the table-cloth laid on a table then, then would ring the bell for the house-maid so that she would come close to that table, and then would send the maid away with some trivial excuse.  It was important for her that the table-cloth had a stain, and that the house-maid see it.  Freud observes:


The whole scene proved to be a reproduction of an experience in her married life […] On the wedding-night her husband had met with a not unusual mishap. He found himself impotent, and “many times in the course of the night he came hurrying from his room into hers” to try once whether he could succeed. In the morning he said he would feel ashamed in front of the hotel housemaid who made the beds, and he took a bottle of red ink and poured its contents over the sheet; but he did it so clumsily that the red stain came in a place that was very unsuitable for his purpose. With her obsessive action, therefore, she was representing the wedding-night[21].


In this last symptom we once again find the theme, so essential to obsessions, of the lie, deceit and mistrust: there is a woman who should be tricked.  The ordained victim of this deceit is the maid, but one should ask oneself whether, all things considered originally, this victim might not be the patient herself.  Hence her mistrust towards her suitor, a mistrust already encountered in the syndrome of the banknotes: here her uncertainty about being an object of love, truly desirable, for a man is also revealed.

          In these two last cases, both the symptoms refer to the lack of a sexual act.  In one case it is she herself who renounces it, while in the other it is her husband who is incapable of it.  The obsessional ritual, unlike the religious ritual, neither permits nor facilitates the act--including the sexual act--but, rather substitutes it.  It is as if the lack of enjoyment--of sexual intercourse--were transferred completely into the obsessional symptom, which compels the subject.  Our lady seems to mistrust the man in the sexual relationship--as if she did not believe him--and she brings this mistrust into play by means of symptomatic signs.  If we are to believe in Freud’s reconstruction, it is as if all the lady’s compulsions evoked the act of love-making, but at the same time substituted it.  Like “Tonina the nut” who hesitated for hours in front of her apartment’s door, even Freud’s patient seems to delay and hesitate when confronted with sexual relations--even though she had enjoyed it--metaphorically outlining the irresolvable doubt “should I trust the man who says he loves me, or not?”


10. Mistrusting the god


          After our long voyage through the bureaucratic and obsessional  hybris, let us now return to the genuine ritual as such.

          Let us take the rite of the Catholic Mass.  Does it too express an ambivalence, as Freud thought?  For example, should we guess that the miracle of transubstantiation is something that the believer both desires and fears at the same time?  But why is there this ambivalence?  Perhaps because we are dealing with a “cannibalistic” act?  But not all religious rites lead to something which is cannibalistic.  The liquefaction of St. Gennarius’s blood instead denotes a return to life, the blood is again ready to circulate following the petrifaction of death.  The affective ambivalence is only one part, and not even habitual, of the supposed reasons at the root of the ritual.  And yet Freud, by evoking ambivalence--which is to say an oscillation between two contradictory aims--captures something meaningful both in obsessional neurosis and in the ritual: the fact that they both express an uncertainty, and therefore an internal dissension.  The conjecture that I find most convincing is therefore that the ritual always expresses an oscillation between trust and mistrust.  It is the aesthetic and syntactical form which the doubt--the not knowing whether to trust or not--assumes.

          But what does the Catholic who goes to Mass trust in and what does he not trust in?  Probably he does not trust what religion tells him: that the wine and the bread really undergo a transubstantiation.  It is not only faith which explains the religious phenomenology (rituals included), but it is also incredulity.  This doubt generally invests the divinity itself: “but does one really have to trust Him?  Can we really expect the free gift from Him, His benevolence and protection, in short, Grace?”  The gracious gift to us from the divinity can be denied.

          Usually the divinity is convinced to grant us grace by means of prayer.  Otherwise it is done by offering Him something in exchange, in an act of bartering--or in pagan religion, by means of sacrifices[22].  In the Christian religion instead, and even in Catholicism, this bartering with the divinity is viewed with suspicion: the Christian God gives for free, in exchange for nothing, due to His infinite mercy.  The act of Grace is not a reward for our merits, but it is part of a “logic” of the divinity which is inscrutable for us.  And yet the practice of prayer basically belies the official theology: evidently the divinity wants to be beseeched.  But why then does prayer become ritualized, becoming—as with the rosary--a purely formal, syntagmatic succession of supplicant acts?  How does it happen so often that the pathetic, dramatic, uncertain, open act of prayer dries up into a pure rite, which is to say a closed repetition of formulas which have lost their semantic and performative charge?  Because prayer is open--it is necessary to wait and see if and when the Other will accept it by fulfilling it--while the ritual is usually closed.  The very looped form of the rosary beads expresses this closure.

          The ritual tends to be closed precisely because the wishing practice goes from being the act of prayer or proposal of exchange that it was to being an act in which the reply is included.  This happens both when the reply is always positive, and when it is always negative.  The fact that the miracle of St. Gennarius always takes place deprives the event of its dramatic charge: the event itself is in fact incorporated into the preparatory ritual.  The ceremony of St. Gennarius is a ritual because it is always too successful.  But this very success makes the believer suspicious: what is the point of praying, if the Other always fulfils the prayer?

          The opposite probably occurs with the Mass.  In a certain sense the miracle never takes place, at least not in physically discernible terms.  We could say, maliciously, that the Mass is the fundamental Catholic ritual precisely because it is as if the miraculous event were always being put off.  The ritualization thus expresses the doubt as to whether the grace has truly been conceded-- whether to consider the gift as received or not.  But the ritual is at one and the same time an expression of doubt and its overcoming, an act of mistrust and a reassurance against mistrust.

          Certainly many standardized prayers--for example, the Our Father or the Hail Mary--are also in praise of the divinity, lead to the genuine supplication, even if this is sometimes missing.  The prayer is therefore not just a request for grace, it is basically grace itself, or a gift of praise to the divinity.  The prayer is only apparently asking for a gift from the god, but in fact it is a gift made to the god--a gift which thus puts Him under obligation.

          Let us consider the rosary.  Old ladies recited rosaries not only to ask for grace, but also as a ritual in its own right, for the pleasurable duty or for the dutiful pleasure of reciting the rosary.

          Every rite probably expresses the drama of faith: it is a device for continuing to believe.  Every ritual basically celebrates a triumph over mistrust.  But this triumph is never definitive, which is the reason why the ritual always has to repeat itself.  In the same way that Achilles is never able to catch up with the tortoise, analogously the rite is never able to overtake our atavistic and radical mistrust towards the god.


11. Believing in the omnipotence of signs


          Is believing in the efficacy of the ritual a superstition?  Up to what point, and in what sense, is the ritual superstitious?

          Let us see what happens in the case of the obsessive subject.  He often appears to be superstitious, or he seems to believe in the so-called omnipotence of thoughts--which Freud rather called the omnipotence of the desires.  I would call it belief in the omnipotence of signs.  In reality, as we have said, a part of the obsessional subject believes in the superstition, while another is skeptical just as every cultured man must be.  But I wonder if in every form of superstition--even in that which is apparently the most credulous--there might not be some kind of splitting in the subject, a mixture of credulity and incredulity[23].  In effect, the superstition usually considers certain events as being signs which tell us something about our future: if we will have a good or a bad fate.  The reading of events as if they were signs of destiny corresponds to a fundamental need of human beings: to minimize uncertainty over the future.  We can say, in mythical terms, that each one of us is uncertain as to whether or not to trust the goddess Fortune.

How then can we obtain some sign that blind Fortune is our friend or not?  In some way, superstition acts as a palliative for our mistrust towards Fortune.  If I believe that there is a relationship between the fact that a black cat has crossed my path and the fact that the same day I lose a large sum of money, I believe that this loss was in some way announced by the black cat crossing my path.  The goddess Fortune may be blindfolded, but the important thing is that I can see and know how to read the signs of her benevolence or lack of it.  The superstition tries to give me an insight into the moods of the goddess Fortune towards me[24].

          The future--which we tend to personify--can give us the gift of success and of happiness, or not.  But we do not know how to persuade this personified future to dispense to us this gift.

          Like the superstition, also the ritual aims at persuading the Other (whether it be divinity, fortune or the future) to concede its favors to us.  But in what way does the ritual persuade the Other to be favorable towards us?  Basically with the ritual we pay a debt.  One way of convincing the Other to grant us the grace is for us to graciously give something to the Other.  The ritual is therefore, always, also an “interested” gift, since it obliges the Other, in the same way that the sacrifice (which also included a ritual) did so in the pagan world.  Reciting the rosary, the faithful in some way offer it as a gift to the divinity, and so, without ever admitting it, to indebt him to them.


12. The superstitious capitalist


          The most important essay in the whole history of sociology is certainly The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) by Max Weber.  Even today books and essays are being written pro and con Weber’s thesis, made ever more relevant and pressing by the new religious wars of recent years.  Weber’s thesis makes such an impression--although often grossly misunderstood--because he dares to explain something as complex as capitalism on a purely psychological basis.  In other words, according to Weber, capitalism, at least at its beginnings, availed itself of a mental device which was clearly superstitious.  In effect, the Protestant creed absolutely never state that becoming rich in this life is a sign of the post mortem salvation of the faithful--and yet the Calvinist man and woman, according to Weber, behave exactly as though this were so.  They dedicate their lives to accumulating money precisely as if their worldly success were, if not a guarantee, at least a proof of their eschatological salvation.

At the root of this lies probably the almost unbearable anguish connected to the idea of predestination, theorized by Protestantism: “I will be saved not because I behave well or badly in my life--salvation cannot be ‘bought’ with good actions--but because God has decided thus, due to his own inscrutable reasons”.  God is like Fortune: a totally inscrutable instance.  But precisely because neither God nor Fortune are connected to an accountable logic based on merits and rewards, it becomes essential--for the superstitious person as for the Calvinist--to try himself to read his own destiny through oblique and indirect clues and indications, not causally connected to this destiny.  The chance meeting with a hunchback is an indication of good luck for a Neapolitan, while prosperity in his business dealings indicates to the Calvinist his probable eternal salvation--even if neither the hunchback nor the sensible management of one’s business are causally connected to what they promise.

Both superstition and the Calvinist spirit thus use extensively that which Freud called displacement, which is to say the deviation of the truly important matter onto secondary events or objects, which are irrelevant in themselves.  My economic prosperity does not officially announce the Grace that I will enjoy, but it is a sort of oblique signal of it; it is unimportant that this prosperity is not a free gift of destiny but something earned by myself thanks to a careful management of my assets: “I help myself so that God may help me”, or, in other words, I read the divine benevolence towards me through an economic profit that I have earned myself.  It is a constant factor of many types of religious mentality: I attribute to the divinity a grace that I myself have supplied for myself--which moreover helps me to concede some graces to myself (since it is easier to help yourself if you think that a God is also helping you--and so faith becomes a good bargain).

But one can also intuit the reason why the exceptionally bold thesis of Weber appears scandalous to all those sociologists and historians who wish to expel the unconscious and irrational dimensions from history: it is repugnant to think that such a serious thing as capitalism could be the effect of a essentially superstitious mental strategy.


13. Obsessional  stasis


We have seen how the obsessional ritual--like a degenerated bureaucracy--fails its ritual function as the permission of a passage.  In fact, the obsessional subject never passes.  As we have seen with Tonina the nut, her rituals marked the passage through every doorway, but the point is that the poor woman never really passed through.  She remained a spinster all her life: she never became “a real woman”.  I can imagine that someone may have wished to marry Tonina: but she would have remained frozen at the church entrance, unable to move either forward or backward.  Lanzer, Freud’s patient, continually put off the moment of getting his degree and getting married.  The obsessional  ritual is a private ritual that does not permit the passage--an evolution--but which in fact blocks the subject in the previous state.  The obsessive ritual aims towards at a change of state, which is never realized.

In many countries the bridegroom is expected to carry his new bride over the threshold of their new house.  What could a ritual of this kind “mean”?  Various anthropologists have come up with various hypotheses--including the superstitious one, according to which if the bride were to fall down while entering the house, this would be a particularly bad sign.  A more convincing hypothesis is that carrying one’s wife into the conjugal abode is a stylized representation of an abduction or a rape.  It is supposed that the woman resists entering into the new hearth, draws back from the sexual relationship, and that the man must conquer and seduce her with both force and sweetness, by taking her up in his arms as if she were a child.  Also in this case the ritual represents a resistance to marriage as a change of state, both social and sexual.

The obsessive ritual thus takes from social rituals only the semblance of non-passage, of immobility, of non-history[25].  The social ritual is a way of overcoming the mistrust and hesitancy which is felt towards every change, while the obsessive ritual is a way of not overcoming it: the obsessional subject gazes with longing at the change and the passage, but he does not realize them.

When Ernst falls into a state of neurosis following his father’s death, it is precisely because the so-called father’s change of his civil status (from living to dead) implies also his son’s passage as an orphan, he can marry without opposition.  But it is this double passage of civil status which paralyzes him--that is, the neurosis neutralizes the change.  In this way, the obsessional subject seems to invert the passage from life to death.  He is like a dead man who never passes into life.  The famous rigidity of the obsessional character--often compared to the rigor mortis--basically expresses this lack of passage to the flexibility and movement of life.




Austin, J. (1962) How to Do Things with Words, ed. by J.O. Urmson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; Oxford: Clarendon Press),


Benvenuto, B. (1994) Concerning the Rites of Psychoanalysis, or The Villa of the Mysteries (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press).


Benvenuto, S. (1993) "Hermes-Hestia: The Hearth and the Angel as a Philosophical Paradigm", Telos, 96, Summer 1993, pp. 101-118. Ital. version, "Hestia-Hermes. Filosofia e cultura tra Focolare ed Angelo", in Zanazzo (2002), pp. 115-128.


Fachinelli, E. (1979) La freccia ferma (Milan: L’Erba Voglio).


Mannoni, O. (1969) Clefs pour l’imaginaire ou l’Autre Scène (Paris : Ed. du Seuil).


Vernant, J.-P.  (1983) "HestiaHermes. The Religious Expression of Space and Movement in Ancient Greece" in Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul), pp. 127175.


Weber, M.


Wittgenstein, L.

- (1960) Philosophische Untersuchungen, Schriften (Frankfurt a.M.:).

- (1967) Bemerkungen über Frazers “The Golden Bough”, “Synthese” (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publ. Co.).


Zanazzo A. (2002), ed., Orfeo e l'Angelo. Itinerari dell'etica nella complessità (Rome: Fahrenheit 451).


[1] This essay is based on the paper presented by the Author at the international conference Thinking and saying ritual, held at the University of Urbino (July 5-17, 2002) and organized by the International Centre of Semiotics and Linguistics of Urbino, and by the faculty of Aesthetics of the University of Rome 2 - Tor Vergata.


[2] On the difference between rite and ritual, cf. Bice Benvenuto (1994).


[3] But both these opinions can contain the opposite opinion. The believer can suspect that we are dealing with a ritual, and so he always resorts to the rite in order for the event to take place, while the non-believer must admit that the rite of the Mass is itself in any case a real social event that has a role and function for the community of believers.


[4] Cf. Vernant (). Regarding the significance of the dialectic figures of Hestia and Hermes in the philosophical tradition, cf. S. Benvenuto (1993).


[5] In reality the magical act is itself an act of change, in so far as it is supposed to modify something real.


[6] If I promise to come and visit you tomorrow, it is not a description of a possible or future state-of-things: by saying “I promise to...” I am carrying out an act, which is that of promising. If I do not keep my promise I can be accused of being untrustworthy. The performative linguistic act commits the person who makes it, and exposes him to specific social consequences.


[7] Wittgenstein (1960; par. 66, p. 324).


[8] The municipality and the publicly owned companies of Palermo, Sicily, are plagued by a plethora of bureaucracy. One wonders whether this muddled situation might be a way of defending the state from the abuses of the Mafia or whether it were not the Mafia itself that had created it in order to exploit the labyrinth.


[9] S. Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis (Case study of the “Ratman”), 1909,

SE, 10, p. 222.


[10] The fact that psychoanalysis calls “objects” that which everyday language instead calls “other subjects whom I love/I hate”, tells us a lot about the original objectivistic intentions of psychoanalysis.


[11] “Obsessive actions and religious practices” (1907),  SE, 9, pp. 115-127. GW, 7, pp. 129-138.


[12] S. Freud, “Obsessive actions and religious practices”, op. cit., p. 126-7. GW, cit., p. 138.


[13] S. Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, op.cit., pp. 155-318. GW, 7, pp. 381-463.


[14] In fact his father had disapproved of his relationship with his cousin, perhaps due to its incestuous aspect. But this historical fact, as we might call it, is certainly not enough to explain why Ernst sees both these people as rivals for the hegemony of his heart. In effect no realistic reason explains this incompatibility between the two figures. It is as if the heart of the obsessional  subject were not able to share its own love between more than one person, which is why, when this happens, this heart becomes the theatre of a permanent conflict between the two figures who have become candidates for the supreme love (even when it is a case, as it is here, of a dead man and a living woman).


[15] Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, cit., p. 190. GW, p. 412.


[16]Reference to the Italian saying “tra il dire e il fare c’è di mezzo il mare” (between saying and doing there is the sea). [Translator’s note] 


[17] We believe that we are obliged, but in fact this is not always the case. Some of us are hardly obliged at all. The great nebula called “superstition” is based precisely on the fact that we do not really feel so obliged towards the truth. From this derives the typical motto of the superstitious person, “it is not true but I believe it”. There is a part of us--and it is by no means an unconscious part!--which believes what it knows to be untrue. But we could also find many much more complex and disturbing examples of the superstitious pseudo-belief. For example, up to what point do we really believe in the truth of certain political, religious or pseudo-scientific ideas which we would even be prepared to die for?


[18] Freud, Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, cit., p. 190. GW, p. 412.


[19] S. Freud, “Obsessive actions and religious practices”, op. cit., p. 121-2. GW, 7, p. 134.


[20] Freud, Psychology of the masses and analysis of the Ego (1921), SE, 18, p. 140. GW, 13, p. 158.


[21] Freud, “Obsessive actions and religious practices”, cit., pp. 121. GW, 7, p. 133.


[22] It should also be noted that in Greco-Roman sacrifices, for example, the sacrificial offerer did not hardly sacrificed himself at all: to the gods went the smoke of the cooked meat of the animals sacrificed, but the meat was eaten by the offerer... Historians today wonder whether the Ancients ate meat in order to sacrifice to the gods, or if they sacrificed to the gods simply in order to offer themselves a satisfying banquet of meat.


[23] Cf. O. Mannoni (1969).


[24] We may consider people who are particularly courageous--for example, soldiers who go cheerfully off to war--as successfully superstitious. This also applies to those who practice very dangerous professions or sports. Deep down, they think that they are in the graces of Fortune. Rationally they may know that this is not true, but in a corner of themselves they believe they are invulnerable. Courage is a socio-syntonic superstition, which is even approved of by rationalists.


[25] As regards the obsessional  symptomatology as an “attempt to stop the arrow of time”, cf. Fachinelli (1979).

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