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Synopsis of Jacques Nassif, ‘Le Fantasme dans “On bat un enfant”’

[‘Fantasy in “A Child is being Beaten”’]

CpA 7.4:73–90

This text was published in volume 7 of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, alongside Jean Reboul’s ‘Sarrasine, ou la castration personifiée’ (CpA 7.5), under the rubric ‘Sur le fantasme’ [‘On fantasy’]. It is a reading of Freud’s 1919 article ‘A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions’ (SE 17: 174-204). Jacques Nassif was a member of the editorial board of the Cahiers, and also the author of ‘Freud et la science’ (CpA 10.9).

The manifest content of Freud’s ‘A Child is Being Beaten’, as its subtitle indicates, concerns the perversions. But its ‘latent’ content, Nassif claims, is the problem of the fantasy [fantasme]. He begins by noting that the concept of fantasy remains ambiguous in the recent literature on psychoanalysis. In Laplanche and Pontalis’s 1964 article ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origines, origine du fantasme’ (cf. also Leclaire’s presentation on ‘Fantasy and Theory’ in CpA 1.5:59-65), the origins of fantasy are related to the history of the body of the individual, and to the process of signification that is overcoded on the body’s excitatory zones. But this conception opens itself to a ‘misunderstanding’ (CpA 7.4:74): the body of the child is not yet ‘detailed’ [détaillé], and the bodily zones where the beating takes place are in principle interchangeable (in beating fantasies, it may equally be the buttocks or the genitals that are beaten). In fact, what is really going on in beating fantasies is ‘the metaphorical presentation of a fundamental fantasy’ (74). Nassif refers back to Laplanche and Pontalis’s identification of ‘three original fantasies’: ‘fantasies of origins: the primal scene pictures the origin of the individual; fantasies of seduction, the origin and upsurge of sexuality; fantasies of castration, the origin of the difference between the sexes.’1 He states that in beating fantasies the fundamental fantasy concerns castration, and thus ‘expresses the origin of sexual difference’ (74).

In the first section, Nassif notes how Freud attributes beating fantasies not just in perverts but also in hysterics and obsessional neurotics. In the case of the ‘Wolf Man’ (published in 1918), Freud is largely concerned with the question of the reality (or lack of reality) of the traumatic scene. In the 1919 paper, however, ‘it is the fantasy that is the only reality, or rather, it seems that fantasy has its own special kind of reality, different from both the Real and the Imaginary’ (75).

Freud’s paper attempts to explain the progressive construction of beating fantasies in individuals. He begins with a small set of manifest fantasies on the theme ‘a child is being beaten’ (Fr: on bat un enfant; Ger: ein Kind wird geschlagen), showing how the final state of the fantasy takes shape after having traversed various stages in which the action is performed and undergone by different subjects and objects. Nassif says that the most ‘original discovery’ in this particular text is the idea that ‘the fantasy itself has a history which allows for the explanation of certain essential permutations at the heart of its structure’ (76). Freud reconstructs the three phases of the beating fantasy, showing how one is transformed into the other (SE 17: 185-86; CpA 7.4:77). In Phase A, the child derives pleasure from witnessing a beating of a rival. The child being beaten ‘is invariably another child, most often a brother or a sister if there is any’; the one doing the beating is the father (SE 17: 185). It is only in Phase B (which Freud admits is a ‘construction of analysis’ deduced from the other two phases) that the child producing the fantasy becomes the one being beaten in the phantasy. According to Freud, at this point the child represses their incestuous love for their father by turning the beating fantasy of phase A around on themselves. In phase C (the fantasy as it presents itself in adults), the child receiving a beating has reverted to being another child (as in phase A), while the person doing the beating has become a general authority figure. In response to Freud’s questioning about their own place and role in the fantasy, his patients report ‘I am probably looking on’. Thus in the final phase, the subject becomes a ‘spectator’ (SE 17: 190) of a fantasy in which they had earlier been in the position of passive subject. In the final phase, sadistic pleasure has been turned into masochistic pleasure.

Nassif notes the roots of the beating fantasy in the paranoiac dialectic of the imaginary relation to the father, citing Freud’s remark that ‘people who harbour fantasies of this kind develop a special sensitiveness and irritability towards anyone whom they can include in the class of fathers’ (SE 17: 195). But his main concern will be with the structure of the fantasy and its relation with signification. He is first of all interested in Freud’s argument for a ‘signifying connection’ between beating and hating/loving (SE 17: 185; CpA 7.4:77). The child ‘soon learns that being beaten, even if it does not hurt very much, signifies a deprivation of love and a humiliation’ (SE 17: 185). Nassif notes the constancy of the word ‘battre’ [to beat], across all manifestations of this kind of fantasy. He takes up Leclaire’s suggestion in ‘Les Éléments en jeu dans un psychanalyse’ that at the heart of every fantasy, there is a ‘verb’, which ‘signifies a pleasurable or unpleasurable movement of the body’ (CpA 7.4:78; cf. CpA 5.1:17).2He suggests the possibility of a link along these lines between the verb ‘battre’ [to beat] and ‘baiser’ [to kiss/have sex with] (CpA 7.4:78).

Nassif pursues the role of ‘verbalisation’ in the fantasy further in the third section of the article. The verbalisation of the fantasy does not necessarily imply secondary revision on the part of the ego (78): there is a primary verbalisation in the fantasy. Throughout the 1919 article, Freud presents the beating fantasy as a ‘phrase’, with ‘wording’ that can be altered to produce different effects. The presentation of active and passive verbs and the interchange of the subject positions in the three phases of the beating fantasy appear to have their own syntax (79). The passage from phase A to phase B, for instance, occurs through a shift from the active to the passive side of the verb. Nassif remarks that this material presents an interesting insight into the ‘function of the passive in language’, but he resists inferring conclusions about any ‘general grammar of the fantasy’:

Above all nothing allows us to say that there is any relation to be established between the subject, or rather the author of the fantasy, and the grammatical subject of its verbalisation (still the child as passive subject) (between the subject of enunciation and subject of the statement), because when these permutations are brought to light, they do not involve any metonymic transformation through ‘contiguity’, nor a metaphoric transformation through ‘similarity’ (80).

The term ‘permutation’ should not be used abstractly to cover over the differences between the linguistic and psychoanalytic levels of analysis.

In his fourth section, Nassif suggests that the most fruitful avenue opened up by Freud’s essay is the thought of ‘an archaeology of the fantasy’ (80). For the rest of the essay, Nassif proceeds to develop this idea, using a paragraph by Freud as his point of departure:

A systematic application of [analysis] shows that beating fantasies have a historical development which is by no means simple, and in the course of which they are changed in most respects more than once - as regards their relation to the subject of the fantasy, as regards their object, their content and their significance (SE 17: 184).

Nassif suggests that by ‘content’, Freud means ‘the clinical manifestation of which the fantasy is just a symptom’; when Freud talks about the ‘object’, he is interested in particular in the gender of the subject being beaten; by ‘signification’, Freud targets the connection established by the subject between beating on the one hand and hating or loving on the other. By using these three ‘translations’ of Freud’s meaning, Nassif hopes to ‘sketch out the network in which the term “archaeology” finds its place and function’ (CpA 7.4:81).

1. The ‘content’ of the fantasy takes us to the ‘threshold’ of archaeology in the psychoanalytic sense. Freud argues that beating fantasies are ‘precipitates of the Oedipus complex, scars, so to say, left behind after the process has ended, just as the notorious “sense of inferiority” corresponds to a narcissistic scar of the same sort’ (SE 17: 193). Nassif dwells on this characterisation of the ‘scar’ [cicatrice] that results from the Oedipus complex, which he suggests can be analysed down into the ‘scar of castration’: ‘Under the scars of Oedipus, there will be the scar of castration’ (81).

2. With regard to the ‘object’ of the fantasy, the analyst moves from a ‘doxology’ of the patient’s opinions to an ‘archaeology’ of their fantasies (82). The author of the fantasy has opinions which allow the analyst to reconstruct the outlines of the fantasy and to reconstitute the ‘breaks [coupures] in a succession of phases’. Here keeping track of the sexual difference of the subject of the fantasy becomes vital for the restoration of the order of constitution. The incestuous attachment to the father and its repression will occur differently depending on the sex of the subject. In the case of the girl, it follows a ‘normal Oedipal attitude’, but in the boy the situation is more complex, as it involves the repression of a homosexual object-choice. The analyst must reconstruct how ‘the characters of the drama change sex’ over the course of the development of the fantasy (83). For instance, between phases B and C, a male child may end up fantasising that the mother is the beating figure, while, in the case of girls’ fantasies, it is boys who end up being beaten. These transformations are ‘breaks [coupures]’, that allow for the distinction of different phases, and the isolation of different levels in the formation of the subject. Once this possibility is allowed for, ‘we pass to the level of archaeology’ properly speaking: ‘The fantasy therefore has an archaeological, and not just historical, destiny [destin] - since we have to do with a temporal-atemporal mixture [un mixte temporal-intemporel] in which the relation to the origin is not at all thought by means of cause and effect, but in terms of resemblance and difference’ (84).3

3. With regard to the ‘signification’ involved in the fantasy, Nassif returns to Freud’s account of the establishment of a link of signification between beating and hating. The archaeological model of the fantasy allows for a reconstruction of the emergence of the subject in relation to signification. The fantasy emerges in the signifying order on the basis of the exclusion of the subject (85), with the formation of the subject coming about through a complex process of regression and repression. Initially, the break from Phase A into Phase B involves a ‘regression’, insofar as ‘the subject has regressed in the unconscious from a genital position to an anal-sadistic position’ (86). The subject is only present in the fantasy itself in this regressive form in Phase B. But whereas the coupure that marks the shift from A to B is a regression, the coupure between B and C is a repression. The neurotic subject of Phase C emerges as a result of repressed ‘guilt’ about the incestuous fantasy of Phase B.

For Freud, the significance of the fully developed masochistic fantasy can be explained in energetic terms: ‘it has taken over the libidinal cathexis of the repressed portion and at the same time the sense of guilt which is attached to the content of that portion’ (SE 17: 190). But Nassif counters that one could just as well say that an ‘archaeological schema’ is involved, in which the ‘diachronic processes’ of regression and the ‘synchronic processes’ of repression combine to produce particular dispositions. ‘The force at work through the breaks is desire, but the breaks have a place dependent on the points designated by the structure of the base and the combinatory of the terms’ (87).

In spite of the ‘obligatory absence’ of the subject from the fantasy, it manages to enter into the substitute figures and characters in the drama of the fantasy, unfolding its relations with the network of signification in the process. In Phase B of the fantasy, the subject, absent from phase A and C, ‘is introduced into the signifying chain’. The ‘rhythm of apparition’ of the subject then proceeds to follow a ‘binary periodicity’. Its appearance in B and disappearance in C corresponds to its emergence as a subject to which responsibility can be attributed. Thus, analysing the beating fantasy, Nassif arrives at an account of ‘the place assigned to the subject in the signifying order’ (88). He suggests that the model can also help to explain the process of the overdetermination of symptoms, which can be thought as a ‘co-presence in the same archaeological disposition’ of superseded phases (86). Fantasy thus becomes the privileged site where the unconscious, structured like a language, ‘communicates with the signifying order that is language properly speaking’ (88). It is also possible to postulate a Phase D, which might act play the therapeutic role of a ‘retrospective repetition’ [repetition après coup].

The final section of the paper takes up the relation between fantasy and repression. So far it appears that the first moment of regression (from A to B) has precedence over repression. However, there is a ‘hidden postulate’. We know from Freud’s 1914 paper ‘Repression’ that he postulates a ‘primary repression’, antecedent to ‘repression properly speaking’, which thus becomes a ‘secondary’ repression (SE 14: 148). Nassif suggests that many indications in Freud’s text point to ‘primary repression of the fantasy’ as ‘the generator of Phase A, and, being anterior to regression, the final motor’:

Originary or primary repression [refoulement originaire], as the bar of the subject constitutive of every archaeology, is the condition of this second difference between a diachronic process that alters things in the atemporal [intemporel] unconscious itself, and the synchronic process, which guarantees difference and repetition, and is repression properly speaking (89).

If there is a ‘scar of Oedipus’, it comes about as a result of repression.

In the final pages of ‘A Child is being Beaten’, Freud rejects Alfred Adler’s and Wilhelm Fliess’s views about repression, which involve a ‘sexualisation of the process of repression’ (SE 17: 201). On Fliess’s ‘bisexualist’ theory, the unconscious is gendered as the opposite of the subject’s actual sex. But this does not explain how the fantasy of phase A is ‘completely feminine’ in the case of girls (to be loved by the father). For Adler, the beating fantasy is basically ‘feminine’, and is rejected through a ‘masculine protest’. The irony of Adler’s version is that only the female fantasist succeeds in the masculine protest, because even if the boy turns the punisher into his mother, the fantasy remains ‘feminine’. Moreover, it cannot account for the repression of the ‘sadistic’ drives. ‘If the masculine protest is to be taken as having satisfactorily explained the repression of passive fantasies (which later become masochistic), then it becomes for that very reason totally inapplicable to the opposite case of active fantasies. This is to say the doctrine of the masculine protest is altogether incompatible with the fact of repression’ (SE 17: 203).

For psychoanalysis, Nassif says, the body is ‘that entity that supports and develops the temporalisation of the subject, insofar as it is implied by repression’ (90). As Freud puts it quite clearly at the end of the essay on beating fantasies:

The theory of psychoanalysis (a theory based on observation) holds firmly to the view that the motive forces of repression must not be sexualised. Man’s archaic heritage forms the nucleus of the unconscious mind; and whatever part of that heritage has to be left behind in the advance to later phases of development, because it is unserviceable or incompatible with what is new and harmful to it, falls a victim to the process of repression (SE 17: 204).

Putting a critical spin on Laplanche and Pontalis’s speculations in their 1964 essay on ‘primal fantasy’ (where they connect Freud’s ideas about the ‘archaic’ nature of certain fantasies to ‘the major enigmas that confront the child’4), Nassif asks whether one can infer that the body itself, in its status as ‘prematurely born’5 constitutes this very ‘archaic heritage’; it would therefore be ‘the fantasy of all fantasies’. The problem, he concludes, is in determining whether ‘this archaeology [...] interprets a domain or provides a model’ (90). Solving this problem would also clarify whether the postulated Phase D could be thought on new terms and given a ‘different verbalisation’.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:


English translation:


Primary bibliography:

  • Freud, Sigmund. ‘A Child is Being Beaten’. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974, vol. 17. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘The History of an Infantile Neurosis’ (‘The Wolf Man’) [1918], SE 17.
  • ---. ‘Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction between the Sexes’ [1925], SE 19.
  • Lacan, Jacques . ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’. Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origines, origine du fantasme’. Les Temps modernes 215 (April 1964). ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 49:1 (1968). Reprinted in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald & Cara Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986.
  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure, 1965-1966’, I. CpA 1.5.
  • ---. ‘Les Éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse (à propos de "L’homme aux loups")’ CpA 5.1.

Selected secondary literature:

  • Irigaray, Luce. ‘Du fantasme au verbe’. L’Arc 34 (premier trimestre, 1968). ‘On Phantasm and the Verb’. In Irigaray, To Speak is Never Neutral, trans. Gail Schwab. London: Athlone/Continuum, 2002.


1. Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’, 19.

2. Luce Irigaray will develop this idea in her 1968 paper ‘Du fantasme au verbe’

3. In a footnote, Nassif cites Freud’s remark in ‘Drives and their Vicissitudes’ that the formation of the drives can be divided into a ‘series of successive waves, each of which is homogeneous during whatever period of time it may last, and whose relation to one another is comparable to that of successive eruptions of lava’ (SE 14:131), noting that Freud’s geological imagery here is quite different to the archaeological model of ‘sedimentation of levels’ (84). Finding the right model to articulate the transformations of sex occurring across the three phases is important for the reconstruction of individual fantasies and, according to Nassif, could also help to provide a means to distinguish between neurotic from perverse fantasy (the latter being where Phase B is not repressed and remains conscious).

4. Laplanche and Pontalis, ‘Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality’, 17-19.

5. An allusion to Lacan’s article on the ‘Mirror Stage’, 96.