The waiting room opens onto a vestibule. The main door to the
analyst's office is to the right on the near end of this vestibule,
whose far end is created by a curtained- off doorway. Behind this
doorway is the analyst's study. From his office, the analyst is able
to enter this study directly, thanks to a second private office door
which opens into it.
Taking advantage of a free hour that day, he busies himself in
his office doing "I don't know what". When he hears someone calling
his name from the study, through the private half-opened door
separating his office from it, he encounters the big smile of one of
his patients, almost an hour early for his appointment. The smile is
met with surprise. Nevertheless, the analyst receives the analysand
who begins to recount in detail one of his recent projects. A
cartographer by profession, he has just finished plotting the
geographical features of the territory of the foreign country he is
mapping. It is a rural area bisected by mountainous terrain and
adjacent, in part, to the sea.
The countryside and the animals that live there remind him of
the story of a bet he had recently made during a visit to see one of
his friends who owns a restaurant. At lunchtime this friend invites
him to order anything he likes. Studying the menu, he selects the
most expensive entree: pheasant. The friend, who is treating him to
the meal, seems irritated by this expensive choice. The conversation
becomes a bit tense, but the analysand continues to laugh and joke
around. Before leaving the restaurant he tells his friend, "I'll bet
that before the end of today you are going to invite me back to your
restaurant and serve me pheasant again." Half annoyed, half amused,
the friend replies, "Well, I'll take that bet, because I'm sure I
won't invite you back for pheasant."
* Published in Psychoanalytic Quarterly, LXVIII,1999; The
English version of the article L'arme de fond published in
IO, Revue Internationale de Psychanalyse, Paris 1992.
Translation by Jacques Houis and Paola Mieli.
The patient then goes to a gourmet shop and buys three
pheasants. Later, he returns to his friend and offers him two of
them, keeping the third in his bag. His friend, who really
appreciates this gift, is warm and affectionate again. Just then the
analysand takes the third pheasant out of his bag and says, "This one
is my pheasant, and I would like you to cook it for me for tonight's
dinner." Indeed, the story ends with a big pheasant dinner. To his
analyst, (who, as he tells me, listens to him somewhat helplessly),
he triumphantly points out that he won his bet.
If you bet, it is precisely because you know you can win, but
the other side of this possible gain, of course, is possible loss.
Risk itself is at stake here. What do we make, then, of a bet from
which loss has been excluded?
This pheasant story is a hunting story; it concludes with a
dinner which, to me, immediately evokes the image of a sacrificial or
totemic banquet. The analyst responds to my remark by telling me
that, indeed, it was as the result of a hunting accident in a foreign
country that his patient had lost his son. This was the third death
which had deeply marked his life, the first being his father's death
when he was only a child, and the second being his paternal uncle's
when he was an adolescent. For him, the only son of a family whose
name he carries, the dead embody the destiny of the descendence.
I remark to the analyst that there are four pheasants involved,
three plus the one that caused the bet. Indeed, it was because
of unwarranted depression and sudden anxieties that the patient had
decided to contact this analyst, having told him from the outset,
with a sense of relief, that, anyhow, he knew he didn't have long to
live: although perfectly healthy, he would die on such-and-such a
date, in such-and-such a year, in the relatively near future.
If the bet is a wager with death, a sure way of winning is to
know exactly when to expect it. Along with chance, such knowledge
eliminates the unknown and cancels risk. Albeit not the fact that one
In the pheasant bet, victory entails paying a price,
specifically the cost of the three pheasants. The analyst responds to
this comment with a sudden association. Suddenly he remembers another
of the patient's bets. As a child, during one of his father's
illnesses, he was playing with a friend when his mother took him
aside to tell him that his father had just died. After a long
silence, he had gone back to his game, to bet with his friend who was
ignorant of what had just happened, that his father had just died.
What had they wagered? Nothing, answers the analyst, but he had
To place a bet whose outcome is known is swindling. However, we
can wonder who, in our example, is the dupe. While knowledge is the
precondition for swindling, it must be noted that the knowledge
involved in our example strikes the subject in the form of a sudden
fatality, of an external event to which the subject must submit.
Are betting to another's detriment, and swindling him out of
the "nothing" achieved through a symbolic victory, one and the same?
It is worth noting that whereas in the first case, the other is
reduced, through his exploitation, to the status of the objects
stolen from him, in the second the challenge bolsters a symbolic gain
whose stakes are pure prestige. However, in the three wagers just
mentioned, the one with the playmate, the one with the friend from
the restaurant, and the one with death itself, the acquisition of
prestige on the winner's part sanctions his own loss, and victory
takes its toll. If the price to pay is indeed death - the father's,
the son's, the family name's, his own - the bet in question seems
like a ruse seeking to compensate the subject with a certain symbolic
mastery when confronted with the eruption of the real. By means of
his victories the subject reestablishes the coordinates of his field
of action; he redefines the limits of his hold on reality. The
victory does not counterbalance the loss, however. Rather it
returns the subject's loss to him, repeated and confirmed,
thanks to a change of level which, by making the person master of the
game he is subject to, transforms the inescapable, incorporating it
in the form of a law.
What is then, in these "innocent" bets, the function of the
other, of the one who duped, through his challenge, loses only some
nothing? If a bet is made in bad faith, if it is a perverse
undertaking, the other, exploited, manipulated and eventually ruined
by the swindle, is recast in the role of waste product. To the
contrary, in the case of the innocent bet/trick, the other from whom
some nothing is stolen is there to represent or embody the position
of the Loser. He is there, basically, so that, thanks to the
ruse of a bet whose outcome is known in advance, the role of dupe can
be transferred onto him. A hostage in the hands of the victor, he
becomes a metaphor of the former's destiny. He thereby frees the
author of the ruse, by shouldering his truth. His function, unlike
that of the waste product object for the pervert, is reminiscent of
the function of the third party in wit as illustrated by Freud. This
third party is "indispensable" if the witticism is to occur (Freud,
1905a, p.155). He functions as the medium through which the author of
the witticism can discharge "by ricochet" ("on the rebound", 1905a,
p.156) the pleasure accumulated in the very technique of the word
work, the pleasure taken in play (Spiellust) or in lifting
inhibitions (Aufhebunglust), which derives from the economy of
a psychic effort heretofore expended by reason, critical judgment,
This bet/innocent trick resembles a Scherz. Freud
considers Scherz to be an intermediate category between play
and jokes (1908, p.144) (1). Its characteristic, he stresses, is that
it is not yet wholly suited and effective in its content, which is
evidence that its substance derives from the gratuitous and pointless
quality of play.
(1) Strachey translates the word Scherz as jest (Freud, 1905a, p.129).
We choose to keep the German, for the noun jest does not convey
the meanings of the original. Scherz (from the Longobard skerzon)
is a commonly used German word which encompasses various meanings: puns,
spoonerisms, practical jokes, dirty tricks, etc., which have in common a playful,
non-sensical quality. As Freud points out, unlike witticisms they are not
"intellectually successful", and do not necessarily provoke laughter. Freud's
examples of Scherz in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
are puns. Yet we prefer not to translate Scherz as pun because
what characterizes the notion of Scherz is precisely the fact that it can
be both a practical and a linguistic joke. It is also worth noting, once again, that
Strachey's translation of jokes for Witz is inappropriate. In this case
there exist better English terms, witticism and wit.
The fact that the bet of the father's death, inscribed as it is in
a childish game, resembles a Scherz made in bad taste, does
not detract from its
enigmatic nature, from that aspect of surprise which also
characterizes the Scherz involving the pheasants. Indeed, this
incomprehensible quality, this absurdity which leaves us amazed,
points to how, here, something "tightens", to use Lacan's expression
(1975), in the sphere of the symbolic, entailing the abolition of
meaning. This contraction, this "no-sense" is precisely what turns
the Scherz into a kind of interpretation.
The third party of the witticism benefits from his position as
essential medium. To use Freud's expression, he "buys" his pleasure
without spending. He receives it "as a present" (Freud, 1905a,
p.148). In the bet/innocent trick, on the contrary, the gift the
other finds himself holding is an absence of harm, the advantage of
having engaged in a confrontation strictly limited to prestige, where
he lost without having to pay a price. Having embodied the being of
the loser, his profit amounts to the subtraction of a supposed real
loss, which produces the relief required by the Scherz. This
pheasant banquet is a relaxed banquet where reestablished friendship
is celebrated in laughter. Because he can symbolically confirm his
loser's dignity without having anything real to lose, the other in
the innocent bet, although aware of being tricked, is nevertheless
able to maintain his narcissistic integrity in the face of attack.
Although this type of harmless Scherz is less likely to
provoke laughter than surprise, its author derives from it a
satisfaction which verges on irony. This half laugh or internal smile
of victory is a response, through a ruse, to the discovery of the
inescapable. Faced with the inconceivable quality of the event, his
father's death, or his son's, faced with the groundswell which
suddenly undermines him, he finds a way to stem the tidal wave of the
real, and regain his footing on firm ground, so to speak. Like a good
magician, he transforms tears into smiles; he turns a sudden,
unbearable knowledge, something impossible to contemplate, into the
very wellspring of his accomplishment as a bettor.
This art of symbolic appropriation, this technique of the good
magician, brings to mind little Hans' laughter when he sees his
sister's genitals, a laugh which spares the speaking being, as Claude
Rabant has noted, "from choking with emotion" (1990, p.116). In this
sudden abeyance, in this contraction of thought, the laugh signals
the actual "crash" of knowledge in the face of the inconceivable - in
this case inconceivable sexual difference. Laughter is tantamount to
a "naturally false" response - "ist naturlich ein falsche", as
Freud puts it (1905b, p.257) - but which, nevertheless, shows, for
the first time in Hans' life, "the recognition of sexual difference".
Hans, proponent of infantile sexual theories, theoretician of
the difference between the animate and the inanimate, Hans,
philosopher of compromise at the time of his sister's birth ("her
widdler will get bigger", he asserts) ends up laughing. This
laughter, this emptying of meaning, punctuates the appearance of the
antinomy, of the gap separating experience and theory. This
laughter sanctions the momentary surrender of theory, the oscillation
of the myth, of the boundary needed by the subject to protect himself
in the face of the unthinkable. If, as Freud claims, laughter signals
a recognition, it is because it reveals, in the antinomy, the
affirmation of the law - the assumption, as it were, of sexual
difference, of the prohibition against incest. The subject needs this
law, which sanctions loss, to grant status to his desire, since, as
Lacan points out, one can only desire according to the law (Lacan,
Laughter concludes a chapter in Hans' story. The following
chapter introduces phobia. A construct, a barricade now becomes
needed to reestablish the boundary threatened by the antinomy, by the
appearance of a gap. A barrier is drawn to separate, according to the
assumption of the law, the subject from the object of desire, to make
the phobic object that signifier which compensates for the "lack in
the Other" (Lacan, 1966, p.610). But if laughter, in Hans' story,
punctuates the transition to phobia, it is because, in a certain
sense, it trumpets the arrival of phobia: it already contains phobia.
As a bulwark in the event of the real, as a technique of tightening
the symbolic, this laughter demonstrates its congruence with the
strategy of phobia.
Faced with the unthinkable, laughter or the innocent bet is
triggered in order to wrest from anxiety what Lacan calls its
"horrible certainty" (1962). It is so that there may be a transfer
of certainty that thought and action invent their ruses within a
field riven by the emergence of anxiety. Through trickery the
harmless bet restores the subject's knowledge in the form of a
confirmation which displaces the unbearable quality of certainty.
This confirmation, moreover, is the re-establishment of a
theory, of the very theory of the bet; it is the
re-establishment of a replay, of a boundary which acts as an obstacle
against the real. In the ultimate bet, the one with death, theory
creates a boundary in time and space - on such-and-such a day, in
such-and-such a year. Theory becomes the very boundary of life. It is
thus that the laugh, the secret smile of symbolic appropriation
demonstrates, along with the recognition of the law, the very
possibility of its repression.
One can therefore see how, in the innocent bet, this knowledge
which avoids chance and sustains the myth of a knowledge that fully
knows itself, by recasting the limits of the possible, designs a
strategy analogous to phobia's. Whereas the pervert would accept
along with the bet, honest or not, chance and the risk of losing,
convinced as he is of winning in any event, the phobic finds
himself forced to trick - his reply is naturally false, Freud
says. He finds himself forced to maintain the falseness of
theory in order to border the real, to circumscribe with his thought
the scope of reality and establish an ethic through his fear.
To return to our initial example: the analyst is doing "I don't
know what" when he is surprised by his patient's arrival one hour in
advance of his appointment, surprised by the smile that greets him
through the back door of his office. The big smile which stifles a
laugh punctuates the Scherz, the ruse with which he "catches"
the analyst by overturning the rules of the game in which he is
engaged, those groundrules which require that he respect the ritual
of analysis. This time it is the analyst who embodies the loser, a
position he confirms moreover by neglecting to make his patient pay
for the following session, the appointed one, canceled by this
A loss, then, takes place, makes place. The smile punctuates
the presence of a threshold inside the analytical space, the wall,
the door which separates the office from the study. Once again, the
ruse signals the weight of knowledge, this time of the cartographer's
knowledge as he ventures into the other's territory. In fact nothing
prevented him, no sign forbade this exploration, other than the
ritual of the analyst's route and that implicit convention which
makes us respect the privacy of others. But, after he had stepped
through the curtained door and entered the study - that domain of the
Other's knowledge - after he had discovered the topographical
features of the place, the weight of a transgression crystallizes
within the bared frame. It is then that the dividing line between the
office and the study reveals the consistency of a barrier cutting
across the space of analysis. While the ruse restores to the subject
the fruit of his transgression in the form of an innocent
Scherz, it nonetheless marks the emergence of an obstacle
bearing witness to prohibition itself. By giving a symbolic status to
this imaginary threshold which borders the real, the joking smile
sanctions the event of a loss. It is evident that the appearance of
this boundary actualizes within analytical space the restoration of
the "site of phobia" (Finzi Ghizi, 1981, p.26), of that barrier which
separates the subject from the object of his desire. This is a line
of defense, I might add, with which the subject does not respond to
anxiety, but with anxiety, to the event of the real.
I shall conclude with an anecdote about a phobic five year-old
girl. During one of her visits to the analyst, she invents the
following game: she is fond of red and golden glass beads. She asks
the analyst to close his eyes while she hides them. He will later
have to look for them. She places the beads under the analyst's
chair, but when he opens his eyes she tells him, "Look under the sofa
cushions, I hid the beads there." She runs to the sofa, lifts the
cushions and shows him this "absence", as she laughs. That is when
she adds, "Don't look under your chair, because there's something
very, very dangerous under there."
Everything is known in this game where the analyst is the dupe
of the little girl who cannot help but be insincere, in this game,
which, in turn, is the very metaphor of the certainty it tries to
grasp, to displace. Not only does the wished for object become the
one that is fraught with danger; it is also manifested in proximity
to the analyst's body. Thus is the frame bared to show the symptom's
design. By staging the law of desire, the game shifts desire's weight
onto the analyst, and laughter signals, along with the confirmation
of this law, the very possibility of its being forgotten.
@ 1997 Paola Mieli
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(1905b) Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten,
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(1962) l'Angoisse. Book X - unpublished.
(1966) Ecrits, Paris. Editions du Seuil.
(1975) "Le Troisieme", Lettre de l'EFP no.16
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