Jeffrey Archer’s Repetition Compulsion

Many have drawn attention to the compulsive nature of Jeffrey Archer’s recklessness, and the breathtaking arrogance and duplicity with which he conducted his affairs (sexual and financial). But where did the compulsive nature of his behaviour originate?

Amid all the boohaha surrounding the disgraced politician and novelist Jeffrey Archer, now imprisoned for perjury, there is one image from a television documentary which sticks in my mind. It is the image of Archer as a young man at a charity function in Oxford.

He is sitting at a desk looking at someone out of frame. He is oblivious to the camera. With his head coyly lowered and deferential, the eyes gaze longingly under the eyelids at an object of adoration and admiration. At first we do not see the object of the future peer’s gaze; then the camera pans upward to reveal the bewhiskered prime minister Harold MacMillan.

As the story progressed, the same look reappeared. Jeffrey Archer with Margaret Thatcher. She made him deputy leader of the party. Jeffrey with John Major, brimming with boyish pride and furtive excitement. He made him a Peer of the realm.

Despite the sorry tale of corruption and sleaze, all commentators have emphasised Archer’s enthusiasm and genuine wish to please, like a pet dog to which he has frequently been compared. Why then, when Jeffrey finds himself basking in the warm glow of parental favour, did he end up betraying those he most admired?

The repetition of this narrative cycle (love – betrayal – forgiveness), would perhaps indicate for Freud that some essential trauma is being enacted. It is more than simple ‘ambivalence’. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the work in which he introduces the idea of ‘repetition compulsion’, Freud observes the play of his grandson. The little boy is but eighteen months old and throwing a cotton reel that is attached to a piece of string. As the reel was thrown from the cot he uttered a long drawn out ‘o-o-o-o’, which Freud interpreted as the German word ‘fort’ [gone], and as he pulled it back he hailed its reapearance with a joyful ‘Da!’ (‘there’).

Freud states: “The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child’s great cultural achievement – the instinctual renunciation which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting”.

But why repeat an unpleasurable experience? Freud’s answer extends his observation to a general proposition. “At the outset he was in a passive situation – he was overpowered by the experience; but, by repeating it, unpleasurable as it was, as a game, he took on an active part. These efforts may be put down to an instinct for mastery that was acting independently of whether the memory was in itself pleasurable or not.”

Thus we can assume that the compulsive character of Archer’s betrayal was repeating in an active form (and transformed into a ‘game’) an overwhelming betrayal that he had once experienced himself.

Such betrayals are almost inevitable in the relation of fathers and sons, and you will not be surprised when I say that Freud relates this to the Oedipus complex. We think the father is one thing and he turns out to be something else. A phoney, a hypocrite, as the anguished adolescent screams. It seems that, in the eyes of the son, the father no longer deserves the privileges and power that he has taken for himself (see ‘Yes, we have no bananas‘).

So we do not know Archer’s particular story, but we know the form. In his repetitive behaviour he revenges himself on the father who had once dissapointed him so gravely – now it is others who feel disappointed in him – and enacts the fall from Grace that the father once suffered in his eyes.

Schools questions
Describe some other types of self destructive behaviour. Make up a theory as to what motivates them.

Make up a theory as to why Jeffrey Archer may have wanted to be punished. (see ‘Dot Cotton‘)

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