Iain Duncan Smith

Political commentators in the UK have drawn attention to a strange affliction which has befallen Iain Duncan Smith, the new leader of the once invincible Conservative Party.

Each time he rises to speak during the combative weekly ritual of ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’, he is obliged to clear his throat with an embarrassing nervous cough. Deeply concerned by the potential ridicule of such an eminent figure, the BBC radio programme Broadcasting House asked its listeners to supply both reasons and remedies for the behaviour, and, in a spirit of public service, many responded.

Freud would have been disappointed at the answers. All of them focused on the physical aspects of the condition and ignored the psychological. Even if Freud had not invented psychoanalysis he would have gone further than that.

Darwin’s book On the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals occupies a prominent position in Freud’s library (as do most of Darwin’s works). There is a special section in the book about the difference between ‘coughing’ and ‘clearing the throat’, in which Darwin points out that the semi-voluntary clearing of the throat attaches itself to the reflex of coughing in order to become a vehicle of communication. So from the standpoint of the man who invented modern biology, Iain Duncan Smith’s cough would be trying to communicate something.

From the standpoint of psychoanalysis there are further possiblities. IDS would be pleased to learn that “Nervous coughing is seldom the primary indication for a psychoanalysis” (Otto Fenichel, 1954, Collected Papers, p237), but he might baulk at some of the symbolic meanings that psychoanalysts have discovered.

Freud famously showed that his patient Dora’s cough represented an unconscious phantasy of fellatio. Using one of his favourite rhetorical manoeuvres he was quick to point out that such a ‘revolting’ thought (which is nonetheless a common part of adult sex life), has its origin in one of the most sublime images we can imagine – a baby contentedly sucking at its mother’s breast.

Fenichel takes a more direct and functionalist perspective. Coughing may be the way to relieve an inner pressure. “The persons with repressions are in an unconscious conflict between a tendency to discharge the inner tension and a repressing force which tends to stop this discharge.” (p238)

We might imagine from this that the ‘nervousness’ of the cough arises from the fact that the person wants to attack his adversary and at the same time is scared to do so. The resulting conflict is expressed and enacted in the cough. Clearing the throat may thus be the precursor to the act of spitting – both to to expel something noxious from the body and to attack the enemy.

There may be other meanings. I remember once watching some teenagers play football in a local playground. The best player scored a number of goals, and each time he would spit ostentatiously on the ground. Perhaps the act of scoring had left him, in relation to his team mates, strangely vulnerable. The spitting may preempt the expected aggression and also symbolise the worthlessness of his achievement, thus rendering it unenviable. There are many other possibilities.

Spitting may take on a crudely sexual significance for young men. It is sometimes hard for a sexually mature adult to remember that once upon a time he was not capable of sexual ejaculation, and that his first ejaculation was a profound emotional experience. One hardly needs to be Freud to think that adolescent spitting may be a symbolic transfer from the lower half of the body to the upper, even if one recoils from the idea that this takes place within an Oedipal context and motivated by unconscious fantasy.

In his audacious (not to say outlandish) paper on ‘The Madonna’s Conception through the Ear’ Ernest Jones makes a similar point. The mouth is most frequently seen as a female (receptive) organ, he states. “It’s capacity, however, to emit fluids (saliva and breath), and the circumstance of its containing the tongue… render it also suitable for portraying a male aperture; the idea of spitting, in particular, is one of the commonest symbolisms in folk-lore for the male act (hence, for the instance, the expression “the very spit of his father”)”.

So the impulse to spit, which is both expressed and held in check by the nervous cough, may symbolise ejaculation.

Why Iain Duncan Smith should symbolically and prematurely have the urge to ejaculate when faced with a powerful rival, I have no idea.

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