September 11

The destruction wrought by the attacks of September 11 was routinely interpreted – ‘metabolised’ one might say – through the metaphor of ‘growing up’.

Commentators called the dreadful events a ‘wakeup call’ and, in a flurry of wishful thinking, anticipated the demolition of certain infantile beliefs which had characterised the “American Dream” – invulnerability, omnipotence, magical thinking, and the assumption of self-sufficiency. It seemed that everyone now agreed with Freud that growing up was a traumatic process and entailed negotiating something physically intimidating and dangerous.

In a recent paper, eminent psychoanalyst and veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Hanna Segal, expressed similar opinions:

“The myth of invincibility was punctured on September 11, and revealed the tremendous anxiety, fear, and maybe guilt underpinning the need for grandiosity that created the twin towers and the Pentagon building.”

Describing the attacks as “our worst nightmares come true”, she argued that the attack was “highly symbolic”.

“[T]here is another factor specific to September 11, and that is the symbolism of the twin towers and the Pentagon. ‘We are all powerful with our weapons, finance, high-tech; we can dominate you completely’, adding that “The suicide bombers sent an equally omnipotent statement.”

Not Learning from Experience: Hiroshima, the Gulf War and 11 September
Abridged in the News and Events brochure of the Institute of Psychoanalysis (London)

Speaking of the event as ‘symbolic’ may seem offensive given the horrendous loss of life. To do so is not to belittle the real suffering of real people, but rather to affirm our belief in the importance of psychic reality and the real effects it can have in the real world. Our enquiry is justified by the simple fact that the targets were chosen for their symbolic meaning.

But Hanna Segal’s interpretation of the symbols is not very enlightening from an analytic point of view. To say that the targets signified ‘power’ is to imply that ‘Power’ is an indivisible datum of analytic experience. Freud would not agree with this.

Firstly he would point out that infantile beliefs about omnipotence are connected to ideas about the body – both one’s own body and the bodies of the mother and father.

Secondly he would have said that ‘Power’, like its sister ‘Death’, must be represented in the mind in some way to take on the value of a ‘symbol’. We could have oral, anal and phallic omnipotence, for example, each with quite different psychical meanings and effects. For Freud unlike Klein, there is no elementary ‘fear of death’.

Thirdly, as Hanna Segal makes clear, feelings of omnipotence and power are indivisible from specific anxieties. Each manifestation of ‘Power’ is haunted by its shadow.

Growing up entails a series of traumatic ruptures and losses surrounding these infantile beliefs, corresponding (to put it crudely) to oral, anal and phallic sensibilities. There were not two targets on September 11, but three. What was the third intended target? Some suggested the White House, but a moments reflection from a Freudian point of view will enable us to see it was the Capitol building.

Thus we have the three symbolic meanings of September 11 which become compacted into the infantile beliefs in omnipotence and self-sufficiency: the phallic shaped Twin Towers, the sphincter-shaped Pentagon, and the breast shaped dome of the Capitol represent the valued objects which must be given up in the process of growing up, and which all of us find so hard to relinquish.

If Freud would add that the Twin Towers obviously represented the mother’s imagined phallus rather than the fathers, I would have no quarrel with him. But that’s probably best left for another day.

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