Character is a psychological, philosophical, and a literary concept. A distinction needs to be drawn between this concept and the metapsychological aspects of character and its relation to symptoms and neurosis.
There are two main ways of defining it, which are interconnected. Concepts of character are designated on the one hand by the metapsychological aspects that are intrinsically connected with developments in theory and, on the other hand, by the distinction between normality and pathology and, specifically, the convergence between character and the major concepts of neurosis, psychosis, and borderline conditions.
The concept of character appeared as early as 1900 in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), in connection with the importance of mnemic traces. The role of fixations emerged more clearly in 1905 in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), emphasizing the role of sublimation in character formation; Freud wrote: "A sub-species of sublimation is to be found in suppression bb reaction-formation" (p. 238). He then described various character types associated with the partial drives in "Character and Anal Erotism" (1908b) and "Some Character-types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work" (1916d). It was in 1913, in "The Disposition to Obsessional Neurosis: A Contribution to the Problem of Choice of Neurosis" that he most sharply differentiated symptom and character: "the failure of repression and the return of the repressed—which are peculiar to the mechanism of neurosis—are absent in the formation of character. In the latter, repression either does not come into action or smoothly achieves its aim of replacing the repressed by reaction-formations and sublimations" (1913i, p. 323).
In 1923, with the introduction of the structural theory, character is located in the ego and the importance of identifications is emphasized: "an object which was lost has been set up again inside the ego—that is, an object-cathexis has been replaced by an identification....We have come to understand that this kind of substitution has a great share in determining the form taken by the ego and that it makes an essential contribution towards building up what is called its 'character'" (1923b, p. 28). Character thus comprises the history of object-choices that have since been abandoned. However, the earliness of these identifications should not allow us to forget that the earliest identifications with the parents are those that influence the constitution of the superego rather than the ego (Lecture 32, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, 1933a). Here the function of character traits as resistance is frequently emphasized: "we may now add as contributions to the construction of character which are never absent the reaction-formations which the ego acquires—to begin with in making its repressions and later, by a more normal method, when it rejects unwished-for instinctual impulses" (p. 91).
Freud saw a degree of overlap between character and symptom in spite of their differences and maintained that it was the failure of the defensive function of character that led to repression and neurosis; in "Analysis terminable and interminable," he demonstrated that: "the defensive mechanisms, by bringing about an ever more extensive alienation from the external world and a permanent weakening of the ego, pave the way for, and encourage, the outbreak of neurosis" (1937c, p. 238).
The "libidinal types" (1931a) have been considered a development of character theory. However, these are in fact an attempt by Freud to attribute a key role to the agencies of the structural theory (id, ego, and superego) in a psychoanalytic nosography.
The study of character has been continued by various authors but it has been overtaken by the subject of character resistance and the associated problems of technique. Karl Abraham emphasized the importance of fixations, although he cautioned against the notion of a fixed nature as something that is disproved by modifications in character ("A Short Study of the Development of the Libido," 1924/1927). He set out to establish a semiology of psychic material and emphasized the earliness of object relations involved in symptom-formations and character-formation. Wilhelm Reich is known mainly for the modifications in technique that he advocated with patients who presented him with "character armor." This means avoiding interpreting drive impulses before having interpreted and overcome this resistance, layer by layer. In their demonstration that a large number of muscular reactions are designed to prevent the breakthrough of emotions, excitations, or anxiety, these descriptions are reminiscent of Pierre Marty's discussions of rachialgia (1963).
In The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1945), Otto Fenichel also demonstrated the need to resolve the conflicts between the drives and defenses. Raymond de Saussure considered character as a developmental stage in which the subject has become stuck and not as a type that is established for a lifetime.
Jean Bergeret (1976) described character and structure by distinguishing three levels of character: Character, as an emanation from the deep structure in relational life, traces the progress or failure of the structural development; character traits, elements of the fundamental character, are often associated with elements of other forms of character, compensating for deficiencies in fundamental character through adaptive requirements, and can thus appear in a different structure from the one from which they derive. Character pathology, on the other hand, corresponds to the "borderline" economy and its decompensation leads to a deformation of the ego, with the onset of more or less severe forms of splitting.
Otto Kernberg's work on character forms part of his studies of borderline functioning. In "A psychoanalytic classification of character pathology" (1970), he proposed a classification of character pathologies with three levels of severity, corresponding to the level of development of the drives, the superego or the ego, or the more or less pathological nature of the character traits. The three levels of severity that he distinguishes are reminiscent of the levels of mentalization in Pierre Marty's theory of character neurosis.
The issues raised by character traits continue to be of interest to the French psychosomaticians among others. In "Névrose de caractère et mentalisation" (Character neurosis and mentalization) for example, Michel Fain (1997) argued that the disappearance of a character trait indicates a dementalization occurring in an essential depression rather than the resolution of a neurotic process.
See also: Anal-sadistic stage; Character Analysis; Character formation; Character neurosis; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; ; Dependence; Ego; Eroticism, anal; Eroticism, urethral; Failure neurosis; Fate neurosis; I; Identification; Indications and contraindications for psychoanalysis for an adult; Orality; Paranoia; Psychic structure; Psychological types (analytical psychology); Reaction-formation; Sex and Character; Sublimation; Transference neurosis; Transgression. Bibliography
* Abraham, Karl. (1927). A short study of the development of the libido. Selected papers of Karl Abraham. London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1924) * Bergeret, Jean. (1976). Personnalités normales et pathologiques: Les structures mentales, le caractère, les symptômes. Revue française de psychanalyse, 40 (2), 351-370. * Fain, Michel. (1997). Névrose de caractère et mentalisation. Rev. française de psychosomatique, 11, 7-17. * Fenichel, Otto. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neurosis. New York: W. W. Norton. * ——. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5. * ——. (1905d).Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243. * ——. (1908b). Character and anal erotism. SE, 9: 167-175. * ——. (1913i). The disposition to obsessional neurosis: A contribution to the problem of choice of neurosis. SE, 12: 311-326. * ——. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psychoanalytic work, SE, 14: 309-333. * ——. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66. * ——. (1931a). Libidinal types. SE, 21: 215-220. * ——. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182. * ——. (1937c). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209-253.