Obsessional neurosis

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
(Redirected from Obsessional Neurosis)
Jump to: navigation, search
French: névrose obsessionnelle

Sigmund Freud


Obsessional neurosis was first developed as a diagnostic category by Sigmund Freud in 1894. In doing so, Freud grouped together as one condition a series of symptoms which had been described long before but which had been linked with a variety of different diagnostic categories.[1] These symptoms include obsessions (recurrent ideas), impulses to perform actions which seem absurd and/or abhorrent to the subject, and "rituals" (compulsively repeated actions such as checking or washing).

Jacques Lacan


While Lacan also sees these symptoms as typical of obsessional neurosis, he argues that obsessional neurosis designates not a set of symptoms but an underlying structure which may or may not manifest itself in the symptoms typically associated with it. Thus the subject may well exhibit none of the typical obsessional symptoms and yet still be diagnosed as an obsessional neurotic by a Lacanian analyst.


Following Freud, Lacan classes obsessional neurosis as one of the main forms of neurosis.

Question of Existence

In 1956, Lacan develops the idea that, like hysteria, obsessional neurosis is essentially a question which being poses for the subject.[2] The question which constitutes obsessional neurosis concerns the contingency of one's existence (which also testifies to the special burden of guilt felt by the obsessional); the obsessional performs some compulsive ritual because he thinks that this will enable him to escape the lack in the Other, the castration of the Other, which is often represented in fantasy as some terrible disaster.

Example of Rat Man

For example, in the case of one of Freud's obsessional neurotic patients, whom Freud nicknamed the Rat Man, the patient had developed elaborate rituals which he performed to war off the fear of a terrible punishment being inflicted on his father or on his beloved.[3]

Structure of Religion

These rituals, both in their form and content, led Freud to draw parallels between the structure of obsessional neurosis and the structure of religion, parallels which Lacan also notes.

Sexual Position

Whereas the hysterical question concerns the subject's sexual position ("Am I a man or a woman?"), the obsessional neurotic repudiates this question, refusing both sexes, calling himself neither male nor female:

"The obsessional is precisely neither one [sex] nor the other - one may also say that he is both at once."[4]

Attitude to Time

Lacan also draws attention to the way that the obsessional neurotic's question about existence and death has consequences for his attitude to time. This attitude can be one of perpetual hesitation and procrastination while waiting for death,[5] or of considering oneself immortal because one is already dead.[6]

Guilt and Anal Eroticism

Other features of obsessional neurosis which Lacan comments on are the sense of guilt, and the close connection with anal eroticism. In respect of the latter, Lacan remarks that the obsessional neurotic does not only transform his shit into gifts and his gifts into shit, but also transforms himself into shit.[7]

See Also


  1. Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973 [1967]: 281-2
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. pp. 179-80
  3. Freud, Sigmund. "Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis," 1909d. SE X, 155
  4. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 249
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 99
  6. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p. 180
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 243