Sociologist Francesco Panese spoke with psychiatrist and psychoanalyst François Ansermet.
François Ansermet, you are a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, specialising in children and adolescents, and your work also draws on neuroscience. From this multidisciplinary point of view, what is your understanding of the relationship between food and pleasure that takes shape at the primal moment when the child feeds at its mother’s breast?
I think that a child’s pleasure in feeding is the point at which its psychic life and state as a newborn human being come together. The question of pleasure goes back to the juncture between these two facets of life. Here, everything comes down to the experience of satisfaction, which, according to psychoanalysis, is closely linked to the primal experience of the first feeding. This is the first experience of pleasure. This pleasure remains an enigma to me because it is in fact set in a context of unpleasure, that sensation or feeling that is primal in humans. The human infant is incomplete at birth, the most “neotenic” of living beings, that is, the most dependent on others at birth. This means that the baby comes into the world in a state of potential distress: leaving the balanced environment of intrauterine life, it arrives in a world where the temperature is different, where it is subject to gravity and above all to an imbalance due to the fact that it is no longer controlled by the circuit that connected it to its mother throughout pregnancy. Its potential helplessness is a fundamental, organic state of loss of balance, or of homeostasis, to use the technical term.
Babies come into the world in a state of helplessness.
An infant cannot find a homeostatic balance by itself. For me, that is the great human mystery. It is almost as if humans are an evolutionary mistake: suddenly a form of life appears that is wholly dependent on others, in particular for food. The human infant is therefore particularly distressed by hunger, a distress that hurts it and puts it in an acute state of anxiety. In this context of distress and anxiety, the mother’s breast and food represent equilibrium being brought to the newborn, the return to the balance that was a given in the womb. As such, the human infant experiences these things as pleasurable. You could say, to sum this up, that in the beginning there is incompleteness; the beginning of life is a state of distress, of helplessness. Paradoxically, being alive is potentially destructive for the human infant on account of its absolute dependency; but, at the same time, this absolute helplessness brings it into contact with others, first of all its mother – then progressively with a whole web of people – that, through its actions in general and in particular by feeding the baby, enable it to emerge from the unpleasure related to its potential distress, and therefore experience satisfaction.
But does the baby really experience pleasure at the breast or do we just imagine in retrospect that the relationship with the mother’s breast is pleasurable?
The question of whether pleasure is “innate” – and fundamental to becoming human – remains unanswered. It is difficult to say whether the pleasure of the mother’s breast and food is primal or if it is in some way projected retrospectively on unpleasure from which relief is sought. Something we have all experienced is that when unpleasure ends, there is relief from distress. Is this a case of pleasure experienced or pleasure projected retrospectively on unpleasure? This question that is central to the “experience of satisfaction” at the heart of Freudian theory also comes into play today in the field of neuroscience, two areas I have explored with Pierre Magistretti [Biology of Freedom: Neural Plasticity, Experience, and the Unconscious, Other Press Professional, 2007; Les enigmes du plaisir, Odile Jacob, 2010]. The experience of satisfaction, and in particular satisfaction from food, leaves “traces” in the brain that enable us to store, and later remember, our bodily or somatic, experiences associated with finding a state of being soothed, a state of equilibrium. You might say that in relation to the initial distress, the subject associates this experience of somatic soothing with a representation of pleasure. Pleasure is therefore not given, it is not essential; it is produced retrospectively in a context of unpleasure where food plays a fundamental role. For the most fundamental concrete experience, the most direct and most urgent, is the need to end helplessness. As Freud said, the infant is in a state of urgency due to the Not des Lebens (the necessities of life). Parents regularly experience this state when the infant is hungry, and in an even more tragic way when no food is available. The voracity of the hungry baby shows that it is preparing itself for having to save itself through the intervention of the Other from a helplessness that could be fatal. You might say that in the beginning there is the “scream of life itself”, the infant’s first cry, which only stops thanks to the intervention of the Other, on whom it is dependent (its mother, or its father or any other caring person), who by feeding it literally saves it.
And what happens as the infant gets older?
As the infant gets older, this essential relationship between what the body needs and the experience of satisfaction goes from crying to calling out to the Other. Food is in this sense at the heart of emotional and social relationships. In general, we are marked for our whole lives by this situation of the first feeding, but, happily for us, as we get older we gradually are able to anticipate pleasure in the decisions we make, or, to put it another way, we become freer, more active, more invested in the face of the necessities that are vital to life, like getting nourishment. It is in this “ability to anticipate pleasure” – but also unpleasure – that nature and culture come together. And our relationship with food plays a fundamental role in this process. Thus the relationship between pleasure and unpleasure contributes to constructing our subjective reality, forging our uniqueness. In other words, the world is different for each of us. The subjective existence of things is closely linked to where we rank them between pleasure and unpleasure. The same goes for our alimentary realities. Not all potential foods exist in the same way for all of us: we divide them into those that taste good to us and those that don’t, often unconsciously, based on our experiences. Each to his own pleasures! The food industry – like others – has realised this: the success of a food cannot be reduced to its nutritive dimension; it is closely linked to its capacity to enable us to anticipate the pleasure that it will produce, that is, its capacity to create a space, to make room for desire. Something that gives immediate satisfaction will not in the end be desired. This reminds us that it is perhaps also a particularity of humans that we put ourselves in imbalanced relationships: to the point of only finding a balance in an imbalanced life process, a satisfaction in dissatisfaction. The tendency, which is actually very human, can become pathological: the quest for pleasure that is increasingly costly – mentally, bodily or materially – may sometimes border on addiction.
Does this mechanism also apply to food?
Yes. If you eat, you get satisfaction; if you eat more, unpleasure sets in; and, if you eat even more, you will feel dissatisfaction. In the extreme, the quest for pleasure can thus lead to a very ambiguous state of seeking pleasure in unpleasure or, conversely, seeking unpleasure in pleasure, which Freud called that which is “beyond the pleasure principle”. At the other extreme is the figure of the anorexic. Anorexics are radical as they are aiming for what is beyond the object: it is not about food but giving love; they want to go directly to love without going via the object. By refusing food they are trying to save their desire – a desire that no longer involves the transmission of food. Anorexics cannot want what they desire. They aim for the pleasure that goes with food while going without it. In this sense, the anorexic’s extreme attitude reminds us that there is always what might be called something “beyond food”. A very simple example would be if I were to suggest to somebody that we “go for a coffee” or “have one last drink”: such suggestions are, of course, not about food but relationships. In the language of psychoanalysis, the oral drive is a vital need that, to be met, happens via food, but has nothing to do with food as nourishment. You could say that anorexics separate the drive from the object. They are seeking what is beyond the object; they are aiming for a sign of love.
What, then, is the difference between anorexia and bulimia?
The bulimic is characterised by a compulsive intake of food that never succeeds in giving satisfaction. Perhaps the restrictive anorexic attains more of a radical mystical satisfaction than the bulimic anorexic, who sinks into unpleasure, or rather into the pleasure of unpleasure, sometimes to the point of self-loathing, shame or even self-destructive practices that can be very violent. The anorexics I have met in my practice taught me that they are expressing a difficulty in confronting an important aspect of food: the act of eating involves a shift from “having” to “being”; in other words, when I eat something, that something becomes me. It is therefore necessary to have huge confidence in what we eat for us to be willing to take the risk of it transforming into us. For anorexics, this confidence is somehow undermined, as if food were going to transform them into something other than themselves. We all have, to varying degrees, problems of confidence in the act of eating. In this sense, anorexia reminds us that pathologies often act as magnifying glasses of major existential questions.
Finally, what is food?
I think food is a “pretext object” that derives all its power from the fact that it is necessary for bringing equilibrium to human life. For this reason food is a major symbolic object that plays a part in our dealings with others and also the – more or less harmonious – relationship we have with ourselves. This gives food its unique character, which, it could be said, always represents more than the sum of its parts and aims at what is “beyond food”. Food implies a demand, a call to the Other. As such, it lies at the heart of social relations. It is perhaps the reason for the proliferation of symbols surrounding food, in its forms, tastes, arts, rituals, representations, in short, everything that makes us human. “I eat, therefore I am!” (He laughs.)