The Birth and Mission of Ego
Clinical psychologists and psychiatrists have strained to express what the infant's world
is like at the beginning. The baby is not yet a separate ego. It is “prepersonal” in the
sense that it is “an anonymous and generalized corporeal existence,” (David Levin,
1988, p. 295) which melds with its environment and is minimally distinct from it. Some
authors have called this original state a symbiotic fusion, implying that the infant and its
mother (mother = nurturing environment) exist together in a boundless oneness. The
English psychoanalyst, Winnicott, described the infant's experience as being, “not
mother” and “not self.”
In its prepersonal state, the infant knows its world through a kind of collective-erotic
sensing. It senses everything at once: lights, sounds, physical contact, the emotions
and attitudes of the people around it. This global, affective engulfing of its surroundings
is the basis of our ongoing endo awareness.
The sense is that there are not two realities in existence, but only a universal one which
is not monolithic. In other words, within this oneness there are individuals. More
precisely, this whole is a harmony of free individuals. Michael Eigen (1986) says
succinctly, “The infant seems both separate and permeable from the outset.” (p. 151).
The first thing I came to recognize was myself as reflected in the smile, caress, and
embrace of my mother. I drew my sustenance from her. In her mirror, I became me. I
was part of her; and she, me. When she left I panicked because I was no longer there.
My bawling magically brought me (her) back to me. When I did not reappear as my
mother my bawling would blessedly turn to sleeping.
The Onset of Language
Somewhere between six and eighteen months I saw my reflection in another kind of
mirror, one made of silvered glass, (described by Lacan, 1977, pp. 1-8) and was
fascinated as to how I could make me appear and disappear. These two kinds of
reflection produced an image outside of myself with which I identified. I easily assumed
the identity of that image, which is termed the imago in the literature. Later with the
development of language I separated that imago from my mother and, in so doing,
constituted my own ego.
The ego is my relatively stable, bounded, practical, but alienated game face that
enables me to function as an independent entity in the world. It is the first of many
bodily creations that populate my dynamic, symbolic, imaginal realm.
Freud and Lacan offer an enchanting account of how Freud's grandson started to
appropriate language (described by Freud 1920, pp. 14-15). The boy was in his crib
playing with a spool that was attached to a string. As he lowered the spool below the
side of the crib where he could not see it he cooed "o-o-o- o-o"; when he raised it back
to where he could see it he said "Da." Freud perceived that the boy was trying to
vocalize the words “Fort” and “Da” which are the German words for “Gone” and “Here.”
The boy was just at the age where he had to cope with the fact that his mother would
not always be there when he cried. Freud saw that the boy was dealing with his
separation from his mother as he played his game over and over. He had learned to
cope symbolically with the absence of the toy (and, by implication, his mother) by
making it disappear and reappear while expressing absence and presence. In doing
this, he was able to possess his mother's presence symbolically, even when she was
absent. This exercise made him content and allowed him to let his mother go away
In a strange, but real, sense, language “kills” the mother for the infant. The
undifferentiated unity with mother is broken. The experience of the “languaged mother”
is not the same as what was sensed in the original mother-me. Merleau-Ponty
expresses this same truth in the broader philosophical context when he says, “The
advent of subjectivity...is a negation of Being whereby Being realizes itself, a negation of
Being which is “the miraculous promotion of Being to ‘consciousness’” (1968, p.118;
Madison, p. 235).
In the Fort/Da symbolization (or its equivalent) and all later speech, I gave birth to my
individuality by using the universal subtle reality of language. In symbolizing and
languaging, I nested my individuality in its broader reality. For this progress I pay the
price of desire. My deep longing is for the intense unity I experienced as an infant
(before language). This longing expresses itself in sexual yearnings among other
things. I also have an intense desire to be an individual. Life is the working out of these
two, conflicting drives.
Lacan points out what a momentous occurrence this Fort/Da experience was. The child
did not only possess his mother symbolically with language; he also became a separate
entity (an ego). While he coped with his frustrated desire for his mother in this way, he
now had desire in a more articulated sense: He could now express her absence and
demand her presence with language. The original unity between mother and child was
broken. Lacan (1977) says, the moment “in which desire becomes human is also that in
which the child is born into language” (p. 103).
Depth Communication (the “Subjects”)
In order to demonstrate some of the key implications of the development of ego, this
next section develops shorthand expressions for the actors involved in depth
communication (the Subjects). It also creates models to symbolize the murky
unconscious operations that generate those actors and bring their operations into
Newborn infants, as we have seen, are almost undifferentiated from their nurturing
environments. As such, they approximate what are called “Original Subjects,”
symbolized as “Subject0.” As infants begin to differentiate themselves through
processes like mirroring, they imaginatively create imagos of themselves. As they
continue to develop their imaginations and language, they create rifts between
themselves as independent imagos/egos and their nurturing environment; that is,
between the ego, symbolized as “Subject1,” and the remainder of Subject0, my
unconscious, which Lacan dubbed the Other, and that we symbolize as “Subject2.” The
contents of Subject2 are two-fold: the external nurturing environment and all
unconscious bodily functions and awareness. The gap created is then symbolized with
language in the act that makes the Subject specifically human.
This process can be symbolized as:
Original Subject Ego + Other
Subject0 Subject1 + Subject2.
Because of this primal split there is a built-in ambivalence every time we use the word
“I” as the subject of a sentence. “I” can theoretically express the standpoint of Subject0
(original subject), Subject1 (ego), or Subject2 (my unconscious/ the Other}. There is
also Subject3, which is the communion of Other and Ego). The process of our ego and
our unconscious coming together to create a solution can be symbolized as:
Subject1 + Subject2 Subject3.
Ego + Other Communion
We live our everyday lives mainly in ego awareness, when taking care of routine
chores. When faced with an unusual and unexpected situation, however, we root
through our past experiences, find one similar to the one we are in, and apply the
solution we used then. In doing this, we make clear to ourselves how things work and
give voice to some of our unconscious knowledge. We have increased our store of
Subject3 understanding. With more difficult situations, we may root through elements of
our unconscious several times. If we are faced with an intractable situation, we may
open ourselves completely to the chaos of the situation without preconceived
conditions. It is then that we are most free to rein in our unconscious knowledge.
The unconscious has various ways of communicating with us. Dreams may place us in
stories that resonate with situations in our lives. By metonymy or metaphor they may
indicate a past situation that was not satisfactorily resolved or an action we might take in
our waking awareness. In our waking hours, it may place us in recurrent situations
that push our buttons and force us to confront self-defeating activities that sabotage our
efforts to get something done, to have a good relationship, or to lead a happy life.
Freudian slips can lead us to recognize that our attention is wandering when we were
trying to keep it elsewhere. Our bodies also communicate with us more directly as
when they produce pain or delight in the pits of our stomachs.
In addition, there are ways that we can actively prompt our unconscious to speak.
Active imagination as encouraged by Jung is one example. There is lucid dreaming and
the programming of dreams, as when we say, “Let me sleep on it.” There is creative
doodling which is sometimes called automatic writing. These are all ways we can get
our bodies to talk to us.
Free association is another active way to access the unconscious. To engage in it, one
formulates feelings and intuitions as they boil up from our unconscious depths. One
engages in what Merleau-Ponty calls “originating speech” (1964, p. 446), which brings
to light thoughts in search of themselves. One talks categorical, pre-reflective
expressions, not objective expressions based upon closer examination.
In all these examples, Subject1 (ego) relaxes its boundaries to attend to Subject2 (the
body/the unconscious) in order to bring forth Subject3 (communication between ego
Subject1 + Subject2 Subject3.
Ego + Other Communion
It is in this context that Freud’s famous dictum, “Wo es war, soll Ich werden,” (where it
was, there I am to be) finds its proper place. After careful analysis, Lacan (1977)
concluded that this dictum signifies, “‘There where it was’... I would like it to be
understood, ‘it is my duty that I should come to being’” (p. 129). The first “it” in Lacan's
translation stands for the unconscious, Subject2. The meaning then would be that
Subject1 (the ego) is to enter into dialogue with Subject2 (the other) and create
Subject3 (communion). For Freud, our human mission is to bring our bodily
unconscious wisdom into conscious experience.
Paul Ricouer expresses the project that is consciousness in terms of first naiveté and
second naiveté. Both naivetés consist of an immediate, vibrant, physical reality. The
first naiveté is our timeless, unarticulated unconscious (the other). The second naiveté
is the goal of evolution, the conscious, concrete, symbolic expression of the
unconscious (communion). He says,
Let us not be mistaken about the meaning of this last stage: this return to the
immediate is not a return to silence, but rather to the spoken word, to the fullness
of language. Nor is it a return to the dense enigma of initial immediate speech,
but to speech that has been instructed by the whole process of meaning (1970,
Interpersonal Depth Communication
When you and I engage in intimate conversation (as lovers, as friends, as
patients/therapists, as intellectual seekers, etc.), your Subject2 and my Subject2 “get
down” with each other. We lower our boundaries and let our bodies express
themselves. Your other and my other engage each other.
In this kind of conversation, vague feelings and ideas take shape as intuitions, images,
meandering stories, hunches, and half-baked ideas. This kind of communication
requires us to listen to our bodies, let them express themselves, and mutually decipher
their messages in order to achieve mutual understanding and/or cooperation. This
process can be symbolized in the same notation developed above:
Subject1 + Subject2 Subject3.
Ego + Other Communion.
Lacan pictures the process of deep communication, as it is accomplished in analysis, as
a game of bridge in which there are four players. They are the analysand’s ego (A) and
other (B) and the analyst’s ego (C) and other (D). In this game, it is agreed that the
egos of both analysand and analyst are dummies who can act as organs of speech and
hearing but are not allowed to speak and hear as such. In other words, the other of
each of them both speaks and listens while the egos of each act as only transmitters
and receivers of language. The anticipated result of this game of bridge is
understanding (communion) and personal growth.
Lacan’s analysis of psychoanalysis holds for deep communication in general. When we
are really talking to one another, we rummage in our shadowy unconscious and pull out
the things we find. We share them as incomplete thoughts, as feelings, or as
crystallized insights. In other words, we share our pre-reflective thoughts and we
engage in authentic speech. By expressing our murky unconscious in words, we clarify
its messages. In this authentic sharing, we project the communion within us upon the
world at large. So, we create civilization and culture. Communion (Subject3) is a
cultural goal as well as a personal one.
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