Dear Freud (h2so4 10)

Dear Freud,

Why do women wear white pumps?

--Avia, h2so4

Dear Avia,

The terrain of fashion lies, of course, outside the field of psychoanalysis proper, and I must confess that I myself have but little experience in matters concerning the peculiarities of attire. A detailed exploration is further hindered in this case by a want of material; I assume the women in question have not undergone psychoanalytic treatment, and the repressed materials of fantasy which might have inspired their modes of dress and their corresponding identifications are thus frustratingly inaccessible to our inquiries. I will nevertheless endeavor to answer your question by the only available means, those of conjecture and speculation, as such a study promises to shed a degree of light on the dark continent of femininity which has heretofore remained so impervious to the tools of our science.

In its studies of the perversions, psychoanalysis has had occasion to observe numerous cases in which the patient becomes fixated, as it were, on a single type or object of clothing, without which sexual excitation is severely impeded. The patient loses all interest in erotic activity, the charms of which are now greatly diminished, insofar as the required object is found not to be in place. This is the mechanism which we have referred to in our earlier researches as fetishism. The fetish is, of course, an object which functions as a defense against the threat of castration which surfaces upon the child's discovery of the absence of the male genitalia in a woman--his mother, for instance. In diverting itself the child's gaze falls upon a shoe or other convenient object, which substitutes for the missing organ and provides a degree of reassurance against the anxiety occasioned by the menace of its loss. Strictly speaking, none of this is new to us and should therefore provide no cause for alarm.

We are now prepared to attempt to answer the question at hand, that is, if it can be answered at all through the techniques suggested by psychoanalysis. Why, then, would a woman wear white pumps? Is it because she has adopted this type of shoe as a fetish of her own? The cases of fetishism we have encountered thus far, which are overwhelmingly male, do not support this view. Is it because she herself seeks to supply the fetish which would make good her lack, in order to rehabilitate herself as an acceptable sexual object for the man? Such a hypothesis seems more in keeping with the previous discoveries of psychoanalytic thought, but beckons the additional question of why the woman did not then choose a more appropriate accessory. For we may state with a fair degree of certainty that the white pump hardly meets the typical fetishist's standards of attractiveness; we ourselves should certainly hesitate to call it "beautiful." We begin to suspect that the woman's desire to be the fetishist's love object has undergone repression, and that the defense against the emergence of the wish which the censorship had repudiated has neatly expressed itself in the form of an unusual choice of footwear. This situation can be expressed in the following formula:

  1. I wish to attract the fetishist, and my choice of shoe is made with this aim in mind. (This component of the constellation of mnemic traces, being unconscious, would emerge only as a construct of analysis.)
  2. I do not care one way or the other about the fetishist; my choice of footwear is made independently of his desires. (This is the defense which asserts itself most plainly in the patient's conscious thought-processes.)
  3. I do not wish to attract the fetishist; on the contrary, I wish to repel him, and that is why I wear white pumps. (This disavowal constitutes the most vehement defense against the repressed wish, and culminates in the fixation we are now considering.)

We thus learn that the wearing of the white pump, previously wrapped in obscurity, has its source in a repressed ideational complex. Far from being the result of a simple failure of taste, the shoe has become the site of a tightly-wound defense against the reappearance of a wish which was found to be unacceptable to conscious thought. We might also add to our findings the sobering conclusion that as long as the desire to meet the fetishist's demands for love persists in the unconscious, women will unquestionably continue to wear white pumps.

It is seldom that psychoanalysis is granted the opportunity to delve into questions which are perhaps better left to the field of aesthetics, and hopefully the results have not been too disappointing. Regarding the problem of fashion and apparel generally, we should not forget that the progressive concealment of the body by clothing has accompanied the transition from an olfactory to a visual culture, and is an outcome which--for better or worse--goes hand in hand with the advances of civilization. When we begin to be discouraged at the directions in which this cultural achievement has led us, we may take comfort in the words of the poet: 

A thousand threads one treadle throws,
Where fly the shuttles hither and thither,
Unseen the threads are knit together,
And an infinite combination grows.

--Goethe, Faust, Part I (Scene 4)

    I remain, yours sincerely,

      Sigmund Freud

Dear Freud,

How can I tell when I'm on a date?

--various participants, h2so4

Dear various,

Your question forces us to acknowledge that, as with a great many of life's occasions, we may only obtain definite knowledge of the character of an event of this kind retro-actively. That is to say, one may only arrive at a form of conscious certainty in the mode of "after the fact": the correct interpretation must remain hidden until the proofs of future developments begin their impatient clamor, at which point a definite meaning may be assigned as a product of fantasy.

Psychoanalysis, for all its expertise in matters concerning the intricacies of fragile human interaction, comes up against its limits when confronted with the question of how inevitable it was that a given event turned out in such-and-such a way, and how likely it is that a given event could have become something quite different from what was expected. We cannot predict the course of life that an individual bearing a particular psychical constitution will embark upon; we can only trace backwards in the directions suggested by analysis, and even in this manner we may be obliged to give up all hope of discovering a cause which we consider "worthy of our fate." We might even go so far as to state that everything to do with our life is in fact chance--chance which nevertheless props itself firmly and indistinguishably upon our unconscious wishes and residual imprints of the past.

But let us return to the question of the date. Has it occurred to you that you might simply ask the other party, and thereby eliminate doubts arising from external factors? Of course, the problem of ambivalence, whether conscious or unconscious, would remain, and I must admit that I have yet to uncover a cure for this particular mode of affect--which might in fact have its roots in a chemical incongruity, and serve some vital function presently unknown to us.

I remain, respectfully yours,

Sigmund Freud

Dear Freud,

Why do the same *%#$~! questions keep appearing over and over again in your "dear philosopher" columns?


-- In Need of Variety

Dear In Need of Variety,

This is Doctor Freud. Allow me to take the liberty of responding to your inquiry.

A certain condition, which psychoanalysis first discovered in the neurotic symptoms of those suffering from the powerful shocks of war (as well as in children's play), and which I have dubbed the compulsion to repeat, might be said to be operable in this situation. It appears to us at first glimpse that h2so4 is endeavoring to master the trauma of being interrogated through successive re-enactments of the original disturbing situation: that of being presumed to know all the answers. It strikes us as a puzzling but obvious fact that the duplicate questions elicit the same fascination as the originals, and retain their full excitatory force long after they should have been filed away and done with. In short, these frequent reappearances could in fact provide an illustration of what psychoanalysis has termed the death drive--the desire inherent in all life to restore a previous state of things.

In addition, though, we must not underestimate the appeal of recurrent asking on the part of the questioner. It is well known that children, seeking to discover "where babies come from," never tire of interrogating adults in the most repetitive and circuitous ways imaginable. The fond curiosity which we associate with this young investigator, and which may indeed owe its existence to the mysterious belatedness of puberty in humans, surely finds its analogue in the later researches of adulthood. I hope that I have answered your question to sufficient satisfaction.

Sincerely yours,

Sigmund Freud

[scribed by Amy H. König, copyright ©1998]