In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’, Freud is concerned to distinguish the phenomenon of the ‘traumatic’ neuroses, which indicate the limit of the pleasure principle, from that of the ‘normal’ neuroses. Of the many problems presented by this famously complex paper, one of the most enduring is the correspondence made between the traumatic neu­roses of those returning from war, and the activities of a child at play. Freud explains to his readers that his close observations of his one-and – a-half-year-old Grandchild led him to the conclusion that ‘the only use he made of any of his toys was to play ‘gone’ with them’ (15). The child’s representation for the German word ‘fort’ [‘gone’] was ‘a long-drawn-out "o-o-o-o", accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction’ (14). Freud develops his account:

The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied round it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skilfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive ‘o-o-o-o’. He then pulled the reel out of the cot again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful ‘da’ [‘there’]. This, then, was the complete game – disappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. (15)

As Freud presents it, the game of Fort-Da is a child’s piece of theatre com­prising two acts, and whilst the second may bring greater pleasure, the first act nonetheless stands alone as a ‘complete game’. It is important to underscore here that in his final analysis of his Grandchild’s Fort-Da game – although he recognises the ‘great cultural achievement’ symbol­ised in the ‘disappearance and return’ of the child’s toy (much as he credits the technological advancements of civilisation) – Freud insists that the act of play reveals something more than the ‘yield of plea­sure’ to be obtained by mastering the lost object (14-15). This is to say he insists on the existence of ‘a compulsion to repeat which overrides the pleasure principle’ (22). It follows, then, that there are two readings of child’s play that Freud’s Fort-Da game identifies: Fort-Da as symbolic mastery, where the ‘return’ in the second act brings the greatest plea­sure; and Fort-Da as daemonic repetition, where the repetition of the ‘gone’ is a complete game in itself.

Narcissus and his love object, we may recall, are fated to ‘possess and yet not to possess’ (Graves, 287). Terry Eagleton (1996) suggests that this same structure – where desire is the desire for a lost object – configures our understanding of narrative:

Fort-da is perhaps the shortest story we can imagine: an object is lost, and then recovered. But even the most complex narratives can be read as variants on this model [… ] Something must be lost or absent in any narrative for it to unfold: if everything stayed in place there would be no story to tell. This loss is distressing, but exciting as well: desire is stimulated by what we cannot quite possess, and this is one source of narrative satisfaction. If we could never possess it, however, our excitation might become intolerable and turn into unpleasure […] (160-161)

Because Eagleton is offering an interpretation where ‘narrative is a source of consolation’, we can say that he is here invested in the height­ened pleasure of the second act (161). By focussing on the child’s achievement of narrative resolution – ‘an object is lost, and then recovered’ – only the rule of the pleasure principle is affirmed. How­ever, following Freud’s more complicated observations where the child’s compulsion to repeat often takes on a ‘daemonic quality’, the act of throwing the toy away indicates more than the child’s anticipation of its return. Although Freud is tentative on the implications of this sub­ject, his identification of traumatic disequilibrium within the psyche of the child has significant implications for our understanding of the pri­mary child-environment relation. The metapsychological distinction is important to note here. For Freud, the repetition compulsion at work in the normal neuroses always tends towards equilibrium within the psy­chic economy. Unpleasure experienced consciously infers that the sub­ject is taking pleasure unconsciously somewhere else; as Freud puts it, unpleasure in one system is compensated for by pleasure in another (20): even if this is ‘pleasure that cannot be felt as such’ (11). What mystifies and intrigues Freud is the compulsion to repeat which ‘recalls from the past experiences which include no possibility of pleasure, and which can never, even long ago, have brought satisfaction’ (20). In other words, what is difficult to account for are the repetitions of a trauma which offer no adequate consolation: the ‘gone’ is always in excess of the ‘there’. To say that the mind is operating beyond the pleasure princi­ple, is to say that it is operating beyond the economy of equilibrium. And what Freud identifies as daemonic repetition marks a potentially original disequilibrium in the psychic field.

In distinction to the consolatory hypothesis where the child restores the lost object by masterminding its return (and hence remaining within the operation of the pleasure principle), the ‘traumatic’ hypothesis speaks to the environmental conditions which make satisfaction an impossibility. We should note that in the nursery scene described by Freud, the Grandchild with his wooden-reel toy in his curtained cot is not on stage alone, despite how it must seem in order that the game continue – a child interrupted in solitary play may quickly cease to entertain. The reader is invited to imagine that just as the Grandchild has an audience – minimally, Grandfather Freud observing from the wings – so too is the young Narcissus always subject to an environment of care that has the capacity to withdraw itself. In psychoanalytic terms this environment is often represented by the mother. Reminiscent of Narcissus at the poolside, Freud makes the maternal significance of the game explicit in the following footnote:

One day the child’s mother had been away for several hours and on her return was met with the words ‘Baby o-o-o-o!’ which was at first incomprehensible. It soon turned out, however, that during this long period of solitude the child had found a method of making him­self disappear. He had discovered his reflection in a full-length mirror which did not quite reach to the ground, so that by crouching down he could make his mirror-image ‘gone’. (15)

By highlighting an affinity between the game the child plays and his relationship to his mother, Freud also emphasises the traumatic aspect of child’s play: the mother, unlike the toy, cannot be brought back on demand. The moment the child recognises the possibility of his mother’s absence he is forced to register a fundamentally unequal relation; the account between mother and child can never in fact be balanced. Which is to say the child is not merely angry at her for leav­ing, and determined to master this loss (‘All right, then, go away! I don’t need you. I’m sending you away myself’ (15)), but, rather, he is trau­matised by the fact that the mother’s power to leave resides within her in the first place. Of course, certain environments – and certain child­hoods – are more or less volatile than others, but disequilibrium here is not a question of degree. Irrespective of the mother’s maternal prowess, her true power is located in her capacity to withdraw her care. This may well be an abstract power, but it persists in potentia nonetheless and establishes from the outside the terms for the narcissist’s subjection to his precarious environment: the mother can always leave.

Returning to Freud’s footnote, and the mobility of reference from the wooden-reel toy to the mother, it is apparent that there is a further sub­stitution to consider. The lost object of play shifts from the toy, to the mother, to the self: ‘during this long period of solitude the child had found a method of making himself disappear’ (15). This returns us to the narcissistic mise en scene of the infant at the mirror. By making his mirror-image ‘gone’, the baby identifies with and compensates for the mother’s absence, but also encounters his own absence. Indeed, it is the wilful obliteration of the self – the daemonic repetitions of the mirror – image ‘gone’ – which both intoxicates the child with his own symbolic power, and makes perilous his self-identity.