The First Time: A Promise of Becoming

Serge Frisch

5–16 adolescent blues, not fancying anything, just wishing to stay under the covers. It was a rotten summer: the rain never stopped falling, my friends were off on holiday...


15–16 adolescent blues, not fancying anything, just wishing to stay under the covers. It was a rotten summer: the rain never stopped falling, my friends were off on holiday, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Even reading novels, which I was usually passionate about, failed to capture my attention, nothing mattered to me.

Dragging my spleen around the house, I walked past my father’s book collection. This book collection had been totally devoid of interest to me because it only included books pertaining to my father’s work as a veterinarian. Why did I linger over it on that day? Why did I read a few titles in more details on the books’ spines? Was it completely by chance or had my unconscious captured some piece of information when I had previously looked at the books on display. For the first time (?), I noticed that, among the professional manuals, a few other books had found their way. I then discovered a book with a yellowing cover published by Payot written in 1948. The title was enigmatic to me: The Psychopathology of Everyday Life written by someone named Dr Sigm. Freud, Professor at the University of Vienna Medical School. What could Sigm. possibly mean, I wondered? The full stop after Sigm. probably meant that part of the forename had been cut. Why? And until that day, I had never heard of Freud or of psychoanalysis.

This was an intriguing book: I had no idea about what psychopathology might mean. I grew up in a family advocating medicine as a hard science with no predilection for psychology or the expression of emotions. The unconscious as a notion had certainly not made its way into my family yet. I embarked on reading Freud and was immediately fascinated by Signorelli. I devoured the first few pages and I was literally overwhelmed with emotions. But after I started reading, I then realised that the following pages were still attached together and that I could not carry on with my discovery unless I used a letter opener. I only found out later that, until the end of the 1950s, books were commonly printed “the old-fashioned way”, meaning that pages were not separated, they were “sewn” and not “perfect bound” so as to grant expert readers the enjoyment of cutting their own pages following the progress of their reading. These pages – still untouched – were very intriguing to me because they indicated how far my father had read. Why had my father stopped reading this fascinating book after twenty pages or so? Some anxiety very quickly took a hold of me. What if this was a “forbidden” book? What if it contained things I was not allowed to read, things I should not know, that my father would prohibit me from reading, from knowing? Feeling terribly guilty about my gnawing curiosity, I was facing the book, holding the letter opener without daring to act, to take action. My choice of the term letter opener as opposed to paperknife reflects my fear of venturing into some kind of intimacy. For this is what was at issue indeed: venturing into the intimacy of unconscious things, into the intimacy of the psyche; what I intuited confusedly about the depths of my own psychic functioning and the secrets of my own psyche was much more frightening than the reality of my father’s prohibitions – my father was absolutely not interested in what I read in any case. To him, reading was “a waste of time”. I only found out much later that my love of reading was a form of adolescent opposition against my parents. The pleasure of reading has never left me and, without doubt, it further reflects this curiosity and perhaps also a residue of opposition to the lack of culture. But at the time, I perhaps preferred to believe that the prohibition was external, paternal, even though I cannot exclude the possibility of uneasiness at reading a book of his, a book he had started reading, a book opening onto some hidden inner life: mine as well as his? In the throes of all this turmoil, I gave myself permission to cut a few pages of the book every day. I thus found a compromise between the exciting desire to know and the prohibition or the fear to know. There was something highly exciting indeed in this “forbidden” reading that “did my head in” as adolescents say today. Would it be fair to say that every first time pertains to some form of transgression?

Recollecting such memories, I thought that the letter opener and the cutting of the pages had a very sexual valence connoting defloration, penetration into the intimacy of the other. But this thought did not really trigger any emotional impact in me.

However, this strong sense of excitation did not leave me alone and it carried on making its associative way through. This scene of transgressive reading in adolescence brought back a memory, a dazzling emotion! The discovery of something unknown, the exposure to a completely unsuspected dimension. It was the first time I ever saw a woman. I was 4! From then on, nothing would ever be the same. In my associations, two “first times” resonate with each other.

On that day, as usual, I rushed into the bedroom of B, my live-in nanny, opening the door on the fly. At the age of 4, I was still unaware that one must knock on the door before being invited to enter a lady’s room. I came into her room like a shot – her room was next to mine – and I saw her standing before me. In fact, it is not so much her I saw but her bountiful naked breasts. Calmly, without saying a word, she put on a jumper. I was fascinated, excited, anxious, unsettled by a torrent of indescribable emotions, by the encounter with the mysterious, enigmatic sexual feeling with its dimension of gripping anxiety. My world toppled over. From then on, nothing would ever be the same again. I was confronted with the awakening of my own sexuality. Today, I still cannot put into words, this state of rapture and fascination before the unknown. I knew that this was where I wanted to dwell. Everything is experienced for the first time and without preparation, Milan Kundera claims.1 I certainly would not have shared the opinion of Woody Allen if I had known him then when he said that the first time he saw a naked woman, he thought it was a mistake.

Letting my associations wander, I also remember the story – recounted on numerous occasions in my family – of the first time my parents ever met.. but that is another story.

There are first times every day but they are not always experienced as first times, as a new discovery at most but not as a confrontation with some mystery. Why is it that the first time I tasted a new delicious dish, visited a beautiful place, read an unfamiliar and unsettling book or saw a sensational work of art, the experience did not register in my memory with the distinct emotional strength that characterizes certain experiences, endowing them with the “status” of a first time? It is with some emotion that I remember the taste of the fresh and dense aromas of Black Corinth and black tea, the biting acidity of a wonderful bottle of 1937 Château Yquem enjoyed in the company of good friends. I will probably never taste this wine again and yet, this experience will never take on the very specific significance of a first time for me. It might be because the discovery of new tastes, new sensations, new wonders before unfamiliar works of art gets repeated according to a common law that presides over them. Inscribed in a cultural, social, if not sociable context, such first things are of another order because they pertain to the register of sublimation which involves some form of sexuality but sexuality transformed by the very process of sublimation, civilised in some way, the drive-related violence being mastered by the chosen medium. The genuine “first time”, conversely, occurs every time a romantic and sexual encounter is at issue. “It is the first time every time”. The paragon of this kind of encounter is love at first sight, which repeats the encounter with the enigmatic (in Laplanche’s sense), exciting, primary object.

The analytic encounter also pertains to a “first time” when, in the grips of the transference and the counter-transference, the patient thinks: “this is the analyst I want” and the analysts thinks: “I want to take him or her (!!!) as my analysand”. Here too, an unconscious reunion with the primary object is at stake despite the asymmetry between the two partners. And the endlessly repeated story is a new story which the analyst listens to as if for the first time. Often experienced as “first times,” the mutative moments are always a surge in transference love. Let us listen to Barbara: “Every time we love out of love… we follow the same path, not remembering anything… we tell ourselves and we believe that it is for the first time, every time, every time, every time we love out of love…”

The impact of the first time calls to mind the aesthetic conflict described by Meltzer. The aesthetic object is not only experienced as beautiful because it is endowed, to the point of excess, with all the qualities likely to fulfil the child’s perceptive apparatus, it is also attractive, seductive, drawing the child irresistibly into an exciting – yet potentially destructive – spell of giddiness (Houzel2). The first time always involves an encounter with a mystery. The unlocking of a sexual unconscious is what bestows this distinct flavour upon the genuine first times. But the first time is also always inscribed in a series of other first times, via the associative pathway. The first time acquires its special quality in afterwardsness (après-coup ). The first transgressive reading of Freud thanks to my father’s book leads me to associate with infantile sexuality, the discovery of femininity, the strong awakening of the drive, my parents’ meeting…

Would the first time consist in the quest for the lost distinct flavour of a structuring primal first time with the primary object? But the first time can spawn wonder as much as a feeling of horror or a combination of feelings. The limited space I have here does not allow me to tackle less pleasurable aspects such as horror and dread.

Before Issue 1 of this e-journal which you are now holding in your hands, so to speak, there was already another first time: Issue zero of this e-journal which we read in the privacy of a small group. Therefore, there is always something that comes before, a proto-first time. Something before Freud, before B.

No time in life, none of those “first time” moments will ever come to us in this original form. Even the term “first time” is ambiguous. Indeed, while there are many first times, which one is the very first time, the navel of all first times? I guess no one will ever find out but each and everyone of us will carry on seeking for it throughout life until the … last time. The first time is a – tentative – promise of becoming.

The first issue of this e-journal is a promise of becoming with its assortment of mystery, excitement and gripping anxiety.