The idea of anaclisis was introduced by Freud to describe the original relationship, in the young child, between the sexual drives and the self-preservative functions. Arising from a specific site in the organism (an erotogenic zone), the sexual drives at first prop themselves on the self-preservative functions, and only later become independent. The self-preservative function thus sometimes offers its own object to the sexual drive; this is what Freud calls "anaclitic object-choice."
Like the notion of "deferred action" (Nachträglichkeit ), that of "anaclisis" or "leaning-on" or "propping" (Anlehnung ) constitutes a major theoretical concept that always remained latent in Freud's own work. Freud devoted no article or complete discussion to it, and the notion lay undeveloped in psychoanalysis up until the nineteen-sixties (Laplanche & Pontalis, 1967/1973). An important reason for this inattention is doubtless the fact that the Standard Edition did not heed the consistent use of the German word nor translate it in a systematic way; its preferred rendering, moreover, was the artificial "anaclisis." It has to be said that the concept was not identified either, as such, in Freud's texts or in German psychoanalysis. Since the notion was eminently problematical, and since Freud did not set an example by thinking the matter through, things were simply left fallow.
The German substantive Anlehnung is derived from the verb Sich anlehnung, meaning to "lean on" or "prop oneself on" (Laplanche, 1970/1976, p. 15-16). The term appears regularly in Freud's work, especially prior to 1920. What it describes is the support that sexuality derives, at the beginning, from various functions and bodily zones related to self-preservation: the mouth, the anus, the musculature, and so on. It is thus intimately bound up with the Freudian conception of infantile and adult sexuality as a much-broadened sphere, far more comprehensive than the genital alone, and indeed extending to the entire body.
The notion made its appearance in the first edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), and was further explicated in later revisions of that work. It occurs for the very first time as a designation for the way in which anal sexuality is bound to the excretory function. The most explicit account, however, concerns sucking at the breast: "The satisfaction of the erotogenic zone is associated, in the first instance, with the satisfaction of the need for nourishment. To begin with, sexual activity attaches itself to functions serving the purpose of self-preservation and does not become independent of them until later....The need for repeating the sexual satisfaction now becomes detached from the need for taking nourishment" (1905d, pp. 181-82). "At a time at which the first beginnings of sexual satisfaction are still linked with the taking of nourishment, the sexual instinct has a sexual object outside the infant's own body in the shape of his mother's breast. It is only later that the instinct loses that object. ...As a rule the sexual instinct then becomes auto-erotic" (p. 222).
According to Freud's description of the component instincts, the bodily source, the aim, and the object of an instinct need to be in a particular term-to-term relationship, on the one hand with respect to self-preservation, and on the other with respect to sexuality. Freud's account is most explicit apropos of the object: self-preservation may show sexuality the way to the "choice of an object," in which case that choice is made on the model of one of the people important for the child's survival—"the woman who feeds" or "the man who protects." This "anaclitic (attachment) type of object-choice" is contrasted, in "On Narcissism: An Introduction," with "narcissistic object-choice," where the object is chosen on the model of the self (1914c, pp. 87-90).
The idea of anaclisis contains the seeds of an interesting theory of the genesis of the sexual drive. It proposes that this drive definitely develops on the basis of an organic factor, namely the self-preservative function, but that it then detaches itself therefrom, so becoming autonomous, and in the first instance auto-erotic, bound to sexual fantasy. This incipient theory was never worked out by Freud: it was firmly rooted in his first theory of the drives (which contrasted sexuality and self-preservation), and its integration into the framework of his "second dualism," that between the life and death drives, would have entailed a complete overhaul of that scheme. Its most troublesome aspect, however, lies in the assumption that the self-preservative and the sexual drives can be treated as comparable, as two parallel yet somehow identical processes. For the very idea of Anlehnung implies to the contrary that there is an essential disparity here: the sexual drives are assigned their aims and objects by other processes—by bodily functions or needs—and this implies that sexuality is initially indeterminate.
What Freud's introduction, then his abandonment, of the notion of anaclisis encourages us to do, therefore, is revisit the distinction between the notion of drive (Trieb ) on the one hand, and that of instinct (Instinkt ) or bodily function on the other. There are three very different ways of approaching such a task.
A first interpretation posits a sort of developmental parallelism between two types of process, equally biological in nature, as for example nourishment and oral sexuality. According to this model, the operation of self-preservation is seen as triggering erotogenic stimulation. This stimulation is then repeated in an endogenous way (what Freud calls "sensual sucking"). This somewhat mechanical model postulates that the sources, the aims, and even the objects of the two kinds of drives are clearly discernible and discrete, even though, to begin with, they operate in parallel.
A second approach looks upon anaclisis as the correlate of a kind of hatching process, with infantile sexuality functioning in two different ways: at a first moment sexuality props itself upon a bodily function (nutrition, say) even to the point of becoming indistinguishable from it; then, in a second mode, it separates and becomes at once autonomous, autoerotic, and of the nature of fantasy. In the course of this complex transformation, the notions of source, aim, and object undergo a kind of mutation and symbolization. In the case of nourishment, for instance, the object of self-preservation is milk, whereas the sexual object is the breast. From this standpoint, it would be inaccurate to speak of a hallucinatory satisfaction, because the shift from the need for milk to the incorporation of the breast is a movement from the order of need to the order of fantasy and desire.
Thirdly and lastly, it may be objected that this second interpretation is inadequate in that the sexual drive could not arise from physiological functions by means, purely and simply, of some mechanism of "mentalization," some kind of endogenous creation. Rather, it is arguable that the intervention of a sexual other—the adult as opposed to the child—is a primordial requirement if symbolization and sexualization is to take place, if the splitting of sexuality, its binding to fantasy and its functional autonomy, are to be achieved. In this view, it is in the context of seduction that the organic source (the lips, the tongue) comes to be defined as erotic, that the object (the mother's erotogenic breast) imposes itself, and that the aim (for example cannibalistic incorporation) is specified—far beyond the simple ingestion of nourishment.
See also: Erotogenic zone; Language of Psychoanalysis, The ; Narcissism; Object; "On Narcissism: An Introduction"; Oral stage; Primary need; Primary object; Psycho-sexual development; Reciprocal paths of influence (libidinal coexcitation); Sucking/thumbsucking.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1914c). On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.
Laplanche, Jean. (1976). Life and death in psychoanalysis (Jeffrey Mehlman, Trans.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. (Original work published 1970).
——. (1993). Le fourvoiement biologisant de la sexualité chez Freud. Paris: Les Empêcheurs de Penser en Rond.
——. (1999). Essays on otherness (Luke Thurston, Philip Slotkin, and Leslie Hill, Trans.). London and New York: Routledge.
Laplanche, Jean, and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. (1973). The language of psycho-analysis (Donald Nicholson-Smith, Trans.). London: Hogarth Press/Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Original work published 1967)