Failure Neurosis

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The nosographical category of failure neurosis was created and applied mainly in France, as a result of René Laforgue's writings. It is defined in his book Psychopathologie de l'échec (The psychopathology of failure; 1941): "We thus speak of the failure of an individual's emotional life or social activity[. . .]. The person derives from the affective failure itself the strength and the voluptuousness that transforms the unhappiness into happiness.".

He used the concept in L'echec de Baudelaire (The defeat of baudelaire; 1931), and in chapter eleven of Clinique psychanalytique (Clinical aspects of psychoanalysis; 1936/1984) he described it as a specific nosographical category. He was then criticized by Edward Glover in 1939 for following the current trend among French psychoanalysts of isolating multiple clinical syndromes without putting much effort into systematizing them into general categories. Although the chapters devoted to Napoleon and Hitler disappeared mysteriously during the troubled period of the Second World War, his book, which appeared in 1941, took Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robespierre as examples in order to review and develop the psychopathological variations that clinicians encounter. Laforgue also pointed to Freud's treatment of the subject: "Freud was the first to speak of this syndrome in a short article on Those Wrecked by Success but he did not accord to the question all the importance it deserved."

Freud did indeed describe this "character-type" among the causes of resistance to the symptom analysis (1916d). Taking the examples of Lady Macbeth and Rebecca West, a character in Ibsen's Rosmersholm, he showed how guilt linked to the possible realization of forbidden desires could lead to a failure as soon as the consciously desired goal was achieved in reality. Laforgue continued this oedipal theme, elaborating it from the notion of the superego (which he called the super-I). Because of his work on "family neurosis" (another syndrome that has since been forgotten), he considered the family environment important.

Failure as "fear of success" translates psychically into inhibitions, depression, even delusions, or physically into clumsiness or accidents of varying degrees, perhaps even fatal. These disorders can correspond to punishment for transgressing a prohibition (appearing after a significant success) or the impossibility of successfully completing a task required by the ego ideal. Other forms have been linked to survivor guilt after the death of a highly cathected object or a catastrophic experience (the Holocaust, for example). These states are usually accompanied by a depressed tone but, as Roy Schafer pointed out, we must be careful not to see all these subjects as "masochists" because this description would imply a sexualization of suffering, which is not always present.

The notion of "fate neurosis," which is quite vague, somewhat clouded the issue of the failure syndrome, which suffered further decline after the Liberation, during the debates around The Psychopathology of Failure, first published in 1941 and reprinted in 1944 despite the fact that it was rejected by Matthias Göring, from whom Laforgue had requested a translation. Certain considerations, like "this love of suffering, whether it translates as persecution or worrying about money, is one of the characteristic aspects of the Jewish psychism, as it developed in the ghettoes" (1941, p. 42), helped discredit this theory, and since 1945 it has received only rare and brief mention in psychoanalytic literature, being generally associated with studies of adolescence (Mâle; Weil).

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Laforgue, René; Neurosis; Psychopathologie de l'échec (Psychopathology of failure).


Freud, Sigmund. (1916d). Some character-types met with in psycho-analytic work. SE, 14: 309-333.

. (1923b). The ego and the id. SE, 19: 1-66.

Glover, Edward. (1939). Review of Clinical aspects of psychoanalysis, by René Laforgue, Hogarth and Inst. Psycho-Anal., London, 1938. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 20, 196-197.

Laforgue, René. (1941). Psychopathologie de l'échec. Marseille: Les Cahiers du Sud.

Laforgue, René. (1984). Clinical aspects of psycho-analysis (Joan Hall, Trans.). New York: Da Capo. (Original work published 1936)

Mâle, Pierre. (1971). Quelques aspects de la psychopathologie et de la psychothérapieà l'adolescence. Confrontations psychiatriques, 7, 103-124.

Schafer, Roy. (1988). Those wrecked by success. In Robert A. Glick and Donald I. Meyers (Eds.), Masochism: Contemporary psychoanalytic perspective (pp. 81-92). Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Weil, Annemarie P. (1978). Maturational variations and genetic-dynamic issues. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 26, 461-491.