"Fort !" and "Da !" are exclamations that Sigmund Freud heard his grandson Ernst utter while playing. This pair of words—meaning "Gone!" and "There!"—has become shorthand for repetition in early childhood, and for the primary processes that such behavior mobilizes.
In psychoanalysis, allusions to fort/da refer to the second chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where in a few celebrated pages Freud described and interpreted a game played by the little Ernst at the age of eighteen months. At the time, Freud was tackling the thorny problem of the compulsion to repeat in traumatic neurosis, and this digression into normal childhood experience was in fact meant to help contextualize the question. Ernst was a "good little boy," manifested no particular symptoms, was rather calm by disposition, and "never cried when his mother left him for a few hours." But he "had an occasional disturbing habit of taking any small objects he could get hold of and throwing them away from him into a corner, under the bed. . . . As he did this he gave vent to a loud, long-drawn-out 'o-o-o-o,' accompanied by an expression of interest and satisfaction. His mother and the writer of the present account were agreed in thinking that this was not a mere interjection but represented the German word 'fort."' Freud interpreted this behavior as a way of obtaining satisfaction by causing things to be "gone." A short time later he observed the child playing with a reel that had a piece of string tied around it: He would toss the reel away from him to where it could no longer be seen, before pulling it back into view and hailing its reappearance with a gleeful "Da! " ("There!"). Freud also noticed that the boy would utter his "o-o-o-o" sound with reference to himself —notably when, by crouching down below a mirror, he made his image "gone." Freud stresses the fact that the fort part of the game was much of the time sufficient unto itself, and was "repeated untiringly" by the child (1920g, pp. 14-15).
This observation leads to a number of fundamental questions: Are we confronted here by a method of mastering a painful experience by reproducing it oneself in an active manner, as children so often do, for example when playing frightening games? Or is the child literally taking revenge for the treatment visited upon him by redirecting it onto the other, or onto himself? In the end, the answer is not of any great consequence, for the real problem is the contradiction, which here is seen to arise very early, between the compulsion to repeat and the pleasure principle. How is it that satisfaction is to be derived from repeating actions that have been sources of unpleasurable feelings?
The great interest of this discussion of Freud's is that it sums up and condenses his subsequent exploration of the issue of the repetition compulsion. This very early children's game shows this compulsion to be one of the fundamental processes of the psyche, with two enigmatic aspects, one making manifest "mysterious masochistic trends" that resist all attempts at analysis (p. 14), the other revealing an irreducible primordial violence that takes an especially virulent form, according to Freud's account, when little Ernst, at thirty months, throws aside a toy and unequivocally identifies it with his absent father who has been "sent to the front" (p. 16).
The fort/da game has inspired very many authors who have seen it as the embodiment of the institution of fundamental structures of the infantile psyche, though their emphasis varies according to tendency or school. Thus Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott both drew a number of lessons from it as they sought to cast light on the origins of the child's mental life and develop play techniques for use in child therapy. For Jacques Lacan, the game expressed the child's accession to the symbolic order, and the purpose of making something appear and disappear was to replace it with elementary signifiers. Jean Laplanche, for his part, sees this play as the first attempt to respond to the adult's enigmatic messages.
It must be noted that Freud's original discussion actually focused in turn on first one and then another game, each dominant at a different moment. The first, at eighteen months, is based on fort, on throwing the object far away, with the accompanying "o" sound, and it indicates the pleasure obtained from making the other disappear, or making oneself disappear, a pleasure that makes it possible to tolerate absence and reflects the violence that absence implies; this game endures, for it is still available when, at thirty months, Ernst is gratified by his father's going off to war. The second game is founded on disappearance and reappearance, and shows a quite different kind of pleasure, that felt by the child when he sees what he had thought gone forever return from the void, and thus discovers the possibility of permanence, of continuity—the necessary basis for introjection and the working out not only of the symbolic order but also of the imaginary one. As much as the first game, if it is associated with nothing else, is governed by death-dealing repetition, the second, by contrast, is connected to a constructive repetition and partakes of a process of binding and transformation.
It is thus the fort game that is the more problematical, in that the subject obtains from the disappearance of the other or of himself an unconscious gratification which runs counter to the most fundamental prohibitions. In view of his belief in the omnipotence of thoughts, the child cannot conceive of death or disappearance otherwise than as the outcome of a wish; he can form an idea of these concepts solely through seeing and losing sight of objects, so he links these to the deployment of visual desire, thereby transforming trauma into pleasure, albeit a forbidden pleasure. In his account of fort/da play, Freud hints that the game was beneficial to Ernst, for, even though he was not free from feelings of jealousy upon the arrival of a new sibling, he was well able to cope with the death of his mother a short time later. This was not to say, however, as Freud had noted in discussing "dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond" (1900a, pp. 248ff), that once the subject reaches adulthood, and becomes aware of the true meaning of death, they will not be assailed in a deferred way by the guilt-driven anxiety that is to be seen in so many neuroses.
See also: Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Childhood; Death instinct (Thanatos); Infant observation (direct); L and R schemas; Lost object; Metaphor; Object a ; Symbolic, the (Lacan); Symbolization, process of; Word-presentation.
Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Part I, SE, 4: 1-338; Part II, SE, 5: 339-625.
——. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.