Tuesday, May 18th, 2010


‘The Clown Picture’: An Analytic Fragment of a Childhood Phobia

Patrick Wright

Fig. 1, “The clown picture” (otherwise untitled),
artist initials F.I.,
date unknown, 32.5 x 25cm.


Among the debris of childhood is my notorious “clown picture”: the object of an arc-haic coulrophobia. My example isn’t famous; it isn’t not borrowed from the back-cat-alogue of the history of art where uncanny images are ubiquitous, from the nineteenth century on especially; nor is it publically accessible, stored, as it is, in the upper com-partment of my wardrobe. Though it is, indisputably for me, replete with meaning.  

This article can be understood as a partial self-analysis: what I want to present is tantamount to an analytic fragment, using myself or psyche as a case history, and in so doing, understand a little better the whys and wherefores of acute infantile anxiety. I wish at the same time though to explore, in a more universal sense, the things (I will resist for now calling them “objects”) that haunt childhood as phobias, and often lie at the origin of perennial adult fascinations. I am aware that such an approach may upset those who insist on scholarly reserve, or like to privilege the political and the historic-al over the personal and the sensate. Such an approach is necessary, though, if the ori-gin story of why certain images become totems or fetishes, or even why we choose to study the visual domain at all, is to be explained. Indeed, I suspect it may not be coin-cidental that I’ve been led to study modern art, particularly the grotesque element: the work of George Grosz, for instance, whose maimed and dismembered figures evoke a most devastatingly archaic past precedent: my clown, his influence stretching through a lifetime; a trauma returning, processed by way of the decoy of “academic research.” 

If these suspicions are true I’m forced to ask deeper questions: such as can the phobic “object” (here it is a painting) serve as a metaphor for a fundamental psychical  structure? Might it represent, in a rebus form, the symptom par excellence?; and can I thus gain insight into my preoccupations, overcoming self-opacity in the process?

A whole variety of things, incomprehensible all, surround or impinge upon our fragile psychic container. In such instances of the uncanny, in what might be described as the material culture of prehistory, I’m compelled to unearth the marvellous anecdotes of a life less spectacular, less commercial or marketable – petrifying tales, relics and ogres at the outer limits of memory, that escape the net of contemporary political discourse, its concern with issues of identity, gender, colonialism, and so on. In contrast, moving inwards, into the personal, into feeling, into affect, and into childhood, might be cons-idered an evasion, an indulgence, irresponsible in the face of injustice and resentment. It seems trivial, even frivolous, to turn inside; to examine the hole or lacuna which no doubt exists at the centre of historicist accounts: the thing itself, the image, which has first captivated us, only to be subsumed by its circumscription, by history, by context; a concern with power, the canon, forgotten texts, and so on. At the same time this turn or redress is vital, as the neglect of which I speak is the elusive thing that first brought us here; a desire that, once combined with the historical, makes for a study that, while politicised, is more than simply an academic exercise; it sustains, through its analysis, an insurmountable child, which has (libidinously) invested in its object, which is what all writing of genuine critical persuasion ought to aspire toward. I have no desire, that is to say, to write about an object; rather I’m writing with my object, cognizant, all the while, of the dynamics of transference. Such an approach, as I conceive it, takes inter-pretation to its limit, where the jargon of the academic register gives way to poetry, to ekphrasis (poetic writing about works of art; trying to find an equivalent language for our chosen object): an ancient tradition deployed here, ad hoc, as a novel way of forg-ing my outrageous dialogue between personal, unconscious contents, and the haughty practice of this: exactly what I’m doing now – theorization – which, as I see it, entails the superego and its attendant narcissism siphoning their strength from infantile mate-rial. As the art critic Adrian Stokes remarked: “in the nursery, that is where to find the themes of human nature: the rest is ‘working-out’, though it be also the real music.”(1)

What I am alluding to are ruins, which evade a media-saturated climate, where every-thing is all-too-visible and, subsequently, banal; ruins which live on as priceless time-capsules of the imagination at the brink of becoming. When at such times as we happ-en to excavate these relics, we reveal the strata of the soul’s archaeology: why, that is, neurological pathways are fused in the way that they are; why psycho-pathologies are hardwired into us; and why, for many analysands, the terrors of childhood are format-ive and unable to be repressed. In truth, it is well known that it is customarily the case that, for most neurotics, the fearful object may be recalled – but they feel nothing of it anymore, and they can laugh (hysterically) at their juvenile beliefs.  

This engagement can never then be neutral or objective. Academic distance or detachment would, at best, be disingenuous or, more tragically, an obsessive ploy that evades genuine analytical work. The latter involves, in true Freudian tradition, “work-ing through” affects and thoughts that may jeopardize one’s self-image, or narcissistic composure, for the sake of sublimation alone, which, though not always, may act as a defence. This is not to decry the accomplishment that sublimation undoubtedly is; but it is to guard against a certain kind of scholarly cerebralism, which, while going as far as acknowledging an interest in the object of analysis, does not sustain, through its in-vestigation, a reflexivity into its unconscious investment; that is how (and why) one is continually in a state of transference with the object (text, artwork), especially when it disturbs or excites or takes the place of the analyst.



I’ve often asked myself why, in my case, it should be a picture. Why this thing which, for everyone else, hung on the living room wall, seemingly innocuously and lovingly, should send me into a breathless panic? Even now, a residue of that fear hovers in the space between eye/I and object, where, in my quasi-psychotic moments or in dejected states of being, I convince myself the painting’s a possessed or haunted object, like an antique clock or piano that, soon after being bought, brings bad luck to the household, bringing with it infestations of mice or insects.

But why should it be a painting in my case and not something else? Why does my negative talisman take this form?        

First, though, before I get on to answering this question, it is important to state my suspicion that my anxiety was not caused by the painting. Anxiety predates it, and is, ontologically speaking, the most basic, prehistoric affect. Anxiety comes first, with the infant’s inability to comprehend, or process, the threats – imaginary or real – to its continued survival; threats from all things in its universe which are, up until this time, undifferentiated, unassimilable, unspeakable …

Phobia, in Lacan’s formula, can be understood as an imaginary substitute for a failure of the symbolic function.(2) That is to say, the phobic object intervenes as a prop for a father who hasn’t adequately, or sufficiently, pronounced the Law against incest. Anxiety appears first, and the phobia’s a defensive formation which turns anxiety into fear by focusing it on a specific object. The phobic object, then, aids the passage from the imaginary to the symbolic: it functions as a temporary signifier, which represents, in a crystallised form, every anxiety-provoking element in the nascent subject’s world – here a painting.

Psychosis is the threat, then, where the phobia can be perceived as a self-cure, though crude and always on the brink of collapsing, since the painting acts as only the most tenuous of membranes; a lens which at the time (I’m speaking of the pre-oedipal phase) absorbed and filtered the worst. Now, from my elevated position, a trace of the old madness glints through, the surface translucent, pulsing with delayed light of dead stars. It’s evocative enough, in other words, to return me to a delirium I endured, prior to what’s called, in psychoanalytic parlance, the Oedipus complex.     
Now it strikes me as a beautiful remnant: the once abject turned to fascination, to fetish and to sublimation; and it does so in the dialectic of coming to terms with the displacement of what has no place in the unconscious, of “nameless dread” (Bion), or death, in a word. The image is a metaphor for the infant’s first mortal imaginings: my attempt (and a precocious one at that, as anxiety is proportionate to the drive to symb-olize, comprehend, and decipher one’s infantile universe) to find a focus, somewhere, out there, in the outside world, for death, which rears its ugly head as a result of a dot-ing and smothering mother, and a misattuned, merely castrative father. As it is not too imperceptible to see that “mothering” is contained in “smothering,” neither is it unap-parent that “father” is phonetically identical to “farther,” implying distance or detach-ment, and something hopelessly out of reach – painfully so.  

To paraphrase Lacan and rewriting his rather cryptic and ambiguous one-liner, the unconscious is structured not like a language, but more “like” a painting, or better, like a gallery. The speaking being is, first and foremost, prior to language acquisition, for the most part visual; and it’s vision, as the dominant sense, that reveals, with grea-ter fidelity than any verbal utterance, the principle preoccupations of the unconscious. And, if for that matter the latter is structured like anything, or is structured logically at all, it’s like a picture-book, with images that are either archetypal or personally signif-icant, each lined up as cryptograms or rebuses, like dreams are. They contain a langu-age clearly. But they are arranged more like a series of paintings on a wall than “like” language, in its everyday usage at least, is arranged – with its grammar and syntax, its chains of metonymy and metaphor, which Lacan, following the signifier, drew attent-ion to.



As far back as I can remember, the image of the clown has held a special significance for me. A secret significance too, since to have unusual obsessions is embarrassing; it hints at a deviation, perversion from capitalist concerns (what’s profitable or product-ive), and from objects, which generally arouse desire in such a milieu. It also signifies one’s deviation from sexual desire, if that is desire’s for an “anaclictic” object choice, or, in other words, for a human being with attributes that recall one or both parents.

More fetishist obsessions intimate something more archaic – more deeply bur-ied in the unconscious – and, insofar as they recur, or persist, something that is, by its very nature, anachronistic. In fact, if these seemingly worthless fears or desires have a time, it’s the time of childhood to which they belong. There’s a stigma in having such trifling things resurface in the consciousness of psychic life – in the life of the adult to be more direct, which is predicated on the assumption that the bogies and witches that once lurked under the bed have been surmounted for all time.
The painting was the very first thing I remember dreaming of, and the dream – whether a result of cryptamnesia, or due to its archetypal power – resembled the lege-ndary scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), where the angst-ridden knight challenges death to a game of chess. I didn’t know of chess at the age I was, so I dreamt of a game that was more familiar – “Top Trumps” for those who can remem- ber it; and the grim reaper didn’t appear as he did in the film; instead, he was a clown. Otherwise I see the narrative and symbolism as analogous, much like that scene that’s staged in Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781): an image which apocryphally at least hung on the wall of Freud’s Viennese office. My nightmarish scene doesn’t entail any incubus or succubus. Rather, it’s a male to male encounter, suggesting the Father; that this dream centres, more than anything, on Oedipal identification, and historically sit-uated at its threshold (three-five years of age, as is normally the case – though three in my case, precocious as I was in my eagerness to symbolize/master the uncanny world in which I found myself flung). 
Curiously, the very process of writing about this dream is itself evocative: like in the analytic setting, recollections bring about other associated recollections, which, in turn, suggests that fear has a lineage and a genealogy. In reality, the dream I’ve just recounted reminds me of another dream, one I doubt I would have remembered other-wise. Lurching from my clown dream, or dreams like it, I’d dream of my grandfather, who, having a bald head, with a mischievous personality, got mistaken for a clown, in my infantile mind – although he was a clown in the metaphorical sense at least. In my dream, he’d be sitting in the same old chair – rather like the climactic scene in Psycho (1960), where Lila Loomis spins a chair round to reveal Mrs. Bates’ mummified face, with the splendid detail of gaping eye and nose holes. Granddad was first facing away though I already knew it was him. And when he swivelled round he was transfigured, altered, like a changeling, into something hideous and demonic. His eyes were albino-like, and his hair was long and straggly, and he stared right through me, lovelessly, as if his soul had been excised.       
The above references suggest the grotesque, and the painting perhaps belongs, if anywhere, to that category. The clown-protagonist excites feelings of both empathy and disgust, and the private and apocryphal (again) links back unconsciously with the cultural/literary array of images. My clown is my Hunchback of Notre Dame; he’s my Frankenstein’s monster or Phantom of the Opera: grotesque in the Romantic sense, as expounded by Bakhtin, where the commonplace or benevolent suddenly reveals itself to be sinister, dubious and hostile.(3) This lineage runs up to the present day with Heath Ledger’s character of the joker from The Dark Knight (2008): an anarchist with “zero empathy,” one that recalls all the previous masked fiends who’ve haunted my dreams, and Ledger’s tragic death compounding the link between Thanatos and the clown. It’s just as Bart Simpson articulates curled up in a foetal position: “can’t sleep, clown will eat me.”(4)



So what of the painting itself? It’s in oil, its colours daubed with an almost Fauve-like simplicity. The fleshes are perhaps the most welcoming hue. Though parts resemble a cadaver, decomposed, putrid, and foul. The yellows of the balding, flaxen hair always appeared unreal to my eyes at least, as if cunningly artificial. Nonetheless, it’s the ab-sence of hair that wounds me the most – the first sign, barely comprehensible, of age-ing, bodily deterioration, and, more indirectly, death, which has (for Freud) no repres-entation in the unconscious.(5)
Then there’s the makeup (the sin qua non of the clown perhaps): the red of the lips in particular, of the nose borble, and the white which extends out, onto the cheeks and the chin. This gaudy face-paint conceals in its viscosity; its masking effect engen-dering a practically universal terror: masks having a place not only in popular culture, or even recent history, but instead an anthropological constant, imbued with psychical significance. 

The face is in profile; though one eye looks out, out and in to me, its iris black and inhuman. There is no empathy here, no love, or containment; it’s not the face that first looks down at the baby in its crib, the archetype of care and protection. This face, instead, is full of menace, murderous and psychopathic.

The masking, the baldness and the eclipsed (missing) nose, all represent what, for Freud, is castration – as a psychical reality, at least. Worse than all such signifiers, though, is the terrifying, abyssal blackness: a blackness which cuts off the whole head with a pitch dark that smacks of Lacan’s real, which is an undifferentiated void which underlies the symbolic order of linguistic systems and other modes of representation.

The painting is by an amateur. It’s simply signed with initials. There’s no date or title. The brushstroke is rough, yet accomplished. The surface is felt; black felt. It’s got a texture to it, like upholstery, homely, safe, maternal, deceptively securing …  

Parents, in their wisdom, think such images are merely pleasant, innocuous, or fun. They rarely pay attention to their impact on infants, to the potency of symbolism, to the power of archetypes. It’s shockingly ironic, that the deepest mark made on their children is not by their conscious, everyday instructions, the words, ideals, or laws set down for such delicate minds, but rather by actions done frivolously, without any reg-ard, in jest, or simply not considered important – as humdrum as putting a picture up.

Standing before the painting I am three years old again, once more haunted by the moments when words fail, and the terror of sleep beckons. I find old madness res-umes: I’m no longer able to signify. It’s as if language cracks open, and in through its fissure pours the impossible, l’abject.(6) The border, between the subject and its object, and, in this case, between I/eye and its Other/image, is destabilised, and non-meaning, in its unadulterated and gross form, exudes outward, permeating the spectator like the slime of a corpse. The picture is no longer a picture – framed, detached, and set in the wall – but rather a thing which glares out, into the world, its eye animate and sentient, pursuing its seer around the room. It’s an eye that, such was its power to entrance me, provoked hallucination: the unshakeable belief that I actually saw that eye move; or it caused delusion: that it wanted to make me like itself, unlovable, paralysed, dead …

The image also brings about a physiological response … my heart palpitates; I suffer a shortness of breath; I sweat. Terrifyingly, too, the image crosses the threshold between sleep and waking, follows me into sleep, holds itself there, in sporadic dream fragments, regularly broken by insufferable pictures, where I’d find myself conscious, again, in the dark and in the cold perspiration of the bed.



My literal description of the aforementioned picture has been recounted, to a friend. It was not intended to amuse him but inadvertently it did, making my subject of all seri-ousness into a joke. Where he just saw a benign clown, one he regards as “cheerful,” I saw a “decapitated clown’s head against a black void.” This poetic and perhaps melo-dramatic description made him laugh. And this is no surprise, for laughter deflects (or is a defence of) the uncanniness of the painting and the speaker of such terrors, which ought, in the now famous words of Schelling, “to have … remained secret and hidden but [have] come to light.”(7) Laughter is a sign that one can’t bring oneself to recognise the uncanny, or one’s uncanniness for that matter. If a picture disturbs it is the subject who creates this disturbance. Furthermore, the element of humour is inseparable from the affect of the uncanny or the grotesque. The grotesque, particularly, as Bakhtin has observed, in both its medieval and post-Enlightenment manifestation is never entirely devoid of comedy. Even so, as he rightly qualifies, the Romantic variant (which is for me the one which most accurately applies to my clown) is “cut down to cold humour, irony, sarcasm.”(8)
The clown is also a subverter of authority; it poses a challenge to hierarchies –such as in medieval times when the king, like his jester, was outside the law (outlaw). When father came bounding into the room, his face obfuscated by the mask, believing it to be entertaining, funny, he was, likewise, subverting his authority, his place in the Oedipal triangle: Father, seen through a wounded infant’s eyes, suddenly a clown, the law a joke, and my fragile self, as a result, precarious, its mirror shattering. There, the connection was made: my father, dressed as a clown, acting the fool, is made stable in the painting: framed, aestheticised, bounded. There, (rather than elsewhere, where the law was forcibly enacted), I was unable to empathise, to connect, with such a flagrant lack of sensitivity: there, exorcised to the image, taking residence in the unconscious.  
Perhaps laughter veils sadness; and frivolity masks melancholy. The clown is, then, like his makeup, a thin covering over black spaces which find no forms. Always a pierrot and anarchist to the last, rather than nothing or the “Nothing” which screams from underneath.    

The picture is not isolated; it is actually one moment on an arc, part of a gene-alogy – simply one of a series “things” which exist prior to the demarcation of subject and object. The realm of the pre-objectal has been explored throughout the psychoan-alytic tradition and comprises anxiety (Freud), the paranoid-schizoid position (Klein), beta elements (Bion), and the related transitional object (Winnicott): concepts that are each, in their own way, attempts to elaborate the phobic (psycho)genesis of the infant.  

Bion’s notion of mental space departs from Klein’s account of the inner world (the child’s phantasies with regard to the mother’s body and contents), as it’s predica-ted on three-dimensionality and is populated with concretely experienced objects. It’s also unlike Winnicott’s account of the space between mother and child, since the psy-chical experience of inner space has potentially persecuting elements, in that it can be perceived as an alien, hostile void or emptiness. The threat of feeling engulfed by this space is analogous to the sense of “falling forever” (Meltzer), which means having no boundaries in which to contain anxiety. The result is nothing short of psychical catas-trophe, which Bion calls “catastrophic chaos” or “nameless dread”.

Aside from theory, though, what else exists on this arc? A hideously deformed man, seen at a carnival procession at the age of three?; or a “witch’s hand”, in daubed plaster of a wall at home, five fingers and thumb, all atrociously “spiky”?; a “monkey mask” which seemed to have the eyes of an ape glaring through?; or perhaps even the spiral staircase of the steeple at the local church, which my grandmother wanted us to climb. But I pleaded against it, since the blackness was the darkest dark I’d ever seen. It looked like death might – if I could imagine it.
I’m not unusual in having such memories; they apply to most of us. That said, for most adults time has blown its sand over such fixations so they no longer interfere or impinge on the day-to-day activities, which, understandably, must take precedence.  


(1) Adrian Stokes, England and its Aesthetes: John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Adrian Stokes (Amsterdam: Overseas Publishers Association, 1997), p. 69.

(2) See, for instance, Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), pp. 145-48.

(3) See Mikhail Bakhtin, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 39.

(4) See Heath Ledger, quoted in Sarah Lyall, “Movies: In Stetson or Wig, He’s Hard to Pin Down”, The New York Times, 4 November 2007; and Jeff Martin, “Lisa’s First Word”, The Simpsons, 10.4 (Fox, 1992).

(5) Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (24 volumes), translated and edited by James Strachey in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis; New York: Norton, 1953-74), vol. 18, passim.

(6) See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia UP, 1982).

(7) Freud, ‘The “Uncanny”’, Standard Edition, vol. 17, p. 345.

(8) See Bakhtin, p. 38.


Patrick Wright is an Associate Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the Manchester Metropolitan University. He has published articles in journals such as Angelaki and Mystics Quarterly, and is author of his debut novel Fallen Pictures. He is currently writing his second novel and can be reached at


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