Excerpts from J.-B. Pontalis’s Brother of the Above


Born in 1924, the late Jean-Bertrand Pontalis studied philosophy, served on the editorial board of Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, and became a leading psychoanalyst and book editor. In 1967, with Jean Laplanche, he published the authoritative Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse, a unique guide to the development of Freud’s conceptual apparatus. For many years he was an editor for Gallimard in Paris, in which capacity he was responsible for much of the best in French psychoanalytical publishing. Starting in 1980, Pontalis wrote many works of a literary nature, often with autobiographical resonances. Brother of the Above is no exception. It was a past practice in biographical dictionaries often to place the less important of two brothers below the more important, describing the former as “brother of the above.” Pontalis’s subject is pairs of brothers in life and in literature, renowned or anonymous­­—not least the pair formed by himself and his elder brother. From van Gogh to Flaubert, from the Goncourts to the Champollions, from Robert Louis Stevenson to Marcel Proust, Pontalis passes a host of brothers in search of an answer; in search, too, of deliverance from his own brother’s shadow. J.-B. Pontalis died on January 15, 2013.

—Donald Nicholson-Smith.


Heads and Tails

A few years after the publication of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Jekyll and Hyde being two faces of the same man), Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Master of Ballantrae. A good part of the action of this novel takes place in Scotland. In 1745, when the story begins, war is on. Two men are contending for power: Prince Charles, heir to the House of Stuart, and King George of the House of Hanover. Power cannot be shared, there can be but one master, and the prince will eventually be defeated.

In a manor in the southwest of the country, presiding over a domain at the brink of ruin, lives an old laird, the declining Master of Ballantrae, with his two sons James and Henry (a wink from Stevenson with reference to his friend Henry James, brother of William). There is also a young woman, Miss Alison, an orphan and a rich heiress, who is destined to wed whichever of the two brothers eventually replaces the laird, inheriting the estate and assuming the title of Master of Ballantrae. In any case, James, the older son, is already referred to as “the Master”; the title is his by right: he is the older.

First of all, however, the question is which side to take: that of King George, whose claim to legitimacy is greater, or that of Prince Charlie, who has just arrived to do battle with him? Which son will go and join the prince? This dilemma prompts the first “toss-up” of a long series. “I know no better way,” James will say later, “to express my scorn of human reason.”

Might the whole direction of our lives depend on a coin toss, beginning with our arrival in the world? Why is one the older and another the cadet? Why should one take first place and the other the second? Why is James so obviously the father’s favorite? Might little Henry have been the favorite of the mother—of whom we learn nothing save that she is dead?

“Heads, I go; shield, I stay,” says Henry. A guinea gold piece is spun and falls shield. “So there is a lesson for Jacob,” says James mockingly, who has not forgotten how Esau’s let his birthright be stolen from him. This moment is the starting point of the discord between the two brothers. Whatever may have happened earlier, in childhood, remains in the background for readers. And so much the better, in a way, for it means that the action is chronological and the confrontation between the brothers is always in the present.

Alison realizes instantly that this “heads or tails,” this decree of happenstance, requiring strict obedience to “the arbitrament of chance,” must signal an irreversible break. She flings the gold piece “clean through the family shield in the great painted window.” Henceforth the family crest is split in two. The decree of chance is that of the diabolon—that which divides, separates, disunites. From that day on, the disagreement—no, what am I saying? The war, the vendetta—between the two brothers can only worsen until death ensues. The devil has won. When it comes to faults, rifts, or breaks, who among us can legitimately claim to be one, to have one identity and one only?

I have no wish to summarize Stevenson’s novel here; indeed it would be beyond my powers. Even more than Treasure Island, the tale is rife with adventures that carry us away from Scotland and set us down in New York, or among Indians, or among pirates, and so on. But the ever-present connecting thread is the confrontation between the enemy brothers. At times we may think—may hope? may fear?—that the hostilities are diminishing, or ending for lack of combatants. But not at all: they always pick up again, fiercer than ever. More than once James is presumed dead: first in action, while fighting alongside Prince Charlie; then again in a duel with his brother—with swords—on a winter’s night by candlelight (an admirable scene, this); and finally, at the very end of the tale when, pursued by his brother and betrayed by his presumed protectors, he is buried only to rise again! Could the Devil be immortal in his transgression of the rules meant to regulate human relationships, in his sublime indifference to the rules of Nature, be eternal?

What is the source of the great acrimony between these two brothers? The most obvious factor is the difference in their personalities. James is a gambler swamped in debt, a womanizer, handsome, arrogant, manipulative - but also highly courageous. Even those who despise him cannot curb their fascination. Compared with him (as though the very fact of being the cadet entailed a comparison with the elder brother), Henry seems lackluster to say the least. He is a reserved, untalkative fellow who takes scrupulous care, down to the last penny, of the family estate’s affairs. A small-time manager as opposed to a grand adventurer. The latter risks his life throughout; the former stays at home. Master and slave.

Beyond the contrasting personalities, beyond the possession of the title of Master, even beyond the position occupied relative to the father, is it not the woman, in the person of Alison, whom it is necessary for each to possess? And I say “possess” advisedly, because love plays barely any part in this story, unless one considers that love alone keeps the flame of hatred burning between the brothers.

Alison is betrothed to the older, and is attracted by him. But when James is left for dead after the nighttime duel, she becomes Henry’s wife. She gives him two children, a girl and a boy. Everything seems to be returning to normal. Could the Devil, this once, have lost? To think so would be to underestimate his powers. He will never admit defeat. The “diabolical” James, decidedly stronger than death, comes back. He denigrates his brother, humiliates him publicly, insults him and asserts that it is he whom Alison loves; and he succeeds in winning the affections of Henry’s little daughter, who climbs on his knee and walks hand in hand with him. The “insidious devil” proves himself to be an expert at sowing discord. At dividing – always dividing: he is the Master.

What is the object of this jealousy? The two brothers are jealous of one another, just as the two faces of a gold piece might be jealous of one another. Each wants to appropriate the woman, the children, the estate, the title of Master of Ballantrae. Jealousy can easily change its object, attaching itself to this or to that – to a possession, a legacy, a woman, a child, or a father; it is diffuse, spreading to whatever is on offer. It is a passion, but one that is at once focused and errant; it is predatory, destructive, self-destructive – a criminal passion that spares nothing. A trap that grinds.

How does the book end? At the ends of the earth, in the midst of a wilderness fraught with dangers and threats, lie two men, together at last, beneath a single stone. Their names, according to an inscription, are James and Henry, “fraternal enemies.” Let us call them “Heads and Tails.” We may fancy that they are embracing. Oh Death, could this be thy victory?


Zig and Puce

Here is a recollection from an analysis conducted some 20 years ago.

Hubert had returned the day before from a little village in the Southwest where he had attended the burial of his older brother Julien.

“There weren’t a lot of people, just a few neighbors who were hardly very fond of him,” Hubert made sure to note. “You can’t really blame them. He would insult them as soon as he had drunk a couple of glasses of wine. There were just some neighbors and me.”

I remember thinking immediately that the closest of Julien’s neighbors, despite the great distance that actually separated the two brothers, and above all despite their falling-out, was he, Hubert, my patient, always so friendly toward me, so careful not to make waves and so eager to please.

The two had indeed been at odds for years. They had stopped seeing one another or speaking or writing. Yet Hubert was forever mentioning his brother to me, calling him malicious, perverse, and diabolical. “I know of nothing so horrible,” he would tell me, “as being made the target of hatred. Why does he loathe me so much? Is it because I’ve done better than him? Our parents forecast a brilliant future for him, but he did nothing but drift and stagnate, ending up with the shipwreck of the last few years. Could it be jealousy, or envy? I think that in the end he resents me for being born, that he has never admitted it, and that there should never have been one mother for two sons, that two was one too many. So be it. But why does that make me suffer? After all, I might be delighted that he envies me, see it as a sign of my victory.”

“Your victory?”

“Yes, my getting the better of him. But instead of that I feel like his prey. I told you: like the target of his hatred.” Hubert laid the stress on the word “target.”

I concluded that Hubert was in a sense possessed by the image of this “diabolical” brother. But was it only an image? So convincing was he when telling me of all the dirty tricks Julien had played on him, all the double-dealing his brother had subjected him to, that I was almost ready to side with him, to assume his defense and protect the “good” victim from his “bad” persecutor. I had so loved the Rousseau of the Confessions.

But then I came to my senses: “No one is innocent. The world is not Manichean. Forget Rousseau! In Hubert there must surely be a well-concealed hate that is not solely a reaction to the one of which he claims to be the target.” But of this supposed hate I could find not a trace. It took me quite a while to realize that Hubert’s way of “getting the better” of me was to prevent me ever feeling the slightest irritation towards him, or ever saying anything that might conceivably hurt his feelings. Since he showed no aggressiveness toward me, I was hardly likely to upset him. All he wanted was no waves, no outbursts, just calm and mutual understanding. To be a true, not a false brother.

Above all, not to become an object of hatred. Rather, to be an ally.

But an ally against whom? Against the bad brother, naturally. Left alone, Hubert would be defenseless. But, above and beyond the person of his brother, what obscure force did he have to confront? I was not eager to give that force a face or a name, indeed I refused to do so, sensing that it transcended individuals, that it operated through them. I came very close to thinking in terms of fate.

For generations before that of Julien and Hubert, brothers and sisters had continually fallen out. It was enough to make one believe in unconscious repetition, or to embrace theories of transgenerational transmission of the kind that I hardly subscribed to. The notion of falling-out (brouille) which Hubert evoked so frequently gave me pause. It made me think of fog (brouillard), which makes things hazy and dissolves forms, of steamed-up windows, of the blurring of vision, of memory confusing time-frames. I thought of incomprehension. And that I ought to stop “understanding” Hubert. Unintentionally, he helped me to do so.

Sometimes he would complain—always his first words in a session—about the indifference or even the contempt displayed by strangers: “Listen, when I got here today, just as I was about to enter the building a man came out and slammed the porte-cochère in my face. Your last client, I presume. I wanted to shout at him: ‘What about me? Don’t I exist?’“ In me Hubert had found an attentive and benevolent ear; he was sure—too sure—of existing for himself, of being recognized in his uniqueness, even to the point of believing himself to be a “single child.” But the word “client,” uttered so casually, had let a trace of hostility show itself, at the same time allowing him to belittle me for pretending to be sensitive to the suffering of my patients when in reality I was no better than a shopkeeper trying to keep his customers.

Before long the brother was far from being the only enemy. More than one of Hubert’s coworkers at the office were nothing but frauds, his boss was arrogant and incompetent, his childhood friends were egotists, nor had time improved them; as for women, once the early days were over (which was soon), they always had their minds somewhere else.

“Somewhere else than on you.” Hubert did not appreciate this remark of mine, which I have to say was made with some annoyance.

The fact was that by now I was beginning to be irritated by this man who was no longer for me the unfortunate, the poor Hubert. Back to mind came all the things he had told me about how difficult he found it to emerge each morning from his sleep and his dreams—dreams of which he never spoke; did they contain too much hate? “When I get up,” he would say, “the whole world seems hostile. I can’t abide the slightest noise, I don’t say a word to my wife while I’m eating my breakfast, I’m fearful that the mail will bring nothing but registered letters that I have to sign for, never a good sign, and I need an hour or two before I can venture out and go to work. It’s like a net: I must have this space, this dead time.”

I repeated the words “this dead time,” but got not the slightest response.

For a good while his complaining about this morning paralysis of his with respect to the outside world touched me. How hard it was for him to awaken to the world, to this world, just as it had been hard for him to be born at all—to be born and welcomed! Perhaps he had needed a good mother. That was me.

But now I saw things in a different light. What Hubert was suffering from—and I certainly did not question his suffering—was not so much having been mistreated by his brother, ill-loved by his mother (“Julien was her favorite, and I can prove it a thousand ways”), and neglected by his father (“Always stuck in his books, that one”), but rather not having been acknowledged as different. Assuming the role of the outcast at least afforded him access to difference. The terrible thing about families is that one is obliged to differentiate oneself. How could Hubert escape from the undivided house that every family is? He could not aspire to the position occupied by his brother, the darling son, unless he settled for being a pale imitation.

I learned late in the proceedings that after Julien the mother had hoped for a girl. Was there a miscarriage? A stillbirth? Hubert did not know. But this phantom girl, this child of limbo, was somewhere within him. I concluded that he had had to prove that he was indeed a boy, and absolutely not the little sister of his big brother. Work hard, rise in the hierarchy of his profession, marry young, have children, and so forth. It seemed to me that his whole life and “success” were founded solely on the need to dispel and forestall any possible doubt about his sex. “I wonder,” he told me one day, “whether Julien was homosexual.”

I have just finished reading The Master of Ballantrae, and everything is suddenly getting mixed up. I see analogies between the novel and Hubert’s analysis (by coincidence the initials of the two pairs of brothers are the same: H and J). I find echoes of both stories in my battles with my own brother. But now all these entanglements are themselves entangled. Everything is broken up and blurred.

Oddly, I have forgotten to note what Hubert told me on returning from his brother’s funeral: “I went for form’s sake, so that someone from the family—I was the only one left—would be there. I was brim-full of resentment and, I don’t know what came over me, I wanted to say a few words at the graveside. As children we had read some Zig and Puce comic books together that we found in an attic. We took roles: he would be Zig and I would be Puce. And then, after having just said publicly that my brother had been very hard to deal with (and, believe me, his neighbors knew what I was talking about!), I said—but I ask you, what could have gotten into me?—I said ‘Goodbye, my old Zig,’ and I was sobbing.”

I fancy that Zig and Puce, like James and Henry deep in their wilderness, lie buried now under the same stone in that little graveyard in the Southwest. No difference between them now – and no differences. Heads and tails are the same. Unless, of course, the ferocious duel goes on endlessly, even between the dead. Who knows?


(with Jean Laplanche) “Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality” (1964). International Journal of Psycho-analysis #49, 1968.
(with Jean Laplanche) The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1967). London, Hogarth Press/Institute of Psycho-Analysis; New York, Norton, 1973.
Frontiers in Psycho-Analysis: Between Dream and Psychic Pain (1977). London: Chatto & Windus/Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1981.
Love of Beginnings (1986). London, Free Association, 1993.
Windows (2000). Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.


J.-B. Pontalis, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith (International Psychoanalytic Books, 2012)

Donald Nicholson-Smith’s translation of Laplanche and Pontalis’s Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse is entitled The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1972). English by birth, Nicholson-Smith is a longtime resident of Brooklyn. The Rail has previously excerpted his translations of Raoul Vaneigem, Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean-Patrick Manchette, and others.