Let’s Talk About Skin



Charles Landseer, 1813. Wellcome Library, London. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Landseer, 1813. Wellcome Library, London.

In the exchange below, J. D. Daniels and Mike Nagel discuss Didier Anzieu’s The Skin-Egoavailable in a new translation by Naomi Segal. Anzieu (1923–99) was a French psychoanalyst and theorist whose work brought the body back to the center of psychoanalytic inquiry; The Skin-Ego, first published in the mideighties, found him meditating on the function and structures of the skin as a “psychic envelope.” Naomi Segal is a professor of modern languages, specializing in comparative literary and cultural studies, gender, psychoanalysis and the body.


Dear Mike,

I just got back from New Orleans, where my friend Nicky told me his theory of swamp karma.

Anything you drop down here will sprout, he said, whether it’s a seed from a plant or a deed you sow. This land is fertile and karma is quick. If you do good, you get good. If you do bad, you get bad. If you don’t know how you did, you can always check on what you got. 

But it’s not always clear whether what happens to us is good or bad. Take this Anzieu-exchange idea of ours, for example. Even a bad idea is an idea. And, as Pessoa says somewhere, still worse than the bad books we do write are those books we never write.

Once I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane: a bad idea. Ron opened the little door and I jumped out of my skin, out of the container, out of the mother ship. There was nothing out there at all, nothing except the rest of the world. If I had been falling, I would have hit the ground. But the ground was far away, and I kept falling, and falling. I wasn’t falling at all. I was flying.

I’m thinking about airplanes because of what I found in my nervous detour around Anzieu’s The Skin-Ego into El cuerpo de la obra: ensayos psicoanaliticos sobre el trabajo creador (couldn’t get an English edition), his book on creative work: a long quote from Proust.

To mount the skies, it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth’s surface … is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of a mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be … is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected … He, in his modest machine which had at last “taken off,” soared above their heads.

As Naomi Segal writes in her introduction to The Skin-Ego,

Locally, the opening moment of a creative act is a version of “take-off” or “lift-off” … Anzieu uses it to describe the ability of the creator to “fly above” [survoler] other people.

Where are we now? We are “entering into creation”—but, as Segal rightly observes, this is “a highly gendered representation of the psychology of the creative act.”

Are we just dicking around?



David Gerard, The Judgement of Cambyses

David Gerard, The Judgement of Cambyses.




I had delirious dreams last night that you and I were trying, and failing, to talk seriously about skin. The dream version of you was some sort of stand-in I’d created out of bits and pieces of other people I know. This, I realize now, is because I don’t know what you look like. Not really. Not in any useful way. So is it too much of a stretch to say that, not being in the same room together, our words here are acting as our “container.” Our “surface.” Our skin. Which could explain why, now that we are thinking about showing these letters to people, I feel overwhelmingly self-conscious.

And skin is stretchy, by the way. Skin fits what you put into it. My dad once pulled a fishhook out of my leg. I watched my skin stretch like elastic.

Maybe, in a best case (and, yes, highly gendered) scenario, “dicking around” becomes “entering into creation.” Some of us have to trick ourselves into doing meaningful things. I imagine my wife standing seductively in the bedroom doorway, asking if I want to “procreate.” Anything good I’ve ever done has had the feeling of being an accident. Which, of course, is an almost impossible way to work. But maybe not one Anzieu would disagree with? (I’ve read Segal’s intro now; not just read but genuinely enjoyed.) “It is the unconscious of the author, a living and individual reality, that gives a text its life and singularity.”

I think about something essayist/philosopher (are those different?) Paul Valéry said: “Nothing is deeper in man than his skin.” Which reminds me of what Rachel Dawes once told Bruce Wayne outside a fancy hotel: “It’s not who we are inside that counts, Bruce, it’s what we do that defines us.” Which I heard echoed again by Anzieu in this introduction: “the centre is … to be found at the periphery.” Is it possible for “beating around the bush” to be the whole point? It seems like a lot of books could be shorter. But maybe it’s just that getting off the ground requires a running start.

Have we started?



Antonio de Bellis, The Flaying of Marsyas. Wikimedia Commons.

Antonio de Bellis, The Flaying of Marsyas.


Dear Mike,

We have started, and I’m glad you had delirious dreams. I’d hoped to have a dream of my own. All I got was a stomachache. In Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog says his shoe eating “should be an encouragement for all of you … who are scared to just start, who haven’t got the guts,” but everyone has guts. It’s a question of tolerating the stomachache. These are the labor pains.

Our conversation began when you showed me your terrific essay “Hide” (I read it again this morning, with deepening admiration) with its contranymic title that means both visible layer and concealment. Skin means both the surface and “to skin,” to remove that surface. But each of us has also argued elsewhere that the inside and the outside are the same side.

The first entry for Anzieu I find in my diary is from January 2015. “Donated a pint of blood yesterday at 3 PM at Mt Auburn Hospital and, as usual, overthought it. Piercing Anzieu’s skin-ego, Crucifixion & sacrifice, Blutsbrüderschaft, blending the private interior with the pooled blood of the group.”

So much, then, for N. Segal’s prefatory material, and for ours. Now on to the five chapters of Anzieu’s Part I: Discovery.




Dear Mike—

The Skin Ego, by Didier Anzieu. J. D. Daniels: “I don’t understand a lot of what I’m reading, and some of what I think I understand I may not actually understand.”

The Skin Ego, by Didier Anzieu. J. D. Daniels: “I don’t understand a lot of what I’m reading, and some of what I think I understand, I may not actually understand.”

After reading seventy-two pages of Anzieu’s The Skin-Ego, it would be self-destructive not to make a quick gesture of self-defense. I don’t understand a lot of what I’m reading, and some of what I think I understand I may not actually understand.

I remember what Francis Bator told me. How beautiful and different our world would be, he said, if every school of journalism gave a required course in which students practiced looking in a mirror and saying, I am not qualified to give an opinion on this subject.

But Anzieu writes that “Psychoanalysis has a greater need of people who think in images than of scholars, scholiasts, abstract or formalistic thinkers.”

Naomi Segal’s new translation is an important contribution. It is worthwhile for a non-scholar to draw attention to her work, even though I may be revealed as a partial or even total dumb fuck in the process.

There are worse fates. Do you remember that Julie Brown song “I Like ’Em Big and Stupid”?


When I read, in Anzieu’s first chapter, about the Skin-ego and the principle of self-regulation of open systems in response to “noise,” I became very excited.

My notebook from the Diaz-McGregor fight, Saturday 05, March 2016: “How the hell am I supposed to think with all this racket? — Maybe the ‘racket’ is the thoughts. Other people are not ‘noise.’ ”


Anzieu writes:

The thing that has been misunderstood, denied or entirely absent—in education, in everyday life … was, and to a great extent still is, the body: as a vital element of human reality, as a general, irreducible, pre-sexual given, as the thing that all psychical functions lean on anaclitically.

I had to look up anaclitic. I’m sure I’m not alone. It wasn’t in my compact OED. I found it online.

Relating to or characterized by a strong emotional dependence on another or others.

Leaning or depending upon; in psychoanalysis, relating to the dependence of the infant on the mother or mother substitute.

W. R. Bion on Melanie Klein: the group is the mother’s body. (How I wish I hadn’t sold my copy of Anzieu’s The Group and the Unconscious.)

Even the so-called “individual” self is a group: the ego is an emergent property of multiple agencies in the self.

“All psychical functions lean on the body anaclitically” (but doesn’t anaclitic mean “lean”?) because reality is primarily physical. Psychic functions depend on the existence of the physical body, and many are modeled on its structures. The Skin-ego is the outermost part of the self, the mask that is the face, the socially constructed inter-face of the private self with the social reality of others.


Let’s look at Anzieu’s fourth chapter, on the flaying of Marsyas. My first acquaintance with the myth was in my childhood D’Aulaires’:

Marsyas, a satyr who was capering about in the Phrygian woods, found the flute [made from two of Medusa’s bones by Athena, then discarded when she realized her puffed cheeks made her look silly] and began to play on it. When he found he could play two melodies at the same time, he was wild with joy. He hopped through the woods, playing on his double flute, boasting that now he could make better music than Apollo himself.

Apollo frowned when he heard that a satyr dared compare himself to him, the god of music, and he stormed down from Olympus to the Phrygian woods. He found Marsyas who was so delighted with his own music that he even challenged Apollo to a contest.

“You shall have your contest,” said Apollo, “but if I win, you shall lose your hide.”

… Marsyas lost the contest and Apollo pulled off his skin and made a drum of it.

Francesco Montelatici, Apollo Flaying Marsyas.

Francesco Montelatici, Apollo Flaying Marsyas.

Anzieu (like Türcke and Caldwell on Hesiod’s Theogony) interprets Apollo’s victory over the Phrygian Marsyas as a historical victory of Greek civilization over Phrygian barbarism raised to the level of myth, but also as an account of psychic processes:

A myth follows a double process of encoding. It encodes external reality—botanical, cosmological, socio-political, toponymic, religious, etc.—and it encodes internal, psychic reality by placing it in a direct relation to the elements of external reality. It is my view that the myth of Marsyas encodes the psychical reality that I have named the Skin-ego.

(I am grateful for the directness and simplicity of Segal’s new translation—where Turner had “an encoding of the particular psychical reality,” Segal has, more briskly but sacrificing nothing, “encodes the psychical reality.”)

Anzieu’s Marsyas differs from the D’Aulaires’ version of my childhood.

The healing-seductive power that Marsyas has over the mother of the gods [Cybele] makes him ambitious and presumptuous, which provokes Apollo to challenge him.

But there’s no time to examine who challenged whom. Nor is there time to revisit King Midas adjudicating that challenge, the same Midas who turned all he touched into gold, aka shit—no time to discuss what the brilliant Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel might say about Midas’s Sadean “basic intention: to reduce the universe to faeces, or rather to annihilate the universe of differences (the genital universe) and put in its place the anal universe in which all parts are equal and interchangeable.”

I’ve said enough for now.



Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas.

Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas.



I think you know by now that I’ve been obsessed with skin for a long time. My own skin in particular. Mainly because it keeps falling off. Eczema, psoriasis, the works. So it seems fitting to end our discussion talking about being out of our skin rather than in it. All the more since Anzieu himself writes that the myth of the flaying of Marsyas “encodes the physical reality that I have named the Skin-ego.” Finally, maybe, the kernel within the shell? (Even in my devotion to the periphery, I can’t help shooting for the center.)

But what is there to say about any of it? Skin is so hard to talk about. Harder still to talk about someone else’s talking about it. “Perhaps one begins to mean by this, that the skin is a topology rather than a topography,” Steven Connor writes in his Book of Skin, “a shape which does not present itself all at once to the eye, but emerges, like the gathering of a wave, or the piling of a cloud, through the passage of time, whose shape it itself comes to be.”

In other words: this could take awhile. Unfortunately, we’re almost out of time.

Reading Anzieu has not solved any mysteries for me. Its gift has been making me aware of the mysteries themselves. It’s given me more to think about. Specifically, it confirms my horror that my own skin is coming off.

“This mytheme seems to me to relate to the skin’s capacity to contain the body and the blood,” Anzieu writes re: the second mytheme of the flaying of Marsyas, “the torture consists of destroying the continuity of the containing surface by riddling it with artificial orifices.”

There are patches on my back that are starting to bleed.

I like the way Melville talks about whales. Particularly when he says that the shape of a whale can never be truly known. Whales are as liquid as the ocean in which they swim. I think we face a similar problem with skin. To quote Connor again: “the shape of the skin is in fact not a sculptured shape made of planes, lines and masses, but a morphology as of smoke.”

Smoke, John.

We are not exactly in the realm of the tangible here. And I think Anzieu would agree: “My idea of the Skin-ego is not yet a concept; it is instead, intentionally, a vast metaphor.”

Here’s my metaphor: the loss of my skin was triggered by the loss of my Christian faith. Me, elsewhere:

The shedding of my skin corresponded with the shedding of my religion: my beliefs about God and the world. And myself. They both just happened to start at the same time. I’d been a fundamentalist Christian until I was twenty-two. I don’t know what triggered my skin to start falling off and I don’t know what triggered my beliefs to start falling apart. I suspect that these things happen for no reason.

I worry that my rotten skin is an indication of my rotten soul. An external expression of internal decay.

Of course I didn’t really believe that when I wrote it. It was a device. So what am I supposed to think of Anzieu’s observation in chapter 1 of The Skin-Ego that skin is “the mirror of the soul”?

Luca Giordano, Apollo e Marsia.

Luca Giordano, Apollo e Marsia.

Maybe I talk about my skin in retaliation. I sense that it’s talking about me.

My skin and I are going through a bit of a rough patch.

I read most of The Skin-Ego on the train in and out of downtown Dallas. My office is above the tracks. One evening a friend and I were watching the trains and he said, See all that black stuff on top of the cars? That’s people’s skin, blown out through the air vents. So now when I’m on the train, I think about people’s skin. Their disgusting, detachable skin. Floating around.

The word hide, Connors tells us, “may linger in the word ‘hideous.’ ”

Near the end of chapter 4 of The Skin-Ego, Anzieu presents his own negative mytheme (“Kernel of a myth”) regarding the flaying of Marsyas. Simply this: ultimately “the skin destroys itself.” I believe this has been my own mytheme as well. My skin turned on me, and I’m still trying to figure out why.

John, I think you’re right about us being dumb fucks. I don’t understand a lot of what I’ve read. And I’m worried that a lot of what I’ve written is off base. But I hadn’t fully understood my own obsession with skin until I read this book. Like a lot of people who have never quite gotten comfortable in their own skin, I usually assume I’m the only person who feels a certain way about things. So yes, this book might be over my head despite Segal’s noble efforts at offering it back down (there is only so much you can do for a dumb fuck). But in the end it still accomplished what all great books accomplish for me. Anzieu: “To communicate is, above all, to resonate or vibrate in harmony with the other.”

Which I think is what you and I have been doing here too, John. In the bodies of our e-mails.



J. D. Daniels is a 2016 Whiting Award winner. He received the 2013 Terry Southern Prize from The Paris Review. His collection The Correspondence will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in January 2017.

Mike Nagel’s essays have appeared in The Awl, Salt Hill, apt, Moon City Review, and elsewhere. He and his wife live in Dallas.