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From Anxiety to Zoolander

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From Anxiety to Zoolander is a collection of writings on psychoanalytic themes. Each text was originally delivered as a talk, and the book aims to retain the informality and directness of the spoken word. While many of the chapters focus on clinical questions, they also speak about art, comedy, fashion, fame and fiction. Freudian and Lacanian theories are central, but the book as a whole is far from doctrinaire, with all areas of psychoanalytic thinking being up for discussion. Clinical topics include acting out, narcissism, gender, transference, diagnosis, and the Oedipus complex, tracing ideas through Freud and the post-Freudians, and examining their relevance to the contemporary psychoanalytic clinic. Non-clinical topics include Louise Bourgeois's notes on her analysis, stand-up comedy, Paris Hilton's televised friendship auditions, and Ben Stiller's penetrating stupidity in Zoolander 2. While each essay is self-contained, the book argues overall for the continued relevance of Freudian ideas in the treatment of psychic suffering, as well as in the interpretation of cultural phenomena.

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Acting Out

ePub

It's unfortunate that the term “acting out” begins with a letter “a” because it's hardly a natural starting point for a general book on psychoanalysis. It's a notoriously imprecise idea and, unlike “anxiety” or “wish fulfilment”, isn't much in circulation in the outside world. On the bright side, it invokes the broader problems of speech, action, listening, and understanding, which are central to analytic work. While it might require a fair bit of untangling to get anywhere near the bottom of the concept, there's a chance it might be worth it if, en route, we stumble across a series of ideas or questions about what one person might be attempting to do with another, both in the consulting room and beyond. While there might be doubts about the validity of the term, its very imprecision could be the thing that ultimately proves enlightening; an attempt at an explanation should take us straight to the heart of some of the knottiest problems of clinical practice.

Here are a few very basic definitions, just to give some idea of the problems of trying to say exactly what “acting out” is. From randomly selected psychoanalytic websites we have; “discharge by a means of action rather than a verbalisation”, “something repeated as opposed to remembered”, or acting out as a form of defence; for instance, a man has an affair because he can't recognise or name the feelings of helplessness he experiences in his marriage. From Wikipedia, we get: “Acting out is usually anti-social”, an example being a tantrum, or the so-called “cry for help” activities like shoplifting or self-harm.

 

Anxiety

ePub

One man in a clinic where I worked had become so terrified of cats that he couldn't leave his house unaccompanied. Another woman was so afraid of shops, trains, boats, and planes that she could never go with her husband to the supermarket or on holiday. In both cases, it was impressive to see how perfectly the situation seemed to suit them, not to mention their partners. The first case demanded a high degree of interdependence, while the second necessitated plenty of separation. Although they both claimed to want to “get better” it wasn't hard to see some of the benefits of their symptoms—company for the former, freedom for the latter. You'll often hear it said in psychoanalytic circles that the treatment of phobias is a very delicate matter; trying to remove them may be a very bad idea. While they might be making a person's life impossible on one level, they might also be making it possible on another.

I'd like to look at some of the Freudian and Lacanian ideas about anxiety and phobia before discussing a case of phobia in a woman. Very loosely speaking, it's easy to get the idea that Freud thinks it's all about the scary, castrating father while Lacan thinks it's all about the scary, overwhelming mother. Obviously, it's not so simple. I'll focus on Freud's “Little Hans” case (1909b), although I know, for some, it will be all too familiar. Still, perhaps it's worth picking through the details in order to see that Freud is already saying some of what Lacan goes on to say in Seminar IV, The Object Relation (1956–1967) (1993b), namely that the phobic object stands in for a number of key figures in the subject's life, not just one.

 

Cure

ePub

Around the time of Louise Bourgeois's death in 2010, four boxes of notes were discovered; hundreds of pages of writings and drawings, some documenting her three decades in psychoanalysis. The notes, a number of which are on display in the museum, prompt questions about the aims of clinical psychoanalysis, and whether “cure” is a relevant topic for analysts and their patients—perhaps especially for those patients who are artists.

“Cure” has been an extremely labile idea in the history of analysis. In Freud's writings from the late 1890s people keep getting better. He reviews this position as he goes along until, reading “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937c), you might come away with the idea that psychoanalysis doesn't make people any better at all. Indeed, many analysts see “cure” as an entirely misguided aim. This isn't because, as the popular suspicion goes, if you cure your patients they'll stop coming, but because it presupposes a medical model of sickness and health that many consider incommensurate with the subtleties of psychic life.

 

Family

ePub

In the twenty-first century, a family can take many different forms: biological or non-biological, two mothers, two fathers, two mothers and two fathers, no father, or any other combination you like. Still, as ever, some families seem easier and pleasanter to grow up in than others. So, what makes a good one, if not a cisgendered mum and dad who stick together to bring up the kids? Is it kind, playful parents, or strict, organised parents, or parents—in any quantity or of any sexual orientation—who understand how to be both playful and strict in an impeccably balanced way, who know when to tell children the truth and when to protect them from it, and all the other subtleties of child-rearing? This last description might roughly sum up a contemporary ideal, but maybe doesn't withstand too much scrutiny. Can individual members of this perfect family be replaced, as long as the new ones are just as strict and friendly? Or do the members have to stay the same? Do you need a stable, monogamous couple? (Or at least a couple who only stray in secret?) Or can you add and subtract other members? Is it best if everyone lives together? In other words, if the biological, nuclear family is no longer the aim, are you left with “anything goes”, or are we still talking about variations on—or simulations of—the stable, heterosexual couple who each have a genetic stake in the kids?

 

Fashion

ePub

In The Devil Wears Prada (2003), Lauren Weisberger gives a fictionalised account of her time spent working as assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue. The book has been described as “revenge lit”—a genre that began with The Nanny Diaries (2002), a novel detailing the unfortunate foibles of wealthy Manhattan families. In these books a wealthy, autocratic female boss is treated to a vicious character assassination by a younger female employee. The Devil Wears Prada is largely made up of a series of vignettes showing what a cruel, heartless monster the magazine editor is as she ritually humiliates everyone fatter, uglier, poorer or worse dressed than herself. The boss's incessant attempts at making everyone around her look foolish end up making her look like the biggest idiot of all, closely followed by everyone else in the fashion industry for buying into such a mindless system. The counterpoint to all of this is, of course, our heroine, a sensible young lady who eats burgers and chips, goes out with a schoolteacher and buys her clothes on the high street.

 

Gender

ePub

In Seminar XX, Encore (1972–1973) (1999), Lacan tries to provide some kind of answer to Freud's question, “What does a woman want?” The seminar is packed with famously provocative statements: “The Woman doesn't exist”, “There is no rapport between the sexes” or, perhaps most extravagantly of all:

A woman can but be excluded by the nature of things, which is the nature of words, and it must be said that if there is something that women themselves complain about enough for the time being, that's it. It's just that they don't know what they're saying—that's the whole difference between them and me. (1999, p. 73)

So far so bad. But how do you know whether someone is a man or a woman? Already in Freud, sexual difference is a slippery concept, as this footnote from his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905d) shows:

It is essential to understand clearly that the concepts of “masculine” and “feminine”, whose meaning seems so unambiguous to ordinary people, are among the most confused that appear in science. It is possible to distinguish at least three uses. “Masculine” and “feminine” are used sometimes in the sense of activity and passivity, sometimes in a biological, and sometimes, again, in a sociological sense. […] Observation shows that in human beings pure masculinity is not to be found in either a psychological or a biological sense. Every individual on the contrary shows a mixture of the character traits belonging to his own and to the opposite sex; and he shows a combination of activity and passivity whether or not these character traits tally with his biological ones. (Footnote added 1915)

 

Jokes

ePub

Three men go into analysis. One is a comic actor, another is a sketch writer, and one says he'd like to be a stand-up comedian. Funnily enough, this isn't a joke. Each has the idea that if they can be professionally amusing “the problem” will somehow be solved. “The problem” is one of being loved and ensuring one's lovability. In each of the cases the ideas of being unloved or unloveable are very important in the person's history. For all three, making people laugh on a grand scale presents itself as a form of salvation.

It seems that good stand-ups do very particular things with audiences in order to bring about enjoyment, thereby making themselves lovable, popular, and sometimes even rich. Freud talked about a kind of double entry system whereby, when narcissism (or “self-love” or “self-esteem”) is reduced, it can be supplemented by love from the outside. But maybe you have to hate yourself quite thoroughly in the first place in order to imagine you need such huge incoming supplies, and of course you can read about precisely this phenomenon in countless celebrity autobiographies.

 

Mirror

ePub

The mirror phase is one of the few bits of Lacanian thinking you might have a hope of explaining to a stranger at a bus stop. It's a theory that's potentially mind-blowing in its complexity and reach, but is also comfortingly simple. You can perhaps start by saying that human babies are born in a pitiful, flailing state. At the age of six months or so, it comes as a great surprise and source of satisfaction to them to realise that the cohesive entity they see in the mirror is somehow them. Still, they're disappointed and frustrated that it's also somehow not them—just because they look coherent, it doesn't follow that they feel it. They're doomed to spend the rest of their lives trying to work out what to do with this mismatch.

What can we do with Lacan's theory? Is it meant to be read as a statement of fact? “This is what happens with children between the ages of six and eighteen months…and that's why people are like they are…” Is it a poetic theory that some people just happen to like because it resonates with something? Or is it barely justifiable speculation? According to chief Freud-basher, Richard Webster:

 

Neurosis

ePub

If Lacan famously insisted on a “return to Freud”, what made him feel this was necessary? How and why had psychoanalysis moved away from the theories of its forefather? In order to attempt to answer these questions I'll look at the writings of some of the post-Freudians from the 1930s to the 1960s. I'll focus in particular on ego psychology (Lacan's big bête noir) to see how this group's theoretical developments had drifted away from distinguishing the different forms of neurosis (hysteria and obsession), overwriting Freud's clinical categories with the idea of the defences. In the writings of the ego psychologists we find long lists of various styles and strengths of defence, with a continuum ranging from pathological to normal. Delusional projection would sit at one end (aliens or the FBI are after you and you must save yourself) while having a good sense of humour resides at the other.

I'll also look briefly object relations theory and ask whether both this and ego psychology risk tending towards a limiting idea of cure. On the one hand, you have the idea of “good object relations” and on the other the notion of the robust and well-functioning ego (and often the two together—good object relations are very much included in the aims of ego psychology) both of which seem to lead too often to the idea that to be “healthy” is to be able to sustain a monogamous relationship, with a stable income, without wanting to jump out of a window.

 

Objects

ePub

The objet a—or objet petit a, or object a—is a difficult idea to define as it keeps changing throughout Lacan's work. I'll try to talk about it in relation to “the agalma”, a concept that appears in Transference, Seminar VIII (1960–1961) (2015), where it's used to say something about what a patient might see in their analyst. Here you could say that the agalma and the object a are analogous. So first I'll try to explain what Lacan might mean by “agalma” as it's not necessarily what Greek people or historians might mean by the same term, and it's also not a word you can look up in the English dictionary.

Although the word “agalma” doesn't itself appear in translations of Plato's Symposium, the idea that Lacan builds his concept out of does. It comes near the end, when Alcibiades arrives and launches into his drunken rant about Socrates's all-round excellence. Alcibiades is a statesman and a general and, by his own estimation, incredibly good looking. He is madly in love with Socrates and has been for a long time. The subtext seems to be that it's slightly odd that this younger, handsomer, very successful man is in love with some old guy; it's a fact that maybe needs some explaining. Although it's clear everyone understands that Socrates is a bit special, there's also the fact that there's something almost brutally ordinary about him. He letches after young boys and acts like a bit of an idiot. It isn't easy to pin down this thing that makes him stick out, that causes him to be an object of fascination for other people. Alcibiades tries to explain it: “My claim is that he's just like those statues of Silenus you see in sculptor's shops […] when they're opened up you find they've got statues of the gods inside.” Silenus was the tutor of, and companion to, the god Dionysus, and was generally portrayed as being a bit portly and shabby. Inside these statues of this unkempt, flabby figure (which would have been made of clay, or some other non-precious material) you would find a little treasure trove of shiny figurines. It's to these golden figures that Lacan applies the word “agalma”, meaning something ineffable and precious somehow located inside someone else. In Modern Greek, the word means something far more general, simply “a statue” or, in Ancient Greek, “an artwork dedicated to the Gods”. To quote Alcibiades again, “I don't know if any of you have seen the statues inside Socrates when he's serious and opened up. But I saw them once and they seemed to me so divine, golden, so utterly beautiful and amazing, that—to put it briefly—I had to do whatever Socrates told me to.” In the Symposium this treasure inside Socrates is equated with philosophy; not any dry idea of what philosophy might be, but something truly staggering. Alcibiades compares his experience of philosophy with being bitten by a snake and driven into a frenzy by its poison. He wants to access the treasure he perceives as residing inside Socrates, but doesn't know how to go about it. He has the idea that if he offers his fit, handsome body to the older man they will be able to perform some kind of transaction. Socrates will use him for sex and in return he will be given access to the philosopher's inner marvels. But Socrates blocks him, basically saying, “what you're trying to get from me is much better and more valuable than what you're offering, and how can you be sure I possess it anyway?” They spend the night together and nothing happens, but Alcibiades is left completely smitten. He continues to believe in the presence of the agalma, perhaps even more so because Socrates has refused his offer.

 

Oedipus

ePub

In her autobiography, the actress Dorothy Dandridge (2000) describes dating in Hollywood in the 1940s. She tells us that everyone in the movie business was in analysis. A typical conversation over a supposedly romantic dinner might go something like this: “You've got an Oedipus complex”, “No, you're the one with the Oedipus complex”, and then there would follow a batting back and forth of the accusation, as if it was something some people had and some didn't. The implication was that if you had one you were a slightly lesser being, or at least a bad person to sleep with.

Perhaps the idea has since been subject to a cultural downgrade. Everyone still knows about it—it's arguably the most famous Freudian concept—but it took quite a beating, first from anthropologists and then from feminists, to the point where it might seem surprising that anyone bothers to mention it at all any more.

To cite a well-known quote about Oedipus from The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a):

 

Suicide

ePub

Sometimes people come to therapy in order to choose between life and death. There are guidelines regarding suicide, both in law and in psychotherapy organisations’ Codes of Ethics, but these don't always help in individual cases. At what point should you break confidentiality and involve third parties? Might you lose the trust of the person—if, for example, you call their GP—and make the situation worse? If you sit tight, how will you live with it if they kill themselves? And are they telling you about it because they want you to act? Or because they trust you not to?

Suicide became illegal in UK in the thirteenth century, the idea being that God was the only entity with the right to decide when a life should end. By committing suicide, you were disregarding the will of God. This would seem hard to argue logically. Why should the will of God not include suicide when it includes war, disease and accidental drowning? Nonetheless, Thomas Aquinas thought it didn't, and the people safeguarding the law carried on agreeing with him for hundreds of years. A person could be prosecuted if they failed to die in a suicide attempt, but there were also were legal consequences if they succeeded. Their estate would be forfeited to the Crown, and their immediate family could face fines. The UK was unusually tolerant in this regard; in other countries, terrible things might be done to the body after death, ostensibly in order to act as a deterrent.

 

Time

ePub

In Harry Hill's TV Burp, a popular Saturday night show summing up the week's television, the host would find two incommensurable things and ask, “Which is better, A or B? There's only one way to find out: Fight!” Babies or cats? Mermaids or boobs? Pasta or nothing? At this point two actors would appear dressed as babies, cats, fusilli, or whatever, and slug it out into the ad break.

In the psychoanalytic world, there is the pressing question of which are better, fixed-length sessions or variable ones. The variable-length session has been a fraught subject in the history of psychoanalysis, with plenty of aggression mobilised around it. Central to Lacan's exclusion from the IPA, he was constantly in trouble over it with certain of his fellow analysts. He said he'd stop doing it but didn't, and then bought a very nice holiday home in 1951, which may have aroused colleagues’ envy. There's the unfortunate coincidence of his doing visibly very well financially at the same time as making his great “theoretical breakthrough”—shorter sessions ostensibly meant more cash. Given that psychoanalysis is a bit weird, paradoxical, and messy, perhaps it seems comforting to some people to think that one thing about the process can be certain: even if it's a load of rubbish, it should be fifty minutes of rubbish to ensure fair play.

 

Transference

ePub

In an episode of the comedy sketch show, Smack the Pony, we meet a young female psychoanalyst in the process of speaking with a handsome male patient for the first time. She begins to explain to him, in a deadpan tone, that there is a phenomenon known as transference. She warns him it “may manifest itself as an intense longing for…um…me!” The patient appears unfazed. After a bout of nervous laughter she continues: “You may imagine after a number of sessions that you've…uh…[…] fallen in love with…me.” After an excruciating ramble about her patient's inevitable desire for her (accompanied by more and more explicitly auto-erotic gestures) he tells her rather tersely that this isn't going to be a problem. “Are you gay?” she snaps. He says no. Evidently feeling rejected, she lets him know she's very expensive and probably out of his league.

Freud spoke very succinctly about working with transference in the twenty-seventh of his Introductory Lectures (1916–1917). It's an amazing essay given that psychoanalysis was still so new, and a huge leap from his work of two decades earlier. In the Studies on Hysteria, (1895d) people keep getting better. This later text makes it clear that analysis is laborious and fraught with difficulty, and that any benefits from it are hard won. Still, in the 1890s, with Anna O., we have the first case of transference getting in way of treatment. The work ends with her feeling extremely upset because she's fallen in love with Joseph Breuer. He's so disturbed by the experience that it puts him off psychoanalysis forever. The transferential and countertransferential effects came as a total shock to both parties.

 

The Uncanny

ePub

The subject of robots has particular relevance to psychoanalysts, for reasons I'll try to explain. I hope it's also pertinent to people who are interested in drawing, especially to people who are interested in representational drawing, which I believe is a particular concern of the Prince's Drawing School. I understand that Prince Charles is worried by the idea of an erosion of tradition in contemporary art trainings. It's easy to laugh about his fusty ways. It can all sound a bit cosy—a flat rejection of art where you might not know where the work begins and ends, nor why it was made; art that might seem disturbing, pointless or confusing. In response to that, I wanted to try to speak about some potentially troubling aspects of realistic representations.

I would say I was a fairly typical product of a contemporary art training in that I think art can be pretty much anything, but I did get there from drawing as a starting point. There's a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (1983), by Betty Edwards, which was very popular in the 1980s. It tells you to look freshly and not make assumptions about what you're seeing. If you think you already know what a chair or an ear looks like you will confuse a generic chair or ear with the very particular one in front of you, coming up with something wonky and cartoon-like rather than accurately observed. This advice works just as well for psychoanalysts and writers; don't take anything for granted and never assume prior knowledge. My experiences of representational drawing, and ways of thinking about drawing, were very helpful for the work I came to do later.

 

War

ePub

The first time I spoke to the artist, Issa Touma (on Skype from Syria) I was struck by his absolute lack of panic. He described his Art Camping project in Aleppo, where volunteers worked with refugees and members of the public to produce artworks. At the time, I found it hard to absorb some of the things he was saying. He spoke about death as something very close and real, but said it all without the slightest hint of drama. It was as if he was talking about making a cup of coffee. He described filming out of his window as war broke out in the street below in such a serene way that I doubted I was understanding him correctly.

After our conversation I saw some of the Art Camping artworks. In 2012, a group of people had walked around the city of Aleppo taking charcoal rubbings from the surfaces of buildings. Many of these buildings have since become targets of attack. From far away, we hear about the seemingly endless losses—people, objects and huge, ancient edifices—leaving us with the sense that there's almost nothing that can't be destroyed. The rubbings appear fragile, but they preserve a trace of something—in fact they have turned out to be more durable than many of the architectural features they document.

 

Wishes

ePub

It's common to observe that putting one's most cherished fantasies into action isn't necessarily enjoyable. The transition from something imagined to something acted out is notoriously fraught. One of Aesop's fables, “The Old Man and Death”, points to the difficulty. An old man, while out looking for firewood in the forest, wishes he was dead. Death appears before him as a terrifying figure and asks him to repeat his wish. The old man responds: “I was just saying that I wish there was someone around to help me get this pile of wood up onto my shoulder.” The moral: “We would often be sorry if our wishes were granted.”

There are at least fifteen books from the last decade, all available on Amazon, called Be Careful What You Wish For. Some appear to be particularly concerned with sexual fantasy, if the covers are anything to go by (bearing in mind the fact that there's also another well-known expression…). It seems safe to say that there are still plenty of people who imagine it would be nice to get what they think they want. Or at least it continues to seem pertinent to remind people that wish fulfilment isn't necessarily a barrel of laughs. It's obviously an idea that's relevant to psychoanalysts, and to people in analysis. It's something Freud grappled with when discussing what analysis was for and how it worked. You can find very elegantly argued answers to the question of the unsatisfyingness of satisfaction scattered throughout his work. For example, in “Character Types met in Analysis: Those Wrecked by Success” (1916d) he brandishes Lady Macbeth as a prime example of the horrors of getting what you want. Then, in his introductory lecture on transference (1916–1917), he speaks about cultural constraints on sexuality and the possibility that analysis could help people by giving them the courage to overcome their inhibitions and to do the things that prudishness (their own and other people's) prevents them from doing. He then goes on to explain why this wouldn't be helpful at all; the underlying conflict between asceticism and sensuality would remain—you would simply have shifted the boot from one foot to the other.

 

Zoolander

ePub

One of the great ongoing challenges for any working psychoanalyst is deciding when, or how, to answer direct questions. Of course, the general rule of thumb is to bounce them straight back: “Well, what do you think?”, “Does it matter to you whether I have children?”, or “What do you imagine my answer to that question might be?” This is all very well but, if practised too assiduously, it can leave you feeling like an inhuman therapy-bot.

Perhaps the commonest form of question concerns whether or not you have read a particular book, or seen a particular film. While the pretext for asking may be to check whether you already know the premise or plot before wasting five minutes of the session outlining it, the subtext may be to find out what kinds of things you enjoy. Do you get off on watching The Human Centipede? Do you read everything on the Booker long list? What kind of sick/super-cultured person are you? Still, while you might not want to get into a big discussion about the cunning politics of the latest Cohen Brothers’ movie, you may sometimes choose to let slip that you know who Scarlett Johansson is. Or then again you might not.

 

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