Medium 9781855752108

No Lost Certainties To Be Recovered

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"A fitting end-of-century celebration of the true virtues of the psychoanalytic passion." An important book which addresses a wide range of psychoanalytic subjects.

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8 Chapters

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1. Hysteria

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It has frequently been said that hysteria was made for psychoanalysis, or even that hysteria made psychoanalysis, that it forced its birth and encouraged its development. Hysteria has been considered the neurosis closest to normality. Nothing could be clearer: the question of the excluded third, the oedipal conflict, the enigma of sexuality. And yet when we look at it, our certainty quickly dissolves. Nothing seems to be really there. Only one thing remains unequivocally evident: hysteria will always bear the stamp of femininity, a femininity that appears as a caricature because it is still anchored to a phallic identification. The hysteric disguises herself: she will pretend to be a woman, will put on the fancy dress proper to what she believes, or is made to believe, will constitute her ‘‘feminine” self. The hysteric takes her own disguised body and dresses up with it, uses it as if it were a brand-new dress, resplendent with sequins, and yet not very satisfying. Joan Riviere went so far as to extend this to all women: “Womanliness… could be assumed and worn as a mask… much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not the stolen goods” (Riviere, 1929, p. 306). Could this be a rebellion against the law of the father, in this patriarchal society? Perhaps, but then the hysteric and her symptoms are the result of the failure of that rebellion. Men support her in this, nourish her, and respond to her seduction, which they enjoy. They collude with her in the reassuring and comforting phantasy1 that suggests that femininity lies in what the hysteric wants us to believe is a “real woman”. Being a true caricature of the feminine, the hysteric confronts us also with a caricature of everything else: het-erosexuality, homosexuality, perversions, the couple, desire—and psychoanalysis.

 

2. Fetishism

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Fetishism

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Love, by definition, is not a simple question. Any simplified characterization of love is itself a caricature. While not all perverse sexual relationships exclude love, the most perfect caricatures of sexual love are the perversions. Gillespie (1964) described fetishism as being one such caricature. How is it possible that a piece of cloth, shoes, a piece of jewellery, or long hair can produce—by themselves—sexual pleasure in an individual? How can something, in its own concrete, solid, materiality become the condition for certain individuals to have an erection or reach an orgasm? Human sexuality seems, in this light, extraordinary in its variations and very curious in its formation. Although there are reported cases of fetishism in women (as there are of female trans-vestites), it is considered an almost exclusively male phenomenon. Like transvestism and exhibitionism, fetishism is recognized as a male perversion, essentially contingent on the severity of the castration complex. The existence of fetishism in males is explained by some authors as a result of the impossibility for the man to hide any phallic failure: if a man does not have an erection, this becomes evident, something visible to him and to his partner (Greenacre, 1960). Women can hide their pleasure, and they can also fake it, a privilege not available to men. The fetish comes to the aid of a failing penis to avoid the risk of a profound narcissistic wound. This only offers a justification for the man’s use of the fetish; it is not an explanation of why the fetish works as an aid.

 

3. Obscure objects of desire

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Robert was not a happy person. He did not feel complete. The lack of close personal relationships made him feel empty; his life had no meaning. He found himself stuck between wishing to be wanted and an intense desire to be left completely to his own devices. He spoke of his need to be alone, something that he thought became “significant” when he went to the toilet to defecate. He could not carry out this task unless he was all by himself, in his own house, with nobody around. The first time that this inhibition occurred, he was camping in the South Island of New Zealand with some friends. It rained the whole time; they were unable to do much climbing or walking as planned and were confined mostly to their site. Robert could not relieve himself for a whole week; he was too aware of the others’ presence. At the time, he attributed the beginning of his symptom to constipation. “Being regular” had traditionally been an important preoccupation in his family; the world of food was somehow divided between that which made one regular and those things that interfered with the call of nature. Once Robert was back from his holiday and resumed his university studies, he found he could no longer live with other students in shared accommodation; he had to move out. The wish to be left alone while defecating started to control his thoughts; it turned into an obsession. “I became a slave to it, my symptom is my master”, he said to me in our first consultation. Nevertheless, the symptom itself was at times experienced as something perfectly normal. This normalization of pathology allowed Robert to live more at peace with himself: “How could anybody take a shit with somebody else around?”, he would ask himself. (The patient mentioned in chapter two who was a compulsive washer also asked a similar question. She too normalized pathology.)

 

4. Dreams, acting out, and symbolic impoverishment

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The knowledge with which the psychoanalytic enterprise is concerned refers to a truth that is always unwelcome. It is unwelcome mainly because it is unconscious and does not depend on the will, or on the wishes of the subject. Patient and analyst get involved in a rather peculiar dialogue, in which both hope to be able to investigate and question the symptom, the complaints, or the patient’s predicament. At any event, the truth about the patient will appear where it is least expected. In this sense, it will surprise the analyst as much as the patient. The patient is invited to feel free to think and speak without inhibitions—no limitations are imposed upon him by the analyst. Whatever comes to mind can be thought and said, and there is a more or less explicit agreement established between patient and analyst that certain feelings and phantasies will not be put into action. Murderous feelings or violent phantasies, for example, will be dreamt or uttered, not realized in action.

It is never quite straightforward. Resistance will make its appearance, and verbalization sooner or later will be replaced by acting out. Within the confines of this chapter, I use the term acting out in a specific, technical way. The criteria to define certain actions as acting out are: (1) the link of the action to the transference; (2) the nature of the action (in my view, whether it attacks the setting and/or the possibility for insight: cf. Etchegoyen, 1986); and (3) the motivation behind the action (the unconscious conflict). If we do not keep to these criteria, then almost any behaviour that is disruptive to the treatment could be seen as “acting out”. At one time in psychoanalytic circles, the term was in fact used loosely and descriptively. This only served the analyst’s counter-transference: whatever analysts might not have liked about the patient’s behaviour, they called “acting out”. Nowadays, analysts seem to concentrate more on the positive aspects of acting out, and it has come to be considered—at least potentially—as a source of communication, perhaps at times the only way that a patient can communicate something to the analyst (Balint, 1954; Limentani, 1966). New concepts like enactment, re-enactment, and actualization in the transference have emerged to become themes of great interest in the psychoanalytic literature.

 

5. From the analysis of an artist

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Freud’s theories about the creative impulse were based on two fundamental discoveries: unconscious phantasies (which created the possibility of analysing the subject through his work), and symbolism (which allowed for the psychoanalysis of the aesthetic object). Repression, wish-fulfilment (and its disguises), and sublimation are the key psychic processes described by psychoanalysis through which we can understand the artist and his creations (Kofman, 1970).

Throughout his life Freud made clear his admiration for literature, art, and artists. As Sarah Kofman has pointed out, this entailed certain ambivalence. On the one hand, he maintained that the aesthetic appreciation of art, as much as the explanation of artistic genius, are out of reach of psychoanalysis; yet he also held that psychoanalysis extends its understanding to philosophy, religion, anthropology, linguistics, and art. After reading some of Freud’s writings, we could easily come to believe (i.e. mistakenly believe) that we can find true knowledge in works of art only if we apply psychoanalysis to them (Kofman, 1970). This gave rise— during the early, optimistic, pioneering years of the psychoanalytic movement—to a proliferation of papers and books on the interpretation of artists and their art. Psychoanalytic reductionism prevailed, unchallenged. Later on, given the limitations of psychoanalytic theories and the inadequacy of psychoanalytic concepts (like sublimation) to explain the creative process, most contemporary authors gave up believing that they could have an all-encompassing theory of creativity.

 

6. Stephen King’s Misery—the horrors of writing

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Paul Sheldon is a successful writer who can command six-figure advances and film rights; he appears in USA Today and on Entertainment Tonight, and is enough of a celebrity to do ads for credit cards or vodka (p. 63).1 Paul writes novels of two kinds: good ones, and best sellers set at the turn of the century (p. 16). His best sellers are centred on the life of Misery Chastain, the “darling of the dump-bins and sweetheart of the supermarkets” (p. 61), a woman he has come to hate and despise. She has made him famous, but he feels that she has turned him into a whore (p. 75), selling himself to his readers on demand. In despair and full of hate, Paul decides to kill Misery Chastain. Her death in Misery’s Child, the last book that is ever going to be written about her, is a motive for celebration. After writing the last line of the book, Paul goes around the room, screaming:

Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, I’m free at last!
The silly bitch finally bought the farm! [p. 23]

The killing of Misery has brought new impetus to Paul’s creativity. He has written a new book, Fast Cars, a contemporary novel about a car-thief. Paul thinks that this may be his masterpiece, a sure candidate for the American Book Award. After finishing the manuscript of Fast Cars, he decides that he is not going to fly back from Colorado (where he has been off writing) to New York (where he lives). Drunk on champagne, he tells himself to Go west, young man, go west! (p. 24). This idea, after yet more champagne, seems “almost noble”, a kind of “Grand Odyssey to Somewhere” (p. 24).

 

7. The Aztecs, Masada, and the compulsion to repeat

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In his accomplished short history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes (1994), Eric Hobsbawm writes:

… it is not the purpose of this book to tell the story of the period which is its subject. … My object is to understand and explain why things turned out the way they did, and how they hang together, [p. 3]

Hobsbawm then proceeds to argue that the major task of a historian is not to judge but “to understand even what we can least comprehend”. And a few lines later, faced with the need to understand “the Nazi era in German history and to fit it into its historical context,” he confesses: “no one who has lived through this extraordinary century is likely to abstain from judgement. It is understanding that comes hard” (p. 5).

This concern for understanding and the struggle to achieve it bring together history and psychoanalysis. In Michel de Certeau’s understanding of history (1986), this discipline would be formed and constituted into a “science of the Other”. He called this a heterology, which necessarily incorporates the fundamental discoveries of Freudian psychoanalysis: the return of the repressed, the presence of the imaginary in the rational, the insistence of the unconscious in science, the unavoidable mixture of fact and fiction in historical reconstruction.

 

8. Knowledge and its vicissitudes

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In 1931, a Spanish psychiatrist, unsettled by the theory of psychoanalysis, wrote: “This doctrine, the originality of which is excessive” (Arteaga, 1931, quoted in Garcia, 1980, italics added). This overstepping of the limits of moderation, this threatening exuberance of thought, implied a necessary departure from custom and reason. Psychoanalysis could not be contained within the boundaries of acceptable scientific parameters. However, as psychoanalytic training was undertaken by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other professional workers, psychoanalysis turned into a mental health discipline, unfortunately losing its critical edge. The creative “excess” that Freudian thought had brought into existence was thus tamed by the needs of social acceptance and therapeutic efficacy. As I have written elsewhere (Kohon, 1986b):

The revolution provoked by psychoanalysis has to do with the way in which it turned our own relationship to knowledge upside down, by revealing our own libidinal involvement with knowledge. Given the proliferation of other psycho-therapies, the variety of trainings now offered in the market, and the watering-down of psychoanalytic findings … we are ironically back to the early days of the psychoanalytic pioneers … we are again in a position of having to show real courage to believe in psychoanalysis, [p. 78]

 

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