A Psychoanalytic Odyssey: Painted Guinea Pigs, Dreams, and Other Realities

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Psychoanalytic process, as Eugene Mahon envisions it, is an odyssey through the mind of each of his analysands, the many children and adults he has treated over the forty years of his analytic practice. The painted guinea pigs of the title refer to three-year old children mourning their school pet. "Who painted him?" a child asked when a replacement pet of a slightly different colour arrived in the school a few days after the death of the original pet, as if the dead can return from the grave after a paint job. This book is full of arresting images like this as the author explores many of the most basic, fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis such as repression, insight, transference, play, child analysis, working through, dreams within dreams, jokes, puns, parapraxes, as well as the uncanny in dreams, screen memories, symptom, character and Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex. This book is a highly original, creative psychoanalytic odyssey, a most intriguing psychological voyage you will not want to disembark from.

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Chapter One: A Painted Guinea Pig

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All that lives must die
Passing through nature to eternity.

—Hamlet, Act One, Scene Two, William Shakespeare

At the end of the prologue I introduced an analogy: children painting over some aspect of psychological life that was too painful for them to process consciously could be compared to the unconscious act of repression in general, or indeed, all defensive strategies of the mind. The death of their school pet, a beloved guinea pig, was perhaps the first taste of tragedy most of these three year olds had ever experienced, and it might have gone unnoticed had the curiosity of one child not brought attention to the slightly different color of the pet's replacement. When the child asked “who painted him?” a process of rudimentary mourning was set in motion, tragedy, with the assistance of a sensitive school teacher, addressed as opposed to denied. It may seem excessively morbid to begin a psychoanalytic odyssey with mourning, loss and cover up, rather than joy, expectation and optimism as the oars of momentum launch the developmental vessel toward its goal and ultimate destination. And yet from a historical developmental point of view life's journey does start out breathlessly in the womb and ends breathlessly in death; it begins its post-uterine existence in helplessness and total dependency but then gradually embraces pre-Oedipal attachment, individuation, independence, the industry of latency, the challenges of adolescence, the fulfillments and disappointments of adulthood; and all along the way loss and gain stamp experience with their indelible affects, shaping the mind's character and identity as nature and nurture, constitution and environment alloy themselves in the conflicted alchemy of development. So if I begin with sorrow and loss, there is a resilience of the mind I am also stressing, a resilience that characterizes the childhood odyssey that not only thrives on love and nurture but also learns to master adversity and turn it to its developmental advantage. There is no need to romanticize this resilience, this dogged sense of momentum and courage, since psychopathology often illustrates how regressive defeat and failure can also characterize experience as much as courage and success can. But psychoanalysis takes human experience as it finds it, and has been instructed and enlightened by psychopathology as much as by normal development. It has learned from Virchow and from Freud. Virchow believed that death dissected, pathology investigated, could instruct health about what led to death and pathology, if science was not afraid to grip the scalpel of investigative daring in its hands. And Freud taught us that childhood was not all Victorian innocence, but that its polymorphous nature, its sexualities and hatreds, could help us understand our adult selves, our life instincts, and death instincts if we did not deny the developmental complexities we sprang from. And so I begin with thirty three-year-old nursery children trying to understand their complex reactions to a new sudden addition to their school curriculum, the concept of death. A child will lead us, so to speak, into the later, deeper waters this book attempts to navigate.

 

Chapter Two: Repression and its Vicissitudes

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“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.”

—Genesis 2: 17

To my knowledge Freud never used the concept of painting over to signify the act of repression, but I have no doubt that his poetic soul would have empathized with the nursery children who, at first, hid their grief with a perceptual distortion of reality. It was Freud after all who said of his indirect analytic work with Little Hans that he never had a finer glimpse into the soul of a child. “Who painted him?” in its stark simplicity gives us a glimpse into a young child's mind also as the question reveals some nascent knowledge of death and loss even as it insists on repressing it. “The theory of repression is the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” Freud wrote in his History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1914). In the index of Freud's writings (Standard Edition XXIV, 1974) there are several hundred references to the word repressed, not surprising perhaps since the subject occupied him throughout his psychoanalytic life. Freud claimed at first (1914) that “the theory of repression quite certainly came to me independently of any other source” and later in 1925 that “it was a novelty and nothing like it had ever before been recognized in mental life.” However when Otto Rank showed him a passage in Schopenhaur's World As Will And Idea, which “coincided with my concept of repression so completely” Freud had to concede that he owed the “chance of making a discovery to my not being well read.” What philosophy recognized by intuition Freud arrived at through “laborious psychoanalytic investigation” (Freud, 1914).

 

Chapter Three: Insight as an Act of Transgression

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Know Thyself

—Ancient Delphic Inscription

To thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day thou cans't not then be false to any man.

—Hamlet, Act One, Scene Three, William Shakespeare

Introduction

If the theory of repression is the cornerstone upon which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests, insight could be described as a censored trove of information hidden beneath the cornerstone. However, when the cornerstone gets lifted by interpretations, insight does not always emerge as a sturdy conviction, a profound truth, that once established, retains its affirmative sense of selfhood restored. On the contrary, insights that begin as epiphanies quickly become co-opted back into the neurotic status quo again. Why? Surely the truth should be made of sterner stuff. I want to examine this paradox in this chapter and offer an explanation for it. Why would insight begin in a flash of recognition and then just as quickly seem to recede back into the background from which it emerged? I have often wondered why an insight that seemed to begin with such enthusiasm, often within a few days seemed to retreat from its original enlightened, assertive position. Could it be transference I wondered, the mind retreating from its own knowledge in deference to parental authority? “Who am I to know anything in here?” as one analysand recently described the intimidating atmosphere of the consulting room. I was aware of many analysands’ needs to qualify any statement with an immediate undoing of its intent, every assertive comment followed by the immediate qualifier “Well who can be sure of anything in a world so full of uncertainty?” There are other patients of course for whom insight really seemed to imply a need to correct the neurotic point of view their insights had exposed. They seemed healthier, more courageous, as if the “ahah” of their epiphanies, the “explosion” of insight, (as one analysand characterized his experience) had more follow through than those analysands whose insights seemed initially compelling, but then quickly lost their motivational momentum. Recently reading Yochanan Muffs book on Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel I had a sort of epiphany of my own. Insight has often been referred to as an “ahah” phenomenon, a eureka of intuitive understanding that suddenly makes a bewildering complexity understandable. Muffs wrote about the biblical usage of the word “ahah” by the ancient prophets. Whether the biblical use of “ahah” can be equated with the modern English usage of the term “ahah” is an etymological question I do not feel equipped to answer. But my reading of Muffs did lead to some insights of my own that have informed the thesis of this theoretically speculative, yet clinically informed communication.

 

Chapter Four: Transference: The Past in the Present, the Present in the Past

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In looking at objects of nature…at yonder moon dim glimmering through the dewy window pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that forever and already exists, than observing anything new. Even when that latter is the case yet still I have always an obscure feeling, as if that phenomenon were a dim awakening of a forgotten or hidden truth of my inner nature.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

HAMLET:

HORATIO:

HAMLET:

—Hamlet, Act one, Scene two,
William Shakespeare

Transference was one of the pivotal discoveries of Sigmund Freud. It allowed the past to invade the present: such invasions, seemingly disruptive at first, came to be recognized as crucial portals of enquiry into the mind. But it took genius to characterize such invasions as discoveries as opposed to intrusions. Let us review some of the basics of clinical process so that the discovery of transference can be appreciated in context. Freud's discovery of how a free associating mind, following the fundamental rule of psychoanalysis could eventually unlock the secrets of its own symptoms and dreams, not to mention its own character and personality and all aspects of psychopathology, was the basic insight that led him to abandon the hypnotic method. Hypnosis could unlock the doors of the unconscious to be sure but Freud wanted the patient to be wide-awake as the process of self-discovery advanced. There was only one main obstacle, namely resistance. You could lead the analysand to the font of free associative knowledge, but you couldn't make him drink. Why not? The mind that at first seemed willing to comply with the common sense logic of the fundamental rule and “say whatever comes to mind,” no holds barred, so to speak, would eventually refuse to go on. The refusal did not seem to be a conscious decision. Some part of the mind, too schooled in “social hypocrisy” as Freud once called it, begins to object to the airing of all its dirty linen in public, or even in the privacy of the consulting room. This force was called resistance and one facet of resistance was transference.

 

Chapter Five: Play in Child Analysis and Adult Analysis

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Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.

Heraclitus

The direct observation of children has the disadvantage of working upon data which are easily misunderstandable; psychoanalysis is made difficult by the fact that it can only reach its data, as well as its conclusions, after long detours. But by cooperation the two methods can attain a satisfactory degree of certainty in their findings.

Freud, Standard Edition Vol. 7, p. 20

In this chapter I not only introduce child analysis and one of its unique features, play, but also try to show how significant the capacity to play is, not only in childhood and child analysis, but in adult analysis as well and indeed throughout life. For instance play is essential in parenthood. A parent who cannot remember the crucial role of play in his/her own childhood will have trouble invoking it and employing it in the service of an empathic understanding of what is perhaps a child's premier method of communicating very important issues to those peers and guardians that matter to the child so much. Parental creativity, so crucial an aspect of resourceful child rearing, is an art form that has never been celebrated appropriately despite its critical role as the social glue that keeps the fabric of society cohesive and stable. It deserves a chapter in and of itself (Mahon, 1993). Play in the Holocaust is another topic of crucial importance. A Polish diplomat visiting the Warsaw ghetto and seeing doomed children playing amidst the stench and degradation of their milieu commented with wrenching spontaneity: “They only make believe it is play.” It too deserves its own book or chapter (brenner, 2011). But what I want to focus on primarily at first is the role of play in child analysis.

 

Chapter Five: Play in Child Analysis and Adult Analysis

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Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.

Heraclitus

The direct observation of children has the disadvantage of working upon data which are easily misunderstandable; psychoanalysis is made difficult by the fact that it can only reach its data, as well as its conclusions, after long detours. But by cooperation the two methods can attain a satisfactory degree of certainty in their findings.

Freud, Standard Edition Vol. 7, p. 20

In this chapter I not only introduce child analysis and one of its unique features, play, but also try to show how significant the capacity to play is, not only in childhood and child analysis, but in adult analysis as well and indeed throughout life. For instance play is essential in parenthood. A parent who cannot remember the crucial role of play in his/her own childhood will have trouble invoking it and employing it in the service of an empathic understanding of what is perhaps a child's premier method of communicating very important issues to those peers and guardians that matter to the child so much. Parental creativity, so crucial an aspect of resourceful child rearing, is an art form that has never been celebrated appropriately despite its critical role as the social glue that keeps the fabric of society cohesive and stable. It deserves a chapter in and of itself (Mahon, 1993). Play in the Holocaust is another topic of crucial importance. A Polish diplomat visiting the Warsaw ghetto and seeing doomed children playing amidst the stench and degradation of their milieu commented with wrenching spontaneity: “They only make believe it is play.” It too deserves its own book or chapter (brenner, 2011). But what I want to focus on primarily at first is the role of play in child analysis.

 

Chapter Six: Manifestly Misleading: The Cunning Artistry of Dream

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Bottom: I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was…. it shall be called Bottom's dream, because it hath no bottom.

—A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act Four, Scene One
William Shakespeare

The last chapter dealt with play, that extraordinary mixture of fantasy and action without which child analysis would be difficult to conduct; and adulthood, as I have implied, would be impoverished also. I have suggested earlier that play could be thought of as fantasy that needs to link itself to external concrete objects such as toys and other playthings to give expression to its own interiority. I also suggested that transference could be thought of as unconscious, genetic fantasy displaced onto, and thereby distorting the current person and reality of the analyst. It could be argued that dreams too are latent fantastic infantile wishes displaced onto a manifest grid or tableau, the better to disguise their original intent. In fact the displacement of disguised meaning from a latent sphere to a manifest sphere is essentially the whole argument of this chapter. What I emphasize over and over is that the manifest content of a dream can be ingeniously infiltrated with puns and parapraxes, jokes and even a dream itself embedded within the envelope of another dream, in an elaborate façade of disguise. In other words, dreams can be playful in the most confounding ways, as if the unconscious mind was a perverse tease that believed in depositing communications of the utmost importance on the doorstep of awakened consciousness, but in such a disguised code that the awakener would be mostly bewildered and exasperated rather than enlightened or enchanted with his strange nocturnal gift. To Freud, dreams were the royal road to the unconscious, but finding that road and traveling on it successfully was a labor that only genius could have pulled off. Of his greatest masterpiece The Interpretation of Dreams Freud said: “insights such as these befall the lot of a man only once in a lifetime.” They have befallen the lot of all of us thanks to Freud's ground breaking, immortal book. Any contribution to the theory of dreams is unimaginable without Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams as its springboard. What I plan to attempt in this chapter is an in-depth study of certain unusual “inclusions” in dream content and then to end with an examination of the dreaming process from a longitudinal developmental perspective. Basically I will be illustrating the cunning artistry of dream work and its manifestly misleading ministry of disguise that ensures that the latent remains hidden while a host of manifest red herrings steals the oneiric limelight in the most ingenious manner. In this way I hope to augment Freud's theory in places where his own comments were not so exhaustive.

 

Chapter Seven: Screen Memories

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It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhoods; memories relating to our childhoods may be all that we possess.

—Screen Memories, Sigmund Freud, 1899

In the last chapter we were examining unusual contents of dreams the better to understand the dream work's strategic intent. If all days’ residues are “kidnapped” from daylight, dipped in unconscious paint and then slyly returned to the manifest content as if they were still unpainted, surreal, casual day-trippers, checking out night-town before they return to their desk jobs, jokes, puns, parapraxes and nested dreams (Balter, 2000) are even stranger, more cunning concoctions and co-options of the dream work, masquerading as daylight commonplaces the better to hoodwink the dream censor. Essentially, in the last chapter we have been examining content, not form. There is virtually nothing new to add to Freud's ingenious dissection of the formal properties of dream work and its astonishing translation of dream thoughts into a collage of manifest imagery that acts as the “guardian of sleep” unless untamed affects break through the dream barriers and erupt into nightmare. The content of dreams is another matter. Dream work has inexhaustible supplies of diurnal artifacts and current events in the traffic of everyday life that it can collage into the manifest imagery of a dream. As we have seen in many examples in the previous chapter, one feature of the dream work's artistry is to occasionally concoct a pun, a joke, a parapraxis, and put it on display in the manifest imagery of the dream, as if it were an “innocent” casual intrusion, when as I have argued, it is a most complex, well wrought piece of disguise, that is essential for the dream's maintenance of its complicated system of illusion.

 

Chapter Eight: Symptom as Irony

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You can't study the darkness by flooding it with light.

Edward Abbey, 1984

In one section of the previous chapter, the interplay between symptom, screen memory and dream was emphasized. Earlier, dreams and screen memories had each been dealt with in some detail. In this chapter I want to focus on symptom itself as a complex phenomenon; in the next chapter I will address the concept of character. Symptom and character seem quite differentiated from each other. However, Lustman in 1962 presented intriguing data from child analysis showing how symptom and character emerged from a common instinctual pedigree, so to speak, before they differentiated into two quite different and distinct pathways, so that eventually, as childhood proceeds into adulthood, the two (symptom and character) are usually not considered as analogous at all. In these two ensuing chapters I want to revisit Lustman's ideas, suggesting that a symptom can be so subtle as to seem characterological, and character, despite its seeming controlled sensibility and stability can be symptomatic. At first I will present a woman whose vision was compromised in the subtlest manner; and then, in Chapter Nine, a man whose vision was compromised in the most tragic manner. I will let this mysterious introduction of both clinical examples stand for a moment, as I review a bit of psychoanalytic history.

 

Chapter Nine: A Psychoanalytic Conception of Character

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He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.

—Hamlet, Act one, Scene two William Shakespeare

Character could be described as a stable amalgam of psychological traits that seem to define the basic identity of each human being. It is not as genetically “fixed” or as unique as a thumbprint perhaps given its incremental, adaptative, experimental and experiential nature. But it is not as evanescent as a mood or a transient symptom either. Like symptom or dream it is a compromise of psychological forces: when instinct clamors for expression and ego tames it, moulding it into a more socially adaptive form of itself, a compromise of forces has been achieved. At its best compromise formation does not compromise the ideals of a human being, it merely forces them into a better alignment with reality. Character could be viewed as a stable, almost automatic deployment of such compromise formations throughout the flow of psychological time, a psychological compass that charts the course of human sensibility and reactivity throughout the psychological odyssey of each unique life. If ego is the abstract concept for such executive management, character is a more experience-near, personal definition of such agency. When Robert Bolt wrote of, and depicted Sir Thomas More as “a man for all seasons” it was the enduring stability of his character that was being referred to. While the enduring stability of its nature is its most unique and crucial feature, character is of course fashioned out of the crooked timber of humanity and its stability can never be thought of as absolute. In childhood, where developmental flux is the norm, as opposed to the relatively stable maturity adulthood is capable of sustaining, a symptom and a character trait seem much closer to the instinctual unruly energies they were designed to contain in the first place. I want to suggest, that even in adulthood, character can be more symptomatic than its definition as a stable psychic entity seems to claim. If symptom can be so subtle and ego-syntonic that Lucy herself hardly noticed it, I want to argue that impressive character can be less stable than the ego that sustains it would like to admit. I have chosen the character of Hamlet to illustrate this thesis. He is all at once the noblest protagonist in the play and yet his nature, can be capricious and symptomatic.

 

Chapter Ten: Mourning, Dreaming, and the Discovery of the Oedipus Complex

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He will not go behind his father's saying.

Robert Frost

Insight such as this falls to one's lot but once in a lifetime.

Sigmund Freud
Preface to the Third (Revised) English Edition of
The Interpretation Of Dreams, 1931

This book began with a group of three year olds mourning their painted guinea pig. I want to end this book with the role mourning and concomitant dreaming may have played in Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex. Freud had embarked on his self-analysis in July 1897, according to Ernest Jones. His father died in October 1896. Despite the profound effect this death had on him, Freud would not try to conceptualize his own particular grieving reaction, or the whole subject of mourning in general until 1915. This of course does not mean that the process of Freud's mourning was postponed. In fact I want to argue that mourning and dreaming, two psychic processes that consciousness or will power has no control over, can rake the depths of the unconscious, producing rich, provocative, if painful raw material, especially for the creative mind. Freud was in the middle of his own tortured self analysis, delving free associatively into childhood memories, breaking down barriers of repression singlehandedly, Fliess the only transferential, long distance sounding board in sight. Mourning and dreaming must have been constantly “feeding” his self-analysis with turbulent affect and memory. I want to argue that it was out of such creative torment that the Oedipus complex emerged in October 1897.

 

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