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The Promise

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Our sense of identity begins (our psychological birth sometime in the first year of life) with the feeling that we are the centre of the universe, protected by godlike benevolent parents who will enable us to live happily ever after.This is the "Promise" that is never given up, lurking in the unconscious part of our minds. We must learn, reluctantly, that our parents are unable to protect us from the passage of time, from decline, and from death. Yet we retain, even as adults, the delusion that, while others may die, we never will. This adds fuel to the murderous anger we are born with and must master, alongside the contradictory vertical split in the mind that we are destined to die. The "Promise" is described in patients and in examples from biography and fiction in relation to anniversaries and specific holidays. The book ends with a specific illustration in relation to an eight-month-old infant.

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Chapter One: Promise, change, and trauma

ePub

Lionel Trilling (1950) wrote that Freud taught us to see the mind as a poetry–making organ, and I would like to begin this book by quoting some relevant poetry.

William Blake describes his fantasy version of the trauma of birth:

My mother groan’d, my father wept

Into the dangerous world I leapt;

Helpless, naked, piping loud,

Like a fiend hid in the cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,

Striving against my swaddling bands,

Bound and weary I thought best

To sulk upon my mother’s breast. (1794, p. 559)

William Wordsworth, who was born thirteen years after Blake, describes human birth in terms that are the opposite of traumatic, his metaphor bringing in a “Heaven” alongside Hell:

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

(God here is, psychologically, the primal parent, the original omnipotent, omniscient, bisexual mothering figure).

But then, the poet adds:

 

CHAPTER ONE Promise, change, and trauma

PDF

CHAPTER ONE

Promise, change, and trauma

L

ionel Trilling (1950) wrote that Freud taught us to see the mind as a poetry–making organ, and I would like to begin this book by quoting some relevant poetry.

William Blake describes his fantasy version of the trauma of birth:

My mother groan’d, my father wept

Into the dangerous world I leapt;

Helpless, naked, piping loud,

Like a fiend hid in the cloud.

Struggling in my father’s hands,

Striving against my swaddling bands,

Bound and weary I thought best

To sulk upon my mother’s breast. (1794, p. 559)

William Wordsworth, who was born thirteen years after Blake, describes human birth in terms that are the opposite of traumatic, his metaphor bringing in a “Heaven” alongside Hell:

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

3

4

THE PROMISE

(God here is, psychologically, the primal parent, the original omnipotent, omniscient, bisexual mothering figure).

 

CHAPTER TWO On the trauma of seeing mother’s genitals

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CHAPTER TWO

On the trauma of seeing mother’s genitals

I

n my 1981 paper, “Insight and Metaphor”, I quoted a favourite joke of Freud’s, whose punchline he often repeated in his writings:

“An impecunious Jew had stowed himself away without a ticket in the fast train to Karlsbad. He was caught, and each time tickets were inspected he was taken out of the train and treated more and more severely. At one of the stations on his via dolorosa he met an acquaintance who asked him where he was travelling to. ‘To Karlsbad,’ was his reply, ‘if my constitution can stand it’” (1900a, p. 95).

A journey consists of going from place A to place B, like going from Vienna to Karlsbad. Looking back on the distance a traveller has covered, he gains perspective. But insight is not a simple linear journey. It is full of stops and forks in the road, including the father-killing one on the road to Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and leads to all sorts of connections along different planes and in different dimensions, including the dimension of time. In order to integrate and gain a perspective on the emotional distance one has covered, one needs the time as well as the capacity to reflect.

 

Chapter Two: On the Trauma of Seeing Mother’s Genitals

ePub

In my 1981 paper, “Insight and Metaphor”, I quoted a favourite joke of Freud’s, whose punchline he often repeated in his writings: “An impecunious Jew had stowed himself away without a ticket in the fast train to Karlsbad. He was caught, and each time tickets were inspected he was taken out of the train and treated more and more severely. At one of the stations on his via dolorosa he met an acquaintance who asked him where he was travelling to. ‘To Karlsbad,’ was his reply, ‘if my constitution can stand it’” (1900a, p. 95).

A journey consists of going from place A to place B, like going from Vienna to Karlsbad. Looking back on the distance a traveller has covered, he gains perspective. But insight is not a simple linear journey. It is full of stops and forks in the road, including the father-killing one on the road to Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and leads to all sorts of connections along different planes and in different dimensions, including the dimension of time. In order to integrate and gain a perspective on the emotional distance one has covered, one needs the time as well as the capacity to reflect.

 

CHAPTER THREE Chronic trauma and soul murder: literary and clinical examples

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CHAPTER THREE

Chronic trauma and soul murder: literary and clinical examples

M

y writings on trauma were concentrated in a 1989 book, Soul

Murder, a study of the consequences of child abuse and deprivation. Both abuse and deprivation lead to trauma, but trauma does not always amount to soul murder.

Soul murder is a term perhaps most famously defined by Henrik

Ibsen in 1896, in his play John Gabriel Borkman, as the killing of the joy in life and/or the capacity for love in another human being. It is not a diagnosis but a crime with a perpetrator and a victim. The perpetrator may be, or play the role of, a parent. The victim—who is left to bear the unbearable experience alone, forsaken by parents, caregivers, and

God—is either a child or a person as helpless and powerless as a child.

(Orwell’s novel 1984 shows the way the dictator Big Brother uses torture against adult prisoners to accomplish brainwashing.) Victims of chronic overt soul murder are left with a continuing burden of murderous rage. They experience, with all kinds of variations, especial difficulties with the ability to love.

 

Chapter Three: Chronic Trauma and Soul Murder: Literary and Clinical Examples

ePub

My writings on trauma were concentrated in a 1989 book, Soul Murder, a study of the consequences of child abuse and deprivation. Both abuse and deprivation lead to trauma, but trauma does not always amount to soul murder.

Soul murder is a term perhaps most famously defined by Henrik Ibsen in 1896, in his play John Gabriel Borkman, as the killing of the joy in life and/or the capacity for love in another human being. It is not a diagnosis but a crime with a perpetrator and a victim. The perpetrator may be, or play the role of, a parent. The victim—who is left to bear the unbearable experience alone, forsaken by parents, caregivers, and God—is either a child or a person as helpless and powerless as a child. (Orwell’s novel 1984 shows the way the dictator Big Brother uses torture against adult prisoners to accomplish brainwashing.) Victims of chronic overt soul murder are left with a continuing burden of murderous rage. They experience, with all kinds of variations, especial difficulties with the ability to love.

 

Chapter Four: Haunting and Parricide

ePub

Loewald (1980, p. 248) reminds us that the indestructibility of unconscious mental acts is compared by Freud to that of the ghosts in the underworld of the Odyssey, ghosts which awake to new life as soon as they taste blood. He refers to “transference neurosis”. This is the formation in the course of a psychoanalysis that brings the emotional relationships of the past into a focus centring on the analyst in the present, so that he or she comes to life as a parent figure for the patient. Loewald writes,

Transference neurosis, in the technical sense of the establishment and resolution of it in the analytic process, is due to the blood of recognition, which the patient’s unconscious is given to taste so that the old [early parental] ghosts may reawaken to life. Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost life and laid to rest with their ancestors. As ghosts they haunt the present generation with their shadow life. Transference is pathological insofar as the unconscious is crowded with ghosts, haunting the patient in the dark of his defenses and his symptoms, [which] are allowed to taste blood [and] are let loose. In the daylight of the analysis the ghosts of the unconscious are laid and led to rest as ancestors whose power is taken over and transferred into the newer intensity of present life [of adult functioning and engagement with contemporary others] (ibid., pp. 248–249).

 

CHAPTER FOUR Haunting and parricide

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CHAPTER FOUR

Haunting and parricide

L

oewald (1980, p. 248) reminds us that the indestructibility of unconscious mental acts is compared by Freud to that of the ghosts in the underworld of the Odyssey, ghosts which awake to new life as soon as they taste blood. He refers to “transference neurosis”. This is the formation in the course of a psychoanalysis that brings the emotional relationships of the past into a focus centring on the analyst in the present, so that he or she comes to life as a parent figure for the patient. Loewald writes,

Transference neurosis, in the technical sense of the establishment and resolution of it in the analytic process, is due to the blood of recognition, which the patient’s unconscious is given to taste so that the old [early parental] ghosts may reawaken to life. Those who know ghosts tell us that they long to be released from their ghost life and laid to rest with their ancestors. As ghosts they haunt the present generation with their shadow life. Transference is pathological insofar as the unconscious is crowded with ghosts, haunting the patient in the dark of his defenses and his symptoms,

 

Chapter Five: Virginia Woolf Haunted

ePub

We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929, p. 132)

“In [Virginia Woolf’s] mind, as she wrote her autobiography, she heard the inner voices of her past and latent selves, voices she had described in The Waves as: ‘those old half-articulate ghosts who keep up their hauntings by day and night; who turn over in their sleep, who utter their confused cries, who put out their phantom fingers at me as I try to escape—shadows of people one might have been; unborn selves’” (Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, 1996, p. 714; my italics).

These ghostly shadows and unborn selves were fashioned largely by Virginia Woolf’s earliest impressions of her and her siblings’ selves from the past, but mainly, of her mother and father, our main haunters, so basic to the formation of our self-images.

In Jeanne Schulkind’s introduction to Woolf’s Moments of Being, a collection of the novelist’s unpublished autobiographical writings (1976), transformations in Woolf’s descriptions of her father and mother, which deepened and became more ambiguous as she grew older, are intuitively presented and commented upon. (There is a more contemporary example of a lifetime negative parental haunting in Daphne Merkin’s 1986 searing novel in the form of a memoir, ambiguously titled, Enchantment.)

 

CHAPTER FIVE Virginia Woolf haunted

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CHAPTER FIVE

Virginia Woolf haunted

“We think back through our mothers if we are women.”

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929, p. 132)

I

n [Virginia Woolf’s] mind, as she wrote her autobiography, she heard the inner voices of her past and latent selves, voices she had described in The Waves as: ‘those old half-articulate ghosts who keep up their hauntings by day and night; who turn over in their sleep, who utter their confused cries, who put out their phantom fingers at me as I try to escape—shadows of people one might have been; unborn selves’”

(Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, 1996, p. 714; my italics).

These ghostly shadows and unborn selves were fashioned largely by Virginia Woolf’s earliest impressions of her and her siblings’ selves from the past, but mainly, of her mother and father, our main haunters, so basic to the formation of our self-images.

In Jeanne Schulkind’s introduction to Woolf’s Moments of Being, a collection of the novelist’s unpublished autobiographical writings

 

Chapter Six: Rage as a Fact of Life (or, Who is in Charge of Time and Space?)

ePub

Ye Gods! Annihilate but space and time
And make two lovers happy.

—Alexander Pope, The Art of Sinking in Poetry

Several years ago, my office partner and dear friend for fifty years, Austin Silber, suddenly became ill and had to retire. My patients, some quickly, others only after weeks of denial, noticed his absence and the disappearance of his patients from the waiting room. They were frightened. If he could suddenly disappear, so could I.

It was necessary to sell our jointly owned office suite and, after the sale, to lease my office part-time from the new owners. I also, temporarily, had to rent space in another nearby office for a while to continue to see all my patients. Although my patients were informed about what was to happen before I left for my traditional vacation in August, the changes actually took place when I returned after Labor Day. Some patients had their session at a new time and some, for a short time, even at a new place. Those who stayed in the old office found its appearance changed. The rooms were now painted a dazzling white. The furniture in my consulting room, except for my desk, couch, and chair, was new. The windows, formerly covered by closed blinds, now showed themselves sparkling clean. It was attractive, but time and place had been changed for my patients: a change suddenly thrust upon them by me, adding new trauma and threat to that of my abandoning them over August. I was making my appearance as “a king of infinite space”, as Hamlet puts it (2.2.261), able to put not only space but time “out of joint” (1.5.189).

 

CHAPTER SIX Rage as a fact of life (or, Who is in Charge of Time and Space?)

PDF

CHAPTER SIX

Rage as a fact of life (or, Who is in Charge of Time and Space?)

Ye Gods! Annihilate but space and time

And make two lovers happy.

—Alexander Pope, The Art of Sinking in Poetry

S

everal years ago, my office partner and dear friend for fifty years,

Austin Silber, suddenly became ill and had to retire. My patients, some quickly, others only after weeks of denial, noticed his absence and the disappearance of his patients from the waiting room.

They were frightened. If he could suddenly disappear, so could I.

It was necessary to sell our jointly owned office suite and, after the sale, to lease my office part-time from the new owners. I also, temporarily, had to rent space in another nearby office for a while to continue to see all my patients. Although my patients were informed about what was to happen before I left for my traditional vacation in August, the changes actually took place when I returned after Labor Day. Some patients had their session at a new time and some, for a short time, even at a new place. Those who stayed in the old office found its appearance changed. The rooms were now painted a dazzling white. The furniture in my consulting room, except for my desk, couch, and chair, was

43

 

Chapter Seven: Killing (or not Killing) the King

ePub

One of the roots of the sadistic instinct would seem to lie in the encouragement of sexual excitation by muscular activity. In many people the infantile connection between romping and sexual excitation is among the determinants of the direction subsequently taken by their sexual instinct. [There is no] doubt as to the sexual nature of pleasure in movement. Modern education, as we know, makes great use of games in order to divert young people from sexual activity. It would be more correct to say that in these young people it replaces sexual enjoyment by pleasure in movement—and forces sexual activity back to one of its auto-erotic components

—S. Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905d

The chess board is the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature.

—T. H. Huxley, A Liberal Education, 1868

Many writers have observed that the rulers’ and the ruling classes’ policy of fostering their subjects’ viewing of and participation in sports has been one of the main ways of controlling them and avoiding revolutions. Intensities about sports have diverted and reduced rebellious and potentially violent, hostile passions throughout history, passions that might otherwise have been aimed at authorities.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN Killing (or not killing) the king

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Killing (or not killing) the king

One of the roots of the sadistic instinct would seem to lie in the encouragement of sexual excitation by muscular activity. In many people the infantile connection between romping and sexual excitation is among the determinants of the direction subsequently taken by their sexual instinct. [There is no] doubt as to the sexual nature of pleasure in movement. Modern education, as we know, makes great use of games in order to divert young people from sexual activity. It would be more correct to say that in these young people it replaces sexual enjoyment by pleasure in movement—and forces sexual activity back to one of its auto-erotic components

—S. Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 1905d

The chess board is the world; the pieces are the phenomena of the universe; the rules of the game are what we call the laws of

Nature.

—T. H. Huxley, A Liberal Education, 1868

51

52

THE PROMISE

 

Chapter Eight: Vladimir Nabokov: Murderous Impulses Displaced onto Freud and Literary Rivals—and Sublimated in Relation to Butterflies and Chess

ePub

Vladimir Nabokov movingly tells us that he has to have all space and time take part in his emotions and his love, so that “the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence” (Speak, Memory, 1966, pp. 296–97).

The brilliant multilingual writer was born in Russia in 1899 to rich, cultivated, upper-class parents. As a young man, using the pseudonym Sirin, he gained a reputation as a promising poet. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he went into exile with his family, and they eventually settled in Berlin. It was there, when Vladimir was twenty-three, that his father, a well-known, pro-democratic politician under the Czarist regime, was killed at a political meeting by two Russian monarchist extremists. Peter Quennell (1979) remarks that as a consequence of the novelist’s exile from the home and country of his childhood and the death of his father, “A sense of loss pervades his whole opus” (p. 4). Nabokov had more than a little of a Hamlet-like ambivalent reaction to his father’s murderers, identifying with them (like Hamlet’s killing Polonius) alongside his conscious longing for the beloved lost parent towards whom he would have had unconscious guilt. Much of Nabokov’s murderous hatred was turned on rival-brother figures, as well as detested father figures like Freud and Bolshevik leaders. Also, Nabokov had his own sardonic brand of Hamlet’s game-playing humour and wit; this gift contributed to and was part of his creative genius.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT Vladimir Nabokov: murderous impulses displaced onto Freud and literary rivals—and sublimated in relation to butterflies and chess

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Vladimir Nabokov: murderous impulses displaced onto Freud and literary rivals—and sublimated in relation to butterflies and chess

V

ladimir Nabokov movingly tells us that he has to have all space and time take part in his emotions and his love, so that “the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence” (Speak, Memory,

1966, pp. 296–97).

The brilliant multilingual writer was born in Russia in 1899 to rich, cultivated, upper-class parents. As a young man, using the pseudonym

Sirin, he gained a reputation as a promising poet. After the Bolshevik

Revolution, he went into exile with his family, and they eventually settled in Berlin. It was there, when Vladimir was twenty-three, that his father, a well-known, pro-democratic politician under the Czarist regime, was killed at a political meeting by two Russian monarchist extremists. Peter

 

CHAPTER NINE The psychological effect of birthdays and anniversaries

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CHAPTER NINE

The psychological effect of birthdays and anniversaries

F

reud supplied a list of basic human psychical danger situations that occur early in development as responses to the infant’s feeling more than he or she can deal with. These inevitable experiences of overstimulation centre on feeling severe pain, murderous anger, fear of mutilation and castration, and the prospect of death, all of which involve (or threaten to involve) separation from a protective parent.

The regressive load of the child’s bad experiences of loss, separation, and pain continues to lurk in the unconscious part of the mind. These danger situations, as well as our reactions to them, can erupt into consciousness throughout life, re-experienced and expressed in a variety of intensities, in our daily thoughts, emotions, and actions. Optimally, after early childhood, feelings of danger evoked by events from early life will be confined to signals of danger. Usually these consist of mixtures of mild anxiety and depression provoked by awareness of current and sometimes earlier conflicts. In neurosis, however, shadows of the past can summon up and bring to life intensely painful and frightening unrealistic expectations of catastrophe; such expectations are part of the patient’s childhood experience.

 

Chapter Nine: The Psychological Effect of Birthdays and Anniversaries

ePub

Freud supplied a list of basic human psychical danger situations that occur early in development as responses to the infant’s feeling more than he or she can deal with. These inevitable experiences of overstimulation centre on feeling severe pain, murderous anger, fear of mutilation and castration, and the prospect of death, all of which involve (or threaten to involve) separation from a protective parent. The regressive load of the child’s bad experiences of loss, separation, and pain continues to lurk in the unconscious part of the mind. These danger situations, as well as our reactions to them, can erupt into consciousness throughout life, re-experienced and expressed in a variety of intensities, in our daily thoughts, emotions, and actions. Optimally, after early childhood, feelings of danger evoked by events from early life will be confined to signals of danger. Usually these consist of mixtures of mild anxiety and depression provoked by awareness of current and sometimes earlier conflicts. In neurosis, however, shadows of the past can summon up and bring to life intensely painful and frightening unrealistic expectations of catastrophe; such expectations are part of the patient’s childhood experience.

 

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