I feel guilty

Adam Phillips

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations by Nina Coltart
    Free Association, 200 pp, £15.95, December 1992, ISBN 1 85343 186 9
  • The Damned and the Elect by Friedrich Ohly, translated by Linda Archibald
    Cambridge, 211 pp, £30.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 38250 5

When Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with ethical enquiry, was not in the business of making moral worlds or of providing a new Weltanschauung, he was trying to dissociate himself from the Judaism of his forefathers, and trying to dissociate psychoanalysis from any connection with religion (or mysticism). If psychoanalysis was seen to be compatible with traditional religious belief it would lose both its scientific credibility and its apparent originality. But one is only absolutely original, of course, until one is found out.

Recontextualised in the last twenty years by historical research, and revived by literary studies, psychoanalysis, fortunately, has had all its boundaries blurred. No longer owned, and so defined, exclusively by anyone, its ‘splendid isolation’ has been turned into a more interesting muddled pluralism and it has now spilled into all sorts of other areas – religion, history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, among others – with which it has much in common. By joining in the conversation it has been increasingly unable to disown these family resemblances, and so has lost some of the pomposity of its own supposedly unique rigour.

Nina Coltart, who has no truck in her inspired and inspiring book with the more excruciating purities of the profession, is quite explicit that ‘psychoanalysis may be defined as a moral activity.’ She believes, despite what she calls ‘the sacred rules of psychoanalysis’, that analysts have got a lot to learn from novelists, that they are ‘all novelists manqués’; and that though psychoanalysis is not a religion – and is notably insufficient if used as one – its preoccupations are of a piece with those traditionally thought of as religious.

The religion she is most interested in and practises is Buddhism (her book is worth having for the essay on psychoanalysis and Buddhism alone); and the novelist she quotes to such good effect, and with whom she shares certain affinities, is Iris Murdoch (the other novelist who comes to mind in reading her is Henry James). She is interested, that is to say, in the mixing but not the muddling of traditions, and in psychoanalysis as inescapably a moral enterprise – ‘tending as it does towards greater freedom in the making of moral choices’ – that has to work hard not to become a moralistic one. Rather like Iris Murdoch, Coltart is a kind of aesthetic pragmatist; she wants theories, which she refers to as ‘toolkits’, that she can use, and she wants to get things done properly; words like ‘skill’ and ‘discipline’ do a lot of work in her writing. But she also cares a good deal about what it all sounds and looks like – she refers several times in her book to the ‘ugly’ parts of the personality as the ones she least likes. By being carefully but not self-consciously written, her book manages to make a kind of common sense – masochism, for example, is ‘making the best of a bad job’; ‘a percentage of good manners is knowing what to do with one’s body in public’ – and yet in the shrewd lucidity of her writing she is recognisably a member of the Independent Tradition in British psychoanalysis.

Despite Freud’s many disclaimers, psychoanalysis has always been about what it means to get bogged down in traditions, whether personal, familial, religious or intellectual. Traditions tend to tell us what is Good, and how we should go about protecting it; and they define the kinds of conflict we are likely to have when we do this. Like everyone else, both the psychoanalyst and her so-called patient organise their lives around their respective, and mostly unconscious, versions of the Good, what they most value and want to sustain and protect. The analyst does this with psychoanalytic theory and the patient does it with what are misleadingly called symptoms – and are in fact disablingly painful moral puzzles. (Of course the analyst has symptoms and the patient has theories, but a mystique of professional expertise is maintained by never quite spelling this out.) The repressed, the nominal focus of psychoanalysis, is not so much sexuality and violence, but alternative and problematic moral worlds. What we call sexuality and violence (or aggression) is the often unacceptable and always conflictual means we use to create these alternative worlds.

The making of moral worlds can be a dismaying experience. The risk for someone going to see a psychoanalyst is that one dispiriting story will meet another even more dispiriting one. ‘On the whole,’ as Nina Coltart says, ‘psychoanalysis would probably agree ... that human nature is basically nasty.’ The equation of wisdom, or moral gravity, with pessimism has become exhausting. But there is covert sadism in a profession heroically committed to the bringing of bad news as Truth about Human Nature. If people are ‘basically nasty’ then everything about them that isn’t nasty is untruthful. The analysts’ endlessly reiterated boast that psychoanalysis is ‘the impossible profession’ is, in part, a consequence of their impoverished picture of what a person is and can be. Psychoanalysis is actually only as impossible as one makes it.

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