The Shock of the Old

Adam Phillips

  • Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self-Experience by Christopher Bollas
    Routledge, 294 pp, £14.99, April 1993, ISBN 0 415 08815 1
  • Psychoanalysis and the Future of Theory by Malcolm Bowie
    Blackwell, 161 pp, £35.00, October 1993, ISBN 0 631 18925 4

For the patient in psychoanalysis the most disabling insights are the ones he cannot forget; and for the psychoanalyst, by the same token, the most misleading theories are the ones he cannot do without. Mental addictions, that is to say, are supposed by psychoanalysis to be the problem not the solution. People come for psychoanalysis when there is something they cannot forget, something they cannot stop telling themselves about their lives. And these dismaying repetitions – this unconscious limiting or coercion of the repertoire of lives and life-stories – create the illusion of time having stopped. In our repetitions we seem to be staying away from the future, keeping it at bay. What are called symptoms are these (failed) attempts at closure, at calling a halt to something. Like provisional deaths, they are spurious forms of mastery.

The paradox of living in passing time and craving durable truths (or symptoms) as the best equipment for this predicament has traditionally been the province of Western metaphysics. But the practice of psychoanalysis, like the practice of ordinary life, raises ‘philosophical’ questions in rather immediate form. How long is something true for, and why should duration over time be a criterion for the validity of a so-called insight in psychoanalysis, or anywhere else? After all, the repetitions from which the patient is suffering, and which for psychoanalysis define the realm of pathology, are extremely durable, unlike the ‘insights’ used to explain them. For Freud these repetitions are the consequences of a failure to remember. Psychoanalysis, as Malcolm Bowie writes, ‘is overwhelmingly concerned with the production and transformation of meaning’. Whatever cannot be transformed, psychically processed, reiterates itself. A trauma is whatever there is in a person’s experience that resists useful redescription. There is no future in repetition.

But if, as Freud says, we repeat only what we cannot remember, what is the psychoanalyst or literary theorist doing when he learns a method of analysis that itself involves a repetition of certain skills? A method is only a method because it bears repeating; and yet from a psychoanalytic point of view it is repetition itself that is the problem, that signifies trauma. This is one of the paradoxes that Christopher Bollas and Malcom Bowie examine in their differently eloquent and intriguing books. Embarrassed alike by the subtlety and complexity of the work of art and of the patient, can the theorist and the analyst do more than repeat what they already know? Is theory always more of the same, just Where The Tame Things Are? If theory is, by definition, what we already know, what are its prospects? The future, after all, is the place where our prejudices might not work.

Psychoanalysis may begin with Freud but what it is about does not. Malcom Bowie and Christopher Bollas have been writing some of the most innovatory psychoanalytic theory of the last few years but out of significantly different traditions. There is an unusual stylishness in their writing and an exhilarating ambition. Bollas’s prose, immersed in the poetry of Romanticism and the 19th-century American novel, allows him to be grandiloquent on occasion while being at the same time quite at ease with the tentativeness of his project. His prose often has the evocative resonance that his theory attempts to account for. And as his theory describes psychic life as a kind of haunting, we have to be alert to the echoes in his writing (and sometimes in his overwriting). When, for example, he says about the process of observing the self as an object, ‘emerging from self-experience proper, the subject considers where he has been’, it is integral to the process being described that we can hear the cadence of Coleridge’s glosses on ‘The Ancient Mariner’. And echoes work both ways. Bowie, too, has the virtue of his quite different intellectual affinities, something that is particularly rare in mainstream psychoanalysis, as anyone who has read the specialist journals will know. Though his writing is far too idiosyncratic for pastiche, it is Proust and Mallarmé that we can hear most often in his work. ‘The language of psychoanalysis,’ Bowie writes, ‘offers clues not solutions, calls to action for the interpreter but not interpretations.’ Yet prudence is the unlikely virtue that he keeps promoting in his increasingly subtle readings of Freud and Lacan.

For both Bowie and Bollas it is one of the difficult ironies of psychoanalysis that as a theory it seems to pre-empt the future it is attempting to elicit. Freud’s ‘account of human temporality’, Bowie writes, ‘serves ... to place the future under suspicion, and to keep it there throughout a long theoretical career’. Like Bollas’s definition of a trauma – ‘the effect of trauma is to sponsor symbolic repetition, not symbolic elaboration’ – it is as though, from a psychoanalytic point of view, the future can only be described as, at best, a sophisticated replication of the past, the past in long trousers. Theory itself becomes the symptom it is trying to explain. If in psychoanalytic theory the past, the undigested past, so to speak, is that which always returns – as both symptom and interpretation – how can we return to the future, or get beyond the interminable shock of the old that theory and therapy too easily promote?

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