I must be mad

Nicholas Spice

You should say everything that comes into your head.

Freud, ‘On Initiating Treatment’ (1913)

There are things it’s better not to dwell on, things it’s normal to forget. The people who are starving or being tortured, the animals that live a life of hell to feed us, the unimaginable extension of the universe, or universes, the impersonality of the statistical laws to which our personal behaviour conforms, oblivion. On the edge of infinite nothingness we go about our trivial business: book holidays, see to the new tax disc for the car, shop for the weekend at Sainsbury’s. This is reality, normality, health. Forgetting makes us robust. A whiff of anaesthetic before we start the day does us a world of good. Those who can’t forget we call madmen or artists.

One of the many scandalous realities we choose to ignore because we cannot assimilate it is the fact of unexpressed thought. Consider it. Next time you are sitting at dinner with friends or people you don’t yet know, stop for a moment and listen out for the inaudible murmur of concealed thoughts: the things going through your head that you are not speaking, the things going through the heads of the others. On the bus, in a Tube carriage filled with silent strangers, at the breakfast table with your loved ones, in the office or the pub: remember how the secret thoughts are swarming, seething; chattering like millions of bats in an underground cave, rustling beneath the surface of the day like cockroaches.

Now and again, unintentionally or by chance, the secret thoughts slip out. You have guests staying: nice, kind, ingenuous and well-meaning people, who are also rather boring. They have left the room and without thinking you blurt out too loudly to your partner: ‘God, what bores they are!’ Then you see that the window is open and you realise that they are in the room above you and will have their window open too because it’s summer and they will almost certainly have heard you, and they are staying for another three days. Or you phone an old friend and get the answering machine: it’s the simpering voice of your friend’s unbearable wife telling you to leave a message, and out loud you curse her, calling her an arrogant bitch, but the beep is much more sudden than you expect and you realise you’ve been recorded. Such moments are small catastrophes, and the only way we have of dealing with them is to behave as though they had never happened or persuade ourselves that their impact is less dreadful than it really is.

There’s a frightful exhilaration in these suicidal explosions of truth-telling. They are terrific to hear about, their energy reverberating in us as the faint aftershock of someone else’s forbidden pleasure. Herschel Shawmut, maudit monologist of Saul Bellow’s story ‘Him with His Foot in His Mouth’, describes the impulse to speak his mind as ‘seizure, rapture, demonic possession, frenzy, Fatum, divine madness, or even solar storm’. Haunted in old age by his least forgivable outburst, Shawmut remembers how he and his friend Eddie Walish were walking past the college library when Miss Rose, the librarian, happened to come out for a breath of fresh air:

To give himself more height, Walish wears his hair thick. You couldn’t cram a hat over it. But I have on a baseball cap. Then, Miss Rose, you say, smiling at me: ‘Oh, Dr Shawmut, in that cap you look like an archaeologist.’ Before I can stop myself, I answer, ‘And you look like something I just dug up.’

Awful!

The pair of us, Walish and I, hurried on. Eddie, whose hips were out of line, made an effort to walk more quickly, and when we were beyond your little library temple I saw that he was grinning at me, his warm face looking up into my face with joy, with accusing admiration. We had witnessed something extraordinary. What this something might be, whether it came under the heading of fun or psychopathology or wickedness, nobody could yet judge, but he was glad.

Shawmut’s failure to edit the output of his own mind is both hilarious and shameful, and the story is subversive because it leads us to value his deplorable outbursts as the most lively thing about him. But such dramatic eruptions of psychic magma through the surface of public discourse are relatively rare. Social interaction can be an exhausting business, as though, like the scientist Sartorius in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, we are forever, when we talk, trying to keep the door behind us closed to prevent the repulsive homunculus that embodies our unmentionable inner chaos from bursting ebulliently out into the world. But much of the time, we manage the conventions of duplicity that govern civilised life rather well, and, provided we don’t stop and think about it too much, we accept this state of affairs happily.

In his essays ‘Concealment and Exposure’ and ‘The Shredding of Public Privacy’, Thomas Nagel argues for the importance of a clear division between public and private spheres. He is less appalled by our constitutional doubleness than impressed by the success with which we maintain it, seeing it as a sign of our humanity. It is through our restraint – our willingness not to speak everything that we think – that we show our capacities for forbearance, kindness, respect for others and trust. In exercising our right to concealment – to reticence, if not indeed hypocrisy – we prevent social intercourse descending into unproductive chaos: ‘Each of our inner lives is such a jungle of thoughts, feelings, fantasies and impulses that civilisation would be impossible if we expressed them all or if we could all read each other’s minds.’

For Nagel, learning to pass back and forth between our inner worlds and the public domain is what growing up is all about. Children are characteristically oblivious of the boundaries between the private and the public. They say what they think, especially to other children (Nagel speaks of the ‘social brutality’ of childhood). In adolescence we swing to the other extreme, becoming hypersensitive about what others really think about us and what they know we think about them (in adolescence, Nagel says, ‘one feels transparent’). Only when we feel comfortable playing the games of concealment and disclosure that regulate social existence, only when we surf with assurance and facility the infinitely graded levels that connect our inner world with public space, can we properly call ourselves adults.

In Nagel’s account, mature social encounter involves a subtle choreography in which the partners in each particular dance mutually negotiate the level of disclosure appropriate to it and show their respect for each other by dancing within that constraint. If this is desirable normality, then psychoanalysis, which Nagel mentions only in passing, is indeed a strange and startling affair. For in the relationship of analyst and patient the balance of disclosure is tipped up, with the level set to maximum for the patient and to minimum for the analyst. ‘No one but a maniac will express absolutely everything to anyone,’ Nagel says. But this is precisely what the ‘basic rule’ of psychoanalysis requires the patient to do.

When, in Troilus and Cressida, Achilles says: ‘My mind is troubled like a fountain stirred/And I myself see not the bottom of it,’ we have no difficulty understanding the experience he is describing. We take for granted the separation of ‘I myself’ and ‘my mind’, even though it’s evidently a kind of nonsense, as a moment’s thought tells us. This ‘I myself’ which imagines itself looking into its own mind like a man peering into a fountain, cannot have an autonomy apart from the mind it searches. There is no ‘I myself’ separate from the mind ‘I’ have. Yet our persuasion that indeed there is cannot be uprooted. Our everyday language declares it. We speak of being ‘lost in thought’, of ‘sitting alone with our thoughts’, we ‘put things out’ of our minds and ‘turn things over’ in them. All our waking life we and our minds are in constant dialogue, negotiation, argument, disagreement. The relationship of ‘I myself’ and ‘my mind’ is the most important relationship we have.

This ‘I myself and my mind’ routine should, I guess, be considered part of the virtuoso repertoire of what Freud called ‘das Ich’, ‘the Ego’ as we have come to know it in English, rendered literally in this new translation by Alan Bance as the ‘I’ (together with the ‘It’ and – an odd hybrid – the ‘Super-I’). In ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’, much the longest of the 11 papers on therapeutic technique collected here under the title Wild Analysis, Freud describes how the patient in analysis discovers that he not only has thoughts he is eager to keep from other people, but thoughts he is at pains to keep from himself: ‘It is as though the self is no longer the unity he has always taken it to be.’ And a little further on: ‘The I is an organisation that is distinguished by a very curious striving for unification, for synthesis.’ Our versatility in thinking of ourselves as separate from our own minds (Achilles fashion) would seem to suggest that we have a constitutional distaste for synthesis and unification, for an integrated self. But the splitting off of ‘I myself’ from my own mind only looks like fragmentation. By personifying ourselves on the stage of our own imaginations, we keep ourselves intact. The ‘I myself’ that Achilles imagines looking into the fountain of his own mind is pictured whole, as a fully functional replica of Achilles capable of imagining himself standing by the fountain of his own mind – and so on, ad infinitum.

The fiction that we are not coterminous with ourselves comes early to some and perhaps never or only hazily to others. It was an 11-year-old, Hannah, who said to me recently: ‘Sometimes I think my mind knows more than I do’ – as succinct a description as one could wish for of what Freud refers to as ‘a shadowy intimation of something like an opposition between one’s self and one’s mental life in a broader sense’. But there are plenty of adults – I’m inclined to suppose them likely to be men – for whom the notion that their minds might have minds of their own would seem plain bonkers. What’s the use of such a concept, they might ask. How does it help us to a happier and more productive life?

The utility of the ‘I myself and my mind’ split for the ‘I’ is in fact immense, even if we are not especially aware of it, for it is a subtle and powerful way of maintaining the psyche’s status quo. In the character of ‘I myself’ I can forestall attacks on myself from the outside world by appearing to get there first. As ‘I myself’ I can disown my historical self – the accumulated, aggregated self, with its messy narrative, its deplorable characteristics and dubious behaviours – and reconstitute myself at will as a self unencumbered by history or attribute, nimbly disarming critics with my own shifty and persuasive apologetics. As bystander at the performance of my own personality, ‘I myself’ is a great one for special pleading. He’s the ironist of the psyche, the one with the sense of humour who can laugh at the mind’s absurdities. But he’s also the Bart Simpson of the psyche, always ready with excuses, extenuations and disclaimers: ‘It wasn’t me, you didn’t see me, and in any case you can’t prove it.’

Most of the time we do not pay much attention to the split between ‘I myself’ and ‘my mind’. To live fluently and effectively – to make decisions, speak coherently to the situations we are faced with, act consequentially – we have to forget or subordinate the useful fiction of our doubleness. Being a conscious self is in this sense like riding a bicycle or walking – we do it without noticing, or we do it in a state of semi-awareness. If we objectify ourselves too obsessively we impair our own capacity to function. People who go in for psychoanalysis are a bit like people who keep falling off their bicycles for thinking too much about what they are doing. Their awareness of themselves has become too insistent. It is as if their capacity for insight – for looking into the fountains of their own minds and finding them troubled – has become part of their problem.

One might think that to have insight into oneself was a prerequisite for a patient in psychoanalysis. Achilles may not be able to see to the bottom of his own mind, but at least he’s trying to get an angle on it: he knows he’s got a problem he can’t solve himself and he can now take the step of asking someone else to help him look – and why not a disinterested bystander with experience and expertise in looking into fountains? Sounds fine. The trouble is, as Freud so brilliantly understood, that no sooner has Achilles engaged someone to help him, than he’ll set out to co-opt his helper by trying to make him his friend. It was this manoeuvre that the psychoanalytic relationship was designed to block, by denying the possibility of a balance of disclosure between two real people in the world.

‘What on earth would possess you to do that?’ This, more or less, is the question anyone who hasn’t ever been in analysis asks of those who have. And though the answer should be quick and simple – ‘I go to analysis because I have too often wondered what on earth possessed me’ – there remains a sense in which to go to psychoanalysis and stay in it for a protracted time is itself a species of possession which analysis must also seek to cure.

People who enter analysis certainly have difficulty leaving it again. Perhaps the very strangeness of the relationship with the analyst is what is compelling. Perhaps once one has learned to obey the ‘basic rule’ and break the taboo against saying whatever comes into one’s head, one is loath to give the practice up. The basic rule may be outrageous, but it is also a seduction. It may be an affront, but it is also an invitation.

‘The boundary between what we reveal and we what we do not, and some control over that boundary, is among the most important attributes of our humanity,’ Nagel says. A world in which all our thoughts could be read would be a suffocating dystopia. Yet to have thoughts we can share with no one is a burden to us. The limits of what we can speak out loud to another person define our existential solitude. To be alone with our thoughts is the essence of being alone. Our nightmare of total transparency conflicts with our dream of being entirely known. So we do our best to have it both ways. Hugging our right to silence close to us, we sally forth into the world in search of friends, lovers, therapists.

Nagel speaks of intimacy as ‘a partial lifting of the usual veil of reticence’. Friendship and romantic love operate somewhat differently here. Friendship is our most reliable resource in learning to live with the burden – the embarrassment, one might say – of unspoken thought. Not that friendship is about greater frankness: on the contrary, we protect our friends especially diligently against the discovery of the other things we are thinking about them. Friendship is precisely an agreement ‘not to go there’, and it works on the basis of a tacit mutual deal, an I-know-you-know-I-know non-aggression pact. I know that you as my friend think things about me that you do not express and I know that you know that I think secret things about you, but we agree to make allowances for this reality and ignore it. Our pact is sealed through the trading of intimacies, confidences which, if they are about people, are about anyone but each other. Friendship is strengthened by gossip. We use the betrayal of others as the basis of our bonding.

Romantic love tries for something altogether more ambitious. In friendship we remain alone with our thoughts, but this aloneness is made more tolerable by the comfort of chumming up with someone else in the same predicament. The arithmetic is simple: you alone with your thoughts plus me alone with mine – A plus B against the world. In romantic love the public is collapsed into the private, eliminating the boundary between what is concealed and what is exposed. The experience of total mutual disclosure produces an ecstatic relief that we are at last transparent, that the troubled fountains of our minds have clarified. Here the algebra is compound: you and I alone with my thoughts, I and you alone with yours. No need for the world any more.

One might think of the difference between friendship and romantic love in terms of the game of scissors, paper, stone. In friendship we are at pains to avoid the embarrassment of a dissident disclosure, so we make sure that we know before we play which of the three options the other will choose. And if by mischance we misjudge it and present a flat hand (paper) to the other’s fist (stone) we make nothing of the advantage or pretend that it hasn’t happened, scrap that game and start again. In romantic love we play with a reckless assurance that we will never get it wrong: my stone to your stone, my scissors to your scissors, my paper to your paper. Discordant declarations are inconceivable and, when they occur, devastating. Friendship accommodates itself to the polyphony of what is said and what is unsaid; romantic love refuses to cede that such a split is necessary. In romantic love there are no thoughts outside the frame, because there is no frame.

The extreme character of idealised romantic love, at least as it is represented in fiction, forbids the lovers from taking refuge from each other in private thoughts. In Patrice Leconte’s film The Hairdresser’s Husband, Mathilde and Antoine establish a self-sufficient domain within the walls of a hairdressing salon in a small French town. The customers come and go, but the privacy of Mathilde and Antoine’s world remains as inviolate as the inside of somebody’s head. The spell is broken when Mathilde involuntarily thinks (and notices that she thinks) a dissident thought about Antoine, a private thought which she cannot disclose. The incident that causes this thought is trivial – a minor disagreement about a celebrity mentioned in a magazine – but the effect is terminal.

When Mathilde and Antoine fall in love they experience the immeasurable relief of receiving the other into a private inner space where public performance is no longer necessary, since nothing is hidden. But when Mathilde thinks thoughts about Antoine that she cannot utter she momentarily steps out of this space. Their love, it suddenly becomes clear to her, does not fill out the space of their world, but is merely a framed space within a larger one. Mathilde rediscovers an outside, finds that what seemed to be securely private could once again become public, even if for a public of two. The norm of the inner and the outer is once again established. The sober truth, the film seems to declare, is that there is no privacy that cannot be outflanked by a yet more private thought. Unable to bear the disillusionment of watching her love for Antoine return to the world of public conventions and the rules of secrecy and disclosure which govern it, Mathilde kills herself.

The Hairdresser’s Husband quietly implies the kinship of hairdressing with prostitution in one direction and in another with psychoanalysis. Mathilde’s salon is for men only and, as she gently but firmly kneads the scalps of her customers to work up a lather and runs her fingers through their hair to chase out the soap with water, they open themselves up to her, confiding their more intimate secrets. This is what they are paying their money for: to have their heads massaged until the thoughts flow.

Psychoanalysis has it that all the salon’s customers want to be the hairdresser’s husband. Patients come with symptoms – unaccountable sadness, crippling anxiety, obsessive thoughts, attention disorders and energy deficits, difficulties working or sleeping, problems relating to other people – and within a short time they fall in love with the analyst. Such strong feelings are the more interesting because they are essentially groundless. Freud describes them as ‘unreal’ and ‘inauthentic’, meaning that they are not proportionate to the situation at hand. When his patients beamed feelings of love or aggression at him, he experienced these not as a response to an unfolding reality but as in some sense ‘ready-made’, as if taken out of a drawer and set to work. The basis of such feelings, he decided, was not to be found in the present but in the past, in the experience of the patient as an infant. He writes in ‘The Question of Lay Analysis’:

Perhaps the biggest surprise for the analyst was to discover that the emotional relationship the patient develops with him is of a very special kind . . . For this emotional relationship – to put it plainly – is a kind of falling in love. Strange, isn’t it? Especially when you consider that the analyst does nothing to provoke it, that, on the contrary, in personal terms he keeps a distance between himself and the patient, and wraps himself in a certain reserve. And when, furthermore, you discover that this peculiar romantic attachment is oblivious to the question of what other actual appealing features the love-object might have, and surmounts all the factors involved in personal attraction, those of age, sex and class. This love is nothing short of inevitable.

A decade earlier, in ‘Observations on Love in Transference’, Freud had spoken of how, faced with a female patient who declares she has fallen in love with him, the analyst should neither accept nor reject this love, but, adopting a course for which there is ‘no pattern in real life’, contain it: ‘You hold onto the love-transference, but you treat it as something unreal, as a situation that has to be worked through in the therapy, taken back to its unconscious origins and made to help bring the most deeply buried aspects of her erotic life up into the patient’s consciousness, and therefore under her control.’

The phenomenon of transference demonstrated to Freud that we all carry with us a set of predispositions for attachment – in another place he calls them emotional clichés – which to an extent determine our choice of love objects and our behaviour towards them. The peculiar inspiration of psychoanalysis was to invent a relationship which acted like a filter bed or alembic to isolate these ‘unreal’ elements in the patient’s typical affective strategies. The refusal of the analyst to engage in ‘normal’ social relations with the patient created a sterile environment in which the patient’s love and hostility could not, by definition, be appropriate. How could the woman’s love for the doctor be real, if the doctor had made himself unreal? She couldn’t really be in love because there was no one to be in love with.

The co-operation of the patient in this experiment depends on him recognising in the analyst-patient relationship the shape, much exaggerated, of a familiar human arrangement: the readiness we have to talk more openly to strangers than to people we already know. The logic of this impulse to candour is straightforward. We confide in strangers because we believe we’ll be able to forget or deny to ourselves that we have done so. In this, we apply the principle of ‘einmal ist keinmal’ or ‘once is as good as not at all,’ the principle of the one-night stand. Because there’ll be no repeat, we believe ourselves safe, and tomorrow we’ll be able to pretend that nothing happened. But there is a risk in this way of thinking: our sense of safety tempts us to a dangerous exposure. As ‘Story of a Hotel Room’, a poem by Rosemary Tonks, sees it,

But idiots to feel so safe you hold back nothing
Because the bed of cold, electric linen
Happens to be illicit . . .
To make love as well as that is ruinous.

Londoner, Parisian, someone should have warned us
That without permanent intentions
You have absolutely no protection
– If the act is clean, authentic, sumptuous,
The concurring deep love of the heart

Follows the naked work, profoundly moved by it.

The potency of psychoanalysis as a therapy lies in the way it exploits the emotional economy which Tonks describes, but from this exploitation also flow the tendency of psychoanalysis to methodological muddle and its potential for subtle forms of human abuse.

According to the psychoanalytic model of the self, there are thoughts we keep to ourselves, thoughts we keep from ourselves and thoughts we don’t even know we have. To learn more about these unconscious thoughts, to get our private mind to feel free to speak, we have to persuade our conscious mind (the public domain of the self) to relax its censorship. It’s as if the mind were hampered by a dual inhibition – against speaking to itself and against speaking to others – with one muscle constraining the freedom of the whole system. By getting the conscious mind to speak its thoughts, the unconscious mind, so the theory has it, will start speaking too. But persuading the conscious mind to hang loose means convincing the analytical subject that he is safe, safe to obey the basic rule and behave, in Nagel’s terms, like a maniac. If no one in his right mind would say to another human being exactly what came into his head, then how can psychoanalysis function? It helps that people who go to psychoanalysis already feel themselves to be, to an extent, not in their right minds. And it helps also, as the phenomenon of transference suggests, that we are all of us secretly resentful of our schooling in tact and self-censorship, fed up with respecting the rights of others to be shielded from our wild and insatiable thoughts, and, given half a chance, all too ready to leap joyfully into the space left by the analyst’s self-effacement. But for all our rashness, perhaps precisely because of it, the issue of safety is paramount.

If psychoanalysis is to work it must trigger in the subject the emotional openness, incontinence even, that the self-deception of ‘einmal ist keinmal’ engenders – and it must do this not just once but time and time again (psychoanalysis, one might say, is like a whole series of one-night stands with the same person). To put it controversially, psychoanalysis must lull the patient into a false sense of security. For if the patient is to obey the basic rule, he must come to believe that what goes on in the consulting room is in some sense not going on, that it is ‘unreal’. So it is hardly surprising that psychoanalytic theory as it relates to therapeutic technique is much preoccupied with ways of keeping things strange.

Modern psychoanalytic practice goes to great lengths to quarantine the psychoanalytic conversation from the real world. Ideally, the mise en scène of the analytic session will be a neutral space discontinuous with the spaces of ordinary day-to-day reality. If the consulting room is located in the analyst’s house, care will be taken to keep it free of any but the most non-committal of the analyst’s possessions. All doors to the real house will be closed. Patients will be kept from encountering one another – the ten-minute space between sessions acting like a two-way valve, a decompression chamber for those coming to the surface and a decontamination room for those about to dive. Contact between the patient and the analyst outside sessions is studiously avoided. Inside the sessions, direct contact between patient and analyst is kept to a minimum by the placing of the couch and the analyst’s chair. Except at the margins of the session, when the patient enters and leaves, mutual gaze is avoided. The analyst neither encourages the patient to speak nor discourages him from doing so. And when he does speak, the analyst engages only with what he says, disclosing nothing whatsoever about herself. But the chief means by which the analytical conversation is kept strange, so that the patient may feel safe to speak, is the technique of analytic interpretation, whereby nothing that the patient says is taken as ‘real’.

A real encounter is one in which what I say has consequences. Let’s suppose I go to my usual coffee bar to order my morning takeaway of a strong black coffee and a croissant. The croissant is smaller than usual and the price has risen by 20p. So instead of my usual amiable small talk, which is what the man who serves me, knowing me, expects, I say: ‘Hey, that’s a bit expensive, isn’t it? How come the price has gone up and the croissant got smaller?’ (something I could have kept to myself) and, it being as it happens a bad morning for the coffee-bar owner, he loses his temper and tells me to get my coffee elsewhere in future. This is reality. The coffee-bar owner puts up his prices and cuts his costs to improve his profit margin, risking the consequence that his customers will object and go elsewhere. I too have a choice: to speak up or to keep quiet. In speaking my mind, I take the risk that I may end up having to get my coffee in another less agreeable bar. The response of the coffee-bar owner is uncertain: maybe he’ll agree with me about his prices, apologise and offer me a bigger croissant next time; maybe he’ll just shrug off my objection and say something like: ‘Business isn’t too good and anyway I haven’t raised my prices for two years. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is’; or he may, as in fact he does, lose his temper and tell me to fuck off. We both calculate the risks and have to live with the outcome.

Now, if the coffee-bar owner were a Freudian analyst, his response would be none of these. Instead he’d either say nothing at all, letting my protest hang there, or he’d say: ‘How interesting that you perceive the croissant to be smaller, rather than, say, better quality,’ or ‘I wonder why you have chosen this particular morning to be so hostile to me,’ or ‘Let’s think about why money is suddenly so important to you.’ The one thing that the analyst would not entertain would be the reality of the transaction between us: his attempt to squeeze more margin from his customers and my refusal to accept that.

The psychoanalytic encounter is like a game of scissors, paper, stone, in which, when the patient puts out his fist, the analyst keeps her hands behind her back, or interprets the fist as a special kind of paper or as something from outside the game altogether, or asks: ‘What do you think the fist means?’ or ‘Why do you think you want to play this game now?’ or ‘Can you think why the proportion of scissors to stones in your declarations should be so high?’ The purpose of the game is not to score points, but to teach the patient how he characteristically acts out. Gauging the depth and extent of the unreality inside the consulting room, he learns better to gauge the depth and extent to which he treats reality in an unreal way. As he discovers that everything he brings to the analyst is in some sense inappropriate – meant for some other person, some other place – he discovers how much of what he brings to people and situations out in the world is meant for other people, other places.

But if through psychoanalysis we learn that our most cherished realities are in important respects unreal, the practice of psychoanalysis has to keep reminding itself that what goes on in the consulting room is also in important respects real, that the unrealities of the transference relationship are framed by a real relationship between two people. Submerged in the semi-trance of free association, I may identify my analyst as my mother, father, brother, sister, but before I go under and after I have surfaced I know perfectly well who my analyst is – a comparative stranger with whom I have little real connection.

To function at all, psychoanalysis depends on our ability to suspend belief and disbelief simultaneously. To enjoy a play – to get anything out of it – we have to subdue our literal mind in two ways: we have to forget that the characters are actors while not believing the action to be real. To be moved by Desdemona’s death we must in one way believe in it totally, while knowing that it would be absurd to leap onto the stage and stop Othello suffocating her. The child who knows that Father Christmas is his father but does not allow this knowledge to spoil his belief in Father Christmas does the same thing as an adult at a play or a patient in psychoanalysis. The complication for the patient in analysis, however, is that he himself is acting in the play; and his difficulty is that he is both Bottom and the ass.

To put this another way, the analytic relationship belongs simultaneously to two frames of reference: the inner frame in which the analyst and patient communicate through the transference, and the outer frame in which two people who have otherwise no connection agree to engage in a very specialised extended conversation. Everything that goes on in the inner frame is also going on in the outer one. Both parties to the real relationship have access to the content of the unreal relationship, with the result that there is a problem of containment: the outer frame contains the inner relationship, but what contains the outer relationship?

However benign the purposes of psychoanalysis, from the perspective of reality, where Nagel’s rules apply, the structure of the relationship between analyst and patient looks pretty rickety, if not dangerously unsafe. In the context of the transference, the technique of analytical listening prescribed by Freud is irreproachable: a discipline of truly non-prejudicial attention in which the listener quietens his eagerness to know and opens himself to the full and deep complexity of meaning beyond what is ostensibly being said. But in the light of ordinary social psychology, the unyielding practice of this technique starts to assume a dominating, even sadistic character. Gilles Deleuze characterises analytic interpretation as a mill that grinds everything to dust: ‘The patient speaks in vain. The whole analytic mechanism seems designed to suppress the conditions for real enunciation . . . Whatever you say, it means something else.’ Not to take someone at their word, never to allow them to mean what they say, is in any ordinary context a potent form of provocation, a violent wind-up, the psychological equivalent of holding someone at arm’s length in a fight so that he only punches air.

Much of the time this refusal of the analytic conversation to accommodate present realities is no more than exasperating: as when the patient’s late arrival at a session is taken to signify reluctance to be there rather than poor signal maintenance at Camden Town; or when the analyst insists that the patient must be curious about where the analyst is going on holiday and what the rest of her real life is like, when in fact the patient couldn’t care less; and so on. However, the existence of private thoughts that belong in the real rather than in the transference relationship is altogether harder to negotiate. What does the patient do when he notices that the analyst smells? What does the analyst do when confronted by a patient who is genuinely boring? No amount of interpretative deferral will make these realities go away. I know someone – a gifted artist – who chose to give up her analysis rather than tell her analyst that she found his taste in paintings deplorably vulgar. If a particularly sadistic patient decides to use the basic rule to insult and undermine the personal being of the analyst, the relationship will come to an end like any other placed under this kind of pressure.

The vulnerability of the patient in this respect is naturally very great. For, transference or no transference, the fact cannot be got round that the patient who obeys the basic rule has broken a major taboo, exposing his most chaotic, unbridled, shameful, undignified, emotionally incontinent, and maybe downright unpleasant, self to another human being with no possible way of telling what that other human being really thinks about what he has heard or what he will do with it. Every patient in analysis must be haunted by the old joke about the man who goes to an analyst complaining of an inferiority complex only to be told after his first session: ‘I’m sorry, Mr Smith, you just are inferior.’ While the private thoughts of the patient can always be neutralised – if inelegantly and at the expense of the truth – through interpretative deferral (‘How interesting that you should notice that I smell’), the private thoughts of the analyst sit on the psychoanalytic relationship like a nameless, ungraspable menace. And if by some unfortunate lapse in technique the analyst should happen to let the patient see what she is thinking – by falling asleep in the session, say, or by failing to contain her exasperation – the effect on the patient can be devastating. The disillusionment and humiliation of the patient who stumbles on what his analyst thinks of him will be intense: as if Romeo, in the midst of pouring out his heart to Juliet, should get wind of the fact that his loved one is just an actress doing her job.

I have a postcard of a German cartoon called ‘Beweise es’ or ‘Prove it,’ in which a small mouse confronts an enormous, predatory black cat. The cat, with a sinister leer, is saying ‘I love you,’ the mouse: ‘Prove it.’ This in the end is the non-negotiable stand-off between the psychoanalyst and her patient. How does the psychoanalyst prove to the patient that she loves him, despite, indeed because of, everything the patient has said? Since there is no privacy that cannot be rendered public by a thought, as Patrice Leconte’s film suggests, how can the analyst convince the patient that she has not stepped out of the frame that contains the patient’s disclosures? Freud’s answer to this amounts to not much more than ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor,’ an invocation that probably had more force with his female patients a hundred years ago than it would with most people now. The continuing anxiety and paranoia of psychoanalytic institutions in seeking to validate the authority of psychoanalysis with its patients, suggests that selling it as another branch of medicine has not been easy. Perhaps this is because talking to a psychoanalyst is not like visiting the doctor, or even, for that matter, like making one’s confession – the other analogy that commonly crops up in attempts to place psychoanalysis in a continuum of human practices.

What sets the psychoanalytic consulting room apart from the doctor’s surgery and the confessional is the inadmissibility of ordinary solidarity within its walls. Confessing one’s sins to a priest or taking one’s clothes off to be examined by a doctor may be equivalent as acts of exposure to letting an analyst into ‘the core’ of one’s ‘intimate life history’, as Freud puts it, but the indignity of one’s nakedness before the priest and the doctor can be contained and grounded in ordinary human contact. While the doctor has his finger up your bum, there’s lots he can do to show he’s on your side and that your vulnerability is also his, lots to remind you that he too is human, he too has an arsehole. And while chatting and joking and being chummy is scarcely the idiom of the confessional, the ritual of confession makes it clear that the priest is down here with you, not up there with God. As a newly confirmed 11-year-old, I found nothing more effective in reconciling me to the ordeal of confessing my sins than the deep sense of solidarity engendered in me by the priest’s astonishing send-off: ‘Go forth in peace and pray for me, too, a sinner.’

It is ordinary reciprocity that makes our shame at ourselves bearable, mutual exchange with others that permits us to feel that we are not alone in our vulnerability. But it is ordinary reciprocity that good psychoanalytic practice must, axiomatically, bar from the relationship of analyst and patient. For reciprocity signals the beginning of friendship, and friendship triggers Nagel’s rules, and where Nagel’s rules apply, the unconscious mind goes into hiding.

In his introduction to Wild Analysis, Adam Phillips remarks on the provisional, improvisatory quality of Freud’s theorising: ‘His "technique", after all, was something he had to make up, with help from other disciplines, as he went along.’ Like children uncertain of ourselves in a new and rather dangerous game, we look to daddy for reassurance only to find that daddy is lost in speculations of his own: ‘Freud,’ Phillips says, ‘was always puzzled about what he was writing about when he was writing about psychoanalysis.’

Analyst and patient are two people who start to dance without knowing which dance it is that they are dancing or even if they share the same understanding of what a dance might be. But still they dance, and though in time they get used to each other’s steps they never do find out which dance it is. So the patient has to give up his need to know what the analyst thinks about him, since there is no way he can ever find this out, and the analyst must give up every ordinary human means to convince the patient that she really does have his best interests at heart. In the foreword to another book, Truth Games by John Forrester, Phillips says that ‘it is one of the paradoxes of beginning in analysis that the patient agrees to buy something that no one can really describe.’ The end of the analysis comes about, perhaps, when the patient is led to realise that the relationship he has so imprudently invested in is a junk bond, not worth the paper it is written on; that in the place of ‘infinite passion’ there is only ‘the pain of finite hearts that yearn’.

The psychoanalyst and musicologist Alan Tyson used to say that he wanted to put a notice at the end of the couch that would read: ‘Least said, soonest mended.’ I have often thought that above the analyst’s chair there should be a copy of Marvell’s poem ‘Mourning’. In it the poet lists all the different interpretations that have been placed on the tears of the shepherdess Chlora, who is weeping at the death of Strephon: some say her tears are a way of softening her heart up for another wound; some say they are tears of joy at the prospect of a new lover; some say they are a source of autoerotic pleasure (‘She courts herself in am’rous rain/Her self both Danae and the show’r’). Only the poet takes them for what they appear to be:

I yet my silent judgment keep,

Disputing not what they believe:

But sure as oft as women weep,

It is to be supposed they grieve.

In the consulting room, there are two orders: the timeless order of the unconscious, where the customary hierarchies of cause, consequence and meaning do not apply, and the order of the everyday, where in the absence of any compelling reason to think otherwise, to weep is to grieve. The besetting problem for the analyst is to know at any moment which world she is in (ideally she should be able to be in both at the same time); and her chief professional deformation is to default to the first in preference to the second. When privileging the secondary over the primary meaning, the hidden over the disclosed, becomes a habit, when every reluctance to speak is taken to signal repressed content rather than simply the action of a behavioural reflex, the admirable and difficult art of psychoanalytic listening parodies itself. It’s here that it makes many of its enemies.

Roland Barthes wrote of psychoanalytic listening as ‘active’, as itself a form of ‘speaking’; he thought that it had modified our very notion of what listening can be. Certainly, the cast of mind Freud recommended to budding analysts a century ago has passed deep into our culture. We’ve grown adept at seeing more than meets the eye, to hearing more than meets the ear. But for life to go on, for action of any kind to be possible, we have to stop the interpretative machine at some point and settle for definite meaning. For all our versatility at self-reflection, like Achilles we are notably bad at seeing anything clear inside ourselves. We alone know what it is like to be inside our own heads, but our access is privileged only in the sense that being inside a clock would be privileged – describing the intricacy of the mechanism won’t tell us the time. So we keep sane with an idea of integrated selfhood which we derive from our experience of the dazzling individuation of other people. If we question the integrity of other selves, if we start to think of people as palimpsests of meaning, with no primary surface but only an infinite recession of planes of meaning superimposed on one another, we enter a world of incapacitating multiplicity.

Psychoanalysis is still feared and attacked, not because it raises the spectre of the sex lives of children or suggests that we want to sleep with our fathers and mothers, but because it invites us into a world with more variables that we can cope with, while giving us very powerful demonstrations of why we should believe this world to be a truer representation of what’s going on than the world we are able to handle. But beyond this, psychoanalysis does something altogether breathtaking. Out of the unworkability of its own project, and as though to upbraid us with the comfortable dishonesty of our ordinary human bonds, it fashions an image of pure trust: not trust based on the appetitive deal-making of friendship and love, but a groundless, purposeless, unjustifiable trust between two human beings holding a conversation on the edge of the abyss.