The phenomenon of transference – how we all invent each other according to early blueprints – was Freud’s most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipus complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities – personal relations – is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems. Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other.
Janet Malcolm does not suppose that her distress about a fact will stop its being a fact. Neither is she part of the Freud-processing industry, whose ambition is to pop Freud into the blender and dish up something bland. Hers is a legitimate cry of wounded romanticism. As she utters it, she is adopting one of the methods – indeed, the classical (as well as the romantic) method – whereby humans can snatch pleasure, of a sort, out of distress: namely, to discern in the distressing fact the dignity and beauty of tragedy. In token of that aesthetic manoeuvre, the paragraph Ms Malcolm herself constructs about the matter is a pretty good one.
All the same, I suspect that her cry is unjustified and the consolations of tragedy uncalled for. If you truly have accepted the ideas of infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex, you cannot have much in the way of a just cause to balk at the idea of the transference, which represents the continuation of their importance into adult life.
Perhaps the paragraph is hooked on the determinist snag, which can bedevil any hypothesis that attributes causes – or can, at least appear to, since it is partly a semantic conundrum. ‘I wish I were a different person’ is in a way an unwishable wish: if it came true, the I who wished it would no longer be there to receive the gratification. Likewise, to wish oneself free of the factors, whatever they are, that determine one’s personality, including one’s wish to be free of them, is to wish that personality and its wishes out of existence. Ms Malcolm is too sensible to be wishing away the concept, as such, of transference, an abolition that would leave us still blundering about in our Oedipal fog but without even the knowledge that we are doing so. It is presumably the phenomenon itself that she deplores. She seems to imply that, but for transference, we should be able to apprehend one another clearly and love one another for what we are. But if our personalities were not precipitated by our Oedipal experience and formed by it into an apparatus that continues to pursue Oedipal shadows, the result would be that we should not be we, either as individuals or collectively, since we should be a different type of animal.
There seems also to be an implication in the paragraph that there is some method by which our individualities could have been formed that would be more acceptable. But is there? Would it be nicer if we were ‘the stars’ tennis balls’ and our relationships consisted of our collisions as we were ‘struck and bandied’? Would being in love be less ‘solitary’ if it were a spell cast by the capricious intervention of Aphrodite? Would it be less ‘impersonal’ if the great loves of our lives were dictated by a computer with a facility for spewing random numbers? Should we be more autonomous if we owed our loves and hates not to the Oedipus situation and, by derivation from it, to transference, positive and negative, but to ‘something chemical’, which, as the narrator of Brideshead Revisited remarks, was ‘the cant phrase of the time’ (the Twenties), ‘derived from heaven knows what misconception of popular science’ and employed ‘to explain the overmastering hate or love of any two people’? I suspect in passing that that cant phrase may have derived not only from ‘popular science’ but from scenes like the one the narrator records of undergraduates ‘making for the river’ carrying what he misnames ‘the Unpleasant Plays of Bernard Shaw’, though in point of pedantic fact it is in Plays Pleasant, and specifically in You Never Can Tell (1897), that Valentine (who may, as a dentist, represent both popular and unpopular science) declares to Gloria Clandon: ‘You can’t deny that there is such a thing as chemical action, chemical affinity ... Well, you’re attracting me irresistibly. Chemically.’
Transference, not in its generalised but in its narrow sense of the emotions felt towards the analyst by an analysand (who is not always, of course, a patient but may be a prospective analyst undergoing his ‘training analysis’), is Ms Malcolm’s central theme. Her book, an expansion of an article written for the New Yorker, is in effect a conglomerate profile of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, in which many of the dramatis personae appear, like the patients in psychoanalytical case-histories, under pseudonyms, including her central figure and mouthpiece for psychoanalysis, ‘Aaron Green’. He is endowed with an appearance (‘he looks Jewish’), an age (at 46, he is one of the ‘younger members’), clothes (grey flannel trousers and a herringbone jacket) and an idiosyncrasy (‘the desire to be a beautiful woman’), but even so I think he may be a composite portrait, especially since he tells Ms Malcolm that, after buying his first herringbone jacket early in his career, he noticed that ‘everyone at the New York Psychoanalytic wears this kind of jacket.’
The journalist’s habit of seeking his story where he senses conflict and personal emotion might anyway have led Ms Malcolm to concentrate her inquiries on the transference, but psychoanalysis had already done that for her. The transference reanimates the analysand’s original Oedipal relationship, and it is the analysis of the transference that makes the Oedipal experience accessible. An unreconstructed Freudian, Aaron Green ‘closes his eyes and groans softly’ at the mention of Melanie Klein – which, to me at least, is one of the many sympathetic characteristics that Ms Malcolm gives him. The suckling’s relation to the breast (or, as the Kleinians have it, to good breast and bad breast), important though it is, cannot justly displace the Oedipus complex from the centre of the psychic organisation, because it lacks the conflict essential alike to dramatic tragedy, good journalism and the precipitation of a personality. It may seem to the suckling that he is performing an act of cannibalism, but in fact what he does has the mother’s consent. It is only when the infant asserts his incestuous wishes that the parents are bound to resist. Civilisation depends on their doing so – and prehistorically arose, if Freud is correct, from their doing so.
The analyst, cast by the transference in the parental role, is thereby bound to an ‘abstinence’ that Ms Malcolm finds near-saintly. Not only must he refrain from falling into the arms the analysand will almost certainly extend. He must deny himself even those polite murmurs of commiseration and agreement by which, in ordinary social life, one establishes oneself in one’s interlocutors’ eyes as a nice person, because such murmurs might inhibit the analysand from expressing hostility.
As therapy, psychoanalysis can usefully treat only a comparatively small number of types of disturbance, which need careful diagnosis. As theory, it can probably touch with illumination virtually everything except the specific content of the physical sciences. Freud’s was one of the supremely commanding minds. If Aristotle, in the Organon, codified the syntax of rational thought, it was Freud who discovered the syntax of irrational impulses and their often distorting impact on reason. ‘It may rationally be said that every person is mad once in every 24 hours,’ wrote Thomas Paine in the ‘Essay on Dream’ that constitutes the third part of The Age of Reason. A century later, Freud used reason to interpret the language in which our nightly lunacy expresses itself.
Freud’s accounts of his own and his patient’s dreams lack nothing except circumstantial detail. Significant detail is, of course, abundant. Everything the dreamer says about the room he dreamed he was entering may be valuable secondary elaboration or association that can lead to the meaning of the dream. But in the nature of psychoanalysis the details are not valuable for their own sake, as they would be to a novelist and often are to the dreamer. Ms Malcolm’s book restores the insignificant details to psychoanalysis or, at least, its milieu, at least in New York. Her analysts have not only clothes but consulting-rooms furnished in certain styles. She reports what they gossip about (the rare occasions when an analyst has broken the abstinence rule) and how they spend their spare time (chiefly with fellow analysts). Her book is entertaining and readable and also well-researched, citing and quoting many of Freud’s own books and pursuing a persuasive psychoanalytical hypothesis of Ms Malcolm’s own about why Freud picked a particular pseudonym to cloak a particular patient. It reads like a novel by a very, very intellectually classy Arthur Hailey.
Janet Malcolm credits her ‘Aaron Green’ with a sympathetic line in self-satire when he recounts that his training analysis was conducted by an analyst who had himself been analysed by Ferenczi, who had been analysed by Freud: ‘I could thus trace my analytic lineage back to Freud. You smile, and you should. It’s a preposterous notion. It’s the most primitive kind of family romance – my parents are aristocrats, I’m descended from royalty, all that sort of stuff.’ At first glance you might suspect the International Psycho-Analytic Library (which has modified its jackets from fern to lime green but not yet taken up herringbone) of deference to lineage in adding to its collection of Anna Freud’s writings an eighth volume containing papers written between 1970 and 1980. Several, it’s true, are short and a few slight. Yet even when delivering a sliver of personal reminiscence in the constraining circumstances of a memorial meeting or the reissue of someone else’s book, Anna Freud seems to make an honourable point of never saying nothing. In addition to the slivers, there are substantial discussions of child analysis, from the point of view of both technique and theory, a paper on training analysis which won’t be read by everyone who reads Ms Malcolm’s book but should be, a longish ‘study guide to Freud’s writings’ that is the definitive answer to the beginner’s question about where to begin, and a succinct study of aggression that lends theoretical and clinical support to Freud’s recognition, still not universally endorsed by Freudians, of an independent instinctual Thanatos – a recognition that would be my candidate for, in Ms Malcolm’s words, ‘Freud’s most original and radical discovery’, because it perceives that the most remarkable thing about life as a biological phenomenon is death.
To Wilhelm Reich, psychoanalysts and, indeed, psychologists of all kinds appeared malign. So did ‘Moskau political Higs’ (i.e. ‘Hoodlums in Government’), ‘the representatives of condoms and pervert homosexuals’, carriers of ‘emotional plague’ (‘emotional plague’ being, as he explained to A. S. Neill, ‘a strictly scientific term to denote evil social action’), spacemen in UFOs (who ‘mess up our planet with the offal of their machines’) and the many earthly individuals whom Reich discerned to be infested with ‘red fascist emotional tapeworm’.
A. S. Neill, owner of Summerhill, an English private school which he conducted on roughly Rousseauist lines, became a disciple of Reich in 1936, when Reich, an Austrian, was living in Norway. Just before the war, Reich moved to the USA, where he presently became a citizen and set up a big establishment in Maine which he named Orgonon, not in misspelt tribute to Aristotle but in tribute to his own supposed discovery of a type of energy which he called orgone and believed to irradiate the universe. This discovery, he told Neill, ‘means opening a way for a complete re-evaluation of all human judgments and values acquired over the past 8,000 years’.
Neill’s discipleship (‘Reich, you are one of the great men of our time’) survived not only the war but the difficulty Neill experienced in the early Fifties in getting a visa to visit the USA, Reich’s response to it (‘I fully agree with the American government that it is necessary to screen every single person very carefully. We simply do not want Stalinists around here’) and even Reich’s temporary conviction that Neill had become ‘tapewormed’. The letters between the two ceased only in 1957, when Reich died while serving a two-year sentence for contempt after the violation of an injunction granted to the Federal Food and Drug Administration in connection with the ‘accumulator’ devices through which Reich purported to capture the ‘orgone energy’ for therapeutic use.
Why this huge, sad book, printed and designed in the USA, with a blurred, matt photograph of the two correspondents opposite the title page, should be issued under a British imprint is as unclear as the photograph. Perhaps a duty was owed to any survivors there may be of the Reich cult to make it known that he was not a great liberator but a man who afflicted or infected mice with cancer. At least, he claimed it to be cancer. The correct diagnosis will probably not have mattered to the mice. His fantasy life seems to have been shaped by the boy-wizard-scientist on some early chemistry set from which the explanatory booklet had been left out. He failed to anticipate the harshness the US Government eventually used towards him because he had convinced himself that he had that government where he wanted it.
He alone, he told Neill in 1941, had the knowledge to forecast the weather (‘They will need it, and badly too’), possessed ‘the secret of cancer, rheumatism, tuberculosis, neurosis, psychosis and many other diseases’, could direct the ‘orgone energy’ in ways ‘indispensable for science as well as for every aspect of technique’ and disposed of ‘the formula and the experiments which give mankind power over the raising of living substance from non-living substance’. And that, as he told Neill, ‘means power’.