After all, one can only say something if one has learned to talk.

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

Children unavoidably treat their parents as though they were experts on life. They, and other adults, are the people from whom the child learns what is necessary. But the extent to which children make demands on adults which the adults don’t know what to do with is not sufficiently remarked on. It is, for example, clear to everyone concerned that the adults are unable to answer, in any satisfactory way, several of the child’s questions. The so-called facts of life are hardly a convincing answer – for anybody – to the question of why people have sex, or where babies are from. Whether children are amusing, or irritating, or ‘little philosophers’, once they learn to talk they create, and suffer, a certain unease about what they can do with words. Paradoxically, it is the adults’ own currency – words – that reveals to them the limits of adult authority. The adults are not fully competent with their own tools, but there is nobody else for the child to appeal to. Children go on asking but eventually they have to settle for the adult’s exhausted impatience and the fictions of life. ‘In the unconscious,’ Freud wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘nothing can be brought to an end, nothing is past or forgotten.’ Curiosity is endless, as every parent knows, in a way that answers are not.

When Lacan asserted that the analyst was the one who was supposed to know, he was referring to this fact: that children take for granted, are obliged to take for granted, their parents’ expertise, and that the patient, therefore, is likely to repeat this with the analyst. There has to be someone, somewhere, who knows and understands. That is how dependence begins: by someone entrusting themselves to the unknowable (like believing in God, or like being seduced). But the analyst, as Lacan knows, is not only the one who is supposed to know: he is the one who knows that he is supposed to know, which is to know something of extraordinary consequence. It is, among other things, to know, as every child does somewhere, that nobody knows the answers. Childhood innocence is not naive trust, it is incredulity – what the child has to repress is an ironic scepticism.

Adults can nurture children – there is no one else to do it – but they do not have the answers (though they are in the paradoxical position of deciding what constitutes an answer). But what they can do is tell children stories about the connections between curiosity and nurture, between desire and well-being (psychoanalysis is one such story). Only the adults can provide the children with languages for their lives. Language, from the child’s point of view, is always the language of experts; which is why the child is prone to feeling mad when he feels himself to be falling through gaps in the language. Competence, growing up, can be about learning to keep these gaps at bay. The coherent adult practitioner must appear to know what he’s saying; as though the adults can know something that the language they speak doesn’t. The analyst, like and unlike a parent, can only do his work because he knows – can tell compelling stories about – what a person is, what it is to live a life, and what a life is supposed to look like (one of his stories may be that no one is in a position to tell you that). To walk into a psychoanalyst’s consulting-room, like being born into a family, is to walk into a very elaborate family of stories about who one is supposed to be. The analyst may be able to help the patient discern the family stories he has inherited, but who can help the patient, and the analyst, with the analyst’s stories?

It is integral to the practice of psychoanalysis that the analyst has to fall into the trap of being treated like a parent – an authority of sorts – and then refuse to be one. Through the transference – the unwitting re-creation and repetition of earlier family relationships – the analyst and the patient can reconstruct both the patient’s sense of an expert, their personal picture of someone who knows best. And, perhaps more important, the questions, the requests, the patient was left with as a child: the personal pantheon of demand referred to by the idea of the unconscious. By not answering the patient’s questions the analyst allows the patient both to repeat the answers of the past and recover the answering voices in himself. When refusing to answer questions is not traumatic for the patient – at its worst, of course, it merely repeats the childhood trauma of the absent parent – it can reveal how he or she uses other people, or what they use them for (to preempt the elaboration of their own thoughts, say). Psychoanalysis, that is to say, can show us how we use answers, what we use them to do; and so, by implication, what is not subject to what we call an answer, or what may not be – like the question, which sex am I?

The useful paradox underlying the so-called technique (and the theory) is that, in a sense, only the patient has the answers; that the answers, in a sense, are all questions; and that, at least from a psychoanalytic point of view, knowledge is of desire, and desire is always demand. Once there is dependence – once there is acknowledgment of another person as a source of satisfaction – demands are always in the form of questions: ‘I want’ becomes ‘Can I have?’ ‘The subject,’ Lacan writes in his Ecrits, ‘has never done anything other than demand, he could not have survived otherwise; and we just follow on from there.’ To be a person is to be asking for something. We are riddled by wishes. And we can only survive by wanting. But how do we know what we want? (Which, from the child’s point of view, means: who can tell us?) And how do we know if someone is in a position to say? To tell us whether wants, supposedly like words, can be more or less true, can point us in the direction of real things?

Children’s wants at the beginning are constituted – responded to and articulated by – the adults who look after them. They do the putting of the words to things (like gestures and squeaks). The child’s parents, or adult care-takers, are the arbiters of its intent, its first brush with the authorities. A baby’s cries have to be interpreted, and can misfire. He may, for example, sometimes be fed when he is not hungry (and if he is always fed when he is not hungry but simply troubled, he may evolve a sense – a virtual self who believes – that what he always really wants is food). Ideally, childhood is a series of reciprocal accommodations – or ‘attunements’ as they are now often referred to, in an uneasy mixing of analogies. But however much psychoanalysts go on producing (or promoting) normative accounts of good parenting, they cannot avoid the fact that the acquisition of language is an imposition on the child. The child may be inventive within it, but it is not the child’s invention. It is, as it were, something the child has to catch; from the young child’s point of view, language is what other people do, is other people. And the learning of it will always be a paradoxical kind of trauma for the child, if not the paradigm of trauma itself, because the trauma can only be processed – the child will only be able to make retrospective sense of it – in the currency of the trauma itself, in words. In other words, what is always part of the problem is the only solution. Language, despite its falling short, is the child’s best way of wanting. But language makes desire feel like a form of compliance. To know what one wants one has to play the game.

A neurosis, in Freud’s language, is a way of not knowing what one wants; as though one has learnt a language and then forgotten how to speak it. This implies that wants are knowable, that in psychoanalysis at least, wants can be the objects of knowledge. We may be unacceptable to ourselves, Freud the confident Enlightenment scientist suggests, but we are not unintelligible to ourselves. After all, if we were – if our own obscurity was ineluctable – what would the analyst be doing? Pain, the psychoanalyst must believe, can be translated, like a language. The analyst can help the patient find the words. It is as though what is missing – as in infancy, or trauma – is the language. Psychoanalysis recuperates what has been lost, not, by definition, something that never existed, something outside representation.

‘From what I have so far said,’ Freud writes in his Introductory Lectures, ‘a neurosis would seem to be the result of a kind of ignorance – a not knowing about mental events that one ought to know of. This would be a close approximation to some well-known Socratic doctrines according to which even vices are based on ignorance.’ Analogies always make a difference. Psychoanalysis is unlike Socratic dialogue in the sense that, from a psychoanalytic point of view, health is not necessarily akin to virtue. In psychoanalysis the opposite of ignorance is not so much knowledge (and therefore virtue) but desire (and therefore something unpredictable and morally equivocal). In a sense, Freud is mapping incommensurate forms of life and language onto each other to make the kind of point that, among other things, gives psychoanalysis a culturally prestigious, and therefore reassuring affinity with Classical Athens.

In Vienna in the early 20th century, knowledge was not necessarily knowledge of the Good. In fact, for Freud it was the opposite. Goodness was likely to be a form of deliberate ignorance. Parodies are always close approximations. But Freud’s neurotic, like Socrates’ bad, ignorant man, is deemed to be suffering from a refusal of knowledge. There is, it is assumed, something he is capable of knowing; he is not suffering from something that in any absolute sense eludes knowing. He has a capacity which, for good reasons of his own, he can’t let himself use: but the patient has it in him. The analyst, like Socrates (though there must be some unconscious irony in Freud’s notion of psychoanalysis as a profession of Socrateses), has to enable the patient to know what he already knows; to re-find a talent, as it were. He is an expert in the forms of ignorance; in the forms ignorance can take in the service of self-protection.

Or is he, rather, an expert on the inevitability of ignorance, of how we can’t escape it? The Englightenment Freud, like Socrates, can help us remind ourselves of who we are, of what we once and always knew. But the post-Freudian Freud – the man who was always ahead of himself, and with whom we are beginning to catch up – was the ironist of exactly this Enlightenment project. He was an expert on the impossibility of self-knowledge; of that version of self-knowledge that plays into the hands of instrumental reason and social control (knowing who you are means telling people what to do). With the Freudian version of the unconscious around the antique injunction to know thyself begins to beg all the questions. For how can we believe in the part of ourselves that is doing the knowing? And who decides what constitutes real knowledge? After the post-Freudian Freud the issue becomes not only how can we bear our (forbidden) knowledge, but how can we bear our inevitable ignorance? The analyst becomes a new kind of expert, an expert on the truths of uncertainty. The risk is that he becomes merely a curator of paradoxes, a master of the absurdities of mastery, with all the glib Socratic trappings; wisdom as the tyranny of disingenuousness. ‘The concept of the unconscious,’ Ernest Gellner writes, ‘devalues both the individual’s autonomy and all inner rational compulsion, and the authority of evidence.’ Once we have language, desire, dream-work in the picture – rather than, say, insight, mastery and empiricism – psychoanalysis becomes a primer of necessary ignorance. And, therefore, the enemy of spurious alternatives. Like learning to talk for the first time, again and again.

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