What is there to lose?

Adam Phillips

  • Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia by Julia Kristeva, translated by Leon Roudiez
    Columbia, 300 pp, $33.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 231 06706 2
  • Surviving trauma: Loss, Literature and Psychoanalysis by David Aberbach
    Yale, 192 pp, £16.95, February 1990, ISBN 0 300 04557 3

The idea that literature, or any other discipline like boxing or song-writing, could modify psychoanalytic theory – that it could be a two-way street – has always been problematic for psychoanalysts. There is, of course, no reason to think a psychoanalyst’s interpretation of a boxing match would necessarily be more revealing than a boxer’s account of a psychoanalytic session. But psychoanalysts have worked on the rather misleading principle that psychoanalysis is only useful or interesting if it is in some sense right, rather than believing that it is another good way of speaking about certain things like love and loss and memory, as songs can be (and that, also like songs, it is only ever as good as it sounds). For most psychoanalysts, including Freud, Great Artists tend to provide either vivid illustration or prestigious confirmation of psychoanalytic insights. Melanie Klein, for example, found nothing she didn’t already know in the Oresteia, and even Lacan found Hamlet reassuring.

Great Theorists, unlike Great Artists, whether they intend to or not, always make us believe in progress. So it can sometimes seem in psychoanalytic writing that Western – and occasionally Eastern – culture has reached its triumphant conclusion in a handful of psychoanalytic formulations. Dominated today by masterful voices promoting the impossibility of mastery and the virtues of difference, psychoanalysis has been far less willing than literary studies, or anthropology, or philosophy, to acknowledge a multiplicity of interesting cultural conversations (believing in the centrality of the Oedipus complex makes the whole notion of pluralism, and of pragmatism in relation to psychoanalysis, extremely tricky). And yet it is surely at its most compelling, as it is in the work of Julia Kristeva – who came to psychoanalysis from linguistics – when it knows itself to be in a world of complementary and not only competitive languages. In Kristeva’s writing, despite the sometimes tortuous difficulty of her style, hero-worship and pluralism no longer seem incompatible. In fact, her work is in no way prejudicial in the sense that she does not simulate incompatibilities. She reads Dostoevsky, and Marguerite Duras, and Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb – in three of the most brilliant chapters in her new book – after Freud but not for Freud. David Aberbach, by contrast, is oddly impressed by how much Great Writers in the past knew about loss without having read John Bowlby.

If new disciplines like psychoanalysis thrive initially on fantasies of purity, they can only be sustained by what looks like contamination. And it is not surprising, given the radical uncertainty of the clinical enterprise – and talking with people who are trying to find states of mind they prefer is different from literary criticism – that people have been eager to become analysts of an identifiable and usually monotheistic persuasion. The theoretical preoccupation in certain British and American versions of psychoanalysis with fantasies of boundaries and separateness and the self as a unique possession reflects this fear of jumble, and the terrors of exchange that can make the idea of the self into a prison. People’s lives as miscellaneous and contingent but still, or for that reason, narratable is the irony that confronts the analyst who is himself equipped with his own favourite stories to deal with this. But psychoanalysis as the understanding game, rather than a redescription game, is always threatened by its own rhetoric of spurious profundity, ‘deep’ being the word psychoanalysts often use when they want to indicate that they think something is Very Important. There is the thrill of hermetic, separatist idioms, and the extensive repertoire of ways of dealing with dissenting voices. And then there is also, of course, the thorny question of what it is that psychoanalysts can claim to know.

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