I feel guilty

Adam Phillips

  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Further Psychoanalytic Explorations by Nina Coltart
    Free Association, 200 pp, £15.95, December 1992, ISBN 1 85343 186 9
  • The Damned and the Elect by Friedrich Ohly, translated by Linda Archibald
    Cambridge, 211 pp, £30.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 521 38250 5

When Freud insisted that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with ethical enquiry, was not in the business of making moral worlds or of providing a new Weltanschauung, he was trying to dissociate himself from the Judaism of his forefathers, and trying to dissociate psychoanalysis from any connection with religion (or mysticism). If psychoanalysis was seen to be compatible with traditional religious belief it would lose both its scientific credibility and its apparent originality. But one is only absolutely original, of course, until one is found out.

Recontextualised in the last twenty years by historical research, and revived by literary studies, psychoanalysis, fortunately, has had all its boundaries blurred. No longer owned, and so defined, exclusively by anyone, its ‘splendid isolation’ has been turned into a more interesting muddled pluralism and it has now spilled into all sorts of other areas – religion, history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, among others – with which it has much in common. By joining in the conversation it has been increasingly unable to disown these family resemblances, and so has lost some of the pomposity of its own supposedly unique rigour.

Nina Coltart, who has no truck in her inspired and inspiring book with the more excruciating purities of the profession, is quite explicit that ‘psychoanalysis may be defined as a moral activity.’ She believes, despite what she calls ‘the sacred rules of psychoanalysis’, that analysts have got a lot to learn from novelists, that they are ‘all novelists manqués’; and that though psychoanalysis is not a religion – and is notably insufficient if used as one – its preoccupations are of a piece with those traditionally thought of as religious.

The religion she is most interested in and practises is Buddhism (her book is worth having for the essay on psychoanalysis and Buddhism alone); and the novelist she quotes to such good effect, and with whom she shares certain affinities, is Iris Murdoch (the other novelist who comes to mind in reading her is Henry James). She is interested, that is to say, in the mixing but not the muddling of traditions, and in psychoanalysis as inescapably a moral enterprise – ‘tending as it does towards greater freedom in the making of moral choices’ – that has to work hard not to become a moralistic one. Rather like Iris Murdoch, Coltart is a kind of aesthetic pragmatist; she wants theories, which she refers to as ‘toolkits’, that she can use, and she wants to get things done properly; words like ‘skill’ and ‘discipline’ do a lot of work in her writing. But she also cares a good deal about what it all sounds and looks like – she refers several times in her book to the ‘ugly’ parts of the personality as the ones she least likes. By being carefully but not self-consciously written, her book manages to make a kind of common sense – masochism, for example, is ‘making the best of a bad job’; ‘a percentage of good manners is knowing what to do with one’s body in public’ – and yet in the shrewd lucidity of her writing she is recognisably a member of the Independent Tradition in British psychoanalysis.

Despite Freud’s many disclaimers, psychoanalysis has always been about what it means to get bogged down in traditions, whether personal, familial, religious or intellectual. Traditions tend to tell us what is Good, and how we should go about protecting it; and they define the kinds of conflict we are likely to have when we do this. Like everyone else, both the psychoanalyst and her so-called patient organise their lives around their respective, and mostly unconscious, versions of the Good, what they most value and want to sustain and protect. The analyst does this with psychoanalytic theory and the patient does it with what are misleadingly called symptoms – and are in fact disablingly painful moral puzzles. (Of course the analyst has symptoms and the patient has theories, but a mystique of professional expertise is maintained by never quite spelling this out.) The repressed, the nominal focus of psychoanalysis, is not so much sexuality and violence, but alternative and problematic moral worlds. What we call sexuality and violence (or aggression) is the often unacceptable and always conflictual means we use to create these alternative worlds.

The making of moral worlds can be a dismaying experience. The risk for someone going to see a psychoanalyst is that one dispiriting story will meet another even more dispiriting one. ‘On the whole,’ as Nina Coltart says, ‘psychoanalysis would probably agree ... that human nature is basically nasty.’ The equation of wisdom, or moral gravity, with pessimism has become exhausting. But there is covert sadism in a profession heroically committed to the bringing of bad news as Truth about Human Nature. If people are ‘basically nasty’ then everything about them that isn’t nasty is untruthful. The analysts’ endlessly reiterated boast that psychoanalysis is ‘the impossible profession’ is, in part, a consequence of their impoverished picture of what a person is and can be. Psychoanalysis is actually only as impossible as one makes it.

Psychoanalysis began as a persuasive picture of what human nature is, despite the fact that its central idea, the unconscious, describes a part of the self that is always sabotaging our favourite pictures of who we are. But psychoanalysis, which should have made all idols provisional – which sees us as compulsively irreverent, mostly of ourselves – has gone on worshipping, indeed promoting, some of the oldest idols of our emotional life. As both these very persuasive books show in a complementary way – Ohly from a literary-historical perspective and Coltart from a mostly psychoanalytic one – guilt has been the cornerstone of our Western conception of human nature.

A capacity for guilt seems to define our sense of what it is to be human; on this psychoanalysis and the Judeo-Christian religions agree. Freud simply added the idea of unconscious guilt – and the violence of guilt itself – to the picture, seeing it, towards the end of his life, as a fundamental obstacle to psychoanalytic cure; the patient desperately needs his symptoms as a punishment. His symptoms are his cure. Conversely, much of what we think a person is, in his relationship with others, is bound up with our mostly unconscious sense of what guilt is. But because the notion of guilt is a virtual god-term in our moral vocabulary – a very old-fashioned kind of god-term that permits us to use the word ‘we’ with impunity – the question is never: does it exist? Or even: what exactly do we use the word to say? But rather: how can we arrange our lives to deal with it?

Discussions of guilt, in other words, rarely suggest that the story is all wrong – after all, who can imagine a world without punishment? – but try instead to establish what it is about ourselves that makes us feel guilty: original sin, innate destructiveness, sexuality, society? And anyone who invents an alternative story about all this will be taken to be trying to avoid guilt, to be immature, utopian or psychopathic. But trying to locate the source, or trying to improve our relationship with guilt, bewitches us into thinking that we already know what it is. So in the context of a psychoanalytic session, for example, the patient’s use of the word ‘guilt’ – like all the most familiar moral abstractions – can be treated as an unconscious invitation to the analyst to collude in an assumed consensus of meaning. By looking at these kinds of usage in the context of personal history familiar words lose their coercive gravity. The question is no longer: what is guilt? But: what am I trying to do to myself (and others) by saying in any given situation that I feel guilty?

From Coltart’s point of view – in two essay on the subject, one entitled ‘Sin and the Superego’ – two basic fears constitute our sense of guilt: fear of ‘direct disapproval for transgressing the moral laws of our world’ and ‘fear of our potential for harm’. For Ohly, the question, which belongs ‘among the most enduring problems of this world’, is: ‘How can I live with my guilt?’ Guilt, in both these accounts, is a way of controlling ourselves and other people. The basic story is that someone, a God or a group of people, has made a rule which (consciously or unconsciously) matters so much to us – or to some people who matter so much to us – that when (consciously or unconsciously) we break it, we suffer. Of course, if our suffering did not come from breaking rules we would be less resourceful at improving our lives because we would have fallen out of the reassuring world of contract. The problem isn’t that if God is dead everything is permitted but that the idea of permission disappears. Certain terms – sin (or error), guilt, punishment, redemption (or rebirth) – seem to keep stubbornly organising our stories. How we have got into this moral cul de sac, and whether there is a way out or only through it, is the subject, by implication, of both these books.

The Damned and the Elect, first published in Germany in 1976 (and, as George Steiner notes in a Foreword, with no reference to recent German history), is about the power and promotion of exemplary stories; the way certain sequences of events are used as virtually autonomous guides inside us, as dreams from which there is no waking. In an extraordinary feat of scholarly concision Ohly compares in detail different versions of the stories of Judas, St Gregorius, Faust and Oedipus, our favourite transgressors, but in the end comes to the disappointing conclusion that ‘the sequence of damnation and redemption fulfils an enduring human desire, from antiquity, through the middle ages to our own time.’ Ohly illuminates a strong theme with the kind of scholarship especially in his commentaries on medieval texts, that gives us a real glimpse of other worlds; but it is clear that he began his book with its conclusion in mind, and he has settled for it too gladly. Why is this ‘sequence of damnation and redemption’ such a dominant story, and what are the alternative stories it stops us thinking up? If, as Ohly says, ‘all myth is bound together, above all by that most human of all constants, living with guilt,’ why is this what we most want to learn to live with? Or to put it another way, why has Judas, unlike, say, the Satan of Paradise Lost, never become a culture hero?

As Ohly shows, Judas has always been vilified for committing the ultimate sin: not betrayal but despair. By hanging himself Judas placed himself beyond God’s grace, and therefore, in a sense, beyond God’s power. The absolute despair was the real transgression, the refusal of redemption was truly anarchic. The story suggests that despair desacralises the world, that suicide is the only way to kill God. Judas refused God his fundamental power of redemption and by doing so makes us wonder about this God’s need to believe in the reach of his own goodness.

It was, Ohly suggests, in reaction to the dangerous story of Judas’s radical refusal that the story of St Gregorius was promoted. Judas, and Oedipus his precursor (rediscovered in the West, according to Ohly, sometime before 1150), like Gregorius, are incestuous parricides. Unlike Judas, however, Gregorius did penance in a way that never ultimately despaired of God’s grace. But it was a delicate business, because to presume on God’s grace was itself a sin; as one of the medieval German poems Ohly quotes says, ‘God will not suffer someone to dream his own way into a place in heaven.’ Because he believed that God would look kindly upon him, without assuming it, Gregorius in some versions of the story becomes Pope, and in all versions became a saint. ‘The real question,’ Ohly says blithely, ‘is not how one gets into guilt, but how one gets out of it.’ Judas and Gregorius are the exemplary options. Judas, who through his despair repudiated the whole theocracy, was, Ohly says, ‘the man the middle ages most loved to hate’. He has never been thanked for taking this on.

In Ohly’s account Faust – who is a transitional figure because in some versions he is elect and in others damned – and his precursor Judas stand, as he puts it a bit portentously, ‘on the threshold of modernity’. Both refuse to abide by the limits their respective cultures set on experience. They are the ambiguous Prometheans, the over-reachers and the under-reachers punished and secretly envied for their ambition. It is part of the value of Ohly’s book to make convincing connections between these historically disparate characters.

For these stories to retain their archetypal status, however, they have to find ways of setting limits to interpretation; they have to come out in a way that validates the suffering they have entailed for the hero. Their peculiar art is to give extreme suffering an inspiring purpose, and to do that it has to be made to seem inevitable and necessary. So it is of interest that turning pain into meaning – which is the project both of psychoanalysis and of most religions – is usually itself construed as a painful and often ascetic process. Like crime and punishment, that is to say, the cure can seem a mirror-image of the disease. So, for example, the trauma of going to see the silent, orthodox psychoanalyst is that it re-creates the trauma of the child with an inaccessible parent who refuses real contact. The two remarkable case-histories in Coltart’s book have obvious parallels with Ohly’s more archetypal stories – like all such case-histories they are (ideally) progress narratives describing something coming out of darkness (the unconscious) into light – but they breathe a fresher air thanks to the quality of her participation in the process: her own enjoyment of psychoanalytic sessions, and her conviction that it is the ‘essence’ of psychoanalysis ‘that in a very singular way we do not know what we are doing.’ It is the will to competence, as opposed to what she calls ‘the continued action of bare attention’, that can destroy the pleasure and the efficacy of the process. And it is the (conscious) intention not to produce an exemplary story that frees the conversation: the stories that psychoanalyses produce have multiple beginnings, middles and no known ends.

It is this liberating refusal of traditional forms of closure that distinguishes psychoanalysis from moral pedagogy. So psychoanalysts cannot afford to speak of sins – analysts who use the word ‘good’ very rarely use ‘evil’ – but they can use the more scientifically legitimate, and so reassuring, notion of symptoms. From the point of view of the sufferer psychosomatic symptoms are probably the closest secular equivalent to sins. And Coltart who, as she says in a superb essay on the subject, prefers the ‘silent’ patient is also, perhaps by the same token, fascinated by, and illuminating about, the very real ‘mystery’ of the construction and cure of these particular symptoms (‘they often get better almost in passing,’ she says in passing). These silent symptoms which, as it were, do the talking for the patient, when what is unthinkable turns to the body for expression, produce an often unintelligible and intractable ‘dumb-show’ which the patient brings to the analysis for the processing that is called redescription. Of course, since most children suffer from an excess of attributed meaning by parents and other adults, an unreachable psychosomatic symptom can be a paradoxical area of freedom; something that defies the intrusion of translation.

‘The special interest of psychosomatic symptoms,’ Coltart writes in the extraordinary title paper of her book, ‘is that the rough beast whose hour is not yet come is holed up in the body ... the beast has crossed that mysterious barrier whose location eludes us (between mind and body), and moved over into a stronghold from which it is only on rare occasions to be delivered.’ It is a peculiarly ironic use of the image in Yeats’s demonic poem; but ‘holed up’ seems exactly right for the location of something that absents itself from meaning. This is the poetry, without the sentimental preciosity, of the best kind of psychoanalytic writing; it preserves, as Freud did, the drama of the encounter without all the usual psychoanalytic earnestness. And because Coltart writes rather than pretending merely to record she can be suggestive in the most apparently straightforward of ways. ‘We could say that a psychosomatic symptom,’ she writes, ‘represents that which is determined to remain unconscious or unknowable, but which at the same time has actually made itself conscious in a very heavy disguise; it is speakable about only in a dense and enigmatic code.’ If this is a lucid description of the anonymous authority of such symptoms, it is also a coded description and critique of a certain kind of analyst, the kind Coltart elsewhere in her book is rightly suspicious of: the one who, like a symptom, won’t speak his mind.

Nina Coltart, who speaks her mind without advertising that this is what she is doing, refers on several occasions in these papers to her ‘outburst’ of anger with a patient. She mentions that this has given her a ‘regrettable’ notoriety for what is actually a very interesting, and by psychoanalytic (that is, chronically inhibited) standards, unusually revealing, insight into the inevitably sometimes fraught analytic process. Wary of the ‘austere and benevolently neutral manner which we hold as our working ideal’, which can easily become a refusal to acknowledge the presence of the other person, Coltart promotes a notion of ‘truth in our emotional being with a patient’: ‘we can do no harm to a patient by showing authentic affect.’ But what kind of profession is psychoanalysis if it prompts its most inspired practitioners into these kinds of confessions of faith? For anyone outside the profession, the amount of time Coltart gives to the question of whether the analyst is allowed to laugh in a psychoanalytic session, will seem bemusing – or some kind of unconscious parody. From her quibbles and quite reticent self-assertion – one of the intermittent sub-plots in her essays is a critique of the post-war, upper-middle-class English character – we get a vivid picture of an absolutely unendearing psychoanalytic orthodoxy. The establishment and its ‘rebels’ always do each other’s bidding, but Coltart has managed to find a third position: it is the art of her position to seem undefiant. ‘Unless there is a growing openness,’ she writes, ‘on the part of both patient and therapist, each to the other, and a willingness by both to make efforts in an atmosphere of trust, no treatment occurs.’ If this ‘atmosphere’ does not exist in the training institutions, it is more difficult for it to exist between ‘patient’ and analyst; and these are things prospective patients can never know about.

By being Freud, of course, Freud was very ‘present’ in the analytic treatment; despite the reticence of this technique his patients were being treated in a space he had invented. Not surprisingly, it very soon became a bone of contention among the early analysts how much they should make their particular presences felt. Beginning with the work of Freud’s greatest follower, Ferenczi, the issue of the analyst’s self-disclosure in the treatment, the possible ‘mutuality’ of the psychoanalytic process, became the focus of intense and fraught psychoanalytic debate. The Independent Group in Britain, and certain ‘inter-subjectivist’ American analysts, have sustained the legacy of Ferenczi’s pioneering work, which sees the supposed authority of the analyst as part of the problem, and what the analyst wants in the treatment as integral to the process, and so something that has to be made available for discussion. It is Coltart’s unique contribution to this innovative tradition to link this tradition of psychoanalytic theory with the question of religious belief. Psychoanalysis has always been a religion in which you are not allowed to believe in God.

It is one of the many pleasures of Coltart’s book that it is written about a group of related preoccupations that are continually circled round, and re-approached in different contexts, without the essays ever seeming repetitive. But two main issues seem to gather together the range of her interests, and eloquence. First, the sense in which psychoanalysis is a vocation: that is, how useful a religious vocabulary – which for Coltart means mostly, but not entirely, a language derived from Buddhism – can be in the description of psychoanalytic practice. And secondly, the extent to which it is useful and interesting, rather than sentimental and mystificatory, to talk about psychoanalysis as an encounter between two people as opposed to one person treating another. After all, should the analyst believe the theory or the patient and what happens when she feels she has to make that kind of choice?

People are rightly suspicious of psychoanalysis because the people who do it rarely put the people who don’t in a position to evaluate it from their own point of view. By making her particular point of view accessible Nina Coltart makes psychoanalysis available for consideration, for both the curious and the converted. Psychoanalysis is only for the people who like it (and can afford it). It is pernicious, as Coltart’s essays make abundantly clear, only in so far as it is something to submit to. And one can say, in so far as it is only for those who can afford it.