Geography of Meanings Book Review

Apart from Freud, whose back catalogue must rival that of The Beatles for value and continuing relevance, psychoanalysis has seldom troubled the keeper when it comes to publishing success.

Sure, there have been some big-hitters among the early generation of analysts, notably Melanie Klein, Bion, Winnicott and Bowlby, but while they have had profound things to say and have said them to a large audience, their impact has not been typical. Most psychoanalytic writing has been done by specialists for specialists, and seldom has the work jumped the barrier into the mainstream.

There are some exceptions. Despite his deliberately recondite style, Lacan, like Freud, produced, or had produced for him, more than 20 volumes, and had thousands of volumes written about him. British school analysts, Adam Phillips and Christopher Bollas, have also got into the literary pages. Bollas, after turning Freud’s immortal phrase about the shadow of the object into an analytic text, moved onto novels, while Phillips, who began with a biography of Winnicott, penned a brace of pithy books with titles like ‘Going Sane’; all of which have been so popular he’s accused of being a populist.

In Australia, however, it has been a publishing vacuum. Apart from Neville Symington and Maurice Whelan, few analysts have produced books. Academics like Jennifer Rutherford and Antony Elliott have written about analysis, and novelists like Brian Castro have produced fiction with a Freudian theme. But that’s about it. Why? Is an intriguing question one could (and I am) exploring in a PhD.

Psychoanalysis is all about inscription, so one would expect analysts to read widely and write often, and bravely, as Freud did. Happily, this now seems more likely with a book that had its origins in 2000 when the Australian Psychoanalytical Society, in contrast to earlier times, reached out to the community with a conference on the ‘Australian Milieu’. Held in the shadow of Uluru the conference bought Freud face to face with Aboriginality and local culture and identity. This is an important step. As co-editor, Maria Teresa Savio Hooke, writes, “If psychoanalysis is in crisis today, it is also because of our reluctance to engage with the current social and cultural trends, and with modern problems.”

This book does engage. Hooke, the current president of the Society, is a lively woman who admits up front that analysts have lost touch with the “early revolutionary spirit of the pioneering times of Freud’s Vienna when our forefathers were at the forefront of all the social issues of the time.” The tone is picked up by historian Bain Attwood, who compares our denial of the Stolen Generation and devastation of Aboriginal communities with Freud’s notion that what we can’t remember we repeat.

Perhaps Australia is the kind of patient that resists having a history, and if this is the case, then analysts as well as progressive historians are well placed to identify the problem. Attwood is right to point out that, “Historians and psychoanalysts have a common interest in relating the past and relating to the past.” It was Freud, after all, who recognised that the past is always with us; it dwells in the present, and those who deny that are destined to a perennial and painful Ground Hog Day.

The title of the book, Geography of Meanings, is best explored by Thomas Wolman, an American analyst, who deftly defines how the different sorts of spaces in our lives have their equivalents in the life of an analysis. There is the analytic space, both a room and an internal world; a human space in which analysis roots around, from the womb to the worries of old age; and a phallic space that can be both myth and master. It is this phallic space that most concerns psychoanalysis, as it is here that our imaginary satisfactions lie, and the fantasies that underlie our discontent find their hiding place.

Wolman is a good guide in this tricky terrain, pointing out that, contrary to some popular illusions, the notion of a perfect analysis is a remanent of phallic space, that is, the urge to deny loss. “For analysis,” he writes, “the hallmark of human space is the piece that does not fit, the little enclave of messiness in a haphazard pile of papers, the non-perfect alignment of chair and couch, and so on.”

This is what Lacan calls lack and Freud conceptualised as castration. Wolman understands that the analyst must refuse to accept the position of knower in which the patient desperately tries to put her. He sounds Lacanian when he says, “the analyst must avoid the illusion that he or she does indeed posses ‘it’ … there must always be something lacking that only the patient can try to fill.” For Wolman divisions of space “always involve the spoken word – the sine qua non of psychoanalysis.”

he linguistic theme is continued by award-winning novelist, Kate Grenville, who writes that the language we use in talking of the past has been an accomplice to knowing and not-knowing. “Taken up land”, or “disperse” weren’t words that lied, exactly. They were sort-of true, so that the people using them didn’t have to acknowledge to themselves that they were fudging.” Grenville is not writing about psychoanalysis, but it hardly matters. Her grasp of the “linguistic appropriation” that occurs in history echoes Freud’s idea of words as ways of fooling ourselves, ways that lead to illness.

Melbourne analyst, Eve Steel, also writes of the horror that has dogged our indigenous past, and how the trauma of the Lost Generation is something about which psychoanalysis has much to say. There are contributions from Jungian analyst, Craig San Roque, Stuart and Nicholas Twemlow, Salman Akhtar, and Sydney analyst, James Telfer, who draws on clinical cases to think about how one can be with someone who is so dislocated they do not feel they occupy a place.

The book is a breakthrough of sorts in analytic publishing in Australia, and will be of interest to anyone pondering current political and cultural dilemmas, especially those around identity and the insider/outsider divide. It is produced by the International Psychoanalytical Association in London, which means it draws on powerful resources and writers, but there is a downside, and that is that less than half the contributors are Australian analysts. I welcome its arrival and the inclusion of non- analysts, like Kate Grenville, but is it too much to wish that local analysts write more and fearlessly?