Psychoanalysis: An experience or nothing

While it is theorised within an inch of its life, psychoanalysis, in common with art, is a down to earth business. It has a research and cultural face, but at the heart of it is the kind of curiousity Merlin referred to when he advised the young Arthur to find out why the world wags and what wags it.

Like writing and painting, Freud‟s creation is an experience, or it is nothing.

You don‟t lie on the couch to reveal cleverness; you lie on the couch so that something will change. There are concepts to explain things, but they are not the experience, the thing itself. In 1923, after completing his most far-reaching theoretical overhaul, Freud was specific. In „Neurosis and Psychosis’ he tells the reader that reading is not enough. Oddly perhaps, writers, who know their words are to provoke the reader to write a response in her own head, would agree.

This would not have surprised Freud who loved books and reckoned that some writers, like Arthur Schnitzler, upon whose work Stanley Kubrick based his movie, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, were ahead of him in his discoveries.

In fact, it is to a sublime writer that Freud turns to make his point about psychoanalysis being something more than didactic. Quoting a couplet from Goethe‟s „Faust’ he says: “My worthy friend, gray is all theory, and green alone Life’s golden tree”. This is how he recommends his new theoretical framework, the one in which the ego, id and superego, appear. Freud is not abandoning his topological model, the one with conscious, unconscious, and preconscious; rather he is saying „see my creation from a different angle‟. It is an action as much as a perspective and will afford, he writes, a “profitable return … to the perpetual green of experience.” In a column called „How are we to live,‟ it is worth wondering what is this experience so fecund it places theory as a dreary polarity to life?

As with much in Freud, the question is, like Alice‟s looking glass, a device that goes on asking as much as answering. Is Freud the great theorizer, warning against theory? It is not so simple, and that, as Brian Castro, one of our best novelists, remarks, is why we keep reading him. Freud wants us to find our own words for what he has stumbled across. It is true that if you go back 10 years from the neurosis paper you will find Freud warning about “unfruitful” theoretical controversy wherein one can become “intoxicated with one‟s own assertions”.

And yet, he is not ruling out speculation. What he is doing, I think, is recommending a certain type of conjecture, one that he called scientific, and I would say is driven by a relentless curiosity into what we as human subjects say and do.This is not, as he spells out in the 1912, paper, „Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psychoanalysis’, armchair philosophising. It is learning as if learning has no end. It is, Freud says, “always expecting to find something new”.

Freud is categorical that such self-knowledge can‟t be won by “studying books and attending lectures”, though, as already stated, cerebral pursuits are not ruled out. In one of the last papers he wrote, „The Technique of Psychoanalysis,’ he lists strength of “intellectual functions” as a pointer to analytic success.

So, how do we think about thinking in relation to psychoanalysis (or, I would argue, art) and its possibility of epiphany? Freud, as suggested, has a certain sort of intellectual activity in mind. It is has little to do with finger wagging instruction; it is rather living like Kafka said we should read: that is, with books that wound and stab. Freud is blunt. In 1919‟s „Lines of Advance in Psychoanalytic Theory’ he makes it clear. “To do its profound and searing work on the soul, analysis must be an ordeal”.

This sounds bleak. But it has a point to it. It is the same point Nick Cave makes when he says sadness has got a bad rap. It is not exactly Nike‟s „no pain, no gain‟, but it is in the same ballpark, but only because most of us refuse to give up the habitual forms of fantasy that generate our pain.

Proust deals with the dilemma in Rememberance of Things Past a work obsessed with loss and re-finding, where what must be done is to make a choice, give birth to a desire, and see what the consequences are.

To get to the kingdom of art one has to pass through the „Slough of Despond’ as we see at the end of the novel when the narrator is flooded with insights.They are illuminations, in which “all the pieces of the puzzle of his experience suddenly come together,” but only after “the despairing realization that he would have to renounce his lifelong ambition of becoming a writer – that he had nothing to say.”

Psychoanalysis is interested in a similar sort of trade-off; giving up something, symptoms, to get something, a choice. It is a scary business because Freud‟s picture in which no one is in charge can lead to people feeling they are being abandoned. With so many instinctual desires and internal, competing claims, how can a self be organised. If God is dead, there is no one left who knows who we are. This is Erich Fromm‟s „fear of freedom‟; some would rather be destitute than deal with our desires.

Freud, of course, was writing about dissenting voices inside the individual. We are, he discovered, made up of competing voices that can‟t always be reconciled. This prompts a conflict that devolves into childish behaviour; then there is the indignity of finding repressed voices within us. And worst of all, there is the discovery that what we complain about we secretly love and protect by a wilful wish not to understand.

The result is that being on the couch is an unsettling rather than speculative experience.What has to be learnt is something that, as Freud states “never comes easy to anyone.” It is the shocking truth that we are being lived by the forces within us. “Endowed”, as the poet, Alexander Pope, says, “with a little, crazy carcass,” we live through that long disease, life.”

Freud found a way out, or perhaps it is in, and the map he has left is not about pondering. As he observed, “… mental activities such as thinking something over or concentrating the attention solve none of the riddles of a neurosis.” His brand of intellectual activity is a “strange state of mind in which one knows and does not know a thing at the same time”. Later he would call it the fundamental rule, free-association, that is not fooling one self. It is what Primo Levi did when he wrote “If This is a Man,‟ the best book on the Holocaust because it kept looking when others looked away.

Published in Psychotherapy in Australia