Secrets of the Soul

At the end of his survey of psychoanalysis – a journey that weaves in and out of some of the most exciting ideas of the past 150 years – Eli Zaretsky examines the body of Freud’s offspring and pronounces it ailing but alive. There is no corpse, but after so much battering, abuse and wayward behaviour, the entity is damaged, and has damaged many of those it sought to aid. Time and rough justice have caught up with psychoanalysis, stripping away its swagger in favour of a kind of normalization. But it is a normality shot through with trauma. Psychoanalysis, as it limps into the 21st century, drags a history punctuated by catastrophes that remain active yet incapable of resolution.

Zaretsky, professor of history at the New School University in New York, names them. They are “personal violations, misshapen lives, wasted years, destroyed documents, secret archives, forgotten lapses and inexplicable ruptures. “Well, maybe not so inexplicable. Psychoanalysis’s upheavals can perhaps be understood in the terms Freud himself evolved. It was Freud who first advanced a doctrine of trauma as a cause of neurosis, especially hysteria. He began with his theory of seduction, which sourced the problem to real sexual trauma, but quickly moved onto fantasy, which made the subject responsible for the consequences of the trauma incurred. It was, of course, all about sex; in particular how the traumatic effect of sex situated in the encounter with sexual jouissance of the body, played out. As Professor Zarestsky shows, psychoanalysis was split and shaped by divisions over the sexual instinct, and how or if, it was inscribed into the unconscious.

This is a very comprehensive work. It tells Freud’s now familiar story, but connects it up to cultural tides and tsunamis that place psychoanalysis in relation to the prevailing ideas of its time. Unlike a number of other analytic histories, it does not proceed as if psychoanalysis is an agreed quantity. It wrestles with the subtlety of what it is, and therefore, what we are. The history is there, but never alone, always with an informed and informing mind talking about where these ideas might have come from and how they might fit into a bigger picture.

Early on, the theme is set, beginning, with trauma inscribed in an unconscious that does not know time, let alone the difference between fact and fiction. Thus, before the turn into the 20th century, and all the real life trauma that will follow, Freud identified what Lacan would later call the barred subject – the person divided by their own unconscious – a being who begged Descartes’ big question, and could never claim to be in charge of the proceedings.

Multiple changes and challenges would follow, but the theme would persist. Was analysis a way of putting the subject in charge of their destiny, or was it something much more subtle. Freud laid down his cards in his masterwork, The Interpretation of Dreams, where he conceived of the unconscious as the locus of dynamic personal motivations arising in infancy. It is, as Professor Zaretsky states, Freud’s core insight into modern personal life.

It is an insight that Freud did not get easily, or without cost. He was, as he told Fliess, “deeply impoverished. I had to demolish all my castles in the air.” This amounts to a giving up of jouissance, a form of symbolic castration, an embrace of loss. Abandoning his earlier positivism cost Freud dearly. But the trade off would always be disputed. As the story unfolds, we learn of how very hard it is to stop fooling yourself, to relinquish dreams, most especially psychoanalytic dreams of grandeur and the illusion of universal cure. There are, of course, social parallels to the battles going on within analysis, and Professor Zaretsky is particularly adept at revealing them.

The most profound, I think, is the struggle over what you might call the soul of psychoanalysis. Not just who owns it, or what it is but what can it do? Is it a path to utopia or, as Freud himself believed, “a very grave philosophy”, one that can’t supply salvation, though it might just afford an explanation of original sin and guilt. These are the big battle cries and they echo around the world as psychoanalysis gains stature and influence. This book illustrates the tug of war between utopian idealists and realists, and the manifold misunderstandings that both facilitate. By the time analysis was up and running, everyone, as W.H. Auden observed, was a Freudian, or thought they were.

Andre Gide, as the book notes, wrote in his journal: “Freud, Freudianism … for the last 10 years, or 15, I have been indulging in it without knowing.” It is an apposite remark, as Gide was a man devastated by sexual trauma. His aunt tried to seduce him when he was a child, and at 13 he saw her and her lover locked in an embrace, an event that was much magnified by the trauma it produced in his cousin, Madeline. Seeing her in tears he understood for the first time “the secret of her usual sadness” He decided his mission in life was to rescue her.

Gide captures a number of themes of analysis.

He was gay, which, as Professor Zaretsky says, was a recurring issue for analysts and a force that would shape its evolution; and in spite of repressing an early trauma that then drove him, he insisted he was a Freudian. It was the unconscious at its relentless best. Lacan thought it so fascinating he wrote about it, arguing that Andre Gide was bewildered about the place he occupied in his mother’s desire.

It was this that allowed Madeline to become the object of his love, not his desire – their marriage remained unconsummated. He was, and this is a key thread in the psychoanalytic story, trapped in narcissistic identification. The young boys Gide pursued represented Gide himself as a young boy, a boy desired by his aunt. He knew the violence of desire. He was both seducer and the one being seduced.

For Lacan, Gide illustrates what happens when the paternal metaphor is not well defined. Interestingly, M. Gide, who could himself endure just six analytic sessions, both admired and hated Freud, calling him that “imbecile genius.”

My interest in psychoanalysis started with questions like this. I wanted to know about motivation. But to even ask, I had to first inquire into what is psychoanalysis Freud’s most quoted answer, Psychoanalysis is the science of the mental unconscious. (Freud 1926), was a start. One Lacan one-liner held that it was the science of the mirages that arise. (Lacan 1966). Mirage is a good word, as it evokes the elusiveness that pervades psychoanalytic certainty. What has surprised me in my research is not the lack of a watertight definition, but the absence of curiosity and respect for the question itself.

While it is not a problem with Secrets of the Soul, it is in other, notably, Australian histories. Australia is, not surprisingly, pretty well absent from Secrets of the Soul, probably because of its size and location, and the way it took its lead from Britain. Australian analysis can be read as local factors moving centre stage at the expense of Freud’s key concepts. Was this because, as expatriate novelist, Peter Carey, writes, Australian culture has long had a “suspicion of European-style bullshit” (Morrison 2003)

Carey’s remarks come in his book, “My Life as a Fake”; a good psychoanalytic title. It draws on the Ern Malley hoax, which, as it turns out, has a place in the psychoanalytic history of Australia. Carey is fascinated by what the hoax says about local culture. In the book, he has Christopher Chubb, a character representing the real-life hoaxing duo James McAuley and Harold Strewart, say: “Remember this is the country of the duck-billed platypus. When you are cut-off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways.” It’s an apposite remark about Australian psychoanalysis.

Though you would not know it from the written record, psychoanalysis in Australia developed in a particularly narrow and unimaginative way. This is true both before and after analysts could be trained locally, and occurred partly because analysts failed to grapple with, or even acknowledge, the topic as the science of the unconscious. Because the subject – that is psychoanalysis – but also, of course, the subject that is always in question – that is the subject of the unconscious – is so elusive, analysts and others interested in it have tended to downplay this central aspect in favour of another of Freud’s structural agencies, the ego. The ego, of course, is, as we know from popular song, no longer a dirty word. Unconscious, however, is filthy, even though Freud himself did not abandon the existence or uncomfortable significance of the unconscious, which is why I say that local psychoanalysis has taken a particular bent.

Freud, as Professor Zaretsky shows, had a philosophic vision, more tragic than his North American, and one might say, Australian, audience, might always want to acknowledge, which, while distorting of his creation, helps account for the vitality of his ideas. The question put by a leading French analyst: “Does not psychoanalysis, by its very definition, give us the opportunity to question the very foundations of our practice and our theory?” (Roustang 1980) does not seem to have been explored in Australia. According to the French analyst, Francis Roustang, a lack of questioning arises because the “transference has not really disengaged itself from hypnosis and suggestion.” (pp vii). The result is that the treatment risks leading to a “more of less latent form of blindness.” Or, as Secrets of the Soul explains, palliatives for the ego.

It is the big fault line. The unconscious. Does it exist; is it of any use? Freud thought so. When a patient said at the end of an analysis: “I knew this all along,” he saw it as a sign the analysis has been successful. It suggested one can know something without being aware of it. And this knowing is an unconscious knowledge. Which is why, one supposes, Freud called his creation the science of unconscious processes. This is not, however, the methodology of psychotherapy. But, as we have seen with the rise of Self Psychology in North America, strands of psychoanalysis have strayed wildly from Freud’s vision. Six years ago, the president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Robert Pyles, called for an end to orthodox “Freudian soul-searching”.

Just as happened in the US, early Australian analysts tended to treat psychoanalysis like a medical franchise, something to be slavishly followed, rather than discovered. I can’t help thinking that a measure of this is the paucity of analytic writing. One of the few exceptions is the Sydney based, analyst, Maurice Whelan who has written books on analyst, Ella Freeman Sharpe, and eighteenth century essayist, William Hazlitt. It is interesting that it is in a book about a writer that Whelan, manages to delve into the question other analysts shy away from. The question is: “What is psychoanalysis?” In reminding us that Hazlitt did not mind being cheated in a purchase, but hated lying, Whelan manages to say something central to psychoanalysis, something some might term moral, but is, in effect, ethical. He demonstrates that William Hazlitt said what he thought and thought what he felt. In Lacanian terms, he spoke well. (Whelan 2003)

This is important as it points to the question, most recently posed by the Australian academic, Kylie Valentine: “Is psychoanalysis a new type of knowledge. If so, what sort?” (Valentine 2003) Again, it is interesting that it is Valentine, a gender studies PhD from Sydney University rather than an analyst, who questions what analysis may entail and impart. Her conclusion is that it’s “a program for radical cultural upheaval.”

Why didn’t this upheaval occur in Australia? There is little evidence of ferment beyond ownership wrangles and “brand” allegiance among the clinical practitioners.

Could this be because psychoanalysis in Australia avoided the unconscious? In the formative years, both before and after world war two, Australian analysis resisted the ideas of Melanie Klein. (Rothfield 2004) (Martin 2004).

Post-war, it was Klein who, as Lacan would do in the 1970’s, re-opened a “few windows onto the daylight of Freud’s thought” by reinstating the unconscious instead of relying on an “analysis of the ego and its defences and an attitude of social conformism.” (Benvenuto 1986) This was not Freud’s way. “Freud cannot discuss the unconscious without dealing with it,” a biographer writes. “His knowledge of the unconscious – and the writing of this knowledge – doesn’t stand outside the unconscious. Freud draws this knowledge from the threefold well of self-analysis, the unspoken words (note, it is really spoken) of his patient’s suffering and literary narratives. Writers help psychoanalysis move forward along the royal road leading to the interpretation of the unconscious: they universalise it. Freud … allies himself to their magic power.” (Flem 1991) pp 143.

Freud knew there was no escape. Life was, as the British psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, noted, either wisdom or oblivion. It is an insight Freud had early on. In 1883, writing to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, he talks of the way that the oddness behind the façade of life’s ordinariness can derail composure. He had just read Flaubert’s “La Tentation de Saint-Antoine”, published in 1874. The book left Freud feeling as if “all the dross of the world” had been thrown at his head. The effect was to arouse the “great problems of knowledge and real riddles of life” with “conflicts of feelings and impulses, confirming the awareness of our perplexity in the mysteriousness that reigns everywhere.” This has never been a popular view, nor is it a strong marketing point. Which is why analysis has been turned into something more palatable, both among analytic groups themselves, and in the public domain. And yet, as Professor Zaretsky demonstrates, it is this watering down that‟s hastened the clinical demise of analysis.

There has been a reformation, and it has shaken afflicted the comfortable and, to some extent, comforted the afflicted. Despite, or maybe because of, his outrageous style, Lacan has presented an alternative. It is one in which an analysand comes looking for an object that is lost. It cannot be regained, but that does not prevent the search. In the ensuing myth played out by the analysand as he looks for his lost object, the analyst exists to cause his desire. The analyst is, in fact, the object. His business is to act as trash so as, as Lacan says, “to embody what the structure entails, namely allowing the subject, the subject of the unconscious, to take him as the cause of the subject‟s own desire.”

The analyst does not get pleasure, satisfaction – jollies – from this. In Lacan’s terms, he does not experience the jouissance of the (analysand’s) desire; he is therefuse of jouissance. The analysand reaps jouissance via his chain of signifiers, but it is at a price, and that price is too high, which is why he is analysis in the first place. What kind of job is this, to be trash? Lacan likens the psychoanalyst‟s role to that of a saint; (Lacan 1974) Freud’s term was secular pastoral worker. (Freud 1926) The role seems to imply, for Lacan, as it did for Bion, a state of mind – free floating attention, yes – but more, something akin to meditation, a neutrality beyond calculation or compromise. Evoking the image of a Zen master laughing at the moon, Lacan equates more saints with more laughter; saints, he says, are the way out of the capitalist discourse. (Lacan 1974)

It sounds mystical, and in a sense, it is. God is not dead for Lacan; he is unconscious. (Lacan 1960) The twinning of these two terms – God and unconscious – is not random, nor would you expect it to be. In asking: “What is the proof of the unconscious?” Lacan’s son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, likens the role of the analyst to that of a priest sacrificing a symptom and argues that analysts can know of the existence of the unconscious, but neither they, nor he says, God, are able to prove it.

Or not prove it scientifically, for says Miller, while the unconscious or more precisely the love of the unconscious, is proved in the transference, the testimony of love is no longer a proof: the advent of the scientific discourse has “overruled and disqualified” it. (Miller 2004) But that does invalidate the question. While they may grasp that proof only exists if the Other consents to it – thus making logic, Miller says, an “extreme form of rhetoric” – analysts who evade the question reveal that their practice, their analytic act, is a “fraud”. This brings to mind Australian novelist, David Malouf, who toyed with psychoanalysis in his younger years. In his December 2003 Quarterly Essay, Malouf drew attention to the deep ties drawing Australia to England, the shared language, and in particular “an Anglo Saxon “habit of mind” that prefers to argue from example and practice rather than principle; that is happy, in a pragmatic way, to be in doubt as to why something works so long as it does work.” (Mangan 2004)

This is what many psychoanalysts do, forging along the way a practice shorn of its subversive edge. Society may be enmeshed in analytic concepts, but it is characterized by a modern ego that is the paranoiac subject of scientific civilization While analysis is an individual matter, what Lacan calls the “delusional discourse” – with the focus of the Rationalist school – is a mark of the times. It‟s propping up the ego is a reversal of knowledge, a fostering of an entity that makes the world over in its own image. It is the antithesis of curiosity, and a way of creating continuous economic insecurity. As Secrets of the Soul shows, it is a legacy of psychoanalysis. But not the only one. The big question is, now that the threefold promise of modernity: autonomy, women’s equality and democracy is in doubt, will psychoanalysis be able to make a difference?