The Poetry of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis cannot be taught but it can be transmitted: Which is to say that knowledge can be imparted by means other than pedagogy. What is this other means, and what is the knowledge?

This is, in some ways a trick question, as the two can be considered different sides of the same coin, as both arise from desire. It is desire, or what I am going to call curiousity, that – once aroused – becomes the conduit for transmission. And it is desire – via the curious satisfaction that comes from interrogating the unconscious, which constitutes, and produces, the knowledge of psychoanalysis.

This is, of course, knowledge of the unconscious. It is knowledge that we don’t want and yet it is we who must construct it. To find it, or let it find us, requires a curiousity awakened through an analytic-type of transference. I say an analytic type of transference, because what is at stake can be approximated outside the consulting room, as Freud’s own history, and Lacan’s teaching, shows.  This terrain is the landscape of curiousity and surprise – on the side of the analyst, leaving enough unsaid so that the other can find their way – and for the analysand, an exploration that will allow a libidinal satisfaction to be sacrificed. It is a process that mirrors how desire is first born and thus, how a subject, in a Lacanian sense, is created. In this short paper I will explore the place of curiousity and desire, in both a personal analysis and in the transmission of psychoanalysis.

First an analysis where we are asked to speak without censoring what we say. Why, though, would this be a good idea, when all our instincts tell us that, without a design, a journey becomes aimless wandering? Why speak without thinking about it first? The orthodox answer – so that the unconscious may emerge – could, I think, be reformulated as – the wish to redeem speech from its status as a debased form of silence. Silence, we know, speaks in treatment by allowing the unconscious to interpret. But speech can be empty when it debases itself. That is, we speak well to get well, which involves – not elocution – but the shocked astonishment of hearing from our own mouths, what we know, but have not acknowledged.

It was Freud’s genius to discover how this unconscious knowledge threads itself through our being. And to do so, he turned to story-tellers – not just the patients who lay on his couch – but the poets whom, as he admitted, got to where he was going before he did.  It is not accidental that Freud named poets as his predecessors, as it is the realm of illusive language, failing as it does to bear the weight that we put upon it, that allows the unconscious to be interrogated.

Poetry addresses this by neither believing nor presuming. It leaves spaces in the interceces – between perceptions of what is said and read – for re-inscription. The same applies to Freud, whose setting aside of presumption, allowed him to hear what it was his patients actually believed. Surprisingly, it was not what they said, but where they enjoyed, that is, what neurotics believe in is their symptoms.

This insight emanated from being willing to be surprised. Poets and analysts have this in common – to do their job they resist knowing too much. Why: Because what matters most hangs on the surprise, the jolt, which comes from the unexpected. Just as it is barren for a poet to predict what she is going to write, it is unproductive for an analyst or analysand, to remain in familiar territory. Relying on the known is, after all, a manoeuvre, a misplaced attempt to defeat the unconscious. It is a ploy to deny curiousity, so that the story is seen as complete, so that it can be said; “that will do” – in other words – what is at play is an attempt to briefly make an audience (or an analyst) connive in the telling, so that they might endorse an alibi.

While there are innumerable ways of recounting a story, or a life – they all toy with memory and describe childhood as a fraught love affair. And no matter how truthful they attempt to be, they depend on reconstructions from the present. That does not make them inauthentic but it should make us wary. Psychoanalysis – and poetry – point to how memory is full of holes, and how, faced with infinitesimal small wounds, we lie to ourselves. This is both the intrigue and challenge of psychoanalysis: How to face our own alibis, so that we find a way out of the maze of the painfully reassuring past, what Freud called the Death Drive. One analyst who, after a lifetime of listening to other peoples’ stories, tried to tell his own, faced this dilemma by choosing to explore what he called “a love of beginnings”, that is, a desire for Life through finding another space from which words might come (J. B. Pontalis).

The beginning I have in mind is that which characterizes each analytic session; it is the beginning in which, as analysts, we reinvent psychoanalysis. This, you will recall, was Lacan’s idea. Rather than being a manualized procedure, or something dictated by diagnostic assumptions, each session is a blank page. We approach it with what Freud called “free-floating attention”, but also invent it, by retaining an ignorance that, rather than wilful, is a wondering, an opening onto unexpected, even unwelcome discovery

This means resisting the compulsion of our own narratives, the urge to become too coherent. As Freud showed, the first story is seldom the actual one. He was not afraid to revise his view of Dora, and in the Wolf Man there is a clear implication that narrative truth, order and sequence does not much signify in the eliciting of a life history… to concentrate on narrative sequence is to ignore the transactional nature of individual narratives. Narratives are a means of exchange, more than an indicator of truth. Examples abound, but one recent one that illustrates the point is Foe by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee.

A re-working of Daniel Defoe’s tale Robinson Crusoe, the work concerns a woman, stranded then rescued from a desert island who attempts to document her story. Psychological fiction, it reveals the fallacy of recollection and the opportunity that offers those able to be curious.

As the title of Defoe’s original work, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe suggests, surprise can be a form of salvation. Thus the work explores both the act of speech, wondering why it is that Man Friday remains silent in Defoe’s account, and the place that this might play in the experience of an epiphany, which is another way of thinking about what we find surprising. “What,” the novel wonders, “are these blinks of an eyelid, against which the only defence is an eternal, an inhuman, wakefulness. Might not they be the cracks and chinks through which another voice, other voices, speak in our lives. By what right to we close our ears to them?”

 In an analysis, where patients change from past to present without apology or awkwardness, ears can be opened to the poet’s appeal – that is – to evidence that desire has its roots in places beyond the conscious present. As it has been observed, it is by knowing that you can’t quite enjoy yourself that you realise, you are not quite yourself, but someone else; someone has paid the price for you and you have to pay it back. That price is facing and finding desire. Like poetry psychoanalysis relies on words to elicit desire. Neither claims to cure, although Australia’s leading poet, Les Murray, has credited surprising free associative speech, what he calls – “telling the exact truth, suppressing nothing”, with addressing his chronic depression.

 UK writer, Martin Amiss, goes further, describing his depression in linguistic terms. It was, he says, “intrinsic and structural,” linked with “things that were already wrong and were not being faced.” Like Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle Amiss says realizing this was “no magic bullet.” Rather it allowed him to see that his neurosis placed him “on a beachhead of pain that his cliché created.” His conclusion: “the conscious mind can afford to give itself a rest. The big jobs are done by the unconscious. The unconscious does it all.”

Lacan marked the subversive nature of this phenomena by stressing how symptoms speak,  how in the dialectical experience of analysis, the subject is constituted through discourse, one in which the mere presence of the analyst, prior to any intervention she make, brings the dimension of dialogue”. Distinct from an exchange based on empathy or the imaginary, psychoanalysis relies on the advent of desire. And if we follow Freud and Lacan, that is a desire that is not only unconscious, but arrived at through the desire of the Other.

 My interest in psychoanalysis started with questions like this. I wanted to know about motivation, which is to say, I was curious about desire. To pose this question meant to wonder not just what psychoanalysis was but whether it was a new type of knowledge. An analysis meant that this question was posed to an analyst in a setting where language subverted belief. Poetically enough, what was on offer was not enlightenment, but a certain awareness of emptiness, Lacan’s destitution. This wasn’t removal of a symptom, but evidence of its necessity. At stake was consenting to a new way of enjoying a symptom, an ethical answer not to give up on desire, a way, you might say, to invent master signifiers so as to inscribe oneself in a bond with the Other, such that discordance is not denied.