Pygmalion – Henry and Eliza, the analytic couple

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On September 6th, running through October, the Old Vic is hosting performances of Shaw’s brilliant play ‘Pygmalion’. A play studying language and class, written in 1912. It will star Patsy Ferrans and Bertie Carvel. Ferrans is already established as one of the brightest stars of her generation, with huge recognition for her 2022 Blanche du Bois in “Streetcar”. I saw her, also at The Old Vic, in 2021, when she played ‘Her’ in ‘Camp Siegfried’, and it was a remarkable performance. I am very excited about what she will bring to Miss Doolittle.

Carvel, may be best known for playing Tony Blair in The Crown, but has also shown his versatility in playing Rupert Murdoch in James Graham’s play ‘Ink’. For me, his outstanding stage performance to date was in “The 47th”, when he played a wickedly funny, deranged President Trump.  Trump and Blanche as Henry and Eliza is quite an invitation!

Pygmalion has always been one of my favourite plays. It may be because of the many hours I spent watching my nan working in her florist shop in Canning Town. I knew that my grandad often woke very early to get to Covent Garden to buy stock for the shop and somehow that gives me a sense of connection when the play opens. We see Eliza and Henry, in their different ways, sheltering from the elements in the portico of St.Paul’s, nearby what was the fruit and veg market in those days.

It is possible that this version of the play will work hard to illustrate and exemplify what has become known as the ‘Pygmalion Effect’, which is the way people tend to perform up to the level that others expect of them. It explains why our relationships can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Once you set expectations for somebody, that person will tend to live up to that expectation; for good or ill.

I hope it explores what I see as the psychoanalytic lens for the play. In my reading, and in the productions which I have seen, Shaw allows us to understand the protagonists as two people with unresolved Oedipus Complexes. We get insight to the narcissistic wound carried by Eliza, and the whole play is an example of transference, with Henry as analyst to Eliza’s analysand. I shall develop these ideas, and I also note that Shaw and Freud shared a view of the world based on that of the outsider.

One was an Irishman in English society and the other an often-excluded Jew, in Vienna. Both saw themselves as ‘men of science’ with Freud especially keen to establish psychoanalysis as a science. Freud was brilliant in considering the hostilities acted upon those who were ‘othered’, and in Eliza, Shaw creates a character ostracised merely for the circumstances of her birth. Shaw uses Pickering and Higgins to place people, in London to within two streets, and in India to regions, thanks to dialect, pronunciation and enunciation, and asks us to think about how this contributes to othering, to creating a ‘them and us’.

As Shaw completed Pygmalion, Freud was writing his Papers on Technique and about to complete Totem and Taboo. His body of work, likely very well known to Shaw, had already seen Studies on Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, The psychopathology of everyday life, from which one might attach some of Shaw’s Pygmalion thinking, as well as Three Essays on Sexuality and Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious.

Shaw had infamously attacked Pavlov, but conceded that he was “well-meaning, intelligent and devoted to science” – something one might argue as applicable to Freud. I like the fact that Shaw and Freud were both born in 1856. I can find no record of their meeting, but it seems highly unlikely that such erudite, well-educated men, with a fascination for philosophy, politics and ideas, would not have been aware of one another. Indeed, the coincidences stretch to the fact that Pygmalion is first performed in Vienna (Hofburg Theatre) in October 1913. Otherwise, the play was first produced in 1914 (London and NY).

In the directions to Act 2, Shaw gives great specificity to Higgins’s appearance and demeanour. Freud, at this time was determined to, and perhaps struggling a little, to establish psychoanalysis as a science. It is a dozen years since the groundbreaking The Interpretation of Dreams. Shaw describes Higgins as “of the energetic scientific type, heartily, even violently interested in everything that can be studied as a scientific subject, and careless about himself and other people, including their feelings”. The final part of this is the antithesis of a psychoanalyst, but we know from the work on dreams that fantasies are often represented by direct opposites.

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To the play: What do I mean by the unresolved Oedipus Complexes? It is the attachment of the child to the parent of the opposite sex – in early infancy, a need ‘to possess’ the object, that remains unresolved. The infantile sexual impulses get repressed and often a fear of displeasing the object leads to aggressive or envious feelings. Hanna Segal described it as “the central conflict in the human psyche”, so it is hardly surprising that a dramatist as great as Shaw found it. Freud himself noted how whenever he discovered something, that the poets and philosophers had got there first.

Segal noted how Melanie Klein saw the father, both real, and phantasies about the father, as central to the child’s life from birth. This is why Shaw’s dramatization of the moment when Eliza has been bathed and cleaned by Henry’s housekeeper, and meets her father, who fails to recognise her, as critical to understanding her vulnerability and her wish to both please Henry, her substitute father, but also to hate him, in what psychoanalysts recognise as transference.

Her neglect, from her parents, is her narcissistic wound. I like the idea of Doolittle ‘blind’ to his own daughter because it plays with, and inverts, our understanding of the Oedipus story. Oedipus, we know, tragically comes to understand how he has usurped his father, in his mother’s bed, and puts his own eyes out.

Early in the scene, the issue of Eliza’s payment comes up. Freud (1912) had views on payment expressed in On Beginning the Treatment, which apart from “a medium for self-preservation and for obtaining power” had “powerful sexual factors in the value set upon it”. Eliza proffers a shilling, “take it or leave it” and Higgins, who Pickering expects to be insulted, rapidly appreciates that it is a generous offer. He defines it by its percentage of her income, “it works out as fully equivalent to sixty or seventy guineas from a millionaire…it’s the biggest offer I ever had”.

Money and sex is important in the play because of Shaw’s focus on morality and on hypocrisy. Eliza reminds us, almost ad nauseum, “I’m a good girl, I am”. What sex does to people, especially those damaged by infantile experiences, is emphasised by Eliza’s attempt to repress her sexual drive. Taken to the guest bathroom she finds a ‘looking glass’ for the first time and she feels a need to cover it up, so unused is she to seeing her own body naked. Later, Henry gives a nod to Freud’s understanding of the unconscious and to repression, “do any of us know what we are doing? If we did, would we ever do it?”

His own Oedipus resolution is far from achieved and visiting his mother, in Act three, to tell her he has “picked up a girl”, he tells us, “Oh I can’t be bothered with young women. My idea of a loveable woman is somebody as like you as possible”. As the scene progresses we get a nudge that Mrs. Higgins is more familiar with the psychoanalytic world than her apparently worldly son, when she responds to his comment that Eliza is to stick to two conversational subjects, health and the weather with “Safe! To talk about our health! About our insides! Perhaps about our outsides…”

And so, the possibility of inner worlds, her’s, Henry’s and Eliza’s is hinted at, as is the realisation of the sometimes conflicting demands of the conscious and the unconscious. She adds later to both Henry and Pickering, “don’t you realise that when Eliza walked into Wimpole Street, something walked in with her”.

After the successful outcome of Higgins’s bet/experiment, Eliza senses that he might now drop her and discard her, as her father had done many times, and it ignites the ‘murderous rage’ deep in her unconscious, which surges into the room as she throws his slippers; “I wanted to smash your face. I’d like to kill you, you murderous brute”, before wailing like any neglected infant, “what’s to become of me?”

The second psychoanalytic feature the play addresses is the narcissistic wound, specifically Eliza’s. A narcissistic wound is a form of abandonment – Freud maintained that “losses in love” and “losses associated with failure” often leave behind injury to an individual’s self-regard. We learn from her, “I ain’t got no mother. Her that turned me out was my sixth stepmother”, a perfect complement to the father who failed to recognise her. Eliza, confronted by an awareness of a lack of something, in this case maternal love, is like an analysand clinging on to their neuroses, “if only I’d known what a dreadful thing it is to be clean I’d never have come. I didn’t know when I was well off…”

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It comes together with ‘orality’ – the focusing of sexual energy and feeling on the mouth – so perfectly captured in the musical film adaptation of the play, ‘My Fair Lady’, when Higgins (Rex Harrison) is placing marbles into his powerless (Audrey Hepburn) student’s mouth. The play begins with something coming out of the mouth, and this is about what gets taken in. It is no great stretch to consider the pleasure for Eliza of what she expresses in giving out, and what she appreciates in her taking in.

Later, at the peak of her achievement, winning the bet and having satisfied Henry’s ego, she notes that “I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I am not fit to sell anything else”. As she has told us repeatedly, she’s a good girl. She is.

Lastly, the play is set up as an illustration of the psychoanalytic concept of transference. Freud understood that transference existed outside the clinic, but that it changed shape in the clinic and acquired an intensity uncommon in more social and conscious settings.

What is transference? – Jean Arundale, in Transference and Countertransference wrote it was “broadly conceptualised as manifestations of conscious and unconscious aspects of object relationships and psychic structures within the analytic process”.

Freud had observed it initially in the work between his colleague, Breuer, and the patient who came to be known as Anna O, who famously described her therapy as “the talking cure”. Her feelings for Breuer, which he found too disturbing to tolerate, were Freud’s first insight to the concept of transference. In his 1938 paper The Technique of Psychoanalysis, he was even clearer. Transference was a “factor of undreamt-of importance”.

Freud came to understand, after initially seeing it as an obstacle to be overcome, that transference, the emotional quality of a patient’s feelings towards an analyst transferred from more developmental relationships, could be used as a tool. Indeed, it provided him with the material for understanding the way patients invariably repeat past relationships, especially maladaptive relationships.

Shaw may not have been thinking directly about Freud, but in Eliza, we see the ambivalence of her feelings to her alcoholic and rejecting father emerge in her wish to both have Higgins, but also to be able to push him away. It was Klein, some thirty years later, (1946), who developed the idea of transference as a re-enactment, as an expression of unconscious phantasy, in need of interpretation.

Klein understood how the analyst can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and that integrating the two feelings in one person, just as the baby does with the mother, was the most profound of feelings and that the ‘negative transference’ was especially valuable. Later still, Winnicott developed what was happening to the analyst, in my case the Higgins figure, as countertransference.

Higgins, is bemused by his feelings for Eliza – in the final act he stormily says that he “can do without anybody”, thanks to his “own spark of divine fire”, yet “I have grown accustomed to your voice and appearance. I like them, rather”. When she points out that he has her voice on his recording discs and that he has photographs of her, he laments that he cannot turn her soul on.

This is consistent with Sandler’s (1976) later work on countertransference and the ‘role responsiveness’ of the analyst, who has been pulled into a role, a way of being, that he does not recognize as being characteristic of himself. Freud wrote in Dynamics of Transference (S.E 12) “it is a perfectly normal and intelligible thing that the libidinal cathexis which is held ready in anticipation, should be directed as well to the figure of the doctor (analyst)”. The transference which exceeds anything “which could be justified on sensible or rational grounds” is a consequence of both conscious and unconscious material.

He states that whilst transference is most intense in an analytical couple, it exists outside of analysis and paradoxically is regarded as the “vehicle of cure and the condition of success”, ie when we transfer our earliest sexual attractions (parental) to a new love object outside the family.  The “characteristics of transference are therefore to be attributed not to psychoanalysis but to neurosis itself”. The ego has “remained in possession of infantile imagos”.

“Originally (the baby) we knew only sexual objects; and psychoanalysis shows us that people who in our real life are merely admired or respected may still be sexual objects for our unconscious” – this is what Pickering represents for Eliza.

Freud concludes his dynamics paper by referring to the struggle between doctor and patient, “between intellect and instinctual life, between understanding and seeking to act, is played out exclusively in the phenomena of transference. It is on that field that the victory must be won” and we sense that Eliza is seeking her mother about whom we know little, but also something of a repair to the lost love that an alcoholic father provided? She transfers her ambivalence of her father, wary affection matched with scorn and contempt, to Higgins.

The fact that transference is so tied to infantile sexuality is why Freud wrote of ‘transference love’ and today there is wide usage of the term ‘erotic transference’. Rosenberg (2011) might be describing Higgins’s drawing room in her paper Sexuality and the analytic couple, “The care invested in the setting, the quality of listening, the reliability of the analyst – all these elements enhance a process that simultaneously mobilizes and erodes repression in the analysand, and contribute to the emergence of sexual feelings”.

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She also mentions how the analyst, (or Higgins) fears marking the transference with their “own sexual feelings and fantasies”. She anticipates this – Pygmalion as erotic transference interpretation – when writing, “unrecognized sexuality gives way to enactments, as, for example, the emergence of an unconsciously collusive alliance in the repudiation of an analysand’s sexual partner, or vicarious and blinding gratification derived by the analyst from the achievements of a successful analysand.”

Shaw provides this with Henry’s contempt for Eliza’s beau: “Marry Freddy, what a preposterous idea” and with his rejoicing when she wins his bet, but especially when she deceives his former protégé, the outrageous fraud, Nepommuck.

In his paper, Transference Love, Freud asserts that the patient’s attraction to the doctor is “an inescapable fate” and switches between ‘Transference Love’ and the term erotic transference; “love consists of new editions of old traits…it repeats infantile reactions”. Shaw had an answer for that in a few pages that he wrote to summarise, after the end of the play, letting us know that Eliza does marry Freddy, and they have a florist shop that adds some greengrocery. She treats Higgins scornfully, like a wounded child. The reaction of the infant unable to integrate their Object.

We can only truly love something or someone we may also hate. As Shaw understood, “She knows that Higgins does not need her, just as her father did not need her”; she was “no more to him than them slippers”.

Freud’s (1910) view was that countertransference was inimical to the analytic treatment. It should be repressed. In Pygmalion, Higgins has repressed his sexual drive, but Eliza wakens it. Towards the end of the play he notes how she has become indispensable, and he is acting out his need. Shaw, in my interpretation, pre-empted plenty of psychoanalytic literature of the past hundred years through Henry and Eliza.

As David Mann (1999) writes in his introduction to Erotic Transference and Countertransference, “As psychoanalytic thinking has been able to contemplate the deep layers of relationship between analyst and analysand so the question of unconscious eroticism has needed to be addressed by more and more authors as the century progresses. This brings analytic thinking back full circle to its origins in contemplation of the erotic”, by which he means Freud’s understanding of what happened between his mentor Breuer and his patient, Anna O.

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Henry may wish to deny his sexual attraction to Eliza, but from the outset we are reminded of Eliza’s own repression of her sexuality. She sees it as something to resist, because of her sense of morals, later derided by her father as “middle class morality”, and confirmed when he tells Pickering that he was never married to Eliza’s mother. For Eliza, who may have unconsciously absorbed her mother’s shame, it is important to protest her own good behaviour and innocence, “I’m a good girl, I am”.

Nonetheless as Henry and Eliza discover and as Mann writes, “the erotic connects people at deeply unconscious levels, driving them into relationships at least at the level of fantasy”. He goes on to add, “the closer people become the greater the activation of erotic material in the unconscious”. Poor Henry, poor Eliza! Who knows what Ferran and Carvel will find in these timeless characters, but it should be memorable.

On Transference and Countertransference

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“It is only by analysing the transference situation to its depth that we are able to discover the past both in its realistic and phantastic aspects”. (Klein, 1952). In this essay, I shall attempt to define the psychoanalytic terms transference and countertransference. I shall begin with definitions and Freud’s discovery of transference, and go on to explain how the idea of transference and its utility in the analytic process has changed with time. Change came with later psychoanalysts, but the most profound impact may have been that of Melanie Klein, and so I consider her work, and the impact of theories based on projection and projective identification. I then attempt to review what transference is when it is in the clinic, referencing several post-Freudian analysts. Before discussing what countertransference is, I consider the term negative transference, in order to distinguish it from countertransference. I go on to think about transference in the analytic session, how it works, and also to reference the importance of erotic transference. I consider if transference is used outside the clinic given that psychoanalysis is not just a form of therapy. Lastly, I make a few short conclusions.

How does one define transference, which I regard as fundamental to the analytic process? Laplanche and Pontalis (1967) give one of the best definitions, in my opinion: “A process of actualisation of unconscious wishes. Transference uses specific objects and operates in the framework of a specific relationship established with these objects. Its context par excellence is the analytic situation. In the transference, infantile prototypes re-emerge and are experienced with a strong sensation of immediacy.” Transference, whilst unconscious can be brought into consciousness and enacted. Many analysts believe that how the analysand reacts to the frame i.e. the fixed timing and location of the session, is a form of transference. Lateness is interpreted as a punishing anger, and early arrival as something revealing anxiety. Transference might come into a session as (attempted) manipulation or as a provocation. Frosh (2012, p.192) cites Spillius et al (2011) in considering how transference became central to psychoanalysis from its early beginnings. It now seems to be much more about externalising unconscious fantasy, informed by the past and developed in the relationship in the analytic sessions, whereas Freud held that it was a displacement of an unconscious idea from a person in the analysand’s past, on to the analyst in the room. Having originally thought transference interfered with the work of analysis, he came to see value in the analysand’s feelings, believing that they had value as a means of understanding a neurosis. In his 1914 paper “Remembering, repeating and working-through” he explored how primitive emotions could have free expression and become useful for self-exploration.

The origin or discovery of transference is attributed to Freud. However, in 1917, in letters to first Sandor Ferenczi, and then to Karl Abraham, he draws their attentions to the work of Georg Groddeck, with whom he had just started corresponding and who may be regarded as the first ‘wild analyst’. Groddeck eventually stayed outside of the psychoanalytical organisations, but was famous for his work on somatic and psychosomatic illnesses. Groddeck had emphasised the importance of transference, particularly negative transference, which I explore later in this essay, which had impressed Freud. Freud originally thought of transference as an obstruction and that it inhibited a patient from free associating. Transference was discovered by Freud, when thinking of the difficulties that caused Breuer to stop seeing his patient, known as ‘Anna O’. Breuer was worried by the unconscious emotional charge in the room, as it was erotic. It complicated the work. It was a little later that Freud himself came to understand its efficacy, as a tool for ‘working through’. The analysand brings buried feelings and thoughts from past relationships and ‘transfers’ them to the analyst.

Freud identified its more positive influence (1905, p.116) as part of what became known as the ‘Dora case’. He wrote of “new editions of the impulses and phantasies” which was about how feelings were transferred into the room when they properly belonged elsewhere. Freud came to see himself as the recipient of ‘transferred feelings’; things that were unresolved from past relationships and a window into the unconscious of the analysand. Although ‘Dora’ ended her therapy with him, and he came to see it as a ‘failed case’, it is one of the landmark moments in the development of psychoanalysis. He thought if analysands could be helped to identify what was being transferred, especially how patterns of past maladaptive relationships tended to repeat, then they could be helped to moderate the impacts. Freud went on to note that it was the most difficult, as well as the most important, part of analytic technique. In 1914, he was writing that the analytic setting was a playground where the repetitions could take place and in his 1915 paper, “Observations on transference love” he noted “there can be no doubt that the outbreak of a passionate demand for love is largely the work of resistance”.

A little after Freud, Strachey (1934) wrote about transference interpretation. Its weight and significance is conveyed by “that which the analyst most feared and most wished to avoid”. One of the reasons for the fears, are what is happening to the analyst. Money-Kyrle (1956) noted that “the analyst’s experience of the patient’s projections may be linked with the analyst’s own internal reactions to the material.” I develop this below when discussing projective identification and countertransference, which Money-Kyrle (ibid. p.361) called a “delicate receiving apparatus”. It was Fairbairn (1958) who best summarised the centrality of working with transference as part of the treatment: “psychoanalytic treatment resolves itself into a struggle on the part of the patient to press-gang his relationship with the analyst into a closed system of the inner world through the agency of transference” (my italics). The transference is of little use without acknowledgement, and more significantly, interpretation. Strachey understood it as a lengthy process, “modification of the patient’s super-ego is brought about in a series of innumerable small steps by the agency of mutative interpretations, which are effected by the analyst in virtue of his position as object of the patient’s id-impulses and as auxiliary super-ego.”

Around the time that Strachey was writing, Melanie Klein was developing her ideas and in 1946 produced the seminal paper on projective identification. She wrote, “projective identification involves projection in that it is an identifying of the object with split-off parts of the self. Projective identification has given an added dimension to what we understand by transference, in that transference need not now be regarded simply as a repetition of the past.”. Transference, from a clinical point of view was evolving. Sandler (1987) felt it gave an ‘added dimension’ to transference “in that transference need not now be regarded as a repetition of the past”. Arundale and Bellman (2011) wrote that the projection of “early infantile states of mind” are akin, clinically, to transference and countertransference in having both ‘communicative’ and ‘evacuative’ functions. Feldman (2009) described Klein’s formulation of projective identification as “an unconscious phantasy in which the patient expelled what were usually disturbing contents into another object”. He goes on to describe how the object is then transformed in the patient’s mind because it now contains the expelled material. He added that it was not just a “method of evacuation” but provides other comforts for the patient such as believing that they can possess or control the object. “The patient’s phantasies, expressed by gross or subtle, verbal or non-verbal means, may come to influence the analyst’s state of mind”. 

The modern and Kleinian work of analysis is to contain the projections, work them through until they can be handed back, ‘introjected into’ the analysand, in a tolerable form. Klein saw transference as feelings being remembered and used. Steiner (1993) described it thus “We have come to use countertransference to refer to the totality of the analyst’s reactions in his relationship with the patient. The recognition of the importance of projective identification in creating these reactions led naturally to the idea that counter-transference is an important source of information about the state of the mind of the patient.” However, he warns “self-deception and unconscious collusion with the patient to evade reality makes counter-transference unreliable without additional corroboration”. Brenman-Pick (1985) reminds us that “constant projecting by the patient into the analyst is the essence of analysis”. Feldman (2009) describes projective identification as using an ‘omnipotent phantasy’ to defend primitive anxieties. He also highlights Bion’s work on containment to note “the mother’s responses to normal or pathological varieties of projective identification, emphasised the mother’s crucial function of taking in and allowing herself to be affected by the infant’s projection of severe anxiety or distress”.

The analyst also has his or her own transference. One thing the analyst has to be aware of, and be able to analyse, is the possibility of an analysand working through an enactment, sometimes called an ‘actualisation’. This is when something unconscious affects the participants and the responses cannot be contained and become part of the behavioural responses. Often these can lead to damaging and inappropriate responses known as ‘boundary transgressions’. The analyst needs to isolate the analysand’s responses and to understand when they might be acting out something informed by past relationships. If done well and appropriately, it becomes something to discuss, to ‘work through’ and can be explored as part of the therapy. Auchincloss and Samberg (2014) describe it thus: “Enactment is a co-constructed verbal and/or behavioural experience during a psychoanalytic treatment in which a patient’s expression of a transference fantasy evokes a countertransference “action” in the analyst. Enactments are “symbolic interactions” … in that they carry unconscious meanings for both patient and analyst, unconsciously initiated by the patient and evoking unconscious compliance in the analyst.” What is happening is exemplified by Brenman-Pick (1985), describing the clinical temptation to be a maternal figure, “we may act out by becoming excessively sympathetic to the patient”.

In the clinic, it is often this relationship, with the primary carer, that is transferred, and the analyst that needs to do the maternal containing, usually because it had been absent in the past, through reasons of a mother being overwhelmed and neglectful. Brenman-Pick (1985) described a state of mind which sought another state of mind “just as a mouth seeks a breast as an inborn potential.” The analysand may make assumptions about the analyst’s personal life and therefore thoughts, even though she has no information on which to base such assumptions. The analyst uses these fantasies rather than dismiss them. Winnicott (1947) goes so far as to describe ‘exploiting’ the transference. An analyst might note how the analysand is prone to assume something about them especially if it feels judgmental. This may be because of a past where judgment, particularly if it was from a parent, has been common. An analyst can illustrate that the analysand is responding as if she was attacked, and yet there was no attack from what is likely to have been an open ended, perhaps ambiguous comment. It might manifest as a need to impress, perhaps by listing achievements, which might reveal an insecurity about not being respected, by a teacher or an employer. It might be a hastiness to agree with an interpretation, which is little more than speculation, but is transferred from avoiding conflict in other relationships, often a spouse.

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Arundale (2011) reflects on Feldman’s work in this area and writes “As he understands it, the historical objects from the patient’s past are alive in the present moment as internal objects, so that they are available as transference objects”, she goes on to add that when the transference relationship is understood and properly experienced it allows the past to become clearer and for internal objects to be modified. She credits Strachey (1934) with creating a template for psychic change for future generations of analytic schools by identifying “mutative transference interpretation”. In the work, the relationship with the analyst is a foundation; a template for how future relationships might be formed to break the patterns of the past. Ultimately the aim is to reach a Bion moment of significance, when the analysand can be introduced to his or herself. Frosh (2012, p.190) puts it very concisely “…the reality of the analyst’s behaviour. Why should the analyst’s silence be interpreted as hostile judgment rather than supportive listening? The answer here is ‘because of the transference’”. Sandler (1976) considered the manipulative element of the dyadic relationship and wrote that “in the transference…the patient attempts to prod the analyst into behaving in a particular way and unconsciously scans and adapts to his perception of the analyst’s reaction”. He writes about the analysand resisting the impulse to be aware of any “infantile relationship” that he/she might be trying to impose. Separately Sandler (1990 p. 869) wrote about how an analysand might try “to impose on the situation a role relationship with the analyst”, which is the enactment described above.

What to do with all this transferential material, though? Roth (2001) observes that the transference has different levels of interpretation in the clinic. At one level, it links what is happening in the clinic with the analysand’s past, but moves to a level linking events in the analysand’s life outside the clinic and on to interpreting unconscious phantasies about the analyst and the analysis. The deepest level is to “enact phantasy configurations”. Roth opens her paper referencing another analyst’s material about a dream, but what is being considered is transference. She goes on to use other clinical examples of her own, to consider the multiple ways a transference can be interpreted and what the clinician needs to be aware of. How to separate layers of material and how to identify working with transference on the countertransference. I write about countertransference in more detail below. Roth notes how she is reviewing “complex transference manifestations” as she attempts to maintain the analysand’s trust and interest, but to get her to understand the links between what she is saying and what it means, and how it is being brought into the clinic. She guides us through her work deeper, by transference interpretation level, past an aggressive projective identification to a level four enactment which is a kind of seduction scene. Her conclusions summarise the importance of transference, which I regard as the foundation of the analytic work; “our sense of conviction about our patient’s internal world comes ultimately from our understanding of the here-and-now transference relationship between us”.

What happens when the analysand is transferring something from a difficult past relationship, or needs to project aggressive, hostile and unwanted, intolerable feelings into the analyst? This is the realm of negative transference; hostile feelings that the analyst’s presence elicits in the analysand. Analysts often have to start their work by demonstrating a caring side to become a ‘good object’, so that there is trust. This is the ‘therapeutic alliance’, but most often the effective work is done when the analyst becomes the ‘bad object’, and can show the analysand that the clinic is a non-judgmental space, and that difficult feelings can be contained and worked through. Understanding a phenomenon such as negative transference and more importantly, appreciating its utility, was largely the work of Melanie Klein, who had developed the ‘good breast/bad breast’ understanding of infantile love and hate, and she noted that the analyst was often split by the analysand into a good figure and a bad one, often in the same session. The demand of the analyst is to contain the anger, to ‘work through it’ and to behave as the nurturing mother of early infancy, and once again, to not judge the person from whom the hostility has come. The gentlest of questions, the most ambiguous of references, the calmest of silences can all be interpreted as hostile by an analysand with a negative transference. In Klein’s 1952 paper she wrote “we can fully appreciate the interconnection between positive and negative transferences only if we explore the early interplay between love and hate, and the vicious circle of aggression, anxieties, feelings of guilt and increased aggression, as well as the various aspects of objects towards whom these conflicting emotions and anxieties are directed.” And “I became convinced that the analysis of the negative transference, which had received relatively little attention in psycho-analytic technique, is a precondition for analysing the deeper layers of the mind.”

There is something in the word ‘counter’ that suggests resistance and even an aggressive return, as in ‘counterpunch’. Negative connotations perhaps, so is it related to negative transference? No. Countertransference has more than one definition, but is not negative transference. It might be a psychic response to it, though. Laplanche and Pontilis (1973, p.92) define “the whole of the analyst’s unconscious reactions to the individual analysand – especially to the analysand’s own transference”. Also, “some authors take the counter-transference to include everything in the analyst’s personality liable to affect the treatment, while others restrict it to those unconscious processes which are brought about in the analyst by the transference of the analysand.” This is difficult because if, as in some definitions, it is to be used as a tool in the analytic work, how can we deploy something that is unconscious? Nonetheless, prominent post-Freudians such as Winnicott (1947) thought it played a central role in the analytic work. He described it as “the analyst’s love and hate in reaction to the actual personality and behaviour of the patient”. For Freud, it was the analyst’s transference, how she had been affected by what the analysand had brought to the session. He regarded it as the neurotic response of the analyst, not a good thing, and something to be resolved by more analysis for the analyst. Sandler (1976) notes that Freud saw it as impeding understanding, because it clouded the mind, which was the tool needed to do the work; an interference with the work of interpretation.

More lately, with a Kleinian influence, it has come to mean the specific response of an analyst to the analysand’s transference. It is about taking in the analysand’s projections and being able to contain them. The analyst, in this way, comes to feel what the analysand is feeling and her ability to absorb and reflect helps the analysand when the projections are passed back and reintrojected. The analysand starts to feel things are more manageable and to be able to master integration, shifting from paranoid-schizoid positions to a depressive one. The working out of transference and countertransference go on together as a relational event – the feelings in the analysand become the data to analyse, upon which interpretations and reflections can be based. The analysand will be looking for signs that what she has projected into the analyst is being contained and perhaps cared for, or alternatively what is happening, if it is causing some panic or discomfort. In this understanding of countertransference there is a view that it signals to the analyst what is happening in the analysand’s unconscious life; rather different to the Freudian sense that it was exclusively an issue for the analyst. So, it is both the analyst’s own transference and her response to the analysand’s transference. Not only does an analyst feel her own countertransference but must then productively and subsequently analyse it.

Heiman (1950) was the first analyst to consider the positive influence of countertransference, “an instrument of research into the patient’s unconscious” – she describes it as the “patient’s creation” and that it is a part of the patient’s persona. Therefore, the analyst can use it as a guide to understanding the transference the analysand offers. She noted that the analyst has to sustain the feelings stirred within her, and not to let them go as the analysand does, but to “subordinate them to the analytic task” functioning as a “mirror reflection” to the analysand. Her definition was “all feelings which the analyst experiences towards his patient”. Her paper was the first to suggest that countertransference was ubiquitous. All feelings and everywhere makes it a complicated tool to use. To what extent is one dealing with the analysand’s material and to what extent might it be more about the analyst’s own past? Being able to engage, and yet analyse the situation with detachment, is a critical skill. Heimann wrote that the analyst “has to perceive the manifest and latent meaning of his patient’s words, the allusions and implications, the links to former sessions, the references to childhood situations behind the descriptions of current relationships”. She best summarised it as “in the comparison of feelings roused in himself with his patient’s associations and behaviour, the analyst possesses a most valuable means of checking whether he has understood or failed to understand his patient.” 

The post-Heimann approach continues to evolve and become more nuanced. Roth (2018) takes Heimann’s mid-twentieth century view as countertransference being something pathological, and something for the analyst to own for her own self-analysis, and shows how it moved into being accepted as a tool to help with an analysand’s development. How to utilise it has been subtly different in the techniques of many analysts and he cites Balint, Fairbairn, Tower and Winnicott. Nonetheless he emphasises Heimann’s view of it as a creation brought to her. What it meant was a shift from conventional analysis requiring the neutrality of the analyst, sometimes called ‘the blank screen’, to the analyst being actively involved in a process; a more dynamic therapeutic alliance, properly open to projection and introjection. To clarify this, he cites Money-Kyrle (1956) “as the patient speaks the analyst will, as it were, become introspectively identified with him and having understood him inside will re-project and interpret”. In Segal’s 1997 paper, “The use and abuse of countertransference”, however, there is a warning to emphasise the need of proper understanding. As Segal suggested, whilst it can be “the best of servants” it can also function as the worst of masters. One example might be ‘enactment’ – against which Freud had warned – as I highlighted above. Roys (2011, p.163) describes how the analyst shifts position back and forth between concordant (a sense of sharing the analysand’s experience) and complementary (when the transference has affected the analyst so that something is felt towards the analysand).

Freud’s early encounters with transference were noteworthy because of the erotic elements. Having explored the erotic transference as resistance, he wrote, “of the first kind (of resistance) are the patient’s endeavour to assure herself of her irresistibility, to destroy the doctor’s authority by bringing him down to the level of a lover”. What he understood was the need to work with it, having initially seen it as nuisance. “To urge the patient to suppress, renounce or sublimate her instincts the moment she has admitted her erotic transference would be, not an analytic way of dealing with them, but a senseless one”. He thought it would be bringing repressed material into the conscious realm, but then ensuring it was repressed once more by a fearful patient, who would “feel only the humiliation, and she will not fail to take her revenge for it”. For clarity’s sake, “analytic technique requires of the physician that he should deny to the patient who is craving for love the satisfaction she demands”. He added that the patient would have “what all patients strive for in analysis – she would have succeeded in acting out”, which is probably the first reference to what I refer to above as ‘enactment’. Freud’s patients were, of course, predominantly women and usually treated for hysteria, hence the slightly unbalanced gendered views; modern clinical work is consistent with transference from male, female and non-binary individuals. As he noted, though, ‘transference-love’ must be worked through in the therapy “and traced back to its unconscious origins”. An analyst must be able to demonstrate distance from the transference love as Mann (1999, p.7) observed, “the erotic connects people at deeply unconscious levels, driving them into relationships at least at the level of fantasy”. He thought that closeness activates erotic material in the unconscious, but also that the greater the activation of erotic material in the unconscious, the closer the bond two people develop.

Before concluding this essay, it is important to ask, ‘does transference exist outside the clinic?’ Klein (1952) was clear, “in some form or other transference operates throughout life and influences all human relations”. I think it is helpful to imagine walking into a room of strangers at a party or a conference. Does one want to be seen and not heard, or to be acknowledged, heard and visible? What is happening? We are seeing around us a number of people as hostile, or as potential allies. This is informed by our past relationships and some form of transference is underway. Sandler, Dare and Holder (1973) observed that it enters all relationships and these (e.g. choice of spouse/employer) are often determined by some characteristic of the other person who (consciously or unconsciously) represents some attribute of an important figure of the past. It seems highly probable that it goes on at all times in our lives. Psychoanalyst and historian Daniel Pick, suggests it is a form of transference that political leaders exploit to facilitate what the psychologists understand as ‘group processes’. Generations after generations this seems to be a constant, as we note today with the tragic manipulation of the Russian people.

This essay has discussed the psychoanalytic terms, transference and countertransference. It has described their origination and their development. It has asserted that they are fundamental to the work of psychoanalysis in the clinic, but also that they are ubiquitous and exist outside the clinic. It has considered how such an important concept continues to evolve as the theoretical baton gets handed on to each new post-Freudian generation, but has focused on what Melanie Klein and Object Relations Theory brought to developing Freud’s discovery, and how Paula Heimann was the critical developer of countertransference by seeing it as an important tool for the clinician. In conclusion, I suggest that psychoanalysis is only effective when the pillars of the clinical work, that are transference and countertransference, are properly understood and deployed.


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Freud, S., 1955. Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume X (1909): Two Case Histories (‘Little Hans’ and the ‘Rat Man’) (pp. 151-318).

Freud, S., 1958. Observations on transference-love (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis III). In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works (pp. 157-171).

Frosh, S., 2012. A brief introduction to psychoanalytic theory. Red Globe Press

Heimann, P., 1950. On counter-transference. International journal of psycho-analysis31, pp.81-84.

Heimann, P., 1960. Counter-transference. Part II. British Journal of Medical Psychology.

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Klein, M., 1952. The origins of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis33, pp.433-438.

Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J., 1967. The language of psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.

Money-Kyrle, R.E., 1956. Normal counter-transference and some of its deviations. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis37, pp.360-366.

Roth, P (2001) Mapping the landscape International Journal of psychoanalysis 82 p.533-43

Roys, P., 2018. Two impulses to end an analysis: exploring the transference and countertransference. In Transference and Countertransference (pp. 157-179). Routledge.

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Sandler, J. (1987) The Concept of projective Identification London: Routledge

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Segal, H., 1977. Countertransference. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy6, pp.31-37.

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Winnicott, D.W., 1994. Hate in the counter-transference. The Journal of psychotherapy practice and research3(4), p.348.

On: Literature and Psychoanalysis – a symbiosis

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“The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a happy bunch”, so said William Styron. What is the relationship between literature and psychoanalysis?

In this essay, I want to explain what psychoanalysis is when it is applied ‘outside the clinic’. I develop the thinking by focusing on the relationship between both disciplines. In an oft-cited paper Felman (1982) considered the relationship, but talked about psychoanalysis as dominant to literature, akin to the master-slave relationship. I consider that paper and why I find that problematic. Using examples from writers who pre-date the birth of psychoanalysis, when the first of Freud’s papers were published in 1895; first, I think about how literature gave psychoanalysis the descriptive skill that articulates the impact of the unconscious. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flaubert and Dickens are all relevant. Second, I then consider Freud’s writing, specifically ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) and how it defines something presented to us by Shakespeare’s melancholic, Jaques, from ‘As You Like It’, and from Dickens’s Miss Havisham. Is this an example of psychoanalytic mastery and dominance? I suggest it is not, but that the relationship is one of symbiosis: mutualism not parasitism. Third, I continue by considering the psychoanalytic reader. What is the emotional impact of being a reader and how does reading words on a page engage our emotions? What is happening unconsciously and to our unconscious?

Finally, I consider modern literature and what psychoanalysis has brought to it – I wonder if it allowed us to tolerate damaged psychic states and so gave room for the publication of something like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. If literature has informed psychoanalysis, it must be in how it presents itself. Therefore, I consider psychoanalytic writing, as distinct from bringing psychoanalysis to reading. The brilliant analysis of Freud’s Dora case analysed by Marcus (1976), allows me to examine the writing of modern psychoanalysts such as Thomas Ogden and Adam Phillips before I draw my conclusions.

What is it for psychoanalysis to be outside the clinic? Psychoanalysis is far more than a therapeutic treatment. Whilst it is a method for treating neuroses, it is extended to a body of knowledge about the mind. It is also a research tool; a method or approach, in seeking knowledge. The tool is the therapeutic use of ‘free association’ rooted in the work done in the clinic. The critical claim is that there is an unconscious. What is psychoanalysis, when it is outside the clinic? Is there a difficulty that a text cannot respond, unlike the analysand in the clinic? The response to an interpretation is part of the clinical work, so how can psychoanalysis work, never mind thrive, outside the clinic? Can you draw on psychoanalysis without being an analyst? Can you have not undergone analysis, but still be able to lend insights back to psychoanalysis? I think so. French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought so, emphasising one must analyse the words, not the person, not unlike a literary critic. The difficulty is that the unconscious is dynamic. Text is static, but how we read it is dynamic – it can suggest different things to us. We are not stepping into the same river twice. We notice different things each time we read a text, watch a film, hear music or look at a sculpture. What is psychoanalytic, is the comfort with one’s ‘not knowing’. An analyst does not tell an analysand the meaning to her life, but lets it emerge, so that the analysand feels she has more awareness.

In considering the work of Hanna Segal, Bell (1999) argues for psychoanalysis outside the clinic. He asserts that his perspective views psychoanalysis as “a body of knowledge of the mind”, which is distinct from the application of that knowledge. This is important when considering the master-slave relationship in the Felman essay. Bell suggests that critics of psychoanalysis look for validation of its core claims when examining accounts of treatments, but he suggests a “realist ontology” for the objects which it investigates. He talks about transference and projection as being as real as tables and chairs. He cites Freud’s 1908 paper “Creative Writers and Day dreaming” and he notes that psychoanalysis meets literature “on a number of different terrains”. First, it might be that literature is something that can illustrate psychoanalytic theory, second, the reverse, the theory can illuminate the text, noting that Klein wrote three papers with literary themes. Segal too, used psychoanalytic theory to illuminate a number of literary texts. This illustrates the concept of the portability of the clinic. The theory can move beyond the physical analytic frame, which is the clinic. Outside the clinic it is the application of theory.

Similarly, Frosh (2020) notes that a psychoanalytic setting, the clinic, can move, and that what is retained “is little more than a theoretical orientation that accepts a notion of the ‘unconscious’ as crucial for understanding motivation and behaviour.” That is not to disparage its existence outside the clinic, but to recognise it. The key element is language, interpreted using psychoanalytic principles. The theoretical constructs are the dynamic unconscious, free association, transference and interpretation. This is not an exhaustive list. Psychoanalytic interpretation is not restricted to the intellect, but to the nature of relationships, and it is relationships that provide the opportunity for transference, countertransference and then interpretation. Frosh emphasises the role of the clinic: “The clinic out of which psychoanalysis has developed, the crucible for its concepts and practices, is thus a metaphorical space surrounding a live encounter”. Where, he later argues, it is not always welcome, is because applied psychoanalysis is often “an attempt at conquest rather than partnership” – in common with the start of the Felman essay I discuss below.

Psychoanalysis is a tool for understanding, not just individuals, and not just literature and the humanities, but also the social, legal and political worlds. So, if we accept it has migrated from the clinic, what impact does it have and is it beneficial? Frosh states that the two purposes of applied psychoanalysis are first to extend its reach, and second providing support for its claims. He reminds us of the formation of the magazine, Imago, by Otto Rank and Hans Sachs in 1912, which was “concerned with the application of psychoanalysis to non-medical fields of knowledge”.  Frosh cares for psychoanalysis enough to highlight its role in advertising how the unconscious speaks through a subject but is not controlled by it, what he calls the “central importance of otherness in personal and social life”. Preserving this function is critical to keep psychoanalysis relevant “and prevent it ossifying into a form of expert received knowledge”. Like the unconscious; it must be dynamic. “Psychoanalysis holds something significant for all the other disciplines – specifically, a capacity to theorise subjectivity in a way that is provocative and unique, through reference to the unconscious.” Bell believes that Klein used literature as a means of expressing her ideas by “having a conversation with the artist”. This is different from applying theory to characters, which Jones famously did with Hamlet. An example of the Kleinian conversation is Segal’s 1984 paper on Conrad. A different meeting of the disciplines comes in her paper on Golding’s “The Spire”, which Bell claims, is more of a meeting of psychoanalyst and author coming to similar discoveries but via differing perspectives. Segal interprets Golding’s story of the building of a cathedral as a destructive delusion. In her 1981 paper, “Delusion and Artistic Creativity” she asks if the work of an artist or author is itself a creation or a delusion. She introduces us to the psychotic in text. How will we elaborate the text in the same way that the analyst listens to the analysand and is able to elaborate what they say? In other words, this is a textual and theoretical encounter, and its purpose is to raise questions and open up meaning, not dogmatically impose answers. This, as identified by Spillers (1996) is psychoanalytic hermeneutics. Does having a literary understanding enhance the work of a psychoanalyst? Felman writes that “there are no natural boundaries between literature and psychoanalysis”.

In her essay, Felman presents a case that literature is somehow a slave to psychoanalysis’s master. Can it really be realistic to think of literature and literary texts as something that can be enslaved. Are texts malleable? If we think of the clinic, the analysand seeks interpretation from the analyst. It is true that psychoanalysis lends an analytic interpretation to literature, and I argue below, might enhance literature, perhaps even making it publishable in the case of Morrison’s “Beloved”, but I find the master-slave argument stretched. A text cannot be made to do the master’s bidding and even more so, it cannot resist. This lack of the corporeal undermines Felman, I feel. She opens with a comment about the mutual relationship of literature and psychoanalysis, but within a couple of paragraphs moves to suggesting it is one in which literature is subordinate to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, as a “body of knowledge” is called upon to interpret literature, a “body of language”. She claims that literature plays a role in service of the desires of psychoanalytic theory. Actually, Felman herself rows back from this point of view, and repeated re-readings of the essay have made me feel that she provocatively engages defenders of literature with the master-slave analogy, before explaining her own much more nuanced views.

She makes psychoanalysis sound active, “exercising its authority and power”, to a passive literary field. This is important because it reminds the reader of Freud’s essays on sexuality and his suggestion about active masculinity and passive femininity, views which have much less currency today. She continues that psychoanalysis is seeking its own satisfaction. I think this is revealing. It may seek mastery of itself, but that is very different from being master to another. She notes that a literary critic would desire a true dialogue between both as fields of knowledge and of language, and that what is required is avoiding a “universal monologue of psychoanalysis about literature”. This feels like a more appropriate position to me. This allows her to remind her reader that psychoanalysis falls “within the realm of literature”, and moves on to discussing the disruption of the master-slave relationship, in either direction. It is the text, like an analysand, where knowledge and meaning are expected to reside. This allows one to consider the importance of ‘not knowing’ which is critical to the work of the analyst in the clinic. She concludes that we should not think about the application of psychoanalysis to literature, what might be thought of as psychoanalysis working outside the clinic, but that we should think in terms of ‘implication’, not bringing a scientific knowledge to bear upon a text but rather, “to explore, bring to light and articulate”. She concludes, “literature is therefore not simply outside psychoanalysis, since it motivates and inhabits the very names of its concepts, since it is the inherent reference by which psychoanalysis names its findings.”

The spirit of both fields of language exploring the other, bringing to light and articulating is best illustrated, I believe, when considering Freud’s paper ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, (1917) which may be one of the greatest literary psychoanalytic contributions. The syntax and the form demonstrate why he was awarded a Goethe prize. The melancholic, however, was something literature identified for psychoanalysts. Two examples: Dickens’s Miss Havisham and Shakespeare’s Jaques. Miss Havisham is one of Dickens’s greatest portraits, almost certainly informed by Robert Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholia’ (1621). Abandoned, jilted and defrauded by her betrothed, she cannot recover from this trauma and lives on in her wedding attire, to maintain a link to her loss. She lives out of sunlight – a representation of her broken, dark, inner world. She has all the clocks stopped at the time when she received the letter from her fiancé, that revealed the deception. The issue of stopped time was of interest to Freud because the unconscious has no temporality. Freud observed, “in melancholia, what is lost is the ego”. Melancholia is linked to a narcissistic pathology and to mania. It is clinical depression and distinct from ‘ordinary depression’ with which we all come into contact and does not prevent us from functioning. Havisham adopts a young girl, Estella, seeking to protect her from the hurts she has herself suffered. Freud described melancholia as “a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity”. Keeping the world at bay by avoiding sunlight, she projects into Estella her hatred of men, but ultimately this too will leave her abandoned and unfulfilled. Avoiding the world is because, Freud notes, melancholia “culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment”.

What is different from mourning is that “when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again”, whereas a melancholic displays “an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale”. Miss Havisham’s self-regard is destroyed when she is jilted. She fails to mourn the loss of the romance and becomes melancholic. As Freud elegantly observed “in mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself” – a melancholic attitude is one of intense self-denigration. Before Dickens, Shakespeare had provided us with Jaques. He blames the outside world for imposing its “infections” upon him, leaving him to wrestle with his inner world: “Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world”. He is described as being able to “suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs,” and is sufficiently self-aware to describe “a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness”. In his most famous speech “All the world’s a stage”, Jaques lambasts everyone else. They are all merely performers, and are hiding from their true selves. 

I choose these two examples to make a couple of simple points. First, literature pre-dates Freudian understanding. Second, Freud was able to find the language for the psychic condition he noted, and how it differed from the condition of mourning, because of the literature with which he was familiar. I think Freud’s brilliant understanding enhances literature, but is not imposing any sort of mastery. Jaques tells us he is a melancholic, but Miss Havisham, sometimes dismissed as a sort of cruel and damaged crone, becomes an object of pity when we understand her melancholic affect.

I believe that psychoanalysis has enhanced literature and not subordinated it. I want to continue examining reading psychoanalytically, before moving on to what psychoanalysis has offered writers. Flaubert, like Dickens pre-dates Freud. In Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” we see the impact of a delusional fantasist on those around her, as well as her own death drive path to destruction. Sodre (1999) showed how psychoanalysis and literature come together in the typical analyst/analysand relationship in a paper titled “Death by Daydreaming”. She considered Bovary in the context of Kleinian Object Relations, of her projections, and the overwhelming destructive death drive. Bovary is in thrall to a life in which her wish-fulfilling dreams dominate her mental life. She loses touch with reality. Her dreams have such force (id overwhelming ego) that she is forced to act them out and make them real. Enactment is frequently something that happens in the clinic and is in need of interpretation. Sodre notes, that the text shows us Emma’s repetitive romances are played out in her mind, as a defence against the impoverishment of her actual life, and that impoverishment drives the enactment of her dream life. She adds that as the novel progresses Emma becomes more contemptuous of people around her, whose weakness is that they do not live up to the standards of her dream companions. Sodre thinks that this allows Flaubert to introduce us to what we learn from Klein is an attack on her ‘good objects’, somewhat pre-dating Object Relations Theory. We also see how Emma, who is unable to love her daughter, Berthe, is also a ‘Bad object’. Emma’s fantastical thinking is a means for the reader to understand that the more attached she is to unconscious dreams, the more her sense of self deteriorates, as she is threatened by her internal reality. Sodre notes that she projects her awareness of her deteriorating inner world by covering up – both expensive material adornments and “elaborate, detailed and richer mis-en-scenes” because external reality is too ugly.

Freud himself remarked about how the philosophers and poets had been first to discover the unconscious – his discovery was a scientific method for understanding it. Given psychoanalysis is a relatively young science it is only reasonable to think of the way literature’s giants had already given a language to how what happens in our psychic lives takes place. We have only to refer to Oedipus and to Narcissus. I think that there is something psychoanalytic as far back as Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales frequently use tales of sex to illustrate drives and wishes. The device of the storytellers being on a pilgrimage gives the reader a sense of a frame. In the same way, a clinician listens to multiple tales as his work as the analyst. Although it is physically moving, the frame’s elements are fixed. In this sense Chaucer may be described as being the first writer to be working psychoanalytically, both in and outside a clinic.

Roth (2020) explores three main psychoanalytic interpretations of the reader experience. First, the transference relations toward the literary characters. Second, the impact of the text as a means of transcending the reader’s self-identity and third, how that allows the reader to achieve a new integration and “psychic equilibrium”. She notes the contemporaneous emergence of a publishing boom, improving literacy and the widespread development of public libraries, around the turn of the twentieth century, with the emergence of psychoanalysis. This led to academic enquiry, which she feels shifted the focus from “’scientific facts’ to ‘the subject’. She notes that Proust’s 1905 essay “On Reading”, allowed the emergence of contemporary literary theory. Proust writes about a trio comprised of author, book and reader. This is almost a hundred years ahead of Ogden’s (1994, 2004) ‘analytic third’. Proust explores the reader’s experience of being detached from reality and of the loss or freezing of time, as well as the identification that characters arouse in the reader. He suggests that readers can explore their psyche, “those dwelling places”, that would otherwise be impenetrable. We could say, the dwelling places are the unconscious. Some of this was taken up more specifically by Barthes (1967) is his essay “Death of the Author”, when the meaning of the text ceased to be dependent on author and content, but reconstructed by the reader; much as the analyst helps the analysand reconstruct what has constructed their own meaning. This confers dynamism on the text. It is not static, and dynamism takes us back to the unconscious. A modern example of this is Morrison’s “Beloved”; a harrowing tale, but also one of what trauma does to the psyche. We see it in the psychic fragmentation evident in both the protagonist, Sethe, and also in her sometime lover Paul D, who demonstrates splitting as a defence. The death drive consumes Sethe. Putting aside black authorship, characters and a white-dominant publishing industry, I think that the publication of the novel owes something to psychoanalysis, insofar as it enabled readers to comprehend and tolerate trauma.

Roth describes how the reader projects into the text a search for meaning, a fear of ‘other’ and existential fears such as life’s finitude. She argues that meaning and identity lead to processes of transformation, in both psychoanalysis and literature, but we remain unsure of exactly how. “The patient in analysis, like the reader of literature, is invited to drop everything else and raise, without any form of censorship, every topic that appears ‘in the pages’ of his awareness”. Optimum conditions are established for the transference relations towards either analyst or characters. A reader is alone in a book’s presence in a way that shares space with Winnicott’s (1958) view of the merits of talking “alone in the presence of someone”. In this way, we return to the merits of psychoanalysis outside the clinic. The reader has utilised the portability of the clinic.

What has psychoanalysis done, outside the clinic, for writing? Frosh notes that, especially in the form of case histories, that psychoanalysis is expressed in its own narrative form and that “it also treats its patients as literary beings, characters in search of stories that make sense”. Psychoanalysis is a literary endeavour in itself – exemplified by the case history, which Steven Marcus (1975) described as starting with Freud’s ‘Dora case’ and being a new literary form, distinct and structurally significant. Psychoanalytic journals are filled with vignettes and verbatim. These take the form of dialogue and are often presented as a playwright shapes a play. In his chapter “On psychoanalytic writing”, in “This Art of Psychoanalysis”, Ogden suggests, by using an example of his own clinical writing and an example of Winnicott’s theoretical writing, that “the way the language works” is essential to “the literary genre of analytic writing”. I like to think of this as evidence of one of literature’s gifts to psychoanalysis and a refutation of Felman’s proposition that it is slave to psychoanalysis. Ogden describes analytic writing as “a conjunction of interpretation and a work of art”. He quotes Bion: “I have had an emotional experience; I feel confident in my ability to recreate that emotional experience, but not to represent it” when explaining that what the reader reads is not the experience itself, but a new literary representation of it by the writer, about time spent with the analysand. He continues, “the analytic writer finds himself conscripted into the ranks of imaginative writers”. In recreating an analytic session, he notes that he is creating “characters’, something informed by the experience of enjoying literature. Both conscious and unconscious processes go into the writing. “Psychoanalysis is an experience in which the analyst takes the patient seriously, in part by treating everything that he says and does as potentially meaningful”. He makes it clear that he appreciates the symbiosis of literature and psychoanalysis, “What, for me, is certain is the idea that experimenting with the literary form used in analytic writing is part and parcel of the effort to develop fresh ways of thinking analytically”

Phillips (2016) talks about the psychoanalytic method as a way of telling a life story – free associating, “telling a life story by not telling a life story, but by saying whatever comes into your head”, adding “the analyst is giving the fragmentary discontinuous speech of the analysand a new narrative coherence”. He explores the extent to which Samuel Johnson pre-empted much of Freud, citing the work of Walter Jackson Bate, especially regarding the theory of repression. He adds that both Johnson and Freud believed in a Reality Principle, although Freud alone, called it that. Bate wrote in, “The Achievement of Samuel Johnson” that Johnson had anticipated psychoanalysis, and when he wrote of an inner resistance, he was identifying what psychoanalysis thinks more contemporarily as ‘defence mechanisms’.

On his work as both psychoanalyst and writer in several conversations that were published as a Paris Review interview and included in his book, Phillips noted that “psychoanalysis does not need any more abstruse or sentimental abstractions….it just needs more good sentences”. How literary a request can one get? He talks of the poor quality of reading contemporary psychoanalysis, excepting only Bion, Winnicott and Milner and adds “They were writers. Freud, to me, originally was a writer”. Freud, to him, he said, made sense “not in terms of the history of science or the history of neurology, but in terms of the history of literature”.

Phillips likens the form of psychoanalytic writing, specifically the sessions, as unlike novels, epic poems, lyric poems or plays, (although they are like play dialogues), but that they have the structure of an essay. “There is the same opportunity to digress, to change the subject, to be incoherent, to come to conclusions…” Literature has brought its own influence to bear on psychoanalysis, not least in treating Freud as a writer rather than a scientist. It offers something back to psychoanalysis, what Frosh noted is an understanding of “its own textual unconscious”.

In this essay, I have attempted to demonstrate that there is a symbiotic relationship between psychoanalysis and literature and not, as is sometimes asserted, one where psychoanalysis adopts a position of superiority and of a more profound insight. Psychoanalysis has much to thank literature for, and in turn, has provided insights into texts, characters and the psychosocial that have made literature richer. My conclusion is that the relationship is symbiotic; I reject Lacan’s ‘master discourse’ and Felman’s ‘master-slave’ ideas and believe there exists a mutuality, rather than something parasitic. There is definitely a place for psychoanalysis outside the clinic and it is the place of broadening understanding. Not just in literature but in other fields such as law, the social sciences and film and the arts, I think that is additive, rather than imposing and superior. Literature’s place in our minds before psychoanalysis makes me clear that it has offered as much, if not more to psychoanalysis, as psychoanalysis has contributed as an interpreter of literature. Indeed, it was Felman who wrote that, “in the same way that psychoanalysis points to the unconscious of literature, literature, in its turn, is the unconscious of psychoanalysis”. Perhaps, an emphasis on the ‘is’.

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Barthes, R. (1967) The death of the author, Aspen 5–6.

Bell, D. (1999) Psychoanalysis and culture: A Kleinian perspective. Psychology Press.

Brink, A. (1979) Depression and Loss: A Theme in Robert Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (1621). The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry24(8), pp.767-772.

Felman, S. (1977) To open the question. Yale French Studies (55/56), pp.5-10.

Freud, S. (1917) Mourning and melancholia. Standard edition14 (239), pp. 1957-61.

Freud, S. (1925) Creative writers and Daydreaming Standard Edition 9: 143-153. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. Standard Edition18, pp. 65-143.

Frosh, S. (2010) Psychoanalysis outside the clinic: Interventions in psychosocial studies. Macmillan International Higher Education.

Jones, E. (1949) Hamlet and Oedipus. New York.

Marcus, L. (2014) Introduction: Psychoanalysis at the Margins. A Concise Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Culture, pp. 1-11.

Marcus, S. (1976) Freud and Dora: story, history, case history. Psychoanalysis and contemporary science5, pp. 389-442.

Ogden, T. (1994) The concept of interpretive action. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly63(2), pp. 219-245.

Ogden, T. (2004) The analytic third: Implications for psychoanalytic theory and technique. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly73(1), pp. 167-195.

Ogden, T. (1996) Reconsidering three aspects of psychoanalytic technique International Journal of Psychoanalysis 77 (5) pp. 883-99.

Phillips. A. (2017) In Writing. Penguin UK.

Proust, M. (1905) On Reading. New York: Three Syrens Press

Roth, M. (2019) A psychoanalytic perspective on reading literature: Reading the reader. Routledge.

Segal, H. (1974) Delusion and artistic creativity: some reflexions on reading ‘The Spire’ by William Golding. International Review of Psycho-Analysis1, pp. 135-141.

Segal, H. (1984) Joseph Conrad and the mid-life crisis. International review of psycho-analysis11, pp. 3-9.

Sodré, I. (2018) Death by daydreaming: Madame Bovary. In Psychoanalysis and Culture (pp. 48-63). Routledge.

Spillers, H. (1996) “All the Things You Could Be by Now If Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother”: Psychoanalysis and Race. Critical Inquiry22 (4), pp. 710-734.

West, J. (1985) Conversations with William Styron. United Kingdom: University Press of Mississippi.

Winnicott, D. (1958) The capacity to be alone. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis39, pp. 416-420.

On: Death, Drives and Sir Antony Sher

Year of the King: Antony Sher: 9781854597533: Books
Genius – on and off the stage

Antony Sher is dead. RIP. He was one of the greatest actors I got to see live. He was also a novelist, playwright, diarist and artist. A renaissance man. Fortunately, as well as seeing his “bottled spider” of a Richard III, and other great performances, I saw his last London stage appearance in Kunene and the King. I am going to think about some of those performances and the pleasure that I got from them and what great artists, musicians and sportspeople can do to us, but death is very much on my mind, and not just because of a couple of weeks of studying Melanie Klein and Sigmund Freud and the Death Drive.

About a fortnight ago I heard that a friend of mine had killed herself. She messaged me at the start of that week, to decline an invitation to a group lunch of our student group, and said she was having some problems with her mental health. It was the first I had heard of it, and when we had built our friendship pre-pandemic, at the university, I marvelled at her love for her family – a husband and two adult sons – and her capacity for work. It was no surprise that she graduated with a first class honours degree. And yet, her internal world must have been crumbling. I don’t think I am in denial, but I am so shocked and numbed by the news that I am not sure I feel anything yet.

Just today, one of my children’s godmothers has let me know that her mother died yesterday. I spent some time working with the Cruse, the grief counselling charity, and even with that experience I don’t know what to do as an immediate response. I know that listening is critical, and encouraging those grieving, to talk about the person they have lost, but somehow it all feels inadequate right now.

My brother recently gave the eulogy at a celebration of the life of one of his great cricketing friends. A man who had the joys of representing his country, but who had to take on cancer after the discovery of an inoperable brain tumour twenty or so years ago. We know life is finite, but we also think that it will be lengthy. We may not believe in our immortality, but we tend to expect to be mortal for some time to come. I wonder how one lives with something like the news of an inoperable tumour. I never met him, but my brother has long celebrated him, like a brother. A man with a largeness of heart that few could rival, and with a compassion for others, rather than dwell on the compassion he himself warranted.

Melanie Klein was responsible for Freud giving greater consideration to the Death Drive, and the experience of World War I veterans made him revise his earliest ideas about the primacy of the sexual drives. But death is an inevitability and life, therefore, should be about preparing for as good or satisfactory a death as possible. To be clear, the death drive is not about a unhealthy wish to die, but an angry, destructive drive, with annihilation at its heart. People who die in acts of uncommon bravery, especially in war, are not consumed by the death drive, but those pursuing a war for whatever political or territorial aim, definitely are. For Klein it was present from the outset for the newborn. She maintained that the baby attributed any of its pains and discomforts to hostile and persecutory forces, including the mother that nurtures it, but occasionally did not provide the nourishment it needed, as soon as it was needed. Hence the ‘good breast/bad breast’.

I have not seen the Ricky Gervais drama ‘After Life’ but there is little doubt that humour, however wry, or discomforting, can allow discourse to happen, where it usually prefers to hide. It seems that it is the most perfect vehicle for understanding our drives and our grief. Freud thought we pursue pleasure, or more accurately avoid unpleasure, and that was the life drive – Eros. The death drive (Thanatos) is constantly trying to overwhelm it, and provide unpleasure. Gervais manages to get audiences to laugh at a scenario where a man loses his wife to breast cancer and contemplates suicide. He wants to project his anger and guilt upon just about anyone, but is frustrated by the way people respond to his anger and guilt and grief, and show him the best of humanity.

I think this is the concept I am wrestling with. Just as my brother grieves, and my daughter’s godmother does, and as I think how fortunate I am that my parents have made it into their eighties, and are still relatively free from health difficulties, I know I will have to think about a time when I no longer have them in my world. However, this exercise was not meant to be maudlin. It was to think about the ends of lives as a point at which one celebrates the life lived, and highs for me often come from watching great actors, sportspeople and musicians. Sher, was one who made me marvel at the exceptional skill, the interpretive genius, and as I learned more about the actor behind the mask, was someone who I admired as someone who could shape his circumstances, not be defined by them. For me that is something of a leitmotif.

My introduction to him was through television. The History Man (1981) – playing Howard Kirk. In the mid-80s I was working, and earning enough to enjoy the best seats at the theatre, and that was how I spent my time when I wasn’t playing non-league football or Essex league cricket. In 1984 in Stratford, and in ’85 at the Barbican, Sher, despite the competition from ‘new Olivier’, Ken Branagh, redefined Shakespearian acting with a performance of such physicality and vocal menace, that I cannot see another actor as Richard III. (And yes, I did think Cumberbatch was pretty impressive). Whilst playing the ‘bottled spider’ and writing ‘The Year of the King’, Sher was ‘dragging up’ for an extraordinary performance in Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy’. It is some play, but I think I saw it because he was in it, rather than for the play.

If it was possible, the best may still have been to come. In 1987 I saw him redefine Shylock. The pain that he revealed, of a man, who is outsmarted in court, and who seemed to come out from behind his character’s mask, as he gave the heart-wrenching ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech, is still familiar to me. “If you prick us do we not bleed?” What would he have made of the disgraceful attack on the young Jewish bus passengers this week?

Critics loved his King Lear, but for me it was the one true disappointment. It came three years after his groundbreaking Falstaff. Once again his facility with the Shakespearian lines meant I can still hear him saying them – in this case the brilliant ‘Honour’ speech. “What is in that word “honour”? The Falstaffian contempt for it, “therefore I’ll none of it, honour is a mere scutcheon”, seems to me to be closely associated with our government of today. The Lear, was the only time I could not see his character clearly, and I felt that there was still some Falstaff coming through.

At different times he hid his homosexuality, before finding love with director, Gregory Doran; his faith (his parents had gone to South Africa to escape pogroms in Lithuania) and his white South African heritage, ashamed by apartheid. Yet he became an eloquent speaker about each of these issues that shaped who he was, and why he liked playing someone else on stage. So, I admired him for his multiple artistic talents and for his ability to speak out when necessary.

And so, 2019 came around. I did not know that it was to be the last time to see him on the London stage, but I was very excited by Kunene and the King. A two hander with John Kani, it pushed a black man and an irrascible, dying white man, together, as the black man reluctantly nurses the bigoted patient. Sher played Jack Morris, a fading Shakespearian actor. He has been offered King Lear, but knows he may not be well and strong enough to take it. Through reading parts together, the two men find ways of thinking about the changes in S Africa in the 25 years post apartheid. Morris is astounded that his carer knows Julius Caesar well – from a Xhosa version.

Sher gave a performance of extraordinary nuance and depth. How could he patronise a man, initially dismissed as an identity-less member of “you people”, if like Morris, he appreciated and understood Shakespeare? Sometimes you go for the play, sometimes the playwright, often the actor. It was magnificent. I would have gone to see Sher in anything, like McKellen, or Branagh, or Rylance. He played Sigmund Freud, at Hampstead, in the play ‘Hysteria’, which I wish I had seen. As well as Freud, the other thing I would like to see, if we could travel through time, would be his BAFTA winning turn as Primo Levi (he not only won this acting award, he wrote the play!). It started at the National, but there are film versions. One can only hope it makes it back on to the screen as part of the tributes to him.

He had been ill. We all die. But some deaths make you think deeply about mortality, and about family. They also make you think about the need to live your life well, whilst you have the health and the mental fortitude to do so. A gay, Jewish, South African was probably not the role model I sought when I started work, and as I left school, and yet, I think he has played a big role in my life, as someone to admire and to appreciate just how complex we all are, and we all can be. And he put it on stage and screen, and I was lucky to see him showing me what it is to be multi-faceted, complicated, but above all ‘good’. Professionally, personally and probably morally. RIP.

On: Freud’s repression

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In this essay, I shall describe repression and repression theory as an example of a fundamental concept in Freud’s work. For Freud, little was of greater import, it is the “cornerstone of our understanding of the neuroses”. In his Autobiographical Study, he called it “a novelty” and was clear that with his discovery, “nothing like it had ever before been recognized in mental life”. Once I have described and defined it, I aim to evaluate it, although historic evaluation including Freud’s own, about it being “a cornerstone”, not just of the understanding of neuroses, but of the psychoanalytic field, sets the bar high.  From the outset, this concept is problematical, insofar as it is loosely defined, not least by Freud himself. In generic form, it is a psychic defence. This raises questions about what is being defended, how the defence works and what happens to repressed material. These are addressed below. Furthermore, Freud came to see repression as being two distinct things. Unhelpfully, what he called ‘repression proper’ turns out to be a derivative, whereas repression in what might be called its pure form, is described as ‘primal repression’.  This essay restricts itself to Freud and his concept, but it is helpful to think of the term signifier, when thinking of the primal repressed, which was a word attached to it by French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, later in the twentieth century. Billig (1999) described repression as a “willed forgetting” and explained that we have a need to forget our secrets, but also the fact of having forgotten them. The forgetting of the forgotten is successful repression.

I shall start with an attempt to define repression; what it is we must forget we have forgotten.  It is when we cannot recall a memory from the past.  We say it is repressed. But what does that mean? In the original, the German word verdrangung, described what was happening.  The best translations of this seem to be ‘to push away’; ‘to thrust aside’. What is being thrust aside? Beliefs that cannot become conscious, because the content is so shocking, or painful, (such as a murderous rage towards one’s father) that something obstructs them ie thrusts aside and makes repressed. Freud’s terminology translated as an instinctual impulse, as that which is thrust aside. It is the impulse which passes into a state of repression. Freud explains that such a horror would inspire a fight or flight response, but given that “the ego cannot escape from itself”, it cannot fly.

In his short paper on Repression, first published in Zeitschrift, Freud grapples with why should something need repressing. If what is being repressed is the satisfaction of a need, a drive, that is inconsistent with the view that satisfying a need generates pleasure. Therefore, for this psychic mechanism to happen, it must be responding to the risk of unpleasure, in the case of a murderous rage, perhaps the subsequent guilt attached to parricide. Having the impulse met, the need satisfied is pleasurable, but it is the coexistence of unpleasures such as shame and the condemnation of society that causes the repression. None of this ever reaches the conscious level of the mind, but is fought out by the impulse and the defence. Freud explains that the force of the feelings of unpleasure overwhelm the pleasure of satisfying the unconscious impulse. It is at this point that he addresses the question of what happens to the repressed impulse. Freud understood that it is kept “at a distance” from conscious activity, but that it continues to exist.

This brings him to the theorising of two types, or components of repression. Primal repression is the first phase, much as described above – the impulse is denied entry to the conscious. He notes that what happens next, repression proper, is when psychic derivatives of the initial impulse attach themselves and make a renewed attempt to become conscious. These derivatives are also repressed, which is why Freud describes recession proper as an “after pressure”. Unlike primal repression the material that needs to be defended in repression proper, has once been available to the conscious but has been defended against. An early trauma is an example – too difficult and painful to tolerate, but available nonetheless. To remind his readers that repressed impulses continue to exist, he writes that repression only exists to act as a bar to one psychical system, namely the conscious. He suggests, moreover, that the repressed impulse “proliferates in the dark”. The “censorship of the conscious” is weakened by how far the derivative is from the initial primal repression, and sufficient distance can allow it access to the conscious, at which point they manifest as neurotic symptoms. Lastly, repression is not uniform. He highlights this to emphasise that a repression is not a permanent event, and for repression to succeed it needs a pressure, because it has to be able to resist the upward pressure of the unconscious, to which the impulse has returned, but not disappeared. He writes of these forces as “repressive cathexes”, which relax during periods of sleep and contribute to the formation of dreams as a renewed attempt of the unconscious impulse to break through.

Freud was not the discoverer of the unconscious; he himself notes the many artists and philosophers who had an understanding that it might exist, but the theory of repression is his unique work. In his paper, “The Ego and the Id”, Freud noted that we obtain our concept of the unconscious, “from the theory of repression”. Whilst an awareness of the probability of the unconscious had been acknowledged, he thinks the theory of repression allows it to be conceptualised. Herein lies its significance. He thinks the ego itself is the mechanism of repression and in his later years he asserted that the work of the analytical treatment was to strengthen the ego in its battle with id. This is a curio, because one might interpret it as an invitation for more repression. Was he advocating that, consciously or unconsciously?

If it can be satisfactorily defined, we might get around to asking, is it a necessary process? Does it have any sort of protective function? Also, does it always work? The strength of one’s defences is not consistent. At times of weakness it allows unconscious material to intrude, hence parapraxes. More familiarly, our defence is weak when we sleep. Dreams, the things that when interpreted are the “royal road to the unconscious”, are the best example, alongside symptoms. For Freud, this is the return of the repressed and is linked to the repetition compulsion. Freud notes that repression is a mechanism originating in the ego, and also that it is unconscious. He had come to understand that ego is not exclusively conscious. Achieving that understanding was a consequence of the work on repression, giving weight to its significance to the development of psychoanalysis. We accept that the return of the repressed is an inevitability, because we have not overcome it.

What might we think about the nature of repression at a societal level? This is important because we come to ask if repression is important. It seems to be something that protects us from feelings of guilt and shame, which might be too debilitating to carry on living. In this way, it might be thought of as a kind of uber-defence. Either way, the significance of his theory is its impact on futures, individually and collectively. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” he explores what the analyst can achieve working with something the analysand cannot remember: “The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be the essential part of it”. It is in this essay that Freud writes about a repetition compulsion. “He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience…” For me, it is this quality of the theory of repression, that it begot more ideas, that highlights its enormous worth. That something so radical could be taken up by future generations of analysts gives weight in any evaluation of repression.

In applying his discovery to treatments, specifically for neuroses, Freud started by believing that repressing material generated anxieties. An anxiety was the consequence of a repression because the energy associated with the unconscious drive had not been released – no pleasure. Patients were aware that something needed to be resolved, but not really what that was. Hence an anxiety. However, many years later he revised his thinking. In his revised view, anxiety begets repression, not being a consequence of it. An idea in the unconscious that is threatening to the integrity of the ego becomes the thing that the ego acts to repress. The anxiety came first; the defence, repression, was the response.

By evaluating repression, one is attempting to determine its significance, and to consider its strengths and also its limitations. How does one evaluate a “cornerstone”? Cohen and Kinston (1984) took the view that when Freud said that repression takes place only after a “sharp cleavage” between conscious and unconscious activity, and that in some papers he seemed to exclude some ages such as the pre-pubertal; that he might have wished to exclude some conditions, and they speculate those to be psychoses. It allows them to develop what they claim are long-standing theoretical inconsistencies, mostly linked with Freud’s views that primal repression was linked to trauma. They review the literature on borderline, psychotic and narcissistic patients in examining whether the theory of repression is inapplicable. Even if there is some merit to their argument, I am not convinced it truly damages the “cornerstone” or threatens to bring the structure down. In another criticism, they explore the use of cathexes and suggest that this is a convenient “economic metaphor” Freud used when he wanted or needed to avoid detailed definitions. They summarise that Freud allowed for ambiguity or for further research by using both a ‘cathexis hypothesis’ which mapped to his topographical model of the mind and concurrently working with a form hypothesis, which blends elements of both the topographical and the structural models of the mind. When one is dealing with something as dynamic as the unconscious, I take the view that it is wise to not be absolutist, and to leave room for fresh thinking. One final criticism the authors level is to take issue with the lack of “clearly stated hypotheses” regarding the formation and the “mechanism of primal repression”. This seems more justifiable, but Freud himself understood it, and it was his willingness to consider the impact of “environment” that allowed him to wrestle free from an impulse being realised as a potential source of unpleasure, not pleasure, and hence the cathexis for repression overwhelmed the cathexis to break into consciousness.

Blum (2003) has more to say on the significance of repression, especially in the dyadic analytical relationship because for him repression is indissolubly linked with transference. “Transference is a return of the repressed, with repressed memories embedded within a fundamental unconscious fantasy constellation.” It seems to me that this is critical in evaluating repression. Not only has it given psychoanalysis the theoretical foundation it required, and allowed us to explore unconscious, but it has been a productive tool in treatment. Blum’s essay is a response to an article penned by Peter Fonagy, who had disregarded the link between transference and repression. The enduring debates about Freud’s work are testament to its significance. Amongst Freud’s best-known and regarded psychoanalytic successors is Bion, who in his “Attention and Interpretation” also considered the analytical situation and the “experience of remembering a dream”. He thought memory should only be associated with a “conscious attempt to recall” and echoed Freud on the significance of repression proper making its renewed assaults on consciousness, often in dreams, when reminding us that “dream-like memory is the memory of psychic reality and is the stuff of analysis” (my emphasis).

This essay has described repression, one of Freud’s fundamental concepts, generally as a psychic defence, and more specifically, in explaining the way that primal repression forms and is repressed, and repression proper, which is sometimes repressed, and is an “after-pressure”. In the second half of this essay I have considered the significance of Freud’s great discovery, and his own view that it was first, a “cornerstone”, in the understanding of neuroses, and more boldly a “cornerstone” for psychoanalysis itself. In evaluating the discovery, I have reviewed papers that regard the definition and mechanism of primal repression as ambiguous and I have considered the significance of how the theory of repression has enhanced treatment, especially with regard to working with transference. I conclude that repression is fundamental to modern clinical technique and to the history, concepts and theoretical bases for psychoanalysis. Truly a cornerstone.


Billig, M. (2000) Freud’s Different Versions of forgetting “Signorelli”.  Int. J. Psychoanal., (81)(3):483-498

Billig, M. (1999). Freudian repression: Conversation creating the unconscious. Cambridge University Press.

Bion, W. R. (Ed.). (2013). Attention and interpretation: A scientific approach to insight in psycho-analysis and groups (Vol. 4). Routledge.

Blum, H. (2003) Repression, transference and reconstruction International Journal of Psychoanalysis (84) (3) pp. 497-503

Cohen, J.  & Kingston, W. (1984) Repression Theory: A New Look at the Cornerstone International Journal of Psychoanalysis (65) pp. 411-22

Freud, S. (1995). The Freud Reader. (Ed. P. Gay) United Kingdom: Vintage.

Frosh, S. (2012). A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Does your work have meaning? Is it meaningful?

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Does your work have meaning? Is it meaningful? And do you think those two things are the same, or different? Who remembers Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO, claiming his firm did “God’s work”? Does your work embrace something spiritual? I ask, because I am starting the literature review for my university dissertation and I am looking at doing some research that fits into the fields of Employee Engagement and/or the Meaningfulness of Work. This is likely to be the first in a series of pleas to help me get that work done, by filling in a survey that once it has Ethics Approval, will appear on my LinkedIn account. 

It is a subject that is important to me because I am not sure that work ever had much meaning for me. It had a purpose, definitely, and I was very motivated to be as good at it as I could be, and to be rewarded for doing it. I am not convinced that is the same as either meaning, or meaningfulness. In the last ten years of my career in the City, I had a number of managerial roles. I wonder what answers I would have got in those insufferable semi-annual reviews, if I had explored meaning with my teams, instead of pointless KPIs, and unsubtle applications of verbal carrots and sticks. 

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I am a fan of Alain de Botton’s ‘School of Life’. In a recent promotional email, they suggested that the two ingredients that make up a fulfilled life are love and work. Freud is said to have remarked that “love and work are the cornerstones of humanness”. Unless, the School suggests, we have a found a vocation – a form of work that is both enjoyable and meaningful – our existence will be directionless and hollow. But does attention to one of these ingredients diminish the other? I remember looking at my sales teams and wondering about their sense of meaning. 

Individually, most of them shared my view of us as hamsters on an ever-spinning wheel, going nowhere, but unwilling to get off because meaningless work still met the needs we had, which was usually a mortgage and school fees. So that, as I understood it, gave people purpose (be diligent, don’t get sacked), but was a long way from meaning. This year has seen many of us standing in our doorways clapping NHS workers. We have talked about ‘’heroes’ amongst essential, but often low-paid workers. Perhaps we are all being asked to recalibrate meaning of work. 

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The academic literature on Employee Engagement and on Motivation is lengthy and deep. Meaning at Work and meaningfulness is a younger field, perhaps a quarter of a century, and offers more scope for new and innovative research. One researcher wrote that “the meaning of work literature is still experiencing its adolescence” (Rosso et al, 2010). Is it important? In a paper published in the Journal of Career Assessment in 2012, Steger et al asserted that “meaningful work is a good predictor of desirable work attitudes like job satisfaction and a better predictor of absenteeism from work than job satisfaction.” It seems that if you want people to be happy at their job and show up, it’s more important that they find meaning in it, than that they enjoy it.

I am interested in seeing if there are gender differences to meaning at work; if the age cohort is important, and what the correlation is, if any, between earnings and meaningfulness. Perhaps meaning will have been impacted or enhanced by the pandemic-induced WFH culture? I recently spent time with a former boss of mine and we found ourselves talking about how little meaning our roles had had, albeit using slightly different language. What was interesting to me, with a research hat on, was that we had had big roles, some status, insofar as status is conferred by a title, and we were very highly paid. 

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What is meaning, then? And meaningfulness? All research refers back to Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning” in 1946. He went on to found logotherapy – a meaning-centred school of psychotherapy. He wrote that “I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche.” That said, I have found no evidence of anyone paraphrasing Descartes’s “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”, with “I work, therefore I am”. 

Consider, are work hours growing? Is work a greater share of our lives? Has the pandemic further eroded work boundaries? Does that mean it is more or less meaningful? What happens to colleagues with different views on the meaning of work? Do we need to organise so that more like-minded people work together, or seek diversity? 

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In 2010 Rosso et al published ‘On the Meaning of Work’. The importance of the subject and the paper was “it moves beyond hedonic perspectives of work behaviour to deeper considerations of purpose and significance….and eudemonic aspects of wellbeing”. (Eudemonia is an Aristotelian philosophy that a ‘full’ life is governed by reason). They found the distinction between meaning and meaningfulness: Meaning describes a type of meaning which is attributable to work, whereas meaningfulness was characterised by the amount of significance attached to it. This built upon the work of Pratt and Ashforth (2003), who had suggested meaning may not confer meaningfulness, and that ‘significance’ was the determinant of meaningfulness.

Other research has built on Rosso et al’s work that Meaning has four sources: the self, others, the work context and spirituality. Given that “a person’s self-concept is malleable”, literature exploring the self as a source of meaning is further sub-divided into values, motivations and beliefs about work. I think the example of the Timpson business would be valuable for research given its strong commitment to employing people who have criminal records and are rebuilding their lives. 

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This is important. Values may be the most irreconcilable issue with work. Perhaps a deeply politically sensitive teacher would feel they simply could not teach in a private school. Motivations are likely to be divided between extrinsic (pay, titles, status) and intrinsic (self-esteem, doing something worthwhile) and beliefs about work are likely to be more organisational, and relates to how ‘central’ the role is to the worker’s life. In the world of deeper interest in Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG investing, as well as Organisational Citizenship Behaviour (OCB), this is becoming increasingly significant for recruitment. 

Meaningfulness is something that has been studied across what are collectively known as the ‘caring professions’ and also the priesthood. What caring does in terms of psychic attrition (especially things like end of life care) as well as giving a positive boost from caring and helping, are still not well understood, but it may be that low pay in many of these roles is a function of the worker’s desire for meaningfulness in that role, making them vulnerable to exploitation. I am tempted to try and research that. My son’s girlfriend works in mental health nursing, with an autism specialisation. It’s skilled, it’s socially valuable, it clearly is meaningful to her and her colleagues, but is it rewarded appropriately and does the meaningfulness make the workers less demanding in pay negotiation? 

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Theorists propose that people see work as either i) a job (a focus on material outcomes) ii) a career (a focus on organisational structure and progress/status) or iii) a calling (a focus on work fulfilment – the work is an end in itself). Meaning that does not come from the self comes from either i) coworkers ii) leaders iii) groups and communities or iv) family. Combinations probably lead to enhanced meaningfulness, but whether they are additive or multiplicative needs further study. 

In a 2016 MIT Sloan Management Review paper, Bailey and Madden concluded that meaningfulness is personal not institutional, which begs questions of why should firms be bothered by the research. It remains to be tested whether meaningfulness is a constant or fluctuates, but their research noted that meaningfulness is rarely experienced in the moment, but often retrospectively. My work had a significant mentoring element. Although I question how much meaning my work had, I definitely have a sense of meaningfulness when I see ex-colleagues doing well in their careers, or if they call me now to ask for some advice and counsel. 

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However, in 2018 the same authors wrote about the ‘Five Paradoxes’ associated with meaningfulness, the most pertinent one for me given my Burnout experience was “deeply meaningful work can lead to poor outcomes for employee wellbeing” ie it unhealthily intrudes on personal lives. I am sure most of the people I know, and who will read this have a view on meaning at work and on meaningfulness. Many of those views will be cynical, sceptical or simply think it irrelevant – work is simply a contract between employer and employee which exchanges labour for reward. 

I understand that, but in an era where we will live longer, and almost certainly have to work longer, even if we don’t particularly want to, I think this is an important field. I would love to hear some views and I end with a repeat of my earlier plea: When I design my research experiment and get the Ethics approvals, please support me by filling in the survey. Thank you. Burnsie.

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Has lockdown made you angry? Or angrier?

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Back in the early days of lockdown, as March became April, the first articles appeared about how it might change our world. Initial thoughts were inspiring, considered and considerate. We were going to be more aware of the environment. We were going to value the utility of workers. We were going to pay some in the ‘front-line’; not merely clap for them. We were going to appreciate those doing the dirtiest labour, and be especially grateful if they had come to these shores, to escape from a war-torn home or an economic collapse. We were going to slow down, both activities and thoughts. We were going to smell the coffee and a lot else besides. 

As the six-month mark approaches of a world adjusted to the impact of coronavirus, it seems to me to be a good time to take an emotional temperature check. For many, this has been a difficult time. Personal liberties have been affected. Some have been forced into unwelcome shared living arrangements. Others have been forced to deal with an imposed solitude. Still more of us, tragically, are grieving. Grief comes to us all and there is no universal approach to dealing with its impact, but forced into funeral non-attendance, and in many cases, unable to say final goodbyes, means the collective weight of this nation’s grieving seems heavier than usual, notwithstanding the sinister terminology of ‘excess deaths’. 

Based on my far from large sampling, which is definitely not widely representative and appropriate for extrapolations, I sense that all that communal goodwill which seemed to be a feature of early lockdown, has become a bubbling fresh anger. An international, widespread anger. Potentially, a very disturbing anger. It may be that being at home, often alone, for longer means more time spent in social media echo-chambers, which skews moods and temperament. Nonetheless, I have been reminded that Gogol claimed that without anger ‘not much can be said,’ because ‘only in anger is the truth uttered.’ 

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In a slightly different context, Malcolm Bull once wrote these words in a LRB article, “Over the past decade it has become commonplace to claim that the world is divided between the passionless few in whose interests it is run and an angry multitude whose interests are ignored.” The description “angry multitude” is what has been on my mind.

I recently read about how Sweden is becoming prey to angry right wing political movements. Sweden is generally perceived as liberal and consensus supporting. It has adopted a policy to the virus that is libertarian and akin to ‘herd immunity’ that most nations have eschewed. Generally personal liberties are respected. So why all the anger? A couple of Fridays ago, a large riot broke out in Malmo after apparent far-right sympathisers burned a Koran in an immigrant suburb. Violence, race inspired or otherwise, has already been called Sweden’s “second pandemic”. 

Sweden has witnessed over 200 shootings and 24 deaths as the collateral damage of this collective angry psyche. In what may be the very appropriately named Gothenburg suburb, Angered, which has a large immigrant population, criminal gangs now control people movement thanks to their own roadblocks. Interior Minister, Mikael Damberg commented “it’s not really economics or taxes that are the main sources of conflict in Swedish politics – values, identity, crime that is where the debate is”. 

In the US of course, it is government strategy to fuel identity differences. We need reminding that all humans share 99% of genes and that only 1% of our genes impact our individual differences. The US President blithely talked about “great patriots” when people attacked the BLM protest rallies held after the luckless black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times as he attempted to get into his own car. 

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I am not going to identify with Trumpian patriots or BLM activists but to try to understand the intensity of the anger. Sure, group processes, as any psychologist will tell you, cause more extremes of behaviour and sentiment than any individual would feel, as individuals ‘group identify’, but where does this deep-seated and now, murderous antipathy come from? Yes, there is manipulation by political leaders for their own ends but the underlying anger and hatred is appalling, or intriguing, depending on your view. Anger is contagious. One wonders at how the participants in the rallies will react when their activity, much captured by cameras, is played back to them.

The supporters of ‘law and order’ might argue that protests inflame and incite. Alas, few people who have read any history cannot have failed to note that protesters of whichever hue, generally have history shine a favourable light upon them. And importantly, to protest requires huge courage, often putting bodies at risk of physical harm. It is not just lockdown UK that I sense has become angrier. Far more profound anger and resentment is behind most of the collective mood in Belarus and in Hong Kong.

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In the UK, I watch Anti-vaccers and Anti-maskers etc. making their own protests. The “if you are not with us, you are against us” attitude that affects Extinction Rebellion intrigues me. The Times has (unhelpfully?) published a Brazilian study that suggests that people inclined to be anti-mask and anti-vaccine are sociopaths, and have the dark trinity of personality traits including narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism. Whatever position one takes on these issues, we should still be happy to think Voltaire-like, and disagree, but defend the right to express contra-opinion. 

As I thought about whether collective anger is rising, which often leads to poor outcomes, I started to think more about what anger is and whether it was a bad thing. I am getting more interested in it. I have changed my view about the need for it to be expressed. Venting anger often allows it to subside. In many cases, it disappears. The short period of inflammation is doused by exposure, rather than given fresh oxygen. Is it a clinical syndrome, rather than an emotion linked to mental disorders? My dictionary says it is “hot displeasure, often involving a desire for retaliation”. Angrier is to be “excited with anger, to be inflamed”.  

Aristotle defined it as “a desire, accompanied by pain, for apparent revenge in response to an apparent insult to oneself or one’s own from persons who ought not to insult one.” Do revenge and retaliation have a legitimate role in society or one’s personal life? Socrates insists that we should never return wrong for wrong, injury for injury. Socrates was not commanding his followers to turn the other cheek, but a thinker reminding his friend Crito of the conclusion of many arguments they had shared: the urge to hit back is demeaning and harmful to anyone who succumbs to it. 

Seneca took the view (‘De Ira’ or ‘On Anger’) that anger is the only emotion that can, occasionally, impact a whole nation.  ‘No entire people has ever burned with love for a woman, no whole state has set its hope on money or gain; ambition seizes individuals one by one; only fury plagues whole communities at once.’ He had in mind vengeance against an enemy. I wonder if the virus has become our unseen enemy and anger, which we recognise is a feeling that rises within us, is bubbling up. Our collective psyche is affected; we sense a change in us, a shortness of temper, an irritability. 

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I read about a young waitress who had returned to work and was working intensively thanks to the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. She reflected, not on being able to earn some money, or on the pleasure of working with customers again, but on how a customer had been rude to her and complained about the speed of service. What possesses a man, alas it was a man, to be rude to a staff member rather than be grateful that the establishment was open, and happy that it was full enough for him to have to wait a little to be served?

As part of my psychotherapy work, I shall be involved in an Infant Observation seminar group. I will think about anger as expression in a neonate and infant. I think of it as innate rather than learned, so it has a purpose. We need something like anger as part of our ‘fight or flight’ stimuli. When I was growing up, children were expected to be much more ‘seen and not heard’. Tantrums were unwelcome. Anger and frustration, however clumsily and inarticulately expressed was a ‘bad thing’ and ‘bad behaviour’ and usually invited a punishment. In other words, a sanction on top of a punishment, as the original cause of the anger was still not resolved.

When I was a parent I expected my children to be ‘well behaved’ and in a post-smacking world, used whatever means I could to coerce them into behaving. I now realise that much of what drove my approach was about the desire to have other adults compliment my wife and I on our good parenting, rather than paying attention to my children’s own needs. Anger is a protest and, especially for the young, is about not being listened to. Not being heard is a key anger-catalyst, as I imagine most racial minorities, physically or mentally disabled people and non-heterosexual beings might agree. I did not read many parenting books, perhaps I should have done, but I wonder how many lead with the need to listen to your child. 

If a child is not heard, they learn to internalise anger – the “what’s the point?” attitude to life, which affects all their adult relationships. It is likely to lead to passive-aggressive behaviour to “get back” at people, without telling them why, or being hostile and critical openly. Even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it. And this particular feeling is precisely what the anger has contrived to camouflage. In other words, it is reactive, and often it is reacting to fear. 

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I learned a little about the physiological effect of anger. One of the hormones the brain secretes during anger arousal is norepinephrine, experienced by the organism as an analgesic. So, we numb ourselves when confronted by the threat of physical or psychological pain. This may partly explain why our decision making is often so poor when we are angered. It seems that when we cannot comfort ourselves through self-validation, we solve by attempting to invalidate others.

Anger often makes us feel powerful, thanks to the production of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. It raises our cardiac output and raises blood glucose levels. This helps us to address our deepest doubts about ourselves. It is little wonder that it can end up controlling us. The psychoanalytic and Freudian point of view saw that anger was frequently turned inward. Freud thought that was what depression really was, but he was less forthcoming about the sources of anger. However, he thought that aggression was an inbuilt drive. He referred to it as Thanatos, sometimes called the ‘death instinct’. It can be turned inwards, and leads in extremis to suicide, or outward to repel something that is perceived as a threat to our self. 

In Jung’s “The Phenomenology of the Self” he highlighted “the shadow”, which is the unknown and dark side of one’s personality. This part of ourselves is instinctive, irrational and primitive. Its impulses are lust, power, greed, envy, rage and of course, anger. He believed that psychological health was what was achieved when one could recognize and integrate the shadow aspect of our self. In other words, living with anger, understanding it has a value, but not being subject to it, is one outcome of individuation, on the road to self-actualisation, which is the process of being our best self. Anger is often the catalyst for great deeds. As any sportsman or woman would highlight, the “I’ll show you” response to a non-selection, or a journalist’s criticism, can often be very powerfully used as a positive motivator.

So, I started this sensing that we are in an angrier place, with collective anger levels turning up. If that is true, it can lead to poor outcomes and that was my initial concern. Now, I am thinking more about the importance of anger, and also that anger expressed is often preferable to anger repressed. I think about protests in the streets, and I think about people I know, some of whom are perceived as ‘angry’ and others whose almost unnatural calm, means I am starting to see them through fresh, slightly concerned, eyes. I think about my upbringing and about how I raised my children. Anger is both an intrinsic part of human nature and an asset to society when there is fighting to be done.

The questions are:

Are you angry? Angrier? And do you acknowledge it may come from a position of fear? Are we all angrier now? And is that a bad thing?

Dating and Desires now

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Seduction and disguise. Dating and desire.

Sexuality defines us in healthy and essential ways. It is said that ‘there can be no sexuality without anxiety’. Repressing desire is unhealthy. Last weekend the FT carried an article by Madison Darbyshire in which she described how her love life was ‘flourishing’ under lockdown. At the same time, a psychotherapist friend of mine was discussing what happens to desire in these circumstances. The world is fairly familiar with Freud’s core ideas, especially that sexual repression and denial can be damaging mentally. Sexual theory was what he regarded as his most important work. We thought that post lockdown, more candour and less inhibited behaviour might be noticeable. 

For Freudians, human behaviour is driven by the ‘pleasure principle’. How much pleasure is there for a society in lockdown? He claimed that sexual desires were controlled by the ‘reality principle’ ie conforming to socially acceptable behaviour. Put another way, unbridled pleasure is repressed by the reality principle. It is the clash between Eros (sexual desire, intimacy and love) and Thanatos (death and the fear and attraction of death). It gets buried in the unconscious, where we defend ourselves from revealing our true selves. My friend and I think that is being exacerbated by current conditions. 

Darbyshire claims a surge in ‘dating’ in the remote, lockdown world. She describes shared drinks, shared movies and shared card games. She notes that it has upended the expression ‘to date’. She quotes some Tinder statistics. ‘Conversations’ on the site are up 20% since mid-February, and on 29 March, it set a new record for ‘one day swipes’. 

Dates, it seems, are now ‘planned with Zoom’. They are time limited, to satisfy the sharing of one drink. If it goes well, the Zoom time-clock is re-set and a second drink is poured and consumed. I liked her observation that “online dating has become anything but impersonal. A conversation with someone sitting in their kitchen, living room or bedroom is intimate in a way that a first drink in a bar can never be.”

Can video chatting stay exciting? It seems, so far, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. There is some discovery of the multi-layers of two personalities. Alain de Botton’s School of Life has addressed dating at a distance in its promotional materials. Much of the School’s work is about conversations, about communications and about connection. It goes way beyond the intimate and personal spheres; more a manifesto for a better world. But in addressing dating, the point is made, “if a date is at heart an audition for emotional capacities required for the success of a long-term relationship, the real purpose of conversation must be to try to understand the deep self of the other person”. 

Now, before we address the psychoanalytic challenge of whether any of us are comfortable knowing our own ‘deep self’, this seems to me to perfectly segue from Darbyshire’s article. The School of Life even sells ‘dating cards’ with examples of questions to ask. I quite like this premise. A couple of examples: “who would you like to go back and apologise to – and what for?” And, “what are the main points you would like to be covered in a speech at your funeral?”

Tasty fresh oysters with sliced lemon on cutting board. Aphrodisiac food for increasing sexual desire.  stock photo

This is something of a refresher for me. In my online dating experiences, shortly after I divorced, I became used to an almost formulaic timetable. Everything was lust/desire led. Sexual compatibility was the starting point for a possible emotional connection. A reversal from my pre-marital dating experiences.  The ‘are we, or are we not’ establishment of sex potential was concluded by date 2, and some time later the momentum shifted from the physical to more emotional connection. I thought I may have met some unusually direct potential partners, but a number of my friends had similar experiences. 

I very much enjoyed the whole experience, but wearied of it when I realised that even those suggesting they “only wanted some fun and some company” really were looking for much more emotional depth and engagement.  I was too soon out of the most significant relationship I ever expect to have. Emotional engagement was beyond my capacity to share then. But I like what Alain de Botton is driving at with his cards for dating, and Ms Darbyshire’s points. Perhaps old-fashioned words and phrases like “Stepping out” and “courting” will enjoy a revival? 

Darbyshire thinks that the ‘first date is a video date’ model, may survive the end of quarantining. It is cheaper, more time efficient, intimate, but easy to leave. I think she may be right. That is not to suggest that physical contact will be unfashionable. Which brings me to ‘desire’. My psychotherapist friend and I both think that there is likely to be a shift in behaviours, if quarantining gets relaxed. I don’t really like the war analogies for coronavirus, but the longer it goes on, the more one might expect the decadence of the Roaring Twenties, and the pick up in affairs and the collective sexual appetites of the late Forties. 

My friend said that she herself was finding that her mind was much more filled with erotic thoughts, and that she felt the lockdown was stirring her unconscious. She thought that that might be true more widely. The collective unconscious is being stirred. She was sure that her id was wresting control from her ego. She was more in touch with her primary drives. For Freud, of course, sexual drive is at the core of his approach to uncovering the archaeology of the mind. He worked through stages of psychosexual development and asserted that even neonates were sexual creatures. 

From the outset, the baby sucking at the teat is establishing a bond. This is the oral stage. The infant feeds and pleasures by engaging with the mother’s nipple. The mother becomes the first love object replacing the breast as the first object of desire. Films of infants’ faces after they have suckled and sated their needs, show remarkable similarity of expression to an adult male’s face, when he is sexually sated, and has ejaculated.

The oral phase is replaced by the anal phase. The child has its first sense of mastery ie of the anal orifice. Admired for the timing of his or her defecation, it has an effect on adult attitudes to tidiness and to messiness. The use of the disparaging, he or she “is so anal” is quite common when describing adult contemporaries. The phallic phase follows. Despite its name it applies to boys and to girls. It is a period of fascination with one’s own genitalia and introduces Freud’s ideas on the Oedipus Complex and the Electra Complex. This is the realm of castration anxiety and penis envy. 

Much of his work here has been discredited, but the ideas have remarkable durability. It is a time of separation anxiety and for most children coincides with leaving their mother at the school gate and how they manage that challenge. The ego becomes trained to follow the ‘reality principle’ and to control the ‘pleasure principle’. Conformity applies, social conventions are followed.

Latency follows. This is when there is acceptance of the mother’s place in the father’s affections. The Oedipal drives become contained. A period of relative indifference to one’s sexuality, until a blossoming into the genital phase, a resolution of transitioning from latency to mature sexuality, when a love object to replace the primary caregiver (mother/father) is found. Some people get stuck in the latent phase. This manifests itself in adult ‘immaturity’ and an inability to form fulfilling, lasting relationships. 

I can observe the impact of desire and frustrated desire on my own family. One daughter is fortunate enough to be quarantined with her boyfriend. The other has had to endure my flatmate skills, whilst not being able to be with her man, who was very ill with the virus. My son is isolated and has the frustration that his girlfriend lives nearby, but as a NHS worker, sharing a home with a front-line nurse, is very high risk. He is having to manage without seeing her. I wonder what it is doing in other homes? Is it even worse for adults together, but sharing small living spaces with their young adult children?

I see changing habits on Instagram and other social media. Some of the content today is much more about exercising the ‘look at me’ gene, typically associated with actors and performers. I think that this has shifted in just four weeks. An academic at my university used to post pictures of sunsets and sunrises from her South London vantage point, and I ‘followed’ her. Now she has taken to displaying her ballet dancing skills. She videos herself doing very demanding stretch exercises and steps, attired in ever-briefer, tighter, dance and gym garments. I suspect this may be related to frustration. 

A former colleague posted a video of her skill in removing a pair of pyjama bottoms, by dragging one foot against her leg, whilst maintaining a handstand. Once free of the pyjamas, she is clad in quite a skimpy crop top and pants, and reveals a finely-toned body. Would these videos have been shared pre-COVID? My suspicion is that they would not.

My psychotherapist friend wanted to explore what desire and frustration was doing to us and to people we knew. She was interested to hear about how my playwriting partner and I share scripts, which we edit together, thanks to the wonder of googledocs. Her response was to suggest that we attempted to co-write an ‘erotic journal’. Would this relieve our desires and frustrations, or merely exacerbate them? It turns out, that there is a reason why writers think that writing about sex is the most difficult thing to do. There is an equally good reason why the ‘Bad Sex’ writing awards generate so much mirth. I have never worked with a couples’ therapist, or been a client of one, but I imagine this is an exercise they recommend.

Writing can allow fantasies to be expressed that may be too uncomfortable when said face to face, even to a loving partner; perhaps, especially to a loving partner. But for a loving couple the poor writing, or the tawdriness of it, can be an excuse for laughter, which is often a catalyst for intimacy. Sexual fantasies alarm us; they often include ‘perversions’. Having fantasies does not mean we need to act them out, but they can be a form of relief. I learned that any sort of erotic writing is painfully difficult and repeatedly asks questions of oneself. I am not good at it! 

I mentioned it to a couple of friends. One lives on an island off the British mainland and his lover is in London. He almost has a double frustration. Urban dwellers can fantasise about lovers breaking lockdown, and stealing some passion, however inappropriate that might be, but he can hardly dream about his lover breaking quarantine and dashing to the coast and swimming into his arms! His remoteness made his need for intimacy all the greater. I doubt he will write though.

It is not as if it is a new thing. There is precedent for writing to work as relief. In the 1830’s, well-to-do translator, Sarah Austin, fell in love with the author of the book she was translating, a German Prince, Hermann von Puckler-Muskau. They did not meet for years and by then the ardour had drained, but for years, he was the release for her own sexual frustration. She told him, after a mutual acquaintance had been less than flattering about her beauty, that “all that is beneath the petticoat is worth one thousand times more than the rest”; her prospective lover would be pleased by what he found “in the dark”. It is assumed that she was not referring to the lighting in the room!

When describing her womanly qualities, “I like riding full gallop”, had nothing to do with equestrianism, and for emphasis and understanding, “what rapture it would be to minister in any way to the pleasures of a man who loved me”. She exuded sexual adventurism through her pen, “in your bed, I should be more glorious if I could invent a new pleasure for you”, and “Cleopatra herself could not exceed me as a bedfellow”. 

Recensione: "Eyes Wide Shut" | IL BUIO IN SALA
Eyes Wide Shut

In Kubrick’s 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is improbably in a loveless, sexless union with Nicole Kidman. It is based on Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” or “Dream Story”. I enjoyed it when it was released, but I wonder if it is going to be better when I watch it next. It feels like a film for these times. The themes are desire, inequality, class distinction, and plague. The plutocrats who run and attend the orgy, cover themselves in gowns and masks to obscure their identity. Women wear masks but not much else. The costumes have been likened to those worn by C14 doctors treating the bubonic plague. The strange bird beak masks were used so that thyme and spices could be stuffed into the beaks to obstruct the airborne transmission of disease. The orgy is about being able to satisfy desire without emotional connection. Cruise’s doctor protagonist is literally unmasked, because he cares – in his case, for the prostitute, Domino. It was set to reflect its era, and the plague of the time, AIDS, but I think we might find fresh relevance in it. Again, it asks about what happens to desire, when it is frustrated.

In an article for London Review of Books, Adam Shatz (Dec, 2010), wrote that “the philosophy of desire” was born in 1969. Gilles Deleuze, a philosopher, and Felix Guattari, a psychoanalyst and political activist, co-wrote and thought that Freud was wrong in seeing desire rooted in absence, the fantasisation and the fetishisation of a missing object, namely the mother’s breast. They published ‘Anti-Oedipus’ to refute Freud, and posited that desire had no limits; it passes through everyone without belonging to anyone. But surely, in a quarantine era, that means that passing through everyone can only mean repression, when quarantined. Back to Freud, and the consequences of that repression. 

Roger Scruton, the English philosopher wrote a book called “Sexual Desire”, much of which under-appreciated or under-recognised homosexual desire, and took the opportunity to critique Foucault, who wrote the “History of Sexuality”. Reviewing Scruton, the essayist John Royle (1986) wrote “the Utopian vision of sexual liberation has degenerated in practice into a set of hedonistic precepts that hardly constitute a moral system at all. This is the ‘terrain vague’ of our sexual life, the habitat of Eros”. Of course, a writer is a dreamer, finding outlets for his or her unconscious desires. I wonder if that is what has written these words for me.

Anyway, how is everyone getting on? 

Who’s Zooming Who?

“Zoom” class

A little over a week ago a seminar leader at a British Psychoanalytic Association meeting that I was attending said, “we may have to go online, to Zoom our next meeting”. “Zoom?” I asked, perplexed. “It’s like Skype, only with better encryption”, she replied rather airily. “Oh”, I thought and kept it private that not only had I never heard of Zoom, but though I had heard of Skype, I was a Skype-virgin.

Within days my university was suggesting that next semester’s lectures and seminars would be online and would probably use Zoom. My own personal analysis sessions came to an end and after a couple of telephonic sessions over WhatsApp, were initiated over a Zoom connection from the start of this week. We have had three sessions. Two went well, but one was no good because she could not hear me, even though the video worked. I had changed nothing and I checked various mute and settings buttons but to no avail. This may be a precursor of a lockdown lifestyle. Where once I would have inconsiderately cursed, asked a younger, brighter colleague what to do, then called the anonymity of a ‘help desk’ at work; now I have to figure it out for myself. It may be a good thing.

I saw a wonderful twitter comment

Jenna Omeltschenko (@JenChenko) Tweeted:

Last week I didn’t even know what Zoom was and now I live here. I live in the Zoom”.

and I started to think about what it could do for me. I have one child in Manchester, but she is fortunate that she is sharing her living arrangement with the boyfriend. I share a flat with my eldest and we have been keeping ourselves grounded for a while now, because her boyfriend is unwell with the fever and coughing symptoms. No damage to our sanity yet. My son is not so fortunate. He went into early self isolation because his flatmate was coughing, although appears not to have been afflicted and has gone home to the US, subsequently. As a result he has not seen his girlfriend for several days and is now resigned to weeks, perhaps longer, alone.

I was worried about what that might mean for his mental wellbeing and so we started a regular daily call. We decided, as new Zoom users, to schedule our own meeting together so that he had some human face time. As it is, he and some former schoolfriends had used the ‘houseparty’ app to get their connection a little more ‘real’, and so, he has not been totally starved. However, we thought that a ‘family meeting’ might work and I asked his mother to join in. My eldest was busy working, and on her own conference call, but this afternoon we had a four-way video meeting via Zoom – and very enjoyable it was too. Given how technophobic both my ex and I tend to be, this represented a huge triumph and I could tell she was as chuffed that it all worked, as I was.

When I have my psychoanalysis sessions, my analyst and I greet each other cordially over the video screen, but then turn the cameras off and I start my free associating and she provides the occasional interpretation. However, the seminar I did with my fellow students at the BPA last week was very interactive; having multiple contributors is both a benefit and a distraction. I had not yet worked out how to display all the speakers at once on split screens and so, I was only seeing the individual speaker pop up in front of me each time. But I have cracked this now.

Given how psychoanalysis is a window into the darkened interior of our unconscious, this window on window on window structure had me thinking about all sorts of implications and insights. How would Freud have regarded it? What Zoom does, in that context, is gaze in on people’s interiors, psychically and literally. I gather that Zoom veterans put up some sort of virtual background to their screen so that they do not reveal the untidiness of their home, or the datedness of their decor! But how we react to the gaze of the camera and to seeing several contacts at once, including our own face is different to how we would be in a meeting in an office where we have little idea what our own expression is revealing. We reveal ourselves to ourself in a way we cannot in the physical world.

It will not be the only device or tool that becomes familiar to us in the current circumstances. We may find we cannot live without it, just as once we would never have felt we needed social media. In an unrelated event, a friend and ex-colleague messaged me today via Facebook. He had decided to make a weekly connection with his many friends for a sort of ‘check-in’. It is a very good idea. The busyness of our lives means we often feel we do not have time to interrupt others, and that they may not welcome it, but time is going to stretch now, and filling it with connection, and small gestures of kindness and sociability will be good for all parties.

Who's Zoomin' Who? - Wikipedia
Who’s Zooming Who – Aretha

Anyway, one of the keys to enjoying living is to keep being open to new experiences and to keep learning. Here’s to Zoom(ing). I shall be using a good deal more. Let me know if you have had a positive or a negative Zoom experience. I am going to “live in the Zoom”.

Contemplating secrets: On seeing ‘Parasite’ and ‘Nora’

Scenting danger … Parasite.

What if – it didn’t have to be like this?

When your favourite film reviewer, step forward Mr Kermode, tells the members of his Church that a film is “perfect”, I take note. In a subsequent podcast he described it as “Shakespearian”, so now I was in that ‘more-than-intrigued’ mode. But, we all know critics sometimes are more impressed by their own sensibilities and do not always share our tastes. However, when a good friend, whom I met at the National to develop playwriting skills, and has a great sense of dramatic, cinematic and musical taste, tells you to go and watch it, you decide it must be worth seeing. Oh, and it bagged a few Oscars.

I went to see ‘Parasite’. And if you have been humming and hawing about it, and tend to avoid foreign language films, put your prevaricating to one side and get to the cinema. It is excellent. It has menace, but humour. It has satire, but authenticity. It has some modest sex, but is about human psychic connections. It is about class and inequality, but also aspiration and not resentment. Few of the characters are really likeable, but all the performances are excellent. And it keeps itself lodged in your mind, hours and days after watching it. This, I often regard, is the mark of a good film. Memorable, thought-provoking, and a little quirky.

It is the story of the impoverished Kim family, who by means of artifice and opportunism find roles working for the very affluent Park family. The Kim offspring become tutors, the father becomes the chauffeur and the mother becomes installed as housekeeper. Each role that they inherit requires more secrecy, more lies and increasingly dubious means of achieving their goals. Once they have elevated themselves, they find their actions, their past, and their social milieu threatening to haunt them. Protecting what they have becomes overwhelming and their moral sensibilities disappear. I will try not to spoil any more, but the significance of smells, fragrances and odours relative to secretive behaviours is brilliantly done.

I had had a bit of a cultural infusion this weekend because the previous evening I had been at the Young Vic to watch, ‘Nora: A Doll’s House’, which is Stef Smith’s remarkable update and adaptation of Ibsen’s great play. In this play there are three Noras, and two appear one hundred years apart (1919 and 2019) and the other in the late ‘sixties. Three women, but one Nora story. And their spouses and key social interactions are all repeated, albeit adapted by the era in which they appear. Nora, for love we think, has resorted to fraud to sustain her family and her social position. Her husband’s attitude to a worker he manages, triggers a blackmail threat and only the intervention of a long standing but unfamiliar old friend can possibly redeem the situation. Without any more spoiling, after all the original is quite well known, this version casts men, marriage and the patriarchy in a poor light.

Nora: A Doll’s House
The secretive pull of money

And so I found myself thinking about the connections in these two very impressive works of art that I had enjoyed. It struck me that they are all about secrets. Specifically secrets about money. Money contaminates the spirit, infects the soul and ill-managed, can and often does lead to unanticipated, but dire outcomes. Secrets and Lies. Secrets and Money. Money and Lies. What do these combinations beget?

Of course, cinema got there way before and even has a brilliant production called “Secrets and Lies”. This was Mike Leigh’s brilliant mid-90’s riff on identity, when a middle class adopted optometrist decides to find her birth mother and discovers a downwardly mobile white woman attempting to hold together a dysfunctional family. If you had been that optometrist would you have wanted to declare that you had found out about your heritage or would you have been drawn into secrecy?

Secrets and Lies

But we all have secrets, do we not? Many, we keep for altruistic reasons, preferring not to wound others with the truth. It may be as shallow as “yes, you look lovely in that”, or “that meal was wonderful”, to something more profound and uncomfortable, but we filter truth. Filtering it is a good thing. In Freudian terms our ego is managing the drives of the id and often presents them in a much altered, diluted way for modern society’s sensibilities. In some senses we all live a lie.

And I wonder about generational views of secrets. In a world of social media it has become fashionable to mock ‘over sharing’, albeit if the sharing is somewhat carefully curated photographic evidence of a ‘perfect life’. And the same critics of ‘over sharing’ tend to reflect that older generations were burdened by not being able to talk about their experiences. War veterans are obvious examples, but the 1960’s Nora is one such character, as she admits to herself that she did not want to have her three children, but that her opportunities were limited and contraceptive pills were not yet available and abortion was illegal.

In this article I will risk being charged with ‘over sharing’. I wonder about that pre- contraceptive pill, pre-abortion generation of women and what they have trained themselves to keep from revealing i.e. their truths. But are these not just the same drives that persuade Parasite’s Kim family to infiltrate the Park family, as various highly qualified employees? Similarly, Nora’s motives are to keep her family together and to uphold their social standing, whilst her husband recovers from a period of illness and a dearth of income. The secrets are not inherently bad, but somehow the keeping of them is. It leads to lies, to protect secrets, and more and more unpalatable behaviours to protect from the risk of discovery.

We are practised in deluding others, but for no better reasons than we want others to see ‘our best selves’ and in many cases, we indulge in the necessity of deluding ourselves. When I started in the City I was struck by the confidence and style of many people working on the Stock Market floor. I envied them and I wanted some of whatever it was they had. I became attentive to modes of dress – Church’s shoes, double-cuff shirts, silk ties, and to conversational ticks. I could not join in the Henley conversation, or the Oxbridge references, and I realised I needed to learn more about horse racing, but I adapted. I thought about my speech patterns and choices of words. I may not have kept it a secret, but I certainly did not advertise my state comprehensive school education and my lack of university experience.

Talent and deception

The good news is that I was not sociopathic and I did not develop murderous tendencies, but I have always felt some sympathy for Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr.Ripley’, as played so brilliantly by Matt Damon, who wants to inhabit other social worlds, and ultimately chose to inhabit another’s identity. Ripley is a con-artist, but it is love of money and what he thinks it will buy him – status and social acceptance – that motivates his deceptions. They start small, but the secrets become overwhelming and lies are needed to hide the secrets until his solution is murder.

One of literature and film’s great deluders and keepers of secrets is Mr Micawber. In the new David Copperfield film he is brilliantly portrayed by Peter Capaldi. He attempts with his speech and his dress to affect some signs of gentility, but he is always and repeatedly undone. Despite his trappings and affectations he is undone by the smell of poverty. In ‘Parasite’ the inability to escape poverty’s odour is something that becomes a recurrent theme.

Mr Park likes that when Mr Kim drives him he ‘does not cross the line’ of over familiarity, but regrets that his personal fragrance leaks into the back seat and so invades his personal space. His son is the only member of the Park family to be suspicious of the Kims, as they acquire the roles in the household – an apparently unconnected quartet. He comments that they all smell the same. When Mr.Park is trying to describe what he can smell, he notes that it is the sort of smell one notices on the subway and his frivolous wife notes that she has not taken a subway in a very long time.

Result misery

Smell is part of identity, and these films, plays and books all deal with identity and the attempt to shape it and change it. Other wonderful examples include ‘Vanity Fair’, pretty much all of Dickens and ‘Les Miserables’ as Hugo’s hero cannot escape the taint of ‘Prisoner 24601’. We often aspire to create an identity for ourselves and desire to be in ‘better’ society, but it is the thought of having it exposed and of being dropped that creates the miseries of secrets, money and lies. I connect this with the work of psychologists Tversky and Kahneman, much of which is repeated in Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ book, which highlights loss aversion. It is especially sensitive in the realm of material wealth and social status. What we do not have we price more modestly than that which we fear will be taken from us.

I had a particular fear of redundancy once I had started work. When it came, after a 35 year career, it turned out to be a relief. That was only because something much worse had already happened to me. I was dismissed from a role that I enjoyed and thought I did well. The charge was ‘gross misconduct’. I can barely write or repeat that. At the time it seems likely I was suffering from burnout. I certainly kept my sense of work pressure secret, even when my wife told me my behaviour was ‘manic’.

Subsequently, I am certain I had a nervous breakdown. I have only very recently been able to admit that to myself. But it was all tied up with the importance (to me, at the time) of money/status and as I had reinvented myself, it became important to keep secrets. I understand the motivations of the Kims, I feel for Nora and her dilemmas, I know what Ripley felt when he thought that he was secretly despised for not being made of quite the ‘right stuff’. And I had a Micawber determination to make income and expenditure balance – and I was a little luckier than him.

In a world of growing inequality, it is important that writers and film makers keep asking us to see the worth in all strata of society and understand the pressures on people whose pretensions and affectations we are apt to ridicule. I thought about Freud and secrets. In 1866, shame descended upon the Freud family. Joseph Freud, Sigmund’s uncle, was sentenced to ten years in prison for dealing in counterfeit rubles. I imagine it was one of several events that interested his nephew in secrets, and what secrets were revealed by dreams. His writings refer to the ‘veil of secrecy’ and it may be that he realised that repressed memories, the source of anxieties, are in fact secrets from oneself.

Oh, and staying with Freud. Parapraxis or Freudian slips – I kept wanting to write Paradise and not Parasite when discussing the Oscar-winning film. I wonder what that reveals? How many secrets do you keep from your family or your partner? Is money a theme? And, do you have the dream of nakedness in a public space? – it is about being stripped of all affectation and all your secrets. It is absolute revelation. And few people want everything about themselves to be known!