Monday, September 6, 2010

Psychoanalysis and the Pursuit of Unhappiness

What's a psychoanalyst to do? His discipline was founded as a branch of medicine. Presumably, it offers either treatment or cure for problems that are labeled as illnesses. Its practitioners have most often been licensed psychiatrists or psychologists.

So, what's a psychoanalyst to do when he discovers that his technique neither treats nor cures? It does not relieve mental anguish; it does not reduce emotional stress; it does not heal mental illness; it does not help people to overcome depression.

When Freud concluded that psychoanalysis did not have a future as treatment, he recommended that it become a research tool. When Jacques Lacan discovered that the positive benefits that accrued to analytic patients could not have been caused by the the treatment, he declared that psychoanalysis was more like a stealth ideology and would better serve to acculturate and indoctrinate people.

The people who still practice psychoanalysis are the truest of the true believers. In some ways they must feel relieved that they no longer need to make excuses for clinical failures.

But then, how do you make a living? Or better, how do you continue to practice this form of stealth indoctrination? How do you lure new people into your lair when you cannot promise them anything resembling a cure?

One thing you can do is declare that the search for treatment and cure are myths or illusions that are only attainable by those who are not smart enough to know any better.

Let's say that you want to be happy; you want to be contented; you want to learn how to manage your relationships so you are no longer suffering from constant anguish; you want to overcome the crippling feelings of depression and demoralization and feel contentment, even, dare we say, happiness.

If you do, Adam Phillips, arguably the most articulate analyst in the English-speaking world, is going to tell you to get over your unrealistic aspirations. Don't you understand that happiness is an illusion foisted on us by consumer capitalism, and that if you set out to pursue it, as Thomas Jefferson famously prescribed, you are setting yourself up for disappointment? In fact, Phillips believes that if you pursue happiness you are merely setting yourself to fail. So much so that you must have a very powerful self-destructive impulse. Link here.

If Phillips is correct, then psychoanalysis will show you how to embrace your misery. It will help you to get moving with "the pursuit of unhappiness." And No, I did not make that up.

Phillips wrote all of this in the Guardian. His essay is not easy to read. He writes very well, but he also has an exceptional aptitude for obfuscation. People who have never immersed themselves in the world of European Freudian theory are going to be befuddled.

And that, after all, is the point. If a good psychoanalyst can persuade you that being confused is a sign of moral and intellectual superiority, he has done his job.

Phillips goes awry because he confuses happiness with pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction. Like a good Freudian he sees happiness in terms of the satisfaction of instincts and desires.

This allows him to opine that people who are cruel and sadistic can feel happiness. In truth, they can feel some level of gratification, but, in the absence of any moral sense, they cannot experience happiness.

If happiness, as Aristotle put it, involves having good character, and thus being fulfilled as a social being, then sadistic criminal behavior does put you on the path toward happiness.

According to Phillips happiness comes to us when we realize our desires, acquire the objects we lust after, and thus overcome the frustration inherent in not having everything we want.

He seems to believe that this is what people mean when they talk about the cure and treatment of mental anguish. If so, he is at the ready to announce that such a goal is radically unattainable.

If happiness is satisfaction, he suggests, then once we remove whatever obstacle is preventing us from attaining it, we ought to feel happy.

Freud called that the reality principle; it feeds into the notion that as a child grows up he learns to defer gratification of his needs and demands.

And yet, people go into therapy hoping to find happiness, or at least, to find more happiness than they have already found. If they manage to find some of it, Phillips says that this is "a lucky side effect," not something that is the goal or the end of the project.

I was interested to see Phillips using the phrase, "lucky side effect" because I recognized its origin immediately. Jacques Lacan first used the phrase to refer to the fact that, in his opinion, if  anyone ever gets well in psychoanalysis, it must be counted as a "lucky side effect" of treatment.

What he meant was deceptively simple. He was saying that psychoanalysis cannot take credit, cannot be counted as the cause, of any benefit its patients gain.

I find it strange that Phillips tries to slander happiness as a myth, thus with the charge of being unreal. After all, Freudian theory is nothing more than an attempt to show people that their lives, especially their motives, follow the contours of myth and fiction.

To be fair, Freudians take myths to be higher truths. Yet Freudians  would do well to refrain from denouncing other people for peddling myths.

If you still want to understand what Freud and Adam Phillips are getting at, stop thinking about human beings as social beings, and start thinking about them as fictional beings, about mythic figures like Oedipus.

Within the context of the Oedipus complex happiness means one and only one thing. In Freudian theory there is only one thing you want, only one thing you have ever wanted, and only one thing you will ever want: that is, to copulate with your mother. By the way, you can't have it.

If that is your template, then it makes sense to say that happiness is a myth, because if the only thing that will ever make you happy is to copulate with your mother, even if there were no external obstacles to doing it, you would, if you could do it, immediately be crushed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt.

If Freud and Phillips are right, then the normal human condition is frustration. You are never going to have what Freud thought was your heart's desire, so you are consigned to endless frustration, like another fictional character, Tantalus.

Psychoanalysts and their patients constitute a group-- actually, it is closer to a cult-- of true believers who believe that it is futile to pursue happiness. They have embraced their misery, and have fully grasped the ultimate tragedy of life. Thereby, they superior to the rest of us.

As you may know, the concept of happiness was not invented by Freud. Freud did manage to warp it beyond recognition, but the concept itself comes to us from Aristotle's ethics.

According to Aristotle happiness involved excellence. It was a quality that inhered in the performance of a task. You gain happiness when you improve your skill as a parent, a student, a physician, a manager, or a football player.

But it mostly concerns the development of your good character, of your being a pillar of the community, of being someone who others trust and admire and feel that they can rely on.

Happiness is about achievement and accomplishment. To follow the Freudian myth of humanoid existence, one would have to say that getting better at reading or writing was really nothing more than the illusion that you had broken through the incest taboo. Given that your superego is now going to punish your impertinence, the feeling is going to be impermanent.

Perhaps that is true of Freudians, but I see no reason why the rest of humanity should feel the same way.

I would repeat that happiness involves your fulfillment of you as a social being. It comprises your skill as a moral individual, as an individual of good character.

If you still want to pursue happiness, you should begin by getting over the notion that you are really a character in a myth or a fiction. Stop believing that you need to follow the script or that you have been cast in one or another role. Reality is not a frustration factory.

In truth, psychoanalysis is in the business of diminishing achievements by impugning motives. If you have won a tournament, received a promotion, or are generally liked and respected by your friends, psychoanalysis will say that you really want to slay your father and mount your mother.

Beneath the guise of being a paramedical helping profession psychoanalysis is really in the business of immiserating as many people as it can.

There we can agree with Adam Phillips.


sss said...

Isn't psychoanalysis an elitist thing of a bygone era?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Yes, of course, it is. And yet, the ideas still have some influence in some circles, and they need, in my view, to be answered.

Then again, the Guardian gave an awful lot of space to Adam Phillips to expound on something that should have been long gone.

I suspect that if some of us do not answer these arguments, before we know it, psychoanalysis will be coming back from the dead.

sss said...

Check this out

Appearantly pursuing happiness will make you unhappy, and vice versa!

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Anonymous said...

What utter hogwash. Disgusting diatribe by someone who doesn't have the slightest clue what he's talking about. I personally am going through psychoanalysis, and it's gone a tremendous way toward helping me heal. I feel like a brand new person in so many wonderful ways. Please, if you're seeking help, do not believe this small-minded author.

Unknown said...

I agree.

Unknown said...

I agree.