Saturday, June 21, 2014

Adam Phillips and the Story of Psychoanalysis

Strangely enough, Adam Phillips and I are in rough agreement about Freud and his enterprise.

Phillips is, the New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman explains, the most famous contemporary psychoanalyst. He has written a new book called Becoming Freud whose appearance corresponds nicely with the appearance of my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

Rothman is too nice to say it, but Phillips is writing hagiography, the life of a secular saint.

But, Rothman is correct to call it a salvage operation. Phillips is trying to rescue some bits and pieces of the Freudian enterprise from their current descent into desuetude:

[His book is] a revisionist history of Freud and his enterprise; its implicit goal, never stated but always clear, is to help us salvage the best parts of Freud’s work while leaving behind the rest—the outmoded theories and unwieldy jargon that make Freud a caricature rather than an intriguing thinker. 

Outmoded theories and unwieldy jargon… aren’t they the basis for the Freudian enterprise? Clearly, Phillips has set himself a daunting task.

As did I, Phillips does not recount the history of psychoanalysis. He tells its story, all the while identifying the story with Freud:

Anyway, [Philips] thinks, the most important story about Freud’s life is psychoanalysis—that’s the story Freud himself chose to tell the rest of us about our lives and his.

Of course, Freud himself was a central character in the story of psychoanalysis. He was the alpha analyst, the unmoved mover. To tell the story without talking about Freud makes it appear that Phillips is trying to hide something.

When I told the story, I did not belabor Freud’s biography, but I did not exclude it. After all, psychoanalysis was not merely an academic discipline. It was a clinical practice. It should answer for outcomes it produced for patients. We cannot hold it accountable without knowing something about what it did for Freud and what it did for his patients.

Being a psychoanalyst Phillips ignores all of that to focus on Freud’s desires. Nothing could be more Freudian. And yet, when you are consulting with a mental professional, would you prefer to know what he desires or to benefit from treatment.

Emphasizing desire is Freudian, but it is also a ruse, designed to deflect your judgment away from clinical outcomes.

Phillips explains it in his own way:

… whatever story we are telling, we are always also telling the story of our own wanting … at any moment in Freud’s life we can ask, encouraged and legitimated by his own work, what is Freud wanting from psychoanalysis? What is the pleasure he seeks? What is he doing it for and what is it doing to him? What about himself is he seeking to sustain and enjoy, and what would he prefer to ignore?

Here Phillips affirms a point I argued at great length in my book. Psychoanalysis was not so much about what it could do for the mentally ill. It was about what it could do for Freud.

Phillips and I agree that psychoanalysis is not about curing anyone of anything. His view, which I do not share, is that it is about sociability and communication.

Rothman summarizes the point:

If there’s a big idea in “Becoming Freud,” it’s that psychoanalysis is about communication—about what Phillips calls “sociability”—more than it’s about a cure. It’s a way of helping people speak for themselves (or of helping them figure out how they are already speaking). 

Unfortunately, this is not true.

Psychoanalysts and their patients do not communicate. The basis for treatment is the peculiar form of non-communication called free association.

Analysts are notably silent; they give their patients the silent treatment. This is traumatizing and has nothing to do with normal human communication.

Believing that thinking out loud allows you to communicate more effectively is an error. It might encourage you toward emotional incontinence and tactlessness, but it is an asocial non-link and cannot make you more sociable.

Yet, I agree with Phillips that the basis for the Freudian project lies in its wish to help people to recreate themselves as different kinds of beings. Since Freud believed that people were living in a fiction—the story of Oedipus—he wanted to help them to embrace that truth and to make themselves into better fictional characters.

Phillips explains that Freud discovered:

… just how ingenious and disturbing modern people had become as the unconscious artists of their own lives. It was their capacities for representation—for finding ways and means for making their desires known in however disguised or self-defeating forms; as dreams, or slips, or perverse and neurotic symptoms—that had impressed Freud … His patients, Freud realized, were working on and at their psychic survival, but like artists not like scientists; and their material was their personal history encoded in their sexuality. They were not empiricists, or only fleetingly; they were fantasists. Their adaptations were ingeniously imaginative, however painful; but they were stuck. Their symptoms were the equivalent of writer’s block, or rather, speaker’s block. Indeed, Freud was becoming their new kind of good listener, and their champion; someone who could get, who could make something of, their strange ways of speaking. Someone who, like a good parent, or a good art critic, could appreciate what they were up to, what they could make, and make a case for it.

I suspect that Phillips would agree with me that Freud wanted his patients to become better and more competent artists, to create themselves anew as characters in a strange new fictional world, a world that Freud himself had created.

Rothman explains that Phillips sees the story of psychoanalysis ending tragically. In that it merely replicates the story of Oedipus:

In fact, in Phillips’s view, the story of psychoanalysis has a tragic end. He thinks Freud was a victim of his own success. In the beginning, like a good critic, Freud let his patients own their mysteries. But, as psychoanalysis became an institution unto itself and developed its own rules and dogmas, analysts began to talk over their patients. 

By my rendering, that was not the end of the story. My book takes the next step and explains how the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan arrived on the scene in order to redeem Freud’s errors, to fulfill the theory and to transform a clinical enterprise into a full-blown pseudo-religion.

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