Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Last Psychoanalysis

Heaven knows how I missed this article, but miss it I did. For more than two decades I blissfully ignored Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article about the decline and fall of psychoanalysis. Specifically of Freudian psychoanalysis in New York City. Hmmm.

Normally, someone would have mentioned the piece to me, but alas, no one did.

As you know Gopnik is a fine writer. Therefore, when he presents a picture of his own psychoanalysis, one that he called one of the last psychoanalyses, it piqued more than my attention. After all, I wrote a book called The Last Psychoanalyst (available for purchase by clicking the link) a few years back and was more than happy to see that Gopnik had used a similar locution to describe his experience. He had been analyzed by one Max Grosskurth, one of the last New York Freudians, a man who had known Freud and who was still practicing in his mid-eighties.

I’m assuming that we want to call what Dr. Grosskurth was doing a clinical practice. He was obviously diminished, he fell asleep during sessions and his interventions and interpretations seemed more like the empty ramblings of a doddering old fool than acute insights into anyone’s problems.

A couple of years after Gopnik had ended his six year long psychoanalysis, he wrote its story for The New Yorker. He opened by reflecting on why it happened that psychoanalysis was declining and falling. Since the rest of his essay will focus on the treatment offered by Dr. Grosskurth, the obvious answer is that it had long since ceased to be anything resembling an effective clinical practice. You might say, as my own analyst Jacques Lacan did in 1977, that it was a scam, but Gopnik is too kind and generous to say such a thing.

Thus, he opens:

Lately, a lot of people in New York—why, I’m not entirely sure—have been sending me clippings about the decline and fall of psychoanalysis. Most of the reasons given for its disappearance make sense: people are happier, busier; the work done by the anti-Freudian skeptics has finally taken hold of the popular imagination, so that people have no time for analytic longueurs and no patience with its mystifications. Along with those decline-and-fall pieces, though, I’ve also been sent—and in this case I don’t entirely want to know why—a lot of hair-raising pieces about mental illness and its new therapies: about depressions, disasters, hidden urges suddenly (or brazenly) confessed and how you can cure them all with medicine. Talking is out, taking is in. When I go back to New York, some of my friends seem to be layered with drugs, from the top down, like a pousse-café: Rogaine on top, then Prozac, then Xanax, then Viagra. . . . In this context, my own experience in being doctored for mental illness seems paltry and vaguely absurd, and yet, in its way, memorable.

Fair enough, Gopnik captured in a paragraph an important moment in intellectual history… the moment when Freudian psychoanalysis had ceased to be a viable clinical practices. His own experience told him precisely that:

I was on the receiving end of what must have been one of the last, and easily one of the most unsuccessful, psychoanalyses that have ever been attempted

It may seem strange for members of the younger generation, but, back in the day, patients used to compare notes about what their analysts had or had not said. The same was true in Paris in the mid-seventies:

My friends were all in therapy, too, of course—this was New York—and late at night, over a bottle of red wine, they would offer one “insight” or another that struck me as revelatory: “My analyst helped me face the recurring pattern in my life of an overprotectiveness that derives from my mother’s hidden alcoholism,” or “Mine helped me see more clearly how early my father’s depression shaped my fears,” or “Mine helped me see that my reluctance to publish my personal work is part of my reluctance to have a child.” What could I say? “Mine keeps falling asleep, except when we discuss Hannah Arendt’s sex life, about which he knows quite a lot.”

His falling asleep was a problem. The first few years I saw him, he still had a reasonably full schedule and our sessions were usually late in the day; the strain told on him. As I settled insistently (I had decided that if I was going to be analyzed I was going to be analyzed) into yet one more tiresome recital of grievances, injustices, anxieties, childhood memories, I could see his long, big, partly bald head nodding down toward the knot of his tie. His eyes would flutter shut, and he would begin to breathe deeply. I would drone on—“And so I think that it was my mother, really, who first gave me a sense of the grandiose. There was this birthday, I think my sixth, when I first sensed . . . ”—and his chin would nestle closer and closer to his chest, his head would drop farther, so that I was looking right at his bald spot. There was only one way, I learned, after a couple of disconcerting weeks of telling my troubles to a sleeping therapist, to revive him, and that was to gossip. “And so my mother’s relationship with my father reminds me—well, in certain ways it reminds me of what people have been saying about Philip Roth’s divorce from Claire Bloom,” I would say abruptly, raising my volume on the non sequitur.

There in a nutshell was what passed for Freudian wisdom back in the day. Gopnik faced the challenge of how to keep his analyst awake, so he chose to invent literary gossip. Note well that all of that serious theoretical work on the unconscious mind and your infantile desires became reduced in time to literary gossip:

Unfortunately, my supply of hot literary gossip was very small. So there were times (and I hope that this is the worst confession I will ever have to make) when I would invent literary gossip on the way uptown, just to have something in reserve if he fell asleep, like a Victorian doctor going off to a picnic with a bottle of smelling salts, just in case. (“Let’s see: what if I said that Kathy Acker had begun an affair with, oh, V. S. Pritchett—that would hold anybody’s interest.”) I felt at once upset and protective about his sleeping. Upset because it was, after all, my nickel, and protective because I did think that he was a great man, in his way, and I hated to see him dwindling: I wondered how long he would go on if he sensed that he was dwindling.

What did it all mean? Gopnik had not read enough Freud to offer a Freudian interpretation, so he had to settle for something closer to the truth:

Not long ago, I read, in a book about therapy, a reference to a distinguished older analyst who made a point of going to sleep in front of his patients. Apparently, Grosskurth—for who else could it have been?—was famous for his therapeutic skill in falling asleep as you talked. It was tactical, even strategic.

Or was he just an old man trying to keep a practice going for lack of anything better to do, and doing anything—sleeping, booking hotel rooms, gossiping, as old men do—so that he would not have to be alone? Either limitlessly shrewd or deeply pathetic: which was it? Trying to answer that question was one of the things that kept me going uptown.

But, what did Gopnik gain from psychoanalysis:

And, as my life was changing, I began to think that it was time to end, or anyway wind down, our relationship. It had been six years, and, for all that I had gained—and I thought that I had gained a lot: if not a cure, then at least enough material to go into business as a blackmailer—I knew that if I was to be “fully adult” I should break my dependence.

“So you see,” he said, again trying to make the familiar turn toward home. And then he did something that I don’t think he had ever done before: he called me by my name. “So you see, Adam, in life, in life . . .” And I rose, thinking, Here at our final session—no hope of ever returning, my bag packed and my ticket bought to another country, far away—at last, the truth, the point, the thing to take away that we have been building toward all these years.

“So you see, Adam, in retrospect . . .” he went on, and stirred, rose, on the sofa, trying to force his full authority on his disobedient frame. “In retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects,” he concluded quietly, and then we had to stop. He sat looking ahead, and a few minutes later, with a goodbye and a handshake, I left.

There you have it folks, the sum total of a lifetime of Freudian psychoanalysis, the insight that life has many worthwhile aspects. At first, Gopnik was unmoved:

Now I was furious. I was trying to be moved, but I would have liked to be moved by something easier to be moved by. That was all he had to say to me, Life has many worthwhile aspects? For once, that first reaction of disappointment stuck with me for a long time, on the plane all the way to Paris. All these evenings, all that investment, all that humanism, all those Motherwell prints—yes, all that money, my money—for that? Life has many worthwhile aspects? Could there have been a more fatuous and arrhythmic and unmemorable conclusion to what had been, after all, myanalysis, my only analysis?

And yet, considering the investment of time and money, he feels obliged to pretend that he had bought something of value:

The transference wasn’t completed, I suppose, but something—a sort of implantation—did take place. He is inside me. In moments of crisis or panic, I sometimes think that I have his woollen suit draped around my shoulders, even in August. Sometimes in ordinary moments I almost think that I have become him. Though my patience is repeatedly tried by my child, I laugh at his many amusing mistakes in language—I have even been known to repeat these mistakes in social settings. I refer often to the sayings of my wife, that witty, witty woman. On the whole, I would say that my years in analysis had many worthwhile aspects.



Sam L. said...

"(“Let’s see: what if I said that Kathy Acker had begun an affair with, oh, V. S. Pritchett—that would hold anybody’s interest.”)" Who is Kathy Acker(not that I care to look her up)?

The whole thing makes me happy to have never lived in or near NYC. I've always lived west of the Mississippi.

UbuMaccabee said...

“So you see, Adam, in retrospect . . .” he went on, and stirred, rose, on the sofa, trying to force his full authority on his disobedient frame. “In retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects,” he concluded quietly, and then we had to stop. He sat looking ahead, and a few minutes later, with a goodbye and a handshake, I left.

That reminds me of a film I saw a few years back.

Rabbi Marshak:
When the truth is found. To be lies. [the rabbi clears his throat] And all the hope. Within you dies. Then what? [the rabbi clears his throat again] Grace Slick. Marty Balin. Paul Kanta. Jorma...

Danny Gopnik:

Rabbi Marshak:
...something. These are the members of the Airplane. Interesting. Here. [He gives Danny back his radio] Be a good boy.

Peter Ouspensky once noted that if man were a zoological species, he would be called, "the lying animal."

Anonymous said...

Psychoanalysis is a scam?

Anonymous said...

Ubu's movie quote had me curious enough to find this piece online. It reads sort of like Bible psychoanalysis.

Post-PoMo is a bitch.