Sunday, September 27, 2020

The End of the Affair: Why I Quit Psychoanalysis

Here are some special treats for Sunday morning. A text I just wrote about why I stopped doing psychoanalysis was just published in the French  blog-- Mediaparte. It was skillfully translated by Sophie Robert, famed documentary filmmaker.

For those who do not read French, I am adding the original in English, to this post. Even if you do not read French, that version is illustrated.

Is psychoanalysis a science? Does it work as well in all cultures? If not, then perhaps it’s more about acculturation than about treatment.

When I returned to New York from Paris I tested the hypothesis. When I studied in Paris I was full of faith in the Freudian truth. When I returned to America and started looking at it pragmatically, my faith was challenged and ultimately discredited.

My text recounts my own journey out of the Freudian wilderness. I lost faith in Lacan. I lost faith in Lacan’s theories. I lost faith in psychoanalytic practice. Some will find it sad, but it was certainly for the good.

After spending four and a half years training in psychoanalysis at the Ecole Freudienne de Paris, I arrived back in New York City. I should not have been surprised, but I quickly started hearing stories about Lacan. People, even serious intellectuals who had studied the theory, cared more to tell stories about the man himself.

It made some sense. Why slog through the swamp of Lacan’s thinking when you could skip to the end of the story, there to find the meaning of it all. The meaning was the man himself, the theory made flesh. 

In truth, for all the hubbub about Lacan’s seminars in Paris, precious few of his followers had any idea of what he was talking about. They tossed around his favorite terms as though they were passwords, showing that they belonged to the cult. It was like learning how to speak a private language.

So, in 1977 people were talking about the impression Lacan made during his 1975 lecture tour in Cambridge, New Haven and New York.

One suspects that Lacan believed that he was bringing the Word to the heathens. He even declared that, before coming to America, he had only ever lectured to psychoanalysts-- a manifest falsehood. He claimed that he would address Americans exactly as he addressed his students in Paris. This tells us that he did not know where he was and did not care to accommodate the sensibility of his audience.

Yet, Lacan had earned some Parisian respect for having published a massive tome of his Ecrits in 1966. French intellectuals came into vogue during the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. Lacan was part of the group. In 1975, at the time of his third and last American trip, only a few of his writings were available in English.

Lacan lectured in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the invitation of famed linguist Roman Jakobson. Many serious intellectuals, from Willard Quine to Noam Chomsky attended. 

Unfortunately, they were not impressed by Lacan.  They thought that he was clowning around. Chomsky declared that Lacan was a charming charlatan, a man who had beguiled his Parisian audience with mounds of nonsense. Leading American intellectuals were not fooled by Lacan’s performance. 

After Cambridge, Lacan spoke at a psychoanalytic seminar at Yale University. While in New Haven, he did not just show himself to be a confused thinker. He showed himself to be a profoundly unserious human being. 

When there, a trio of distinguished professors, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom and Paul de Man invited Lacan to lunch at a legendary New Haven club, called Mory’s. As the story was told, when Lacan was served his lunch he took serious offense to what he saw and threw the food on the floor. Perhaps he had gotten in touch with his inner child, but his petulance made him appear to be a buffoon.

From there Lacan moved on to New York City, where he lectured at Columbia University and stayed at a luxury hotel called the St. Regis. A couple of graduate students were charged with escorting Lacan around the city, assuring that his needs were met. By their account, the old man spent half his time writing whiny telegrams to his Parisian mistress. He ran the students ragged with his demands that they instantly send them off.

If this was what it meant to act on one’s desire, they were not about to join the Lacanian cult.

They came away thinking that Lacan was pathetic, seriously lacking in self-respect. Strangely, this picture of Lacan the man comports well with the portrait that Philippe Sollers later painted in his 1983 novel, Femmes, where a Lacan-like figure called Fals makes a fool of himself over a woman..

Whether or not Lacan fell in love with America, it seemed clear that the Americans who had direct commerce with him in the United States came away unmoved, by his mind and his charms. He was more the insolent child than the great thinker.

As everyone knows, Lacan and his heirs found it far easier to beguile listeners in South America. After all, the unconscious desire that animates people in Argentina is to be French. In America, no such desire exists.

Yet, other French writers have been received cordially and respectfully in America. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva taught for many years in American universities, but they did not manifest the same level of bad behavior that Lacan did.

For most people, in France and around the world, Lacan’s theories were largely impenetrable, a confidence trick, one might say. But Lacan’s appeal lay in his ability to perform in public, in lectures, to entertain, to amuse and to ensorcell.

Still, Lacan was a psychoanalyst. In principle psychoanalysis is a healing activity. With Lacan, such was not the case. Lacan never seemed to care about therapeutic results. He did not seem to care about whether treatment had been effective. Like a good Freudian, he was more concerned with storytelling than with problem solving. 

Apparently, he had a late epiphany and declared in 1977 that clinical practice was a scam. Dare I say that many of his cult followers refused to accept the Freudian truth.

Anyway, three years after I landed in New York, 1980 Lacan dissolved his Freudian School of Paris and founded something called the School of the Freudian Cause. He seemed more to care about advancing a cause than about training psychoanalysts. 

In a gesture that appalled most of his longstanding followers, he gave control of the institution to his son-in-law Jacques-Alain MIller. It was a gesture worthy of a hereditary aristocracy. Miller himself was a singularly unimpressive figure who had never written anything of consequence, and who had little, if any clinical experience. It would be an understatement to say that Miller was in way over his head. It would be equally true to suggest that he did not know it.

In the United States, at that time proselytizing the true Freudian faith was going very slowly indeed. I discovered that, aside from a few academics, few people cared to plumb the depths of the soul of an enigmatic Frenchman.

That continued until 1983 when I wrote a book called, Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero. It was published by Harvard University Press and was reviewed very favorably in the New York Times. I think it fair to say that it was a defining moment; it established Lacan in America. 

Evidently, it seriously disturbed certain French analysts, beginning with the dyspeptic Jacques-Alain MIller. He commissioned some comments by Prof. Patrick Colm Hogan for his publication, Analytica 37, published in 1984. The comments were derisive and dismissive, as though to tell people that they had best not read the book. Later on, Hogan apologized to me for the article, explaining that Miller had forced him to make it negative and hostile.

The book was eventually translated into French (and several other languages. The French version entitled, Jacques Lacan, Maitre Zen,  was largely ignored by French readers. In the world of French Lacanian analysis, when Miller says not to read something, the lemmings bend over and obey.

One suspects that Miller, who considered himself to have been anointed the leader of the worldwide Lacanian movement felt slightly eclipsed-- or should I say, put in his place-- when someone else garnered an audience. Somehow or other, he seemed to want to be in charge of whatever was happening in America. Neither he nor his lieutenants knew anything about America. Their knowledge of the place seemed to derive entirely from what they had read in Time Magazine. It was embarrassing to hear them opine about it. 

One of his satraps told me that they had planned first to colonize South American minds-- easier to colonize-- and would then invade America through Florida. I told them that I thought they had completely lost their minds. 

Miller owed his standing to his marriage. As a writer and a thinker, he was a nullity, easily ignored, more easily forgotten.  In the American academic world, and not just in the American academic world, people respect those who publish consequential works. If he had established himself as a clinician, he could certainly have presented himself under that rubric. He had not. For that reason, he did not command respect in the world of American psychoanalysis

Thus, when Miller was invited to attend a large symposium at  the University of Massachusetts in 1984, he seemed to be all pretense, and no substance. He did succeed in making a perfect fool of himself. He was not the only one to speak at the conference. And yet, after each presentation he arose to explain what Lacan really thought. He seemed to be a jack-in-the-box, a man who did not know who he was, where he was, or what he was doing there. People felt embarrassed for him. Precious few ever invited him back.

When it was his turn to lecture, the anointed heir to the throne of Lacanism declared that he was St. Paul. He had come to proselytize to the heathens and to the gentiles. Most people thought he was a pretentious twit, a walking affectation.

Needless to say, thanks to Miller’s inability to accept my book’s success, we were not getting along. Nevertheless, we patched things up enough to co-sponsor four yearly meetings of something I called the Paris-New York Psychoanalytic Workshop. It was reasonably well attended and it gave Miller a New York audience. 

Unfortunately, most people came away thinking he was an oleaginous, self-important, arrogant fool. His lectures, punctuated by sighs, sounded like the adolescent adoration of a cult follower. St. Paul he was not. Since he had still not written anything of consequence, he could only show off his high self-esteem.

After embarrassing himself, he ended the last meeting by trying to embarrass me. Dare I say that you do not, if you have the minimal sense of decorum, embarrass your host. Miller’s appalling behavior ended our association.

To be more specific, I had, during the last  workshop, delivered a talk about Gilles de Rais, entitled “The Worst Perversion.” If you do not know the story, I recommend Georges Bataille’s book: Le Proces de Gilles de Rais. 

Miller was unhappy with my talk, but he was even more unhappy when he heard William Richardson suggest that Lacan had misunderstood Kant. Saying that Lacan was wrong was almost as bad a crime as writing a successful book about the idol.

Anyway, Miller closed out the meeting with a lame attempt to ridicule my talk. The worst perversion, he claimed, was not the serial killing sexual sadist, Gilles de Rais. The worst perverts were the judges who had tried him and had ordered his execution. 

To bring the argument into the twentieth century,  Lacan’s heir was arguing that the worst criminals at the Nuremberg Trials were not the Nazi war criminals, but the panel of judges convicted them. It takes a special kind of stupid to believe such things.

Anyway, Miller and I had a private conversation the next day. It did not go well. He announced that henceforth he would only allow me to write about Lacan’s texts. Apparently, he thought that he had to assert his authority and his control.

Seriously. One does not know who he thought he was and where he thought he was, but the statement told me that basically his role, as bequeathed by Lacan, was to be a bookseller, to generate royalties that would constitute an inheritance for members of his family.

Apparently, Lacan knew his son-in-law well; he wanted him to have a role that he might have been able to fulfill. For my part, I refused Miller’s demand and never again had significant dealings with him. And I never again wrote about Lacan’s texts.

As for my own disillusionment, a year or so after the end of the Workshop I found myself in a conversation with a famed philosopher in South America. I was joined by a friend, a leading local Lacanian, for a conversation with someone who, I was assured, was one of ours. That is, who was an ally.

It was less a conversation and more a thirty minute harangue,delivered by the professor, about Lacan’s theoretical failings. The man, an authority on logic, declared that he was seriously tired of hearing his students quote Lacan on Frege and Godel. Lacan understood nothing about either man and this professor was appalled to hear his students mouthing egregious errors.

Besides, he went on, Lacan’s theory of the four discourses was a piece of theoretical nonsense. As I had already known, the grid that was supposed to show the four ways that human beings could establish a social connection was merely an arithmetic group. (That is, a function for mapping a set of numbers onto a grid.)  

But, the man continued, there are many arithmetic groups. Why choose one and not the others? Lacan never explained it, so he was trafficking in a cheap analogy. Besides, he concluded, Lacan seemed to believe that because mathematicians called the function a group, that meant that it offered the structure of a social group. He noted that the choice of the word “group” was arbitrary. It was certainly not meaningful. 

Needless to say, I was shocked. I had spent considerable time working on Lacanian and Freudian theories. I was certainly not happy to hear that they were mostly constructed on sand. So, disillusionment over the behavior of Lacan and his acolytes led to disillusionment about the validity of the theory. Perhaps it was all a scam.

The worst was yet to come. It came one day in the early 1990s when a woman came to see me from a foreign country. She recounted that while she was doing her training analysis, her analyst had jumped her while she was on the couch, and raped her… in session. She did not name the analyst. When I asked myself why she was telling me this, I could only conclude that she wanted me to know the kind of people I had been frequenting. It was a very bad day.

It was not the only time I had heard of such crimes. I had heard of women being assaulted in analytic and supervision sessions. We all knew that Lacan himself had been having an affair with one of his patients, but we were far too sophisticated to worry about it. Rape, however, was another story. At that time, I ceased associating with the Lacanian world.

Evidently, certain analysts had taken Lacan’s ethical precept-- to act on one’s desire-- far too literally. 

As I discovered years later, psychoanalysis had arisen from a rape culture. When Freud was at the Salpetriere, the neurology resident physicians were routinely raping their patients. Did Freud know it, Andre Breton and Louis Aragon asked in the 1920s? 

Surely, Freud’s emphasis on sex and the treatment for hysteria that had been touted in Charcot’s service-- namely, penis normalis dosim repetatur-- was consistent with the notion that psychoanalysis, as I began to realize and as I argued in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, was structured like a sublimated rape.

If women do not know what they want, as Lacan intoned endlessly, why should any man take a lack of consent literally? Perhaps when she says No, she is just denying her true desire. If a woman does not know what she wants, and if her analyst does, why should he not give her what she wants, even if she does not know that she wants it. 

One might say that Freudian practice enacts a question: is a rape still a rape when you convince the victim that she really, really wanted it, but was so repressed that she could not admit it to herself. 

We see this most clearly in Freud’s last written up case of a hysteric, the case of Dora. Wasn’t Freud trying to convince Dora that the reason she slapped Herr K’s face at the scene by the lake was that she really, really wanted him, [but could not admit it to herself ? Wasn’t he saying that this was the reason she had manifested hysterical symptoms.]  We note that Herr K was the husband of Dora’s father’s mistress. The notion that hangs over the case was that Dora’s father offered her to Herr K as recompense for allowing him to continue his affair with Frau K. Obviously, no one needed the notion that Dora was unconsciously lusting after Herr K to understand her distress. We emphasize, because no one else seems to, that Dora was 13 at the time.

Remember when Freud pretended that psychoanalytic treatment took such a long time because patients refused to yield to his interpretative importunities. Why did he need to hear that they were completely and totally convinced that he was right? Why did he deprive them of the ability to agree or disagree, to consent or not to consent?

If Freudian theory, as Karl Popper explained, could not be science because it could not be falsified, why not ask whether, if the Freudian analyst can never be wrong, does this not also imply that he can never do wrong?

Anyway, my disillusionment with the Lacanian movement was a function of the simple fact that I was practicing in New York. Unlike Argentinians, New Yorkers are not dying to become French. They want to get better. They want to improve their ability to function in the world. They are more interested in being efficient, effective and productive. They are less interested in seducing people. They do not spend their time trying to rationalize their failures. They are more practical and more empirical. Evidently, Anglo-Saxon culture differs from traditional French culture. As we know from watching Sophie Robert’s documentary, The Wall, one thing that Lacanian analysts reject above all else is the chance that their pure culture will suffer the invasion of Anglo-Saxon empirical treatments. They would rather see autistic French children not be treated, than be treated successfully by a behavioral technique.

Americans judge treatment in terms of clinical effectiveness, a term that never crossed the minds of Parisian cult followers. Parisians embraced the theory because they thought it would innoculate them against the dreaded Anglo-Saxon empirical thinking. A Belgian Lacanian, by name of Alexandre Stevens, declared that  he feared an invasion by the armies of the Anglosphere. A strange thought when placed in historical context.

Obviously, this sense that psychoanalysis is a cause, a side in a culture war that explicitly rejects empirical and pragmatic thinking, does not play well in America.

Lacan himself seemed to undertand this. At one point in his seminar he declared that if anyone gets well while undergoing psychoanalysis, it is a fortunate accident. The treatment does not treat and does not cure. This means that if your clients want to get well, you as a clinician will not do psychoanalysis. Some clients told me explicitly--  you can keep that Freudian stuff to yourself. 

Many New York clients did not care about the workings of their unconscious minds. They wanted help with managing their lives; they wanted to know how to solve difficult social and moral problems. They wanted to improve the way they function in the world, not to discover how badly they wanted to copulate with their mothers.

To put it in the terms I used in my book, knowing why you got it wrong does not tell you how to get it right. And, you do not need to learn why you got it wrong in order to get it right. Searching through your mind bank in order to discover the reasons why you are neurotic will simply distract you from the task at hand. Learning to tell your life story, the better to pass the pass, as Lacan called it, does not tell you how to conduct your life. It only makes you a storyteller. And this explains why I called psychoanalysis-- overpriced storytelling. 

The moment when I saw this most clearly occurred in a session that occurred when I was practicing psychoanalysis. A young man was involved in a messy break up with a woman he wanted to marry. She had rejected his marriage proposal and he refused to accept her answer. Thus, he was calling her and trying to contact her far too often. He was becoming a stalker.

When he asked me what he should do to deal with the situation-- and to get back in her good graces-- I first offered up the normal psycho analytic response, namely that I was not in the business of giving advice and guidance about the conduct of everyday life. He was undeterred. 

 “If you don’t tell me what I should do,” he replied, “I have an astrologer in Moscow who will.” (And no, I did not invent that detail.)

Naturally, I considered his statement to be a challenge. So I replied, without thinking about it, that I would tell him what to do if he promised to do what I told him. He agreed to the terms of the agreement, and we had made a deal. I would underscore the fact that the type of relationship you construct when you are making a deal is not the same as the relationship you forge when you are hovering over someone pretending to be a dummy. 

You are more an ally helping him to deal with current affairs and less a blank slate awaiting the moment when you can tell him that he is mistaking you for your crazy Aunt Sadie. When I offered him a plan of action to deal with his situation, I did not declare that they were the last word. Where Freud insisted that his patients accept his interpretations unqualified, I was offering hypotheses that could be tested in the real world. 

I did not address what this man really, really wanted. I told him that he should apologize to the woman for his appalling behavior, that he should send her a gift of flowers, accompanied by a note renouncing all of his importunate advances. I told him that I wanted to see [the note] before he sent it, and that he should not contact her until I gave him permission to do so.

 So, I set down a plan. He did not have to accept it, but he did. And he stopped the stalking behavior immediately. For what it is worth, the story had a happy ending.

Rather than help him to discover why he was stalking and why he was so sorely offended, I got him back in the game. I gave him some understanding of what the game was and how he could play it. With guidance he got in control of his life. I find it more important than allowing him to decompensate or to seek advice from a Russian astrologer.

In time I tried this new approach more and more often. I started seeing that my clients who were being coached did better than the clients who wanted to explore their unconscious minds and interpret their dreams. Eventually, I ceased doing psychoanalysis altogether.

As of now, psychoanalysis is just about dead in America. It has been largely supplanted by cognitive-behavioral therapy and by coaching. In a nation known for its pragmatism, what matters is what works.

As William James put it: the truth is what works. Psychoanalysis considered the truth to be the truth of your desire, presumably dramatized in the story of Oedipus. Playing a game, understanding the moves you can or cannot make, is not the same as enacting a drama (or even your primal fantasy) in your relationship with your psychoanalyst. 

Learning what you really, really want does not tell you how to play the game, or even what the game is. It might allow you to diddle with your desire but it does not show you how to function in the world. 

Evidently, a nation that is a world power is more likely to see problems in terms of competition than is a nation that is not. A nation that had won wars was more likely to value competition than was a nation that needed, above all, to recover the pride lost during World War II.

Of course, the idea of coaching, or of cognitive and behavioral treatments, disturbs Lacanian analysts. Belgian psychologist Jacques van Rillaer has documented their hysterical jaculations in Mediaparte, in an essay entitled: “De Freud et Lacan au TCC.” Lacanians object that cognitive and behavioral treatments, as well as to coaching deaden the soul. 

Is this not another way of saying that winning wars is not worthwhile if it costs you your soul? For these analysts, it’s one Faustian bargain too many. 

As I argued in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst, psychoanalysis began as a pseudoscience and became a pseudoreligion. That is, a cult. In that case Lacan was the truest Freudian. Thus, he also showed that Freudian psychoanalysis deserved to be buried. One suspects that, by the end of his life, when he pronounced psychoanalytic practice to be a scam and when he said that if anyone ever gets well doing psychoanalysis, it is a happy accident, he understood that basic truth.


Jeff said...

That was a great read, thank you Stuart. Your background in—and later rejection of— Freudian psychotherapy gives you a unique perspective.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know exactly how these people made fools of themselves and insulted you (for entertainment value). Is it in your book?

I respect Freud even if he was wrong about major things. If one reads his books such as The Interpretation of Dreams, they are great books and he had a good sense of humor. And he popularized the concept of the unconscious. This was a big influence in culture and gave us surrealism, Alfred Hitchcock, Rod Serling, and countless others.

Janszoon said...

During my time at film school here in the U.K., Lacan was still very much en vogue in the theory part of the undertaking (I still scream every time I hear someone drawing an analogy between cinema and the Mirror Stage...yawn....). At the same there were, however, almost no Lacanian psychoanalysts practising here. As a result it struck me that any set of theories which had demonstrably more purchase in disciplines other than the one for which they been designed probably indicated that they were actually of very dubious utility. I view Lacan in the same way I do Aleister Crowley - a fascinating human being to study, but Lord help you if you take any of it seriously. It will surely derange you.

Thanks for the personal insight Stuart.

trigger warning said...

Cool. Very cool. My compliments.

Jeff said...

(Different Jeff here) I was amused at the notion of conquering the US for Lacan by going through Florida, since it was at grad school at the U of FLA that I was exposed to him. My thoughts at the time were that if I could understand Plato, Kant, 80% of Nietzsche, and about half of Hegel, my not being able to understand Lacan was on him, not me.

Anonymous said...

Rather significant line for a typo...

"Lacan seemed to believe that because mathematicians called the function a group, that meant that it offered the structure of a social group. He noted that the choice of the __work__ “group” was arbitrary. It was certainly not meaningful."

Perhaps __work__ was meant to be __word__.

Giordano Bruno said...

Many years ago, under the influence of powerful hallucinogenics and a steady diet of Artaud, Deleuze, and Lautremont, I wrote a brief play about a young man who kidnaps a famous professor of semiotics and sexually assaults and tortures him to death in ritual BDSM sessions as an expression of the young man's desire and transgressive limit expereince. The culmination of the exchange is when the professor, under prolonged torture, has an epiphany and confesses to the young man that his deepest longing is to be kidnapped and tortured to death as his limit experience. Viola! A match made in heaven. Like Hepburn and Tracy.

The play is a black mass, uniting the two men though homoerotic murder as the two become the very incarnation of Maldoror through the dialectic of suffering. I'll spare you the bloody coup de grace, as this is still a family blog, but I fancy that I incorporated the finest threads of Mayan human sacrifice, New Guinea cannibalism, and the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.

It would have been my greatest honor to have had Lacan sitting in the front row and witness my little performance. I might have even hinted to the audience just who was the inspiration for my modest tale. Sadly, it was not to be. But we still have the memories.

All fiction of course. Nobody is ever harmed in meta-narratives, just an in-joke among eggheads. It's no different than the right panel of "The Garden of Earthly Delights."

I never found an epilogue I was satisfied with. But I think this essay provides me with a way to 'wrap' things up nicely. Thanks, Stuart. I might still have plans for our famous professor and our intrepid young pilgrim on their journey of self-discovery together. It looks like Gilles de Rais is going to make another appearance here on earth soon, and I don't want to miss out on all the fun.

Ideas have consequences.

Anonymous said...

I'm a former Protestant Minister who walked away after ten years of study and ministry. It was extremely difficult to put behind all that College and Seminary work and certain aspects of the profession that I found fulfilling. It was almost like PTSD. After 36 years the pain that followed still haunts me on occasion although I don't miss it nor would I ever return. How long did you practice before leaving? It had to be very difficult for you. Do you still cringe when you look back? I'm just sorry I hung in there as long as I did. You?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

For around twenty years...

Giordano Bruno said...

Great article, Stuart, illuminating at every level. Anytime I meet someone in your profession, I recommend your site, and this article is bookmarked and I plan to send it along with the link to your site; a pure red pill for the sleeping drones. Mrs. Bruno studied with Walter Brackelmanns at UCLA (a very decent and interesting fellow, BTW. He cared a great deal about actually helping his patients. RIP) and she reads your blog regularly as well. I think Walter would have found this article as informative as Mrs. Bruno and I have. I hope your approach to treatment gains wide currency.