Who is Howard Levine?
(Laughs) That's a very dangerous question to ask a psychoanalyst, because it is a question that once one is in analysis and perhaps even before one enters analysis, one continues to ask and answer for one's entire life! So, I'm afraid, like everything else, I'm a work in progress. And it's very hard to make a summary statement of that sort. So, let us see which parts of me may emerge as we talk.
Okay. So, I would like to start with your upbringing, your childhood. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I came from a rather simple, first generation immigrant Jewish Family in New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn. Nobody was educated. My mother was ‘the educated one’ in the family. She got a commercial degree and learned to be a secretary in high school. My father dropped out of high school in his freshman year because they told him he was too small to play basketball, (laughs). But my mother was imbued with a kind of Middle European, Eastern European bourgeois sense of culture and aspiration. Her family originally came from Lithuania. So, her mother, with whom she was very close, wanted her to be the kind of woman who could read and play the piano and understand music and opera. Now, that wasn't who my mom was, but she passed those values on to me and I think that my passion for learning, for culture came from her. My curiosity about what is opera? What is ballet? What is classical music? These were things that we never had in my house. We attended Broadway musicals, but we never had any sort of high culture and the Arts. But that was her mother's aspiration for her, which she never realized, but passed on to me, and I think I spent my life trying to expose myself to these things as she had wished me to and they have taken hold in many ways.
What sort of kid, were you?
Well, let me see. I was always interested in sports, you know. All the time would be spent on the playground playing softball, playing basketball playing touch football (American football). Soccer didn't exist in our world back then. I loved to read. I was shy. When I was very small, I was anxious. My mother's mother, who my mother was very close to, died when I was about 20 months old. Much later in life, I reconstructed the fact that my mother must have had a significant depression when her mother died and it left me feeling kind of anxious and clingy as a very little boy. But I had an older brother and he was a counter point. He modelled: This is what guys do. You know, you go out and you have fun and play with your friends and you roughhouse in this and that. So, I was gradually pulled out of that more depressed way of living. But it still remained with me to some extent, as it always does for all of us.
How did you arrive in psychoanalysis?
When I went to college, I was fortunate enough to be given a full scholarship at Columbia. I had the intention of becoming a physicist. It was 1960, the memory of the atomic bomb, the creation of nuclear energy, the nuclear arms race, these were all very significant parts of American culture at that point. The idea of becoming an atomic scientist was just incredibly engaging.
But I quickly found two things. One was that I was not doing as well in physics as I ought to have. I think I was too anxious about something. The other was that getting into advanced physics and mathematics took me further and further away from people and I was already dealing with a somewhat depressive, withdrawn part. Then, in my junior year, I took a course in cultural and intellectual history where we read Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and James. I read Freud for the first time, and I thought this is it. I thought, this was the most fascinating thing I have ever come across because it was a way of asking what are people, who are people. You know, as you asked me who am I at the beginning of the interview.
I understood that the question also had a methodology associated to it and it could be seriously pursued. I also realized that it was very deeply connected to the questions of where did I come from, what was I to become and who were other people? I decided, at that point, that I wanted to become a psychoanalyst.
In those days, in order to become a psychoanalyst, you had to go to medical school. So, I left physics behind and I became a pre-medical student. At that time in the United States, many of the major medical school’s Psychiatry Departments were very heavily psychoanalytic and, by chance, I wound up in Boston, at Tufts Medical School, which had probably one of the finest and most psychoanalytic Psychiatry departments in the country. I just loved it.
Medical school was a bore. It was something that you had to put up with and get through in order to get psychoanalytic training. But when it came to working in the Psychiatry Department, it was psychoanalysis all the way through. I stayed at Tufts and finished my psychiatric training and in my third year, the final year of my residency, I got admitted to the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, began my analysis, and then started psychoanalytic training.
What sort of advice would you give for young people who want to become analysts?
First, I would advise them to have as broad a liberal arts background as they can muster. I think, as Freud said, the really great analysts, the first analysts, were Socrates, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Goethe. People of that ilk. I mean that's where human knowledge is located at its highest iteration and exploration.
Nowadays, universities in the United States have become very technocratic in their emphasis. How does this course help me to get a job? Not, how does this course help me to understand culture, people, humanity and enrich my mind and teach me to think. That's what the liberal arts do. So, the first thing I would say is be broad. Be deep. Don't be technological.
The other thing is that nowadays, psychiatric and, even psychological training, is so biological. It is classificatory and reductive. So, one will have to unlearn a great deal and change one's habits of mind if one wants to become a psychoanalyst. What you need is broadening and deepening your way of being. Not in a technical professional sort of way but in a general, personal and emotional way.
Then there is your own personal analytic experience, which is the most important thing. I wish in my case I had begun my analysis even sooner. But one is who one is and life evolves as it does and you have to be the person you are. I think having a truly analytic treatment experience, even before one begins training, can be extraordinarily helpful in teaching you something about psychoanalysis and opening your mind to a psychoanalytic way of thinking. In tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity, which I think is a core feature of it.
What are your main interests, your calling inside psychoanalysis?
I think that my work sits at the crossroads of some of what I consider the most interesting and best thinkers in psychoanalysis. Certainly Freud. But Freud in his most radical and intuitive modes of thinking. There's a certain common place for Freud that is in the culture now. Oh yeah, dreams and oh yeah, sex and the Oedipus Complex and wishes and so on and so forth. But Freud had some very deep and postmodern impulses. Epistemologically he had a very subtle and sophisticated way of thinking about things. The undiscovered Freud, the Freud that Freud didn't have enough time in his life to fully develop. The intimations where psychoanalysis has begun to move in terms of the cutting edge and the current frontiers of psychoanalytic thinking. So, Freud, certainly Bion, Andre Green, some of the French psychoanalysts, the Paris psychosomatics group and Winnicott to some extent.
It is not so much about content, which was what was emphasized in my training, back in the day. You know, where is the Oedipus conflict? What is the wish that is so frightening? It is equally and sometimes even more about the process, and how do you help someone learn to think and use their mind in a constructive and creative way. To strengthen the processes of the psyche in terms of regulating affect and feeling in terms of being able to help someone to think under increasing pressure. So, it is about the creation of mind, rather than simply the uncovering of mind. It comes with a radically different view of the unconscious. It's a view of the unconscious of not just fully formed contents, which are unacceptable because their anxiety provoking and so have to be hidden. That still remains relevant in neurosis. But it is also about the unconscious as a force and energy that is emergent and multi potential in terms of ideational content and representation.
Do you think that there's something in your life that left a mark that you connect to this discovering of psychoanalysis as you do it?
Well, sure. I think that the theories that we gravitate to, we gravitate to not just because of their intellectual value. But because they hold an emotional valence for us in terms of our personal structures, personal experience and personal needs. Where I have gone conceptually and theoretically is to the earliest experiences where the mind is emergent, representation of thought is emergent. Probably one of the most decisive experiences of my life was when I was 20 months old and my mother's mother died. I think that my mother reacted with a significant depression which affected me significantly. Of course, I had no conscious memory of all that. Factually, I knew that my grandmother died when I was still in the second year of life. But in terms of experiences that would be related to that and would mark it, that sort of memory didn't exist. It was only much later, after my analyses and in my ongoing self-analysis and in thinking about how I got to be where I was and what kinds of problems I had in that transition and so on that I began to construct and put together for myself. I assume, that my mom, at that time, had a significant depressive withdrawal. Although she wasn’t hospitalized, she didn't stay in bed. But she was there for a significant time in the way as Andre Green in the Dead Mother paper says: the mother continues to perform all the necessary functions, but her heart isn't in it because it is with some other grief. If you think about where a young infant is developmentally at that point, it is at the point where thoughts and psychic capacities and functioning are beginning to emerge and to be formed. That point has become the starting point for so much of my own metapsychological and conceptual work in psychoanalysis. Working with primitive personality disorders, working with the consequences of early trauma, working with psychosomatic disease. We are always at the point of failure of psychic processing and development and the need to find an intersubjective way within the treatment to restart those processes of psychic development. So, in a sense, I'm always rediscovering the 20-month-old that I was when I was back then (laughs).
It sounds like a fulfilling thing for you.
Oh, yes. It has been personally gratifying but also it has been personally healing to be able to construct a meaningful narrative and to place so many individual experiences and feelings and conflicts within a probable explainable narrative story. It is that coherence that gives meaning and gives a kind of relief and satisfaction to all of us. When we can understand how we can use our minds in ways that make sense to us and explain something even though you don't know for sure. Bion said that the psychic apparatus was a late evolutionary adaptation that helped us tolerate being in the world. That's what minds are for when they develop and you use them to think.
What do you think of what makes a good analyst?
I think it has to do with what Bion called negative capability. The capacity to sit in ignorance and accept not knowing. Without rushing to make sense of things. Without trying to make sense of things to relieve your own tension and anxiety about ignorance.
When I think back to my experience, and the experience of people I have supervised, there is always the pressure to understand, to know. But there has to be a solace and relief to know that when you don't understand, it means that you are in the right place. In order to learn, you have to start off not knowing, being ignorant. So, you have to appreciate that. That is why Jim Grotstein entitled one of his books A beam of intense darkness. Freud also said that he focuses his mind on not knowing, so that he makes room for something new and emerging to come through. Bion picked that up and talked about listening without memory, desire and understanding.
How do you think that analysis can be useful for people?
I think it's enormously important for the growth of one's mind, for increasing the capacity to deal with the inevitable tensions of life: the conflicts, the excesses, the deficits, the disappointments.
In my training I was told that psychoanalysis was the treatment of choice for neurosis. The primitive character disorders were more problematic and that Freud said that the narcissistic neuroses were not so amenable to analytic treatment. I think it is equally true for borderline narcissistic pathology, for psychosomatic pathology and so on. Psychoanalysis, if the pairing of analysts and patient is good enough, is the treatment of choice. I think I have been fortunate enough to be able to significantly help some of my patients in ways that I think other forms of treatment would never have been able to reach them. So, I think it is a tremendously important therapeutic modality. Culturally, it's a very important perspective on life. But it requires a lot. It requires a commitment, it requires money, it requires time, it requires patience, and patients. But mostly the capacity to wait and see, because a good and useful analytic process takes a while to develop.
Referring to patients, do you think that patients or pathologies changed over time?
I was talking about this at lunch today with Patrick Miller and he was saying that the embeddedness of technology, of computers, of smartphones in the lives of younger people from absolutely the get-go produces a kind of instantaneous response that people get habituated to and, operationalizes their way of life and their way of thinking. There is no place any more for not knowing, being ignorant or being able to wait. You know: “come on, my computer is slow (laughs).” Psychoanalysis stands for certain kinds of human and humanistic values that are in danger of being overridden in contemporary culture. We are fighting a rear-guard battle in trying to preserve some of the humanity of our culture in our social situation. I think that is necessary and positive, although I worry about what the long-term outcome will be.
What do think about intimacy in this social network loaded culture of ours?
Well intimacy is a complex matter in this day and age. On the one hand, there are the sort of generic assumptions about intimacy that came with the sexual revolution. You know, we sleep together, we do this, we do that. That is a sort of superficial erotic contact, not intimacy. Real intimacy has to do, first of all, with one's contact with oneself. You can't be intimate with another person if you're not intimately in contact with your own self. What is more intimate then a psychoanalytic relationship? A real psychoanalytic relationship I mean and not a performance of a psychoanalysis. There are two people who really engage with each other and with themselves around the understanding of the deepest and innermost parts of one, oneself. Although the analyst doesn't talk about it with the patient, it requires a reciprocal engagement with the deepest, most intimate parts of oneself. That is a form of intimacy that is not easily found. Certainly not in our culture. Everything is action-oriented. Doing, doing, doing, doing. Passivity is feared and avoided.
Andre Green talks about passivation, the capacity to allow oneself to surrender in the passive position to another human being. An intimate relationship to oneself in terms of one's experience of one's drives? That is not valued today. In fact, it tends to be devalued in our culture. Analysis requires oneself to surrender to some extent to the process, to oneself. You can't free associate without surrendering your own self in the willingness to be able to talk fully and without sanction to your analyst. Surrendering to the dictates of the basic rule and therefore in a sense to another person, in that way. This is an important corrective that our culture tends to avoid, misses and overrides. But it is part of being human.
We are talking about the post-modern world. How about modern post-modern psychoanalysis? Is there such a thing?
I think, at its best, the contemporary change in psychoanalysis was summed up by René Roussillon at the French language conference in Montreal a few years ago when he said that we are moving from a metapsychology of content to a metapsychology of process. There's a sort of cartoon trope in the United States, Where's Waldo? You know there's a little cartoon character named Waldo? You have to pick him out of this vast surround. When I was trained in psychoanalysis, Waldo was the Oedipus Complex. The idea of psychoanalytic treatment was: Where's the Oedipus conflict and how do you resolve it? What you would find was predetermined by your assumptions that it was their problematic and that is what you look for. Well, that is all about content. It is not that Oedipus isn't important and significant and problematic and central. But you can't decide ahead of time what it is you are about to find in a patient. You have to allow for surprise! This is the movement from content to process. A psychoanalysis of processes rather than hidden contents has been a very valuable addendum to the basic psychoanalytic position.
How do you see the future of psychoanalysis?
That's a very complicated question. I am concerned about the future. This is one of the reasons I ran for president of the IPA. I think that the challenge and the burdens of our Societies in terms of training the future generations, in terms, of upholding the clinical and ethical standards of psychoanalysis, the responsibilities of all that are enormous. All of the usual suspects in terms of group dynamic problems and pressures are there in organizations and the tendencies to form not always the healthiest of narcissistic alliances for personal aggrandizement and gratification. These are basic human tendencies that get played out in groups and organizations and have to be dealt with resisted, fought against. I think psychoanalytic societies are in a very difficult position. I think we have to try to deal with the inevitable problems that come up by asking them to take responsibility and become engaged in the decision-making process. Become engaged in the ownership of the exploration and the rectification of whatever problems might exist. Not allow or expect them to assume the kind of passive position vis-à-vis the large organizations like the IPA, EPF or the American Psychoanalytical Association.
But to take ownership of the problem whatever the problem that needs to be solved might be. This might be able to raise the level of discourse at the group and organizational level to a point where some of the problems may be mitigated or avoided.
I think that psychoanalysis remains an incredibly potentially valuable asset to the common good as a therapy, a discourse and as a way of looking at the world. I think that, personally at this point, I will continue to devote myself to the scientific side of advancing psychoanalytic conceptualization and trying to expand its application to more and more types of patients and situations.
One final question. You were recently in Portugal at the Lisbon Clinical Marathon. How was it for you?
I thought it was a great experience. I think people loved it. First of all, it's a deeply clinical conference. Second, it's an intimate small conference where everybody gets to talk and everybody gets to think together and hear each other and work together so that as a working group, it was very successful. And it was independently created. There's more room for creativity when you do things independently, because you don't have to go through some organizational chain of command in order to get permission. You don't have to make sure that you do something according to the lights of whatever the dominant theory is in your society or the theory du jour for that particular period of time. There is a freedom in the spontaneity and being outside of an institution that is extremely valuable. Whether it can be maintained, whether each of our independent groups begin to form their own crust and develop a sort of political correctness as to what is allowed and what isn't and so we work against that sense of freedom as we get more established. That's a problem that all groups have to face, I think.
I really think that the Clinical Marathon was successful. I hope it goes on and I hope that other creative efforts come out of your thinking and your willingness to put things together for people, to convene spaces where real learning and real exchange and real teaching and real working together take place.
Is there anything that I haven't asked and that you'd like to talk about?
I would just add one thing. I think that what you're doing in this series of interviews is enormously valuable. I think it's a courageous and creative undertaking. I'm really delighted to be part of it and proud to help inspire it to whatever extent I have. I thank you for it, because you are the next generation and the torch has passed on to you.