Updated: Aug 1, 2019
(Photo of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.’s grand wheel in Chicago, 1893.)
What might happen when talking with a group of teenaged students about psychoanalysis?
The students themselves are learning about it, and psychology in general, their teacher has told me. They’re interested in diagnosing and treatment. They’d like to know something about how a clinician works.
I’ve dutifully prepared a summary of a variety of mental disorders on a sheet of paper, which I’ve folded into Christopher Bollas’s The Freudian Moment, though I’m not sure if I’ll refer to it. I’d rather talk about psychoanalysis and how I practice it. When I sit down before the small group, I place the book on the table next to me. I’m looking at the six or seven students, my eyes moving from face to face, seeing how young they seem and imagining how they might grow, when some lines from Yeats come to mind:
“O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?”
(From “Among School Children” but does “Bollas” further lead me to think of “bole,” and thus the Yeats poem?)
I tell myself, “Yes, let’s start with a question,” and ask: “Why must we diagnose? Is making a diagnosis even necessary? Or can it somehow get in the way of treatment?” They seem to be assuming that a diagnosis should always be given, that it’s part of a protocol to be followed when treatment begins. So I explain that we often begin without looking for a diagnosis—we listen freely and see how material emerges out of the inner world; we try, as Bollas says, “to catch the drift” of what the patient is saying behind what’s on the surface of his or her speech, without influencing how it might reveal itself—and that even if a diagnosis is determined later on in the course of treatment, what’s more interesting is how change in the self occurs. I nevertheless mention a few possible diagnoses but I add they’re all inadequate in some way, to the psychoanalyst. The students persist: they’re curious about what diagnosis I’d tell an insurance company who could perhaps reimburse the patient, or his or her parents.
We talk about payment. They appear dubious. One says politely, “We wanted to hear something about diagnosing and you’re talking about money.” This is not incorrect. We’ve associated it with diagnosis. I explain that in treatment this question could well become material that could be analyzed and that it might become meaningful in some way to the patient, for example, in terms of growth from dependence to independence. It’s not a matter, then, of a possible anxiety disorder but of psychic transformation.
“Transformation comes about in and through the relationship between the patient and the analyst,” I say, perhaps too gnomically.
What happens in and through the two? With Winnicott in mind, I ask how the analyst is used by the patient. As an individual who helps you to get out of a rut you’ve been stuck in and initiates a kind of mental movement; in other words, as we might say, as an object leading to psychic growth?
I watch them considering what I’ve suggested, and I fall silent as my mind wanders.
Not too long ago I happened to come across some of the notebooks I’d kept when I was their age. I’ve brought them with me throughout the years, all the while telling myself, “This time, they’re all going to the garbage can,” since so much in them seems puerile. And yet that is who I was, in a way, at the time of their writing. Glancing through one of them, however, I was surprised to see a page on Freud. I can’t recall if the notes came from a book I was reading or perhaps from a class lecture I was attending. On the other hand, I do remember that the notes go back to around the time of my first encounters with psychotherapy, when I would meet an analyst in his consulting room from time to time on demand—he didn’t think it necessary for me to have regular, fixed appointments; rather, I could call whenever I wished to: he’d make some time available and listen to what I had to say.
There are scribblings in the notebook on the Id, Ego, and Superego; and some on dreams and free association. Still others list different moments in psychosexual development. Among the Oral and the Anal and the Genital, I’ve written, curiously “edible.” When I read this, I was vexed; I couldn’t understand what I’d meant. It then occurred to me, après-coup, that I’d wanted to write, consciously at least, “Oedipal”; but that at the time—how long ago was it?—I saw or heard something else. Perhaps the Oral gave way to the “edible” since “Oedipal” would have seemed to me, as a sixteen-year old, improbable and strange. I laughed: “Edible Oedipal.”
The students mention that they’ve learned something about sleep and dreaming. Dreams are supposed to express a wish, they all agree. Perhaps sometimes they do, I tell them, but psychoanalysts assume something else, too. We’re especially interested in the unconscious, and, in particular, unconscious desire.
“Unconscious desire often conceals itself because it makes us too uncomfortable.”
“Why uncomfortable, if it’s something you desire?” one asks.
“Something doesn’t quite fit with how we’d like to present ourselves. We might feel conflicted about it. Perhaps we feel ashamed.”
The group then shows signs of discomfort as they jiggling their behinds on their chairs.
“Let’s see how a troubling unconscious feeling might make itself sensed. Someone comes in to see me for therapy. She feels unsure as to her relationships with certain old friends, not knowing whether they’ll let her down. After a time in analysis she tells me a dream about going to an amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel with a friend. She finds this curious because she often fears heights and, she adds, in the dream, what a pleasure it is rise up and down, seated closely together. The dream could express, manifestly, a wish to be with a friend whose company she enjoys. That seems simple enough. But then again perhaps it might express, latently, something different, something that isn’t especially acceptable to the dreamer’s conscious. In order to get to that level of understanding, I have to ask her what her associations are with the friend, or the Ferris wheel. It’s through her very private associations that we might glimpse something of what’s happening in her unconscious.”
“What could that be?” one asks with a smile, while the jiggles become giggles.
The hour has gone by quickly and the students’ teacher notices the book I’d set on the table beside me. She asks what it is. I thank her for bringing this up, as it has by now slipped my mind. I tell the group that it’s written by a contemporary psychoanalyst and that it consists in some essays and interviews on how we might think about psychoanalysis today. She notes the name of the author and the title. A few of the students do the same in their own notebooks, which, I observe, are very much like the one I’d used to jot down my first scribblings on Freud.
It’s time to go and I’m left to contemplating just what I’d meant, unconsciously, when I’d written, forgotten till recently, “edible” instead of “Oedipal” at the very age as those students I’ve just spoken with. I tell myself that it would be silly—puerile, I suppose—to rid myself of the old notebooks, and just as I do two more verses of Yeats come to mind:
“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”