"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Electrified Tightrope Between Psychoanalysis and "Religion"

I'm working on a long essay right now about what I've learned from the literary scholar and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, whom I have often discussed on these pages. He persuaded his fellow analyst Michael Eigen to publish a collection of his essays, and since they came with Phillips' recommendation and under his editorship, I made a point of just finishing Eigen's The Electrified Tightrope, ed. Adam Phillips (Jason Aronson, 1993), 320pp.

The essays rather meander somewhat which is not surprising at all. There are three things I found of benefit in the book.

First, I found Eigen's insight into the lust for omniscience very provocative and important. Psychoanalytic thought, going back to Freud, has been aware of the similar, and sometimes related, lust for power and domination and the many psychic implications and permutations of that. (I treat a good bit of that in my own new book, Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.) But a similar demand for omniscience has not been reflected on nearly as widely until Eigen came along.

"The fantasy of omniscience is a denial of the unconscious," Phillips says in opening the book with his introduction. This is a point that would easily link up with Christopher Bollas's reflections on "normotic illness," which I discussed here. It is also, as Eigen  makes clear late in the book, a fantasy usually founded upon, and fueled by a desire for mastery over, some earlier trauma. If we cannot ourselves become omniscient, then we often project this desire and expectation onto others--priests, popes, and therapists being perhaps the three biggest examples. But Eigen offers an important clinical caution here in saying that the pressure to know, or to show that one knows, can often impede the therapist from doing good work, which sometimes consists simply in letting go and being taken up by and into that "evenly hovering attention" Freud first described, an attention in which one deliberately chooses not to know for a time, not to focus on anything, but instead to allow for the freedom to grow and develop in the transference.

I know how often that has been my experience. I was well into my analysis when, somewhat distastefully, I realized that my analyst wasn't cranking out instant interpretations of the myriad dreams I would bring her, sometimes on a daily basis. What was she good for? Why did she say so little? These were complex dreams, sometimes terrifying, and I wanted them decoded and thereby mastered. But analysis doesn't work that way when it comes to dreams.

Nor does it work that way in most other respects, either. It wasn't until many years after my analysis that I came to realize, with extreme reluctance and through clenched teeth, that I could spend the rest of my life on the couch and still not exhaust, let alone defeat, all unconscious dynamics and matter and achieve mastery over everything--an insight I resented and still do in some ways. Instead, it offers the freedom to move out from behind the prison of one's self-diagnosis and self-sabotaging search for absolute control.

It has been Phillips, and now Eigen, who have been helpful in showing that one of the benefits of analysis is that you can learn to forget about yourself, and forget about the futile quest of seeking total coherence, total understanding, total comprehension of and mastery over the unconscious mind. Perhaps such a desire is an occupational hazard of the intellectual life, especially if one's personality is of the schizoid type Fairbairn, Guntrip, Winnicott, Klein, and others have so well described.

Second, picking up themes that Phillips would later develop, Eigen talks about the role of excess in our life, and the role of asceticism--a word he repeatedly uses, with obvious suggestive connotations in the Jewish and Christian spiritual traditions. Reflections on excess I think are important for Christians to consider because of how often we are miserly towards ourselves, and recreate God in that image instead of understanding His lavish "excessive" love, as I tried to suggest here, drawing on the insights of Jean Vanier.

Third, Eigen is noteworthy in coming from something of a Jewish mystical background, and being quite open with discussion of God in a way that avoids the reductive and often almost adolescent caricatures of God one sometimes finds in psychoanalysis. He openly discusses the notion of "faith" in several chapters, drawing on Winnicott, Guntrip, and others of the British Middle School and clearly going beyond Freud, whose treatment of God he finds, rightly, very reductive. As he puts is:
A goal of analysis is to unmask the hidden god sense displaced onto or mixed up with some mundane reality. ....In the West God was to function as the one living Reality which possessed the qualities of the ideal imago as such, thereby objectifying it. In Bion's language he was to be the one container for human desire who could not be exploded by it.
Finally, at the end of his book, in an offhand way, he notes that analysis should be seen not just as a talking cure, but also a "writing cure," which has certainly been my experience. So expect to hear more about this on here, including, soon, three new books by Adam Phillips I have just finished, including the very short Attention Seeking. 

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