"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).

Friday, November 29, 2019

Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes?

Who among us has not instantly and constantly recognized oneself in the famous Pauline "I-not-I" passage at the end of Romans 7? Here Paul reflects on his own constant and relentless tendency to see the good but not do it, and to see the evil but not avoid it. This plagues all of us as a result of the introduction of what we might call deathful sin into the world. As the apostle says:
It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.
For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Here we see plainly evidence of what Freud would infamously call the "repetition compulsion" which is a central feature of the "death drive." Here we see, too, clear evidence of what Melanie Klein called "splitting" as parts of the mind war against the self and God. In all this, as in so many other instances (cf. Evagrius on the logismoi), Christianity anticipated what it would take modern psychology 1900 years to develop.

One person to grasp and admit this very readily is the late English analyst Nina Coltart, author of a book I read 25 years ago now, and return to more times than I can count: Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In her book, Coltart recognized that “We [analysts] deal with sin and its ramifying effects as surely as did a monk taking confession in his cell in the twelfth century; and we are the current representatives of a long tradition of those who worked for the cure of souls and who, in doing so, tried to bring not only insight but also transformation to the suffering sinner.” A little later in the book she also notes that “It may be a viable argument to say that Freud restored a sense of sin…and in so doing he rendered a service." (He did much more than that, as I have argued all over the place these last few years, not least in my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.)

In event, all that is prologue to a new, very short, but very powerful and useful little book that I recently received: Juan-David Nasio, Psychoanalysis and Repetition: Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes? trans. David Pettigrew (SUNY Press, 2019), 98pp. For those who may be thrown off by the title, pay attention to the subtitle, which really says it all. Nasio's use of Freud and Lacan is very sparing, and as noted below his insights are very useful to Christians who feel caught in habitual sin (cf. Romans 7:13ff) and other repetitive habits destructive of ourselves, our human relationships, and our relationship with God.

About this book the publisher tells us this:

In Psychoanalysis and Repetition, Juan-David Nasio, one of the leading contemporary Lacanian psychoanalysts in France, argues that unconscious repetition represents the core of psychoanalysis as well as no less than the fundamental constitution of the human being. Through repetition, the unconscious memory of the past erupts, without our knowledge, in our choices and actions, to such an extent that, for Nasio, we are our past in action.
While Nasio explains that repetition is both healthy and pathological, the book is primarily concerned with the repetition of unconscious trauma, as trauma engenders trauma, through unconscious fantasms that are expressed, in turn, as symptoms. Through vivid clinical examples, as well as trenchant theoretical explications involving repetition, Nasio illuminates a range of fundamental concepts in Freud and Lacan and offers a rethinking of the psychoanalytic tradition in the context of this theme. Nasio’s approach is richly interdisciplinary, incorporating passages from philosophers Descartes and Spinoza, for example, and from such literary figures as Pindar, Proust, and Verlaine. The interdisciplinary fabric of Nasio’s discourse conveys the crucial importance of the concept of repetition in psychoanalysis and in the human condition.
This book, of course, draws on what is arguably the most controversial work in a life and career marked by much of the same: Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where he postulated the existence of a repetition compulsion as part of the death drive. Until very recently, almost every analyst was at pains to pretend this theory did not exist. Even a noted sycophant like Ernest Jones severely downplayed the work in his three-volume hagiography of Freud's life.

More recently, however, and strikingly, the death drive has come in for a lot of renewed attention, much of it discussed on here in the past two years. For all the bogus controversy dredged up between Freud and Christians, this point seems to me to be the most obvious and easily accessible place for theology and Freud to begin a dialogue. Thus I think Christians should be the people most receptive to this theory, finding it most congenial to and so manifestly compatible with what we understand of original sin and its effects on us (cf. Romans 7:14ff.). More recently others have been coming to this conclusion, including Paul Axton.

I'm finding Nasio's text very valuable in revealing the nature of trauma and how it works on the memory. I'm also moved by the brief interview with which the book begins, in which Nasio explains how he practices as an analyst, a method and manner that strikes me as very kenotic.

He also has interesting insights into the problems of memory and forgetting, which I have often discussed on here in relation to Adam Phillips, inter alia. Thus Nasio can write that "There is more of the unconscious in a symptom than in the memory of an important family event" (5). That is a useful reminder that memories do not capture everything, and are often changed in their recalling, especially if more than one person recalls the memory. Thus he will write a little later on that "repetition is repetition of the Same...but--take note!--never identical to itself, always slightly modified each time is surges" (11). Because of this lack of total identity between recall, he can say--as many others have demonstrated--that "Memory is always capricious and unfaithful" (20).

Nasio's book is also a reminder that the same trauma can and does affect different people in different ways, and it profits nobody anything to downplay or outright deny some kind of traumatic suffering merely because one, apparently, managed to live through the same event and emerge relatively unscathed. He further notes that not everything we might later think traumatic existed clearly and unambiguously in those terms at the time. Instead, the messiness of memory can play a significant role here, especially repeated memories: "The 'return' of pathological repetition, the Same...that haunts the subject, is a blind and violent emotion experienced in childhood or puberty, during a half-real, half-imagined traumatic episode of a sexual, aggressive, or sad character" (24).

Even if traumatic memories may be half-real and half-imagined, sometimes people get involved, as Nasio says, in pathological repetition, which can be "not only painful in its manifestation but also compulsive in its eruption. Repetition is compulsive because it results form an irresistible double force of the unconscious fantasm: a push upward in order to externalize itself, and a push forward in order to begin again. Every compulsion bears this double movement upward and forward" (36). This is very much in keeping with how Freud and others more recently have seen this, perhaps especially Todd McGowan, whose hugely insightful book Enjoying What We Don't Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis I discussed in several installments.

We can never tire of reminding ourselves: the death drive is not nihilistic! It is teleological. Pathological repetition, that key hallmark of the drive, is teleological. The drive and its cycles of repetition, even--especially--retraumatizing repetition, all act purposefully. They seek something. They need something. They are striving after something that, however mistakenly, the mind thinks will be salutary and perhaps even healing. As Nasio puts it, trauma, strangely, exercises an "attraction" to "an exclusive and unhealthy model of satisfaction" (28). This teleological orientation is so strong in some that, as Nasio says, "trauma is paradoxically a drug, and the one who is traumatized is addicted to this drug. Trauma engenders trauma" (23).

The single greatest insight I found in this book was its clarification about the very nature and typology of trauma. We are mistaken if we think that trauma is a singular and enormous, overpowering event. It may be that for some people, but for others it may consist of a "series of regular micro traumas. Indeed a psychical trauma does not necessarily present itself as a sudden and violent breach [effraction]. Rather, it can occur progressively and subtly over the course of a sufficiently long duration. But whether the trauma is a brutal breach or a slow and insidious succession of micro traumas, it is always defined according to an essential formulation: too much excitement in a subject who is too weak to bear it" (32).

This of course immediately put me in mind of a series of reflections of Adam Phillips to which I have often returned in my mind over the past few years: on how we are often too much to bear for ourselves. Perhaps in a sense we are all "manic" and perhaps only God can contain us.

In sum, then, there is much in Juan-David Nasio, Psychoanalysis and Repetition: Why Do We Keep Making the Same Mistakes? to reflect on in these closing days of the civil year when many of us may do a kind of year-long examen of our life before turning to wonder whether the new year will bring us some welcome change and healing. The fact that we so often find ourselves repeating the very things that hurt and harm us rather than heal us cries out for deeper explanation, and Nasio has helped us in that regard.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...