On Psychoanalysis

An awfully long time ago I said I would write about psychoanalysis, and although I didn’t intend for there to be such a gap, it feels most appropriate to discuss it now when, after a period of imposed silence, I feel the gag is finally off and I’m trying to stem the flood of about two month’s backed up posts. My interest in psychoanalysis has always been inseparable from my fascination with our compulsion to talk and use stories to make sense of life, and from our general human reliance on language to do far more for us than we ever realize or acknowledge. Language is the thread that stitches us into the lives we lead, and without it we would be hopelessly alienated, not only from others but also from ourselves. I’ve long been academically intrigued by how we tick, how we use our strange and capricious limitations and flexibilities, how we transform suffering, how we negotiate with the obstacles of fate and our often paradoxical responses to them. But I wouldn’t be so interested if my heart weren’t touched by the intent of psychoanalysis to cure. It was born from the recognition that life is just too much for us. That there will inevitably be times when the task of existence will prove too burdensome, too unwieldy, and that we will need the listening strength of another person to pull us through the difficult days; and that it is likely to be those who most courageously try to be strong and swim against the currents who will find themselves drowning, not waving. There’s a depth of compassion for humanity in that motivation that exerts a powerful attraction on me, and at a certain level it corresponds to the voice that whispers through all great literary novels to reassure readers that they are not alone in the morass of their feelings and experiences. Both literature and psychoanalysis combine empathy with the redeeming creativity of mankind to find new ways out of age-old plights, and for that I salute and applaud them.

So how to sum up psychoanalysis? Essentially it’s a dialogue between two people who agree to open up their private, mental worlds to one another in order to look at existence differently, because the old frames of reference have become outdated or insufficient. Although it often feels rather like declaring the earth is round when the evidence of our eyes insists that it’s flat, we never experience life innocently. Instead it is always filtered to us through various veils of fantasy and assumption, and we couldn’t live without them. Life would be too concentrated, too harsh without the strategies we silently and rapidly use to make it both palatable and digestible. But as we grow, so those fantasies need to change; or sometimes events occur that challenge us beyond the capacity of our resources. The kind of events that make a great narrative are equally those that make for a nightmare period of existence, and stories are there not just to represent events in ways that bestow an odd beauty on even the worst of them, but most importantly they extract the meaning from them. Finding meaning is one of the ways in which we are most profoundly soothed. So literature and psychoanalysis both use story telling to create and recreate patterns of meaning that help us get a grip on ourselves and on the life we have been living. But how psychoanalysis uses the story as a tool has changed remarkably over the course of the last century.

When Freud first started talking to his hysterics he considered their gappy, inconsistent stories to be an indication of their fragmented states of mind. Mental health for Freud meant healing the story, sealing its raw and jagged edges, making it neat and coherent and watertight. His patients were like half written pieces of crime fiction: all the violence, with none of the skilful resolution. Freud talked them into telling themselves with order and discipline, and in this way they solved themselves and the problems they posed. Nowadays things are quite different. The existence of the unconscious has been taken to its logical conclusion and in the absence of tidy self-mastery we have to accept that there are parts of ourselves which will always be alien and incomprehensible. There is no cure for living, just as there is no solution to the riddle of our identities. Instead we have to recognize that we are creatures of the gap, inconsistent, paradoxical, lacking, and psychoanalysis is there to help us live better with our often awkward disjunctions.

Psychoanalytic literary criticism has made a very similar transformation over the years. In its rather inglorious early stages, it tended to be used to ‘solve’ the problems of a story, either identifying complexes in the author who wrote it or the characters who peopled it. Now, good literary critics stopped doing this kind of thing decades ago, but rather like the incautious remarks of a young marriage that endlessly return to haunt both parties, so this image of psychoanalytic criticism is dragged up every time a hostile critic seeks to discredit it as a strategy. Instead, in more recent approaches, the story is read as if it were (and as indeed it is) the imprint of a mind thinking, a mind that is its own world, with a full complement of fantasies and assumptions and a powerful unconscious. There is nothing to be fixed or cured here, rather everything in the story is perfect and exactly as it is supposed to be, but there will be all kinds of elements that intrude, inconsistencies, gaps, strange occurrences that are simply fascinating for the ambiguities they scatter across the tale. The knots and twists and odd, complicated parts of a story are where all the interesting things are happening, and it’s the critic’s job to pay careful, listening attention to them, to tease out the other side of the story, the one that hides in the shadows of the language. Obviously some stories respond better to this approach than others, but when I’m reading a novel and it starts to talk to me with two voices, one clear, shrill voice that tells the obvious tale and then a second, whispery, intermittent one that holds all the secrets, I get chills running down my inner critic’s spine. Something’s happening and I feel myself go still and quiet whilst I listen for it. It happens with people too, sometimes, when they are telling me one thing, but equally, unwillingly and also longingly saying something quite different, too. With people it’s tricky; they are quite likely to strenuously deny the existence of the other voice, but with stories it’s a moment to revel and delight in, and if I became sucked inextricably into the business of literary criticism, it was in response to the compelling fascination of those moments and their rich expression of human complexity.


14 thoughts on “On Psychoanalysis

  1. So glad you’re back Litlove! Such an illuminating guide to psychoanalysis, the theory came to life in such a helpful way. The idea of listening for the other voice, the shadow side where the art of language resides, is so beautifully explained. I’ve just finished reading Salley Vickers’ The Other Side of You (thanks to your great review some months back), many thanks for the patterns you weave here, enhancing my understanding. Best wishes for your continued recovery.

  2. Kirstenjane, thank you so much for that comment. I really wanted to please my blogging friends today, so your comment meant a lot to me. So glad to know you enjoyed the Vickers book, too! I loved it.

  3. Oh, welcome back! You have been missed. This is a wonderful post – one I printed out to reread and more thoroughly understand. I love what you say about the two voices speaking to you as you read a novel – I experience something extremely similar but could never have articulated it as well as you have. I hope your recovery is smooth.

  4. And I always thought Freud was a crank! 😉 Lovely post Litlove. I like what you say about how psychoanalysis is about storytelling. It makes so much sense and I can completely understand why you like it so much.

  5. Psychoanalysis as dialogue; I like this — it’s all about listening carefully to somebody else’s story. And it turns the psychoanalytic critic into a careful listener as well — what a wonderful way to read!

  6. Dear Courtney – thank you so much! I’ve had reason over the years to think about this a lot, so I’m writing on a topic close to my heart and often explored in my work. I never seem to tire of it, though. And I’ve missed you, too. It’s lovely to be back with my blog friends. Stefanie – I just love the thought that telling stories can have such power – and after all, it’s true. Anyone who loves reading knows how deeply it can affect them. LOL about Freud! Dorothy – it’s the thought of those close, intimate and yet distant relationships that intrigues me, whether between the story and the reader or the patient and the analyst, and the ways they link in with real, deep relations between parents and children and lovers. What happens at the heart of those encounters is never less than fascinating.

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  8. I know very little about psychoanalysis (thanks for your introduction to it!)–but it sounds very interesting. I don’t think I could ever bear my soul to someone, but I sometimes think the task of existence can be too much. How does the psychoanalyst know what questions to ask? I know what you mean by hearing what a person is saying, but knowing there is more to the story. It’s intriguing about the voices in a story–I wonder if I would be able to tell them apart? I think I will have to read more about this.

  9. Welcome back, and I hope you’re feeling well these days. I, of course, couldn’t wait to read this one as soon as I saw the title, but then was immediately interrupted by a phone call and had to pull myself away. For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how life for humans is nothing really but one story after another, and that we all tell our own stories about it and ourselves and others almost, I think, as the only way we can survive without going insane. I’ve been wondering if those who are “insane,” are those who’ve lost the ability to use stories in this way. How wonderful to come upon your post just when I’ve been having all these thoughts. Sigh! Once again, I find myself wishing I could just come knock on your door with some tea and hours to spare.

  10. I like this from

    The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff

    What would astonish a primitive tribesman about the state of our spirits is that we believe we can establish the meaningfulness of our private existence in the absence of any collective cosmology or teleology. The priest of this particular kind of pursuit is Freud. The needs of our spirit have been re-born in the intensive search for the logic of our childhood, our dreams, our desires. We share with other tribes the idea that certain forms of knowledge are necessary for our health, but we are the only tribe which believes that such necessary knowledge can be private knowledge – the science of the individual. We have created a new need, the need to live an examined life; we pursue its satisfaction in the full babble of conflicting opinions about what life is for, and we pursue it in a collectively held silence about the meaning of death. Instead of being astonished at the spiritual emptiness of the times, we should be amazed that individuals manage, in both the silence and the babble, to find sufficient meaning and purpose.

    He goes on to say we have been living this way since the Enlightenment.

    Although not exclusively dealing with Freud, Richard Sennett, in his book Authority, addresses a sustained argument about how people are drawn to authority figures, which could help in in understanding both Freud and psychoanalysis.

  11. Danielle – I think that bearing one’s soul to a stranger is much easier than trying to do it to a loved one (they’ll remember what we say!) but I think it could only ever happen if you were unhappy enough with a part of your life to really need to do it. So I’m thinking of you as a very well-adjusted person right now! (as I always do). I think you would hear absolutely instinctively the difference between those two voices; from reading your book reviews, in fact, I know you do. It’s probably just a new way to think about what you naturally do. Emily – I can only wish that Bob had found the perfect ministry for himself ten minutes from my door! I do like what you say about the insane and stories. I think madness is thinking there is only one story, that it’s absolute and has no doubt or flexibility. Uncertainty, ambiguity, these are the elements of reality. I must try out your new email address, just to go off-topic here! Adfero – thank you for that wonderful quotation! I have never read any Ignatieff and I can see that I should. I’d like to have a look at that Richard Sennett book, too, so thank you so much for drawing them to my attention; I do appreciate it.

  12. While listening for your other voice, I heard this statement loudly: With people it’s tricky; they are quite likely to strenuously deny the existence of the other voice.

    Isn’t that the job of psychoanalysis, by and large? To listen for, acknowledge and help the patient finally hear that voice that tells the truth?

    It’s dangerous to try on friends, just as it’s hazardous to point out to authors, and if you have a friend who happens to be an author, woe to you if you try to sound the hidden notes too loudly. I love the way you find these parallels and share them, Litlove. They do as much to enrich our lives as our reading.

  13. Yes, you are quite right, David: psychoanalysis is precisely about giving another reading to a story that attempts to draw out the hidden subtext, in the belief that it contains something of tremendous value. I hear what you say about authors and will bear it in mind next time I comment on one of your vsns! (although their hidden subtexts may well prove just too tempting for me to ignore….)

  14. this was a very interesting post to read as i have lately become interested in psychology and different philosophies on thought. i actually had to reread it to try to get the full meaning. This was very eloquently written as well. =)

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