This is it, folks – the final chapter of my psychoanalytic blog series based on the book Freud and Beyond. While it has been a real pleasure to share some of these amazing concepts with you, it’s also been a real slog to write. A lot of time, effort and hard work went into putting these posts together, so I hope you’ve enjoyed them. Of course, most of what you’ve encountered are the wonderful ideas of countless experts, beautifully brought to life by Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, but I hope my own little nuggets of thought have also helped to inform, entertain and challenge. I’d like to wrap things up by mimicking the book just one more time – because I wish to give my own appraisal of psychoanalysis, before taking a look at the different ways it remains so relevant to contemporary life.
It’s such an amazing area of thought, and one with such potential to help humanity, that I wish more people were exposed to it and immersed by it. You see, I love psychoanalysis so much because it enables us to explore how and why human beings behave the way they do, how and why we make culture, how great an impact our childhood has on our adult lives and why and how we generate meaning. It’s like a guide to the nature of the human condition. I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be interested in this discipline. Even the most sceptical couldn’t argue with the key tenets.
From the illuminating paranoid-schizoid ideas of Klein to Anna Freud’s supportive ego psychology; the interpersonal focus of Harry Stack Sullivan to Fairbairn’s object-seeking libido and our yearning to recreate childhood connections; the importance of Winnicott’s loving good-enough mother to the vitality of Kohut’s healthy childish narcissism; from Schafer’s storyline narratives to Loewald’s dialectical interplay between past and present to Lacan and the determinative role of language, it’s all so intriguing.
Psychoanalysis allows us tell the story of human experience – it helps us to explore how meaning is generated in the lives of individuals and wider groups; it traces, explicates and makes sense of culture and gets to the root of humanity; with all its various joys and discontents. Thanks to Sigmund Freud, and those brave enough to take his great ideas further, we can now plumb even the most hidden depths of the psyche – and use what we learned to help improve the psychological conditions for troubled human beings all over the world.
The making of Dexter – nature or nurture?
I’d like to begin with a musing over a subject which fascinates me – psychopathy. As I write this post, me and my wife Pru are watching the second series of the Netflix show Mindhunter, which explores the early development of the FBI’s serial-killer profiling and the conception of their behavioural science unit. It’s a great show – and I’d thoroughly recommend it if, like me, you find criminal psychology interesting. Dexter is another thoroughly entertaining show, albeit a very different beast (so to speak), which is also available on Netflix. Michael C. Hall plays blood-spatter specialist Dexter Morgan. He uses his expertise to help the police solve crimes – yet he’s actually a serial-killer himself. However, Dexter’s thing is that he only kills people who are morally corrupt – usually fellow killers, but basically anyone he knows/intuits is up to really bad stuff.
It’s an intriguing concept right off the bat, as Dexter is essentially a nice, polite, kind and helpful guy, and so the ‘moral steering’ of his killings is supposed to help us sympathise with his yearning to butcher and maim. Yet I find it difficult to understand why any psychopath would care about which type of person they kill – surely their complete lack of remorse, guilt or empathy would render this point moot? Isn’t the whole point that he doesn’t have a conscience? I guess psychopathy, like most others in life, in not just black and white – there are plenty of grey areas. Anyway, it’s still a fun watch. In Dexter, the show’s creators determine the origin of his psychopathy as a result of a traumatic childhood event – the barbaric killing of his mother when he is a very young boy. Freud eventually settled on the belief that psychopathy is something that emanates from an internal distortion.
While others believe that a series of traumatic events (basically bad/inadequate parenting) leads to such troubled psychological states. Surely the answer is a bit of both as usual here? We all have the capacity to become psychopaths in infancy. I would imagine it’s a mix of nature and nurture which eventually causes human beings to adopt those traits. I am, of course, no expert here, so my thoughts are basically conjecture. But it’s still an interesting debate. Is psychopathy a result of destructive events and actual experience or a warping impact of childhood fantasy?
The nature vs nurture debate runs at the very core of psychoanalysis and the various concepts associated with it – and it’s certainly pertinent here. Mitchell and Black explain how Freud eventually came to the conclusion that there is something in the very nature of humanity that is problematic; our tendency to generate inevitable universal conflicts. For Freud, actual experiences still count – but not as much as the underlying conflictual drives. Thus for Freud, psychopathology was a distortion from the inside – not an intrusion from outside. But this has swung back and forth post-Freud.
Many experts now see trauma emanating from various sources in infancy, such as parents’ chronic failure to meet the psychological needs of a developing child. Nature and nurture are now seen as less distinct and separate – and distortions like psychopathy can thus be explored and examined from a number of viewpoints. It’s not just a matter of what’s inside us to begin with – but also how we are shaped by our interaction with the external world. So perhaps it’s best to think of Dexter as the beast with the ‘capacity for serial-killing’ in his general make-up, which was then ‘triggered by events’ that occurred in his interactions with the outside world.
Conflict vs Arrested Development – Messler Davies’ kaleidoscope
Mitchell and Black raise some interesting on ideas on identity in Freud and Beyond – particularly with regard to the contemporary postmodern landscape and the notion that we are all the product of fractured multiplicities and inner splits. Among those is the work of Jody Messler Davies, who likened the unconscious to a child’s kaleidoscope. On a similar vein to Dexter’s nature vs nurture debate, Messler Davies’ ideas explore the causes of psychological discontent. So how and where do these feelings come into being – inner conflict, issues with development linked to upbringing or perhaps a mixture of the two? Mitchell and Black explain how Messler Davies noted a “dissociation among multiple self organisations and self states” which was not created by unmet developmental needs, but by unintegratable (sometimes traumatic) early interactions with significant others.
It seems to me that we are all these mega melting pots of multiplicity – and among all those self states there are bound to be stronger and weaker points. Some will be developed and some will be less so. Finding some kind of balance, integration and wholeness appears to be key – maturity, vitality, adaptability; a uniting of conscious and unconscious in that Jungian sense. In the classical Freudian model the central defence mechanism is repression and buried impulses. Arrested development, meanwhile, is all about the split of different self states that have not been integrated with each other. These undeveloped potentials simply never had the right environment to grow. Mitchell and Black tell us how Messler Davies saw the unconscious not like an onion that needed to be carefully peeled away to get to the core, or that classic Freudian archaeological site to unearth and reconstruct. Instead, she viewed it as a child’s kaleidoscope – a complex organisation with infinite pathways of connectedness. Her ideas thus pathed the way for a more complex synthesis between conflict and arrested development. Once again, nature and nurture are reunited – and balance comes up trumps as usual.
Harvey, disclosure and the man behind the curtain
There is an intriguing case study towards the end of Freud and Beyond which explores some of the key differences between the classical Freudian model of analysis and more progressive, innovative contemporary practices. Harvey, the patient in question, was a skilful artist who struggled to commit to anything. He sought treatment – and took great comfort in it. Harvey’s mother had severe psychological issues and was extremely fragile – Harvey thus surrendered himself to her overprotective anxious care. Harvey viewed his first analyst akin to his missing father, who had psychologically abandoned him as he acted as the ‘saviour’ to his mother (thus Harvey experienced Oedipal guilt. Anyway, Mitchell and Black explain how Harvey wished to be his analyst’s “special patient” – and that when that analyst decided to retire, it hit Harvey hard.
Eventually, he sought treatment again with a new analyst – who was also new to the field. As a result, Harvey ended up creating this dynamic where he believed the analyst might be crazy and needed Harvey to protect him. Harvey convinced himself that the analyst had used a “schizophrenic neologism” (or ‘crazy person made-up word’) and felt it was his duty to make sure no-one else ever discovered this secret. Now, this obviously wasn’t the case, but the analyst was moved by Harvey’s dedication to him (if a little perturbed by the fact he thought he was crazy!) And so the analyst and Harvey forged this two-way dynamic, where countertransference was vital, to ensure a more open forum was available to help improve his chances of psychic reparation.
Eric Fromm, the German psychologist (a socialist and keen existentialist) believed that honesty and frank discussion were vital for patients. As an existentialist, Fromm felt more honesty was needed in society generally. He believed that patients want to know what they’re like as people, how they actually treat others and why things seem to go wrong in their lives. Thus for Fromm, disclosure of analysts’ personal feelings and reactions was essential. As a result, the classical style of analysis seems dated now – the idea that someone just sits quietly and listens, then interprets as they see fit. It’s no wonder some people find that distance stifling and unsupportive.
To use that classic Wizard of Oz metaphor once again, it seems that just being dictated to by the “man behind the curtain” is not good for anyone. Collaboration and interpersonal experience clearly brings the best out of us as a species. Mitchell and Black tell us how disclosure can provide the analyst and analysand with crucial material for understanding – and that selective disclosure has been shown to enhance the collaborative analytic relationship. Many analysts now feel the need to create a new object relationship with their patients. For Harvey, it was important and liberating to feel he mattered to the analyst – and, as mentioned, the analyst also felt warmed by Harvey’s (somewhat misguided) commitment to his welfare.
It just makes me wonder how much better the world – and our psyches – could operate if we were all just a bit more honest with each other. If we can get to the truth of our feelings, troubles and causes of psychological pain, surely we have a much better chance of addressing them. If we were more honest with ourselves and others, could we learn to get over the pain of that honesty and appreciate the lack of hidden secrets we’d be burdened with? I don’t know. But it seems that opening up a shared, collaborative platform with others is potentially much more helpful to one’s well-being than just being told what to do by someone else – and that’s worth bearing in mind.
Freud, Popper and psychoanalysis standing on its own
I wrote a blog a short while ago on confirmation bias – after I was accused (that sounds more serious than it is) of demonstrating this in my writing. You can read that here if you like, but it was a good exercise for me – because I hadn’t really thought about it before. It was totally true, of course – but it led me to ponder whether or not we can ever really write in such a clinical fashion that we don’t leave a piece of ourselves on the page. Working on the post also led me in the direction of Freud and Karl Popper, the Austrian-born British philosopher. Among his various interesting ideas was the belief that the majority of Freud’s findings were tainted as a ‘pseudo-science’.
Popper felt that Freudian psychoanalysis was flawed as a scientific methodology because the theories could explain pretty much everything and anything, yet couldn’t be falsified; that is to say, they could never be held accountable to universal specific predictions. It’s not to say that Popper thought Freud’s ideas were wrong – more that they couldn’t be verified by the exactness of a scientific inquiry. I can completely accept this – but I refuse to accept that this means Freud’s ideas are any less relevant, meaningful and powerful. So what if people want psychoanalytic theory, analysis and ideas to be empirically judged? I love them. They’re interesting, relevant and beautiful. And they really help people. And help us understand ourselves.
I don’t care if Popper doubted Freud’s practice and confirmation style at all, and I don’t care that people doubt the various brilliant ideas psychoanalysis has generated. I think it’s all worthy of intrigue and consideration and the world would almost certainly (confirmation bias much?!) be a better place if more people prescribed to it and valued it like I do. Some commentators suggest that psychoanalysis can stand on its own terms – given the manner in which it explains human experience. Mitchell and Black suggest that this “doesn’t diminish empiricism, but it does eliminate empirical validation as the ultimate adjudicator of psychoanalytic truth”. I think that’s fair enough. Just because it’s not backed up by empirical certainty, exactness or cannot be falsified on Popper’s terms doesn’t mean it’s not awesome. Psychoanalysis rocks – that’s a universal truth right there (it’s not).
Hermeneutics, history and the age of fake news
Speaking of Popper, confirmation bias and the nature of truth, Freud and Beyond raises some interesting ideas in relations to hermeneutics – the branch of knowledge that focuses on the interpretation of texts. As mentioned previously, if one is not careful they could be forgiven for thinking that Freud had an answer to every question imaginable. But, as Mitchell and Black tell us, the answers to questions about the patient are infinite. And just as philosophy in general tells us, it’s vital that we don’t deal in absolutes when it comes to matters such as these. We simply never have all the answers – and every idea is always open to being reimagined, reworked and proven wrong. This leads me towards wondering how future generations will ever get a clear insight into what’s happening today.
The media appears to be so split between political left and right that any truth, news story or historical fact is warped to meet the values of the group it’s intended to be consumed by (Foucault, much!) Mitchell and Black give the example of the fall of Rome – and the way different cultures will see the story differently. Their facts won’t necessarily add up – its all about the current context in which the historian is operating; all those differing values, biases and opinions have the potential to colour things very differently. The interpretation of events becomes a reflection of what the generation of historians is like. It goes without saying that any historian worth their salt would do their best to get as wide and diverse a perspective as possible – and attempt to deal with genuine truths as much as possible. Mitchell and Black suggest that it’s not just a case of gathering facts but an active process between past and present.
This invokes thoughts of Martin Heidegger’s ecstasies of temporality, and the way something like, say, a Roman pot has this great history and relevance at different points in history. What was once just a vessel for carrying water is now an antiquity – it’s being is both stamped in the past and the future. The nature of its being as simply a fundamental truth (its physical state) might be unchanged, but its meaning to those who come across in different points in history couldn’t be more vast and varied. In terms of hermeneutics and good history, Mitchell and Black insist that information must be consistent with whatever facts we have – and fit with our understanding of the world. One must persuasively account for what is known. History as something that is interpretive gives one a reality that is knowable through different possible understandings partially constructed by the knower. As I said a moment ago, this all makes me wonder how the historians of the future will actually be able to garner a ‘true’ or accurate account of events happening today.
There are so many media outlets with their own agenda, spreading their fake news as gospel, that the search for genuine truth and meaning has become something of a quagmire. I imagine life has always been like this in a way, but it seems so pertinent now that one simply assumes the truth they wish to assume. Perhaps this is what Nietzsche had in mind all along, or perhaps it’s the exact opposite. But it seems to me that psychoanalysis must be wary of ever assuming it has the ‘true’ answers to anything with its various theories. Maybe it’s best just to suggest that it has many wonderful possible answers – and some of those could prove to be very useful to people one day. Unlike fake news.
It’s time to split
And so we come to the end of this series of psychoanalytic blogs – and we end on some themes that not only tie in nicely with the penultimate section, but also underline the entire run of posts. Tension. Conflict. Reparation. The love-hate, polar opposites and inner dialectic which Melanie Klein illuminated at the heart of our being. It seems to me that Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position – those duelling inner tensions at the core of humanity – are being played out on the global stage. From the core of every individual to the competitive, aggressive tussle between rival sides of the political spectrum. Just like the media, with its stark left and right biases, polar opposite agendas and constant warring factions, it feels like Klein’s inner tension is being played out by all of us in this big, depressing game of Jungian complex constellation.
It sometimes feels like life has become some kind of post-apocalyptic point-scoring wind-up contest – like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Running Man, only with Donald Trump; so even more ridiculous. It seems these days you’re either a conservative traditionalist who hates weakness or a lefty liberal who hates selfishness; also known as a racist Trump lover vs a whiny snowflake. Why can’t we instead aim for something in the middle? Where we show strength, punish accordingly, but also show compassion and try to look after and care for everyone? We need to tap into those reparative qualities that Klein wrote about – and Mitchell and Black explore so beautifully. Klein suggested that, in regards to sexuality, having a baby has a reparative power to restore one’s internal goodness; or, rather, the goodness of our internal object world.
Sexuality was yet another avenue for this paranoid-schizoid positioning, where our basic human dilemma was the same – successfully integrating those loving and hateful feelings. In reproduction, Klein saw the potential for something to grow and survive internally despite those destructive feelings. She believed pregnancy could restore the vitality, viability and goodness of one’s internal object world. Now, I’m not saying we all need to go out and have babies. For a start, that’s pretty tricky for people like me who don’t have wombs. But what we should be aiming to do is begin with a new focus on integration, working together and compromising. And then think about the ways we can conjure that reparative spirit amongst our species.
We need to impregnate humanity with love again. We need to give birth to a new era of compassion, acceptance and understanding. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be defined by difference and altering – in the sense of which Simone De Beauvoir wrote so passionately. “Altering is the fundamental category of human thought,” she wrote in The Second Sex. Setting up opposition against others is a defining trait of mankind – duality and systems of oppositions. She felt this didn’t have to be the case – human reality could be based on solidarity and friendship. We need to usher in a new landscape of respect, kindness and strength. We need to take the power back from those who abuse, subjugate and set harmful agendas and unite our world again. Psychoanalysis helps us to see this. And its lessons can help us to get there. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. Stay tuned to beingandniceness.com for more philosophical musings – and thanks, as ever, for all your support.