The Analysands Tale
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Sophocles' Oedipus lived out the fate that we all fear, because he wanted what we all want. Doomed to realize wishes that remain fantasies for the rest of us, in the end Oedipus is destroyed by a guilt that we all feel but that has less disastrous consequences for us because we are saved by our capacity for repression. Freud's dreamer is always the agent, never the object, just as Oedipus tried to be in Oedipus Tyrannus. That is what it means to say that dreams are always - not just sometimes - wish fulfillments.
Responsible for everything, and proclaiming himself uniquely capable of bearing the suffering that his guilt demands, both Oedipus and Freud's dreamer who is, more often than not, Freud himself locate the problem in the core of the self. For the unpsychological Greeks, this meant that Oedipus was morally and religiously polluted; for Freud, it pointed to the irrationality of our desire and to the anxieties to which irrational wanting can give rise. If our irrational core - which Freud thought was represented by fate in the tragedies and by wishes and eventually drives in psychoanalysis - is the problem, then rational control - represented by self-awareness - must be the solution: "Turn your eyes inward, look into your own depths, learn first to know yourself!
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Then you will understand why you were bound to fall ill; and perhaps, you will avoid falling ill in the future" , p. So if the Oedipus Complex is the disease, knowing yourself is the cure; both borrow from the Greeks. But just what is implied by the edict is not clear, and contemporary psychoanalysts have a lot to learn from what the ancient Greeks had in mind. When Sophocles wrote Oedipus Tyrannus , the meaning of the phrase was a matter of considerable debate. An ancient aphorism, gnothi seauton had, as the political philosopher Joel Schwartz put it, "been a call for restraint and piety.
Know thy station as dictated by the gods; practice Know thy limits" , p. But by the latter part of the 5th century, in the midst of a period of enlightenment that had brought tremendous advances in medicine, mathematics, and other sciences, the meaning had changed. Proclaiming the power of rationality, the sophist Protagoras advanced the doctrine that "Man is the measure of all things," and when the 5th century Greeks, to quote Schwartz again, "looked into their souls, they saw power, not limits - the power to diagnose the natural causes of disease and war and the purely human ingenuity to cure them" p.
In the way he cast both his theory and his clinical method, Freud adopted and promoted the later, enlightenment view of gnothi seauton : know the power of your unconscious wishes to shape your world. And know that by knowing them, you can cure yourself. This is what Oedipus initially believed; it led him to undertake what Freud called "a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis" , p.
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But it is a rather peculiar analysis for Freud to claim as a paradigm; at least at first, knowing himself didn't work out very well for Oedipus. The self-blinding at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus , along with Oedipus' insistence that only he will determine his fate and that only he is strong enough to bear the suffering, reminds me of many analysands' belief in their all-encompassing guilt and responsibility for everything that has happened to them.
This belief masks and supports an underlying grandiosity, and is a phase in many analyses. But, to say the least, it would not constitute the sort of outcome one would think of as exemplary. The problem - for Freud's reading of Oedipus and more broadly for his psychoanalytic vision - was the assumption that knowing yourself is exclusively a matter of turning inward, of recognizing the irrationality of your unconscious wishes and of the acts to which they give rise.
Sophocles, living with and writing about the ambiguous meaning of gnothi seauton , created a narrative in which Oedipus' misery goes unrelieved until the end of his life as portrayed in Oedipus at Colonus.
Only then does the hero achieve the peace of mind and sense of empowerment that we might hope for at the end of an effective analysis. And these changes, as we have seen, require that Oedipus come to know not only what he has done, but the ways in which he has been subject to the intentions - often irrational in their own right - of both mortals and the gods. The classicist Charles Segal has addressed the differences between tragic and psychoanalytic visions of the irrational in an intriguing way.
Consider this stunning passage: "For Sophocles For Freud, the other is projected inwardly, as part of our own mind, something hidden within ourselves" , p. No psychoanalyst, of course, would say that we "project" from outside to inside Ferenczi coined the term "retrojection" to describe this process, but it has hardly been used since. But in talking this way, Segal is, probably inadvertently, pointing to a defensive use of theory, in which it is assumed that, if we can free ourselves of irrationality, we can be sure of our ability to live freely and effectively in a rational world.
Both psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice are infiltrated, in ways that are not always fully apparent, by the assumption that the irrational is exclusively or at least primarily internal. Consider, as an example of the workings of this assumption, Kurt Eissler's concept of parameters. Eissler, discussing the analysis of phobias, begins by noting that sometimes "interpretation does not suffice as a therapeutic tool" , p.
Despite analyzing everything that can be analyzed, the patient remains phobic. At this point, a new type of intervention is necessary: "The analyst must impose on the patient a command: to expose himself to the dreaded situation despite his fear of it and regardless of any anxiety which might develop during that exposure" p.
This year old idea has been widely and justifiably criticized on technical grounds, but its relevance here is not narrowly technical. Rather, what I have in mind is Eissler's assumption that, if we insist that the patient face the phobic situation, it will become clear that the felt anxiety is unfounded, because it is based on archaic beliefs about irrational desires.
We believe, reasonably, that when the patient crosses the "dreaded" bridge, the bridge will not collapse, and the patient will have a new context for the anxiety that makes more adaptive behavior possible and that perhaps will even lead to new insight. But can we honestly convey the same certainty to Angela, when she stands at the gallery door or when she fears open-ended analytic engagement?
Bridges are among the greatest achievements of human rationality; crippling fear of them highlights our capacity to project our inner anxieties out into the world. A bridge phobia is an iconic example of how internal processes give shape to the external landscape. Gnothi seauton , Eissler says; "look into your own depths" to find the irrational, and once you do, you will at last be able to live safely in a predictable world. The tragedians knew that this is wishful thinking. Once, in a moment of intense irritation with a patient, not Angela, I said: "if you're ever going to get to yourself, you'll have to go through me!
I suspect that I also was thinking, although even less consciously, that she would have to tolerate a certain amount of passivity before she could find her own agency. This somewhat rougher version of Emanuel Ghent's idea that the patient must surrender to the analytic process and even to the analyst in the service of achieving autonomy recalls the trajectory of Oedipus' life through the two plays of Sophocles.
The denial of impact is a familiar issue in all analyses usually conceptualized as resistance, or enactment, or something of the sort , and every school of thought has a range of dynamic formulations that attempt to capture what is at stake for analysands when they are engaged in pushing their analysts away. Getting beyond the specifics, we can say that our analysands struggle to avoid the experience of becoming our object, of opening themselves to intentions of ours of which they cannot possibly be aware, and of which we are unlikely to be fully aware either.
We are not in the habit of thinking that we act on our patients in ways that make them our objects, but we do, regardless of whether we or they are consciously aware of it. Consider what is involved when analysts do even what we are most widely authorized and expected to do, interpret. In interpreting, as Charles Spezzano has put it, we let our analysands know that we think "that they don't know what they are talking about, don't mean what they think they mean, are revealing aspects of the workings of their own minds they don't know they are revealing; that they want what they don't know they want, that they are afraid of things they don't know they are afraid of No wonder, then, that Spezzano concludes that interpretation is a potentially violent act p.
In today's climate, with a wider range of the analyst's actions and reactions acknowledged, tolerated, and even encouraged, we can recognize just how perilous becoming the analyst's object can be. We do much more these days than interpret: we question our patients, which can suggest misunderstanding or disbelief; we may remain silent, which can seem rejecting; we may intentionally or inadvertently reveal an emotional reaction, which can be wounding.
The inevitability of confrontations with the mind of the analyst led the French analyst Jean Laplanche to conclude that it is a crucial aspect of the psychoanalytic situation that "there is the traumatic element The psychoanalyst Laplanche, working clinically, discovers the traumatic impact of "the enigma of the other"; the classicist Segal, reading ancient texts, concludes that, for the Greek tragedians, "the irrational really is an other. Both the psychoanalyst and the classicist know that to act means to expose oneself to the other - to the enigmatic and to the irrational. Both know, at least implicitly, the risks that this involves, and both know that the act will initiate a series of acts the nature and consequences of which cannot be foretold.
When Segal and other classicists talk about the irrational, they are using a word that we psychoanalysts do not easily apply to ourselves. But everything we do has unconscious determinants, and certainly, from our patients' point of view, we are irrational, in the sense that it is impossible for them to know our minds or to predict how we will respond to them.
Our patients cannot know, when we act, what thoughts and feelings lie behind our actions. Nor is this something that they can ever learn, once and for all. As analysis proceeds, the analysand's claiming him or herself in new ways will evoke new reactions in the analyst; each advance is going to make the analysand their analyst's object in novel and unpredictable ways. Our irrationality, and thus the traumatic undercurrent, is present in every moment of every analysis.
Let me be clear in putting things this way that, from the perspective I am describing and advocating, the analyst's irrationality is a powerful force in the analysis, even at those times when the analyst - at least from his or her own perspective - is behaving rationally. So two central elements of the tragic vision shed light on crucial aspects of the analytic encounter: the reversals that play out in the constantly shifting pattern of being subject and object, and the risks that are entailed in choosing a course of action when to act means to become the object of an unknown and irrational other.
Although these are rarely theorized and are not often addressed directly between patient and analyst, they do tend to generate considerable anxiety in both participants. The patient, not knowing and needing to act in the face of the irrational, struggles to impose certainty and rationality on a situation where none exists. The psychologically-minded classicist E. Dodds has addressed this problem with respect to the tragedies.
Dodds notes that readers of Sophocles' Oedipus, trying to understand why he has been subjected to his terrible fate, create ideas like "divine justice" to make what has happened comprehensible. But, he goes on, this sort of belief is an inadequate human invention, representing a futile attempt to explain the unknowable other by applying standards that are familiar to us. The will of the gods, Dodds argues, does not fit any way of thinking that mortals can know; it simply is , p. We no longer believe in gods in quite the way that the Greeks did, but we do live in a world of motivated others, including motivated analysts, and typically we do not understand the motives that affect us most.
And because we live with this constant although largely unconscious uncertainty, we create templates, similar to notions of divine justice, in our attempt to understand what cannot be understood but must be coped with. This human capacity is what psychoanalysts know as transference. Harry Stack Sullivan's understanding of transference, which he characteristically but insignificantly renamed "parataxic distortion," emphasized the value of transference in helping us to navigate through unknown territory that is shaped by the inscrutability of motivated strangers, analysts and others alike.
Like patients, analysts retreat from full awareness of how traumatizing the psychoanalytic encounter can be. A great deal of clinical theory prescribes a role for the analyst that is designed to alleviate the anxiety inherent in fully appreciating the impact of risk and reversal.
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Our leading technical prescriptions - that we be neutral, or empathic, or that we function as containers, or that we should think of ourselves as experts in interpersonal relations, or that we should embrace and strive for intersubjectivity - all serve this role. Each prescription suggests that the analyst can operate from a fixed position that the analysand can count on, enabling the analysis to proceed with minimum risk.
And, if the analyst behaves in accord with proper technique, it is assumed, any felt risk can be attributed to the irrationality of the analysand. The analysand enjoined to "know yourself" is being asked to assume that whatever he or she makes of the analyst comes from inside. Analysands must come to know their power the later version of gnothi seauton to shape their personal experience of the analyst and the analytic situation. But things look very different if we accept that analysts are personally motivated, that their motivations render them enigmatic to their analysands as Laplanche notes , and that consequently they are always potentially violent in Spezzano's terms.
This more tragic vision of the psychoanalytic situation has profound implications for our analytic goals: while it remains crucial for analysands to become aware of their own power, focusing exclusively on this puts us at risk of overlooking the wisdom of the earlier version of gnothi seauton : know your limits. That is, it is equally important for analysands to become aware that they are in the presence of an other, whose intentions and the impact of whose actions they will never really know and whose object they will become, in ways that neither participant will ever fully grasp.
Recently, I asked Angela to make a permanent change in a regularly scheduled appointment. Somewhat uncharacteristically, she agreed without too much protest and without asking why I needed to do so. Two sessions later, she reported a dream: I was moving either my home or my office, she wasn't sure which. I would be in a building not too far from where she lived. In the dream she knew why I was moving, although upon awakening she couldn't remember the reason.
What she did know, and fear, was that I would be suspicious of how she had found out. Recounting the dream, Angela said that she had actually been worried about my changing the appointment. She was especially worried about not knowing why I had asked for the switch. But at the time, she hadn't thought to ask. The dream reminds me of Angela's problem as she stands outside the doors of art galleries.