by Woody Brown
Would you find it a. enjoyable, b. alarming, or c. none of the above, if every conversation you had with your therapist was composed almost totally of your own words and the awkward silences between them? What if, in addition, the vast majority of the words you had ever heard your therapist say were in fact uttered in interruption of a sentence you had finally managed to distill out of the amorphous fog that permeated your head every time you picked up the phone to call him? What if, further, your analyst’s interjections mostly took the form either of verbal Rubik’s cubes with the frustrating vagueness of oracular proclamations from fortune cookies or, conversely, of invasive assertions regarding your feelings on subjects as personal and diverse as your father, your mother, and your own death?
What if, finally, you paid an amount of money that might be lightly termed significant for this privilege?
Such is the nature of Lacanian psychoanalysis, a fascinating form of talk therapy that looks much worse on paper than it actually is. I have been in analysis for about three years now. Three days a week, every week, I call my analyst and speak on the phone for no longer than an hour. The sessions vary in length depending on when my analyst decides to punctuate my speech; that is, he can end it whenever he sees fit. So far, my shortest session was about fifteen minutes long.
This should be your first sign that psychoanalysis is a fundamentally anticapitalist operation. The normal capitalist agreement that we take so much for granted that any variation seems to violate basic, seemingly universal beliefs about logic and fairness (namely, that if I give you money, you will provide me something in return, and further that if I do not receive what I have purchased from you, you are an asshole)—the mostly unspoken agreement that all human interaction is basically a transaction—this agreement is generally ignored in Lacanian psychoanalysis. This is perhaps the most obviously radical aspect of psychoanalysis. From the very first session, it is understood that if the patient (known in psychoanalysis as the analysand, on the model of "multiplicand") receives one consistent thing for his dollar, it is the inconsistency of the session.
It will also seem counterintuitive that the vast majority of the work of analysis is done by the analysand. (Although we pay personal trainers all the time and we’re not angry when they don’t lift the weights for us, are we?) When I finish a session, I almost never feel a way that could be called “good.” I often feel tired, drained, vaguely sad. Free association is hard work. That is, by the way, the single act that constitutes analysis. Analysis is not about what its name might imply: i.e. the consideration and analysis of problems or symptoms and the eventual discovery of a single definitive answer to them. Rather, the analysand agrees to speak anything he thinks without censorship, even if those thoughts seem stupid, profane, or otherwise undeserving of verbalization. This is much harder than it sounds. It is remarkable just how fast a buried body can cling to its coffin.
Equally remarkable, however, is how hard the forgotten can fling itself unbidden to the forefront. Psychoanalysis is based on the conviction that all speech is fundamentally legible, that even apparent nonsense can and should be read. If I say a mistake, I will naturally want to reject it as a rootless error, but in analysis I must avoid the temptation to disavow the words I have said, no matter how wrong they seem, and instead consider them as products of an intent, no matter how subterranean that intent may be.
What is the relationship between that intent and the symptoms that troubled you in the first place? Psychoanalytic theory observes that whether we’re talking about physical symptoms (e.g. an obsessive ritual or localized pain with no discernible physical cause) or Freudian slips, the same general thing is going on: the analysand is expressing something that for whatever reason is inadmissible. In speech, the symptom is expressed in ostensibly erroneous words; in corporeal phenomena or sensations, the symptom is literally written on the body. In psychoanalysis, the inadmissible expression that is normally relegated to the realm of the error is instead read. I think this is a beautiful, deeply generous gesture.
Freud formulated psychoanalysis in response to the brutal contemporary treatment for hysteria in women. To solve everything from glossolalia (speaking in tongues) to frigidity and “general malaise," doctors often performed hysterectomies on female patients with no say in the matter. (Note that “hysteria” is derived from the Greek hustera, “uterus.”) Though you might feel inclined to look at Victorian medical practice as antiquated bullshit, you should consider that we have basically not managed to dispense with the fatally simplistic Enlightenment belief that all ailments, everything from a broken leg to persistent thoughts of suicide, can be fixed via physical mechanisms. This is the justification for the epidemic overprescription of psychotropic antidepressants. Psychoanalysis says that the human subject cannot be reduced to the status of a “mammiferous larva,” a solely biological entity that, despite its apparent complexity, can finally be reduced to a collection of functioning or nonfunctioning mechanisms (like a massive pile of binary code). Psychoanalysis says that we contain within ourselves an unknown known, something that defines us that we do not understand.
And most incredibly, psychoanalysis as a practice states the following, “If you speak, (and you should speak), I will listen.” As I said earlier, however, the psychoanalytic experience is not as comfortable as that might sound. Though I might start a session utterly convinced of what I’d like to discuss, and though I might be clipping along the script I have written at a lovely pace, I often find that once I make one mistake (in psychoanalysis these are called slips or, more technically, parapraxis, which term encompasses all forms of error (elisions, phonological errors, etc.) that might occur in speech), I start to make more and more as the session progresses. It feels like rowing a demented sort of regatta: at the beginning, I’m making good time and I feel well and collected, but periodically an angry observer in a boat alongside me will reach out and hit me in the arms with a baseball bat. By the final 100 meters both my arms are broken and I more or less rock my way across the finish line a battered mess too scared to speak for fear of uttering some other horrible thing. And then the analyst asks me to read the designs the bruises make on my body.
If this all sounds undesirable and insane (and melodramatic to boot), that is because I have purposely avoided discussing the benefits of analysis. This is mostly because the analytic process involves a reorientation of the analysand’s attention away from his desired goals (the solution of his symptoms) and toward something else. That is not to say the symptoms of which I initially complained still trouble me—some of them do, but they’re mostly gone. Those that left left without a sound, however. I could not celebrate their disappearance as if I had vanquished a too-familiar foe; rather, they seemed to depart of their own accord like undesired house guests who late one evening decide to bother someone else. I noticed their departure only because they left the door slightly ajar. All that meant, though, was that I found fewer obstacles between myself and my analysis.
Woody Brown lives and writes in Buffalo, NY. He is the literary reviewer for Artvoice, Western New York's largest weekly newspaper.