From a psychoanalytic point of view, we are split, divided from ourselves. We never know ourselves completely; we’re always cut off from our own knowledge. The fantasy of Thoreau about living in oneness with nature might be romantic, but we are radically cut off from nature because of language, which carries all our social and cultural messages. Unlike animals, we have to live in that symbolic framework – a network that determines us even before we’re born. “My son, the doctor” – what a life sentence that could turn out to be.
As Freud discovered, there is an opposition between conscious and unconscious. We’re inclined to live on the conscious tip of the iceberg, ignoring the fact that the seven-eighths underwater is exerting an influence in proportion to its size. That split in our knowledge can never be healed because we are literally un-conscious of the mass that is determining the direction of our voyage. Freud says we can get glimpses of it when it surfaces into words via dreams, symptoms, jokes, gaps in speech, and so on.
This does not mean that we go about all the time filled with existential angst. We do our best to paper over the abyss with misrecognition of reality. We live comfortably in a fool’s paradise: shopping is a good alternative to introspection.
Every now and then the gulf opens up for us, in the light of the Holocaust, nuclear weapons, or the latest barbarous act of bigotry. But more specifically, when a loved one dies of cancer far too young; that impossible decision about having an abortion; the horror of hating abusive parents, or being disappointed in your children. The list goes on…
There are implications for psychoanalytic treatment. Any interventions aimed at bolstering the fantasy of wholeness and self-mastery, pandering to ‘fragile egos’, or giving in to demands which range from reducing fees to cancelling appointments, are doomed to failure because they deal only with the tip of the iceberg. The truth of what is unspoken has to be named – turned from an absence into a presence – in order to give it being in the world. The person comes to be in their own right by giving that submerged seven-eighths a chance to speak, and hearing what the truth is for the first time. It means allowing as much of the unconscious into their conscious lives as they can bear. It results in a transfiguration – a complete make-over, and it’s what the hard labour of analysis is all about.
The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, has given a good definition of the unconscious:
“I do not know that I know.” So when an analysand sits in front of an analyst, he thinks he’s sitting in front of an expert who knows it all. But an analyst can never positively answer a client’s throwaway line, “D’you know what I mean?”, because the only person who actually knows is the client himself. That is why the analyst invokes the fundamental rule: to say whatever goes through your mind, no matter how stupid, irrelevant, insulting, tangential – say anything; because it is the client who knows. There is a deep well of knowledge that is just waiting to be tapped. Does it matter what the client feels about the analyst? How about what the analyst feels about the client? Both yes and no. Yes, because it allows the client to confront his history in the here-and-now situation with the analyst. He inevitably repeats earlier relationships, especially those with parents. What actually matters is the structure of this transference relationship. And no, because the love or hate or whatever emotion is involved can be used as resistance. Resistance is part and parcel of the analytic situation. There is a level of resistance that can never be overcome, because transference is part of the essential structure of speech: if I speak, I’m transferring. At least the analyst need not make it worse by being drawn into it, and he can avoid strengthening the client’s ego, which strengthens the resistance. The unconscious, if given a free rein and allowed to speak by the analyst, is only too anxious to repeat. And what about the counter-transference - the prejudices, passions and ignorance of the analyst about his client?
What animates an analyst is not the desire to help or to cure or to have the client identify with his own particular version of reality or abuse the client by suggestion, but to provide a setting for the client so he can become as much an individual in his own way and in his own time as he is capable of. So if that is to happen, what the analyst actually wants is for the analysis to continue; his commitment is to the therapy. And it is that desire of the analyst that keeps the client coming.
Michael Murphy, perhaps better known as a broadcaster, is a Psychoanalyst and Psychotherapist at the Milltown Medical Clinic, 98 Lr Churchtown Rd, D 14 and a founder member of the Irish Association of Jungian Psychotherapists and he is also a member of the Association for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (Lacanian) in Ireland.