Psychoanalytic Ignorance | Psychoanalysis | Sigmund Freud

Commencement June 22, 2012 Joel Beck PhD, LCSW

Graduation marks an important event in the life of candidates, our institute, and the profession. At this ceremony, the Training Institute authorizes candidates to enter the professional world as certified, “formally” approved therapists, analysts and supervisors. In what follows, I shall think about what this means, using my own personal experience as a reference. The Training Institute for Mental Health is primarily a psychoanalytic institute. Psychoanalysis as a method of inquiry, theory and therapy has for its object the unconscious. How does one learn to be an analyst? From its beginnings in early twentieth century Vienna, psychoanalytic education has faced unique challenges and difficulties. The difficulties of the transmission of psychoanalytic knowledge begin with the enigma of the unconscious. By definition the unconscious is unknowable. It refers to the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior and emotions. How does one train and educate students to access, work with and ultimately transform the inaccessible? What is the unconscious? To what extent have Freud’s successors misinterpreted, deformed, distorted or adulterated his original discovery? To what extent was Freud’s conception of the unconscious corrupted or contaminated by the limitations imposed by his particular desires and fears? We require that our students not only learn theory and technique but that they also learn about their own unconscious through personal analysis. How do we know that their analysis has produced self-knowledge? What authorizes us to make this judgment? Finally, who are we? Technicians? Plumbers of the soul? True believers brainwashed by Freudian dogma? Teachers? Healers? To make these questions less abstract, I will refer to my own experience. Fortyfive years ago I began my psychoanalytic education by taking Bruno Bettelheim’s course, Psychodynamic Theories of Human Behavior. Bettelheim was a charismatic and intimidating teacher. He taught the course as if he were a heavy weight fighter defending his title. Bettelheim came out punching and never let up. His targets included: American

pragmatism and materialism, the translation of Freud’s Collected Works, the anti-war movement, and Harry Harlow, a psychologist who tried to understand human behavior by observing primates. Bettelheim typically referred to him as “the monkey man.” Bruno Bettelheim could behave like a schoolyard bully. But he also brought extensive clinical experience, intellectual sophistication, conviction, passion and commitment to his teaching. He had grown up in Vienna and told charming, sometime mildly salacious anecdotes about Freud and his circle. For us, his students, Bettelheim represented a living link to the beginnings of psychoanalysis. Finally, he spoke with absolute certainty about everything. His choice of topics for any class might include the causes of autism, the depiction of love in American movies, or Ralph Greenson’s mistakes treating Marilyn Monroe. Listening to him I often felt that I had found what the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, calls a master: someone who could make sense of life and explain it. I ended up taking six courses. I concluded that if I could be analyzed and trained in psychoanalysis, I might become wise like Bruno Bettelheim, i.e. a master so perceptive that I could size people up with a glance, peer into their souls and perhaps even read their minds. This was the experience and wish that drew me to psychoanalysis. The difficulty was that in 1967 my hope of becoming an analyst was an impossible dream. I was in a PhD program, studying philosophy, literature and Greek. I had neither the aptitude nor the desire to become a physician. In the late sixties, however, the American Psychoanalytic Association, the body that accredited most institutes in America, required that institutes accept only medical doctors for clinical training. There were a few institutes open to psychologists and social workers. But news of their existence had not yet reached the academic community in Chicago. Freud had called psychoanalysis the impossible profession. In 1967, if you were not a physician, this was literally true. Sadly, I put my dream aside and pursued other interests. By the end of the seventies, news of the existence of institutes like The Training Institute had reached Chicago. The immense prestige of psychoanalysis had begun its slow, inexorable decline. I decided to pursue my dream, earned a social work degree and began exploring analytic institutes. In the context of the problematic of training and transmission, I will tell one more story.

I began by applying to a “medical” or APA certified institute. A very famous analyst interviewed me. He emphasized that while I could sit in on classes, I would have to sign a notarized document promising that I would never practice psychoanalysis. I told him that I could not imagine spending thousands of dollars gaining expertise in a profession that I could never practice. The distinguished analyst responded by spending several minutes silently rereading my curriculum vita. Clearing his throat, he said: “Dr. Beck, I notice that there are two years missing in your vita. Can you explain that?” Anxiously I took my vita back, fearing that my carelessness had at last caught up with me. But I could not find the missing two years. In fact, there was no gap in my vita. Afterwards, I realized that the distinguished analyst had concluded that only someone who was psychotic could imagine that the American Psychoanalytic Association would make an exception for him. His belief that I was a very disturbed narcissist probably informed his rude question. As he saw it, being a social worker and humanist was not enough to prepare me for clinical training. Only medical school and a residence in psychiatry made on educable. In America, until recently the Medical Model dominated psychoanalytic training. In the Medical Model the physician possesses truth and knowledge. Specifically, the physician understands the causes of illness and prescribes the treatment regime that will restore health or relieve suffering. The patient’s beliefs about why he is ill might be interesting but they are not relevant. The Medical Model emphasizes the expertise of the psychiatrist. It is a model for masters, in Hegel and Lacan’s sense of the word. Michel Foucault in several elegant books has shown psychiatry has always had difficulties defining itself as a medical discipline and that this has made psychiatrists anxious masters. The difficulty arose in part because of the problems associated with finding physical causes for behavioral symptoms. Freud, trained in the Medical Model, slowly and reluctantly rejected it because it could not explain hysteria. He replaced it with the Psychoanalytic Model of therapy. In this model, the patient is the locus of truth and knowledge. In contrast to the psychiatrist’s quest for objective truth, i.e. the organic causes of the patient’s illness, the analyst listens for subjective truth. In treating hysterics, Freud

discovered that his patients knew what had made them ill. But they did not consciously know what they knew unconsciously. A memory, wish or fantasy, located outside of conscious awareness, produced symptoms. These symptoms made sense, i.e. the discourse of the patient mattered if you knew how to listen to it. One could uncover the meaning of the patient’s speech through his/her associations. Psychoanalysis affirms that the patient knows and is the locus of the truth. Transforming unconscious knowledge into conscious insight is a difficult and arduous process. But the analyst’s stance must be closer to that of Socrates than to that of the allknowing Master who can diagnose with a glance. That is what I thought Bettelheim was although he repeatedly denied it. I believe that the distinguished psychoanalyst also saw himself as being a master instead of someone more like a midwife. Plato’s Socrates compared himself to a midwife and I conclude with an observation and a word of caution. A successful analytic training, in my opinion, enables us to tolerate our own ignorance. Like Socrates, the analyst must know that he is ignorant. We learn to approach each patient with an attitude of unknowing, ready to learn what this patient has to teach us about the unconscious and the human soul. Freud taught us that we are ignorant of who we are and what we really want. The discovery of the repressed unconscious implies that there are no masters. We are abandoned to our ignorance. This is a hard lesson to learn and there is a long history of silencing the bearer of such disturbing news. We need to remember the fate of Socrates and reflect on its relevance for the many deaths of Freud in the past twenty-five years. Perhaps our institutes bear more than a little resemblance to Plato’s Academy. Plato founded the Academy to protect and support potential philosophers in their search for truth and knowledge, and thereby to prevent a second tragedy befalling philosophy. The Academy provided a space for an unrivalled, incomparable, always threatened, and hence fragile way of life, a way of life dedicated to the pursuit of self-knowledge. Institutes like TI are doing that today. Welcome to our academy, graduates. I hope that you will join us here as keepers of the flame and bearers of the tradition.

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