Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Therapist

To draw them in
Close towards you
A whole nation
Silent on the couch.

Quietly they talk,
Water around rocks,
About their memories.
You draw them out

Bodies shaking,
Convulsing slightly,
As you pick out 
The broken stones

And odd stories.
You draw them out,
With words and pincers
You pull out

Their pain and grief
To leave that history
Quietly in your bin.
The river running free.


  1. A positive reflection on a much misunderstood profession. I, in discussion with a therapist friend the other day, would say that, compared to 30 years ago, people are better disposed, more open, if you like, to psychotherapy. Still, there's a lot of resistence (sic); but wouldn't that always the case for ideas not easily assimilated. But there is the condraction: there isn't a part of western society that Freud hasn't reached. Please excuse the double negative -- what does that say about my subconscious!

  2. Alas, some poor proofing in that post.
    Still, while I am here and thinking about the title of this blog, psychoanalysis developed in Europe (not so much in the States, I believe), certainly in parallel with but not dependent on, science.
    And I suppose for the empirical-minded that is one of its drawbacks: you can't prove any of it. I know that is changing with the emergence of neurscience but I wonder if it isn't one of the few, available 'bridges' between art and science.
    In the US, psychoanalysis was the poor cousin to psychiatry yet I can recall a recent BBC2 documentary which discussed the influence of European psychoanalytical thinking on the emergence of 'hidden persuader' marketing techniques in the US. All that is nicely foregrounded in Mad Men.
    Another aspect of its rise is the demise of religion in the west.
    Better to spend time on the couch than in a cult, any day.

  3. Psychotherapy seems to go in cycles, waning when a new wonder drug appears, Prozac an obvious recent case, and waxing when these wonders are discredited. Over the last few years CBT appears to have led to a major re-evaluation of the “talking cures”; which are once again fashionable. Although according to a recent TLS article psychoanalysis itself has been dismissed by the American psychiatric profession since the early 1960s. I don’t know the general opinion. My guess is that psychotherapy has become respectable through age; a bit like Johnny Rotten and Tony Benn.

    Starting in the 1930s there was an increasing use of counselling in American industry, when social scientists recognised a connection between people’s mental attitudes to work and their performance. This has gradually been absorbed by the culture as a whole. This may be one reason for its popularity; which now comes in many forms: Life Coaching, Eastern religions, evangelical Christianity, mentoring…. However, the role and value of thinkers is often overestimated, and the social processes that can be the main instigators of cultural change are overlooked. This may be the case here.

    I would separate psychotherapy from Freud; and its ideas from its practice. Freudian ideas, as you say, have had an immense influence on the culture. But what is that influence exactly? It is partly psychoanalytic therapy; partly intellectual (it helped create a new way of looking at the world); while advertising is important too. The latter you could argue creating the problems the technique is supposed to cure.

    Each of these has to be understood in their own way. So therapy: is it the ideas that are important or the relationship between the client and the therapist? If the latter, then Freud (and the other major theorists) are less significant than the individual practitioner, and the emotional and intellectual bonds they form during the therapeutic session.

    Intellectually Freud is extremely important. However, is this because of the profundity of his ideas, or because of the way he presented them? In a classic book on psychoanalysis Ernest Gellner shows how Freud watered down the ideas of others (particularly Friedrich Nietzsche), and used the reputation of science to give them respect, and thus made them popular. In another essay Gellner shows our Freud’s views on sex came at just the right time: the Viennese haute bourgeoisie were beginning to relax their stiff moral codes. Freud offered an intellectual, and seemingly scientific, justification for this cultural change.

    Advertising. Edward Bernays was Freud’s nephew and, as the Century of the Self showed, was instrumental in using his ideas to sell consumer capitalism. Here the ideas are important, but are they more so than the nature and structure of modern industry? The weakness of the series was its concentration on advertising at the expense of the industrial process, and the changes that were taking place to it after the war. For a fantastic overview of this topic see Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool; which covers the transformation in the 1960s, but is uncertain as to what are the casual factors; rightly in my view.

    Psychoanalysis was once a cult, but is now a religion. I think our view of what constitutes the religious is far too narrow. We tend only to think of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism…etc. Religion is far wider than this: Communism, Free-Market Economics and Neo-Darwinism have all become powerful faiths, with their churches and liturgy. Richard Dawkins is the greatest evangelical in Britain today; a sort of Martin Luther for a “scientific” Reformation. However, what matters is whether the religion is “hot” or “cold”. Fortunately, I think, psychoanalysis is rather on the cool side; and therefore, being human and tolerant, is more likely to do good.