Post Road Magazine #25

Is Psychoanalysis Too Serious?

Ezra Feinberg

Is psychoanalysis too serious? In a 1994 article, the late psychoanalyst Peter Giovacchini wrote, "psychoanalysis has been enveloped by an aura of seriousness." He then recalls his initial meeting with his analytic supervisor, a "classical" Freudian. Giovacchini sat in complete silence for almost the entire session. Breaking the silence with only a few minutes remaining, the supervisor then uttered four ominous words: "psychoanalysis is serious business" (90). Is it? Has it always been? The British psychoanalyst and well-known literary critic Adam Phillips wrote in the introduction to his book Side Effects that contemporary psychoanalysis has found itself gripped by a "terrible and absurd institutionalized seriousness" (xv). Why so serious? And if psychoanalysis is too serious, what would it mean for it to be less serious?

As it stands, seriousness and non-seriousness exist in opposition to one another—because non-seriousness is aligned with humor and the comic. Seriousness must repress non-seriousness in order to remain serious, while non-seriousness needs seriousness to make fun of. Psychoanalysis—and unconscious life—may be the space in which the two meet. The British psychoanalyst and theorist Christopher Bollas aptly assesses the boundaries around humor:

Could we not envision a world that operated according to comic principles? What if our most valued discourse was free associative, with everybody at least by their adolescence gifted in saying whatever crossed their minds? What if the prank or practical joke was fair game? Would it be fun, amusing, entertaining? . . . It might be awful . . . Humor let free like that, rather than incarcerated in jokes . . . People would live in considerable anxiety. No one would be taken seriously. Straight speech would be mercilessly deconstructed by double and triple entendres . . . people might die laughing. (236)

In a sense, psychoanalysis assumes we are never serious enough. We are always scattered or dispersed: "What the patient happens to say when he is saying what he wants to say, what we dream when we are wanting to sleep, how we fail when we are determined to succeed; this is what psychoanalysis, and of course not only psychoanalysis, wants us to attend to" (Phillips xiii). While listening for the unspoken affective communication inside, behind, and in-between the patient's words and gestures is the analyst's priority, it also can be what makes her a caricature.

The stereotypical psychoanalyst reads "too far" into everything, makes psychic mountains out of molehills, and is, above all else, gravely serious: too concentrated, earnest, and somber. This "terrible seriousness" may contribute to the field's marginal position in the world of psychology—but that is another matter. The question is: What is so terrible about this seriousness? Patients must be taken seriously, received with attentive listening and focused intent. The psychoanalytic endeavor involves a patient lying on a couch usually four (sometimes five, sometimes three) times per week to discuss current and past relationships, feeling states, memories, dreams, gestures, silences, impulses, associations, daydreams, boundaries, desires, frustrations, triumphs, boredoms, interests, wishes, needs, absences, and any other aspect of experience that may "come up" through the work. (Psychoanalytic psychotherapy, what many people refer to as simply "therapy," is the same thing only less frequent—once or twice per week—and in a chair and as opposed to a couch.) Save for the occasional joke or humorous moment, psychoanalytic work demands seriousness at every turn. The patient has not come to analysis to joke around—and if he has, well, that is something for the analyst to take very seriously.

And yet, the process requires non-seriousness as much as it requires seriousness.

According to the principles of the famous Freudian slip, meaning often occurs while we are concentrating on something else. (John Lennon agrees: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.") In being invited to free associate—to "say whatever comes to mind"—the patient is asked to actually scatter thoughts by speaking. Freud believed this form of communicating could only exist in an accepting context free of judgment. In this space, meaning might be made from the patient's utterances, however meaningless the utterances may seem. For meaning to emerge, the context must be at once, then, "serious" and "non-serious."

As many analysts and analysands will attest, meaning comes into view in fleeting moments, seemingly out of nowhere, much like a good joke. In his 1995 book Cracking Up, Bollas asserts that analytic work and comic work are essentially the same—the patient slips on a banana peel and falls onto the couch. Slips often interrupt—and threaten to undo— seriousness. And that is where clinical psychoanalysis comes in, taking seriously the non-concentrated, scattered, dispersed ("non-serious") moments.

The psychoanalytic context may be the only place in which what is normally ephemeral, such as a slip of the tongue, is considered something more significant. It is a place in which what is usually dismissed or tossed off (or declared meaningless, something to "never mind," often on the grounds of not being serious enough) is held and looked at before it slips away again. In a sense, the serious couch breaks the non-serious fall. And the relationship is symbiotic: Without the (non-serious) fall the (serious) couch is useless. Without the patient's slips, the analyst is useless. Seriousness and non-seriousness work together to form and inform the work of psychoanalysis.

The relationship in psychoanalysis seeks to be a transformative one. When we think of different kinds of non-psychoanalytic relationships that might be called transformative, we find the most intimate love relationships: early parental objects, and later, our closest romantic partners, friends, relatives, and colleagues. Unconscious development, changes, and shifts occur through these relationships, and the psychoanalytic relationship shares many properties with them. These relationships take hold unconsciously, outside the realm of what we might call seriousness. Intimacy does not require the focus of a furrowed brow. Instead this taking hold occurs through states that Bollas calls "deep play," where the material of one's unconscious, which come in the form of wishes, desires, instincts, and dreams, intertwine with an Other. The psychoanalytic relationship adds seriousness to this—the seriousness of prior training, observation, and considered reflection—and this makes the psychoanalytic relationship unique. Indeed, it may be seriousness that makes the psychoanalytic process psychoanalytic, setting it apart from these other transformative relationships. But while seriousness may be crucial, seriousness is taking up too much space. The psychoanalytic endeavor proclaims the goal of making the unconscious conscious: Freud's wish for the patient was: "where id was, there ego shall be." Understanding the non-seriousness of the work is as crucial as the seriousness it needs to begin with.

The unconscious mind is confusing and complicated. Affect, mood, memories, and feeling states envelop and disintegrate us through deep psychic processes only fragments of which might be worked through in an analysis. To varying degrees both analyst and patient are helpless in these shifts, as if blown about by the breeze (or wind or gust) of the unconscious. An analysis can change the experience of the breeze, and in the best cases it helps to steady us. Psychoanalysis does not seek to eradicate the unconscious—it merely brings aspects of it to light while most of it remains in its non-serious domain. There is so much of psychoanalysis that is not serious, and this may be why its seriousness may be a problem.

In psychoanalysis, straight speech, as Bollas reminds us, is deconstructed, and no one is taken entirely seriously. To be sure, the unconscious is not inherently comic or humorous, but it is inherently non-serious. Both clinically—and culturally—this implies a non-serious and yet non-humorous mode of relating that is currently unknown and unheard of both on and off the couch. We do not yet have a language of nonhumorous non-seriousness, although psychoanalysis and the language of the unconscious may come close in providing its potential space. Breaking the spell of the terrible seriousness of psychoanalysis begins with the acknowledgment that it's not entirely serious to begin with.

Works Cited

Bollas, Christopher. Cracking Up: The Work of Unconscious Experience. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. J. Strachey, Ed. & Trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1973 (Original work published 1905).
Giovacchini, Peter L. "Humor, the transitional space and the therapeutic process." In J. W. Barron (Ed.), Humor and Psyche (pp. 89-108) Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, Inc., 1999.
Phillips, Adam. Side Effects. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Shedler, Jonathan. "The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy." American Psychologist (February-March 2010): 98.

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