In This issue

Das Unbehagen

A group of mostly early career psychoanalysts and students interested in the field meet in New York to discuss the current state of psychoanalytic formation and to form a new association called Unbehagen

By David Lichtenstein

In late March 2012, about 30 psychoanalysts, psychoanalytic students, and candidates from several different institutions and affiliations in New York, a group composed for the most part of those who are nowadays referred to as early career professionals, gathered to talk about the contemporary state of psychoanalytic formation and training. They met under the signifier Unbehagen, a reference of course to Freud’s text Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930). But how should we take the meaning of this Unbehagen? When the essay was first being translated into English, Freud suggested to the translator, Joan Riviere, that it might be rendered as Man’s Discomfort in Civilization. But she settled on Civilization and its Discontents. The German dictionary Langensheidt simply suggests unease for Unbehagen. In his introduction, James Strachey writes that the French word malaise might best capture Freud’s meaning.

The malaise that concerned Freud was a consequence of the loss of passion that he considered to be a necessary sacrifi ce for living in civilized society. Sexual passions, and also especially the passion of unrestrained aggression, were simply too disruptive to complex groups and to interdependent lives lived in the close quarters of civilized society. If for Freud this Unbehagen was the inescapable condition of civilized life, why would a group of psychoanalysts organize a meeting under this concept, as though there were something, some particular discontent in their lot, which could be addressed and perhaps alleviated? Were they casting doubt on Freud’s infamous pessimism about the inevitable conditions of civilized life? Were they asserting a naïve belief that they should escape this universal fate?

Of course, not all social discontent is of the same type. It might be that people working to develop a professional life as psychoanalysts do have a particular set of discontents, discontents that are not simply the inevitable consequence of civilized life. This certainly seemed to be the case, as the participants at the meeting spoke in turn about their disappointments and frustrations with the various psychoanalytic institutes in New York. How those institutes too often stifl e critical thinking and the conditions that are conducive to open debate, how the institutes seem more focused on maintaining their authority and control over access to the profession than on engaging in the creative work that could really foster the formation of a vibrant group of young analysts. Indeed, that the leaders of the institutes seem more threatened than encouraged by energetic questions and challenges by their candidates and colleagues. Such observations are of course not new. Psychoanalytic institutes have long been criticized as conservative and authoritarian; however, this familiarity with history did not mitigate the current passions expressed in the meeting, conveying the deep disappointment of this particular generation of psychoanalysts.

Here, then, is the apt evocation of Freud’s concerns. There has always been the risk of reading Freud’s supple dialectic as simply an old man’s cynicism, an expression of a world-weary sentiment of the sort that says to all who hope for something better, “Ah, it has always been thus, and you young people have always dreamt of something better,” or “ After all, such are the inevitable compromises inherent in any organized institution, learn to accept them.” Such cynicism is exactly what these young analysts were challenging in their very decision to gather under the concept Unbehagen, as well as in their measured and thoughtful way of addressing what might be done now to overcome the deadening effect of institutional training.

Freud said that a certain discontent was an inevitable effect of civilized life, but he didn’t say that no effort should be expended on fi nding ways to reduce that discontent when it might be possible to do so. Indeed, avoiding the illusions of utopian solutions and the promise of complete happiness on earth allows one to work toward improving things with the degree of humility and patience that makes real improvement a reasonable goal in this civilized life of ours.

It is the cynical leaders of institutes who dismiss all discontent as the inevitable griping of those not yet in power and who therefore don’t listen to the content of the concerns with the respect and attention it deserves. What this deafness of leaders has often resulted in, in the past, is the refl exive formation of new institutes. For a short time these new settings might allow a new generation to have a voice, but often with the result that no one has learned anything enduring about better ways to transmit the experience of psychoanalytic formation across the generations. Rather than just setting up a new school, the goal should be to open a new inquiry into the process of transmission and admit that no one yet knows how to best accomplish it.

In this issue of DIVISION/Review we make a small and tentative start in addressing the Unbehagen in psychoanalysis. A roundtable involving some of the more experienced members of Division 39, based upon a practice survey conducted in 2010, gives a sketch of the current state of satisfaction and malaise. In subsequent issues, we will be publishing contributions from those who have begun to look for more vibrant and open approaches to the formation of psychoanalysts.