On keeping thought erotic: Some problems in contemporary theory and practice

Contemporary questions of psychoanalytic theory and practice are addressed from the premise that there is a certain distinct way of thinking that is central to clinical psychoanalysis, a way of thinking referred to by the authors as erotic

By Donald P Moss, PhD, and Alan Bass

What follows is not a standard psychoanalytic paper. It is an essay about problems that we think psychoanalysis faces from within. It is not based on any empirical studies, but rather on our long experience as analysts, teachers, supervisors, and participants in professional meetings. These experiences have led us to certain opinions about what has gone wrong in psychoanalysis.

We are concerned with the same questions that dominate the profession: How is psychoanalysis to deal with its increasing marginalization? Is it ever to regain the therapeutic and intellectual impact it once had? There have been many attempts to demonstrate the efficacy and even cost-effectiveness of analytically oriented treatment. These are laudable, and serve an important public function. But such studies take basic theory and technique for granted. They do not examine the question of what gave psychoanalysis such clinical and cultural import at one time. We believe that the answer is simple: psychoanalysis had the most complex and innovative theory of mind extant. It was a theory that deliberately challenged many commonsense assumptions. It produced a novel form of treatment that not only offered the possibility of relief from suffering, but did so based on the premise that the relief could only come from the encounter with everything within oneself that common sense could not encompass. It is our opinion that contemporary psychoanalysis is losing that stance.

We begin with a clinical example. It is chosen to illustrate the analyst coming up against the limits of commonsense thinking, even the common sense of received psychoanalytic knowledge.

The patient is a 35-year-old man, whose professional successes have won him international acclaim. He is in the second year of his analysis, initiated by his doubts regarding his own capacity to love and, more generally, his capacity for anything good. He feels his acclaim and the apparent affection of family and friends are the products of fraud, easy to achieve—people can be fooled. The only figure whom he cannot fool is the analyst. The premise of the analysis is this, that his goodness is false, that his “rottenness” is the only enduringly true baseline. There is no disturbing this baseline. Two years of experience with him has provided the analyst with many opportunities to experience what he means by the baseline’s durability.

What follows is from a recent session:

The patient is berating himself about his way of being in analysis. He can’t even say what he’s doing here. If someone were to ask him what he talks about, he would be unable to tell. What an idiot he is. All this time and he still doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I said to him that the question as he poses it is both cruel and ill-informed, that it’s designed to be unanswerable and to make its recipient feel himself a failure. I was meaning to illuminate the cruelty lurking in the hour.

His response was to agree, to express amazement, to wonder why he didn’t see the cruelty that I saw, and then to shift his attention now to how useless he is in the analysis if he can’t even see cruelty when it’s right in front of his face.

I said that what I said seemed to confirm what he was feeling, because he hadn’t thought it himself. If he hasn’t thought it, what good is he?

He then spoke of how he is unable to really appreciate what I do, because when I do something good it just reminds him of his incapacity to do what I’ve just done. That no matter how much he tries he is unable to really use and appreciate what I offer him.

I said that I thought that in speaking harshly about himself he, in fact, was also, indirectly showing his appreciation of me.

He then said that this was the most “profound” sense of understanding he’d ever experienced, that no matter what he did to me I could always find a way to point out something useful to him, that I wasn’t blocked in by his ways of seeing me and that my capacity not to be blocked was what allowed him to proceed so successfully with his own life and that he himself would never, could never, achieve that capacity.

At this point in the session, I gave up and was silent for the rest of the hour.

I was then feeling as useless and as fraudulent as the patient. When I give what I have, the patient takes from it something I do not want to give. When I have nothing to give, I feel a sense of despair. Despair either way— thought seems to promise nothing.

But, at precisely this moment, this moment of despair, when nothing I have seems to me to be useful, right here is where work as a psychoanalyst begins.

By “work as a psychoanalyst” we mean the work of thinking that would make being a psychoanalyst here, with this patient, possible. The “thinking” we have in mind is of a kind demanded precisely by this situation, a situation that cannot be adequately worked on by the application of what has become psychoanalytic common sense.

One might call such common sense “borrowed thinking,” a notion that warrants expansion. To many it may seem that this clinical sequence exemplifies, for example, the working of projective identification; to others, the sequence might be best understood by referring to notions of idealization and envy; to others still, the sequence might represent the effect of the sustained, disavowed, and stabilizing workings of masochism. There are other likely conceptualizations with the power to make sense of the clinical sequence. Many such conceptualizations were, in fact, available to the analyst here. The point we mean to emphasize is that, although available, none of the conceptualizations could be animated enough, could be made to feel alive enough, for the analyst to put it to use. In this sense, then, the range of available conceptualizations was “borrowed.” They had the status of thought that had its life elsewhere. At the crucial moment, it did not seem to matter what the thought was, nor what its origin was—the “borrowed” thought might, in fact, have been “borrowed” from the analyst’s own repertoire of once-enlivened thinking. “Borrowed” thinking, then, is a version of inert, de-erotized thinking. It might be seen as a kind of “psychic retreat”—to use Steiner’s term—for the analyst.

What is most alive in the sequence is that the patient brings one to the edge of what one knows, which is why we are presenting an example without resolution. Everything offered is turned into a confirmation of what the offer is meant to illuminate or disturb. Particularly vexing is the force of what seems the patient’s “masochism”: a kind of abjection and self-debasement. Here, confronting what seems like willed debasement, is where common sense ends. Common sense appeals to the primacy of pleasure, to the avoidance of pain. When the manifest difference between pain and pleasure, suffering and relief, is obliterated, the effective reach of common sense is also obliterated. Much of what had once been profoundly uncommon sense has now been incorporated into commonsensical psychoanalysis. By that we mean that thinking here, with this patient, about, say, “masochism,” gets one nowhere. In fact, it immobilizes the process. The analyst must make a kind of jump, a kind of jumpthought, in order to work effectively with this man. This requirement, if fulfilled, would, as we say in our title, keep thought “erotic.” By “erotic,” we are referring to a particular form of sustained tension, bracketed on one side by collapse and on the other by the satisfaction of impulse. In the example above, the analyst was unable to keep thought erotic; instead, his thinking collapsed. He could have, on the contrary, directly expressed his exasperation, satisfying an impulse instead of bearing the tension of sustained delay. Keeping thought erotic is a requirement of neutrality, the opposite of withdrawing into a pseudoneutral silence, as the analyst did here. By “neutral,” we mean something quite different from maintaining a position equidistant from id, ego, and superego. We mean, instead, a kind of thought that maintains equidistance from collapse and satisfaction, thought that keeps itself in a prolonged state of excitement. Here, the analyst’s experience of withdrawal, of being at the limit of the known, indicates just where the work to become neutral, to erotize thought, is situated.

This kind of jump-thought leads into a zone marked by an inseparable mix of pain and pleasure. Sexuality and Eros point in the same direction—toward a zone in which pain and pleasure are inseparable and common sense breaks down. This, then, is the problem: to keep thought erotized enough so that it has the force to carry the analyst toward a zone in which the separation between pain and pleasure is not a given. And at the same time, to keep thought inhibited enough so that once in that zone he/she forswears most, if not all, of that zone’s temptations—including the temptations either to withdraw into pseudoneutrality or to avoid the encounter with the limit of the known. What makes thought erotic, then, is its capacity to expose itself and to be exposed to tremendous temptation, bearing that temptation— in an important sense, feeling it—while nonetheless delaying gratification, perhaps permanently. A silence that bears this strain is on the way to becoming “erotic thought.”

When the analyst is unsure how to proceed he/she encounters cracks and fissures in an edifice experienced as stable, or as stable enough. These cracks and fissures are not only practical clinical problems, but problematics that potentially allow for an exploration of practical and theoretical consequences, and so an enhanced knowledge of the nature and status of psychoanalysis. One of the extraordinary features of clinical psychoanalytic literature is that particular problems with particular patients prompt reflection on questions of technique, diagnosis, metapsychology, developmental theory, and so on, whereby we come to understand more fully what we have been working with all along— both its meaning and its limitations. From an individual case or a compendium of similar cases, questions emerge about the meaning, the validity, and the future of psychoanalysis.

Breakdowns, as in the clinical example, may impede the development of refined knowledge, because they often result from enormous pressures against “thinking.” Or they may produce knowledge, if the analyst sustains the pressure. The “thinking” we focus on here puts one into direct contact with one’s sense of conceptual incapacity, into contact with one’s limits. The analyst may feel at a frontier, at a point of discomforting proximity to impulse, to deed. This proximity to impulse makes such “thinking” feel dangerous. It also gives such thinking its erotic charge. It drives toward the unaccustomed.

Conceptual Background

The entire history of psychoanalysis can be seen as one of jump-thoughts, astonishment that accepted wisdom fails us. Freud was particularly adept at this: he used crises to transform painfully won knowledge. Our point is that this process is intrinsic to psychoanalytic practice. Sometimes analysts write about their crises, but fall back on received wisdom to resolve them. To watch this process at work is also very instructive. We offer a brief survey of the history of some jumpthoughts and/or the failure to make them.

To develop an effective treatment of hysteria, Freud also had to develop a new theory of mind. The necessary combination of theory and practice is what makes psychoanalysis exciting: it promises clinical effectiveness exactly at the point where one has to think something new, and usually counterintuitive. Take the original Breuer-Freud clinical point: hysterics suffer mainly from reminiscences. Breuer and Freud do not fail to note how “extraordinary” it is (1895, p.7). It is extraordinary because it raises difficult theoretical questions: How can memories of which one is not aware have such impact? How can memory act with the force of lived experience? What is “mind” if it can do this?

The “extraordinary” has an essential relation to thought. It is a provocation: how can that be? It is somewhat painful: one is taken aback if indeed it is that way. If it is that way, is there something wrong with one’s assumptions about how things are? The extraordinary can lead to intense pleasure: embrace the provocation and the pain opens up the unexpected gratification of thinking otherwise. Freud’s famous recapitulation of the three great narcissistic wounds to mankind— the earth revolves around the sun, man is descended from animals, the ego is not master in its own house—stresses pain, but all three wounds have also led to the pleasure of new thoughts, thoughts that have had enormous practical import. However, once the practical import of the new way of thinking is absorbed, it becomes a new form of common sense, perhaps what Kuhn calls “normal science” (1970). While this is true in all fields, it has a particular status in psychoanalysis. It can impede therapeutic efficacy.

What must be stressed here, however, is that astonishment and the pain into which it may force one do not, before the fact, promise anything. It is the absence of promise that makes such pain as painful as it is. What makes the combination of astonishment and pain nonetheless productive is another aspect of “neutrality,” an enduring sense that one must proceed therapeutically precisely where one encounters a limit, and must somehow continue tinkering with what Freud famously called the theoretical “scaffolding.” One may feel, along with astonishment, a sense of the forbidden, a sense that one is risking recklessness and has only the recollection of the scaffolding’s previous reliability as encouragement.

Freudian theory offers insight into this affective basis of thought. In “Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning,” Freud defined thinking as the inhibition of immediate discharge, i.e., wish fulfillment (1911, p.220). To inhibit discharge is to sustain tension, to tolerate frustration. This is painful, but it is a pain that is supposed to lead to a pleasure. (The baby who cries because it does not attempt to assuage hunger through hallucination is fed.) But Freud also knew that thinking and pain were erotic stimuli, as he said in “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” (1905, pp.202–203). Later, in “The Economic Problem of Masochism,” he also said that sustaining sexual tension is itself intensely pleasurable (1924a, p.159). Psychoanalytically, it is not far fetched to imagine the possible pleasure that comes from the pain of wounds to accepted thought. Nor is it far fetched to imagine that new theories create the need to seduce others to this painful pleasure. The history of the most important advances in psychoanalytic thought is one of effective seduction into the pleasure of more clinical-theoretical pain.

Some examples: not only did the initial search for an effective treatment of neurosis eventually produce the astonishing new picture of mind as something other than consciousness, it also produced a new theory of sexuality that defied common sense (sexuality is not inherently linked to reproduction) and offended conventional morality (the disposition to perversion is universal). Within the small community of analysts, these ideas quickly became the doctrine of an opposition between the conscious ego and unconscious sexuality.

By 1914 Freud knew he had to subvert his own theory. He found that even in neurosis there were narcissistic elements that were obstacles to analytic treatment. To understand narcissism, and to see it as a necessary part of the entire theory, Freud had to question his own doctrine of opposition between the ego and sexuality. This was uncomfortable, and in fact produced both obscurity and expansion (an approach to psychosis, a new conception of the ego, the apparently oxymoronic idea of narcissistic object choice, the introduction of the ego ideal). In Freud’s own account, without this subverting extension of his own theory he could not have arrived at an understanding of another clinical difficulty. To treat depression, the new theory of narcissism itself had to encompass the idea of conflict between the ego ideal and the ego as modified by identification with lost objects. We tend to lose sight of how strangely novel this conception of intrapsychic conflict was in 1917. For the analysts of that time it subverted what had come to feel like “normal science,” psychoanalytic common sense.

And then Freud found it necessary to make another jump-thought, because he was painfully astonished by something that contradicted dream theory: the repetition of trauma in dreams. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” remains one of Freud’s most controversial works, much of its theory still as strange as Freud knew it was in 1920. But consistent with the pain and pleasure of thinking unconscious processes, Freud was willing to subvert his theory of the drives—also by then psychoanalytic doctrine. He extended his conception of narcissism into Eros and introduced a death drive, an irreducible self, and other directed destructiveness that works against Eros. This is a way of thinking about psychic conflict that puts more emphasis than ever on pain. Freud links repetition of pain in dreams to the kind of repetition of pain in the transference that he calls demonic. But he also thinks of libido and self-preservation (Eros) together as expansive tension. Loewald, more than anyone else, emphasized the novelty of Freud’s conception of a drive not necessarily linked to tension reduction (1980, pp.79–80). There is certainly the promise of greater clinical effectiveness here, by virtue of getting analysts to confront both the darkest areas of the psyche and the basic assumption that drives only tend toward tension reduction.

When Freud reverses himself on the nature of anxiety (1926), he confesses his embarrassment as he overturns his own theory— “It is not pleasant to admit…” (p.109). But it is not difficult to imagine the great pleasure he obtained from developing the structural theory, crystallizing the conception of the superego, and giving a much more precise account of the defenses. No one doubts the clinical efficacy of this thinking. And there are other astonishments in Freud’s late work. The question of female sexuality (1931) led to the “discovery” of a “prehistoric civilization” in the mind: the preoedipal period. We can smile today at Freud’s confining these discoveries to women, but we immediately grasp their clinical importance. Less wellknown is Freud’s late return to the question of perverse relations to reality, leading to the new ideas of ego splitting and disavowal. Freud again knew that he was subverting his own theory here, the theory whose model of the unconscious was based on repression (1940a, pp.202–204). When Freud makes fetishism, the most conspicuous example of disavowal and ego splitting, the model of compromise formation, he is potentially starting again from the beginning. This is why his very last message to us begins: “I do not know if what I have to say is long familiar and obvious or new and puzzling. But I am inclined to think the latter” (1940b, p.275). One can only imagine the painful pleasure it gave a dying exile to make such a statement. And the possible clinical leverage for dealing with what Freud in this context called “the inconsistencies, eccentricities, and follies of men” (1924b, p.152) is enormous.

There are many other similar examples throughout the history of psychoanalysis, some as successful as Freud’s, some not. On the whole, one can say that the more successful examples are the ones that took the theory in entirely new directions as a response to clinical difficulties. For example, both Karl Abraham, in his “A Special Form of Resistance to the Psychoanalytic Method” (1927), and Helene Deutsch, in her paper on the as-if personality (1942), had the courage to report about patients who should have been analyzable, but were not. However, each tried to shoehorn an understanding of these patients into conventional Freudian theory without much success. Nonetheless, each was willing to shoulder the pain of a problem, and to go public with it.

Melanie Klein’s encounter with the surprising extent and intensity of infantile aggression and anxiety—like Freud’s death instinct, an encounter with the darkest aspects of the psyche—led to a new kind of theorizing and clinical work, whose shocking effect she was the first to articulate. She knew that she was creating “a horrifying, not to say an unbelievable picture” of infantile sadism (1926, p.130). Klein’s delineation of vicious cycles of incorporation and projection, of splitting of the object, of sadistic fantasies, and especially of the great difficulty and importance of taming aggression, demonstrated a willingness to open herself to pain, and to theorize exuberantly about it. Psychoanalysis would be immeasurably poorer and less effective without the entirely novel idea of the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions, and everything they imply about anxiety, defense, reparation, and guilt. Any glance at our literature will show how fruitful the idea of projective identification has been. The modifications of technique, and the increased emphasis on countertransference, remain controversial, but the controversy itself has been a crucial source of clinical-theoretical painful pleasure.

The Ethics of Practice and The Erotics of Theory

Even this abbreviated history reveals that jump-thoughts are essential to clinical responsibility, to the ethics of practice. It is in the nature of our work that we reach moments of impasse, confusion, and failure of what we presume we know. This is an irreducible problem in our field, a problem that never will and never should go away. We work by inference, and so construct theories that are not conventionally verifiable or falsifiable. (Psychoanalysis is not the only field to do so.) But for some time now, there has been a “detheorization” of psychoanalysis, and emphasis either on the conventionally verifiable or on psychological common sense. Privately we bemoan that there is a paucity of new ideas. But we do not realize that it is the move away from the necessity of counterintuitive theorizing that is responsible for the lack of excitement and innovation, and for analysts’ private and/or public concerns about the ethics of their practice.

It is very much our intent to make mischief here. This is like the life drive as Freud defines it—a tension-raising mischief-maker that counters the pull toward inertia (1923, pp 45–46). The emphasis on the conventionally verifiable or on common sense offers relief from sustaining the tension of theoretically informed clinical work, a relief that actually leads to inertia. Clinical reports often seem to be filled with a way of thinking difficult to distinguish from folk psychology. Our impression is that more and more, candidates veer so sharply away from integrating our rich theories with their clinical work that one has to wonder what is happening in their training. When theories that arise from clinical pain make mischief, the potential for pleasure, excitement, and aliveness is enhanced. Bored, unthinking, exclusively commonsensical clinical work is not effective clinical work. It would be absurd to allege that all theorizing has the enlivening effect we envisage. But it is equally absurd to pretend that one can be a pleasurably, if painfully, alive analyst without new and difficult theories. Do we think often enough about the inertia of psychoanalytic common sense or borrowed thought in our discussions of countertransference? Are we aware enough of the inherent tendency in all of us to avoid the pleasure-pain of Eros in the way we think about and speak to patients?

There is another ethical dimension to these questions. Freud expressed this very well in various remarks about metapsychology. “The Interpretation of Dreams” is an eminently clinical work, but as Freud works toward its conclusion he stops and says that he has reached a point at which he can go no further without developing a theory of what dreams tell us about mind (1900, p.511). The letters to Fliess recount the pain Freud endured writing this chapter, which became for him the symbol of an unreachable goal (Rome) (1985, p.347). Precisely because of the inferential nature of such theorizing, Freud also knew he had to accept a double bind: one has to develop theories and one has to know that they are always replaceable (the “scaffolding”). The overall message of Freud’s work is that the analytic ethic entails resisting seduction into the inertia of theory avoidance or theory rigidification.

As therapists we all know that common sense is indispensable for dealing with many of the conscious difficulties of life, but as psychoanalysts we also know that it has to fail completely when it comes up against what is beyond its grasp. While the argument that psychoanalysis is an empirical science like any other is false, this does not mean that psychoanalysis can dispense with either the ethics or the pleasure-pain of the scientific attitude: the responsibility for thinking what common sense says is unthinkable. This ethical position is not a grim submission to a scientific superego, but rather the promise of enhancement from the pain of challenging thought, what Nietzsche (1974) called joyful knowledge.

The Theory of Clinical Breakdown

We return to the question of clinical/ theoretical breakdown, as in the initial clinical example. The analyst is on the verge of doing all sorts of things to avert the immediate demands of the situation. Do we remember that that task of continuing, of proceeding into an unpromising mix of astonishment and pain, is also what the patient faces? The burden of saying the next thing on one’s mind—regardless of its lack of promise, its likelihood of pain, its incomprehensible uselessness—puts the patient into a situation congruent with the analyst’s. This congruence also contributes to what we mean by the erotic dimension of the analyst’s thoughts as neutrality. The couple is in it together, seeing where the process itself will take them. It is this shared attachment to the process that also gives the analysis its erotic edge. In moments of threatened breakdown, the process becomes a kind of force that holds an analysis together when the two positions in the room seem incompatible. This force is, in effect, that toward which the analyst aims to remain “neutral,” meaning that the analyst sustains commitment to this astonishing, and often enigmatic, procedure. For the analyst, it is only by way of a conceptual commitment to a particular version of psychoanalytic process that the work of keeping thought erotic can make sense. In our opinion, the analyst’s “metabolization” of the pain of delay—avoiding both collapse and gratification—is an essential component of the analytic frame. If the analyst lapses into the pseudoneutrality of using conventional wisdom as a form of tension relief, then the analyst is not maintaining this aspect of the frame. Without this frame, effective analysis cannot take place.

In effect, we are expanding one of the most important technical rules of psychoanalytic treatment. Freud says the patient’s free association must be complemented by the analyst’s silent free association. The analyst must not give himself the privilege he asks the patient to forego: censoring whatever comes to mind. We are asking analysts not to censor their own experiences of painful withdrawal from the patient at a point of impasse, because, as in our clinical example, we see such moments as the place where the most crucial work takes place for the analyst, the place at which the affective, cognitive, and ethical dimensions of analysis come together in demanding counterintuitive jump-thoughts.

Do we convey this stance in our teaching and supervision? As supervisors, do we permit ourselves to feel at an impasse, or do we withdraw into a pretense of superior knowledge? Following is an example from a case in which a supervisor came up against the necessity of the jump-thought. The candidate analyst, an already-experienced clinician, had been seeing his patient in analysis for many years. She was the kind of patient first mentioned by Abraham (1927) and Deutsch (1942), and today conceptualized as concrete, desymbolizing, with a perverse relation to reality. The candidate had absorbed basic psychoanalytic principles, and was using them—to no avail. A common occurrence in this treatment was that when the analyst would interpret the patient’s anger at him in relation to the patient’s own associations about her anger at her father, the patient would respond: “Of course I’m angry at you. You’re acting just like my father.” The analyst would experience such moments as a breakdown in his own capacity to think. He saw no way to say something that would not be met by the patient’s “of course”—call it the impasse of accepted wisdom. He was in despair, as in our initial clinical example, and questioned the ethics of continuing this treatment. Was he exploiting the patient? He also felt himself to be in a power struggle with the patient. Each session, he said, felt like a round in a boxing match, which usually ended in technical points for her. It is easy from the outside to understand enactment, the living out of defensive fantasy in the transference, a perverse relation to reality, defenses against symbolization. But what most bothered the candidate analyst was the patient’s commitment to the process. What was keeping her going? He felt he was running on empty.

While this example has already been published from the point of view of the theory of concreteness (Bass, 2000), the supervisor’s affective experience has not been previously described. It was tempting to pretend to have superior interpretive knowledge of psychodynamics, even though the supervisor actually felt his own thinking to be as jammed as the supervisee’s. The jump-thought was this: the supervisor’s job, at first, was not to teach the supervisee what to interpret. Rather, the supervisor too had to sustain the tension of the impasse, and to find within its tension what we are calling “erotic thought”—and/or neutrality. The supervisor realized that just as he could not be pseudoneutral with the supervisee, so too the supervisee could not be pseudoneutral with the patient. This meant tolerating the tension of not making useless interpretations based on received wisdom— ”borrowed thought.” The supervisee found it very difficult simply to stop doing what had not been working for years, and yet to remain in the process with the patient. Tracking this experience led to new, counterintuitive theoretical perspectives for the supervisor, particularly around the idea of defense against the analytic process itself. The supervisor then could help the supervisee sustain the tension of counterintuitive theory, just as he had had to sustain the tension of a counterintuitive clinical approach.

We all face this kind of experience. One can consult the literature, speak with colleagues, etc., but it also has to be part of one’s analytic attitude to take such difficulties as opportunities to endure and transform a troubled commitment. The supervisee in the example for a long time had no idea that this was possible; he could only grimly proceed with what he already knew. Nothing in his training had prepared him for this kind of situation, had taught him that breakdown is where psychoanalysis starts.

The necessity of keeping thought erotic in its inevitable relation to pain and to countertransferential attempts to evade neutrality can be central to supervision. If the supervisor assumes that he/she has the answers that the candidate lacks, then the supervisor can foreclose the experience of impasse, which is the route to jump-thoughts. The message to the candidate can be: fit your patient into this way of thinking, which has become analytic common sense for me. Given the inevitable authoritarian structure of supervision, many candidates will comply, and will attempt to convince himself/herself and the supervisor that now the work is going better, when in fact it is not. This all too familiar situation inevitably increases the candidate’s private despair.

Experience and Pain

At its best, psychoanalytic theory contains an explanation of why it cannot be applied directly. This is why Freud early on said that each psychoanalytic process takes its own course. It is easy to give lip service to this idea, and very difficult to put it into practice. This is yet another function of neutrality. We are faced with “learning from experience,” that our knowledge and experience will always be tested. As soon as clinical work is grounded in a theory of unconscious processes, one is in the position of having to embrace anomaly and the counterintuitive—which is what all scientific advances depend upon.

“Learning from experience” is of course a reference to Bion, who in Elements of Psychoanalysis (1963) provides an important account of the role of pain in psychoanalytic treatment (comments are added in brackets):

The work of the analyst is to restore dynamic to a static situation. …the patient maneuvers so that the analyst’s interpretations are agreed; they thus become the outward sign of a static situation…[This was precisely the case in our first clinical example; in the second example there was no agreement at all. But both treatments were static.] The lesson to be drawn…is the need to deduce the presence of intense pain and the threat that it represents to mental integration…an analysis must be painful, not because there is necessarily any value in pain [although there can be if it is the pain of Eros], but because an analysis in which pain is not observed and discussed cannot be regarded as dealing with one of the central reasons for the patient’s presence. The importance of pain can be dismissed as… something that is to disappear when conflicts are resolved; indeed most patients would take this view. Furthermore it can be supported by the fact that successful analysis does lead to diminution of suffering; nevertheless it obscures the need…for the analytic experience to increase the patient’s [and the analyst’s] capacity for suffering even though patient and analyst may hope to decrease pain itself. The analogy with physical medicine is exact; to destroy a capacity for physical pain would be a disaster in any situation other than one in which an even greater disaster—namely death itself—is certain. (pp.60–62)

Bion here describes the necessary double bind of analysis and of analytic training: to reduce pain we must expand the capacity for it. He does not integrate this idea with Freud on the double bind of Eros: life as pleasurable pain will always be met by the tendency to reduce pain. Psychoanalysis as both theory and practice is inevitably deadened when they are used in the service of evading the pain of the astonishing, the puzzling, the unfamiliar, the counterintuitive, the anomalous. To restate our major point: deadened analysis, deadened training, and the despair they mask is not ethical analysis. The “greater disaster” that Bion speaks of—death itself, perhaps the death of psychoanalysis—are symptomatically manifest in theory avoidance and rigidification of theory into common sense. But confrontation with this disaster and its pain are the greatest potential resources for a living, erotically thoughtful psychoanalysis.


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About the Authors

Alan Bass is practicing analyst in New York City, and is a training analyst and faculty member at IPTAR and the Contemporary Freudian Society. He is the author of two books (Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros and Interpretation and Difference: The Strangeness of Care), many articles, and the translator of four books by Jacques Derrida. He also teaches psychoanalysis in the graduate Philosophy Department of The New School for Social Research.

Donald Moss, MD, is in the private practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in NY. He is on the faculty of the Institute for Psychoanalytic Education, NYU Medical Center, and author of numerous articles over the past 25 years, and on the Editorial Boards of JAPA, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, American Imago, DIVISION/Review, and Studies in Gender and Sexuality. His most recent book is entitled 13 Ways of Looking at a Man Routledge.