When dumbness, or unbehagen before the master, becomes “Shakespeak,” comradery and joy in shared lack

In the first installment of a new column on humor and psychoanalysis, Steinkoler finds the former in a class on Shakespeare and reflects on its meaning for the latter

By Manya Steinkoler

I taught Shakespeare’s Coriolanus this summer in an Introduction to Literature course at a community college. Students from Azerbaijan, Albania, Japan, Israel, Italy, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines, Mexico, the south Bronx, and even two heavily tattooed Iraq war veterans still in their twenties wrestled with this late Shakespearean masterpiece. The jumble of accents, cultural ideologies, life experiences, and even ages— one student was in her midsixties and going to college for the first time, one African American working mother of two was doing the same—would prove magical; a kind of nonmeaning and missed meaning that was always present and served paradoxically like a witch’s brew to buoy up the text, allowing the class to embark together on the journey of Shakespeare’s ravaging, violent, and disarmingly poignant drama with communal enthusiasm and pathos.

Community college students struggle in an introductory literature course with reading and writing, and especially struggle while reading Shakespeare’s tragedy aloud. One student in particular, Arpad, a 30-yearold accountant from Bangladesh, always in a dress shirt and tie, was utterly not understandable. His accent was so thick and his syntax so obscure that no one in the class, including me, ever understood him. However, Arpad raised his hand eagerly to respond to almost every question. He came to class passionately engaged, his text marked up, prepared to contribute to any discussion. The problem, of course, was that no one had any idea what he was talking about.

Our in-class discussions focused on the problem of speech for Coriolanus, and of the impossibility of his symbolic place, despite his magnificent achievements as a military hero. We spoke of his role as his mother’s phallus, of Volumnia’s power and certainty, and of Coriolanus’s love-hate relation with Aufidius, a passionate lover/antagonist he meets in a mirror he cannot see. Despite Arpad’s incomprehensibility, he regularly volunteered to read aloud, much to the discomfort of his fellow students and even to my own. I almost never understood him, and was relieved when I could hang on to one word or two and hope I had understood the rest. I let him speak, now and then making either the valiant effort or ersatz show of trying to make out what it was he was saying. Initially, students were annoyed; it was evident that they didn’t want me to call on him. I sometimes asked him to write out what he wanted to say or to spell a word, so that he could share his thoughts with all of us. I said aloud in front of the class that it was difficult to understand him, but that his passion touched others and we wanted to hear what he had to say. Sometimes, not knowing what to do, I pretended to understand him, nodding my head for him to continue. At other times— completely mystified—I would respond, “Are you sure about that interpretation?” or “Maybe you should think about that some more.” I nodded, and he nodded in return, happy, I conjectured, to have been “understood,” or to have his words seem at least to land somewhere receptive to them.

Midsemester, one of the students came to my office and said that the class was relieved that at least I was able to understand him. His classmates, she said, had no idea what he was talking about. I was glad they thought I understood him, and kept my ignorance to myself. Occasionally, another student would try to help him out, interpreting his speech to me and to others. Only later, when reflecting upon this experience, would I recall what I had learned from psychoanalytic work—understanding is overrated. An able analyst once told me he worked better and had a stronger clinical effect on his patients in a foreign country, since he was less duped by meaning. Somehow I must have remembered this. So, as with Shakespeare’s difficult text, we were subject to yet another language we did not understand but that seemed, to its speaker at least, to make perfect sense. Over time, as they would the text, the class would grow to love Arpad; teasing him gently, he came to have a place as the one whom no one understood. Students appreciated and even admired him because he cared; he was invested; he wouldn’t give up.

The last day of class, students performed scenes from the play with an open book. Many practiced for weeks in small groups. Arpad was the only student who memorized his lines and performed sans book in hand. He chose the famous scene in which Coriolanus “pretends” to solicit the voices of the people of Rome in order to satisfy his mother’s desire that he become consul. “Your voices!” yells the Roman warrior, who earlier single-handedly “made widows of the women of Corioles.” “Your voices!” Coriolanus calls out repeatedly, the repetition here underlining only how much the hero has no interest in the people’s voices whatsoever. “I say your voices!” Arpad thundered at his “Roman classmates,” several of whom were on stage with him at the front of the class (this included the Italian, who yelled out, “That’s me!”). Arpad held out his hands, entreating the people; “Romans!” he yelled to his classmates, “Your voices!” his accent was still present, but less pronounced. Not only had he memorized the lines, he acted them; he “was Coriolanus” and we understood him! The scene culminated in his classmates’ roaring applause. The students called out his name, “Arpad! Arpad!” and he bowed, beaming and shy at the same time. Everyone in the room knew we were applauding something important that concerned confidence, courage, the human right to speak in the face of the totalitarian wish for silence, and that Coriolanus was not the villain here, but in an impossible position as the mouthpiece for his mother’s desire. “Your voices!” Arpad said once again after the scene was over, as he took a bow and his classmates cheered him.

Why had Arpad chosen this scene—a scene in which Coriolanus lies about wanting the people’s voices? Why was it the lie that would allow Arpad to speak, to perform? What was Arpad saying about speech, meaning, about being in a foreign culture, about the lie behind the Other’s wanting to hear? About my own listening to him in class? What was he saying about being heard? About being understood? About Shakespeare? About the power of theater to speak truth?

Arpad wrote a letter to me the week after the class was over, thanking me for his newfound love of Shakespeare, something he had felt was previously impossible for him. “I know, professor, you will ask me to analyze. You always ask us to analyze. You would ask me why I was able to learn a scene where the calling for people’s voices was false. I must tell you in all sincerity that I do not know the answer. But I hear in my mind your voice asking me this question. I do know that this was a voice I could speak— the voice that pretended to want other voices—but really didn’t want them at all. I read that scene and I knew that I could do that one!”

Arpad was able to speak the voice of someone who did not want to hear others; someone who was also suffering from another’s command over him. He was able to speak this voice to all of us—so that we could hear that someone who only “pretended to want to hear.” It was important enough to him that he memorized the entire scene and spoke the lines so that we understood him.

I could not help but think of Arpad when asked to discuss the signifier Unbehagen in terms of psychoanalytic formation today and of David Lichtenstein’s invitation to us to speak, asking us to speak of the people who claim to want us and “support our desire” as trainees but don’t really want our voices, people who have often forgotten their own desire in the name of some other demand or wish for power. So I take up this invitation by way of a series of vignettes about training, about the abuses of transference and power, about the dis-ease of groups and in groups and of in-groups, about those in power whose voices often go unquestioned.

The Death Star

Last year a conference was held organized by the minions of Vader.1 Following one of the speeches of one of the featured speakers (all of whom quoted reverentially the Jedi master who had turned to the dark side), several Wookiees, droids, and Ewoks in attendance were brave enough to ask questions. A featured speaker, a guest star from the Austin Powers film series, Frau

Fabissina, claimed in her East Saxon-Breton dialect that she would accept questions after her talk. This proved true for any and all supporters of the Empire, but she was far less enthusiastic for others’ questions. Surely, no one blames Frau Fabissina for her coldness and rigor; such qualities are her greatest appeal, allowing her to achieve arch villain status as an “ASS,” Analyst Star of the School. Moreover, everyone knows that Wookiee is virtually impossible to understand, as evidenced in Chewbacca’s loud guttural “uwu-uuuuooaagh.” Initially, the Wookiees’ questions as well as those of the various droids who were present in the amphitheater were completely ignored by the Frau, whose frown and wrinkled sneer had nothing to do with an alliteration of her German name. The Ewoks, used to such treatment, resorted to high-pitched squealing among themselves. The Death Star was not interested in minor Star Wars characters anyway; let’s face it—some planets are more important than others. And Jabba the Hutt was just a passing fad. No one cares what Ewoks think! They have no oil, no natural resources, no potential psychoanalysts-in-the-making, and have never entered an athlete in the Olympics. But since the only questions to follow her lecture were from Wookiees, Ewoks, and droids, Frau Fabissina was forced to call on them if only for the sake of proper intergalactic protocol. It was more than clear that all those who spoke who were not followers of Vader were assumed to not have any knowledge. It was perhaps more precise to say that as a consequence of nonmembership in the Empire, they were dispossessed of knowledge. The glaring fact, well known by the Rebel Alliance, that the Wookiees started Wookieepedia was not only unknown to Frau Fabissina—but was also utterly irrelevant, inconsequential, and unimportant. All Wookiee knowledge and the entire Wookiee language was deemed null and void despite its known association with Lalangue vowel drivel and despite the famous song “Making Wookiee” about the importance of Wookiee making, the inevitable boredom in traditional marriage, and the straitjacket of socially supported forms of meaning. No wonder they make such strange noises! The further fact that Chewbacca was an excellent fighter pilot in outer space and a very hairy hunk was similarly dismissed, as was the potential contribution of Wookiees to the theory of masculinity, to the theory of the transitional object (between ape and human) (not to mention the potential Kafka revisionism and allusion to Deleuze’s “Becoming Wookiee”), and, of course, Chewbacca’s relation to the Italian ciabatta (a linguistic similarity not unremarked on by the well-known Lacanian Dany Nobus—ask him about this one). It is also averred by several retired Jedi present that the Wookiee, Ewok, and droid presence was an attempt at nonparanoicising the differences between the Rebel Alliance and the Death Star. Only members of the Empire were deemed “supposed to know.” The rest of the entire universe was desupposed and thus effectively dispossessed of knowledge. At the conference, several earthlings (including the author of this vignette) were invited to train at the Empire’s school, known as the “Global Youniverse of Psychoanalysis,” better known by the acronym GYP.

*Names and places have been changed to protect the guilty-innocent and the innocentguilty and even those who think they don’t belong to either category.

The Rhinal Solution

At one point the author of this article was invited to a dinner of the high-level members of a top-secret inner sanctum meeting about the establishment of psychoanalytic training in New York and the putting into effect of the Rhinal Solution— the establishment of the only legitimate school of psychoanalysis that snubs its nose at all other schools the world over, École de la Shnoz. At dinner she was asked by the cigar-smoking commandant, a deep-voiced woman with a cropped moustache, “Are you with us or against us?” She had a sneezing fit and had to leave the table.2

Managing the Transference Managing the transference is apparently a very important part of analytic work. For some analysts, this applies to the “instituting” of the transference in the first place. I am so glad this is a technique that one can have control over as an analyst, because one can therefore control one’s patients at all times, like robots. Otherwise I might not know what the patient had transference to or how I was involved in the patient’s desire. Now that I know this is all “manageable,” I am well on my way to being properly trained. I will give two such examples useful to our discussion of training and the formation of analysts. Several years ago I was invited to attend a conference in the Midwest where a midranking analyst from a very prestigious school was giving lectures. There was a Jewish holiday family event I was avoiding, and so I decided to go. I had never been to the Midwest, and had only seen buffalo on West 79th Street at the Natural History Museum and on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Later that year, I was invited to Paris to give a paper—and lo and behold, the analyst who had spoken in the Midwest was the chair of my panel! I saw that all of us invited were carefully matched with analysts whose lectures we had recently been to. The school wanted to “manage our transference” and hoped that by so matching us to analysts whose lectures we had attended, we would be more likely to have transference to the school and join their movement. The fact that we hear the Unbehagen in the “cult” in such an example should in no way dissuade us from “the analyst’s desire.”

In another example of what would turn out to be “mistaken” “transference management,” three analysts giving a week-long seminar would intermittently remain silent at questions from the audience. Only some questions were answered; others were met with an austere silence. Several audience members found this silence truly analytic and useful in terms of unconscious processes. It turns out that the audience’s microphones were not working, and two of the analysts on the panel had hearing aids. This in no way negates the idea of transference management— clearly transference took place. The fact that it was accidental, unpredictable, and unmanageable in such an instance is surely beside the point and due to easily surmountable technical difficulties.

In a supervision group in which I currently participate, one participant, an analyst in training, related what her supervisor said about the patient she presented to us: “If he is not on the couch, it is not analysis.” What struck me about this patient was how he might be benefiting from his analyst’s gaze. Moreover, he was free associating, he was in the midst of a transference relationship, and he dreamed regularly for his sessions. But “a patient has to use the couch for the work to be called ‘analysis.’” This is surely understandable and an important rule of psychoanalytic training. We don’t call exercise “working out” unless it is an activity performed in a gymnasium. If you run in the park, it is called running. If you do aerobics videos in your apartment, you do aerobics videos in your apartment. If you lift weights in your garage, well, you lift weights in your garage. If you pole vault or mountain climb, you pole vault or mountain climb, even if it is in your apartment or part of your fantasy or delusion. Of course, the word “working out” has also been used to discuss the doing of math problems or what people do with regard to problems in relationships. “I’m working out the calculus problem, Dad! Leave me alone!” “I don’t have attention deficit disorder; I’m just working out the cramp in my left calf.” “Joe and Sheryl are working out their marital problems with a couple’s therapist,” but that really isn’t important. Similarly, the fact that the word “analysis” has been used to describe work in the varied fields of chemistry, business, linguistics, philosophy, mathematics, intelligence, computer science, and statistics is irrelevant. The fact that there is “aura analysis,” a term used to describe the energy field of a subject’s body, or that there is also “bowling analysis,” a notation describing a cricket bowler’s performance, is similarly irrelevant to “psychoanalysis” and the presence of the body of the patient on the couch. Besides, what do we know about cricket anyway?

I had a manicure the week before I was leaving Paris and my summer hospital internship. The manicurist cut my cuticle and my finger bled. She had been talking on the phone while she was manicuring my nails. I soaked my finger later that night but it still became infected. When I went to work at the hospital with my bandaged and infected finger the next day, a senior analyst said, “Ah! Classic castration anxiety! You are leaving us and you are sad so you somaticize hysterically.” Later that day, I asked how that was an example of psychoanalytic interpretation. The analyst replied that my defensiveness proved that it was true and that with more clinical experience, I would learn such things. A diligent student, I was able to learn that my cat allergy is my way of phobically signaling the void, my miniscus tear skiing in Aspen was a primitive attack on a frustrating breast—the fact that it was in my knee was evidence of displacement, and the cramps in my feet when I run long distances are evidence of my wish to have a baby. I am surely on my way to being cured.

The Choice of Analyst

Many years ago when I was looking for an analyst in Paris, I saw several famous people whose work I had read and who had visited the United States. In the very first interview, one wanted to know what the other one had said at my preliminary interview. One asked me why a beautiful woman wasn’t married with children. One gave me a lesson on Lacan. And one told me that I should become a member of his school and train to be an analyst and that I would be accepted if I agreed to be analyzed by one of the school members.


The last day of class, when students performed scenes from the play, Modou from Guinea and Amanda from Mumbai did a small dance they invented to conclude their scene, a kind of Afro-Bollywood number that had the class in uproarious laughter. “What was that?” I asked, laughing. “Why did you think of dancing at that point in the play?” I asked. “Because this class is not about Shakespeare, it’s about Shakespeak!” Modou exclaimed as they resumed their funny dance moves in an encore to student applause. “What is Shakespeak?” I asked them, interrupting the applause. “It’s when you don’t get it—but at the same time you get something,” said Modou, stomping his feet. “No, no! It’s when you get it—but you don’t get something,” Amanda rejoined, moving her hands and shaking her hips.

We’ll stop there.

1. in Shakespeare, “to vade” means to disappear. While George Lucas may have played on “invade,” the Shakespearean meaning is just as important here. We also note the similarity to “vide,” Lacan’s word for void or emptiness. We note the reference to Heidegger’s jug and Das Ding in the name that was not chosen. Darth Vider, however, would have been impossible, since “vider” means to empty and is commonly used as a word that means to go to the toilet. Darth Vider would have been a super-villain excreter. But these are associative hypotheses that have no place in this essay

2. A colleague who read this passage commented succinctly, “There is no transference management at the zoo.”

About the Author

Manya Steinkoler, PhD, has done analytic training and clinical work in Paris. She is a professor of literature at BMCC, an analyst in formation at Après Coup, and is in private practice in New York City.