Culture and the Unconscious (Book Review)

Author:  Bainbridge, Caroline, Susannah Redstone, Michael Rustin, and Candida Yates
Publisher:  Karnac Books
Reviewed By:  Ryan LaMothe, PhD, Fall 2008, XXVIII, No. 4, pp. 47-49

Analysts, beginning with Freud, have used psychoanalytic theory and concepts to divine unconscious meanings and motivations in cultural figures, activities, and artifacts. The passion to use psychoanalytic tools to peel back the layers of culture artifacts has not been confined to analysts. Philosophers, sociologists, artists, historians, and cultural anthropologists have relied on psychoanalytic theories and tools to inform their work, which in turn has enriched psychoanalysis. Just as psychoanalysts have explored culture and art so too has art informed and enriched analysts.

This edited book follows the tradition of exploring the unconscious reality of diverse cultural phenomena, though with an intriguing twist. Authors in this volume are interested in how art offers opportunities of working through, of thinking, of arriving at insights, of encountering the otherness of the unconscious, as well as the otherness of those from other groups. Put differently, art represents experience and an encounter that is analogous to the process of analysis.

Like some compilations, this one covers numerous topics under the heading of psychoanalysis and culture. This diversity of topics makes it difficult to offer a typical review for at least two reasons. First, most readers will find some chapters interesting and some less so. This is to be expected. The question for the reviewer is whether there are enough intriguing ideas to entice people to buy the book. Second, books, which are written by one author and have a coherent theme, are easier to review. An anthology that contains 15 chapters with distinct ideas and arguments requires, in my view, a different review style or method. With these confessions in mind, let me begin with a brief overview of the book and the editors’ aims. I then select several chapters from each section that intrigued me with the aim of sparking the interest of other readers.

The editors note that creative artists approach the dimensions of the unconscious and culture in distinct ways, which, in general, includes “efforts to register the disruptive and disturbing aspects of unconscious mental life in their experience and creative practice” (p. 2). Both artists and psychoanalysts have much to contribute in their engagement of the unconscious, whether it is in the consulting room or in the encounter with cultural artifacts. Toward engaging in this dialogue between psychoanalysis and art, the editors organize the chapters into three sections. The first section of the book addresses academic perspectives of how psychoanalysis and cultural practices inform each other. The second part contains articles aimed at exploring how “the arts and psychoanalysis have both offered responses to traumatic experiences, and have sought to bring about understanding and development in response to these through symbolization” (p. 3). The final section is more clinically oriented, demonstrating to artists and cultural critics the relevance of empathic attention to inner states of the mind. In general, the editors seek to establish a creative and productive dialogue between artists, academics, and clinicians with an eye toward informing each other about the relation between the unconscious, trauma, and culture. Indeed, it is this mutual dialogue between, the arts, and other social sciences that infuse psychoanalysis with creative vitality.

I found the opening chapter intriguing with its plunge into history, art, and psychoanalysis. Veronika Fuechtner describes how a little known psychoanalyst-novelist (Döblin) contributed to the inventive energies of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute. His literary imagination aided him in creatively describing psychological suffering and its relation to the polis (e.g., soul mass or soul politics), moving out from the safe cloister of the consulting room. Fuechtner argues that Döblin’s work represents a fusion of “psychoanalytic thought with social theory that evokes comparisons with the project of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt and prefigures important debates such as the role of the masses and the public” (p. 20).

Also in this section, Mica Nava (“The Unconscious and Others: Rescue, Inclusivity, and the Eroticization of Difference”) explores “how notions of alterity and enactments of inclusivity are structured by historical contingency and the unconscious, by a ‘confluence’ between psychic and socio-political fields” (p. 43). In particular, Nava notes the heightened anti-Semitism prevalent in Europe and details the number of personages who crossed these social taboos and laws as acts of political defiance. For instance, Muriel Gardner, an American heiress, and others risked their lives to aid Jewish people between 1934 and 1938. Nava seeks to analyze Gardner’s ‘passionate need to identify with the oppressed,’ suggesting that early emotional contact between privileged children and working class nurses, “combined with the routine absence of parents, could have led to a deeply felt empathy for the socially ostracized” (p.49). Nava, of course, recognizes that not all privileged women who had working-class nurses grew up identifying with the marginalized. Here she turns to other analysts as she attempts to answer how unconscious mechanisms are implicated in emotional attraction to difference and how this leads to a relative disregard for boundaries between races and commitment to inclusivity. After exploring the early aspects of unconscious identification, Nava muses about the female’s own capacity for pregnancy and motherhood may contribute to her ability to identify with the Other.

Another interesting chapter in the first section was Janet Sayers, “Thinking Art and Psychoanalysis.” She notes, “Art gives us something to think about.” From this she discusses the free association techniques and perspectives of Winnicott, Bion, and Kristeva. The dialogue that takes place between analyst and patient, whether in the forms of squiggles or dreams or the interplay of sign and symbol, gives rise to impressions of unthought knowns that may become represented in interpretations. There is, Sayers seems to argue, a kinship between the artist who works to represent his/her experience of the landscape and the analyst and patient who use the palette of dialogue to represent unthought knowns.

The second part of the book is titled, “Culture and Trauma as Working Through.” These chapters attempt to address two questions: What is the curative potential of art? Does popular culture open up or close down the potential for new imaginative spaces within contemporary culture? Yates and Bainbridge begin this section with an exploration of the relationship between new technologies and masculinity. In particular, they wonder if these technologies have opened a space for a transition from more rigid forms of masculinity to new forms of homosociality or more fluid and dynamic masculine identifications. In their discussion of the DVD consumption of two movies, Taxi Driver and Memento, they note that while both point “to the desire for technological mastery which appears to have its roots in hegemonic forces of masculinity, it also demonstrates the opportunities for the formation of homosocial communities implicit in the structure of culture” (p. 116). Later they argue that for “the masculine subject, such a space is necessarily ludic as it entails the dismantling of long-lived constructions of masculinity in order to root out new potentials” (p. 119). While I found their argument interesting and in many ways compelling, I could not help but think of the United States as an Empire and the cultural rituals and media that glorify a masculinity based in warrior archetypes. In short, how does the dominant culture contribute to an attenuation and rigidity with regard to sexuality?

Sam Durant selects a different focus in his chapter, “Father, Can’t You See I’m Burning?” Trauma, Ethics, and the Possibility of Community in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron. Durant suggests that art itself may be “a mode of analysis, an alternative way of exploring the unconscious,” which he does by exploring the political, racial, and ethical aspects of two seemingly incommensurable realities—a white woman of privilege and black South Africans surviving the violence of Apartheid. In an intriguing discussion, Durant suggests that the “status of the unconscious within art is ethical…because there is a passage between mining one’s own otherness and imaging the otherness of other lives” (p. 143). Playing off Freud’s description of a father’s dream, Durant delves into Coetzee’s story of a white women dying of cancer, her daughter, and the oppressions of black South Africans. In exploring this work of literature and its relation to the unconscious and trauma, Durant argues that what is traumatic in the novel is the “individual’s sense of helplessness before the suffering of others and her inability to relate her own suffering to theirs” (p. 151). Art provides opportunities to think, to work through affect, and to encounter the Other, creating the possibility of community.

The last section of the book addresses the relation between art, the unconscious, and the consulting room. Ronald Britton’s chapter, Reality and Unreality in Fact and Fiction, addresses the importance and interplay of truth and illusion in both literature and psychoanalytic therapy. Britton revisits Freud’s understanding and use of literature. Freud, Britton argues, was more comfortable with the illusions and truth of literature than he was with religion, which he viewed as escapist. Fiction, Britton points out, can be truth-seeking or evading. Similarly, the patient’s fantasies may express psychic reality or psychic unreality. Psychic unreality may serve as a refuge, but if it becomes permanent signals the presence of pathology. When listening to a patient’s fantasies an analyst discerns not whether the fantasies correspond to external reality, but whether they are attempts “to reach unconscious beliefs or evade them” (p. 183). Britton leaves open the question whether a society can be dominated by psychic unreality and the evasion of truth.

Following Britton, Debbie Hindle and Susie Godsil turn their clinical acumen toward the opera Julietta and the dynamics of loss and idealization. Then they reflect on these dynamics in the life of a patient—Hugh. Freud, they note, admitted that he was incapable of being moved by music, though he apparently was moved by literature. To be moved suggests an encounter with the unconscious and the possibility of discovering new meaning and experiences. Hindle and Godsil argue that the opera Julietta provides a literary and musical framework and process for the emergence of powerful emotions and unconscious material or psychic truth. In the opera they note that Mischa’s ongoing idealization of Julietta leads to relational disconnections and other tragic consequences. Similarly, they describe a patient, Hugh, whose idealization of his departed mother was joined to the construction of a private myth. In one sense, idealization as a defense against mourning (encountering the painful complexity of reality) served to obstruct Hugh’s ability to connect emotionally with peers and family members.

In another chapter on the vicissitudes of grief, Marguerite Reid explores Nicholas Wright’s play, Vincent in Brixton. The creative genius of playwrights is seen in their ability to capture hidden dynamics and aspects of a person’s personality. In particular, Wright portrays Vincent Van Gogh as a conflicted young man who wished to love and be loved. Reid notes that Van Gogh’s mother lost her first child through stillbirth. Vincent was born a year later, given the same name as his deceased brother. The shadow of this loss extended well into his adult life when he finds himself in a relationship with a woman who continues to mourn the death of her husband 15 years later. This shared depressive grief, Reid conjectures, is something that Vincent found familiar in that he internalized the maternal object’s depression during the early months of his life. In the play, Vincent, in an emotionally tumultuous scene, explains to Ursula, “my baby brother, my dead self, had reached his arms from the grave and pulled me down into his world of sighs and tears. Ever since then I have lived in sorrow. This is your gift to me. It never leaves me now” (p. 207). Here we see the insights of the writer mirror the analyst’s attempt to understand the suffering of his/her patient’s seeming inability to let go and love. Put differently, this artistic rendering of Vincent Van Gogh’s suffering mirrors Reid’s clinical findings of the effects of perinatal loss and the mothering of the next child.

Time and space restrict me from discussing all the chapters I found intriguing. Instead, like a wine tasting, I offer only a sampling of the 15 chapters in this book with the aim of whetting the appetite of therapists who are intrigued by the relation between art, psychoanalysis, and the unconscious. More particularly, I believe that anyone who has a keen interest in psychoanalysis and culture will find many of these chapters worth reading and re-reading.

Ryan LaMothe


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