Eigen in Seoul: Madness and Murder & Flames Fom the Unconscious: Trauma, Madness, and Faith (Book Review)

Author:  Eigen, Michael 
Publisher:  Karnac Books, 176 pp., 2009
Reviewed By:  Louis Rothschild

The Spirit of Thoughtful Inquiry

Unlike Kohut’s Mr. Z (1979), I find the opposite of dissembling in the portrayal of Dr. Z in Mike Eigen’s Flames from the Unconscious. If Dr. Z is in fact based on a supervisee or patient, he and the other characters that are given voices by Eigen’s hand possess a playfully transparent link to their author as opposed to the hidden Mr. Z. This seems altogether important. It is tempting in a world that could be labeled ‘postrelational turn-ish’ to speak of a manner in which times have changed. Yet, it is also possible to question the degree that such change is secured. Is it really safer to write so openly and personally? I hope so. If not, all the more reason for taking such risks. Although I do find thoughts of measuring the contemporary cultural difference in which Mr. Z and Dr. Z were born interesting, with no disrespect intended to Kohut, I wish to call attention to the manner in which Eigen self-consciously marks the terrain in which risk is taken. Such marking itself may afford a measure of climate change. Regardless, I think it is safe to say that like Kohut, Eigen is willing to take risks, albeit different ones, as a psychoanalytic writer. These risks pay off, and we are better off because of it.

Eigen’s Dr. Z (2009, p. 114) asks, “Are poets suicide bombers? Are comedians?” When taken in the context of his writing, I find that such questioning points to other questions. Such as: how is it that psychological death occurs, how do we survive ourselves, and what may treatment afford in regard to the quality of survival? To that end, I want to answer Eigen not with associations to Kohut, but with Lawrence Ferlinghetti (2007): “The poet a subversive barbarian at the city gates, non-violently challenging the toxic status quo.”

Working with or challenging toxicity through poetry might be an important way to approach Eigen’s clinically focused writing. Some (e.g., Jennings, 2010) have noted the manner in which he uses poetry and candor to describe the limits of our thought and our imperfect stance as healers, which, when made apparent and engaged with, might foster growth. Eigen (2009) writes of writing lust and in particular poetry lust. There he refers to a particular addiction, and asks the reader to consider what poetry opens. Drawing upon Rilke, he describes finding that poetry gives birth to experience. Following this inky thread, he turns to clinical language and considers reading Winnicott and Klein as psychoanalytic poetry. Not only does he add Bion to that list, but his own writing, and his patients’ speeches and silences as well. Eigen writes of the deep feelings that pressure the psyche toward poetry, and suggests that we develop psychic taste buds. It may be worth considering how such taste buds converge and diverge from a third ear. For me, the oral metaphor evokes a recommended clinical stance of a master sommelier. Yet, no particular metaphor affords a final resting place. Readers interested in branding, take note: Eigen suggests that psychoanalysis adopt the big ears of the Buddha as its logo (2010) in order to promote a new way of listening and hearing.

Although I think Eigen’s Buddha comment is in good faith, the intent is most certainly not reductionist. Mitchell and Aron (Eigen, 1999, Introduction) wisely note that although Eigen falls into no systematized school of thought, he places an emphasis on subjectivity, emotional intensity, and the ambiguity found in the interplay of union and distinctness. Indeed, if anything is privileged, it is uncertainty and ambiguity that affirm the shifting quality found in a transitional object that is not yet the other and not yet the self, as opposed to a tidy but pathological foreclosure (cf. Eigen, 1993). In this regard, he also considers both Buddhism and Judaism as umbilical connections as opposed to idealizing any one path (Eigen, 1998). Purity then is taken to be an abstractly idealized concept.

Each of the books under review (Eigen, 2009, 2010) depicts fire on the cover. The most recent publication, volume one of his Seoul seminars, provides access to a three-day seminar given in South Korea in 2007. The Object Relations Institute for Psychoanalysis in Seoul, which was founded by Jae hoon Lee, sponsored the seminar. The 2009 publication is a collection of work ranging from journal articles, a panel presentation, a talk given in Rome in 2005, an interview from 2006, and a dramatic monologue. As the repetition of fire on the cover suggests, these books work well together. What follows are highlights of some of the common ground found there, which I hope serve to whet the appetite.

Eigen consistently (cf. Eigen, 1999) points to experiences prior to early seduction and finds what Winnicott calls a primary smile and an early joy. Following Winnicott’s false self and Lacan’s Imaginary, Eigen notes that soon enough, one may smile in bad faith. His attention to what he deems the loss of spontaneous recovery rhythm fits with Blatt’s (2008) focus on the science illuminating the interplay of relatedness and self-definition in the first few months of life. The fact that Blatt and Eigen have very different styles of writing serves for me as a potent illustration of the importance of multiple methods of obtaining empirical data within psychoanalysis.

Eigen (2009) writes on the Garden of Eden as an example of the need to imagine a place that is destructive-free. From this perspective, he considers the human condition as a place in which we are partial beings who ache for total states. The ego, then, is taken as a wish-fulfilling machine in which an adult’s daydream of the Garden of Eden begins to share qualities with an infant’s idealized wish for a breast from which to suck. Such productive defenses are contrasted with psychosis, a state in which disaster looks to last forever.

Eigen’s (2010) reading of Freud is one that highlights the manner in which the ego begins as a mad hallucinatory organ. Refreshingly drawing on the oft-cited example of a baby imagining a breast, he ventures into the lands of mysticism and psychosis. Moving beyond wish fulfillment, Eigen focuses on a trance or mad state as a way in which we become used to making ourselves disappear in order to survive ourselves. Here ego is an unreality machine. Eigen suggests that it is almost as if Freud asks how such a hallucinating machine can have reality testing.

Following this question about reality testing, Eigen contends that psychosis is important in Freud, Klein, Bion, and Winnicott. Further, pace Pandora’s box, he speaks to the manner in which sitting with such difficult states as those found when working with madness and trauma require, like hope, faith. The therapist becomes a wounded nourisher, and Eigen suggests that if we are paying attention to such wounded states that we might find aid in Bion (2010). He considers Bion helpful when “barbed wire surrounds the soul and cuts into it” (Eigen, 2010, p. 40).

This is where those aforementioned ears Eigen speaks of tune in. He writes of a therapist needing such ears to feel the SOS call that is being communicated in order to provide a place in the world in which the author of such a call may move from reporting to bearing witness to the self—as a pea under the mattress in which dissociations between excitement and quiet mark trauma lines in the personality.

Eigen places Bion with Winnicott. He considers this to be a place where continuity, not discontinuity, is primary (Eigen, 2009). Eigen notes the manner in which Winnicott and Bion begin with a psychology in which faith in nourishment exists (Eigen, 2010). Such faith he considers to be a Winnicottian peace psychology. Here, Winnicott’s privileging of aloneness is a precious sense that becomes traumatized by a lack of support by not only parents but by aspects of the culture or zeitgeist. In this space, like so much of the milk for sale in the supermarket today, nourishment and toxins are fused (Eigen, 2009). To that end, Eigen recommends pulling the fluidity of peace psychology together with the splitting found in Kleinian war psychology (Eigen, 2009, 2010).

Eigen writes of Melanie Klein as a death drive analyst focused on projecting and introjecting defenses against annihilation anxiety. He breaks with traditional Kleinians in that the depressive position is considered another form of going crazy. There is no clear privileged compromise formation (Eigen, 2010).

This triadic braid of Klein, Bion, and Winnicott are the central elements of Eigen’s Buddhist ears from which to hear clinical material. Eigen writes that it is not unusual to feel an inaudible scream in a patient, and highlights the importance of making room for death (Eigen, 2010). Here, as in Feeling Matters (Eigen, 2007), he is addressing the necessity of not forcing a false compliance that may be called life. Such force risks shaming a patient, as something is offered that can’t be used. Here Eigen is explicitly drawing on Winnicott, and recommends letting dependency needs grow until the patient can make use of what is offered (2010). In a precursor to the dramatic dialogue spoken by the character Grace, two voices mingle in a chapter entitled, “Something Wrong” (Eigen, 2009). Dr. Z accompanies Grace, a character with a history of psychotic breaks, and they speak of focusing on what is wrong in order to find what is right (2009). Dr. Z speaks of the manner in which we twist ourselves out of shape in order to say alive—hardening of self is apart of individuation (2009).

Eigen’s focus extends beyond the consulting room to our culture in general. His character Grace speaks of dreams as being like a respirator in an intensive care ward. Soon, Grace refers to America as a dreameating monster (2009). Another character, Emily (2009, p. 130), says that we are living through an inquisition against weakness, and Eigen describes a suicide bomber’s act as a moment in which devotion and obliteration merge. From this juncture, Eigen writes of the United States as a psychopathic society (2009). Here he situates a war between a nourishing model and predator-prey model of life. He questions what difference exists between internal and external disasters. Indeed, each is a disaster. Although in consideration of difference, he has said (in Marchesani, 2003) that an adult is in a position to carry out the delusion of wish fulfillment with greater resources to produce havoc when compared to a child. In an age of psychopathic manipulation of the psychotic anxieties of split-off out-groups— “they are bad”—Eigen writes that it is guilt that helps sensitize and bind. Simply, the capacity to bear guilt becomes an entrance to care—a psychospiritual wormhole—or trauma (2009). Eigen writes of himself as being a little less dangerous due to being transformed by love (2010). Here an ethics of sensitivity or care for weakness is being promoted. Such openness does not seem to have much of a chance in a profit-driven world, according to Eigen. He, then, is a voice in the margins—an evolution that awaits us. In addition to the nonviolent poet, I find a link here to Foucault.

In my encounter of Eigen’s association to flames and the use of such a strong word, I remember a favorite book review written by Foucault (Foucault, 1977). In his review of two books by Deleuze, Foucault writes that thought may baffle categories and transfix stupidity. Further, when thought achieves this, it is worthwhile to think. In reading that review, Deleuze comments in a footnote, possibly in jest, that he wondered what people would think of such language.

As a shadow of ego psychology may signal a preference for the levelheadedness of Derrida over what I would consider the looser styles of Foucault and Deleuze (cf. Schwab, 2007), I am reminded of my first review of Eigen’s work (Rothschild, 2009). There I noted that detractors exist. It is here that I wish to suggest that my point in referring to another review of two works is not for the sake of narcissistic twinning (although I do like the identification), but to attempt to link Eigen’s work to a spirit of thoughtful qualitative inquiry also found in poetry that may transfix and alter toxic stupidity. This sort of inquiry is one that I think James (1912/2003) might have considered a vital aspect of radical empiricism.

“…micro-perceptions. What is most wondrous in this work is most elusive, scarcely felt perturbations in a darkish background.” (Eigen, 2009, p. 59)


Blatt, S. (2008). Polarities of experience: Relatedness and self-definition in personality development, psychopathology, and the therapeutic process. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Eigen, M. (1993). The electrified tightrope. A. Phillips (Ed.). Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

Eigen, M. (1998). One Reality. In A. Molino (Ed.), The couch and the tree: Dialogues in psychoanalysis and buddhism (pp. 217–230). New York, NY: North Point Press.

Eigen, M. (1999). The area of faith in Winnicott, Lacan, and Bion. In S. Mitchell & L. Aron (Eds.), Relational psychoanalysis: The emergence of a tradition (pp. 1–38). Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Eigen, M. (2007). Feeling matters. London: Karnac Books.

Ferlinghetti, L. (2007). Poetry as insurgent art. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Foucault, M. (1977). Theatrum Philosophicum. In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (D. F. Bouchard & S. Simon, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

James, W. (1912/2003). Essays in radical empiricism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Jennings, P. (2010). Mixing minds: The power of relationship in psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Kohut, H. (1979). The two analyses of Mr Z. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60, (pp.3–27).

Marchesani, R. B. (2003). Vulgar links: Up, down, all around: An Interview with Michael Eigen. In E. M. Stern & R. B. Marchesani (Eds.), Inhabitants of the unconscious: The grotesque and the vulgar in everyday life (pp. 99–110). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Press.

Rothschild, L. (2009). Review of the book Feeling Matters, by Michael Eigen. Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, 29(1), 18–19. Retrieved from http://www.division39.org/pub_reviews_detail.php?book_id=339.

Schwab, G., Ed. (2007). Derrida, Deleuze,Psychoanalysis. New York: Columbia University Press.


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