The Art of the Subject, Between Necessary Illusion and Speakable Desire in the Analytic Encounter (Book Review)

Title:  The Art of the Subject, Between Necessary Illusion and Speakable Desire in the Analytic Encounter
Author:  Ireland, Mardy
Publisher:  New York: Other Press, 2003
Reviewed By:  Harriet Basseches, Spring 2005, p. 30

Mardy Ireland’s The Art of the Subject has been a challenge for me to read and review because our vocabularies are very different. We—Dr. Ireland and I—are both psychologists and psychoanalysts, so how far apart could our linguistic repertoires possibly be? Alas, I have discovered, far apart indeed. And, it has been a fascinating, and at times frustrating, journey reading through her chapters, trying to make sense of the theoretical ideas she is inviting the reader to think about. When, however, she describes her clinical work, which she does in thoughtful detail, I suddenly feel a kinship with her and my struggle to understand subsides into reflection and enjoyment. A modern Freudian (which is the way I would characterize myself) can see her descriptions of her work, understand and admire her sensitivity and acumen.

Hers is a level of discourse that seems at times closer to philosophy than psychology. I risk exposing my ignorance by writing about her book, but also humbled that I could be so ignorant. But there it is. Dr. Ireland explains her goal in this book is to describe her integration of two different theoretical and clinical psychoanalytic perspectives, that of Donald Winnicott and Lacan, with some reliance on Bion. She claims that, “While...Freud mapped the workings of the unconscious-conscious mind, Winnicott and Lacan, in contrast, have explored the making and unmaking of the human mind” (p. 2-3). Dr. Ireland’s bibliography does include a broad spectrum of Freud’s writings, not restricted to those that center on Freud’s pre-structural theoretical ideas, yet I am not sure if her Freud is the same as the one upon which I base the foundation of my theoretical thinking. In truth, her commentaries on Freud’s ideas are fairly incidental, I think, to her ambitious focus.

This focus allows her to begin the analysand’s story from fetus to developing infant, always described/defined in relation to the “mOther.” Dr. Ireland weaves a complex developmental and what she calls maternal, picture (primarily via Winnicott) and structural “paternal” conceptualization (primarily via Lacanian linguistic emphasis), to craft her hypothesized conceptualization of how the human being evolves. I feel hesitant to try to describe these premises in detail for fear that I would be ineffective in transmitting them, but I can urge readers to take the time to study her description especially of the less familiar Lacanian ideas.

In the course of her dialectic discourse, she advocates, I think creatively, for the benefits of infant observation as a source of understanding invaluable to the psychoanalyst. Moreover, she devotes several chapters to other innovative ideas. Of particular interest is her use of spontaneous drawings in a variety of situations. In one, she describes an analysand who brought drawings into the analytic sessions. Dr. Ireland illustrates (a la Winnicott’s Squiggle Game, only not initiated by the analyst) the meaningful way that she and the patient worked with the drawings to help illuminate aspects of the work that were initially outside of symbolic language. Equally impressive is Dr. Ireland’s elucidation of a way of working with a supervisee to enhance the supervision in an exciting exercise, also, as with the patient, to articulate emotional material, initially inaccessible to the supervisee about what was happening in the supervisee’s sessions with a patient.

One aspect of Dr. Ireland’s thinking that I found particularly useful was her sensitivity to gender identity issues not primarily in regard to object choice. She casts a picture of the development of masculine and feminine bodily and psychic aspects as complex and fluid, making room conceptually for the particularity of each person’s configuration of desire and sense of self. Such clarity and openness of conceptualization would appear helpful not only in work with homosexual analysands, but with work with every analysand.

In conclusion, I commend Mardy Ireland’s book to any psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapist or psychoanalyst who wants to expand their understanding of Lacan, and wants to read about the work of a highly creative therapist and original thinker. For the less fluent, such as me, I recommend patience and perhaps allowing Dr. Ireland’s to be only the first in a series of readings on Lacan. The more knowledgeable the reader, the more will you be able to fully engage with these interesting ideas.

Reviewer Note

Harriet Basseches is president-elect of the American Board of Psychoanalysis in Psychology and president of the Confederation of Independent Psychoanalytic Societies. She is training and supervising analyst with the New York Freudian Society and in private practice in Washington, DC.

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