Insight and Interpretation: The Essential Tools of Psychoanalysis (Book Review)

Author:  Schafer, Roy
Publisher: New York: Other Press, 2003
Reviewed By: Marilyn Newman Metzl, Spring 2005, pp. 28-29

This book is an exploration of the role of transference and countertransference in the analytic encounter. The author explains how new shifts in contemporary psychoanalysis result in what he terms “conceptual imbalance and erratic technique.” Although Schafer acknowledges the contribution of newer psychoanalytic techniques to contemporary knowledge, he concludes that insight and interpretation are frequently not accorded the respect that is deserved.

Insight and Interpretation is divided into three parts: Part 1, Instinct and Its Vicissitudes, deals with conceptual and technical problems that analysts encounter as they try to understand and communicate with their analysands. Part 2, Applications, deals with insight and interpretation in the realm of sexuality, including non-normative male sexuality and perversions. Part 3 is an overview that brings Schafer’s ideas into conversation with his previous work, The Analytic Attitude (Basic Books, 1983). Throughout, Shafer brings to the fore the place of insight and interpretation in the analytic process.

Schafer presents a challenging view of the countertransference as a form of remembering, with certain kinds of transference actually impacting the analyst’s ego functioning. A fascinating case is made for certain analysands actually creating a split in the internal world between the analyst and the analyst’s mind, thus creating what appears to be countertransference but is actually an oedipally experienced triangle between the analysis and the analyst’s mind.

This is but one example of the author’s illumination of the unconscious and archaic fantasies that inform the narrative of the patient and the difficulty inherent in the work. The concept of analytic neutrality is explored in depth, and Schafer concludes that the ideal of neutrality should be preserved, even though it has lost favor through newer relational paradigms. The argument that even though analysands will inevitably discern aspects of the analyst’s personality, it can be expected that analysts can be expected to possess relatively integrated ego functioning, and thus are capable of maintaining relative neutrality and thereby are capable of allowing the analysand‘s unconscious fantasies and projections to emerge. Factors such as invasion of the mind, threat, punishment, education, envy, withdrawal, and evasion can find expression through the transference if the analyst provides the facilitating climate. Interpretation of the transference requires perceptiveness and a willingness to be present for the analysand, providing interpretation of unconscious mental process, which is the foundation of psychoanalysis.

The final portion of the book is devoted to an in-depth exploration of the complex relationship between psychoanalysis and the interpretation of sexuality. According to Schafer, in the early days of psychoanalysis, sex was understood to begin with three distinct and successive pregenital phases of libidinal organization, the oral, anal and phallic. The Oedipus complex was thought to develop during the phallic stage with resultant castration anxiety. A positive outcome was thought to occur when the castration anxieties and fantasies resolved, resulting in the formation of the superego, the renunciation of oedipal objects, and the attainment of a fourth phase: the genital phase and normality. Reproductive sexuality became the developmental ideal, and deviations such as homoerotic relationships were considered perverse and indicative of arrested development. Interpretation at that time was meant to discover repressed or disguised sexual motives, which could be accomplished by lifting the infantile amnesia.

We are less threatened today by diversity and today’s analysts do not feel the obligation to go through Freud’s checklist, but store questions about sexuality in preconscious contexts from which they can draw when formulating interpretations. Schafer speculates that today’s analysts are better prepared emotionally and intellectually to defer interpretation in the light of continuing dialogue with the analysand, or simply to go on listening until the manifest content yields unconscious meaning. Schafer acknowledges contemporary trends in thinking about sexuality in terms of constructivism, narration, dialogue, co-authorship, and a view of objectivity that the author views as situating interpretation in a cultural and historical context, recognizing there are multiple truths which are always provisional. The author provides a caution that many analysands are continuously fluctuating in level of functioning in line with their histories, anxieties, and defenses. Focusing too intently on manifest content will not bring about analytically intelligible psychic change, but strengthening the foundations of relatedness to others is required before the interpretation of sex can play a constructive role in the analysis.

Roy Schafer concerns himself with psychoanalytic discourse on male non-normative sexuality and perversion and bravely examines phallocentrism in analytic theory and practice, with specific examination of society’s concept of perversion, which is narrow and reflects binary conceptualizations and dichotomous or polarized thinking in the realm of sex and gender. In keeping with his lifelong commitment to the examination of language as a tool to access unconscious meaning, the author makes the case that language is structured to serve sexual and gender biases and is a primary mode of the transmission of superego dictates concerning maleness. It is a medium so laden with moral messages that it regulates major aspects of our relations with ourselves, others, and events, and exerts moral control over what is enabled.

An exploration of the capacity of words to lead us away from reflection segues into a profound exploration of gender jokes and sexual politics, which are examined culturally and analytically, and found to foster complacent, contemptuous and self-abasing attitudes. This chapter will alter the reader’s capacity to mindlessly laugh at jokes, and will foster an awareness of humor as a societal construct that began with Freud and is carried forth by Schafer. To cite one example: Woman as Whore: A young woman at a party is awestruck by the size and brilliance of the diamond in the ring on the finger of another, older woman whom she does not know. She rushes up to her and expresses her awe and her curiosity. “Oh, yes,” replies the older woman, “this is the Lipschitz diamond. It is gigantic, flawless, and priceless. The only trouble is, it comes with a curse.” Surprised and fascinated, the young woman asks, “And what is the curse?” To which the older woman answers, “Lipschitz.” An exploration of the double victimhood of the protagonists ensues, with an exploration of the power of money, of women, of victims, and the miserable compromises that both sides of the equation often make, resulting in a true sense of pathos. Jokes as tools for projection and identification are examined as well as the motivation of the joke-teller. Interpretation of jokes in a complex manner indicates the level of resolution of unconscious conflicts, and jokes can be used to provide remastery of conflicts to attain some momentary sense of security and confidence.

Schafer ends his discussion with a summary of knowing another person analytically, with specific focus upon the interpretation of defense, achieved by the analyst employing system-regulated, coherent, and consistent contexts of understanding laid down by Freud in 1936, and expanded by Fenichel in 1941 and Schafer in 1968. To Schafer, systematic thinking is the torch that lights one’s way into the darkness of the unconscious internal world, but it cannot illuminate everything. Thus, the author concludes a delightful, deep and thought-provoking series of essays that should stimulate much thought and personal reflection as the reader examines their own life and the life of their patients through the techniques of insight and interpretation.

Reviewer Note

Marilyn Newman Metzl is a psychoanalyst and supervising analyst in private practice in Kansas City, Missouri.


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