Joy And The Objects Of Psychoanalysis: Literature, Belief, And Neurosis (Book Review)

Author:  Gay, Volney P.
Publisher: Albany, NY: Suny Press, 2001
Reviewed By: Molly Anne Rothenberg, Winter 2003, pp. 33-34

What causes neurotic suffering? Weaving together formulations from “cognitive” psychoanalysis (Weiss and Sampson) with developmental research (Stern) and contemporary affect theory (Green), Volney Gay proposes a new, synthetic account of the formation of neurosis that helps us understand why and how psychoanalytic treatment alleviates it, without recourse to classical drive theory or behaviorism. Because Gay provides his readers with nuanced readings of literary texts and case studies from James, Freud, Winnicott, Conrad, Chertoff, Dostoevsky, and Demos, among others, he can conjure up a vivid picture of children’s experiences with unpredictability and affective misattunement, experiences that set the stage for pathology. But Gay renders his readers a service that goes beyond illustrating the theory with examples when he articulates how neurotic behaviors derive ultimately from pathogenic beliefs: he not only shows how these beliefs evolve and promote suffering, but he also demonstrates how particular religions, political systems, corporate strategies, and scientific discourses variously affirm or combat pathogenic beliefs. In his conclusion, Gay even offers us a vision of a modern psychoanalytic understanding of neurosis that has important implications for ethics. As a result, this book should find readers among psychotherapists from a variety of backgrounds, scholars of literature, politics, philosophy, and religion, and a broader public interested in the etiology of pathological psychic phenomena.

It is impossible to convey the depth of Gay’s readings in this short space, but let me recap his striking discussion of Henry James’s Washington Square, set as a companion piece to one of Gay’s own case studies of inverted subject-object relationships, as an entry to his argument. In James’s novel, a prominent doctor, whose infant son dies of a disease he could not cure and whose wife dies in childbirth with their daughter, profoundly if unconsciously hates the little girl, no doubt because she is a living insult to his narcissism. The father insists that his daughter Catherine is “dimwitted” and so fosters the idea that she needs him to take care of her and make decisions for her. In this way, he is able to pretend that he loves his daughter even as he conveys the message that he despises her. Catherine, who is terrified of her father yet dependent upon him, quickly learns that her suffering satisfies her father and gives up her own hopes for love at her father’s behest. As Gay underscores here and in later chapters, the parent exploits the child for his own narcissistic needs, and the child learns to try to satisfy those needs in order to maintain a relationship with the parent. Because the child has no means other than the parental model for understanding what motivates feelings and behaviors, the child necessarily internalizes a disturbed and contradictory understanding of herself and thereby consigns herself to live a life devoid of joy.

The James novel portrays the horror of such parent-child relationships as well as their compelling nature. Gay hypothesizes that such relationships put the child in an impossible position: attempting to find a “rational” explanation for irrational behavior as a means of managing anxiety, the child will come to regard her behavior, feelings, or even her existence, as the reasons for her parent’s actions. The child will then be likely to regard her random successes in staving off parental rage or depression as behaviors that can be regularized as rules. But because these “successes” can never cure the parent, the parent always will repeat irrational behavior, so the child necessarily will feel that she has failed and thus seek ever more stringent ways of controlling herself as a means of mitigating the unpredictability. Parents who are themselves out of control often project the causes of their problems onto others, especially their children, which only confirms the child’s sense of responsibility and drives the child to greater efforts at monitoring herself, even as the parents also increase their efforts to control the “problem-child.” These children do not have the luxury of experiencing joy, for joy requires that one accept transience and celebrate the integrity of the ego in contradictory affective states; these children, by contrast, are striving to create permanence (a wish that is doomed to failure, but nonetheless strongly desired) and rid themselves of chaotic feelings that come from confusing and contradictory parental behavior.

Gay devotes Chapter Two to contrasting the type of causal thinking that underpins a medical model of disease with the type of causal thinking that grounds contemporary psychoanalytic thinking, in order to establish the importance of fantasies as (nonmaterial and particularistic) causes of pathology. He argues that neurotics develop these fantasies as a means of establishing some kind of self-understanding, some theory of mind, in the face of otherwise unpredictable behaviors; because these understandings are the result of an “initial failure to comprehend accurately why one suffers” (misperceiving an unpredictable situation as one susceptible of control and regulation), then the child will use primary process thinking to create fantasies based on a failed rationality.

The child’s need to find a way to sustain a relationship to a disturbed parent in the face of repeated encounters with unpredictability, narcissism, and inverted self-object relationships, will give rise to what Weiss and Sampson have called “pathogenic beliefs.” Gay lists the five most common pathogenic beliefs at the end of Chapter Three:

1. Everything that happens and that people do is caused by some form of intentionality.
2. There must be ways to control these intentional, causal agents.
3. Affects can be controlled by “willpower.”
4. Perfection is a worthy goal and entails controlling affects in self and others.
5. Novelty is (always) bad.

In fact, Gay points out, pathogenic beliefs “operate like entrenched ideologies: every possible outcome validates them” (181). Such beliefs are the “objects” of psychoanalysis: they are what we study, and their transformation is the goal of psychoanalytic treatment.

We also find these beliefs in any number of religious, political, and philosophical statements: one of the strengths of the book is Gay’s interpretation of texts by such disparate thinkers as Mao Tse Tung, Hitler, Czeslaw Milosz, W. Edward Deming, and Searle to establish the widespread nature of these beliefs as well as the helpful recognition of their pathogenic nature. The broad dissemination of these beliefs in the public sphere (and the availability of critiques of them) does not mean, however, that standard cognitive treatments can help the neurotic, in whom these beliefs are unconscious. Those suffering from pathogenic beliefs require a mode of treatment, Gay says, that either positions them within a quiet, predictable environment, such as a religious retreat, or allows them to find out about these beliefs transferentially, in a safe and secure place, such as the psychoanalytic setting. But recognizing these beliefs in other systems of thought is crucial for social well-being and may help us distinguish systems that conduce to health from those that contribute to pathology.

In Chapters Four and Five, Gay discusses his hypothesis in more detail, incorporating significant psychoanalytic developmental research and affect theory and emphasizing how psychoanalytic treatment works. Elucidating Daniel Stern’s research on affect curves, Gay suggests that an attuned, good-enough parent who allows the child to experience the natural arc of a feeling state, mirroring and verbalizing the experience to help the child encounter it as objective reality, will assist the child in consolidating inner resources for coping with intense affects. By contrast, a parent who cuts short the natural rise and fall of the arc—whether because the parent cannot tolerate the intensity of the feelings or because the parent is misguidedly trying to teach the child to control rather than discover its feelings—will undermine the child’s capacity to manage its emotional life. The child is likely to experience intense affect as disorganizing and dangerous: Gay follows André Green’s terminology here in denominating these as “blitzkrieg” affects. Arguing that repeated but apparently minor episodes of disattunement are sufficient to teach a child (all of whom are naturally quick to observe changes in the parental environment and try to adjust to them) to establish a sense that her inner world harbors experiences that will be catastrophic if they are not vigilantly controlled, Gay focuses our attention away from an external trauma theory of neurosis (without denying that such traumas exist) to the inner dynamic of the child’s psyche.

The final chapter of the book provides a summary of the argument, including more extensive discussions of each of the pathogenic beliefs listed earlier. It also assesses the contribution of postfreudian psychoanalytic thinking (Winnicott, Wallerstein, Erikson, Semrad) to therapeutic techniques that recognizes the importance of blitzkrieg affects and pathogenic beliefs. These techniques must go beyond narrative reconstruction because “the inner connections we hope to find linking one part of our patient’s feelings with memories of the safe diminution of those feelings are not present. These is no pattern (and thus no narrative continuity) linking he experience of blitzkrieg affects with experiences of interpersonal safety” (180). Rather, the “ultimate goal” of analytic work, Gay proposes, “is to uncover those deeper terrors that are responses to overwhelming and uncontrolled affects. Upholding the basic rule makes the invisible visible; it asks the patient to bring into the hour the host of devices, spit selves, defensive techniques, and externalized parts of the patient’s self with which the patient has learned to exist in a nether world…. By holding the basic rule constant the analyst creates a grid of comparative memory and expectation against which to judge the presence or absence of authentic emotional expression…by holding open a frame of expectation and by tolerating the efflorescence of transference, analytic technique makes possible analytic process; the gradual revelation of the patient’s response to overwhelming affects that “advance in force towards the heart of the ego” (pp. 178-179).

This chapter also contains some of Gay’s most incisive readings of literary texts from Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shelley, and Conrad, as well as an assessment of the utility of Aristotelian thought for recognizing and repairing pathogenic beliefs. For those who are looking for a summary of Gay’s theory, this chapter in particular will provide an overview of the significant elements and a chance to sample the richness of his humanistic materials.

Gay’s achievement here resides not only in the thoughtfulness with which he brings disparate theories to bear upon one another, nor in the vistas for humanistic exploration his theory opens up, but also in his insistence that we respect the analysand’s attempts to make sense of an irrational world: we must see these pathogenic beliefs in the context of the child’s efforts to bring order to chaos, to experience some sense of control, and, most importantly, to remain connected to a loved, if disturbed, parent. In effect, the neurotic analysand is seeking to sustain a “needed” relationship with the parent, and it is this desire which gives rise to the intensity of the transference experience. Gay takes issue with those who do not think that the analyst becomes a new object, affording a new emotional experience; he argues as well with those who would turn psychoanalysis into discourse analysis or narrative reconstruction. But this is not a book about technique—or even theory--so much as it is an orientation: Gay points out a way for us to find common ground with our analysands, to respect their efforts to create meaningful relationships, and to help them to come to a wider sense of what it means to be able to experience the full range of human emotion. In this way, Gay’s commitments to religious studies and other humanistic endeavors inform and shade his theoretical discussion, without giving ground as to the objective reality of the phenomena we study.

Because the book explores links among the theoretical and humanistic texts from different perspectives, it can seem repetitive at times. On my second reading however, I appreciated the way that Gay exfoliates an increasingly detailed focus on different aspects of the theory from chapter to chapter while keeping the whole in mind. I think that this procedure will make it likely that readers with diverse interests in psychoanalysis, including teachers, may find the approach in a given chapter more congenial than another. But any reader who wonders how and why some children develop seemingly without difficulty while others lead lives of mental suffering---indeed, any reader who wonders how to bring more joy into his own life—will appreciate the wealth of insights in this book.

Reviewer Note

Molly Anne Rothenberg, is a professor of English at Tulane University and a psychoanalyst in private practice. Her published research in psychoanalysis includes a collection of essays on perversion and the social relation, co-edited with Dennis Foster and Slavoj Zizek (Duke University Press, 2003).

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