Schopenhauer’s Porcupines: Intimacy and Its Dilemmas (Book Review)

Author:  Luepnitz, Deborah Anna
Publisher: New York: Basic Books, 2003
Reviewed By: Polly Young-Eisendrath, Spring 2004, pp. 39-41

True Love is Ambivalent

The first subtitle of this delightful book, “Intimacy and Its Dilemmas” conveys the thoughtful context for its contents. The second sub-title “Five Stories of Psychotherapy” tells you that it’s a useful book for teaching analytic psychotherapy. If you are looking for a book that can engage students or training candidates with contemporary well-written psychoanalytic case material, look no further. Deborah Luepnitz has written the stories of five long-term psychotherapeutic cases in a manner that could be called “novelistic,” but should also be called realistic and sensitive to the patients whose stories these are. All five cases, whose titles express the metaphoric themes that emerge in their treatments (such as “Don Juan in Trenton” and “A Darwinian Finch”), are presented in a general context of the challenges, pathologies, and hopes for human intimacy. Although this book is aimed at a general audience, it will also appeal to a seasoned analytic practitioner because it is situated within a sophisticated dialogue between Luepnitz and psychoanalytic theory.

Luepnitz begins with her own views on the thorny nature of human intimacy, drawing on a well-known fable from the philosopher Schopenhauer, a story that Freud liked to cite. It tells about the dilemmas of closeness between porcupines who must huddle together to keep warm in the winter, but soon spread apart to prevent the pain of being poked by each others’ quills. This is the perennial problem of human intimacy: can our autonomy bear the closeness that our dependence demands? Luepnitz (p. 3) quotes Freud to illustrate the point that she will repeatedly revisit in each of her cases: “The evidence of psychoanalysis shows that almost every intimate emotional relation between two people which lasts for some time—marriage, friendship, the relations between parents and children—contains a sediment of feelings of aversion and hostility, which only escapes perception as a result of repression.” Freud, of course, believed that the exception to this rule was the love of a mother for her son, which was “based on narcissism” and thus could never be exhausted or turned into aversion (p. 3).

Luepnitz goes on to remind her readers that Winnicott “listed some eighteen reasons why the ordinary, loving mother might hate her infant–daughter or son. (For example: The baby endangers her body during pregnancy and delivery. He may be cranky and implacable all morning, and then go out and ‘smile at a stranger.’) Winnicott maintained that mothers who could acknowledge the discomfiting fact that love, even for babies, is ambivalent would be less likely to do harm than the disavowers” (p. 3). All relationships, not just family relationships, Luepnitz avers, require us to contain contradictory feelings for the same person and this is the reason that the poet Molly Peacock has stated that “There must be room in love for hate” (p. 3).

Naturally, we find this same combination of contradictory feelings at the center of our psychotherapeutic relationships. Relative to analytic love, a great deal has been written about sexual seduction and analytic hate in the transferential field. By the way, Luepnitz gives an excellent succinct definition of transference that should make it easier to teach even to under-graduate students: “The concept of transference turns on the fact that we don’t meet people as much as we construct them, based on previous experiences going back to childhood” (p. 12). I would add that we now recognize how all aspects of the brain are driven by emotional conditioning when the notorious amygdala is activated. Not only do we “construct people” rather than meet them, but we are fated to perceive situations and people in a childishly defensive way when we are in the presence of what our limbic system regards as emotionally dangerous. It is very difficult to wake up to how we do this for both the perceiver and the perceived. Strong feelings in the transferential field of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are as hard to manage as they are in other kinds of relationships, except that we analytic therapists have certain rules and rituals on the side of creating a reflective space.

Many of us analytic therapists have learned how to feel and manage both lustful desire and hatred for our patients in order to be effective ethical practitioners, as well as how to transform a patient’s lust and hate into grist for the analytic mill. We may be more confused about what to do about our true love for our patients. Luepnitz’s cases illustrate that we should never confuse true love with our lust, romance, admiration or idealization of patients—feelings that ride the bus with love, but get off at a different bus stop.

Before she introduces the actual cases, Luepntiz invites us to consider a contrast in psychoanalytic theories of love: the difference between a British object-relational Winnicottian view and a French Lacanian view. She reminds us that Winnicott added “play” to the classical Freudian goal of psychoanalysis enabling people to “love and work” more effectively. Winnicott has taught us about framing and containing our analytic work within a “holding environment” in which patients can reveal more than a false or compliant self. Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mother” which we may now apply to ourselves as “good-enough therapists” who are “capable of having a straightforward love-hate relationship” with our patients, just as the good-enough mother has with her child (p. 14). Winnicott, as you surely know, writes about these topics in a style that is alternately whimsical, clinical, inspirational and evocative.

The first contrast with the iconoclastic French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is in our encounter with his writing style. In Luepnitz’s words, “Lacan wrote in a style that is extravagantly difficult even for other analysts.” What’s more, throughout his long career, he believed that “the emphasis on mother-baby love in the work of British analysts eclipsed attention to adult sexuality and the erotic in general. If Winnicott’s key word was ‘mothering,” Lacan’s was ‘desire.’ For Lacan, desire is what simultaneously defines us as human subjects and what prevents us from ever being whole or complete” (p. 15).

The importance of family life for Lacan was more in “the intergenerational transmission of psychopathology” than in the nature of mother love or holding environments. Lacan insisted that analysts must understand three generations in a patient’s life in order to comprehend the patient’s symptoms. For Lacan, there is never a perfect union, even with a mother at the beginning of life, and so there is never a perfect relationship with anyone. “Only those who know themselves as lacking are even capable of love, according to Lacan” (p. 16).

Luepnitz, who has trained to be a Lacanian as well as a contemporary Freudian, has had both Winnicottian and Lacanian analyses, and considers herself to be a Lacanian practitioner. Recently I had the pleasure of hearing her lecture about her two analyses – how they began, progressed, and ended. She stressed then, as she does in her book, how Lacan insisted that the goals of analysis were not “therapeutic.” He meant that analysis mainly involves letting the “subject of the unconscious” speak—putting words to the incoherent, incipient intuitions that are sometimes called the Big Other. Lacan wanted an analysis to offer the experience of feeling alive in the midst of the confusion and contradictions of our own subjective life—an experience that would ultimately foster the patient’s ability to desire, to choose, and to love. Lacan was less interested in “promoting communication” than in “helping people reckon with...the fact of our mortality” (p. 16).

Luepnitz understands that Lacan and Winnicott are contradictory enough that their theories cannot be fused in her work into some kind of weird pessimistic holding environment. But she likes to think about them side by side in an interplay of “the comic and tragic values in the rich tableau of psychoanalytic thought” (p. 16). Whereas Winnicott offers a benign worldview in which it is possible for humankind to exist in healthy families and change for the better, Lacan is more apt to be bleakly skeptical about the nature of human existence being even manageable, much less “healthy.”

Luepnitz’s five cases illustrate her own contrapuntal interplay of holding and pessimism in the experience of love and hate in analytic and therapeutic work. There is no way to summarize the cases, but I will say that my favorite (and I am sure that each of her readers will have a favorite) is the story of the Darwinian Finch. The patient is “Professor Pearl Quincey” who was born in a shantytown in Jamaica and emigrated to the U.S. as a young child. Growing up poor, but being very smart, Pearl eventually became very well educated. After an exhausting twelve years in graduate school (while she was supporting her family in Jamaica at the same time), Pearl attained an academic position in the English Department of a prestigious university. But Pearl very quickly felt empty, stopped and resentful about her new career. “Where Pearl imagined a convivial group of scholars devoted to students and involved with the community, she found small-minded cynics fighting over office space. Students complained of never having spoken to a professor. And as the only woman of color in the department, Pearl felt everyone taking her measure. Secretaries looked right through her; security guards followed her around at the bookstore” (p. 151). This is not a typical psychoanalytic case, nor are the other cases that Luepnitz describes.

I, a white woman living in the mountains of central Vermont, thoroughly identified with Pearl, and found myself captivated by her story. I fell for Pearl because she was both hopeful and pessimistic, lively and ironic: a Lacanian-type of patient. One day she said to Luepnitz: “I don’t date... I’ve decided I’m not datable... I am a Darwinian finch... Do you, by any chance, remember reading about the finches in The Origin of Species? ... Well, I am like a finch that has flown its little niche for a new one. I’ve adapted in certain ways but I am, nonetheless, slightly different from the other birds, and now none can recognize me as a potential mate” (p. 154). A great portion of Pearl’s psychotherapy is connected to the story of the finches, to debates about Darwin’s and others’ meanings, and to questions from each of the women about what they know about love.

There is little that I find lacking in this book written in the venerable tradition of The Fifty Minute Hour. The case stories, told in the fascinating detail that we would expect of a really good novel, held my attention throughout. If I had to complain, I would say that I would have wished for more overt theoretical analyses of the cases themselves. I would want to see more about how Luepnitz sees her work specifically as Lacanian or Winnicottian along the lines that she had presented in her introduction. I could draw my own conclusions, but I would have also enjoyed hearing from Luepnitz more explicitly about her ideas. Still, I think that such theoretical musings might have made the book less accessible to students and the general public. As it is, Schoenhauer’s Porcupines should challenge analysts, students and patients to re-think old prejudices about how and why an analytic approach is dated or limited to the so-called “worried wealthy.” Luepnitz shows how much our field can reach into the desires and loneliness of people in all kinds of circumstances. I highly recommend this book, especially as a gift or an assignment for even the most skeptical critic of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

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