Time In Psychoanalysis: Some Contradictory Aspects (Book Review)

Author:  Green, André
Publisher: London: Free Association Books. 2002
Reviewed By: Carl Goldberg, Fall 2002, pp. 55-56

Temporality is a worthy subject for psychoanalytic inquiry. The French philosopher Henri Bergson has pointed out that “time is the heart of existence.” I, too, am struck by the observation that our most profound human experiences occur more in relation to time than in the dimension of space. They usually fall somewhere in the continuum of “I wish that this moment would go on forever!” to “I cannot stand another moment of this!” In other words, during the normal course of our lives we find that our lives are quickly slipping away. When we are joyous we wish to halt time, to suspend it, to cherish every aspect of its being. But most of us find that we know not how. When we are confined, suffer, or are in pain, in contrast, time seems slow, its unwelcome imprisonment hangs heavily upon us. As a consequence, during those anguishing moments, we generally try to kill time and cast it away.

Time in Psychoanalysis is an epistemological discourse in regard to the evaluation of “shattered time” in psychoanalytic conceptualization. According to its author, the French analyst Andre Green, it is only “in the analytic encounter, during the session, that we can observe, analyze, and think about the vicissitudes of Shattered time” (p. 60), that is to say, “time which has little to do with the idea of an orderly succession according to the tripartition past/present /future” (p. 1), as all three temporalities may be represented in any moment as a purely present manifestation. Accordingly, “(t)he hypothesis of the timelessness of the unconscious, which is nothing more than the timelessness of its traces and of its cathexes, endowed with mobility, is already present here. This means that the psychic apparatus is caught in the double vectorisation tending towards the future, now towards the past, in the pure present of dreaming, when the flow of excitations which should lead them from thought to action is impossible” (p. 11).

Epistemological texts are written, of course, for various purposes. Green’s book appears to be an elaboration and a defense of Freud’s “great originality and marvelous ingenuity” (p. 9) about the interface of timelessness and the unconscious; which while never systematically formulated, according to Green, is highly germane to Freud’s understanding of human ontology. Moreover, although Green has few references and citations to other analytic work (besides his and Freud’s scholarship), it appears that central to his mission here is to alert the reader to the dangers of deviation by analytic theorists and practitioners from Freud’s notions about time. In this regard, Green specifically and strongly condemns Jacques Lacan’s use of the variable duration of sessions, because, “The session which is ‘scanned’ by the analyst, almost always in the sense of shortening it, is an inexhaustible source of psychoanalytic alienation, first and foremost for the analyst, who is enjoined by the law of the group to exercise his power (without knowing precisely what he is doing since, through the scansion, which he brings down on the session like a judge’s hammer, he deprives himself arbitrarily from knowing what might have happened next)” (p. 48).

Green also excoriates those “Anglo-Saxon psychoanalysts, across the board” (p. 5) for their narrowness of theoretical perspectives on the issue of time and other psychoanalytic theorizing.

Frequently, epistemological analytic texts have practical aims: for example, they may delineate how a better theoretical understanding of the material may lead to improved clinical practices. However, to do this, case vignettes and elaborate clinical examples are required. Green’s book, in contrast, eschews case material and provides instead a few brief examples to illustrate his theoretical notions. As a result, Time in Psychoanalysis is so abstract that in reading this volume I continually needed to remind myself that the material Green is discussing concerns the living processes of supposedly real people, as well as interactions between real people.

Time in Psychoanalysis would be a more significant work if Green had acknowledged that there already exists some excellent psychoanalytic perspectives about time and the unconscious in the writings of Peter Hartocollis, Paul Schilder, Marie Bonaparte, A.M. Meerloo and others, and compared his notions to their conceptualizations. If he had he might have recognized the indispensable existential notion about human suffering--that supposedly psychoanalysis has been designed to address--that there are three ontological disturbances: guilt (past); shame (present); anticipatory anxiety (future). Guilt is experienced as behavior already chosen and committed; what is unclear is when the sufferer will deal with the guilt. Shame is felt as the loss of the safe and familiar; time seems frozen, endless; with no place to hide and contain one’s vulnerable feelings. The sufferer feels engulfed by the prospect that the pervasive shame will remain everlasting. Anticipatory anxiety is teleological--the sufferer’s sense of purpose is obsessed with what he or she regards as decisive-to-be moments in the future.

Reviewer Note

Carl Goldberg is the author of 200 professional publications, including 12 books. He is the Editor-for-the-Americas of the International Journal of Psychotherapy, on the editorial boards of the Journal for Applied Psychoanalytic Studies and the Journal for Adult Development, and reviews submitted manuscripts and books for the American Journal of Psychotherapy.

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