Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World (Book Review)
Author: Knafo, Danielle and Feiner, Kenneth
Publisher: Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Helen B. Levine, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 70-74
Before addressing Knafo and Feiner’s timely and valuable book, Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World, I shall sketch the context in which I read it. Lawrence Friedman (2005) writes in his introduction to a series of papers in JAPA: “No one will blame an analyst for feeling harassed by today’s onslaught of controversies and theories. The profession has never been so multifariously unsettled.” (p. 691). Today psychoanalysis is rife with competing theories (unfortunately so at a time when much of the popular press and many layman consider psychoanalysis if not dead, then surely moribund). Some analysts relish what they deem the new “pluralism,” insisting that differences can be negotiated. Others argue that polarized preconceptions of what constitutes the psychoanalytic enterprise must be maintained, because differing first principles generate new and novel data (Greenberg, 2003). Psychoanalysts, representing this array of “schools,” engage in more and less civil exchanges in the pages of proliferating journals and meetings. Cooper (2008, in press) maintains, “… our current task has shifted from battling orthodoxy to battling chaos. …” If the psychoanalytic “house” requires a good cleaning, even a remodeling, at the extreme a dismantling, it will be a very long time before the dust settles.
As a result, for at least a decade I have found myself longing for the “good old” days when psychoanalytic reading entailed only a handful of journals in contrast to what PEP now refers to as their 26 “premier” psychoanalytic journals. PEP is a great convenience and may allow us more shelf space with its huge repository on the web. Still, new numbers of the ever-expanding list of journals pile up in office and home, saved in the way many save years of the New Yorker with the grim determination to read that article sometime.
In this state of mind, I opened Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World. This clearly and concisely written volume could serve well as a primer of contemporary Freudian psychoanalysis and its central theoretical and clinical tenets, which the current flurry of debate may at times obscure. My first reading of the book felt like a pleasant return to familiar ground, recalling the way my peers worked with, thought about, and wrote about their patients—a welcome respite from the current quagmire of controversy.
It will not escape notice that I call the book a fine representative of contemporary Freudian thought, despite its title, about which I will have more to say. The authors summarize their perspective on unconscious fantasy:
“Here we take the position that unconscious fantasies are ubiquitous, complex psychic phenomena that combine cognition and affect, wishes and defense, self-and object representation and identifications. Fantasies involve the most basic, primal intimate predilections that determine what we perceive, experience, and feel. They do this by enhancing attunement to select aspects of the external world, giving expression to defensive priorities, and influencing how we interpret and adapt to reality, all of which effect our conduct and the choices we make throughout our lives.
“Although we propose that unconscious fantasies consist of relatively stable psychic structures, we nonetheless believe that their contents are not always static entities. Rather, they tend to be dynamic and fluctuate in accordance with a person’s momentary desires, needs, and defensive, reparative, or restitutional requirements. Unconscious fantasy systems are open to influence from the external world—including interpersonal, familial, and social contexts—and, as such, they are capable of development and change, deconstruction and reconstruction.” (p.14.)
Thus defined, the authors propose exploring three “universal” fantasies—those of the primal scene, the family romance and castration, which they argue, “…constitute the basic organizing structures of a person’s unconscious mental life” (p. 4). Taking each of these fantasies in turn, they critically review the literature, itself a service to the reader. (Their references cite an array of papers beginning with Freud and followed by others traversing each decade to the present.) The literature review of each fantasy is followed by clinical material illustrating the fantasy as it appears in the course of an analysis or analytic therapy. Finally, their understanding of these fantasies is applied to a film, a novel, and performance art. Their choice of Lynch’s film Blue Velvet (primal scene), Jerzi Kosinski’s novels and biography (family romance, more precisely the family romance of an impostor), and the famed or infamous Orlan’s performance art (castration) makes for a riveting experience of well-done applied psychoanalysis. The reader, as I did will want to re-view Blue Velvet, read Kosinski’s novels and biography, and go to Orlan’s website (address in the book).
Critical to their understanding of the primal scene is the possibility of the child’s multiple and shifting identifications with both partners and the onlooker. The literature is replete with examples of these fantasies as they are implicated in pathology, but Knafo and Feiner also stress the adaptive function of the shifting identifications if the child has not sustained intense early trauma since this often precludes fantasy formation and symbolization. Each of the three fantasies and the developmental and maturational events (including events in the real world) that occasion them, are invariably experienced by the child as narcissistic injuries. Nevertheless, with a child unburdened by significant trauma, these shifting identifications, they argue can provide the occasions of “sex-role rehearsal and sexual identity formation” (p. 41).
Another benefit often accruing specifically to this fantasy is that it may propel the child into lifelong intellectual curiosity and exploration. The intrepid little detectives determinedly sleuth out who is doing what to whom and where they fit into all of this exciting and mysterious business. When, however trauma mutes exploration, a child may assume a pseudo-stupid role. The authors cite Mahler’s old paper (1942) on pseudo-imbecility in support of this point. This paper, now infrequently cited, is vivified by a highly intelligent man who, for defensive reasons rarely studied throughout all his school years, including college. He thought himself stupid and indeed he often acted that way as an adult, calling himself a “retard.” When he was eight years old his father informed him that his mother was going to have a baby, to which he responded: “Does Mom know?” He was sexually inactive (either through masturbation or intercourse) well into his adult years. In this era of LD and ADHD, one wonders whether, if not the cause of learning difficulties, the need to deny the primal scene does not somehow become intertwined with and exacerbated by neurophysiological factors.
Feiner creates a finely honed analysis of the life and fiction of Jerzi Kosinski, particularly of his acclaimed and supposedly autobiographical novel The Painted Bird (1965). Feiner interprets both Kosinski’s family romance and the tragic trajectory and conclusion of his imposture. Kosinski was born in 1933, a Polish Jew whose father had changed the family name. The Painted Bird, which Kosinski claimed was autobiographical, describes the horrific experiences of a boy, sent away by his parents to a peasant woman for safekeeping during the German occupation. The peasant woman is killed, after which the boy (unnamed as Feiner points out) must fend for himself, suffering unspeakable abuse by Polish peasants. Feiner writes: “Later he [the boy] is flung into a manure pit, and, when he manages to extricate himself, he discovers that he has been struck mute” (p. 102). In fact, Kosinski spent the war years with his mother and father, being helped and hidden by Catholic Poles. Nameless and mute, writes Feiner epitomizes the strategy of Kosinski’s imposture.
Kosinski very quickly became famous, received prestigious awards for his book, was the president of American PEN and received teaching appointments at Wesleyan, Princeton, and Yale. He was a womanizer and perversely sadistic, sexually and otherwise. He was a darling of New York literati. But in a 1982 expose of in the Village Voice he was charged with plagiarism and accused of employing editors to write his books. The writers claimed that Kosinski had fabricated much about his arrival in New York and his academic credentials, and most egregiously, the supposed autobiography recounted in The Painted Bird.
In 1991 Kosinski committed suicide, which Feiner feels was directly related to the expose, despite his having contemplated suicide throughout his adult life, his complaints of heart trouble and failing sexual powers (p.119). In Feiner’s analysis Kosinski’s novels beginning with The Painted Bird, chronicle his imposturous life, his playing alternately with revealing himself and hiding, leading finally to his sense of impending doom as his fabricated identity seemed increasingly endangered, leaving him bereft and empty, the vulnerable self he had hidden now exposed to the world.
J.P. Sloan’s (1996) biography of Kosinski provided Feiner with the bulk of his biographical material. (He also met with Sloan and had access to unpublished material in Sloan’s possession.) The biography received mixed reviews in the New York Times. Louis Begley’s review titled “True Lies” (New York Times 1993) was critical of Sloan’s book. He agrees that Kosinski fabricated much about his life but suggests that the power of his novel lies in its truthful portrayal of the horror of the Holocaust and of man’s endless capacity for cruelty to other humans. He, Kosinski told “true lies.”
Begley found Kosinski’s need to fabricate his history puzzling because his novel conveyed such truth. Feiner, the psychoanalyst gives us the inner logic of Kosinski’s lies, not the artistic truth Begley affirms. Begley quotes Kosinski’s favorite reply when others tried to pin him down as to whether the protagonist’s experiences in The Painted Bird were autobiographical or not. Begley writes, “The formula he [Kosinski] ultimately used was as follows: ‘To say that ‘The Painted Bird’ is nonfiction may be convenient for classification but it is not easily justified.’” Greenacre in her (1953) paper on the “Relation of the Impostor to the Artist,” describes the impostor’s verbal slight of hand: “Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, he makes words do what he wants them to do—perform tricks at his bidding” (p. 548).
Feiner’s analysis of Kosinki’s life, work, and suicide calls to mind Bruno Bettelheim’s career—his writing, and eventual suicide one year before Kosinksi’s. Bettelheim had been at both Dachau and Buchewald. Within months after his death, his associates, his patients, and the brother of one of Bettleheim’s patients6 described him as a chronic liar who falsified much of his past including his academic credentials, plagiarized much of what he wrote and was abusive to the children at the famous Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School for troubled children at the University of Chicago where he had been the director for many years. Robert Gottlieb (2003) who reviewed five books about Bettelheim described the once revered educator’s reputation as literally in shreds. There seems much still to be explored about the issue of identity, truth and falsity in the experience of those creative individuals who survived the Holocaust.
Returning to the question of their book’s title: Knafo and Feiner, without employing the terms “ego psychology,” “drive” or “instinct” nevertheless refer throughout to “stable structures,” to “conflict,” “defense,” and “compromise.” Their abiding commitment to the body and its endogenous sensations as implicated in the development of these fantasies emerges with clarity. They acknowledge their heightened sensitivity to the analyst’s counter-transference, affirming a two-person perspective and the manner in which this often leads to enactments.7 They stress the role of interpersonal relations and the reality of trauma as important factors in fantasy formation. However, this, I submit does not really put them squarely in the relational camp but merely, in my view makes them good contemporary Freudian analysts. They assume that the patient has a mind with fantasies that pre-existed their treatment. The most potent fantasies are generally unconscious, which in the analytic setting they are able to hear derivatives of. They analyze impediments (resistances/defenses) to their emerging into consciousness. Making the unconscious conscious remains one of their central therapeutic goals. Clinically (as opposed to theoretically), it does appear possible to incorporate certain aspects of relational psychoanalysis. This, Knafo and Feiner, to my mind, have done without injustice to the basic tenets of the schools they draw upon.
The final chapters are devoted to what Knafo (author of this section) from the outset claims are the most controversial of the fantasies in the volume, that is fantasies about castration (generally understood as anxiety about castration) and penis envy. I would add penis awe, a phenomenon described by Greenacre (1953). Others have since noted that idealization of the penis underlies both the envy and anxiety in these fantasies, the idealization being a regular accompaniment of awe.8
Because these fantasies, particularly penis envy have been so intensely studied and critiqued, abandoned entirely by some in clinical work, Knafo is at pains to create a broader more palatable version of the fantasies. Her theoretical perspective might have been clearer had she included Grossman and Stewart’s (1976) paper and one by Cooper (1986). Ultimately, her summary definition of these fantasies leaves her open to charges of over-inclusiveness: “‘Castration fantasies’ (author’s quotation marks) refer to a sense of incompleteness in or damage to one’s physical self—a sense that can be experienced by both males and females. …Such fantasies are not simply about having a penis but, rather, about the gap between what one is and what one would like to be” (p. 139).
Her clinical case, that of a transsexual, aims to illustrate her reformulation, and was fascinating because transsexuals rarely enter treatment, either before or after sex reassignment. Ruth Stein (1995) published one of only a few detailed descriptions of an analysis of a would-be transsexual. Her patient, after a long and painful analysis finally did not go through sex reassignment, married a woman and fathered a child. Although Knafo’s and Stein’s patients shared similar dynamics, particularly their pronounced sado-masochistic orientation and their grandiose refusal to accept limitations of any kind, notably the gendered body, Stein’s patient was neither as concrete nor as action-driven as Knafo’s.
I believe Knafo’s patient was the one alluded to earlier in the book who lacked the capacity to symbolize, who did not fantasize. He resembles the two patients, described by Grossman and Stewart (1976), although their cases were women to whom penis envy had been inappropriately interpreted, leading in one case to a transference cure that did not last and in the other to a stalemated treatment. One of their patients was considered a narcissistic character disorder and the other borderline. They were concrete and could not use interpretations metaphorically. They were pan-envious, which prompted the earlier failed interpretations of penis envy. Actually, the authors felt that the earlier treatments had had a stabilizing and organizing effect on the women, not unlike the way the terrifying free-floating anxiety of the paranoid person abates once systematized delusions emerge (p.193).
Knafo surely was clear about her patient’s early traumatic circumstances, his marked identity problems and cited many sources that indicated that she understood castration as the manifest content of something else, particularly in primitively or poor organized patients. She worked well with a very disturbed man. But her absence of two months appeared intolerable to him and may have hastened if not precipitated his downward spiral into perversion, prostitution, and the eventual sex reassignment.9
Perhaps a more illustrative example of castration fantasies would have been that of a female patient in whom unconscious penis envy was an underlying issue related to her symptoms and difficulty in life. When penis envy and castration (anxiety) are the manifest content in such blatant forms, the patient is either intellectualizing or is as disturbed as the case Knafo reports.
Knafo’s analysis of the infamous Orlan’s performance art (with herself as both the artist and her artistic creation) was described with such detail that the same shock and fascination was invoked in me as what Knafo described in the audiences around the world who watched her startling series of facial surgeries. In one surgery Orlan had horns implanted in her forehead. Orlan shares with Knafo’s patient the unrelentingly willful and grandiose refusal to accept the human limitation particularly that of gender. Both insisted on having it all.
Finally, in comparing contemporary Freudian psychoanalytic theory with that of the postmodern psychoanalyst, Knafo raises an intriguing issue as regards psychoanalytic nomenclature and diagnosis in today’s cultural climate; one could say today’s cyber-culture. Knafo writes: “Part of Orlan’s ‘monstrosity’ entails her use of technology and media to advance her argument that the ‘body is obsolete.’ Indeed in the virtual world of cyberspace, the physical body is absent; it is gender free, age-free, race-free and site free.” (p.185). To date, this type of thinking about “virtuality” on the web represents more a utopian dream than an actuality.
Nevertheless, Knafo’s perspective on Orlan is mirrored in certain postmodern psychoanalytic theorizing in which multiplicity and boundary blurring is celebrated, and the unitary self is replaced by multiple and fluid selves. Gender is “performative,” unencumbered by the body and its gender markers. And above all, normative heterosexuality is countered with the assertion of multiple sexualities. A quick tour on the web entering search terms such as BDSM, she-males, fetishism, zoophilia, to name but a few, generates hundreds of thousands even millions of hits. Orlan may perhaps have more sophisticated rationales for her grotesque body modifications, but judging from the 400,000 or so hits for the term “body modification” there are many would-be Orlans out there. Will the term “perversion” be an obsolete concept or is there not something perverse about postmodernism?
In sum, Unconscious Fantasies and the Relational World packs much rich material into its pages, raises many of the current issues and debates in psychoanalytic theory, provided thought provoking forays into psycho-biography and applied psychoanalysis and finally but not least requires us to look at the place of psychoanalysis in today’s culture. Given the deluge of journals we attempt to plow through, to have so much in one slim volume is indeed a boon.
Cooper, A.M. (1986). What men fear: The façade of castration anxiety. In: G. Fogel,
F.M. Lane, and R. Liebert (eds.). The psychology of men. New York. Basic Books, pp.113-130.
Cooper, A.M. (2008) American psychoanalysis today: A plurality of orthodoxies. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry. In press.
Begley, L. (1996). True Lies. The New York Times, April 21.
Fein, E. (1993). At the office with Louis Begley: Inventing a life, then living it. The New York Times. April 14.
Friedman, L. (2005). Challenges that probe our premises. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 53, 691.
Gottlieb, R. (2003). The strange case of Dr. B. The New York Review of Books, 50, 3, February 27.
Greenacre, P. (1953). The relationship of the impostor to the artist. In: Emotional growth: Psychoanalytic studies of the gifted and a great variety of other individuals, volume 2. New York: International Universities Press (1971).
Greenacre, P. (1953). Penis awe and it’s relation to penis envy. In: R. Lowenstein (ed.) Drives, affects, and behavior. New York: International Universities Press, 179-190.
Greenberg, J. (2003). Commentary on “Psychoanalytic discourse at the turn of our century: A plea for a measure of humility.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 51, S, 89-98.
Grossman, W.I. and Stewart, W. A. (1976). From childhood wish to developmental metaphor. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 24, S, 193-212.
Kosinski, J. (1965). The painted bird. New York: Pocket Cardinal.
Lewis, M. (1989). Liar’s poker. New York: Norton and Company.
Mahler-Schoenberger, M. (1942). Pseudoimbicility: A magic cap of invisibility. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 11, 149-164.
Pollak, R. (1996). The creation of Dr. B: A biography of Bruno Bettelheim. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Sloan, J.P. (1996). Jerzi Kosinski: A biography. New York: Penguin Books.
Stein, R. (1995). Analysis of a case of transsexualism. Psychoanalytic Dialogues. 5, 257-289.
Helen B. Levine
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