Stories from the Bog: On Madness, Philosophy, and Psychoanalysis (Contemporary Psychoanalytic Studies) by Patrick B. Kavanaugh (Book Review)

Author:   Kavanaugh, Patrick B. 
Publisher:  New York, N.Y.: Rodopi
Reviewed By:  Marilyn Charles, December 2012

In his new book Stories from the Bog, Patrick Kavanaugh offers us a lens for his vision of psychoanalysis as an art rather than a science. A master storyteller, Kavanuagh is at his best when he is telling stories from his life, inviting the reader along with him on a journey, attempting to understand the minds and experiences of the individuals he encounters in the back wards of state institutions. Weaving seamlessly between his patients’ narratives and the story of his own becoming, he also offers chapters that more specifically articulate his philosophy.

Kavanaugh speaks from his many years of experience reaching across the gaps between self and other while working with individuals in dire distress. He begins by situating us at the beginning of a 40-year journey, in a massive county psychiatric hospital, and first explains his interest in the assumptions underlying the ways in which “care” is offered. He argues against a biological view of illness, stating that madness—and psychoanalysis—“are inseparable from the cultural and historical context in which they make their appearance” (p.xviii). He advocates a move from the medical, scientific paradigm toward conceptualizing madness as a literary, spiritual, and mystical phenomenon, stressing that the individual cannot be known outside of the life narrative through which his own unique story might be told.

Kavanaugh also situates himself in the heritage of Irish storytellers, the “magical power and cultural memory that resides in the bog” (p.2). From this perspective, the unconscious is structured—and therefore can only become known—in relation to the systems of meaning that underpin one’s culture. These archaic memories have an impact, even though they may not be accessible to the conscious mind. Through his case vignettes, Kavanaugh illustrates ways in which trauma and primitive memories may be spoken through the symptom, and become visible through movements, expressions, or gestures. He advocates for a profound “being-with” that enables the analyst to resonate deeply and profoundly with the other’s experience.

Kavanaugh conceptualizes the analyst as a “mind-poet,” assigned to the role of the “One who Remembers” (p.23). For Kavanaugh, the analyst’s receptivity helps the patient, in turn, be more receptive to his or her own internal knowings. From that position, the patient is invited to take up the role of the One who Remembers and to turn within for answers. From this perspective, the goal of the analytic process is the furthering of the capacity for free association, and thereby the capacity to know oneself. That turn inward is also where Kavanaugh locates the ethics in which his practice is based. He contends that the health care environment in which psychoanalysis has been embedded privileges the interests of the collective over the individual, and pushes toward a paternalistic relationship that is disrespectful of those seeking assistance. Because of the importance he places on the individual and the development of a personal narrative, Kavanaugh views psychoanalysis not as a science, but rather as an art, a constructive process through which meanings are negotiated and established. From that frame of reference, the analyst is a witness to a story that becomes known through the telling. The analyst’s job is to be open enough to this story that it can be told. In this way, the focus of the work is on understanding the organizing purposes and meanings of an individual’s life. For Kavanaugh, it is only in this way that morality is discovered.

Following McDougall’s (1985) conceptualization of “theaters of the mind,” Kavanaugh views psychoanalysis in the context of a theater of the everyday, such that symptoms become dramatizations of meanings that have not yet found words. Rejecting a conceptualization of psychosis as a biomedical condition, instead Kavanaugh speaks of “madness as a complex sociocultural phenomenon having, at once, its adaptive and protective purposes, expressive and communicative dimensions, and ideothetic and multiple meanings generated from the person’s unique life-world and experiences” (p.99, italics in original).

In later chapters, Kavanaugh focuses more explicitly on ways in which psychoanalysis can function as a performance art. Following Artaud (1974), he shows how psychoanalysis can be viewed as a “Theatre of Cruelty” (Artaud, 1958, cited in Kavanaugh, p.115), through which social and psychic realities are revealed. Artaud developed a vision of the theater in which realities could be represented directly through movement and gesture, “a unique language of the stage…[that] looks beneath the mask of the civilized and demands that the audience viscerally see and speak with the more barbaric, primitive, and real aspects of self and other” (Kavanaugh, p.115).

Parallel to Artaud’s conception, Kavanaugh describes his inpatient work as a type of theater in which primitive anxieties play out, conceptualizing internal representations from the past as ghosts or spirits that signify the essence of our past encounters. As these phantoms come forward, he contends, aspects of their truths are revealed through the associative/ interpretive process of psychoanalysis. Kavanaugh advocates entering into this process so that one might speak from his immersion in the experience of the other, to give words, as best he might, to the experience of the other. He positions Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty as a turn toward recognizing painful realities in the form of representation rather than reason, in this way inviting the type of unconscious participation that is so crucial to the work of psychoanalysis. For Kavanaugh, psychoanalysis is a “performance art…as produced, directed, and choreographed by the subject and as communicated via the associative-interpretive process” (p.129).

In Chapters 8 through 10, Kavanaugh focuses more explicitly on psychoanalysis as it has evolved as a positivistic discipline. Arguing for a view of psychoanalysis as an art, he offers a “fractured fairytale” through which he critiques psychoanalysis as it has evolved within the scientific/medical establishment. He advocates for a more pluralistic view through which discourse can prevail and ideas can evolve. He then advocates for a new vision of psychoanalysis, one that moves against the constraining tendency toward institutionalization and constricting standardization of psychoanalytic theory and practice. More useful, he suggests, is a conceptualization of psychoanalysis as a humanistic discipline in which questions of competency can be taken up in an evolving discourse that can grow with the field. In this vein, Kavanaugh argues for a literary, spiritual, and mystical sense of madness. From this perspective, the best model for learning is apprenticeship, through which one’s identity can evolve. He conceptualizes psychoanalytic practice in the shamanic tradition, such that psychoanalytic knowing evolves through a learning process that “itself enters and takes place in the spirit realm” (p.195). Such learning, he contends, is facilitated by an immersion into “the rhythms and rhymes and meanings and purposes of whatever reality unfolds” (p.200).

Those familiar with Kavanaugh’s unique voice will enjoy this compilation of his clinical and theoretical works, in which a master storyteller and master clinician offers a unique view of psychoanalytic work as an evolving process through which meanings can be made and manifested. Those not familiar with his work are in for a treat. In an era in which scientism and constricting standards threaten to squeeze the life out of psychoanalytic theory and practice, Kavanaugh is a refreshing voice, reminding us of the richness and importance of this work and of the being-in-it-together that is the sine qua non of psychoanalysis.


Artaud, A. (1958). The theatre of cruelty. In E. Bentley (Ed.), The theory of the modern stage (pp.66–81). New York, NY: Penguin..

Artaud, A. (1974). Collected works of Antonin Artaud. (V. Corti, Trans.). London, UK: Calder & Boyars.

McDougall, J. (1985). Theaters of the mind: Illusion and truth on the psychoanalytic stage. New York, NY: Basic Books.

About the Author

Marilyn Charles is a staff psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center and a psychoanalyst in private practice in Stockbridge, Mass.. Marilyn has presented her work nationally and internationally, publishing over 70 articles and book chapters and four books: Patterns: Building Blocks of Experience, Constructing Realities: Transformations Through Myth and Metaphor, Learning from Experience: a Guidebook for Clinicians, and Working with Trauma: Lessons from Bion and Lacan.


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