Author: Eigen, Michael
Publisher: Karnac, 2007
Reviewed By: Louis Rothschild, Vol. XXIX, No. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 18-19
In mulling over Feeling Matters, I find myself concurrently thinking this is an easy and difficult review to write. Easy because I feel that anyone who has taken the time to read my opening sentence should read this book. Why? Well, if you know Eigen and like him then I am happy to report that his voice continues to be steadfast. If you don’t know Eigen, you should. He is well worth wrestling with for any reader of this newsletter. Allow me to make clear why the review feels difficult and how in reading Eigen, words such as wrestling come to mind.
As a reviewer, I note that I am in good company regarding this joyful conflict of the easy and difficult or a dialectic of the simpleminded and muddleheaded in regard to Eigen’s work. For example, Abbasi (2003) finds it difficult to capture in words the experience of reading Eigen. This is in part due to the manner in which Eigen can pinpoint what is referred to as “trauma clots,” and in so doing present a vivid description of being at home with what cannot be tolerated. Like Abbasi, I find that to read Eigen is to find an opening in which thinking is possible and thus have a space to reexamine my own technique. However, some (e.g., Ahumada, 1998; Galatzer-Levy, 1988) find that Eigen’s writing illustrates a technique that appears wrongheaded and uncritical. If it is not already obvious, I will confess to being biased. In my reading of Feeling Matters I re-experienced some of the most difficult moments in my current caseload. This made for slower reading than I expected, as it engaged critical thinking in regard to honest and good technique. As Anshin (1988, p. 550) has noted, Eigen’s presentation of cases that are not neat, but are vivid illustrations of “struggle, confusion, pain, and growth” is helpful.
It occurs to me that the negative reviews are based on an essentialism of method and technique that borders on the rigidly absurd. In that narrow view however, there is a point to be made that Eigen does not follow a metric standardized for technocratic deployment. There is abundant evidence regarding that in his recent work. For example, the last chapter entitled The Annihilated Self, draws on postings from a PsyBC seminar. Here I was struck by the style of citation, which is far from typical. Simply, when Michael refers to colleagues he uses their first name. Last I checked this is not APA style even when it is followed by a last name with a date in parenthesis. Frankly, the shock of the first name intimacy was enjoyable and at first led me to wonder who was being referred to—a patient or a colleague. Throughout the book I continued to be struck by Eigen’s ability to render people in human terms that challenge asymmetrical safety in part by a style of writing in which the person who is speaking shifts in a subtle manner.
Eigen cautions that the tendency to view science as a technique that makes details known in an apparently objective fashion—an arid botanizing—is not where he wants to be, as such a manner of knowing can occlude knowing in a felt or experiential sense. As the title of this book indicates, Eigen is utilizing a method that favors the felt, in that felt is the struggle to come to terms with finding a capacity to sing “in the center of our gnarled selves” (p. 92). In this regard, Strenger (2004) has considered Eigen’s work to fall within a Neo-Platonic tradition whose emphasis is a mystical journey from agony to ecstasy that has no truck with normalizing, but favors the pain of being an outsider with a willingness to go one’s own way. As Strenger writes, to read Eigen is to find a case of fringe theatre that has conquered Broadway.
After reading Strenger’s take for another review (Rothschild, 2007), I was motivated to pick up a copy of Lust (Eigen, 2006), and I found myself remembering a paper given during an APA film program a few years ago (Eigen, 1995). What struck me was that in 1995, I mainly heard that paper because it afforded a cheap night at the movies in New York, a major event in light of having having just finished my first year of graduate school. I deeply enjoyed the experiential quality of the paper, and was struck by Eigen as a thinker. However, as a student in the masters program at the New School for Social Research (knee deep in feeding on good cognitive psychology while simultaneously longing for psychoanalytic PhD life and missing my undergraduate readings in psychoanalysis and philosophy) it did not feel it was a time safe to embrace fringe theatre. I was finding it challenging enough to exist on the other side of the margin (i.e., science of the mind—although captivating in its own right). My point in telling this story is not only to highlight that maintaining a wider view of what constitutes a valid empirical engagement is not always easy, but also to note the unique quality of Eigen’s voice. That night in 1995, I went to the movies. I did not know who it was that gave that paper until October 2008 when in planning to write this review I contacted APA’s Convention Office in hopes of proving my fantasy that the person who gave that paper was the same person I was meeting in print.
That Eigen’s voice carries such a recognizable consistency across the spoken and written word and over a decade is due to his ability to be himself in being his self, Eigen eloquently writes on working with trauma. He refers to therapy as a place where monsters can be at home, as therapy invites sharing what is not easy to see. He considers this a place in which containment may not be found, but company is present. Personally, to sit with that limitation as a clinician is, I think, to be challenged in a very good way.
In a chapter entitled Alone Points, he writes about his chair. The vignette begins with a patient stating that the chair is “disgusting” (p. 101). Eigen writes that in his choice of a chair he made it easy for his patient to hide (via projection) his [patient’s] self-disgust in his own [Eigen’s]. He then shifts focus slightly to note that many damaged people feel at home in the same environment, and that although he did eventually get a new chair, that “new furniture will not make what is off kilter go away” (p. 101). Instead Eigen recommends dipping into stuck points in order to potentially change one’s relation to them. This seems to me an essential ingredient of good analytic technique.
In addition to writing about therapy, Eigen also focuses on projection in other contexts, specifically war and politics. Here he considers war to be a creation of disaster in order to make one’s deadness seen. While this may not be novel to those who think psychoanalytically, I appreciate his capacity to speak about war and what he calls “election rape” in reference to the manner in which the Bush/Gore election rekindled a patient’s own rape. In this regard, the political scene exists as an end in itself and also as a vehicle in which a patient re-experiences her personal developmental history. Here Eigen’s use of the death drive as a concept in some way may be considered to run parallel with Kleins’ (both Naomi [Klein, 2008] and Melanie), but in each case moves a step beyond in his articulation that feelings do matter and that the manner in which our society is structured makes this assertion necessary.
Lastly, while the work reads in an experiential manner, the chapter “Boxes of Madness” engages Winnicott, Klein, Lacan, and Bion in a rich manner. To this reader, it is meta-theory that affords a good feed. The richness of the chapter is beyond the scope of this review. However, one example will allow a dip into the importance of a good feed. Here Eigen plays with the cliché “life sucks” by unpacking it as a description of a chronically disappointing feed in a time before teeth or oral castration. He then proceeds in a few sentences to describe the manner in which we can learn to nourish what is vital and not destroy it, and takes a brief tour through Nietzsche in a manner that runs along the lines of Paras (2006) and will hold the attention of any student of poststructuralist thinking and psychoanalysis. This is a good feed. I recommend that you feed on it too.
Louis Rothschild, PhD
Providence, Rhode Island