The Sensitive Self (Book Review)

Author:  Eigen, Michael
Publisher: Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004
Reviewed By: Jeffrey Eaton, Winter 2005, pp. 39-41

An Interview with Michael Eigen

by Jeff Eaton
Jeff Eaton is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Seattle, Washington. He interviewed Dr. Eigen in October 2004. Michael Eigen’s most recent book, The Sensitive Self, is published by Wesleyan University Press

Eaton: First, I want to start by congratulating you on the publication of The Sensitive Self. I feel it is an important contribution. To those just coming to your work I think it will be exciting and eye opening. To those of us who follow your work I think the theme of the sensitive self makes explicit something that has been at the heart of your work from the beginning. As an introduction, let me remember that a long time ago, inspired by Bion, you wrote about the need to grow a mind capable of meeting the experiences that having a mind produces. The heart of what you explore in this new book, especially through your case descriptions, involves the role of sensitivity, the forms it takes, the impact of relationships, in growing a mind. Can we start here, then? How would you like to introduce the ideas of “the sensitive self”?

Eigen: Well, I guess it could come out in different ways. When I write, I write as best I can from my own heart, and from my patient’s heart, and, one thing I know about my own life is how sensitive we are. And it reverberates with many people that we are highly sensitive beings, highly sensitive souls, not just to slight or injury but to the amazing impact of the environment in all sorts of ways, to color, to sound, to affective nuances, interweavings between each other, emotional transmissions, even to the weather. So, sensitivity is central, a central fact of our existence, it gives us access to ourselves. It gives life so much form and color, so much radiance, so much horror, and everything in between. In reading Freud I was always struck by his access to his sensitive self. He had an extraordinary sensitivity to sensitivity. In Studies in Hysteria he writes about how phrases like stab to the heart or blow to the face aren’t just figurative, there is something very real to so called poetic language. A language of injury, a language of wounds, a language of imagery, these are in some way very real.

Eaton: One thing that occurs to me now as I listen to you talk about sensitivity, I think of some of the work being done by infant researchers at the interface between psychoanalysis and infant studies, the work of Stern, Beebe and Lachmann, for example. I wonder what you think of that sort of work?

Eigen: I think the more the better. There are so many ways of accessing and responding to and exploring and trying to learn about our sensitive beings and infant research has come up with some beautiful stuff. I’m not so keen on some of the verbal formulations. I have a pretty critical mind and I can find flaws with just about every verbal formulation (can’t you?), but I love totally movies of moment-to-moment baby mother structures of affect transmission. They’re so consciousness raising. I noticed in the New York Times today a little article about the failure of “get tough youth programs.” According to this article, the get-tough approach just hasn’t worked. What does work, it turns out, is intervention in the family by workers who work with the familial patterns of relationship. Sending workers into the home or having longish retreats, having contact with a family over a period of time, working on how one person relates to another does seem to have an impact. I certainly see the link between that kind of work and work with adolescents and the kind of work developmental researchers are doing with attachment and the delicacy and importance of affect transmission going on person to person moment-to-moment over time. That sort of approach is crucial.

Eaton: Let me ask you about how much over the course of your writing but also in The Sensitive Self, you’ve been developing the role of ideal experiences and even hallucination by asking a question about the fate of ideal experiences and even their hidden ubiquity.

Eigen: Well, let me see what comes now. First, there is a double edge. For myself, the importance of positive experiencing, of beatific experiencing, of ideal experiencing, however one wants to conceptualize it has been absolutely important. To have a positive core, to be able to access that core, a radiant core, that radiates in so many walks of life does uplift a life and inspires a life and grows into a faith that makes a difference, at least in some people. But ideal experiencing also can be lethal. It’s double edged. Again going back to Freud, his fantasy of a baby’s fantasy, or hallucination, that a baby hallucinates an ideal feed or a satisfying feed or a happy feed when in fact it is in distress, that one can, so to speak, bliss out, or try to bliss out, or try to hallucinate out unhappy or distressful or displeasurable states is very important. You get perhaps a parallel to this when Bush says that everything is going well, everything is good in this country, everything is okay over in Iraq. It’s a semblance of hallucinating, an appeal to hallucination in order to block out what is a terribly disturbing situation. So, this is one of the dangers of using an appeal to a positive state and its powerful hallucinatory potential. It’s sort of like the way Freud describes psychosis as a way of creating an alternate world in response to pain and loss in order to cover over pain and loss. We see it happening politically on a grand scale with great destruction potentially.

Eaton: This really links sensitivity to the theme of truth and lies, recalling Bion.

Eigen: You are asking?

Eaton: Yes, that’s actually a question.

Eigen: I’d like to say more about the trauma that psychotic states are part of. At the core of psychotic states is trauma and particularly what I see happening now is a kind of rape of ethical sensitivity in the world today. The core of trauma is disaster. A disaster has befallen the personality. Whether it is a chemical disaster, an inherited disaster, a physiological disaster, an environmental disaster, something awful has happened to one’s self, to one’s personality, to growth and development. Something is off, something catastrophic has happened, and one doesn’t know what to do with it, one is stuck with it, and it feels hopeless.

A danger on the social level is the tendency to respond to catastrophic processes with a messianic leader, a messianic ideology, a messianic program. One result is that you can get leaders who know how to psychopathically manipulate psychotic anxieties. I think something like that is happening in the world today on a grand scale. A difficulty is that messianic solutions tend to exacerbate catastrophic processes. Our current leadership knows how to mold messianic currents as a vehicle of power and, as a result is good at stirring disaster. This is not an age of psychosis. It is a mad age to be sure. But, it’s really an age of psychopathy. Powerful subgroups have learned how to manipulate psychotic anxieties for their own ends, a mixture of ideological, economic, political and military manipulation, using tools of mass media, entertainment, and religion. Masters at stimulating and organizing disaster anxiety. Of course, disaster anxiety of one or another sort is already there. Life has lots of worries. But leaders rev up this anxiety and present themselves as saviors: “Rely on me and I’ll save you from the very thing I’m stimulating. I will sooth your fear of disaster and take care of it.”

This kind of promise has such deep roots. It is part of the psychology of trauma. Think of kids under sway of damaged bonds and toxic nourishment, a child strongly attached to the damaging parent. One becomes dependent on the damaging other for nourishment, existence, survival, salvation. You have something like this writ large in the country at the present time, a fantastic dramatization of an aspect of what happens in trauma. A deformation or rape of sensitivity, a taking advantage of how sensitive we are, giving it a form and structure so that psychotic anxieties can be manipulated to escape what we must face.

Eaton: I think what you are saying is very intimidating and important to try and think about. And my association is something like that it is not as if there is an absence of alpha function in the culture, but that the psychopathic state of mind captures attention and organizes it and then one can’t orient oneself to other more life giving possibilities.

Eigen: It can be formulated in as many different kinds of ways as one has imagination for. I’ll piggy back on what you said for the moment, understanding that it might be said differently in another moment. You say it is not as if alpha function is absent in the culture and that’s true. I want to comment on two or three things. First, the negative leader. The current negative leadership is more a group than a single person, it’s really a system, a poisonous system in the psychic veins of the country, a very strong system, extremely powerful. It’s not that they don’t have alpha function, they do. Psychopaths have keen intelligence, they have keen abilities to figure out how to get their way, how to manipulate other people’s alpha function, how to put other peoples alpha function out of play, paralyze it like a spider poisoning its prey. They know how to make people feel helpless. One of the things people talk about is “why aren’t we being heard? why don’t we seem to have an impact?” Why isn’t there more of an effect by those outraged by what is happening? This too is part of the psychology of very early trauma: we feel helpless toward the damaging other, we feel we can’t have an impact. The traumatized infant’s sense that it can’t make a difference, can’t change the traumatizing situation for the better creates a sense of underlying helplessness that others can tune into and manipulate later in life. I can’t change the damaging other. My true self can’t make an impact. No one hears or feels it: a helplessness that gets write large on the social stage.

Another side of negative leadership is use of a kind of negative alpha function to create images and visions of economic streams of power that look, sound, and taste like alpha function but have another aim. The main aim of alpha function for Bion was to process emotional experience. The exploitative, cooptive use of alpha function is exactly the opposite. It does not process emotional experience but uses it as a tool of power. An example would be use of a “moralistic” superego that is not bound to ethics but uses morality to achieve dominance aims. Seeing people as tools of self-interest rather than as ends in themselves makes it easier to send them to war or endure social abuse. A victory of insensitivity over sensitivity. In a few days, we have a national election in which we have a chance to choose, relatively speaking, between a man of peace and a man of war, a man more sensitive to the needs of others, and a man more sensitive to the needs of power. Which will we choose?

Eaton: The theme of murder, not to stay on a dark track, appears more and more in your recent books, including in this new one.

Eigen: That’s in the air, that’s in me, it’s been a theme in me ever since I was a little boy. I grew up in the Second World War. We played with guns, we played being dead, we shot each other. There were violent movies, horror movies, war movies. There wasn’t as much rampant crime. There is rampant crime now, I don’t care what the statistics say. I got mugged, a violent mugging, about a month ago on my way home from the subway. This is real. As I get older real questions, impossible questions, questions Kant and Plato ask, that Freud and Derrida ask press me. Questions about human goodness. You can sum it up by the Biblical injunction not to murder, an injunction by a murderous God. Is it possible for human beings not to murder each other? A world without murder? What makes murder inevitable, possible? What makes it necessary that we kill?

We are a pretty vicious species and we do kill each other. One of the important potential cultural contributions of psychoanalysis is that it brings things like murder to the table in ways that haven’t quite been accessed before. What do we do with out destructiveness? Are there approaches to human destructiveness we’ve overlooked or not gotten to, that need to evolve, that we may be in the process of midwifing? There is an ethical call, to treat each other and ourselves as ends in themselves. You, me, the Iraqis, the terrorists, even our negative leaders, everybody. We are all precious, God’s children who kill each other. I guess in our work we are part of a larger process, a subgroup that is trying to look at destructiveness and help evolve approaches that could make a difference. So far, we haven’t come up with what to do with our virulence. Maybe Freud and psychoanalysis is trying to help develop ways, indirect ways, like free association and free-floating attention, of approaching destructiveness with the aim of how to make us bad in better ways.

Eaton: That reminds me of a quote of yours that I like very much that says, “maybe therapy is in part the business of learning more and more about spontaneously recovering from ourselves.”

Eigen: I feel that. Bion’s, Winnicott’s, H. Elkin’s writings and others too many to mention, help me toward that. Winnicott talks about how a patient may pass through a sequence of trauma, breakdown and spontaneous recovery in sessions. And do this over and over again, until the sequence takes hold. That is, until one experiences the spontaneous recovery process and resilience becomes part of one’s life. We gradually learn, with hard work and practice, to abort ourselves less in the recovery process.

Eaton: The final thing is more of a statement than a question. I think in tracking the themes of a “basic rhythm of recovery,” “an area of faith,” “coming through” these things really create a much, much larger existential dimension to your work that I think must be what many of us must respond to. I want to read a little thing on page 8 that could be a sort of credo: “The impact of reality is far greater than our ability to process it. We can’t take too much reality. If we are lucky, persistent, patient, hungry enough for the real, our equipment grows into the job, building more capacity to work with what is. Nevertheless, we are always behind the impact of the moment, at best able to process crumbs broken off from the whole. But those crumbs can be rich indeed”. I want to thank you for the deep encouragement and fortitude your work inspires and ask you how you would like to end this interview?

Eigen: Well, that quote is good enough for me. I’m not after big things. I have a little life. I have my little way of doing things. I think every little bit that any of us can do, every little bit counts. Maybe at some point a critical mass will be reached in which these little bits that we contribute will somehow make a bigger difference in the cultural body as a whole, and somehow for the good.


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