Friday, 21 December 2007

So what is theoretical psychoanalytic studies anyway? (Part one)

I love cartoons, always have, ever since childhood. I loved — and love — the simplicity and conciseness of them. I took — and take — a childish delight in the way each cartoonist draws the same world over and over and over again.

My father was a magazine designer — when I was young anyway. So there were always foreign magazines around the house — Esquire, Paris Match, the New Yorker etc. It was the late 1950s/early 1960s: a golden age for magazines — beyond the British Isles anyway. I learned how good-looking and clever a magazine could be (Esquire). I learned about our royal family’s intimate life (Paris Match). And I learned to love cartoons (the New Yorker).

Cartoons gave me my first proper art lessons. They taught me about things like surrealism and visual composition. About good gags, too. A fabulous example comes to mind, not from my childhood, it’s true, but it is surreal and it does have a genuinely great gag — albeit one that my childish self would have struggled to make sense of. It’s a bedroom scene. A chicken is sitting up in bed, next to a giant egg. They have obviously just had sex, with unequal outcomes. Egg is looking grumpy. Chicken is smoking a cigarette. Egg is saying: ‘Well, that answers that old question, doesn’t it.’

Cartoons made fun of things I already knew about: childhood, family conflict. But they also introduced me to things I wouldn’t see with my own eyes and brain for many, many years: cigared bankers talking money in gentlemen’s clubs; drunks and their drinks; the delicate dances of courtship, marriage, sex, parenthood, divorce.

And they introduced me to the world of psychoanalysis. Long, long before I had the faintest idea of what psychoanalysis was — let alone how to spell it — cartoons made me comfortably familiar with a surprising lot of things about it. They gave me a good idea of its hows, whats, wheres and whos, if not its whys.

I learned that there were men — it was always men, never women — who sat on chairs in rooms. Next to them was a couch with a someone else on it. Generally, this someone else was lying down and facing away from the man on the chair and his gaze. (Except sometimes it wasn’t a someone else but a something else on the couch. I’ve seen chickens on it. Eggs, too. Maybe the ones above.)

The man in the chair was — almost invariably — bearded, bespectacled and tweedy. There was a certificate on the wall. There were oriental rugs on the floor, on the couch, sometimes even on the table. The bearded man made notes on a pad.

(This was, I later learned, a not inaccurate image of what analysts call the analytic setting. Apart from the certificate, that is — that must be an American thing. Oh, and the beards, if only because it’s no longer such a male profession — if it ever was.)

There were, basically, two kinds of gags in these psychoanalytic cartoons. One, the patient said something dumb. For example, there’s a bear on the couch. He’s sighing and confiding: ‘I keep having anxiety attacks about a little blonde-haired girl breaking into my house and eating my porridge.’

Two, the analyst said something gnomic. My favourite example of this isn’t set in the analytic room itself but in the wider world outside. Well, at a psychoanalytic conference anyway. And it features not just one psychoanalyst but three. Analyst A and analyst B are walking down a corridor. Analyst C passes them and says ‘Hello’. Analyst B turns to analyst A and says: ‘What do you think he meant by that?’

And it was the second kind, I reckon, that really gave me a first picture of what psychoanalysis is about. Those of us who have spent time in the music business know, in our bones, that Spinal Tap is not a comedy at all: it’s a social realist documentary. So it is with that three-analyst gag. It divides the world into two groups: those who think it’s an excellent joke and those who think it’s an excellent question.

To my mind, it’s also not a bad exposition of the whole analytic endeavour: an attempt to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless, to doubt what appears to be the absolutely bleedin’ obvious, to find riddles where certainty previously ruled.

So, if that’s psychoanalysis, what about theoretical psychoanalytic studies then? What’s that when it’s tucked up on the couch? Excellent question. Let me think about it.

Coming soon . . .

So what is theoretical psychoanalytic studies anyway? (Part two)


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