People were always asking me the same question about my course. It was the one I’d have asked me, too, if I weren’t me. It was this: ‘Theoretical?’ As in, why Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies? Does that mean they’re not real studies, only theoretical ones? Some put it less politely.
I’ve always given the same answer — there or thereabouts, anyway. I tell them that it’s theoretical as opposed to clinical. That is, it’s not training to become an analyst or a therapist etc. It’s the study of psychoanalytic theory. Its practice, too, as it happens. But not how to practise it.
Last week, I came up with another answer: a less abstract, more concrete one. It comes in two parts.
Part one. We are sitting in the seminar room. The seminar leader is outlining the work, life and theories of Wilfred Bion, an analyst who helped set up the Tavistock. His notion of ‘containment’ has seeped out into the wider world. Roughly, it’s the idea that the analyst can take a patient’s messy, unhappy emotions, hold them ‘inside’ himself for a bit of processing and return them in slightly better shape. It can sound hippy-dippy but Bion didn’t mean it that way. He was looking to explain how patients could and did get ‘better’.
Bion also did a lot of work on group dynamics. In some accounts, he is the major influence in the early development of studies on how groups function — and dysfunction. This was raised in the seminar. There was, though, only the briefest reference to the fact that we, in the room, were a group — and no attempt to discuss or dissect its dynamics. That’s theoretical for you — a discussion of the practice rather than the practice itself.
Part two. After class one Saturday, I’m having lunch with the other students who, like me, had chosen to do the course over two years. We are discussing this year’s students — the way you do, the way anyone would. We talk about them as individuals and as a group.
Interestingly, we each have quite different views of them — as individuals and as a group. For some of us, they are far more intellectual than the previous year. For others, they like to talk more. For some of us, they are more engaged in the subject. For others, they are less worldly. For some of us, there is a feeling that the course directors thought the previous year’s lot — ie us — were a bit flaky. Others of us thought: whatever.
What we all agreed on, in an unspoken way, was that there was a group, that this year’s intake were a group and that we were a different group — still essentially linked to last year’s students who have now left. How easily and inevitably are groups formed, I thought. And how we look for and mark the things which make our group distinctive. And how small a step it can be from there to marking the things which make our group better — or, at least, we imagine they do. And from there to the eternal tragedy of Freud’s narcissism of small differences.